To those who went, WOMAD New Zealand 2019 will forever be inseparable with the horror of the Christchurch shootings. Many people were already at the site on Friday as the news began to trickle in, and by that evening the context of the festival had changed completely. The significance of the situation was unavoidable to anyone in attendance, all of whom had to internally reassess the position of such a usually celebratory and joyous, not to mention pointedly multicultural, event at such a time. However, by the end of the first two days, WOMAD only proved that the festival is now more important than ever.
For three days, New Plymouth was the most multicultural place in New Zealand. The programme continued unaltered and without any cancellations, with the increased security and armed police the only noticeable change from the usual - except, of course, the major contextual change that every person was processing. The greatness of the lineup wasn’t detracted from one bit, and the artists, both local and international, all pulled through with defiantly heart-warming performances. Few acts finished their sets without making some reference to the importance of musical unity and love, as there was no point in trying to tune out from the context - instead, WOMAD made a point of facing it and pulling through.
Even the weather managed to defy the predicted rain with three days of baking sunshine. I arrived at the site to the familiar sound of Kiwi singer-songwriter Nadia Reid on the Brooklands stage. Backed by her usual three-piece band, she sounded great as always, conjuring up a full, punchy folk-rock sound for songs old and new. Wrapping up as the light was beginning to fade, it was a nice local introduction to the international festival.
Reid was followed on the same stage an hour later by major crowd draw-card The Correspondents, who delivered the first of many dance-centric high-energy sets I saw. The London electro-swing duo isn’t a forgettable band by any measure, even if you only watch them briefly. Frontman Mr. Bruce was one of the most memorable figures of the festival, a skinny, bald, tracksuited super-hero-like figure working the crowd with his incredibly energetic dancing and rapid-fire scatting that has to be seen to be understood. From watching the crowd, it was easy to see why their festival write-up had them described as “One of WOMAD NZ’s most beloved performers.”
After this, Finn Andrews offered a nice come-down from the madness over on the Gables stage. The Veils frontman played mainly tracks from his recently released debut solo album One Piece At A Time, backed by a brilliant band of New Zealand musicians. All in good form, though some tracks seemed a bit too reserved and sombre for the hyped-up late-night audience. He would have been more fitting in the hot sun the next afternoon.
I left halfway through Andrews’ slot to wrap up my night with the second half of The Original Gypsies’ set, down on the main TSB Bowl stage, as this was their only appearance. The 12-piece band, based around members of the famed Gypsy Kings, were the perfect late-night closing act, ripping through energetic flamenco and rumba music to an appreciative crowd, and even including a surprisingly tolerable cover of Luis Fonsi’s Despacito.
Saturday started slowly (I like that WOMAD doesn’t schedule any acts until midday) with a reflective air. Last night’s sleep had given the opportunity for full realisation of the events from the previous day, of which more news was coming in constantly.
The very heart of why WOMAD exists is the fight against racism - Chris Smith
WOMAD is the antithesis of what’s happened in Christchurch. We are going to carry on - Suzanne Porter
Festival organisers held a media-only conference to address their reaction and decision-making regarding the attack, in which WOMAD International Director Chris Smith explained that their decision not to cancel the event was due to their belief that the multicultural message of the festival was more important than ever before. "The very heart of why WOMAD exists is the fight against racism," he said, with Taranaki Arts Festival Trust CEO Suzanne Porter adding that “WOMAD is the antithesis of what’s happened in Christchurch. We are going to carry on.” Apparently, the artists were consulted about whether they wanted to still be involved or not, with not a single one pulling out, and public attendance didn’t drop under expected numbers either.
The first act of the day I saw was on the most traditional end of the lineup - the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe. The group-vocal delivery of melodic traditional Taiwanese songs was lovely, drifting as it did from the visually beautiful main stage in the sun.
