World music festival showcases global talent in our backyard

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 8 minutes

It’s a festival of surprises where you are spellbound by the eerie mystique of Mongolian throat singers one minute then captivated by the passion of a Portuguese Fado folk artist the next. Or find yourself in a joyfully frenzied crowd dancing to irresistible Cuban or Congolese Afro-fusion beats.

WOMAD, the iconic festival of multicultural arts based in New Plymouth, Taranaki, is back this March after being cancelled last year - as many festivals were - due to COVID-19.

But there’s a twist for 2022’s event, the 17th WOMAD to be held in the west coast township wedged between pounding surf and majestic Mount Taranaki. Artists can’t travel from overseas because of pandemic travel restrictions, so festival organisers went searching and discovered a wealth of international talent right here in Aotearoa.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 8 minutes

It’s a festival of surprises where you are spellbound by the eerie mystique of Mongolian throat singers one minute then captivated by the passion of a Portuguese Fado folk artist the next. Or find yourself in a joyfully frenzied crowd dancing to irresistible Cuban or Congolese Afro-fusion beats.

WOMAD, the iconic festival of multicultural arts based in New Plymouth, Taranaki, is back this March after being cancelled last year – as many festivals were – due to COVID-19.

But there’s a twist for 2022’s event, the 17th WOMAD to be held in the west coast township wedged between pounding surf and majestic Mount Taranaki. Artists can’t travel from overseas because of pandemic travel restrictions, so festival organisers went searching and discovered a wealth of international talent right here in Aotearoa.

All musicians on the programme call Aotearoa home – even though they originate from Africa, South America, Asia, and Europe, ensuring the three-day festival will very much be a true WOMAD – World of Music, Arts and Dance. As with any WOMAD, there’s also a strong line-up of Kiwi and Māori performers.

Suzanne Porter, CEO of TAFT (Taranaki Arts Festival Trust) for 14 years, says “one of the great things that came out of COVID is we’ve found out what talent we have in our own back yard and the diversity of artists that are living here.”

TAFT’s Marketing and Communications manager, Rebecca Johnson, concurs: “While this year we don’t have an international line up, we certainly have a very worldly festival to present. That was one of the silver linings that came out of the pandemic and borders being closed – it really allowed us to look closer to home and showcase the breadth of multiculturalism New Zealand has here.”

Out of 300 expressions of interest from performers both Kiwi and international, all based here, the programme will deliver 29 stunning soloists and groups.

“We feel really strongly that the WOMAD we’re going to be presenting in 2022 will have all the worldly flavour and multiculturalism that people have come to know and love year after year,” says Rebecca.

Along with well-known Kiwi acts – including Fat Freddy’s Drop, Hollie Smith, Whirimako Black, Salmonella Dub, Fly My Pretties and next-big-thing from Raglan, Muroki – numerous artists living here bring international flavours from their homelands. Mazbou Q is a UK-born Nigerian artist who draws on a blend of classical, heavy metal and West African sounds to create a particular brand of hip hop, while Ghanaian musician Yaw Asumadu and his nine-piece band Ozi Ozaa fuse traditional Afro-grooves with jazz and funk. Latin sounds come via Brazilian DJ Bobby Brazuka and guitarist Le Guz as well as Latinaotearoa, with its blend of South American musical genres. Hawaiian soul/blues artist Deva Mahal (featured in a separate story in this issue) is another global artist who has found her voice here, while Indian dancers and Japanese drummers ensure the audience will get their “worldly fix without leaving the country”, say festival organisers.

Comedians, writers, slam poets, artists and scientists are also on the agenda along with workshops for music, dance, food, and arts. Discussions and presentations on literature, science, art, and politics from an array of well-known faces – including microbiologist Dr Siouxsie Wiles; journalist, editor, and writer Anna Fifield; Kurdish-Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani; artist Dick Frizzell; celebratory funeral directors and Netflix stars Kaiora and Francis Tipene as well as homegrown comedians Tom Sainsbury and the Topp Twins – promise thought-provoking sessions. There’s plenty on for kids too.

Forty years of WOMAD

WOMAD is a successful, long-standing world-wide franchise of 40 years, founded in the UK by Peter Gabriel, English lead singer of the progressive rock band Genesis. It is based on the idea of “being embracing but non-definitive, inspiring, and outward looking; and more than anything, enthusiastic about a world that has no boundaries in its ability to communicate through music and movement”.

“Since the first festival in 1982 in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, more than 160 have been held across 27 countries. New Plymouth is by far the smallest place to host the event,” says Suzanne. “WOMAD first came to New Zealand in the 1990s and was held in Auckland at Western Springs in 1997, and Aotea Centre in 1999. These venues didn’t suit the event, which requires several outdoor stages running concurrently,” she reflects. “So, TAFT boldly put in a bid when the rights to host came up. TAFT had just run a highly successful arts festival – starring a French circus – netting a healthy surplus,” she says.

“WOMAD UK thought ‘who are these crazy people from this community of 100,000 – not even [the size] of the city, but the region – who are bidding,’ and they thought it was a bit of a joke. Until they [TAFT] fronted up with the deposit.”

The next smallest place to have WOMAD is Adelaide, albeit with a population of a million people. Suzanne says the festival has succeeded in New Plymouth because of its unique model based on support from both public (New Plymouth District Council – NPDC, TOI Foundation and Venture Taranaki Trust – VTT) and private partnerships, including Todd Energy, TSB bank and OMV to name a few, “and huge support from our community in the way of volunteers and ticket buyers,” she adds.

When TAFT lost the WOMAD contract in 2020 after deciding not to go ahead in 2021 because of the risks from pandemic lockdowns, the organisation was determined to fight to get it back. They succeeded in getting the NPDC to underwrite the 2022 festival to the tune of $1.9 million.

 

Taranaki – natural home for cultures of the world

Suzanne believes the multiculturalism of WOMAD is a perfect fit for Taranaki, and for the stunning Bowl of Brooklands location with its natural amphitheatre, shady trees and grassy areas for the numerous market and food stalls, as well as the nearby racecourse for festival campers. “It is part of the fabric now – the community embraces it.”

Sponsors – civic and business – see the value of WOMAD in helping to create a vibrant, multicultural region that offers a great lifestyle, says Rebecca. “It’s done a lot to drive the importance of multiculturalism.”

“These days, the audience has become more multigenerational and festival goers have grown with the festival, and along the way, introduced their families to the magic of WOMAD,” says Rebecca. “Those people at the festival in 2003 keep coming back. What’s fantastic for us to see is three generations of families attending.”

From programmes for kids, to 65+ stands and golf buggies for those who can’t walk, the event is accessible to all.

News media reports estimate WOMAD 2022 is expected to be bigger than ever with potential to inject millions into the local economy.

Despite the ever-present concerns of an evolving and unpredictable pandemic, organisers are crossing their fingers that the months of planning and coordinating will once again culminate in yet another mind-blowing feast of cultures and colour. Overseeing such a logistically complex and huge event is demanding, as is being chief trouble-shooter. “Basically, I’m on the phone the whole time,” Suzanne says. “I’ve even been known to clean toilets! We had a corporate function, and we couldn’t get a cleaner for a VIP event.”

She applauds a hardworking, committed team at TAFT, as well as local contractors and an army of volunteers who help before and during the festival, including running a highly efficient zero waste programme.

Hard work, but a huge buzz. “I love it when we open the gates at 4 o’clock on Friday, and I go ‘wow we’ve done it’ and it’s the most incredible thing to stand at the top of the hill and watch the gates open and all the people start to come in.”

2nd Gallery photos: Charlotte Curd

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