Murray Bramwell talks with Director Ian Scobie and Associate Director Annette Tripodi about the rapidly approaching WOMADelaide 2023
Annette Tripodi is not really pondering the idea that WOMADelaide is entering its fourth decade. She is just pleased the current one has landed in the net. “It’s worth saying that the last three years have been so peculiar in that we never knew what the next festival would hold…”
COVID-19 has cast a long shadow over all of the performing arts and WOMAD has been no different. Back in 2020 the very beginnings of the pandemic were evident in March. Some Adelaide Festival artists arrived testing positive. Others hurriedly left the Fringe for home in the Northern Hemisphere, cancelling shows in the final weekend. WOMAD completed its full program just before borders closed and quarantine became mandatory.
For 2021 Ian Scobie and his crew came up with an inspired solution organising their four nights of outdoor concerts at King Rodney Park. With the socially distanced seating and masking requirements it set about being as safe as possible in an unsafe time. The shows were brilliant – Midnight Oil at their majestic best with their Makarrata Project, flanked by Sarah Blasko, the late Archie Roach, The Teskey Brothers , Tash Sultana and others. The sound was impeccable, and it was a rare experience to hear live music in a year when so much was cancelled and abandoned.
2022 saw a return to something closer to the festival of old. It was a substantially local line-up with many brilliant musicians – Ab Original , Cat Empire , Emma Donovan, Bush Gothic and Joseph Tawadros and the Melbourne Ska Orchestra to name a few . Paul Kelly presented a glorious set on the final night and other highlights, for me, included Springtime and Asteroid Ekosystem. It was a musical success and it turned out not to be a spreader event. And now for 2023.
“It’s kind of exciting and also terrifying” Tripodi observes “to be returning to our international line-up and also with our partner WOMAD New Zealand back on board. They’ve been absent since 2020. So we’ve almost forgotten how to do something on this scale and the way this has turned out, it’s a particularly high profile amazing one.
“I also think it was easier for it to come together than before the 2020 event because there were conversations we were having with artists for some years. There was a rolling list. Some we were asking before 2022- if we were able to bring internationals are you available and interested? But there was so much uncertainty about borders opening that we couldn’t make decisions three months in advance- it was terrible for planning.
“We had artists like the Garifuna Collective from Belize, with whom we’d been speaking for years, delayed by the rolling pandemic. For San Salvador (from Southern France) the delay was both pandemic and personal – two couples had just had children and weren’t travelling at all. ADG7 the South Korean pop/folk sensations were also on the list. That’s just to name three. All classic WOMAD artists who’d never been to Australia. They are sensational live and each is unique. It’s such a buzz . They are not actually here yet – but it’s looking exciting.
“I’m sure all the artists in the 2023 line-up will have a million stories about things that went wrong, things that were made challenging for them in the last couple of years.”
The pandemic has certainly had its impact on logistics. Tripodi notes:
“Just in an operational sense it is harder to get the travel routes and flights you want. A small example is that Emirates, they were an airline we used a lot – you could fly a group from Paris to Dubai to Adelaide. It was simple, affordable and great for the artists . There are now no direct flights.”
I also asked Ian Scobie about concerns getting artists and their luggage (their valuable, often rare instruments) safely, and all at the same time, to Adelaide. While sparing a thought for the pressures on airlines in the new order, he described some precautionary strategies they have used:
“Even before passengers there is freight. We did get all (the feathered angels aerial theatrics company, Gratte Ciel’s) Place des Anges equipment into warehouses a couple of months ago to avoid any disasters of stuff not arriving. And we have arranged an extra rest day for artists, even for local interstate artists, because domestic schedules have been less reliable.”
“There’s always a concern for any artist,” Tripodi observes, “that their beloved instruments don’t arrive. So we look at ‘what ifs?’ - if a band’s specific specialist instruments don’t turn up, not guitars so much, but can we lay hands on a harmonium quickly ? So there are a lot of logistical challenges behind the scenes. But it’s fair to say that it takes longer, and costs more, to get somebody here than it used to.”
Another new complexity has been created by greater customs and immigration controls. Artists from some countries and airports now have to meet stringent biometric requirements. Passport holders from France – and Tripodi estimates there are fifty to sixty of them - now have to do fingerprinting in Paris before travelling, which is a new hurdle. There are also implications for artists from Cuba and Pakistan.
When we talk about the program Annette Tripodi lights up.
