"The Bowl" at Brooklands Park, the main stage at Womad New Zealand
What is Womad?
Womad was founded
in 1980 by Peter Gabriel, a one-time member of the rock band
Genesis, in a bid to expose western audiences to music from the
Two years later the first Womad concert - short for World of Music,
Art and Dance - was held in the UK. The music industry was sceptical
at first, but today festivals are held in 20 countries.
The New Zealand festival began as an off-shoot of the South
Australian event, WOMADelaide. The organisers were struggling with
the cost of bringing dozens of performers to the Southern
Hemisphere, so it made sense to split the bill by holding a festival
on the other side of the Tasman afterwards.
The first New Zealand events were held in Auckland in 1997 and 1999,
but world music, suits and mirror-glass office blocks proved an
unhappy combination. The organisers lost a pile of money and pulled
the plug in 2000.
Seeing an opportunity, the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust and the New
Plymouth District Council banded together to put in a bid for Womad.
Festival bosses checked out several venues around New Zealand but
were persuaded by the natural setting of Brooklands Park in New
Plymouth, even though the event had never been held in a city of
fewer than 500,000 people. The population of New Plymouth is about a
Womad artistic director Thomas Brooman went as far as describing the
park as “one of the most beautiful venues in the world’’.
Taranaki’s first Womad was held in 2003; since 2007 it has been an
annual event. In 2009 about 40,000 people - three out of every four
from outside Taranaki - packed into Brooklands Park for the
Womad 2009’s six stages featured musicians from Nigeria to
Cambodia, Portugal to Senegal. The festival also offered traditional
tattooing by Taranaki iwi (tribes), a global food village, cooking
demonstrations, movies, a pair of Dutch ladies who customised
clothes using bicycle-powered sewing machines, and a meditation tent
manned by Buddhist monks.
world in 2½ days
The author discovers it's possible to see the planet
without leaving New Zealand
Friday, 5pm: Eight
hours after leaving Whangarei, my ’87 Corolla splutters into New Plymouth
without a breakdown. I put up my tent in a rapidly growing tent city at the
city’s racecourse - I’m assigned a spot beside the toilets, so at least I’ll
be able to find my camping spot back - and wander downhill to Brooklands
Park, venue for Womad 2009. A three-day feast of music, food and arts from
around the world awaits.
iwi open the festival, followed by the inevitable speeches. A member of
parliament bangs on for what feels like several days.
6pm: “Kia ora! How
you doin’?” That’s Senegal’s Seckou Keita - billed as the “Hendrix of the
kora”, a phallic African harp made from a gourd, a piece of magohany and 21
lengths of fishing line. The extraordinary singing of Binta Suso, from
Gambia, makes my hair stand on end. What a voice!
7pm: I hoof it up
a monstrous hill to the other end of the site - sprinting between bands from
one end of Brooklands Park to the other soon becomes a familiar ritual - to
catch the Bedouin Jerry Can Band, a bunch of itinerant musicians and coffee
grinders from Egypt’s Sinai desert. In case you’re wondering about the name,
their instruments include ammunition cases and jerry cans left behind by the
Israeli army after the Six Day War.
The lead singer, clad in traditional Arab robes, doesn’t know a lot of
English - but he knows enough to shout “Hello! How arrrre you?” after every
song. He also knows enough to inform us he is being distracted by “a girl
with very attractive eyes” dancing in the front row. “Don’t you mean a
goat?” one wag shouts.
7.23pm: The band is upstaged by a
Whangarei District councillor’s attempts to fold up a spring-loaded mat. Her
ten-minute battle with the unruly mat has the audience transfixed. When she
finally scurries away, the mat still fighting to escape her grip, dozens of
onlookers cheer and clap.
8pm: I rush back
to the main stage, downhill this time, to catch Sa Dingding. She combines
traditional Chinese folk with western electronica, and tells the audience
New Zealand reminds her of her home in Inner Mongolia because there’s so
much grass. I assume she’s referring to the stuff growing on the Taranaki
hills, not the pungent clouds wafting across the park.
As dusk falls the Bowl’s natural amphitheatre comes into its own. Surrounded
by water, the performers seem to float. The stage lights are mirrored in the
lake and stars twinkle overhead.
