Outdoor music festivals are pretty special. Even the ones I’ve been to where something (typically the weather) isn’t ideal, the punters that stick it out are part of a unique experience... like THAT Gathering, the Millennium one that rained solid crayon width ‘drops’ for the entire three days. Well, not entirely; there was a half hour break one morning where I heard 10,000 people cheer from across the hill. By the end the food tent was a makeshift triage facility, with those who’d packed one t-shirt and four very small pieces of cardboard (thinking they were well prepared for the festival) huddling under silver recovery blankets. It may sound grim, but everyone made it down the one single lane access road safely at that festival, and most that were there made the best of a mad situation. I remember one morning waking up to a guy fishing in one of the lakes that had formed outside my tent. Impromptu performance art at its finest.
Thankfully at WOMAD 2013 the weather didn’t turn until Sunday. From a sun drenched Friday Drive ex Tāmaki Makaurau to the Taranaki, to a rain drenched Sunday night finale with Jamaican superstar Jimmy Cliff and band, here is my (mis)guided tour of a weekend of great music and food from across the globe, washed down with some great local beer and even better local people.
Any decent festival experience needs a dependable and enjoyable crew. If you’re like me you’ll wander off from them, sometimes for minutes, other times for hours; but these wanderings can be wandered with the confidence you will meet up again at a designated place and time, such as the car park at 6pm for contraband (by the way, how did we do this before cell phones?). I nearly didn’t go to WOMAD this year as my camping buddies from last time couldn’t make it. But thankfully Timmy B, from Friday 2-4 on Base FM, graciously offered transport and good company... and accommodation offsite! Offsite in all its freshly showered, well slept, not trying to put undies on in a metre high space with a zip for a door glory. So the crew was Timmy B, soon to be Mrs Timmy B, and soon to be new friends and New Plymouth locals Matt & Jolene (named after the song). They had two fridges, turntables, a shower, and a bed for me downstairs. Fugg you tent! Fugg you!! Matt’s taste in music and t-shirts was to be commended. A suitable WOMAD 2013 crew was born.
I like WOMAD for a number of reasons one of them is people don’t get too, erm, ‘festive’. Having said that, by Friday night we’d spent far too long in a hot car, and the beer flowed the most freely it would all weekend. A quick cab into town (WOMAD is at the Bowl of Brooklyns, a unique space where you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve driven an hour into the countryside, where in fact you’re down the road from New Plymouth CBD) and we’re there. Security is friendly on arrival, always a hopeful indicator of the vibes to follow, and we’re in...
Here’s a second reason I like WOMAD. The unique crowd, pretty much unlike any other I’ve encountered at multiple night music festivals. Learyness is not tolerated, not that I’ve ever even seen it there. There are kids of all ages, perched atop shoulders, or running about taking it all in. One of my earliest memories is sliding down a hill in a sleeping bag at Brown Trout 1982. Kids and festivals is a good thing. There are teenagers attached to cell phone screens rather than stage acts, awkward packs of female ones inspecting even more awkward packs of male ones. But they’re not out of control, like can happen at other events (I later figure this is probably because they realise they effectively have thousands of parents and grandparents all around them...) There are groups my grandmother’s age soaking it all up, with sectioned off seating for the over-65s who choose to use them. There are people in wheelchairs getting about easily. WOMAD exudes a different kind of energy than other festivals, and as a result it has attracted a wider demographic of people, and caters to all of them well.
I approach the evening with a combination of seeing acts with my festy-crew, and darting off on my own. We start with Hugh Masekela, kind of a South African George Benson (but with trumpet, not guitar). Easy to palate jazz played exceptionally well. The next day I bump into a saxophonist in a fairly well known Wellington band named after a notoriously pungent batch of acid. He asks if I checked Hugh Masekela out, and then proceeds to inform me of the significance and influence on him as an artist. That’s the other thing I love about WOMAD. I can have real conversations about music with like minded people (read, other nerds).
Following a samosa – the food stalls are excellent at WOMAD by the way, I’ve had better curries there than I’ve had in some bricks and mortar curry houses – I float between Nidi d’Arac, Lau, and Shunsuke Kimura & Etsuro Ono. At this point I’m performing essential festival activities such as getting my site bearings, people watching, bumping into friends, digesting samosa, and bidding my real life farewell for a few days. I finish up with Fly My Pretties on the main stage; great vibes in the crowd, impressive visual show, and musically exactly what you’d expect from a FMP show. I even slip over at one point and the teenagers behind me DO NOT LAUGH. Could this be the most well behaved festival on the planet?? Apparently not, as I find when I get back to my festy-crew. I think I had one beer all night once we got to the festival, but they have continued on with both the grain and the grape. I have a bunch of toddlers on my hands; there’s a hungry one, a happy one, a grumpy one, and a lucid one. Nothing a taxi and a sleep won’t fix.
