A snowstorm of white feathers unleashed nightly in front of the Foundation stage by Gratte Ciel, an astonishingly ambitious, angelic and athletic aerial ballet act from La Belle France, may well have been the apogee of punter enjoyment at this year’s festival.
But there were also myriad musical highs had over four glorious cloudless days at Adelaide’s salubrious Botanic Park, all helping to make WOMADelaide 2018 (March 9-12) a truly wondrous experience.
Like, for example, the nightly spectaculars provided by the 43 virtuosic Rajasthani singers and instrumentalists from three generations that played in various tantalising permutations leading up to a tumultuous ensemble finale with all microphones switched on and light bulbs blazing. Arrayed in a 4-storey red jewel-box stage construct shipped from India and re-assembled (over one day) in a far corner of the park, The Manganiyar Seduction produced an unparalleled visual and musical experience.
The performance of the world’s finest female sitarist Anoushka Shankar, eight years after playing here with her revered father, the late Ravi, combined with the aforementioned shows and a velvety warm Adelaide evening to make Friday one of the most memorable opening nights in the festival’s 26-year history. As stand-alone shows elsewhere, Shankar, Gratte Ciel’s Place des Anges and The Manganiyar Seduction would have surpassed the cost the price of a full WOMADelaide festival pass!
Drawing on her Land Of Gold album, a work prompted by the world refugee crisis, Shankar produced pyrotechnics of Hendrixian proportions on her chosen instrument during peak moments in her solitary gig, matched by the acumen of her accompanists — an incredibly versatile drummer on percussion and the BBQ lookalike hang, a woodwind whiz (on shenai) and an electronic keyboardist/bassist. The band finished via a terrific trilogy of tracks from Anoushka’s lauded latest release, ending on a luminous high (and 10 minutes over their allotted set time) with ‘Reunion’, after earlier darker interludes
While Saturday’s all-day program seemed understandably tame compared with the luminosity of the opening night’s bill, the afternoon session was elevated by the performance of the up-and-coming young Cuban jazz diva Dayme Arocema, who established an ecstatic rapport with the audience with her dynamic singing and larger-than-life stage presence. Arocema was more than ably assisted in her exploration of Latin and Cuban music — not to mention a decidedly risqué closing song — by the improvisatory brilliance of an equally youthful pianist, electric and upright bass player and a newly-acquired drummer, who pulled out all the stops.
The second day also witnessed a triumvirate of irresistible party sets on the main stage from Chilean veterans Chico Trujillo, Chicago’s ultra-funky Hypnotic Brass Ensemble and Ghana’s swinging Kwashibu Area Band fronted by the legendary singer/percussionist Pat Thomas. All three acts induced dust clouds from enthusiastic dancers, also sending Gratte Ciel’s ground-covering feathers from the night before airborne again.
On the quieter outer stages, a cappella excellence and exquisite harmony singing could be found in the extraordinary Bulgarian intervals and polyphonic music created by the all-female Eva Quartet and in the contrasting boisterousness of the Red Army anthems and equally robust faux Russian humour and bonhomie exhibited by the ultra macho “Mullumgrad” choir known as Dustyesky (geddit, comrade?).
Sunday had a pronounced African accent, with Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali and her band and Pat Thomas & the KAB starting Foundation Stage activity with punchy sets. Long-time Sydney-based West African muso Moussa Diakité — Salif Keita’s trusted former sideman — impressed with the fluency and alacrity of his electric guitar lines on the Novatech stage, while plaudits also go to his new band, Wassado for providing excellent back-up. Those Saharan warriors of desert blues Tinariwen were a tad sluggish in their opening set on Stage 2 — they were more their old selves during Monday’s show in the main arena — while on Stage 3 the bold Brazilian fusioneers known as Bixiga 70, whose music is inspired by Afrobeat, exceeded their lacklustre opening Friday evening performance.
The French-Canadian quintet Le Vent du Nord seemed troubled by the 32-degree heat and glare on Stage 2 in their opening set on the Sabbath (not surprisingly since they had come from -15 degrees Quebec), but excelled in the cooler Monday air, earning justifiable comparisons with their legendary compatriots La Bottine Souriante with their lively fiddles, accordion and jazz piano-tinged jig and reel medleys and fabulous 4-part harmony vocals.
Sunday’s highlight for this inveterate jazz head was served up by the sensational young John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders inspired saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his extraordinary band, who had a huge crowd hootin’, hollering and squealing with delight as they coursed through their aptly-named 2015 triple-disc masterwork The Epic.
Dressed in signature overcoat and shiny medallion (appropriate attire for the messianic musician that he undoubtedly is), Washington took punters on a cosmic journey, pausing at intervals to usher in bandmates. These included an unexpected guest in his flute/sax playing father, Rickey: “I want to introduce y’all to someone special … the man who taught me everything I know”. It was noticeable how well a predominantly young audience responded to Kamasi’s hip and savvy music. 21st century jazz has truly arrived with the sax supremo, his equally adventurous sidemen and the band’s sultry female singer.
Kamasi was always going to be a tough act to follow — not that Melburnian producer Jake “Mista” Savona failed with his ambitious 14-piece Cuba-Jamaica synthesis Havana Meets Kingston that brought the Sunday night Foundation Stage program to a satisfactory conclusion (despite a few technical problems).
Monday’s man, for my money, was unquestionably Nano Stern, who had made an interstate dash from the Port Fairy Folk Festival, to renew his acquaintance with WOMADelaide. The cherubic and charismatic Chilean singer-songwriter, assisted by two long-time amigos, had a packed throng in thrall from the get-go with his passion, panache and well-directed political pronouncements. At one stage he changed an errant guitar lead in the blink of an eye.