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March 23, 2009 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Womad 2009

World music is a tricky beast to define. Tracing your ancestry back to monkeys just isn’t enough, but you try telling that to Beyonce. Take this year’s Aotearoa contingent for example: what is it, exactly, that makes ‘World music’ of Little Bushmen, Anika Moa, and Shona Laing?

Luckily, semantics were of no concern to the 35,000 strong crowd who baked in the Taranaki sun over the weekend. Festival goers overdosed on more music, food and sun than they could shake their samosas at. A short stroll around the beautiful gardens linked acts as diverse as a 15 piece Afro-beat band (led by Seun Kuti, son of the legendary Fela Kuti), blind Aboriginal singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, and NZ’s own Fat Freddys Drop. Other highlights included Speed Caravan (led by oud player Mehdi Haddab, the French/Algerian equivalent of Kirk Hammett), eccentric Chinese performer Sa Dingding, and the irrepressible Ska Cubano—who successfully encouraged a handful of sun-drenched party-folk to cool off in the duck pond, much to security’s disgust.

In total, 20 countries were represented, with nine acts from Aotearoa alone—219 artists in total! Maori language singing and/or band members were strongly represented in the local offerings, providing some insight into the organisers’ ethos. (Contenders for next year’s WOMAD best start brushing up on their Te Reo…) World music roughly equals indigenous music and/or innovative fusions. Sorry Beyoncé.

The nature of the acts was as diverse as the countries represented—France, for example, is the home of both Speed Caravan (with electrified oud and ‘Chemical Brothers’ samples) and La Cor de la Plana, a purely vocal and percussion group, who sing in the almost extinct language of Occitan. Both groups succeeded in electrifying crowds, and generating temporary cult followings.

One of the best things about WOMAD is the way in which bands play at least twice. This ensures the audience has the opportunity to see every act at least once, or for the cultishly inclined, to stalk the same band around the festival. It’s just a shame that those ‘spontaneous’ jokes are never so funny the second time you hear them…

NZ bands generated a huge amount of interest this year—perhaps more so than for any of the previous festivals. The Fat Freddys attracted a huge crowd for their Saturday night performance. Unfortunately, the band never recovered from technical issues which saw them leave the stage after the first song. Ten minutes, and a few painful shriekings later (mostly of the electronic kind), the band returned, but never regained the lost momentum.

Luckily, there is more than one way to find musical bliss. The last big live act on Saturday night, Seun Kuti and the Egypt 80, set the crowd on fire. WOMAD has played host to several Nigerian Afro-beat bands over the years, but the Egypt 80 (Fela’s original band) were undoubtedly the best yet. Infectious grooves were punctuated by political reflections, the most acute of which was a dose of perspective concerning the financial crisis—a reminder that the majority of the world’s population have always been in crisis. Although dancing was the primary concern for the evening, it’s always nice to give the mind some food while the body grooves.

Among the many other highlights, Moana and the Tribe successfully (pleasingly, even) blended Maori elements (haka and singing in Te Reo) with drumsbassguitar; Rachael Unthank played a folk’ing great set, and Australian flamenco group Arte Kanela rocked the party.

Hungarian bread-puffs proved to be the culinary rock-star of this year’s WOMAD, with a drawing power almost equal to that of the Fat Freddys. Other festival highlights included being woken by the tumult of horses racing around the horsetrack/campground at 5 a.m (now that’s what I call double-booking!), and watching security spring into action against the duck-pond renegades. A stirling effort by the fierce defenders of duck rights.

This year saw the introduction of a new ‘Youth Pass’ for 13-17 year-olds. You guessed it: a recipe for crowds of drunken teens. Drunken, but cultured—better to spend one’s teenage haze in the presence of the world’s finest music, rather than merely slumped across the grass of Glover Park. Surely.

The only shadow cast over an otherwise sunny event was created by the unlikely choice of sponsor. Shell’s dubious involvement in the murder of nine Nigerian anti-mining protesters in 1995 is still a cause of fierce anger throughout the world. But festivals need money. The image of the highly political Nigerian singer Seun Kuti performing under the logo of this year’s chief sponsor, Shell, will stay with me forever. The uneasy handshake between Art and Money doesn’t get much darker than that.


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