Finn Andrews’ second set was more energetic and convincing than his (very nice) performance the previous night, the wide-brimmed-hat-wearing figure slaving away at his piano in the sun and telling the audience he was close to having heatstroke. This didn’t stop him standing up to bash out the grunty piano chords in a brilliant version of The Veils’ Axolotl, or wrapping up with the manic energy of rollicking solo track One By The Venom.
The legendary Silkroad Ensemble played a meditative and delicate set down on the main bowl stage, relying on the slow-changing textural blending of many different instruments from the different “silkroad” countries represented. If you were right up front it was lovely, but any further back and the delicacy of the sound got swamped by the more energetic performances from other stages. This is a symptom of the WOMAD stages not actually being that loud, as far as major festival stages go, which I guess is out of consideration for the many families with young children in attendance.
The rest of the day was lineup highlight after highlight, starting at the small foresty Dell stage with La Dame Blanche. The Cuban singer-rapper-flautist packed a punch with her Latin-infused hip-hop. She moved and performed with an amazing level of charisma, her vocal delivery was energetic and colourful, her flute playing perfectly complemented the hip-hop beats, and the massive cigar in one hand just topped off the whole image. The live drummer playing with her added a whole other musical dimension, injecting some jazziness and gorgeously punchy snare on top of the electronic beats.
Back on the main stage, The Black Seeds drew one of the biggest crowds yet to the grassy arena bowl. A reliably fun live band, the Wellingtonians delivered exactly what was expected - smooth, summery reggae that was entertaining to watch on stage.
However, I made sure to leave early in order to secure a good spot near the front of the Brooklands stage for one of the artists I was most looking forward to seeing - Dona Onete. Truly a performer like no other, the Brazilian singer released her debut album 6 years ago - at the age of 73. Now approaching 80, the “Queen of Carimbo” was led onstage to massive cheers on the arm of an assistant, who led her to her ornate armchair in the centre of the stage. Her (much younger) backing band started up an energetic carimbo groove, and they were off. Seeing a tiny grandma figure commanding an enthusiastic dancing crowd from an armchair with so much energy is an incredible thing. Onete was animated in her vocal delivery, her experienced voice strongly leading the uptempo songs as she beamed at the audience and danced with her arms from her chair. The little chairside table with a vase of flowers and glass of wine was just the visual topping on the cake (“Is this real?” a friend laughed to me as we watched.) Truly a brilliant performance.
Dutch dance-blues trio My Baby kept the night’s relentless energy going back down on the main stage. The bowl stage really is stunningly pretty after dark, when the lights of the stage decorate the smooth water that separates it from the audience, and an occasional swan finds itself the centre of attention as it lands. While I’d been unconvinced by their latest studio album, My Baby was a good choice of an act for later in the night and got most of the crowd dancing eagerly.
And then, what better way to finish Saturday than with the artist I had been looking forward to more than any other. Angelique Kidjo was in a league of her own, topping off a great musical day by vaulting the already considerably high bar. She was supporting her recent brilliant reimagining of Talking Heads’ seminal 1980 album Remain In Light, one of my favourite albums of all time, and getting to hear these familiar songs “re-Africanised” by the legendary Beninese artist was a treat and a half. Kidjo’s re-creations of the songs are incredibly well done, retaining the musical essence of each while rearranging them enough to convey her own personal artistry. The process of guessing each song as it started was fun, as was the eventual moment of recognition, starting with a fantastic Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On). Houses In Motion, the essential Once In A Lifetime, an atmospheric The Overload, and a version of Listening Wind that strongly brought out the song’s anti-colonial message were all major highlights, with a few of Kidjo’s own compositions scattered in between for variety. Her stage presence can only be described as formidable - a lone figure standing way out in front of her band and dancing as freely as any ecstatic audience member.
Inviting people from side-stage to join her in a final dance-off was a great way of topping off what had been both an emotionally reflective, and, due to the considerable help of a brilliant string of performances, a defiantly celebratory day.