The world music festival better known as WOMAD began in the UK under the aegis of Peter Gabriel and other musicians in the 1980s, an era marked by a popular international campaign against apartheid in South Africa. WOMAD was born before globalisation took off, before smartphones, Spotify and cheap international flights. With the aim “to celebrate the world’s many forms of music, arts and dance”, WOMAD was, in many ways, the cultural aspect of both an emerging global human rights movement and a growing recognition by white British artists of the histories of colonisation and cultural theft they may have personally and artistically profited from.
In the early years, WOMAD festivals were visionary events at which artists that were often unknown in the West were featured with the respect, hype and enthusiasm given to big local acts like Gabriel’s own Genesis, and, on the whole, they continue to be. The first WOMAD was held in Somerset, in 1982; the festival has been staged annually in the UK since 1990, and occasionally in places including Chile, Italy and the United Arab Emirates. But perhaps its most successful incarnation is WOMADelaide, held in Botanic Park, in South Australia’s capital.
Staged first in 1992 and annually since 2003, WOMADelaide attracts as many as 95,000 people over four days and nights and is one of the major events in a season of Adelaide arts festivals that the locals call ‘mad March’. They warn enthusiastic interstate and international visitors not to be deceived: Adelaide is cool for only one month out of twelve.
This year’s WOMADelaide opened on International Women’s Day. Much was made of the occasion by the hosts and by many of the performers, drawn from all over the world. The brochure tells us there were some seventy-plus performance groups, made up of some 650 artists. There was an impressive array of female artists, perhaps most fully embodied in the figure of “Mama Africa” herself: Benin’s Angélique Kidjo, returning to WOMADelaide after a gap of just three years.
Kidjo spoke directly to the theme, reminding the audience that while “half of the world” has come a long way, many of the other half still regard women as less deserving of rights and respect and continue to use them as “punching balls”. This was her opener to a set that interspersed interpretations of songs from the 1980 Talking Heads album Remain in Light with her own songs and strident messages about the injustice of child marriage and the urgent need for peace and harmony.
As part of Kidjo’s characteristically potent and commanding performance, she invited a collection of festival crew and fellow performers onto the stage to dance with her, led by another festival showstopper of great charisma and power, Fatoumata Diawara, from Mali.
Diawara’s striking costumes, dance moves and musical creativity brought a freshness and renewal to the distinctive Malian sound. Less striking in her performance, perhaps, but just as mesmerising was Sona Jobarteh, from the Gambia, a virtuosic kora player who has mastered and also teaches in what, for seven centuries, has been a male, father-to-son tradition. Along with her band of consummate musicians of African heritage from all over the world, Jobarteh had a rapt audience eating from her hand.
Yet not all of the impressive female artists who performed at this year’s festival of world music, arts and dance originate from West Africa. Other standouts included Gwenno, an entrancing artist who sings in her native Welsh and Cornish tongues, and Dona Onete, a legendary Brazilian songstress whose husky, soaring voice seems paradoxically all the more powerful because it rises from an aged, chair-bound body.
The representation of women was inspiring, but the representation of “the world” in Adelaide this year was seriously problematic. Despite its open-minded origins and open-hearted ethos, WOMADelaide somehow managed, once again, to almost completely forget a little continent lying just to Australia’s north: Asia, and, in particular, Southeast Asia.
This year there were two major performances in classical Asian traditions: Amjad Ali Khan, from India, and the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe, from Taiwan; but there were no stand-alone performances from Southeast Asia. Where were troupes like Cambodia’s Phare Ponleu Selpak, who, with their fantastic, high-energy, circus-theatre-percussion performances, would be a hit at WOMADelaide? Or the renowned Mai Khoi, from Vietnam, a dissident singer who recently toured the US, or Thailand’s Rap Against Dictatorship — let alone any of the many artists in Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines or Laos currently fusing musical traditions, singing in local languages and exploding audiences’ expectations?
It’s hard to believe that while the organisers found and booked groups from Estonia, the Gambia, Cuba and Mauritius, they couldn’t find a single ensemble or artist from Southeast Asia working in either traditional or contemporary dance or music. Could it be that the British history of WOMAD has affected how the Australian organisers relate to “Asia”? In the UK, Asia generally means India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, what we in Australia would call South Asia, while what we call Southeast Asia is called the Far East. For Australians, it’s neither far nor east. Or are the WOMADelaide organisers, who work in association with the government of South Australia, just borrowing their line-ups from festivals in the northern hemisphere?
Whatever the reasons, none of them are really an excuse for a festival that claims to celebrate the world of music, arts and dance. Given the strong theme of International Women’s Day this year and the historical association of women with weaving across many cultures and periods, from back-strap looms to the textile factories of Danang and Dhaka, it is disappointing that WOMADelaide’s great colourful cloth is still missing some vital threads.
Mina Bui Jones attended the festival as a guest of WOMADelaide