Highlights and images from Taranaki’s 11th annual WOMAD festival. Photography by Grace Bayer.
At quarter past six on Friday night, a small but loyal group of music lovers, both young and old, gathered at Womad’s small Te Paepae (meeting place) stage. We were there to watch legendary Bolivian folk singer Luzmila Carpio open the festival with a short performance-turned-workshop on the bird calls of her home country. Clad in colourful traditional garb, Luzmila entertained us with stories of the long marginalised indigenous cultures of Bolivia (as translated into English by an assistant). She supported them with gloriously joyful songs, performed with voice, five-string charango and percussion, and a cycle of impressive bird call renditions. In the full flight of song, Luzmila’s singular vocal tone, Quechua language lyrics, and naturalistic playing gave attendees a window into the most joyful sides of life in the mountains and valleys of Northern Potosí. It was a beautiful way to begin the weekend long journey through music, art, culture, and food of the world that Womad has come to represent to so many.
The eleventh edition of the festival to be held in New Plymouth’s spacious Bowl of Brooklands Park, the 2015 edition of Womad balanced headline performances from The Richard Thompson Trio, Rufus Wainwright, Sinead O’Connor, Buena Vista Social Club, and Trinity Roots, with more niche names like Flavia Coelho, Meeta Pandit, Ramzi Aburedwan, and Bombino. The end result was the largest ticket sales the event has seen in eight years, and a generally enjoyable three nights and two days of entertainment offering something for everyone.
By just after one pm on Saturday, a sizeable crowd had gathered at the lushly bushed Dell stage to see Indian classical music star Meeta Pandit perform as part of a small trio. With her powerful voice stretching over three octaves, Meeta traversed a range of classic styles taking in Khayal, Tappa, and beyond. Supported by sensitive tabla and harmonium playing, she bought the weight and heft of a 200-year old family tradition of elite singers to the respectful crowd. It was one of the most unique, rewarding, and genuinely heartfelt performances I’ve seen in recent years.
With over 28 acts from around the world performing (often multiple times) over six stages, an extensive food court, a shopping village, CD store, and numerous additional zones, things often blur together when you wander around Womad. The best approach seems to be to pick a few acts you absolutely want to see, and let the rest take you by surprise as you drift between zones. It’s about the music, but it’s also about the experience.
An hour so before sundown on Sunday, kora players Tounami & Sidiki Diabate took to the expansive Shell Gables stage. A father and son duo from Mali, Tounami & Sidiki represent a 71-generation old family musical tradition, and with that, the heart of one of the most evocative West African musical traditions. Both fluent and masterful players with a studied sense of showmanship, they gifted us crystal toned waterfalls of enchanting melody and rhythm in song form. It was a stunning display of the strength that can be found through remaining committed and true to regional musical identity while leaving just enough elasticity to apply your techniques to outside forms. Near the end of their set, Tounami stepped aside to let Sidiki, also a rap/dance music star in Mali, show us a younger take on kora music. Marrying his playing to huge electronic grooves and thunderous bass stabs, Sidiki showed us how to rave Mali-style. It was life-affirming and celebratory, music for the past and tomorrow. Ancient futurism, if you will.