World music is the final untapped form, the last genre to be fully developed and explored. There is no limits to its potential, with hitherto unknown musical forms from obscure corners just being discovered by the west, and the ability of traditional forms of music to be welded into other variants.
That can’t be said for what we regard, in our myopic western society, to be traditional genres – rock, hip-hop, indie, folk, punk, country, etc have all drained the well for so long there’s little to sustain it.
Which is part of the reason I have come to WOMAD in New Plymouth. The city, and the region around it, Taranaki, are not renowned for music of any denomination, but the people have warmed to this extravaganza since it was moved from Auckland a decade ago. WOMAD is a world-wide event, and had just come from Adelaide, but the New Zealand version remains distinctive, and this year features the Human Library where ‘readers’ borrow a book, ie a person, and leaf through their internal pages. Books on the shelves included an ex-street kid, a rape victim and a singer with Aspergers.
I will come back to day two, the busiest day for this writer, later, but will start this review, at what was effectively the end of the festival for me, on Sunday lunchtime, due to time constraints.
The Melbourne Ska Orchestra kicked off a rain-soaked afternoon on the main stage which is surrounded by a ‘moat’, that would certainly prevent anyone stage diving. I’m unsure quite what to make of the Orchestra, which comprises at least 24 people on stage at one time. They went down a storm the previous evening and they’re equally popular on Sunday afternoon, with a version of ska that owes more to My Boy Lollipop (which they played) than to Ghost Town. Lead singer/ conductor Nicky Bomba says the band were brought up on the ska revival of The Beat, Madness, The Selecter and, most of all, The Specials, before they launch into Rudi, A Message To You.
All of those bands were heavily political drawing on experiences, both of their own and of the young people in Britain at the time, of unemployment, racism, social tension and the rise of Thatcherism. The Specials’ Ghost Town is one of the most potent protest songs ever, on the devastating impacts of such monetarist policies. None of that has rubbed off on the orchestra which prefer to be a fun-packed band, the kind you could hire for a wedding.
The rain of the final day was in contrast with the sunshine the large crowds enjoyed on the previous day. Porky’s day began with Nici d’Arac on the main stage. They were mainly dressed in black and, although singing in Italian, gave the impression of being a folk version of Radiohead. I was taken more by VulgarGrad, a Melbourne band doing a very good impression of Russian thieves, and playing some excellent Eastern European style music.
WOMAD is a festival in which it is quite feasible to turn up a few songs in and still get near the stage but that didn’t apply to those performing, or talking, at the Pinetum stage. Due to being elsewhere at the start of Sam Hunt’s show I was unable to get to the start of his performance, and was left trying in vain to listen to his recitals, not even at the back of the crowd, but beyond it. Alas I had to give up, but from what I did catch, this veteran was very much on form.
Often it is the performances you stumble on that are the most pleasing. A brochure can’t always describe an artist fully, and this was the case for Grace Barbe, an artist I was left unsure about from the festival notes. But when I came round the corner to the Shell Gables Stage I heard a glorious fusion of African and Caribbean melodies that reminded me of a Zouk album I bought in 1987 that contained fantastic sounds from mainly Francophone Caribbean islands. Equally, there are artists hyped to the heavens you feel obliged to see, but I didn’t stay long for Salif Keita. While I very much appreciate African music my head has never been able to comprehend the particular sounds of Mali, though this is not clearly a problem thousands of other festival goers had. The feedback from other attendees was that he was brilliant and I trust their judgement.
* If you have a WOMAD festival experience, from any year or location, please tell us about in the comments box.
Keep watching this blog for my interviews with Lau, and Norwegian/ Sami singer Marie Boinee.