WOMAD New Zealand 2020’s final day, Sunday, once again took off at midday, this time with young Dunedin indie rock band Soaked Oats. But before them, the first speaker on the stage for the day called for a moment of standing silence on the first anniversary of the Christchurch terror attack. Last year, the attacks had given a grave new sense of purpose and meaning to WOMAD’s multiculturalism, and a year on that same understanding of the importance of the event’s values remains.When the band, three quarters of whom are from Christchurch, had taken the stage, they also talked about acknowledging this. Their set went over nicely in the midday sun, and it was nice to have a younger New Zealand rock group on the lineup. I split my time between watching them and seeing the Minyo Crusaders again down on the main Bowl Stage. Once again they played a great set of colourful grooves, though they mainly went over the same songs they had brought out in their later vibier performance the night before.
The middle part of the day seemed to pass rather quickly - local folk-pop trio Albi & The Wolves delighted the crowd with an energetic set down on the Dell stage, led as always by some brilliant fiddle playing, while Odette’s smooth pop-soul once again pleased the audience but failed to connect with me up on the Gables. The next really great set for me was Ghanian musician and singer King Ayisoba. Playing the single-stringed kologo, and backed by an energetic five-piece band, he delivered an upbeat and impactful performance, rawly half-yelling his lyrics about corrupt leaders and African unity to an adoring crowd.
Revered Indian violinist L. Subramaniam put on quite a different but equally wonderful show afterwards, inviting the audience to get lost in long droning meditative pieces before finally bursting into rhythms with the help of his tabla players. His classical Indian violin playing was incredible, and I was thankful that the WOMAD media area offered a shady patch near the stage to sit, relax and lap it up.
I had had several people rave to me about Marina Satti’s performance on Friday, which I hadn’t seen, so I made sure to be at the Bowl stage when she played again. The Greek singer came on with her four identically-dressed backing vocalists, launching into a set that filtered traditional Greek and Middle-Eastern melodies through contemporary urban dance and pop beats, and delivered it all with rehearsed girl-group dance moves in unison. This may sound cheesy, but amazingly the cheesiness wasn’t overbearing when watching, and I enjoyed them quite a lot. Aside from the fact that all five performers had great voices, I liked their dedicated embrace of the stage show form, their simple beats, and their sense of fun.
However I couldn’t stick around for too long, as I wanted to head to the smaller Gables stage for a truly unique opportunity. Both Mali’s Trio Da Kali and Aotearoa’s The Black Quartet had already played wonderful sets individually, so I knew I couldn’t pass on seeing them perform on stage together, especially as WOMAD New Zealand is likely the only place in the world to experience that collaboration. As I predicted, the result was another festival highlight for me, the classical string quartet wrapping themselves around and inside the traditional Malian grooves with perfect judgement. The simple meeting of the different instrumental timbres made for a sonic delight, as did the western classical and folk melodies woven into the African vocals and rhythms. WOMAD at its finest.
Destyn Maloya, a band from Africa’s French Reunion Island, ramped up the night’s energy with strong percussive rhythms on the Dell Stage, the charismatic dancing frontman enticing the whole crowd into crouching for a buildup. Then it was time for the final set on the main Bowl Stage, rightfully reserved for the legendary “Golden Voice of Africa”, Salif Keita. The 70 year-old Keita had recently announced that this will be his final year of touring, so this performance was likely to be his last ever in New Zealand. Commanding an impressively composed and often austere figure staring out over the bowl, his voice was as “golden” as ever, soaring beautifully over the rich full-band backing. It was a grandiose ending to the main stage schedule.
At the same time, London’s afrobeat jazz group Ezra Collective were giving the night a more energetic send off, with a strong party vibe, up on the Gables Stage. Their midday Saturday performance had been fun, but this set, at a much more appropriate time of day for the quintet, blew it out of the water. The five musicians pulled out all stops in their performance, dancing around the stage with each other while others played solos, and calling on the crowd to get “North London lit”, something the audience were more than willing to oblige.
Though Ezra Collective’s set felt like the final energetic climax of the festival, the timetable wasn’t run dry yet, with one more act left. Tunisian industrial metal group Ifriqiyya Electrique was an odd choice of act to end the weekend with, considering how different their heavy, dark and confrontational music is to the upbeat vibes plenty of WOMAD-goers expect. The mix was better than the mess it had been for their set the previous day, which made for an overall better performance. Their long repetitive tracks, delivered with chanted metal screams, industrial drum beats and chugging guitars, seemed to prove a bit much for some demographics of the audience, but I for one enjoyed ending the night with something a bit different, even if the mood was a bit of a comedown after Ezra Collective.
All in all, WOMAD 2020 was a delightful blur of countless fulfilling musical experiences. Nowhere else in New Zealand, or many places in the world, can you absorb such a diverse array of music in just two and a half days, or be exposed to such a high density of talent for the picking all around you, and the lineup this year was particularly good. I was especially grateful I got to witness it, as it looks like WOMAD may be the last large musical event for the near future thanks to the spread of COVID-19. If so, I can’t think of a more relevant temporary goodbye to large live music events than a defiantly multicultural gathering in the face of increasing international insularity.