Sa Dingding’s costumes are astounding, as is her stage show - fan-waving
kung fu dancers doing back flips - but to my western ears her singing sounds
like cats mating. The ducks flee honking into the sky.
it’s dark. It takes a while to get my bearings as I stumble around between
stages. I finally find the loos - there’s a huge queue at the women’s, where
a pair of plumbers are grappling with a bowl, and I head next door for the
men’s. Hang on! I must still have the wrong loo, because there’s a queue of
women there too. I dart back to the other loo … No, still wrong! The women
lining up to use the gent’s chuckle at my confusion and offer witty advice.
The whole festival is good natured and aggro-free; I only get growled at
when I use the wrong recycle bin. Honestly, you need a PhD to choose the
correct waste category.
Bedouin Jerry Can Band’s act includes a coffee-making demonstration and
a nomad’s tent
8.34pm: I head to
the global food village for a feed, and find everyone has the same idea. The
queue for langos - discs of deep-fried Hungarian dough - stretches halfway
across the village. I go for a Greek souvlaki instead.
diva Natacha Atlas is one of the few performers I’ve heard of before, thanks
to her crossover albums with Transglobal Underground, and I’m looking
forward to her show. However, Atlas proves to be quite the prima donna,
storming off stage mid-song when the sound isn’t up to scratch; in the
instrumental breaks she looks bored, and only gets off her seat for the last
However, there are some extraordinary cross-cultural moments - like her
Arab-style version of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s World - and her backing
band, the Mazeeka Ensemble, is passionate and brilliant.
10pm: It’s a tough
choice, but I skip Malian rocker Rokia Traore for the blind Aboriginal
singer Gurrumul. Blind from birth, Gurrumul doesn’t talk much either - he
leaves the banter to his Ozzie backing musicians - but when he sings it’s
with a voice bursting with heartbreak, longing, loss, hope and tenderness.
It’s a voice so beautiful I want to cry - even when it turns out the song is
about a cloud, or the orange-footed bush fowl.
Anglo-Egyptian diva Natacha Atlas backed by the extraordinary Mazeeka
11pm: Curious, I
poke my nose into one of the minor stages where French-Algerian act Speed
Caravan is playing. I’m astounded. The four-piece band combines keyboards,
bass guitar, traditional Arab drums and a long-haired Mehdi Haddab playing
the oud - the classical, centuries-old Arab instrument that evolved into the
lute and eventually the guitar.
Except this is no ordinary oud. This oud is hooked up to a hefty amp and a
host of effects pedals, all of them loud and distorted, and it’s played
loud, fast and with riotous joy. I feel like I’m witnessing musical history,
the Arab version of Jimi Hendrix redefining the guitar.
Haddab’s English is limited, but he’s clearly delighted by the crowd’s
enthusiasm. “Kia ora!! Yes!!!” he shouts after each song; then, mustering
all the English he can, he says: “You very hot people! Thank you! Yes!”
Haddab doesn’t want the show to end. Neither do we.
I crawl out of my tent and someone - an arts tutor from Whanganui - asks me
to draw anything I like on a huge roll of paper. It’s for a thesis on the
topic that everyone’s an artist, apparently.
Noon: The gates
open. I spend a few hours wandering around, checking out the tattoo artists,
the eco-village and a tent full of chanting monks. I fancy a Hungarian
langos for lunch but now the queue stretches halfway across Brooklands Park.
I settle for a Malaysian murtabak instead.
4pm: It’s New
Zealand’s turn in the spotlight, and Warren Maxwell - Whangarei lad and the
driving force behind Little Bushman - doesn’t disappoint. Sounds like he’s
been listening to lots of 1960s psychedelia records, and soon a big crowd is
dancing in the blazing sun by the main stage.
7pm: Dengue Fever
serves up one of the festival’s more bizarre musical cross-overs. A bunch of
Californian groovers somehow stumble on Cambodian pop from the 1970s - that
was just before Pol Pot had all the country’s musician’s murdered - and
decide to revive the genre, throwing in a bit of West Coast psychedelia,
Ethiopian jazz, facial hair worthy of ZZ Top, and a former Cambodian beauty
queen on vocals.
