WOMADelaide through the eyes of a festival first-timer

Didier Theron Company

You’ve got to wing it with WOMAD – how this writer learned to fly.

As the saying goes, first impressions are very important – WOMADelaide’s impression was everything.

With over 700 performers, WOMADelaide 2023 kicked off on Friday 10 March in the surroundings of Adelaide’s flourishing Botanic Park / Tainmuntilla. The four-day festival was an immediate plunge into a world of artistic cultural discovery. As a festival “newbie”, the buzzing atmosphere of countless diverse artists was exciting.

I found myself weaving through the sounds, sights and smells of curiosity, anticipating what each performance will bring.

“Music is about freedom,” soulful hip-hop legend Sampa the Great said during Sunday night’s performance. As a first-time attendee, I had everything planned out. I knew exactly who I wanted to see. I began Friday by observing the intimate, versatile Chinese Australian composer Mindy Weng Wang. Afterwards, I witnessed the pixie-like and spiritually enlightening AURORA.

AURORA – credit Bruce Baker

The Norwegian artist set the scene with unique airy vocals layered on top of soul-enrapturing instrumentals. Later in the performance, AURORA dedicated her song ‘The Seed’ to the traditional lands of the Kaurna people, on which WOMADelaide is held and made possible. I feel that the lyrics, “Through dirt and shadow, I grow. I’m reaching light through the struggle,” highlights the struggle that Indigenous Australians endure to make their voice heard.

Both musicians, skilful with their craft and powerful in their messages, had the attendees mesmerised. However, the turnout of the festival felt like a circus-hive, and I knew I would inevitably lose track of time. The event became WOAH-MADelaide – crazy in its greatness! I went to a bar with a less-heavy queue, enjoyed an Adelaide Hills Cider, then ventured my way to one of seven stages.

Through the quirky crowd, I discovered the unapologetically raw Grace Cummings. The powerfully poetic Melbourne-based bluesy rock/folk singer was exactly what attendees needed to hear. The intensity of her vocals reminds me of the late Chris Cornell, inviting the audience to feel the emotion behind those driving pipes. Cummings possesses her own brand of sound, producing the frequencies of rock paradise with acoustic, grungy guitar and piano explorations.

After immersing myself in Cumming’s soulful performance, I sat down on a bench and took in the madness that only a Friday night at WOMAD could bring. I took a drink break and chatted to fellow attendees, when to my surprise, a giant inflatable cherub was flying in the sky!

Gratte Ciel
Gratte Ciel – credit Bruce Baker

This great wonder was surrounded by acrobats dressed as angels and dancing in a feather storm. This event was performed by the French aerial circus Gratte Ciel, with an intriguing soundtrack of arty distorted voices from Plodiv’s Children’s Choir. This performance allured many of the attendees, showcasing how music and the arts of all cultures brings people together.

Friday night ended with a performance from the brilliant Bon Iver, who delivered a fusion of techno and acoustic sounds to a vast sea of listeners. This performance was a remarkable calm after the storm. Bon Iver introduced their set with a softly refreshing performance of ‘Perth’. All the band members were astonishing, but the band’s all-in-one keyboardist, guitarist, and singer Jenn Wasner had me glued to the floor. Her delivery was impeccable, gifting attendees with a bit of everything from the many instruments she effortlessly performed on with finesse.

I saw some relaxed shows on Sunday, with feel-good musical performances from the joyful Romanian Taraf de Caliu ensemble and angelic Australian Aurora Ensemble. However, the serene feeling only lasted so long when the charismatic hip hop star Sampa the Great took the main stage by storm.

Sampa The Great
Sampa The Great- credit Bruce Baker

The Zambian musician put on a wild, crowd-raving performance, showcasing her unfiltered, rich deep growls that I would pay to hear recorded live in the studio and on stage. Directly after Sampa, the Gretta Ciel kicked off once again, never failing to amaze me with its feathers.

Monday was bittersweet. The craziness of WOMAD had me feeling like one big walking hangover, but knowing this would be the last day caused feelings of sentiment to spark. I spent the day indulging in hot chips and exploring cultural cooking workshops.

I witnessed the impeccable techno German marching band MEUTE perform for the first time in Australia, and I also saw the groovy Soul II Soul. I needed time to recharge, so I departed the festival mid-way through their performance.

After hours of indecisiveness whether I should return one last time to see the final performance, the ‘Gretta Ciel’, I headed back to WOMAD; this time with friends!

This year’s WOMAD was unforgettable with all its magic and diversity.

From being well-prepared to losing myself in the events, the festival taught me to ‘wing it’ and just watch the unknown unfold. With a great age range of people attending WOMAD, I can happily say that I still have six decades of WOMADs to attend in my lifetime.

This piece was commissioned as part of The Music Writer’s Lab, a joint initiative between The Australia Council for the Arts and Music NT.

Header image credit: John Goodridge