Rosie Morrison travels to WOMAD where colour and music and dance and food define the spirit of Taranaki’s famous festival.
Heading north from Wellington, my festival companion and I knew we were getting closer to WOMAD territory when we stopped in Whanganui for a kebab and the woman at the counter told us they’d had to double their usual stocks of falafel for all the revellers rolling through town. It’s no wonder WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance, an annual festival that takes place in seven countries around the world) shares so much of its name with nomad. For a weekend every year in March, campers and festival-goers descend on New Plymouth and set up a rainbow village of tents and campervans to call home for a few nights. Over seven stages, the unique collection of musicians, dancers and artists from South America, Africa, Europe and Oceania created an all-inclusive vibe and wairua that was impossible to avoid all weekend. The place reverberated under the mighty watch of Mount Taranaki with the kind of passion that only comes from the sheer celebration of diversity.
Brooklands Park makes a stunning space to hold a festival, with nooks and crannies to sit and eat and watch and listen. The TSB Bowl Stage sits superior on the lake and is a striking platform where artists have to get the crowd hyped up from a distance. From the floating stage, Bixiga 70 from Brazil got the weekend off to a cranking start with their theatrical performance of funk and South American electronica. The ten-piece band was full of energy as they blasted their way around the stage and treat us to a playful and fiery warm up. The hilarious Spooky Men’s Chorale had us laughing hard on Saturday with their deadpan humour paired brilliantly alongside their a capella performance. They reminded us how brilliantly bizarre and beautiful this place we’d found ourselves in for the weekend was, by pointing out some local wildlife, and telling us to “give a round of applause for the duck!”
With the seven different stages hosting music, theatre, dance, poetry and cooking demonstrations, it’s hard to feel like you’re not missing out on something at any given moment. But WOMAD would never be so cruel as to only play things once, so most acts put on repeat performances over the weekend allowing you the chance to customise an itinerary that would rival an around the world music trip.
Dressed in their amazing traditional Saharan Desert outfits, Grammy Award-winning group Tinariwen drew a big crowd on Sunday and I had to wonder, where else in New Zealand could you see artists like this? In between hypnotic performances on his oud, Rahim AlHaj from Iraq gave us a much-needed reminder of what the whole WOMAD weekend was about when he asked the crowd to support refugees and openly told us how he is no longer welcome back in his home country. Later I watched him hop over a fence to get photos with two fans, laughing together at the red boots they were all wearing. During moments like this WOMAD really does remind you how music can act as a bridge for humanity.
Hopetoun Brown was a taste of Aotearoa which got the crowd onto their feet as soon as they hit the stage. It’s impossible not to move to their mixture of sound that comes from the lively jumping between brass instruments and soaring vocals. They slowed it down only at one point to get the crowd’s help with a cover of Che Fu’s ‘Misty Frequencies’.
The cooking stage, where a chosen artist prepared a meal of their choosing to live music every other hour, was strangely hypnotic, while the tucked away Pinetum Stage made for a shady oasis on Sunday as parents and young children snuggled in together to hear the final poetry slam.
Decked out in bright t-shirts, offering a smiley welcome at the gates while checking your wristbands, the volunteers are a huge part of what creates the WOMAD vibe and the festival couldn’t happen without them. I talked to Georgie, who’s been coming to WOMAD for ten years now, and volunteering for half of them. When I mentioned that the majority of people appeared to be 50 plus, she told me WOMADers are “hardy people”. I had to agree – these people sure know how to festival, and they appear to have been doing it right for a long time. There’s no sense of judgement, or haste, or a desire to make other people feel uncomfortable, instead I see a hugely peaceful crowd where all oddities are simply another fun and playful thing to look at, and amongst these mid-life partiers are teenagers in glitter, babies in the nude, easy-going parents, and a couple of men in lipstick.
It’s no secret I’m a fan of a sensible bedtime, and my Wellington companion mused that this must be my ‘perfect festival’. He’s pretty much spot on. With gates opening at 11 am and no acts on past midnight, revellers had the easy choice of heading back to camp at a reasonable hour, leaving them fresh and well-rested for the next day. We were sent to bed by the always moving Thievery Corporation, who closed the night on Friday with a performance which continually swapoed vocalists on a roller coaster ride of hip-hop, jazz, reggae and electronica. The amount of grey hair in the crowd a brilliant reminder that age is no limit to how much a crowd can party.
Each morning security was firm but not unreasonable. The rules are simple – no glass, no alcohol. Even when I forgot rule one thanks to my plastic-free habits, the security guard was kind enough to let me through with my scroggin in a glass jar. This kind of easy-going vibe is key for a successful festival where everyone feels well treated. Two volunteers mentioned to me that they were glad to see this softer approach to security – “last year they wouldn’t let a woman through with this tiny bottle of perfume.”
WOMAD puts its weight behind being a zero-waste festival, and all the vendors on site are advised they must serve their food in either compostable or recyclable containers. The only general waste the festival should see is that which party-goers have brought along themselves. Proof of their increasing success with this mission? Walking through thousands of people over the weekend, I saw only a handful of forgotten compostable plates and napkins floating around the grounds. The rest was put in its place by party-goers or scooped up quickly by the volunteers in the moments after the crowd had vacated an area.
There’s an amazing amount of respect at WOMAD – for each other, for the musicians and performers, for the beautiful garden grounds we find ourselves in, not to mention a palpable sense of pride in Taranaki itself. On countless occasions throughout the weekend, I watched the WOMAD ethos play out. A quick acting group lifted a man in a wheelchair over a tricky speed bump, someone else offered security a doughnut as he walked back to camp, a couple shared a laugh with police, strangers high-fived, small children hurdled legs and bodies, I joined the silly Sunday Zumba and hugged someone in a lion suit.
Like all good things though, WOMAD must come to an end, and this year it was with a sizzling collaborative performance from Jojo Abot and her newly made friends including our own Estére. The festival finally closed on Sunday night with a reminder to travel safe, to look after each other, and remember what really makes WOMAD what it is: the life force, the festival’s “mauri”. The crowd joined this final blessing and we soaked up one last moment of the festival, basking in the spirit of WOMAD where the mauri really is electrifying.
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