Salif Keita and Malian solidarity

ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music
A dialogue with WOMAD New Zealand Artistic Director Drew James.

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Malian solidarity is one of two reasons I am driving up this year. Thoughts on this theme?

DREW JAMES: It is very exciting and satisfying to be able to bring three of Mali’s most incredible artists to WOMAD this year: Salif Keita, Bassekou Kouyate, and Viex Farka Toure. At a time when music has been banned in northern Mali by Islamist militants, these musicians are the voice of people that face many challenges.

AB: Salif Keita in 2007 was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. What are you expecting from Mr Keita this year?

DJ: I expect the vocal and musical magic and depth that Salif brings, and am particularly excited to hear his new live set, which features the best of Salif Keita plus songs off his fresh new album, Tale, produced by Philippe Cohen-Solal of Gotan Project.

AB: Gotan were also magic at WOMAD. Pukekura Park, the landscape, is essential to the festival’s, kaupapa isn’t it?

DJ: Pukekura Park and the TSB Bowl of Brooklands is just simply one of the most beautiful venues in the world. The landscape has become part of the festival in so many ways. We add to the environment with the wonderful Angus Watt flag displays, and this year we have invited a number of other artists to add a number of other installations.

AB: Tell me about one of the new art installations?

DJ: Local artist Carmen Rogers is reinventing the string art phenomenon, using trees to create large scale creations. Auckland artist Ashley Turner has designed Metamorphosis I and II, two 4.5 metre interactive structures that reference the ‘pou’ and the signpost, featuring the work of visual artist Fane Flaws, and motion graphics artist Mulk.

AB: Billy Cobham said it was the most beautiful venue he’d ever played. Mariza told me the 2007 powhiri was the best welcome she’d ever had. What role will Taha Maori play at WOMAD 2013?

DJ: We are proud to support and share the manaakitanga and hospitality of the Taranaki iwi. The artist welcome is a very special event at Owae marae, and sets the kaupapa for the weekend. The Te Paepae tent and Maori programme is also central to the WOMAD experience.

AB: What about a particular act?

DJ: For 2013, one of our very special events is the Aotearoa National Maori Choir with The Yoots. WOMAD has provided the impetus to reform the National Maori Choir which last performed 10 years ago. Led by the enigmatic musical director Rim D Paul, with a choir of over 80 and backed by The Yoots, this special performance celebrates and revitalises the superb compositions and arrangements that are a part of our musical heritage.

AB: Who is a formative musical inspiration who still inspires you?

DJ: Actually, Jimmy Cliff. In 1982 I listened to ‘The Harder They Come’ in the tapedeck of an HQ Holden driving from Cairns to Perth via Darwin, over and over again. And I still love it.

AB: What’s your response to critics who say Jimmy’s over the hill?

DJ: I saw him perform at WOMAD in Charlton Park in the UK last year, and was blown away by his energy in performance. He still has the passion and lives for his music.

AB: I’ve enjoy Nick Bollinger’s artist interviews, like Don McGlashan and Sharon Jones, at the Pinetum. Got a pick there?

DJ: We have four extraordinary artists being interviewed by Nick for the Artist in Conversation: Jimmy Cliff, Vieux Farka Toure, Salif Keita, and Mari Boine.  They will all have some very interesting perspectives. For something quite different, I am looking forward to Mari Boine, of the indigenous Sami people of Norway.

AB: What makes WOMAD special?

DJ: For me the special thing about WOMAD is the pure joy that people experience as an audience. With young and old, people from all cultures and an overwhelming feeling of generosity and goodwill, WOMAD is a utopia for three days. I want people to take this back to their everyday lives and hold on to it as long as possible.

AB: How are Ahoribuzz distinctive?

DJ: AHoriBuzz have a great funky energy that is full of life and fun. It’s an awesome musical line-up with Aaron Tokona, LA Mitchell, and Jonathan Crayford.

AB: Another act not to miss this year?

DJ: Ayarkhan. Three beautiful women from Siberia playing the Jew’s harp. You could only find it at WOMAD!

AB: How did you discover Ayarkhan?

DJ: Ayarkhan were found at the WOMEX world music showcase by international WOMAD Artistic Coordinator Paula Henderson. As you would expect she has an encyclopaedic knowledge of music, but she can still be surprised.

Between Paula, our colleagues at WOMADelaide, and myself, we want to see artists on stage before making programming decisions. In a world of digital production, recordings can often be misleading, and we are programming for a live audience experience.

AB: In his WOMAD NZ Q&A for the press, Goran Bregovic answered re: “What’s currently playing on your iPod?”: “Steven Hawking’s ‘The Grand Design’. I don’t think that any normal gynaecologist—even though he works with the best thing in the world—after a work day of eight hours wants to continue his work.  So I mostly sit in silence.” Comment?

DJ: I have been listening to Coba Soundsystem featuring DJs Ramon & Rafael M from Novalima, the Peruvina group playing Sunday night at WOMAD. They specialise in a cross-pollination of world sounds and electronica, blending tropical house, dub and Afro-Latin beats and produced the remix of Novalima’s seminal album, Coba Coba. I disagree with Goran on this point. I don’t count the hours, love my work and have never wanted to be a gynaecologist.

AB: A past favourite WOMAD performance?

DJ: Hanggai were one of my favourites from WOMAD New Zealand in 2010. Born from the Mongolian punk scene, they mixed overtone throat singing, horsehead fiddles, and electric guitars in a way that was quite simply wild. They worked the audience into a dance frenzy at 5pm on the Sunday afternoon.

AB: Tell me about another favourite festival?

DJ: Woodford Folk Festival in Queensland. I just love the site, the music, the atmosphere, and the people.They have been tree planting for 10 years and have a 500 year plan. And it’s not just folk.

WOMAD New Zealand takes place from March 15-17. Alexander Bisley has covered five WOMADs for The Lumière Reader. Recent WOMAD interviews include Jonathan Crayford and Lord Echo aka Mike Fabulous.
Filed under: ARTS, Features, Interviews, Music


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.