Live Photos: WOMAD NZ 2020 - TSB Bowl Of Brooklands, New Plymouth

Live Photos: WOMAD NZ 2020 - TSB Bowl Of Brooklands, New Plymouth

A.K. / Photography: Mieko Edwards / Review: Gareth Shute / Monday 16th March, 2020 1:06PM

Given the current circumstances, or perhaps because of them, the weekend's WOMAD 2020 festival in New Plymouth was a roaring success. Possibly the last major international music event locally for the next wee while, costumed and party-ready attendees made the most of a balmy couple of days stacked with top local and international talents, workshops and general merrymaking. With a bill featuring Grammy Award-winning Blind Boys of Alabama, Greek-Sudanese genre-benders Marina Satti & Fonés, Japanese-folk trendsetters Minyo Crusaders, and Aotearoa favourites Troy Kingi, Reb Fountain, Soaked Oats and more, WOMAD 2020 was one for the books. Photographer Mieko Edwards slinked through the stilt-walkers, food stalls and wind chimes to capture a few golden snapshots of the performers. Click on the thumbnail pics at the bottom of this page to see more standout moments and scroll downwards to read Gareth Shute's review of the event, sub-titled A Last Concert Before The World Closed...

Shapeshifter (photo: Gareth Shute)

Attendees of this year's WOMAD were well aware this might be their last chance to see live acts from overseas this year. Yet the locals on the bill proved that we'll still have plenty of great music to see.

It seemed an ill omen when headline act, Ziggy Marley pulled out of this year's festival citing 'family reasons.' Though few I spoke to doubted it was the pandemic that caused his last minute decision. What replacement could be found at such short notice?

Shapeshifter were announced six days before the festival, but took the stage confidently on Friday night like the world-travelled, tight outfit they are. Their big beats forced the crowd to life, with the musicians seeming to brace themselves as they let loose a monstrous sound. Surely these locals had more energy than Ziggy Marley would’ve had - decades beyond his last hit and always forced to drag out a cover of his dad’s song ‘One Love’ to get the audience going.

L.A.B. were equally assured on the second night and why wouldn't they be with a song currently at No.1. In fact, many in the local music industry were starting to think that the power of Spotify playlists had now made it impossible for a local act to ever reach the top of the charts again. After all it's been three years since the last one ('Green Light' by Lorde) and not even chart-dominators Six60 have been able to manage it since. But L.A.B. proved the sceptics wrong, with 'In The Air' now taking a second week at the top of the charts.

L.A.B. founder, Brad Kora, with Ara Adams-Tamatea (photo: Gareth Shute)

For lead singer, Joel Shadbolt, their prime slot at WOMAD was icing on the cake:

'It was our first time at WOMAD; first time at Brookland Bowl with that amazing view of the crowd across the water. They were awesome.'

Troy Kingi might've had a lesser slot (two slots in fact) but he didn't skimp on his show with a powerful 11-piece band that put funk backbone behind their massive reggae tunes (though at other points, made genre boundaries utterly irrelevant).

Troy Kingi (photo: Mieko Edwards)

Reb Fountain had an afternoon slot on the main stage and masterfully proved that 'folk' is a tag she is now set to move beyond (after all, she is now signed to Flying Nun and her new single features Finn Andrews from The Veils). Another daytime treat was Soaked Oats, who proved their indie tracks could work just as well in the daylight - with shimmering guitars, bouncing grooves, and a sense of humour that kept the crowd smiling while they danced.

It was a mark of the talent of these local acts that I could spend this long on a WOMAD review before even getting to the overseas performers. Balkan gypsy-punks, Kermesz à L’Est seemed aware of the predominance of reggae here since they asked the audience ‘who likes reggae?’ and when the crowd cheered in response, told them ‘bad luck!’ before unleashing another adrenaline-pumping number (though without a guitar in sight).

Other acts were more ethereal - a prime example being Welsh harpist Catrin Finch with kora player, Seckou Keita (Senegal) whose melodies combined so fluidly that it was hard to tell which of them was playing what part. Finnish group, Tuuletar, sounded equally beautiful using just their voices to create harmonies and all manner of rhythms and odd sounds. Laura Marling was also entrancing in the afternoon sunlight, as she unravelled the poetic stories of her songs, with just an acoustic guitar to accompany herself.

Seckou Keita and Catrin Finch (photo: Mieko Edwards)

The lyrical content for the Blind Boys of Alabama was more mythic than poetic, but even the heathens in the audience couldn't help but be taken in by their bluesy gospel songs. But as the evening grew darker, the crowds sought music to get them moving. Orquesta Akokán breathed new life into the traditional Cuban sound and their original compositions seem just as worthy a contribution to the country's musical legacy as the Buena Vista Social Club.

Less appealing on paper were the Minyo Crusaders - a Tokyo band who do traditional Japanese festival songs ('Minyo' music) in the styles of reggae, cumbia and Afrobeat. It shouldn't work but it does, though even the band seemed taken by the rapturous response of the audience. Guitarist, Katsumi Tanaka, told me that the notion of incorporating traditional songs into their music came at a moment of national crisis:

'Around the time of the 2011 tsunami, there was a lot of chaos. This led to a resurgence of Japanese identity. People started listening to a lot of traditional music again, including Minyo music. So when we wanted to be part of that movement as well.'

No doubt countries across the world will also see a return to the local during the coming months as the pandemic response ramps up. The question that hung over WOMAD this year was whether it should’ve gone ahead at all. That said, with only six cases in New Zealand at the time of the festival starting it was still a borderline call. Certainly everyone I spoke to (including the acts themselves) considered themselves lucky to get in one last large-scale musical experience before the new regulations make such events impossible for the meantime. This led to a sense of reciprocal joy being shared between the performers and the audience - they grinned as they made their music, while we danced and cheered like it was the final time.

WOMAD did show what a wealth of amazing music from overseas we will be cut off from, but also proved the depth of our local musical talent. This fortunate because there are many venues that will still need customers to survive and local bands whose plans for overseas tours have been thwarted, robbing them of the money they were relying on.

While WOMAD might seem to be all about looking out into the world, it's also a festival that encourages community and exploration into diverse creative styles. The lesson of this year might be that you'll be well rewarded in the coming year if you dig deeper into what we have in our own backyard. GARETH SHUTE

Tuuletar - WOMAD
Troy Kingi - WOMAD
Soaked Oats - WOMAD
Minyo Crusaders - WOMAD
Marina Satti & Fones - WOMAD

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