Some of the performers at this weekend's WOMAD festival.

WOMAD 2019 served up diversity and tolerance when we needed it most

For three days every March, New Plymouth’s Brooklands Park is transformed into a village of colour, energy and inclusion. Michelle Cruickshanks celebrates the WOMAD spirit.

WOMAD is a bubble. It’s an eclectic retreat from day-to-day life, the chance to step outside your normal experiences and tastes, to be transported and transformed – if only for a few hours.

As attendees leave their everyday lives and enter the WOMAD bubble, some of the changes are obvious. They ditch their regular weekend attire and swathe themselves in cotton and linen; patchwork and tie-dyed fabrics abound. Harem pants, jumpsuits and flowing skirts are given their annual outing. Face-paint and crowns of flowers cease to be the sole domain of children. We gush about artists whose names we can barely pronounce and dance with abandon to tribal drums, brass ensembles and electronic beats we’ve never heard before.

Other changes are more subtle. We walk a little slower, hold eye contact a little longer, wave strangers ahead of us with a smile, we put away our smartphones, focus on being present. We are kinder, gentler, huggier.

This year we were also sadder. WOMAD’s bubble couldn’t keep out the grief and disbelief felt across our country this weekend. But neither could the collective anger and sorrow felt over Friday’s horrific events overcome the spirit of WOMAD.

Festival openers BCUC set the tone for the weekend with their infectious “afro-psychedelic” music: African drum beats juxtaposed with punk rock vocals straight out of a South African CBGBs. The result immediately had people on their feet, new arrivals streaming in by the hundreds. The vibe continued on the TSB Bowl Stage all Friday night with the “dance pit” extending further and further up the hill throughout Baloji’s and The Original Gypsies’ sets.

With 50 hours of music across four stages, over three days, WOMAD is a marathon not a sprint. So I left the Friday revellers, opting for a slower start to my festival via TEEKS on the Gables stage.

Teeks performs at Womad. Photo: Gareth Shute.

TEEKS

If you haven’t heard about this Kiwi soul singer, you soon will. With a voice that seems too large and too mature for a baby-faced kid from Northland, TEEKS and his music are both earnest and endearing. On Sunday he plays to a large, enthusiastic audience at the Todd Energy Brooklands Stage, and comparisons to 2018 festival favourite Marlon Williams abounded.

This set, two days earlier, feels like a dress rehearsal (albeit an almost flawless one), a sneak peek backstage – and I’m glad I catch it. TEEKS wins over the sparse crowd, picnic blanket by picnic blanket. By the time he gets to the first chorus of crowd favourite ‘If Only’, the huddle of front-of-stage dancers (mostly misty eyed women of vastly varying ages) has swollen into a small crowd of converts.

Nadia Reid

Nadia Reid’s only appearance at the festival is my first time seeing her live. She is mesmerising. Many WOMAD performances feel like a (wonderful) visual and aural assault. Nadia instead enthralls her audience with the intensity of her songwriting and the intimacy of her stripped back performance. She is introduced as having the voice of an angel and, while her set is certainly ethereal, it’s her power, presence and intensity that really impresses and holds the crowd’s attention.

Finn Andrews performs at WOMAD. Photo: Gareth Shute.

Finn Andrews

On Saturday afternoon the dark, brooding songs from Finn Andrews’ just-released solo album One Piece At A Time are in stark contrast to the blistering 25+ degree sunshine. Sweating under his signature hat (smart choice) and blazer (not so smart choice) the Veils frontman is accompanied by a gorgeous string section and vocalist Reb Fountain.

Finn is known for his energetic performances in the Veils. Today he remains seated behind his piano for the majority of the gig but brings no less. He jokingly describes his new songs as ‘atheistic gospel’ and for me there is more than a hint of Nick Cave about them.

Kora performs at WOMAD. Photo: Gareth Shute.

The Black Seeds & Kora

Of course this is WOMAD, the festival of diversity, and for every sombre or introspective performance there is a high energy counterpart – this is no different within the strong line-up of New Zealand artists. The Black Seeds and Kora draw some of the biggest crowds of the festival to their respective Saturday and Sunday night shows.

Fans enthuse about the Black Seeds’ set and there is little doubt they are a festival favourite for many. But with such a depth of indigenous music, musicians and musical styles on offer, I cant help feel the Black Seeds’ barbeque reggae/funk pales in comparison. Kora, on the other hand, really do the business, mashing together soul and rock and god knows what else. The crowd responds by getting on their feet and rocking out too.

Mr Bruce from The Correspondents performs at WOMAD. Photo: Gareth Shute.

The Correspondents

When it comes to dancing however, it is impossible to go past The Correspondents. Performing in New Zealand for the second time this summer (after an outstanding spot at Splore in February) Singer Mr Bruce and producer Chucks deliver two fantastic shows that leave both musicians and audience sweaty and breathless.

Toward the end of their Friday night set a group of drunk young guys smash their way through the crowd to join the heaving, front-of-stage dance pit. At any other concert this might seem like a normal turn of events. But WOMAD is a little different. Despite a very liberal alcohol policy which treats festival goers like grown-ups (you buy your wine by the bottle and are free to meander around with it) the only people you ever see passed out are small children asleep on blankets being watched over by dancing family and friends.

The occasional sweet smelling haze, a lone cowboy cutting up acid beside a garden, Biloji simulating masturbation onstage and a middle-aged chap in a leopard skin bodysuit (which leaves far too little to the imagination) all remind me this is a music festival. But for the most part, even with the presence of armed police, everything is extremely G-rated.

Dona Onete performs at WOMAD. Photo: Gareth Shute.

Dona Onete

Twenty-four hours after The Correspondents, Brooklands lawn is once again the venue of a heaving, eclectic dance party – this time being lead by a large elderly woman, seated in a arm chair, not speaking a word of English.

Acts like Brazilian Dona Onete are the reason I return to WOMAD year after year, regardless of the line-up. I know that irrespective of how many acts I’m dying to see, some of my favourite performances will come from musicians I’ve never heard of before. This 77 year-old, known as the Grande Dame of Amazonian Song, delivers my most joyful, uplifting performance of WOMAD 2019 – from the comfort of her arm chair!

Angelique Kidjo performs at WOMAD. Photo: Gareth Shute.

Angelique Kidjo

Saturday night finishes up with an incredible set from the fearless Angelique Kidjo performing her Afrobeat reimagining of Talking Heads’ album Remain In Light. Her voice, attitude and dance moves carry the crowd along. It seems like all 18,000 people might be in the bowl cheering when she smashes out ‘Once In a Lifetime’ which is sure to be a festival highlight for many.

The Kidzone

With two little people accompanying me, WOMAD’s Kidzone (Papa tåkaro) is my base for most of Sunday afternoon. Some WOMAD parents cannily forget to mention the festivals’ children’s area to their offspring and while I can see the allure of that, the scope of experiences on offer (inside what is normally Brooklands Zoo) is incredible.

There is craft, art, games and activities, music, dance and storytelling – all culminating in the Kidszone Parade on Sunday evening. Through the day lovely volunteers like Katie Pittwood from New Plymouth’s Fox & Plum Creative Hub help my girls embroider and bind books, while musicians and singers teach them ‘Make Every Word Count’, the song from the opening ceremony which was written by local school kids under the guidance of singer/songwriters Victoria Girling Butcher and Charlotte Johnsen. There are open mic sessions for the brave, songwriting workshops for the creative, and Zumba dancing and double dutch skipping for the overactive.

At 6pm, proudly carrying banners emblazoned with their wishes for the world (more rainbows would seem to be a popular choice in my household) we join musicians and performers from the festival and weave our way across the gables lawn, parading down the hill of the TSB Bowl. My girls grin wide smiles as festival goers cheer and wave and take photos. Miss 5 turns to me, “Mummy, I think we should go to WOMAD every weekend.”

Kora are on stage as the days festivities catch up with my little people. We pack up our Globlets and blanket, the kids squabble about who gets to put our rubbish (all compostable thank you) in the Waste Station and we head home through Brooklands Park, leaving the bubble behind us.

Only this year I vow to take a bit more of WOMAD back to our real lives.

Baloji performs at WOMAD. Photo credit: Gareth Shute.

On reflection

As the weekend evolves so does our understanding of the scale of the devastation in Christchurch. On Friday night there are subtle acknowledgements from artists and organisers. Baloji says he was told not to mention mention white supremacy and Nadia Reid’s MC reminds us (perhaps strangely given that 50 souls have left us), “we need all the angels we can get right now”. But the WOMAD bubble largely holds, protecting the majority of revelers from the enormity of what’s happened and the hateful details.

By Saturday however we can’t escape the fact we have quite literally been dancing while others died and New Zealand grieved. It’s an idea that weighs heavy on the shoulders of many. One woman stands on Brooklands lawn for the rest of the weekend, arms held wide, a sign offering “Hugs4Peace” around her neck. I take her up on the offer, knowing the only person I’m helping is myself, and feeling the worse for it.

Entry queues grow with the heightened security and lengthier bag checks. No one grumbles. Extra police stroll the grounds, doing their best to look casual and unconcerned while people whisper to each other, nervously glancing at the guns they carry, unsure if we feel safer or not. When a helicopter flies over Brooklands lawn during Finn Andrews’ soundcheck I join other festival goers to quietly check our options. Would it be better to run or hide?

The festival organisers earnestly explain the decision to continue as planned, despite other events being cancelled across the country as a mark of respect. They remind us it has never been more important to promote the WOMAD values of multiculturalism and tolerance. It simultaneously feels right and wrong. Feeling shaken, I briefly leave but return. The reality is too harsh outside the bubble – being part of something larger than myself, something that stands directly opposed to hate that happened in Christchurch is the right place for me to be.

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The festival’s mantra of diversity, inclusion and tolerance were a welcome antidote to the heart-wrenching updates that punctured the bubble on Friday.

So instead of crying and raging (though sometimes as well as), we danced and sung, embraced friends and loved ones and celebrated life in all its glorious colour and texture.

WOMAD might be a bubble, but it’s a beautiful one.


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