Guitarist/singer Mikidache, from Mayotte, gets the evening crowd to their
feet. I hear you flicking through your atlas - Mayotte is an obscure Indian
Ocean island near Madagascar.
Ralicke and Chhom Nimol of Dengue Fever serve up an intriguing clash of
1970s Cambodian pop and West Coast psychedelia
gremlins strike again. This time it’s Nigerian Seun Kuti - son of the
legendary Fela Kuti - whose show is delayed. A sound technician tests each
microphone in turn; his ten minutes of “tseh tseh eh eh ooh ooh ah ah” could
pass for avant garde performance art.
Finally Kuti bursts onto the stage, wiggling his backside in a skintight
suit and backed by a brass-heavy 16-piece band, delivering an hour of equal
parts funk, booty shaking and politics. Between songs Kuti talks about the
financial crisis, wondering why banks get billions in bail-outs but ordinary
Africans get zip. Still, the up-side of the recession is that Africans don’t
have to worry about going broke, “because we are broke already!”.
world music DJ Russ Jones is spinning discs. The music is an odd mix of
dance beats and polka, but somehow it works. Hundreds of Taranaki teens are
dressed up in headbands and coloured scarves, like they’ve been invited to a
Sunday, noon: The
Gyuto Monks open the third day with a tea ceremony and a chant rumbling from
deep in their throats, praying for an end to the economic downturn.
Kuti's 16-piece, brass-heavy band blends traditional African beats with
rap, funk, section, politics and booty-shaking
singer Dona Rosa was blind at birth and apparently sang on the streets as a
child to make money and escape the pain of being mugged and molested. Her
show isn’t as depressing as I expect; I lie back in the sunshine and doze to
the sound of mandolin, accordion and clarinet.
2pm: Dodging the
human tide surging from stage to stage, I try ordering a Hungarian langos
again. This time the queue stretches halfway to Budapest. I have a curry
4pm: The party’s
on as British/Cuban combo Ska Cubano take to the main stage. There’s a good
10,000 people of all ages in the Bowl, and half of them are dancing by the
lake in front of the main stage. “Come on in,” singer Natty Bo urges, and
soon a dozen groovers are gyrating in the duck pond. I notice there’s
actually surf lifeguards on hand in case it all turns pear-shaped.
again, as heart-breakingly beautiful as Friday.
Dancers cool off in the pond by the main stage as Cuban/British group
Ska Cubano raises the temperature
7.30pm: I catch
the Bedouin Jerry Can Band again - this time I’m close enough to see, and
smell, that their act includes roasting coffee on stage. A bunch of kids,
maybe five years old, clamber onto the stage to dance. After ordering them
off for the fourth time the security guard gives up in exasperation and
leaves then to it. It’s that kind of festival.
8.30pm: An “all
star gala’’ ends with a 15-minute blues improvisation by some of the world’s
greatest musicians, playing everything from the electric guitar to the
one-string African fiddle. Extraordinary.
9.30pm: I hoof it back up the hill for
the last time to see Speed Caravan’s second show. Alas, word has got out
that these hairy Algerians are the discovery of Womad ’09. The crowd is huge
and wildly enthusiastic; the girls up the front have made a cardboard sign
saying, “SPEED CARAVAN WE WANT TO HAVE YOUR BABIES’’.
If anything, the show is even better than Friday’s. Haddab’s energy and joy
are so intense I think his oud is going to explode. When their hour’s up the
band is reluctant to leave; the crowd isn’t happy either. For a moment, when
the MC shuffles nervously on stage to say, no, there can’t be another
encore, I think there’s going to be a riot.
10.30pm: How can
anything match that? I start staggering toward the gates, but then I hear
the vocal acrobatics of Lo Cor de la Plana, six men from Marseille, France.
I look for the percussion section and realise with amazement there isn’t one
- nothing but voices, clapping and foot-stamping.
11.30pm: The end.
A last, lingering visit to the Hare Krishna stall for pakora, then I join
the slow exodus. I promise to come back next year.
First published in the
New Zealand Herald, November 2009.
young festival-goer finds the M in Womad makes a fine spot for a rest