WOMADELAIDE '93: Adelaide throws its arms around the world
A live review of 3200 words
© David Lowe, April 1993
On paper it didn't seem possible. 150 performers. Three days. One venue. How were they going to fit it all in?
But of course the WOMAD organisers had done it all before. This was their second time in Adelaide, and if the financial and artistic success of this year's festival was anything to go by, it certainly won't be the last.
Queuing outside the main gate on the first night, the mood was expectant but impatient. After a bit of a delay over the colour-coded wristbands everyone had to wear (including performers) we were past the regulation bow-tie and moustache-wearing security men and into the park. Looking like a logo for a dentists' convention, the toothy smiling WOMAD symbol was everywhere: on caps, T shirts and bamboo arches over the entrances.
From the first act the battle was on for seating positions. Blankets and strategically placed limbs won and lost territory on the soft grass of Botanic Park in front of Stage 1 as the sun crept towards the horizon.
When Yothu Yindi came on, the roar from the crowd would have been heard by the last of the commuters driving home. Mandawuy Yunupingu and the band knocked out a shortened version of their usual set with plenty of enthusiasm. Although no new material was presented to the appreciative audience, the band were tight and professional, if somewhat monotonous. Back of Stage 1 was left bare to reveal a beautiful old red gum growing by the river. In a lovely touch, this remained as the only backdrop for the entire festival.
As darkness fell there was barely time to find something to eat before Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens jived and shimmied on to the stage. After almost thirty years together, this enormously impressive outfit have lost none of their ability to charm a crowd. There was a sense that they would have liked to play later and longer, but the 'indestructible beat' soon overwhelmed every pair of feet in the park, Mahlathini's deep masculine voice perfectly complementing the gorgeous massed vocals of the three women and the sparkling guitars. Although the performers sing in Zulu, Hilda Tloubatla's witty introductions and some clever play acting by Mahlathini and the Queens combine with the music to tell universal stories about the way men and women relate to one another. They never competed for the limelight, but it soon became obvious why the musicians who shared the stage are known as Makgona Tshole - 'the band that knows everything.'
Another world away, but only a short time later, The Holmes Brothers instantly won over the crowd with a gutsy version of Jimmy Reed's Big Boss Man. Forty minutes of delectable rhythm and blues followed. Gib Wharton's steel guitar work was absolutely sublime while the spiritual and musical connection between these four men (only two of whom are actually brothers) was quite tangible. Despite some technical problems with the sound, there was a strong sense that here was the 'real thing', and the crowd were almost completely hushed in between bouts of rapturous applause.
When Geoffrey Oryema took the stage few in the audience knew what to expect. The program told us that Oryema was smuggled out of Uganda after his father died mysteriously at the height of Idi Amin's regime. On stage, Oryema was accompanied by the French guitarist Jean Pierre. Although Oryema plays a number of instruments himself, he confined himself to the acoustic guitar for this first performance. And what a performance it was! He opened with a kind of repetitive ululating chant backed by driving guitar. This was in great contrast to the rest of his set, which was marked by exquisite melodies, wry humour, and some astonishing yet understated guitar-playing from Jean Pierre. Oryema has an unusual voice, ranging from baritone to falsetto, and uses it to full effect in his songs, believably taking on the characters of men and women without parody. Oryema is an extraordinary looking figure: very tall with long braids which he releases and waves around when he gets excited. Equally comfortable in English, Swahili or Acoli, Oryema has the ability to wring every ounce of emotion out of his material, in the tradition of the best Western singer-songwriters.
When Peter Gabriel appeared an hour late to play his first show in Australia few in the crowd were complaining. Battling technical and under-rehearsal problems, Gabriel and his band delivered an incredibly warm, moving, human performance. God knows what the diehard Genesis T-shirt-wearing fans in the crowd made of it, but the bulk of the crowd were behind him all the way. After opening with a haunting version of Across the River, Gabriel kicked into high gear with a selection of tracks from the US album. New songs like Steam and Digging in the Dirt were well received by the crowd despite one or two teething problems. On stage, Gabriel is an endearingly small and vulnerable-looking character, like an accountant who's wandered on by accident, especially when he leaves the safety of his keyboard rack. His voice though, when heard live, has a truly spine-tingling quality, especially on the slower songs.
