Interview: Another Stroll in the Park

Ian Scobie Womadelaide 2024Murray Bramwell with Ian Scobie and Annette Tripodi. 20 Feb 2024


As WOMADelaide 2024 draws closer, Murray Bramwell talks to Director, Ian Scobie, about bringing in the new and keeping the familiar.


“Things are going pretty well. Touch wood” As always Ian Scobie is taking early soundings in late January. He has been involved with WOMADelaide for all of its 32 years. Right back to 1992 when APA was formed and Festival director, Rob Brookman negotiated with WOMAD UK’s Thomas Brooman to bring World Music artists to a weekend festival in Botanic Park as part of the 1992 Adelaide Festival.


From what now seems a modest (but brilliant) beginning, WOMADelaide, with its wonky portmanteau name, has become an annual music juggernaut. The last four years have been a testing time. As for all events, public and private, COVID has loomed large, caused havoc to our lives, and made planning ahead almost impossible.


My conversations with Scobie and Associate Director Annette Tripodi over that time have focused as much on whether the festival would go ahead at all, let alone what the program might be.


“I look back at 2023”, Scobie reflects. “We were staring oblivion in the face in terms of COVID. People saying big events are dead. People will be worried about crowds (more worried about queues as it turned out!) The commentary, particularly in the Eastern states was that everything was going to be different. All kinds of predictions.”


“WOMAD 2023 was the first major event in the country to have a full-scale international program since COVID. We were fortunate in our timing in 2020, we got through by a whisker before, two weeks later, the whole world shut down – or borders anyway. In 2021 we had a different something. It was a series of concerts in King Rodney Park which provided a popular Australian program - and a safe space.”


“By 2023 I thought we needed to throw the kitchen sink at the program. It had to be unmissable. We brought back Gratte Ciel with Place des Anges [the aerial spectacle of inflatables and feathers]. People loved that. It was recognisable. We also needed to reach out beyond our usual loyal audience, because some people might not come because of the pandemic. As it happened, everybody came. There were more people than we bargained for.”


So going into 2024 Scobie and his team were dealing with small, but emphatic, choruses of disapproval about the 2023 experience. Complaints about toilet queues and the drop-in entourages of popular performers. Florence & The Machine attracted huge crowds on the Saturday night and for many the experience was overwhelming. WOMAD is a highly ritualised event. It has a familiar topography and although the music is continually changing the vibe has stayed the same. That is why it is a festival with 30 year-plus longevity. It is dynastic. Those who came first as children return as adults and parents. It has always had a contingent of the over-60s- and well over that, as well.


“There were people who wanted the small boutique event they’d come to love,” Scobie observes. “And then their spot wasn’t available because there were too many people – that kind of sense of privilege, I suppose, that some audiences can develop. It is both a plus and a negative. “


“The ethos of WOMADelaide is that of the Adelaide Festival itself. You ensure the best possible circumstances for the audience and the artists to connect. And that’s not in a barren field or in a hot car park. It is about finding a space that is lovely for the artists as well as the audience. One that has an impact on both. As you enter the park, you are saying- ‘Ah’… You feel the change.”


“After a now 33-year history of that connection with Botanic Park, going into 2024 we didn’t want a sense of repeating. It wasn’t about not having artists like Florence, or taking it back to its roots, or whatever. But it’s about having an eclectic program that extends from the variously known, to the unknown, to as far around the planet as you can find - and inviting the audience to come and discover them. That goes right back to 1992 when people knew some names – like Crowded House – but also many artists [Sheila Chandra, Youssou N Dour and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan] people would never have come across otherwise. That sense of musical and cultural discovery is intrinsic to it. “


“And so far, sales are really positive. We are not at the madness of a year ago - when we were nearly sold out by January! But we are looking at a good capacity and response to the program has also been very positive.”


One change people can expect is the layout of the park. “We have reconfigured the layout quite a lot. It’s been on the cards for a while for a number of reasons. It came to a head last year because of capacity issues. But what’s happened is that, over time, the trees have grown and there is less space; not for the people, but for the stalls and infrastructure. We want people to come and have a park experience not an ‘industrial’ experience. So how do we find more green space for people?”


Solutions were sought with various permutations – moving stalls and the Kidzone. Some plans were different but no better. Scobie and the team have opted for a market strip along Plane Tree Drive – part of the rationale being to improve crowd circulation. The Zoo Stage will be moved to allow more people and elevated for better sightlines. There will be significantly more toilets– and wardens to direct traffic to vacant facilities to ensure efficiency of flow, so to speak.


