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15 juin 2008

WOMAD TARANAKI 2008 – New Plymouth, NZ

Article by Tom Brookman / Soulshine :

WOMAD New Zealand is held in the province of Taranaki on the west coast of the North Island. Overshadowed by Mt Taranaki, the town of New Plymouth wakes from its usual laid-back combination of rural and surf life to become a hive of colour and activity for one big weekend in March…. WOMAD weekend!

I sit and begin writing this review an hour and half before the festival actually starts. Why?....because I already know that WOMAD Taranaki is going to get a rave/five star/perfect review. I’ve been to many festivals but few have had the combination of charm, liveliness and tranquillity that I already feel here in an empty Brooklands Park, New Plymouth. In his media introduction Thomas Brooman mentioned that this venue is perhaps the best setting for a festival that he has encountered; considering Brooman is the co-founder of the worldwide World Of Music And Dance movement, this is just about the highest praise going around.

Now, after the dust has settled it’s time to review the festival experience… despite the worldly emphasis of WOMAD festivals, WOMAD Taranaki has its feet firmly rooted in Aotearoa (NZ), with a deep sense of Taranaki’s Maori heritage throughout the site; the festival takes a respectful and modern approach to its homage to the first peoples. Te Paepae is an area dedicated solely to teaching WOMADders about Maori culture; from traditional weaving and tribal medicines to ‘poi’ (ball and string) and mastery and moko (tattoo) creation, Maori customs are constantly on display bringing ancient tradition into a modern festival.

As well as the cultural learning experience, Maori traditions are strongly represented in the performance arena. Local dance was amply represented and Maori-influenced music was also present in fusion projects that bridged the traditional-contemporary gap. At the contemporary end of the scale, local produce was again bountiful. While most of the headline acts in 2008 hailed from overseas, 12 of the 33 acts were based in NZ and at least 3 more included local collaborators. This local pride makes WOMAD Taranaki not only a wonderful place for visitors to see a diverse international festival but an amazing setting in which to scope some of the prodigious local talent. It’s the local influence that I’ll concentrate my review on because most of the international acts played in Australia over the summer and autumn, either at Blues-Fest, WOMADelaide or in solo shows.

Amongst the Kiwi acts in 2008 there were some true standouts: ‘Black Grace’ and Whāngārā-Mai-Tawhiti (pronounced Fung-a-ra My Taffitti) both drew on traditional Maori art. The former combined pacific traditional dance with contemporary styles to stunning effect; Neil Ieremia’s often mischievous choreography was infectious and many of the audience sat openly smiling between ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ of amazement. Friday night’s performance quality was repeated in Saturday afternoon’s workshop which ended with a crowd of around 500 whooping, twirling and knee slapping at the beautiful dell stage.

More whooping followed wherever they performed their kapa haka. This group managed to combine the haka’s power with soaring vocal harmonies, cheeky story-telling and visually delicious traditional costume; most Australians will never get the chance to see Whāngārā-Mai-Tawhiti perform but if you’re lucky enough, cherish every moment.

Another, less traditional Kiwi group was also a crowd favourite; the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra provided harmonious and hilarious renditions of some classics, rock hits and folk tunes. Like ‘Black Grace’ they were also a huge workshop success, with hundreds of people, almost half wielding ukuleles, turning out to learn from the masters.

One part of the orchestra, who also played in his own right, was Wellington’s Age Pryor. Any Fionn Regan fans out there will want to check out Pryor’s folky ditties which are pleasantly sung in a voice often eerily similar to that of Whitlam’s front-man Tim Freedman.

Easily on a par with the aforementioned acts and probably THE standout to many festival goers, were four brothers and a ‘token white boy’…to many of you Soulshiners Kora will need no introduction but to those not familiar with NZ’s latest Dub-Soul-Reggae-Rock powerhouse…. become familiar. I was recently told ‘forget Fat Freddy's Drop (they were soo last summer)… [Kora] have the best "happy summer" music out at the moment.’ Never were truer words spoken as the audience could be nothing but happy after watching the glee with which this quintet go about their music.

