Back to the Park: WOMADelaide 2022 Returns to Full Strength.
Director Ian Scobie and Associate Director, Annette Tripodi talk to Murray Bramwell about reclaiming and re-setting Adelaide’s favourite music event - despite the challenges of COVID-19.
WOMADelaide is turning thirty and what a year to have a milestone birthday. From its inception in 1992, when it formed part of Rob Brookman’s Adelaide Festival, this vibrant, richly diverse music event has captured this city and brought visitors and rusted-on fans from all over the country.
Based in the CBD in Botanic Park, WOMADelaide (with its slightly clunky portmanteau name) has become a defining part of the South Australian summer. Over thirty years we have seen it become an annual international event, consistent in quality and ever-expanding in its ambition.
But in 2021, as is so many ways both locally and globally, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Despite what we would now think of as low infection numbers, it was not possible to run large music events in the usual way. Many were cancelled, some never to rise again. Others, like WOMADelaide, were modestly amended to carefully distanced, seated concert events. The four nights in King Rodney Park were extraordinary, of course. Who wasn’t knocked out by Tash Sultana, The Teskey Brothers and, still in full throttle after all these years, Midnight Oil bringing a powerful message of Treaty and First Nations reconciliation.
Now, a year later, the pandemic situation is more complex than ever. We have (finally) high levels of vaccination but Omicron has brought unparalleled levels of infection, hospitalisation and mortality. Our contact tracing is kaput and, until recently, key medical supply shortages have made life needlessly hard for many. At the time of writing, however, Adelaide seems to be past peak infections and for the great majority the impact of Omicron has been temporary and receding. The Fringe has begun and the Festival is little more than a week away. Hopes are high but no one knows for sure how it will play out.
Meanwhile, WOMAD is back to its previous scale with a program spread across seven stages in Botanic Park and a list of performers as extensive and intriguing as ever. It is a bold return and while uncertainties inevitably abound, it has been meticulously planned for many contingencies.
Associate Director, Annette Tripodi first joined the WOMADelaide team at Arts Projects Australia in 1997. Her role evolved from there, beginning with responsibility for the Australian content and then, since 2009, she has been in charge of the overall program.
“The program planning started in May last year, “she recalls. “We picked up conversations with artists we weren’t able to bring in 2020 and 2021. That included Courtney Barnett who we have never had at WOMAD and is a tremendous performer. And Joseph Tawadros. He will be playing with the 52 piece ASO on the opening night. It is his fifth appearance at the festival. He has performed with his brother, with the Grigoryan brothers, as a solo and duo – all combinations. This orchestral project I can’t wait to see. Joseph has been living in the UK for some time and it wasn’t feasible to bring him over. But now we have this great event for Friday night. He’s an extraordinary musician, composer, and artist – working with Ben Northey as conductor“.
Tripodi also speaks proudly of a series of commissions and partnerships with Nexus producers, Farhad Shah and Emily Tulloch, which has gathered in acts such as Dhungala Baarka and ZOJ. Through the Melbourne based Music in Exile recording label and management group she has signed South Sudanese, now Australian based, performer Gordon Koang, as well as Chik Chika and the powerful eight piece Ausecuma Beats, a Cuban /West African style outfit reminiscent of famous WOMAD headliners such as Youssou N’Dour and Salif Keita.
Also, from the Music in Exile label, is Kenyan singer Elsy Wamayo, now resident in the Northern suburbs of Adelaide, who has developed through WOMADelaide’s talent development academy established last year in conjunction with the Northern Sound System project. Tripodi describes her as “going from zero to hero- she’s now a sophisticated, dynamic performer.” The academy has also developed such talents as the Ugandan dancehall performer, Sokel and the local Indigenous rappers, Sonz of Serpent.