Biko was positively mesmeric. Towards the end Gabriel said 'The rest is up to you', and turned the mic to the crowd. We hardly had to be told to join in the chant. One by one, Gabriel and the band left the stage until only Manu Katche remained, drumming with the massed voices of the audience. It was an amazing moment, and the crowd erupted when it was over, cheering each other as much as the performers who had brought us all together. The encore was In Your Eyes, from So. Gabriel was joined by an unusual array of backing vocalists: Geoffrey Oryema, Mandawuy Yunupingu and two Holmes Brothers. It began to rain gently as Germaine Acogny danced about the stage, but nobody thought of leaving. Gabriel left us with a promise that this was only the entree - the main course would be tomorrow night.
It was now after midnight and Sheila Chandra was on Stage 2. Although you'd think Gabriel would be a hard act to follow, Chandra was an ideal finale for the evening. Unmoving on the stage, and backed by a taped sitar drone, she soon had the audience in the palm of her hand. Chandra managed to weave a trance-like mood using little apart from her voice. For those familiar with her recordings who haven't seen her live, she really can do all those high speed percussive vocal tricks in one breath without overdubs. If you closed your eyes on the slower songs there was a sense of gliding between northern Africa, Ireland, India and a few less worldly places. Chandra managed to give it all a cohesive feel. The audience, sitting and standing, seemed spellbound, like snakes before a master charmer. Even the security men looked friendly as we left that night.
Next day we were back under sunny skies at Botanic Park just in time for Coloured Stone. Buna Lawrie and the band seemed a little over-awed by the occasion, and had a difficult time whipping up the crowd. Not surprising, considering the time and the rigours of the night before. Black Boy, an early song, was the highlight of their set.
Next was Zi Lan Liao, the twenty-four year old Ku-Cheng prodigy, on Stage 2. The Ku-Cheng is a 21 string harp which is played horizontally. Zi Lan helped our unsophisticated ears along with her gentle sense of humour and song explanations. As she explained, many of the pieces were centuries old, but she certainly played them with plenty of youthful passion. Atmospheric songs evoking events such as storms and hurricanes were particularly effective. Zi Lan closed her performance with a graceful ribbon dance which made the most of her striking crimson costume.
Back on Stage 1, the battle was on for positions to see the Terem Quartet. Dressed in silver and black, and looking like they'd just walked off the steppes, these four men proved to be one of the most exciting finds of the festival. Led by Ian Anderson lookalike Igor Ponomarenko, on alto domra, the quartet managed to cross the language barrier to stir the crowd into a frenzy of clapping and cheering. Virtuosos all, the Quartet were continually one step ahead of the audience, using the folk tradition of north-west Russia as a launching pad for a series of musical jokes and improvisations. Visually and dynamically, Mikhail Dziudze's enormous hundred-year-old bass balalaika dominated proceedings, while the two domras and bayan accordion were also played with great flair.
Tiddas just seem to get better and better. All three women were in fine voice, and the harmonies were sweeter than ever. Someone called Frog helped out on didjeridu for a couple of songs, adding a fine extra layer to Tiddas' sound. This performance was more polished visually than those I have seen in the past, and these three women are also unafraid to introduce new material into their show. Unfortunately, the wind got into the mics on one or two songs. This was a problem which plagued a couple of the more acoustic acts.
After Jackie Daly's fine intimate solo performance on the accordion on Stage 1, it was back to the mad scramble at Stage 2 for Salif Keita, one of the big names at this year's WOMADELAIDE event.