As much as the Kiwi talent impressed, it was also provided perhaps the only weakness in the lineup. I was a little disappointed not to see any of the Australian acts from WOMADelaide’s bill. Plenty of New Zealanders have made the trip across the Tasman in recent years including Black Grace, Kora, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Mahinirangi Tocker. However, no Aussies appeared in Taranaki which was a surprise, especially given up-comers ‘Watussi’s’ rave reviews in Auckland’s alternative media. The addition of a few Australian acts may also have given more depth to the lineup, as a couple of the New Zealand acts ‘An Emerald City’ and ‘Village of the Idiots’ left crowds a little bemused.

Secondly, Wellington boys ‘The Pheonix Foundation’ were essentially Taranaki’s answer to the Beautiful Girls at WOMADelaide, which prompted numerous ‘it’s a little triple-j this year’ type comments. Solid performers with inoffensive music, ‘The Pheonix Foundation’ were no doubt the festival highlight for the ‘hippy-for-the-weekend’ crowd of screaming teenagers that climbed all over the speakers and blocked the view for everyone else. However, their performance wasn’t something that couldn’t be heard from any number of other bands on any contemporary radio station. WOMAD is about hearing things we might otherwise miss, things that are different, things that include a worldly influence – exactly what indie-rock is not.

This is not meant to be a Tourism NZ advertisement…. so I will dwell briefly on international bill. Beirut was arguably the lineup’s biggest international attraction, especially amongst the younger generation and they did not disappoint. Zack Condon’s eclectic fusion of pop with traditional French and Balkan folk somehow harmonises wonderfully into a visually interesting, sonically dazzling live show. Less eclectic but every bit as spectacular in their own ways were American divas Mavis Staples and Sharon Jones, both using gigantic gospel-tinged vocals to impart their blues/gospel and soul/funk respectively.

Less known outside their countries of origin would be Farafina and David D’Or. The former, from Burkina-Faso, received a rare WOMAD encore on Saturday night as they converted the sedate Bowl-stage crowd into a mass of gyrating percussion fans. If you are a fan of African percussion then you should love Farafina. David D’Or’s music is hard to classify but Hebrew folk-rock might come close. D’Or’s super-tight band provided an excellent canvas upon which he worked his stunning vocal artistry…think Jack Johnson-esque smoothness overlaid with Jeff Buckley-esque falsetto, all in wailing Hebrew; it’s impressive!

Equally charming and enjoyable as the music in the WOMAD lineup is the ‘taste the world’ stage, an innovation of recent years run by a rare person indeed: a gastronomically-gifted Englishman! Roger de Wolf takes some of the festival artists into the kitchen to cook up a storm from their country of origin. Almost invariably the kitchen is full of fun, music and wonderful food for the audience to taste. This year saw a culinary highlight when Manjiri Kelkar and Mohindar Dhillon cooked dhaal and vegetables; apparently some very basic things are done very differently in India’s provinces and numerous arguments ensued. Less contentious but equally delicious was the Terem Quartet’s Russian dessert of savoury-sweet stuffed pumpkin.

As an avid WOMADelaide patron I had very high expectations of WOMAD Taranki. On the musical side it delivered everything expected of a WOMAD, quality, diversity and interactivity. A couple of local acts might have been better suited to other festivals but overall it was music and dance of the highest caliber. In the site-layout and scenery stakes WOMAD Taranaki was nothing short of mind-blowing; TSB Bowl and Brooklands Park have all the ‘purpose built’ feel of Woodforde Folk Festival without actually having been manufactured with the festival in mind. The scenery is stunning; the inclusion of water in the site makes for some wonderful nighttime vistas and during the day the greenery is reminiscent of Northern NSW without the oppressive humidity. All the while Mt Taranaki provides a spectacular backdrop to a truly remarkable festival.

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