“We are absolutely rapt at the range of acts, the spread of countries and the ages and diverse appeal of the festival. Having Bon Iver on Friday night and Florence + the Machine on Saturday night is just out of this world. I never imagined we could pull that off in the same festival. We have spoken to Bon Iver for years and weren’t able to make it happen. It got deferred and deferred and then they contacted us and it was all on. And with Florence also it finally happened. They are outstanding live artists that suit our vibe but they will also bring in a whole new audience.
“There are great headliners among many others. It’s wonderful to have (WOMADelaide 1992 original ) Youssou N’Dour on Monday night and (the powerhouse Colombian band) Ondatropica on Sunday. “
So what are some of the gems in the program ? Tripodi starts with guitarist Justin Adams and violinist and vocalist Mauro Durante who will perform from their recent recording Still Moving. Adams has a remarkable CV which includes Tinariwen and Robert Plant. Durante has collaborated with CGS and Ludovico Einaudi.
The Korean band ADG7 Tripodi describes as “kooky high energy musicians who are not only danceable but bring folkloric shamanistic traditions and instruments.” Kocoroco, led by trumpeter Sheila Maurice-Grey, also gets a mention. “It is great to see this evolution of Black jazz coming out of London, influenced by Afrobeat and other styles.”
Visiting WOMAD UK last year, Tripodi and Scobie caught up again with Rizwan Muazzam Qawwals. They are the nephews of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan who first presented qawwali, this spellbinding Sufi devotional music, late at night at the very first WOMADelaide. It established a tradition at WOMAD. Many of us thought of it as “The Nusrat Hour.“ Often located at Stage Two or the Zoo Stage, it featured Indian and Pakistani virtuosi performing extended ragas and vocalisations, and became a feature of the many festivals which followed.
“We went to their first show in the UK “Tripodi recalls, “and they were amazing. But then their second show at 11pm on the final night was just transcendental.” They will perform in late night programming in Adelaide also.
The First Nations section of the program is also strong again this year. The NSS (Northern Sound System) Academy which nurtures and develops new talent, she describes as “going from stren
gth to strength.” This year inclusions are Aotearoa performer, Taiaha Ngawiki, aka Taiaha ‘The Weapon’ (who is now living in Aldinga) bringing a mix of hip-hop and Soul and R’n’B artists such as Otis Redding, Ray Charles and Nina Simone.
The other NSS selection is Dem Mob featuring, Elisha Umuhuri and Jontae Lawrie, from the APY Lands, who are the first young rappers to perform and record in the Pitjantjatjara language. Tripodi says they have evolved into a great band – “great rappers who are on the cusp of something even more.” They perform on Saturday; Taiaha has one show only on Monday.
Other First Nations musicians who feature this year include Ripple Effect, an all-women group from Maningrida in Arnhem Land. The frontline vocalists harmonise in five Indigenous languages as well as English. Also appearing on Saturday is Richard J Franklin, a Gunditjmara elder from south-west Victoria. A multi-talented artist and activist, Franklin is a musician, filmmaker, novelist, academic, playwright and songwriter who will bring much to the WOMAD program.
The Ailan Songs Project led by Jessie Lloyd, will perform, interpreting songs from the Torres Strait Islands, and Kee’ahn, whose single Better Things, struck an uplifting chord during the pandemic lockdown. She is a multiple award winner including the 2020 Archie Roach Award.
The leading First Nations dance company, Bangarra will perform on Friday night. Tripodi is especially excited: “It’s wild to think how far that company has gone since they last appeared at WOMAD. We’ve waited a long time to get the timing right for them and now it has happened again.”
“And on a personal level I’m really glad that Soul II Soul are featuring in the festival. They and Inner City were my two favourite bands when I was living in Sydney in the ‘80s! They were another pandemic delayed act and will bring a full band and support musicians – it will be great to have them on the main stage.”
Since the very first festival there has been a strong representation of women artists and this year is no exception. It is said that women hold up half the sky, and they will prominently hold up the day and night skies at WOMADelaide in 2023. It is a list as diverse as it is impressive. Sampa the Great from Zambia (and Australia) will perform one show – but that’s one more than in 2021, when she was scheduled for the concert series in King Rodney Park but was marooned in Zambia by pandemic border restrictions.
US country music singer-songwriter, Angel Olsen will feature her latest album Big Time, Madeleine Peyroux, with only one show on Monday, will draw on her wide repertoire, including her own works and those by Serge Gainsbourg, Leonard Cohen, even Charlie Chaplin. Queen of the banjo Abigail Washburn returns to Adelaide with her partner Bela Fleck, a banjo player of legendary standing. Their performances will be both charming and virtuosic.
