WOMAD 2017: Day 3 – Photos & Review

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Here are The 13th Floor’s Tim Gruar with words and Michael Flynn with pictures to let you know how Day 3 of WOMAD 2017 went down…

Final day.  Sunday started a little later after a good sleep in.  It was a bit blustery overnight and there were initial concerns of high winds for the campsite but it all blew out by about 2AM and the calmness took over.  One of the great things about staying in the WOMAD tent city is the wonderful friends you meet.  My neighbours were from Waiheke Island and, on the other side, from Golden Bay.  I enjoyed a coffee with the Northern folk while enjoying a jam session from a group of musicians who’d set up an impromptu band.  Playing bongos, flute, guitars, a beatbox and ukes, this group, who’s all just met today, played some folk, country and Latin music to put us all in a good vibe.  It went well with the weather – cloudless and already 20 degrees by 10AM.

Sunday’s music began with a very lively performance from the Warsaw Village Band.  They formed way back in 1988 as a defiant musical gesture against the mass market mentality of ‘Euro-pop’ that was sweeping the country at the time.  I couldn’t help finding parallels with other groups of that era like Cold War industrialists Laibach.  Despite three of the band’s six members being women the music had a very strong masculine presence to it.  It was very gut earl and sometimes quite harsh and brutal.  Vocals are more of a nasal chant and sung is staccato for full effect.  There were quieter intervals and a highlight of their set was a short time on the Appalachian Dulcimer, a sort of zither, which has American roots, plucked rather than strummed.

Crowd favourite Natali Rize did another set on the Todd Energy Brooklands Stage, which was more suited to her stadium sound.  In the heat of the day her summer reggae worked well and had everyone dancing.

A highlight for me was seeing Swamp Thing, who I interviewed last year.  They did material from both their Balladeer and Primodium albums.  I’ve seen them in and around their native Rotorua a few times but this was an occasion to take it up a few notches.  Michael Barker’s drumming was incredible.  In the middle of a song he totally ran the gambit, starting on an African xylophone (which he played with 4 hammers) before moving to drum one handed with sticks and play bongos, cymbals and other equipment all at once.  His rhythm had a totally organic sound that moved from their grungy blues, which is their trademark to African and American First Nations.  No surprise given the band’s recent tour of duty in Baton Rouge, Louisiana  and with the John Butler Trio (as the drummer).  On guitar Grant Haua’s voice is also phenomenal.  Strong, gutter all full, like he’s smokes 10 packs a day.  With distorted guitars and a real swamp rock sound they had the festivals moving and talking all weekend.  They were brilliant.

One of the most profound acts, this year, were the Hanoi Masters.  This particular group are one of the few local artists to have survived the Vietnam War.  Now in their late 70’s they are still going strong, playing a range of traditional Vietnamese instruments.  Their music was quite harrowing and intense.  It draws the listener in making you feel the sense of loss for innocence of the country still reeling from the impacts of war 40 years on.  As they go, an interpreter explains the music.  Heroine Song is the most memorable song by a female and male vocalist accompanied by a two string lute- like instrument.  This song, I learn, is about Princess Thuong Ngan (“the soul of the mountain river, who helps us to find strength in life”.

Back at the media centre I had a chance to quickly meet the musical director For Vân-Ánh Võ, who is also the zither player and chief percussionist (and a previous Kronos Quartet collaborator).  He told me that, for the old people, musical traditions are like a language that was secreted in a pocket, on a piece of paper and smuggled past the guards.  Only now, in the new developing Vietnam, can it be un crumpled and read again.  I liked that image, it seemed so fitting for this charming old man who had touched so many people with his art over the weekend. It reminded me, as a music lover and journalist to do what I can to protect our traditions, no matter where they came from.

