The non-stop action of WOMAD across three nights made it feel like a very long festival. The constant stream of information coming in from Christchurch made it seem even longer, considering the massive changes in our knowledge, processing, and the country in general after what had happened during the darkest Friday in the history of New Zealand. The energy and highlights of Saturday night made it feel like it could have been the final one, but thankfully it wasn’t - there was a whole other day and night to follow. Sunday came and continued the high quality of performances established by the previous days.
The purpose of these kinds of celebration in the wake of so much sadness and tragedy isn’t to forget or to distract from the fact. It’s to acknowledge and internally process it in a safe and supportive environment while at the same time celebrating everything that is opposed to acts of terror - music, multiculturalism, and defiant joy.
By the time I got to the site, a little before midday, it was already scorching, and the heat didn’t let up until dark. Thankfully I spent a lot of the day conducting interviews in the shade of the media area but still managed to brave the sun to catch those acts that I had my eyes on. At first, I caught bits of two artists I’d seen the previous day, Silkroad Ensemble and Dona Onete. Both delivered pretty much the same set and received the same reception as they had the day before, Silkroad Ensemble entrancing with their multi-national sonic whispers down on the main Bowl stage again (again, I wish it could have been louder), and Dona Onete in just as great form as yesterday, the wizened Brazilian septuagenarian exuding charisma and musical energy from her stately armchair.
Later, on the smaller Dell stage, Estonian duo Maarja Nuut & Ruum delivered one of the most sonically enthralling sets of the weekend. Blending traditional Estonian folk vocals and violin with experimental electronic soundscapes, their sound created a lovely experience down by the trees and lily pond. The performance was pleasingly different from anything else on the lineup.
I then caught a bit of electro-swing favourites The Correspondents on the main Bowl stage, who performed with just as much near-comical energy as on Friday night. Surreal frontman Mr. Bruce’s dancing was seemingly unimpeded by the heat. I later asked him if the heat posed a struggle in their live set, and he told me this was nothing compared to the time they played WOMAdelaide six years ago. I believe him.
After some more interviews, I made sure to go to Dona Onete’s cooking show, over at the Taste Of The World tent, something me and a friend had decided was a must-see following her Saturday performance. The public cooking demonstrations in which artists make a traditional dish from their country are one of the great innovations that WOMAD have made, reflecting a multicultural focus going beyond just music. A translator relayed questions and answers between the audience and Onete as a pair of helpers prepared a fish dish to her instructions. It was a charming, funny and heartwarming culinary exchange, especially when Onete tried (and approved of) a kawakawa leaf offered by an audience member as a substitute for a Brazilian leaf unavailable in NZ.
The sun was just beginning to lose its edge as NZ heavyweights Kora took on the main stage. From where I was, at the very back of the bowl looking down, the sight was amazing, the group drawing perhaps the biggest crowd I had seen at the festival yet. Their ever-changing mix of reggae, dub, funk, and rock went over well with the audience, and I found myself quite contented to lie back on the grass and soak in the visual spectacle, which added a lot to the music.
My real highlight of the night, however, came with South African band BCUC and was made even better by the fact that I had no prior knowledge of the group. The seven-piece played a stunning hour of hard-hitting traditional South African delivered with intense punk energy. Two hand-hit bass drums, some congas and other percussion formed a propulsive rhythm section rich with polyrhythms (the bass guitar was the only traditionally “tonal” instrument in the group), over which frontman Zithulele “Jovi” Zabani Nkosi interspersed beautiful soulful vocals with crowd-rallying screams. He was incredible to watch on stage, leaping and running from side to side with a referee whistle that he would blow at band members like a drill sergeant. With the amount of energy and passion put into the vocals, the propulsive rhythms, and the musicianship of all members, BCUC was easily a contender for my set of the weekend.
German band Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar kept the final-night energy going strong down on the main stage. With the energetic rhythms and chord patterns of traditional Balkan music as their base, the band utilised bass-heavy dance beats and guitar-based rock to keep the large crowd dancing. I wasn’t blown away by their delivery or their music, but it had the required energy for this time of night, and that was really all most of the crowd cared about at this point.
Then, La Dame Blanche. What a way to close out a great festival. I’d loved her set the day before, but for the final slot, armed once more with an oversized cigar, the Cuban-French artist really upped the energy. With all other stages completely finished, the festival seemed to give her its full attention, and she clearly relished it. The bassy hip-hop beats were nice and heavy, while the live drums played over them added just enough jazzy syncopation to keep the rhythms shifting and interesting. La Dame Blanche herself is a delight to watch on stage, clearly having a great time as she gave an animated and often sexual physical performance. Her vocals, both when rapping and singing, were full of energy and life, and her flute playing a perfect compliment to them. When she returned to the stage after a drum solo, it was with a bottle of spirits to pour out into cups for members of the front row. Some actions transcend language - the giving of drinks and great music both included.
And so what had been a difficult, at times pained, acutely self-conscious, but ultimately rewarding festival came to an end in a different world to the one it had been planned, announced, and opened in. The purpose of these kinds of celebration in the wake of so much sadness and tragedy isn’t to forget or to distract from the fact. It’s to acknowledge and internally process it in a safe and supportive environment while at the same time celebrating everything that is opposed to acts of terror - music, multiculturalism, and defiant joy.