Aurora will bring her Norwegian electro-pop and Yungchen Lhamo from Tibet returns. Since she last performed her Buddhist chants at the 1992 WOMADelaide, she has collaborated with Paul McCartney, Philip Glass and Sinead O’Connor. From Aotearoa NZ, acclaimed singer Ria Hall will perform on both Sunday and Monday with a set showcasing her vocal range, singing in English and Te Reo Maori.
And for the dance
crowd, the DJ list is impressive and women rule – Jaguar, Sister Nancy meets Legal Shot and Jyoty will all appear. Not forgetting Nightmares on Wax, GUTS ,and the drum virtuoso, Alexander Flood who, as a young child, first performed in a music parade at WOMADelaide.
Annette Tripodi has her favourites. “Florence is a powerhouse. Real World Records also told us about Bab L’ Bluz, they are a Moroccan Psychedelic rock outfit. Ian and I met them in the UK and they shared some South Australian wine with us! They are really young and fresh. Another great band is Kefaya with their powerful lead singer, Elaha Soroor . And where else do you see a woman from Afghanistan, leading what is essentially a rock band? She’s a pocket rocket. “
Constantinople, a Canadian project which featured at a previous festival with a program of West African themes, this year returns with In the Footsteps of the Rumi, focusing on the works of the 13th century mystic poet. The ensemble features yet another woman vocalist - Belgian /Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali. Tripodi’s list of favourites continues – Taraf de Calui, the newest incarnation of the Romany legends, Taraf de Haidouks, Ukrainian group Balaklava Blues (who will also be providing music for the Festival theatre work -Dogs of Europe) and, from Argentine, dedicated to the legendary master of tango, comes Quinteto Astor Piazzolla.
Reminding me of the mix that is WOMAD, Tripodi predicts a big following for The Proclaimers, supplying their singalong favourites and new material from their album drolly entitled, Dentures Out. And for those needing more Greetings from the New Brunette there’s Billy Bragg. The Lachy Doley Group’s Hammond organ rock set and Saharan guitar wizard Mdou Moctar and his band will be a likely crowd favourite also.
Armed with such a strong program this year, Ian Scobie is quietly confident. “It is bigger than we have ever done,” he notes with some amazement, “There are more than 700 artists – about a hundred more than previously. It’s big. We are coming back to the fore with an international program. We wanted to come back with a bang and provide a lift in the festival experience – especially to interstate people returning after a break.
We didn’t want people to be disappointed.
“I also wanted to re-connect with the 30th anniversary feeling. It wasn’t until 1993 that WOMADelaide became a standalone from the Festival. So we were keen to have a Wow factor and getting acts like Florence and Bon Iver contributed to that. It will bring in younger fans and those who have not been previously, as opposed to rusted-on fans who never miss. That’s always our intent with our programming. And you see it in the sales. The advanced sales are off the charts.” (At the time of writing all 3 and 4 day tickets have sold out, as have Saturday single passes)
Scobie also has his favourites. Place des Anges, Rizwan Muazzam Qawwals, Richard J Frankland, Meute, and Indian musicians, Pandit Ronu Majumdar and Dr Jayanthi Kumaresh, who were recommended as part of the long-standing Spirit of India programming project which is now supervised by WOMAD legend, the violinist, Subramaniam. Kronos Quartet, long time Adelaide Festival favourites, celebrate fifty years of performing with two performances at WOMAD. And, having Youssou N’Dour back, after being there at the very beginning”, Scobie smiles, “is also great.”
Pausing, Scobie turns to another part of the festival program.
“The debate over the Voice is equal parts enraging and encouraging and WOMAD has a place in that discussion. We will have a session in The Planet Talks and we will be supporting the Yes campaign, like we have with previous social issues – right back to health campaigns and AIDS messaging in the early ‘90s. It is important to have the right level of advocacy – not harping, but as part of a socially conscious cultural event.”
“The festival is like a child, it has a life of its own”, Scobie observes in conclusion. “It grows up and it’s off on its path. So many people have a view of the festival - and it is what is for them. They always go to this stage first or that food stall. It’s kind of a people’s tradition and it does remind me, as a small child growing up in Mildura, going to the Mildura Show- a country show. This wonderland that was set upon the Mildura Oval.”
“I had this sense of the social fabric and I think WOMADelaide has that resonance. A sense of continuity in the world, a sense of connectedness. So much else is going in all directions- the constant handsets and screens, people cut off in their separate realities. So the collective sense of WOMAD is special. “
WOMADelaide runs from March 10 to 13 at Botanic Park/Tainmuntilla, Adelaide.
When: 10 to 13 Mar
Where: Botanic Park