Another act Tripodi is especially pleased with, is DJ Motez’s world premiere live show- his first venture away from his signature DJ work to include classical singers, a string quartet, and the composer himself on keyboards. He features on Saturday night. Also branching in a new direction is Italian singer, Carla Lippis and her Mondo Psycho – which Tripodi describes as “Spaghetti Western Italian meets dark hard-edge rock.”
While COVID border restrictions have prevented the usual interchange of artists between Adelaide and WOMAD Aotearoa New Zealand (which has a completely separate program when it resumes this year) there is nonetheless a significant group of Kiwi acts in the 2022 line up. The high energy outfit L.A.B whose blend of reggae, funk and electronica with soaring soul vocals is reminiscent of crowd favourites, Fat Freddy’s Drop, will feature on opening night.
San Francisco born -NZ resident, Reb Fountain will draw interest with her vocally impressive folk-punk sound. Her debut album captured serious attention and on Sunday night at WOMAD we will hear her perform her newest album, Iris. Unfortunately, COVID quarantine requirements have meant Troy Kingi has had to withdraw from the program.
“He and his twelve piece band would have had to isolate for ten days,” Tripodi notes. “With family commitments that was too long. This is the way things are with COVID- infections, close contacts. Just lately I’ve been working on potential replacements and back-ups. Also, groups doing only one show, agreeing to perform a second.”
Interestingly, with Australia opening more to international travellers, there are musicians touring here who are booked for gigs at WOMAD. Guatemalan born, Latin Grammy winner, Gaby Moreno will perform, as will Brazilian funk samba trio, Azimuth in combination with composer/producer Marcos Valle. Cedric Burnside from the R.L.Burnside blues dynasty will appear, and late Friday night, Detroit DJ Kevin Saunderson’s live show - Inner City.
In the folk realm, the aptly named Bush Gothic, featuring Jenny Thomas, will mix Welsh music and Australian bush ballad guignol. The Crooked Fiddle Band from Sydney not only features an array of esoteric instruments (we are talking here of the Swedish nyckelharpa and the 16th century cittern) but have been described as “chainsaw” folk. Comparing them to Elephant Sessions, Tripodi notes – “They have an amazing range, and can rock out in a very big way.”
The First Nations program has been a strong feature of WOMAD festivals for all of their thirty years. Tripodi is especially proud of the current list. Emma Donovan and the Putbacks and their most recent exceptional albums come first mind. Kutcha Edwards will make a welcome return. Newcomer Baarka, is a young Malyangapa, Barkindji woman from Western Australia who has fast become a name in the Indigenous rap scene.
The one and only Ab Original will return to acclaim and the five musicians of the Australian Art Orchestra will perform a new work entitled Hand to Earth. The young band, King Stingray will debut and Electric Fields return with a touring party of 26 including a choir and dancers.
Jamie Goldsmith and others who present the Welcome to Country are also designing the Climbing Tree at the Kidzone and Dancing Fire, an installation of flaming pylons in Frome Park where, each day, other Kaurna ceremonies will also be performed.
Other headliners include crowd favourites, the Shaolin Afronauts on opening night, The Cat Empire- festival stalwarts for nearly twenty years, delivering a final performance from their original line-up, Saints legend Ed Kuepper with his new entity Asteroid Ekosystem (including Dirty Three drummer Jim White) and, of course, closing the festival - the mercurial and always re-inventing, Paul Kelly and his band.
Annette Tripodi is pleased with the assembled program and is quick to observe that the festival is “back to full bottle – all the WOMAD activities – Taste the World, the workshops, Planet Talks and park activities. And the special new eighth stage for DanceNorth – presenting Noise: six performers and 100 drummers. Every day of the weekend.”
For Festival Director, Ian Scobie, 2022 is similarly a collision of circumstances. A milestone 30th year which is also in the most unpredictable part of the COVID pandemic.
“These are weird old times. I’m sick of saying that,” he notes drily. “But you’ve got to roll with it. We are back in the Park.