The band were hot. The sound was very cool. Salif Keita was... a bit nervous. Despite all the polish and technical brilliance, there was something lacking here. Perhaps it was the time of day, but the 'Golden Voice of Africa' was not at his best for this performance. He spent most of his time on stage with hands clasped together in prayer, remote from the other musicians and the crowd. Perhaps he was saving himself for Sunday night?
After the break, Not Drowning, Waving crowded on to the stage with three of the PNG musicians who helped make Tabaran such a memorable album. The set they played is a few years old now, but the addition of Telek and the two Moab Stringband guys makes for a great visual and musical combination on stage, helping the obvious strengths of the material work live. NDW swept aside their usual slightly distant live persona to deliver a thoroughly exhilarating, passionate show. The thunderous whole-band percussion of the closing song, Sing Sing, was nothing less than thrilling.
The Szalai Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra were another revelation. Its leader, Antal Szalai, has been playing violin since the age of five, and it shows. With the Magyar dulcimer centre-stage the fifteen-member traditionally dressed orchestra treated us to a range of Transylvanian folk songs, popular classics and Gypsy dances. Although the logistics of miking up such a range of instruments were a bit beyond the skills of the engineers (some players had to struggle out of their seats and up to the main mic to deliver their solos) this unconventional orchestra delighted the crowd. The cohesion and individual brilliance of the players was quite remarkable.
Despite stiff competition, Peter Gabriel's eagerly anticipated second performance proved to be the highlight of Saturday's acts. Bald bass-playing legend Tony Levin was greeted with good-natured jibes from the crowd: 'Get a haircut Tony!' When someone yelled out a request for the old Genesis song Supper's Ready, Gabriel quickly responded 'No thanks, I've already eaten!' Although the band were still a bit under-rehearsed, this performance stood head and shoulders above Friday night. The song list was expanded to include older tracks like Solsbury Hill and Games Without Frontiers. During Sledge-hammer an appropriately-timed blown-up condom happened to gust on to the stage, causing Gabriel to almost lose his way as he burst out laughing. After a false start for Blood of Eden he was relaxed enough to explain that 'that's what's known in the trade as a fuck-up' and start again. Joy Askew, the only band-member who was not a previous Gabriel collaborator, did an outstanding job on keyboards and backing vocals. In Steam the lone smoke machine was more of a distraction than anything else, while elsewhere the lack of stage tricks worked to focus attention on the songs. L. Shankar, on electric violin, seemed personally distant from the rest of the band on stage, but played magnificently. Once again Gabriel closed the show with Biko and then In Your Eyes. For the encore he was joined this time by some of the members of NDW, who seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience.
Gabriel's split musical personality (intensely personal quiet songs, funky innuendo-laden dance numbers) makes for fascinating live performance. I can't think of many other artists who can draw tears from listeners one minute and have them jumping for joy the next. For Gabriel's show, as for the whole weekend, it was wonderful to be in the midst of such a bipartisan crowd, equally responsive to material new and old, familiar and strange, local and exotic.
Senegalese dancer Germaine Acogny and her drumming collaborator Arona N'Diaye ended the evening with a well-attended performance on Stage 2. One of the few dance acts I managed to catch, Acogny and N'Diaye set up a kind of dialogue between physical movement and aural rhythm which is quite magnetic to watch. A fine finale to an extraordinary day.
First up on Sunday were the Persuasions, whose feel-good a capella sounds were ideally suited to their midday timeslot. After the four singers got the audience on side with classics like Under the Boardwalk, they invited the audience on stage to form a human train in People Get Ready. The security blokes didn't like this idea very much, but it was a wonderful moment when the Persuasions were swamped with people dancing and singing along.
Over on Stage 2, S.E. Rogie performed his laid-back Palm Wine music and gave us some lessons about Sierra Leone's culture 'we like to take things... eaaasy.' Rogie sings low and smooth, and plays his guitar using the thumb and forefinger style. Although he exhorted the crowd to dance it was a bit too crowded, except at the edges. One of the few performers who had come prepared, merchandise-wise, the charismatic Rogie managed to sell quite a few tapes to new fans before the afternoon was over.
