21 Mar 2016

Review: WOMAD has something for all

7:17 am on 21 March 2016

World music festival WOMAD was full of surprises this year, some came from more obscure artists but even the familiar was unexpected, Nick Bollinger explains...

So, how was it? Every punter, in a sense, has their own WOMAD.

If you're the adventurous type who hopes to encounter something you've never seen or heard before - perhaps from somewhere you didn't know existed - then WOMAD delivered.

Ukranian quartet DakhaBrakha were beguilingly strange; three women in Dr Seuss-ish black hats, whooping, wailing and beating an assortment of drums, while the sole male of the troupe pumps an accordion. One of the women, when not hitting things, saws dark riffs on a brightly painted cello. Arabic and Indian scales seem to be woven through the melodies, with unexpected hints of doo-wop, but the total effect is of some place you might not find on any map.

Equally special were Chinese duo Tulegur, who combined otherworldly throat-singing and modal guitar playing with whimsical banter and a stage manner that recalled '60s psych-folkies The Incredible String Band.

For sheer mindbending musicianship, the casual virtuosity of gold-bedecked Spanish gypsy singer Diego El Cigala's band is hard to beat. When he introduced Colombian harp prodigy Edmar Castaneda for the final song of his Saturday night set, it turned into the kind of cross-cultural jam session WOMAD is made for.

Other collaborations included Holly Fullbrook - the New Zealand singer who records as Tiny Ruins - singing a beautiful cameo in an eclectic set from bilingual Arizona combo Calexico.

But even the familiar held surprises. Who knew that De La Soul - who made their name as DJ-accompanied rappers - would have one of the best live bands of the weekend?

Theirs was a nine-piece funk outfit with three percussionists and a horn section. The veteran hip-hoppers may also have attracted the widest demographic, which MCs Posdnuos and Trugoy The Dove ascertained in a hilarious informal survey, conducted from the Bowl stage, while overexcited (and soon to be evicted) members of the audience dived into the moat.

What does New Zealand contribute to all this musical diversity? Singer-songwriters, for one thing. Bic Runga, Tiny Ruins, Julia Deans, Louis Baker, Thomas Oliver and Tami Neilson all played original sets, with Deans previewing strong new material, and Neilson's fiery band matching her powerful voice. Baker and Oliver also joined forces with serial WOMAD performer Warren Maxwell for a good-natured song-swap under the banner Pass The Gat.

This country's strong affinity for reggae was represented too, in a predictable set from Katchafire. But though these local performers are all convincingly world class, the genres they work in are largely imported.

By contrast, the rich harmonies, refined movements and focused energy of Te Kapa Haka O Te Whānau a Apanui - who won last year's National Kapa Haka Competition, and performed on the first two days of this year's WOMAD - stood out as being indigenous and unique; something I was reminded of when I saw visiting musicians from Senegal and France rushing to get out their mobile cameras to capture the performance. This wasn't something they were going to see anywhere else in the world.

* Nick Bollinger is a writer, broadcaster, musician and producer.

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