"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 developing world.
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 tenth that.
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 three-day festival.
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.

Around the 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.  

5.45pm: Taranaki 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.

8.15pm: Crikey, 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.

The 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.

9pm: Anglo-Eyptian 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 song.
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 Ensemble

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.

Saturday, 9.30am: 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.

8.30pm: 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.

David Ralicke and Chhom Nimol of Dengue Fever serve up an intriguing clash of 1970s Cambodian pop and West Coast psychedelia

9pm: Sound 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!”.

11pm: British 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 hippie-themed party.

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.

Seun Kuti's 16-piece, brass-heavy band blends traditional African beats with rap, funk, section, politics and booty-shaking

1pm: Portuguese 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 instead.

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.

5pm: Gurrumul 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.  

A young festival-goer finds the M in Womad makes a fine spot for a rest

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Copyright Peter de Graaf 2010 : Ramblings designed and built by Peter de Graaf : Last updated May 2010