After another fine show from the Szalai Gypsy Orchestra, the Holmes Brothers returned, this time in fiery gospel mode. Appropriately enough for the City of Churches, the passion and fervour of these gentlemen reminded me of Jake's musical conversion in The Blues Brothers. Certainly Wendell Holmes had no problem getting an amen from the assembled throng, even if he was a bit confused about whether it was night or day. Were the sunglasses to blame? The falsetto vocals of drummer Popsy Dixon really had a chance to shine this time, while the pedal steel of white 'brother' Gib was as heavenly as ever. The only song common to the previous performance was Amazing Grace. It sounded as fresh as though the band had written it themselves before lunch.
The Terem Quartet had an interpreter this time, not that they needed one. If anything, they were better than the day before, standing and bowing solemnly between each song to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd.
Apart from some great thumb piano playing, Geoffrey Oryema repeated his Friday set on Sunday afternoon. No one seemed to mind. This man is absolutely magical, and if he isn't a major star within a year or two then the world will be the poorer for it.
This time I got very close to Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and was surprised to see the years in their faces. The exuberance of these three women, dancing in their Soweto Santa Claus suits and Reeboks, has to be seen to be believed. I'm sure Hilda Tloubatla was telling the truth when she said her kids looked older than she did. Again, there was not enough time - 'Go out and pay again and we'll play for longer!' - but the Queens left the crowd happy and howling for more.
WOMADELAIDE 93's final session was opened by Galliano, straight off the plane from London. Led by Rob Gallagher, Galliano's self-proclaimed mission was to take the audience to 'planet Funkety-Funk'. Their music fuses rap, jazz, house and reggae to create a very 90s sound. Multiple vocalists, dancers and percussionists make this outfit far more exciting live than they have been on record to date. Audience involvement is everything for Galliano. Neo-hippies, they use a huge earthball which they throw into the crowd periodically. Lyrically the songs are both pessimistic and hopeful, while Gallagher's topical humour infuses everything with a sense of good-natured irony. As with all of the acts at WOMAD, there was no ego-tripping with Galliano. The musicians seemed to be there genuinely and entirely for the music. When Galliano left the stage, the crowd weren't about to let them get away that easily. Several minutes of concentrated clapping and whistling got the band back on stage for a schedule-trampling fifteen minute encore.
American singer-songwriter John Prine had to contend with a few loud talkers in the crowd, and some kids who were impatient for Yothu Yindi, but he handled it all with consummate skill. His gentle humour and down-home folk/country style was a relaxing change from the previous two dance acts, and there were a few long-time fans in the crowd who knew all the words to early songs like Illegal Smile and Sam Stone. Prine's unsentimental but poignant song about growing old, Hello in There, ended a fine set.
For his final performance Salif Keita was a different man to Saturday afternoon. At one stage he got so excited that he accidentally clouted his guitarist Moussa Diakite with a mic stand! Luckily Diakite was not hurt. Dancing and prowling about the stage, Keita stirred his extraordinary band to ever greater heights of excellence. The albino Malian sang like no one else can, stretching the recorded versions of his songs into wondrous fifteen minute afro-jazz improvisations. The band had all the style and control of the French plus the exuberant emotional energy that characterises the best West African music. There was a sense that Salif Keita and his band have a great bond of mutual love and respect not usually obvious between professional musicians. Trumpeter Jean-Pierre Alcouffe attracted plenty of attention, both for his tight leather trousers and the way he threw his instrument high into the air, catching it on the way down. The two female backing vocalists, and in fact the whole band, were absolutely superb. Even after three long days, it would have been hard to find a single person in the audience not on their feet. The police had to literally pull the plug at 2am after complaints! from local residents.
And so another WOMADELAIDE came to an end. The food wasn't all brilliant. The MCs weren't so hot. The sound wasn't always perfect. But this would have to be one of the most stunning musical events Australia has ever seen. Start saving now for the next one.
© David Lowe, April 1993