The biggest irony is that after all the effort we made to avoid international exposure, we are most confined by WA and New Zealand. We could have brought groups from Scotland and wherever as the rules presently stand.”
Scobie and his staff have been in constant, detailed consultation with SA Health over planning. And the decision to go ahead – back with the usual WOMAD model, was made in May last year. Scobie and Tripodi went ahead on programming and preparing for the COVID protection regimes that would be required. He recalls:
“Right through last year almost to Christmas, before Omicron, it looked like a lay down misere relatively speaking. All the case numbers were looking good. It was all based on vaccination numbers which were looking good (eventually!) but that all changed when Omicron brought another layer of uncertainty.”
Scobie is emphatic about COVID policies for the festival. “We were first to go out and say double vax requirement for entry and then the health advice was 12 years and over. Since the paediatric advice has been available, we are saying that children between 5 and 12 years must have had the first vaccination.”
When asked about the anti-vax contingent who are now excluded – his reply: “We have benefited more than we have lost. If you look at national vaccination rates, those who object are a small vocal minority.
“In the end, if you aren’t vaxxed – don’t come. We told the artists very early on that that was our policy and that clear proof of vaccination was required. We came out early, but it is standard for pubs and clubs in NSW. It’s a common ruling and, aside from anything, it is a duty of care for our artists and audiences. It’s what we say in our Planet Talks – follow the science ! Reason needs to prevail.”
Asked for his thoughts on 30 years of WOMAD he says it is a moment for congratulations to many people. “I must also say I am reflecting that the festival began in a different kind of pandemic- the AIDS pandemic and we had support from AIDS organisations at that point. Over the years there have been other global health crises around the world which also affected our programs.”
I asked Scobie what the milestone means in the history of the festival?
“Thirty years is half the age of the Adelaide Festival. I’m sure its longevity has a lot to do with the seeds planted by the original festival in this city and the receptiveness of an audience for an event like this. It shows –and especially in the pandemic- the extent of the feeling and regard with which it is held by its loyal audience. It is a big part of people’s lives – the event itself and participating in it. It is much more than the sum of its parts.
“It means different things to different people. Some might have met their future partner there, or got engaged, or just had a fantastic time. It’s in the life zeitgeist of the city and for generations of people. From those who were taken as kids by their parents, who now take their own children“.
“And when we have concerns about not being able to have international contingents, we have been able to fall back on the fact that what is important about the festival is the overall experience as much as the great headliners.
“Also, after thirty years, to have a program that is essentially locally based is a reflection of Australia in 2022, as opposed to 1992. I think about if we had to program back then with no artists crossing borders, it would have been a very different line-up. That’s a great thing – the depth of diverse material available in Australia now is so healthy and accomplished. And, in these pandemic times, it is important to be engaging so many Australian artists who’ve had it tough and are going to for a while yet.”
“Four weeks out, the logistical train is working as usual. There are issues with flights- schedules constantly change due to the airlines’ own staff issues and so on. It’s always a constant jigsaw. The thing this year is that the only constant is uncertainty!
“But ticket sales are quite a way ahead of this time in 2020 – our last full scale event. [This year, for COVID, the total gate number is set at 70% capacity.] Interstate sales are high – almost 30% from Victoria, 27% New South Wales and then 30% South Australia. I think this reflects that NSW and Vic have largely moved on in their minds. They have had their lockdowns and they are now out and doing it.”
At a time when no one has any real sense what COVID will bring next, even in two weeks or a month, Scobie and the WOMADelaide team have the continuing dilemma that faces anyone planning large social and cultural events. As he says with a tinge of weariness- “Our notion of the future has greatly altered“.
As we close our conversation he says- “I’ll see you in the Park.” I ask him if he will be riding his bike. “Of course,” is the reply. “I’ll take my bike, and my hat – and my mask.”
WOMADelaide will take place in Botanic Park from Friday March 11 to Monday March 14.
When: 11 to 14 Mar
Where: Botanic Park