BWW Review: WOMADELAIDE 2020: DAY 1 at Botanic Park

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BWW Review: WOMADELAIDE 2020: DAY 1 at Botanic ParkReviewed by Ray Smith, Friday 6th March 2020.

As I joined the WOMADelaide queue on Frome Street, from a point far closer to North Terrace than I thought was reasonable, to shuffle along with the several hundreds of other people the several dozens of metres before we could have our bags checked and our wrist bands scanned, I frankly wondered what I was doing here. The wait seemed interminable, and my fellow world music enthusiasts, both afore and astern, were loudly exclaiming their agreement with me.

To put my disquiet in context, I should explain that I had decided, for the first time ever, to attempt to use Adelaide public transport to achieve my destination, and had, like a good twenty-first-century chap, downloaded the App. It wasn't an overwhelming success.

After what is normally a twenty-minute drive, I found myself two hours after leaving my modest but comfortable home, in a queue that was too close to North Terrace, and too far from the ticket scanners. The bus had been one of an infrequent cohort, and had seats so thinly padded that I considered sitting on the floor as it bounded from one pothole to the next as the driver seemed determined to either throw me back in my seat with Formula One acceleration, or force me to head-butt the seat in front while the vehicle's brakes were demonstrated.

The App informed me that I was going in the wrong direction and should change buses immediately. It gave me this advice while I was having my wrist band scanned at the Festival entrance.

I finally entered the Festival, and the familiar sight of the Global Village of stalls, selling good food and clothing, offering tables and chairs to the hungry and weary greeted me. I gratefully accepted one of the chairs.

On the Foundation Stage, the infamous Blind Boys of Alabama were holding court to a large, enraptured, and excited audience. Their apparently effortless performance held the assembled masses in thrall as they moved from song to song, with barely a pause for breath, as the audience danced and grinned, and the younger members of the band kept a close and caring eye on their older colleagues. There were a couple of close things, but the entire ensemble survived the set without permanent injury. They were mightily impressive.

I sauntered down to Stage 3 in order to catch up with the legendary sound engineer, Dave Usher, who has, year upon year, made that particular space his own, and it has been our tradition, over the years, that I shake his hand before checking out the Festival proper. I was to be disappointed, however. A different crew had been appointed for this year's Festival.

Stage 2 offered a performance by Kate Miller Heidke, a performer much loved by some of my students, but a player I had never seen live. She appeared on stage with some very fine musicians and wearing what appeared to be about 10kgs of sequins and a small crown. The music was a little too Pop for my taste, but the players were very good, and the relatively simple songs were very effectively arranged.

It was Heidke's voice that struck me. Ranging from pure pop, into folk, and on into opera, it sliced the air like a knife, and the very large crowd squeezing into the space in front of her danced, and yelled, and cheered, and grinned, and clearly loved every second of it.

She would have been better suited to the main stage, in my opinion, particularly as it was her only performance, and she would have filled the space with ease.

I left Ms. Heidke to her adoring fans in time to see King Ayisoba on the Moreton Bay Stage. They offered very high energy, poly-rhythmic pieces featuring traditional instruments and some extreme dance moves. Very exciting both to see and hear, but also unusually inclusive, as Ayisoba taught the audience a simple vocal refrain to join in on. The audience took the bit between their teeth and joined in with such enthusiasm that it seemed that Ayisoba himself was surprised and delighted. He sings with a strange, high 'head voice', in clear contrast to his rather deep speaking voice, but the timbre of it cuts through the multi-layered percussion to great effect.

It was time for a little rest and making the difficult choice from amongst the food offerings in the Global Village.

The Morton Bay Stage was then host to Artefactum, a Spanish ensemble specialising in Medieval music. It was to be a seated performance, so I parked my chair as close to the stage as possible a good 30 minutes before they were due to start and was, therefore, privy to their soundcheck. I had known of the band for many years but had never had the opportunity to see them live, and I wasn't going to miss the chance to be close enough, while they performed, to observe every finger movement. It was one of my better decisions. They were astonishingly good.

It is common when watching Medieval Music performances to feel a little lowbrow, as the performers with perfect operatic skill present the works, as written, with great formality and in classical style, which generally makes them as dry as an unbuttered cracker, and about as engaging as listening to the death throws of an ageing clothes dryer. Not so with this ensemble.

Portative organ, hurdy-gurdy, medieval viola, crumhorn, charamella, rauschpfife, flutes, Medieval recorders, and single drone Medieval bagpipes, coupled with songs in Latin with close harmonies, might sound like watching paint dry, but these five performers used some sort of time machine to transport us all back to a village taverna in Southern Spain in the 12th century, and we loved it.

We were the peasants and they were the travelling players come to entertain and amaze us, and that's exactly what they did. There was hilarious story telling as they translated the Latin texts into Spanish and then, almost, English, engaging theatrics and an infectious joy that defied the dry, academic approach to ancient music so often experienced. They sang songs about wine in deference to the fame of South Australian wine. They sang medieval religious works from manuscripts that have only recently been found. They played 12th to 14th century works with great authority and accuracy, and a mischievousness that held the seated audience absolutely spellbound for over an hour.

I was lucky enough to meet them and chat with them after the show. I'd love to say it was an interview but it was more a collection of smiles, hugs, and sign language as I tried to find out how they managed to present these pieces with such an easy authority, and they tried to find out why I cared. I play, or perhaps I should say 'own', some of the instruments that they played, and their first response to that information was, "come and play with us on Sunday".

Such is the response of performers who spend as much time researching the music as learning and performing it and, historically, performers would always invite other performers to join them to play in the taverna. I am deeply flattered, but more delighted to finally meet musicians who not only appreciate and perform this music, but actually live it. This is what WOMADelaide is all about.

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