We wake to a stunning New Plymouth day. Rumours the weather might turn are wrong, for now. Following a breakfast of true champions – a supermarket pie, a cream bun, and a Heineken - we ease into the festival day, arriving onsite around 2pm. I decide to fly solo for a bit, keen to check out a cooking demonstration; yes, WOMAD features cooking demonstrations with musicians on the bill, and yes, despite my questionable breakfast I have a huge interest in cooking and food. Jaq from Masterchef is hosting the stage. I want to tell her she was robbed in the finals when that massive biscuity thing she was building collapsed, but she is very far away from me, busy talking on stage, and doesn’t actually know me. For the record Jaq, I think you were robbed when that massive biscuity thing you had to build collapsed in the finals. I watch Amparo Sanchez cook up a Spanish storm, then get a taste at the end. Much better than the plastic wrapped pie.
From there I organise to meet one of my favourite people in the world, who I don’t see very often owing to living in different cities, Radio Active programme director Miles. Miles is a WOMADlopedia – at the last one I saw him humbly ask the most knowledgeable questions of any journalist at an artist’s press conference – so I’m keen to ask him for his picks of the festival. We arrange to meet at 4pm, as Miles is hosting the Chimney Stage. I arrive early to catch half of a workshop with Japanese artists Shunsuke Kimura & Etsuro Ono, who play what is probably most simply described as a traditional Banjo-esque instrument. Miles and I grab a beer before briefly checking a band neither of us are particularly into (hey, it happens, and that’s part of the journey) before heading back to the main stage for the intermission, which doesn’t actually matter, as we would have talked through anything at that point. Brandishing my festival program like a ‘Best Bets’, Miles has me circle some acts to check out. Mali’s Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba at 8.15. Thank you Miles.
I then realise one of my local heroes, Sam Hunt, is taking to one of the smaller stages at six. But the festy-crew is meeting at the car at six too. I cram one poem in before heading to the car park. Mr and Mrs Timmy B have a relative at a house auction live on speaker phone. They buy their first house while at WOMAD! Congratulations B One and B Two!
We head back for Salif Keita, probably one of the more well known ‘world music’ acts on the bill. It’s a great performance, though I probably don’t give it my undivided attention; come on, part of my festy-crew just bought their first house! Splitting up again (or maybe I ran off, I’m fairly erratic when my senses are over stimulated) I check Miles’ recommendation, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba. Ngoni, it turns out, is a stringed instrument, and Kouyate is quite good at playing it. From here night has fallen, and I tic-tac between stages before Electric Wire Hustle Family round off my night. The concept is actual family members of the band play the set, and what famous and talented family members they are. You know your band’s music genes are going to be fairly strong when the parents of members include Billy TK, Le Nuong, and Sam Manzanza. I catch up again with the saxophonist, who is on a crepe bender (they did look like yummy crepes), and a certain old-school Wellington DJ. The three of us switch between bad jokes and beardy music talk. Great end to a great day.
I wake Sunday to the most rain I’ve seen for months, and it’s that persistent deceiving rain that doesn’t seem very heavy until you are soaked to the bone from it five minutes later. We hit the French markets in town. I have the best coffee I’ve had in ages (sorry cafe, not sure of your name, but kudos). I also have a crepe, and it only occurs to me now this is a nice segue from last night’s end; there is a cosmic crepe connection in my story.
Thankfully by now the rain has died down, so we head back onsite. What follows is just a fantastic vibe in the light rain. Brooklyn, NY-based Antibalis are throwing it DOWN. In the pocket Afrobeat, and the crowd are loving it. Definite WOMAD highlight. I even manage to turn a blind eye to the creepy guy sexy dancing with his shirt off in front of me. We are one. We are WOMAD. Just don’t make any body contact with me.
Actually Sunday is a day of particular highlights for me. LA 33 are great, as is Mihirangi. AHoriBuzz are AMAZING, and, hilariously, Aaron Tokona still pulls out the Tourette-style banter between songs despite the crowd WOMAD attracts. A woman next to me, dressed in six or seven raincoats and carrying around deck chairs and a massive back pack (perhaps a metaphor for her human condition) snaps at me ‘he shouldn’t be doing that here!’ I politely reply that he is at a level of talent where he can do whatever he wants on stage. She trundles away, presumably to look for smokers to tell off.
Just as the rain is starting to become a little unbearable (it has been a LONG day), Jimmy Cliff takes the stage. I’m quietly eager to get home (not ‘cause it’s Jimmy, but because I’m sopping wet), but the festy-crew want to stay. I’m glad we did, as Cliff puts on a great show. It’s super-polished, but manages not to fall into the trap of being a paint-by-numbers cabaret act of what once was. It occurs to me what a hit maker Cliff was in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and how many of those hits weren’t just reggae. People talk about Marley as a rare example of a Third-World superstar, but I’m in the presence of another one tonight. WOMAD 2013. Wonderful world, beautiful people.