Also, because the amazing crowd for Florence pushed way back into the trees, clearer walkways (lit for visibility) will mean easier and better-defined access through the throng at busy times.


As for the program, Scobie is particularly pleased with the strolling park street theatre entertainment which he describes as one of the most extensive lists so far. French company Cie L’Immediate will explore levitation, South Korean company Mul Jil will present Elephants Laugh, a study in immersion, and, each day, Handspring Puppet Company, in collaboration with our local company, Slingsby, will parade their giant creations for all to enjoy.


Gratte Ciel will return with their aerial choreography in Rozeo and another highlight will be Streb Extreme Action. Founded by Elizabeth Streb in 1985, the ensemble brings a mix of gymnastics, dance, and extreme sport. They are also presenting Time Machine later, in the final week of the Adelaide Festival.


Another Scobie pick is Omar Rajeh/ Maqamat with Beytna (meaning “home”) featuring four choreographers and four musicians from Lebanon, Japan, Palestine, and Togo celebrating hospitality and food and shared life experiences.


Always significant in the WOMAD program are First Nations musicians. Scobie mentions Wildfire Manwurrk from Arnhem Land, singing 80s rock riffs with lyrics sung in ancient languages from before invasion. Rob Thomas, Dean Brady and new talent, Noongar artist, Bumpy will all perform. From the region come Maori performer A.Girl, and T’Honi, (also from Aotearoa), Tio from Vanuatu and Ju Ben from Fiji.


Women feature prominently in WOMADadelaide yet again. Portguese fado singer, Marta Pereira da Costa will perform twice, Irish musician Sharon Shannon will bring her Big Band, Tunisian Emel Mathlouthi returns, and UK singer-songwriter, Corrine Bailey Rae. Brooklyn based and Pakistani born, Arooj Aftab will be keenly anticipated, as will much admired Australian musician, Jen Cloher.


I asked Associate Director, Annette Tripodi for her tips this year. These include Som Rompe Pera, a group of former street musicians from Mexico, the Mauskovic Dance Band from the Netherlands, whom she describes as an “irresistibly dancey, slinky sound “, and from Zambia, WITCH, making their Australian debut . Also getting special mention is the intriguing Moonlight Benjamin from Haiti/France, Tripodi describes her as having “a raw brooding presence, a genuine vodou princess who says she sings to heal people.”


There are many musicians that promise to captivate us. UK Jazz drummer, Yussef Dayes has a brilliant, versatile band. Dayes’ marvellous 2023 solo release, Black Classical Music, with its echoes of Mwandishi Herbie Hancock and early Weather Report, is surely destined to become a new jazz classic.

From the recent past come Jose Gonzalez, the prolific Nitin Sawhney, and the enveloping trip-hop soul of Morcheeba


As always, the late Friday night spot (the traditional Nusrat Hour) will feature rich meditative performances – this time from sarod player, Pt Te Jendra Narayan and a violinist with a famous surname, Ambi Subranamiam.


For Ian Scobie, it is pleasing to be hosting some of the eminent musicians in the WOMAD family. Baaba Maal from Senegal will be majestic on Sunday night. Pioneer of the sixties Tropicalia movement in Brazil, seller of millions of records, and former Minister of Culture, Gilbert Gil’s Saturday night performance will also be essential attending. And, after repeated delays over more than four years, Ziggy Marley, scion of the legendary Bob, will headline on Monday night.


To conclude, Scobie wants to mention the Planet Talks speakers program produced by Rob Law. It features, among others, former President of Kiribate, Anote Tong, ex-senator and fearless eco-warrior, Bob Brown and whale scientist, Dr Vanessa Pirotta. Of the environmental talks, Scobie emphasises the need for persistence and hope – “The continuing journey to find carbon neutral answers, rather than ‘the sky’s falling in!’”

“How do you empower people?”, he asks, “constant crisis is not helpful.”


Ian Scobie then returns to talking about the power of music, its pleasures, and its reminder of the variety of the world. “We can’t live in perpetual crisis and outrage. We have to find a way through. Art and music and discussion help people to reassess the world and their place in it. “

As he would say- “touch wood.”


Located at Tainmuntilla/Botanic Park, WOMADelaide 2024 will run from March 8 -11.


Murray Bramwell


When: 8 to 11 Mar

Where: Tainmuntilla/Botanic Park