Womad is a world unto itself…
by Gordon Campbell
Photos by Alistair Thompson
This year, the Womad festival in New Plymouth enjoyed a relatively successful financial outcome. “We broke even, with a very small surplus” says event director Suzanne Porter with a touch of justifiable pride. (For the past 18 months, the recession has made it hard to sell tickets to anything.) On all available signs, Womad has recovered from a mid-life funding crisis that had seen New Plymouth flirt with a sharing arrangement whereby Nelson would have picked up the festival in alternative years. That’s not going to happen. Womad will be staying in New Plymouth, Porter told Werewolf, partly because of the gate takings this year, but mainly because she and her team have managed to secure the Taranaki Savings Bank as an additional main sponsor, in addition to Shell Oil and Todd Energy.
But as we all know…Womad isn’t really about the money, man. Or even necessarily about the music. It is a package. The setting, the beautiful site, the music, the city beyond….Womad is a festival where the organizers have worked out exactly what their customers want. And what the paying customers seem to want includes : a schedule that runs remarkably on time all weekend, a verdant site with a lake to boot, and – for a music festival – exceptionally clean toilets, hot showers, good food stalls and an almost total absence of litter. (An army of volunteers keeps the site neat and tidy, and the level of young teenage drinking that dogged the 2010 event was eliminated this year by the genius stroke of not letting in youth ticket holders after 7pm.) Essentially, for three days in March, Brooklands Park becomes a kind of gated community for about 13,000 alternative types who are still mainstream enough to be able to afford the ticket prices.
The music this year? For all the global diversity, there is a certain formulaic pattern to much of the ethnic music Womad puts on offer. Part of this is driven by a festival lineup that doesn’t stray too far from a reasonably comfortable cruise ship experience of Third World culture. Part of this stylistic convergence also reflects the homogenising impact of rock music, hip hop, r& b and reggae on traditional music. A surprising lot of good music escapes the global blender, regardless.
This year, the standout act (for me, anyway) was Rango – a voodoo Sudanese percussion group based in Cairo who combined immense skill, dance-til-you-drop rhythms, and hints of ritual transcendence. One of the high points of their final set featured a grey moustachio’d band member dancing around the stage waving the old Egyptian flag that (the very same week) had become a powerful emblem of the street rebellion against the Mubarak regime. Other highlights ….Tanya Tagaq delivered a startlingly sensual version of Inuit throat singing. Hanggai, a fierce Mongolian punk band won lots of friends, and former Clash cohort Don Letts delivered an enjoyable old time DJ sound system reggae set, Also notable : Horace Andy, the Afro Celt, Sound System and Lawrence Arabia.
Still, as these evocative photos suggest, it isn’t merely about the music. Womad is about wandering round amongst the greenery in the sunshine, listening, eating, drinking and hanging out. All against the backdrop of what is arguably the most attractive provincial city in New Zealand.
Click on images to enlarge.