18 Mar 2019

WOMAD festival: a ray of sunshine on a grim weekend

From RNZ Music, 8:00 am on 18 March 2019

Taranaki's annual world music festival WOMAD went ahead this weekend, despite the heartbreaking events in Christchurch. Chris Schulz was there to receive the messages of love, hope and unity from a diverse lineup of artists.

The Black Seeds

The Black Seeds Photo: ZED Photos

“This goes out to our Muslim brothers and sisters around the world.” That’s how local dub legends The Black Seeds opened their WOMAD set.

Elsewhere at Taranaki’s annual world music festival, a whiteboard proclaimed “As-salamu alaykum,” (Peace be unto you) and invited festival-goers to share messages of support. Written a little smaller beside it was, “F*** racism.”

The Prime Minister had given a press conference before the three-day event began, at New Plymouth’s Devon Hotel: “Clearly what has happened here is an extraordinary and unprecedented act of violence."

She was supposed to spend her Friday standing in the sun with baby Neve, fulfilling the happy task of welcoming thousands of people to a weekend of song and dance from all corners of the world.

Instead, she faced the devastating task of responding to the worst mass shooting incident in New Zealand’s history. “It is clear this one of New Zealand's darkest days,” she said.

Andrew Little stepped in to perform welcoming duties as the PM made her way to Christchurch. He asked for a moment of silence for “our Muslim brothers and sisters”.

It was a surprise to many that the festival even went ahead – most other large-scale events around the country were cancelled.

Organisers explained: “The very heart of why WOMAD exists is to fight the stupidity of racism,” said Director of WOMAD International Chris Smith. “WOMAD is about bringing people together, sharing different cultures.”

And that’s exactly what happened at New Plymouth’s Bowl of Brooklands this weekend.

It was a different festival to the one originally planned: bag checks took longer at gates; extra security patrolled the grounds; Saturday opened with a karakia “to remember our fallen brothers and sisters in Christchurch”.

As young Northland soul singer Teeks poured his honeyed vocals and older-than-his-years wisdom over the crowd, punters noticed the jarring sight of armed police walking amongst them.

Teeks at WOMAD 2019

Teeks at WOMAD 2019 Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

Everyone was on alert, checking for updates on their phones, talking it through with friends and family. At the Plymouth International Hotel, where artists and WOMAD staff were based, laptops were open on news sites, the TV tuned to live updates.

Conversation at WOMAD’s Living Library, where you can hire a friend for a chat, quickly turned to Friday’s heartbreaking events. 

The artists were shaken too. I spoke to one band who’d been watching the events unfold, wondering whether they should even perform. They did. They all did. But few made it through their set without sharing a message of hope, of unity, of love.

Nadia Reid’s set started with an MC describing her voice as angelic, “and we need all the angels we can get right now”. Belgian rapper Baloji had been given instructions, “not to jump in the lake, and not to talk about white supremacists … but I will talk about how unified we are right now.”

Nadia Reid

Nadia Reid Photo: RNZ/Kirsten Johnstone

Californian act Las Cafeteras funked up the main stage on Saturday afternoon. “To make peace we need the power of the people,” they said. “If you believe there’s no place for hate, put your hands up and say, ‘Yeah!’”  

Putting your hands up and saying, “Yeah!” felt silly and a bit surreal. How was that going to help anything?

But, as Saturday afternoon’s sizzling heat melted into the evening, there were moments to cling to, things that soothed. WOMAD started to prove why it needed to go on, why it had to continue.

Surely, if there’s a solution to what happened in Christchurch, a festival featuring performances from so many diverse cultures, enjoyed by so many different faces in the crowd, holds a clue or two.

Some sets carried a little more weight than they normally would. Silkroad Ensemble’s instrumentals felt sombre and meditative, despite the heat. Flutes and bagpipes hung in the air, hovering over the crowd.

“We’ll pay tribute the only way we know how. By sharing our love of music.” They held a prayer after the first song.

Lyrics, too, felt like they had more meaning. Finn Andrews was a triumph, opening his second performance of the festival with a brooding collection of dark ballads.

“Shot through the heart and down in flames,” he sang from under a wide-brimmed hat while seated at a piano. “Shot from the dark wouldn’t hurt the same.” It helped.

Veils frontman Finn Andrews performing his new solo material

Veils frontman Finn Andrews performing his new solo material Photo: Tim Gruar / McKenzie Jennings-Gruar

So too did The Black Seeds. They drew the festival’s biggest crowd and they’ve never sounded better than in the natural amphitheatre of the Bowl of Brooklands, their throbbing reggae-pop bouncing off the trees around them.

Watching them work their way through a greatest hits set felt reassuring and comfortable, like putting on your favourite old sneakers and strolling down Lambton Quay. “When your heart is feeling so down,” sang Barnaby Weir, “Let’s turn it around.”

Perhaps Teeks summed up the event’s conflicting emotions the best. “These things are always …” he began, before pausing, realising the uniqueness of the situation. “What do you do? You’re at a festival, you want to show your humanity, you want love to triumph over hate. I want my music to do that.” 

On Sunday afternoon, he succeeded. It felt like WOMAD had too. As Kora blasted through their space age funk-metal, kids climbed trees, rolled down hills, and clambered over the festival’s rainbow-coloured signs.

Rain had been predicted for most of the weekend, but there wasn’t a drop. “There’s a new moon coming,” sang Laughton Kora, “This dream life.”

  • WOMAD 2019 in pictures
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