By comparison, my interview with Bebel Gilberto, the Brazilian Bossa Nova singer revealed the need to move forward, sometimes, with traditions.  The daughter of Bossa King João Gilberto and born into a musical family, she told me how she wanted to break away from the classic Girl from Ipanema style of the 50’s and 60’s.  She’s worked with techno and dance acts like Mark Ronson and has just finished a new album in Melbourne with acts including A Guy Called Gerald.  That said most of her Sunday set on the Bowl Stage was very close to a lounge act, very much the Rio beach sound.  With a brilliant flamenco/Bossa Nova guitarist and equally skilled drummer she sung her way through a set of warm, charming songs that totally suited the tropical heat of the late afternoon. Adding some glamour in a white, flowing dress, her act added some wonderful glamour to the WOMAD line up and mesmerised the audience.

Also up was the New Zealand Dance Company. Over the weekend, they performed two shows of the piece Brouhaha.  It was great to see ‘dance’ returned to the WOMAD line up.  After all, that’s what the ‘D’ is for.  This was modern dance, but quite easy to follow.  Broken down into short vignettes, the dancers mover from confrontations, to Mihi, to arguments, to resolution.  Each dancer interprets human interactions over the tribal in different ways.  At one point four dancers come out holding a thing 2 metre pole.  This is used as a Taiha, an area, a spirit level and a number of other objects.  I’m not sure I understood everything but it was definitely impressive.  Judging by the large audience reaction, it was a winner.

To accompany my wood fired pizza lunch, I sat down to enjoy Rob Ruha. Rob is a big star on the Maori Radio network and sings exclusively in Te Reo.  It was great to see more of this at the festival.  His music, which is performed with j guitar, supported by a keyboardist and a female vocalist, is very powerful.  He calls it ‘Haka Soul’.  A great description.  It’s got a mix of fireside strum to it (the ‘Maori Strum’, of course) and echoes of Motown, here and there.  His lyrics are profoundly poetic and use lines from ancient sayings and aural legends but there are also new references like traffic, cell phones and coffee.  The old mixed with the new.  His love of his children was also very obvious, with dedications and more references in the songs.

I caught Brushy One String again, this time down on the Dell Stage.  He is a real charmer. With only Ne amplified string on his pimped up acoustic he adds howls, grunts, cock crows and all manner of other sounds whilst chatting up the front row ladies and high giving the guys.  He’s got every one clapping along and ‘cow-calling’ (it’s a thing).  There’s definitely a good reason he’s part of this festival.  Pure entertainment.

Along with the music, WOMAD offers a range of other events including the newly introduced World of Words.  Sadly, because many of the speakers clashed with the most popular acts a lot of people would have missed these.  I did get to listen to Elizabeth Knox, author of The Vitner’s Luck, Dreamhunter, and Mortal Fire (which is a finalist in the LA Book Awards).  Amongst her topics she shared with host Warren Smart her chaotic writing style, where she has about 3 books on totally different subjects all on the go at once. As a speaker she is almost overpowering, as she speaks fast and furious, ideas are pouring out like a burst damn.  She talks of how she’s grown to become a writer, to build her confined nice and some tricks on how to do that.  She’s one to write in longhand and then dictate into voice recognition software.  A fascinating speaker and worth seeing, if you get a chance.

Another cool thing was the workshops.  This is a chance to listen to some of the musicians explaining their craft.  The best one of the weekend had to be the three from South Africa’s The Soil, who mix beat boxing with Soweto harmonies.  Their skills to make sound from just their voices was yet another highlight and talking point.  The whole hour had me in goosebumps.

Early reports revealed that the event was completely sold out with over 18,000 (including volunteers and support staff and vendors) on Friday night.  Equal numbers continued over the rest of the weekend.  TAFT Chief Executive Suzanne Porter told me that this was probably the most successful WOMAD so far and one of her top three, in terms of line ups.

Big thanks have to go to all the volunteers, both on and behind the scenes and the media team for making up all so welcome.  There was a big emphasis on getting youth involved in interviewing and reporting WOMAD artists this year, to encourage future journalists.  Something to be commended.

If you haven’t done WOMAD yet then get saving.  The ticket price for three days is still good value, but it will sell out.  Reputation sells this gig as much as anything.  Ask anyone that went.  It was an awesome time.

Tim Gruar

Click on any image to view a photo gallery by Michael Flynn: