It began as a birthday party on a farm, now Blackwoodstock Festival runs for three days on an idyllic spot on New Caledonia’s west coast. Simon Day spoke to organiser Jean-Marc Desvals about growing the indie rock scene in the Pacific, how to attract big artists to New Caledonia, and the ‘spirit of the cow’.
On a remote corner of an island in a remote corner of the Pacific is an indie rock festival. Forget about Glastonbury gumboots and long lines for the bathroom, at Blackwoodstock in New Caledonia you can catch some punk rock in paradise, with a small crowd of fanatics.
In its fifth year, the festival began as an oversized birthday party and an excuse to give the island’s small group of rock bands a place to play their music. Its first iteration was hosted on private property and the crowd shared their festival with a herd of cows, the permanent residents of the farm where the concert was held. Now Blackwoodstock is an annual three day affair at the historic Fort Teremba, a former jail, the colonial French military headquarters, and a distinct memory of New Caledonia’s penal colony past.
From the 50-person birthday party the festival has grown to around 4000 people, and has hosted a number of high profile international bands. Yet it is run entirely by volunteers and retains the intimacy of a group of friends gathering to listen to the music they love. The Dandy Warhols were the headline act at this year’s festival. Like most acts they heard about it by word of mouth, in their case by Telegrams, their opening act on tour who had played the year before. Intrigued by the sound of a festival in the middle of the Pacific, the next thing they knew they were on stage on the west coast of New Caledonia.
In a country devoted to reggae, Blackwoodstock is a special home for the island’s indie rock fans. The festival has built a unique personality dedicated to the “spirit of the cow” – a tribute to the bovine audience who shared the festival for the first three years. It’s a spirit that is about hospitality, celebrating the strange and peculiar, and embracing the beauty of New Caledonia.
It’s a music festival like no other.
The Spinoff spoke to festival organiser Jean-Marc Desvals, still basking in the afterglow of the 2017 Blackwoodstock festival, which took place on the last weekend of September.
How did the festival start?
It started five years ago. The main objective of the association, because we are a non profit organisation that organise the festival, was to promote rock music, and indie rock in New Caledonia. We had no place to play. So initially we just made the festival for all the local bands.
Is there a big scene for indie rock in New Caledonia?
It is quite big actually. At the beginning it was not a festival, it was just a party of people who knew each other. That was the beginning, a festival just for friends, for one of their birthdays. It started as 50 people with just local bands. And it grew year after year. Last year it was a big festival, this year it was even bigger.
At the beginning the venue was in a private property, for three years, and then it grew up to a new venue, the Fort Teremba, in the middle of the West Coast, about an hour and a half from the capital Noumea. Since two years the festival is in this venue.
The first venue it was a private property, it was a farm, with cows. The name Blackwood comes from the specific trees in New Caledonia. The Blackwood is a tree you only find on the West Coast of New Caledonia. And the Blackwoodstock is a joke.
This year you had an amazing line up. How did you get so many international artists to a small Pacific island?
The first thing is that New Caledonia is a french territory in the Pacific. It is not difficult to have people come here to visit for tourism. So even international bands are interested in coming to our country because it is a very nice island.
The second thing, we try our best to receive international bands. The bands from our first four editions talk a lot about our festival and that is how we got the Dandy Warhols. Two years ago we had a English band called Telegrams, and this band went on tour with the Dandy Warhols, and talked to them about our festival. That is the way we find bands, they talk among them, and they say good things about us.
When we have international bands that come to our festival we are really keen to look after them as best we can to give them the best time in New Caledonia. The relationships we have developed with the bands is really close. The bands talk after on tour about our festival and how to get to New Caledonia and how good Blackwoodstock was.
Almost all international bands coming to our festival don’t know that New Caledonia exists. The Dandy Warhols had never heard of New Caledonia. Kikagaku Moyo from Japan did not know New Caledonia.
It must be a very special place for them to come and perform?
Yes it is. They are surprised at the hospitality that we give. We can manage everything that they are asking for and leave with good memories. It is also a good experience for the association, it is not easy to bring international bands to New Caledonia. It is a small island, we don’t have many people in the country, and we know we won’t get 30,000 people in front of them. We know we won’t get lots of people in front of them. But that is what they like. It is a beautiful island, [with] friendly people and French culture.
It must be attractive for the bands and the people – the fact it is not like Glastonbury, it is more special.
It is more intimate. The bands are closer to the fans. It is a very friendly festival. There are not too much crowds. One of the good things about this kind of festival is the bands are much closer to the fans, and the fans of New Caledonia don’t jump on the bands, they are really friendly. The fans are taking care of them.
Is it hard though, because you are small and remote, to get the bands you want? It would be amazing to have Radiohead to come and play, but it would be hard to get them.
We know that we can’t get all the bands that we would love to have, because we are a small country. So we know we won’t get Radiohead or U2 in New Caledonia because we are really small. Not Radiohead, but maybe Thom Yorke alone. Why not?
Was it difficult growing something that began as a party for friends, to a three day festival with bands from around the world?
We are the only festival in which people can camp at the festival for the weekend. We are the only festival so far from the capital. Every event in New Caledonia is in Noumea. Our challenge was to have the event in the local bush. That was the first difficulty.
The second difficulty is that New Caledonia is a small island, with only 200,000 people living here. So the audience for the festival can only be around 2000 or 4000 people.
Do you want more people to come? Could you host 10,000 people? Are you trying to grow and expand?
The other thing is to bring people from Australia and New Zealand, as they are really close. And Japanese people. We would really like to get those people to come to our country and celebrate our event in New Caledonia.
But, we would like to stay as a micro festival like we are. People coming to the festival don’t like big crowds. People come to New Caledonia to avoid the crowds. When you go to the beach you are alone, people are 200 metres from you.
The point of the event is not to get 30,000 people, but keep it small and have good vibes, and good people, and have a good line up too.
In New Caledonia we don’t hear enough good music on the local radio. Even the Dandy Warhols were not very well known in New Caledonia. So in the lineup we have also French bands coming. Les Wampas made a huge show at the festival. We would like continuing mixing French bands and international bands.
But you think you have found the right size? Big enough to get three days of music, but small enough to keep the beauty?
Music has an important cultural place in New Caledonia. What makes the Blackwoodstock Festival different?
The idea of the Blackwoodstock Festival is to promote indie rock. We want to have rock bands. It can be folk band, or punk rock. But we don’t want reggae or metal. Because there are a lot of events for that in New Caledonia. We want to keep the rock first.
What effect has the festival had on the local music scene?
Three years ago there were about 15 local rock bands. Then 30 two years ago. And this year there were 40 local bands.
They were all playing at the festival?
This year we had 52 concerts at the festival on four stages. And we also have one stage for comedians. The festival is not only about music but about independent arts too. There’s a lot of things happening. We have acrobatic yoga, fire juggling. We have one part of the venue where we have a circus tent.
I imagine there is nothing else like Blackwoodstock in New Caledonia?
Each year every stupid idea we have, we make it happen. Two years ago there was a special happening that was called the “Ass Room”. You can go to the Ass Room and put your ass in paint, and then you put your ass on a flag. It was kind of an exhibition of ass flags, it was very funny.
At the end of the festival we have the burning cow [effigy]. We couldn’t do it this year, because it is very dry in New Caledonia at the moment. This year it was too dry. Usually at the end of the festival we burn a cow to mark the end of the festival.
Why has the cow become the special emblem for the festival?
It is because of the first edition was at the farm. During the first edition people were sleeping in the grass and put the cow shit behind their head as a pillow to sleep. So the cow became the symbol of the festival. So all our stupid ideas for the festival we call the cow spirit. As we grow we try to keep the cow spirit. That is our identity for the festival.
What was special about this year’s festival?
Every moment was special. The festival is in a placed called Fort Teremba. It used to be a jail. It is a historical place for New Caledonia. There is a French guillotine, we have a real one in the fort. We have really old jails. We put the gear for the bands in the jail – it is dry, cool and well locked. But we lost the keys of one jail, with the gear for a local band was trapped inside. But we found the key at the end. Next year we will get a lock with a code not a key.
Which bands were a highlight?
The band from Seattle, The Naked Giants. Nobody was expecting them. All the people discovered their music during the festival. The public hadn’t heard about them before and they were very impressed by the gig.
The Wampas, a French band, did a really amazing show too. Didier Wampas, the singer of the band, he is a very special guy and they are very old, well known punk band. And they did a big show on the Friday.
The Japanese band, Kikagaku Moyo, did an amazing show – psychedelic rock. At the moment they are on tour with King Gizzard.
And one of my best shows at the festival was Pete International Airport from New York, with Peter Holmstrom, the guitarist from the Dandy Warhols. It was just amazing. They were not expecting that kind of music. It is great to bring this music to the people of New Caledonia.
We had a very good band from New Zealand too. Uncle Fester from Wellington. The lead singer, Julia, is New Caledonian. She is French and she came back to her country and played for the first time in front of New Caledonian people.
What are your hopes for next year’s festival?
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We don’t know yet. We have just finished the festival. We all have jobs on the side. It is not easy.
The best things we can do next year is to keep the cow spirit alive. That means community organisations, a very special identity for the festival, to have very good music and to have people from New Caledonia discovering those bands. To have people being surprised each year. For people to trust us.
And we want to have people from Australia, and Japan and New Zealand coming to our festival and visiting New Caledonia.
This content is brought to you by New Caledonia Tourism. With Nouméa only three hours from Auckland, New Caledonia is fast becoming a destination where travellers can take in some truly unique sights, sounds and tastes.