20 Mar 2017

WOMAD Day 3: Asian inventions and the ghost of Bob Marley

From RNZ Music, 11:56 am on 20 March 2017

Roving reviewer Nick Bollinger reports back on some of the highlights of the last day of WOMAD 2017. 

WOMAD - The Swan Sister

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

I set out on Sunday determined to catch any acts I’d missed over the festival’s first two days.

But first I had to get another blast of the Warsaw Village Band, who opened the day’s programme on the Bowl Stage with twin fiddles howling, triple voices keening and drums rolling ominously under the modal folk melodies.

Hanoi Masters had clashed with the Hot 8 on the Saturday but I’m glad I had the opportunity to see them on the Sunday, as they were a real highlight; two elderly master Vietnamese musicians and a young female virtuoso. Their opening piece was hauntingly beautiful - a kind of southeast Asian blues. But there was variety to come, as stunning multi-instrumentalist Van Anh Vo introduced the elder maestros and discussed their lives and music.

She spoke movingly how, after the war, American artillery shells and pieces of B52 bombers had been fashioned into instruments. One lively piece utilised a triangular bamboo xylophone. Another featured a single-stringed instrument that might have been a diddley bow through a wah-wah pedal - or a talking cat - yet miraculously required no electronics. The Hanoi Masters’ set climaxed with an entirely unexpected rendition of Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’, played on the Vietnamese instruments. An alternative anthem for American soldiers during the Vietnam War, the transposition here was powerfully symbolic. In this Asian reinvention it also made a weird musical sense.

Is Bob Marley the patron saint of world music? Or does someone go around whispering to visiting performers that to play anything by Saint Bob in Aotearoa is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser?

The Specials started the rampant Bob-ism on Friday night when Lynval Golding unexpectedly dropped ‘Redemption Song’ into the middle of a set that otherwise stuck strictly to the ska veterans’ original repertoire. Over the next couple of days I lost count of how many performers managed to get Bob’s signature cry of ‘a yo yo yo’ into one of their own tunes. The long Marley medley in the middle of Saturday’s set by Marley’s compatriot Brushy One String was hardly surprising. But when The Hot 8 launched into an arrangement of ‘Wait In Vain’ it was certainly the first time I had heard a Marley tune played by a brass band. And maybe it was just the glorious weather that inspired bossa nova diva Bebel Gilberto to open her Sunday set with ‘Sun Is Shining’, but somehow she too had picked up on the Marley vibe. This daughter of Brazilian musical royalty continued to mix classic bossa with less obvious song choices (Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’), while her fine trio maintained a subtle, simmering energy.

Bebel Gilberto

Bebel Gilberto Photo: Stan Alley

I couldn’t get close enough to the Dell Stage to see the local Swan Sisters – singer-songwriters Amiria Grenell and Amy Grace – but from back near the Bowl Stage I could enjoy their close harmonies and songs that celebrate simple pleasures and small mercies, as they drifted across from the Dell.

From South Korea, percussion ensemble Tago was hardcore WOMAD: part way between ballet and a military maneuver, and the biggest drums I’d heard at WOMAD since the Drummers of Burundi fifteen years ago. But they had also learned some of the patter of stadium rock, interspersing their percussive pieces with cries of ‘Do you wanna have fun? Are you ready? ARE! YOU! READY?!’

A friend had raved to me about Aziza Brahim the day before, and I wasn’t disappointed. The Western Saharan singer has a mellifluous voice and gorgeous desert folk melodies that floated over the rhythms of her excellent Barcelona-based band. Desert blues delicately laced with flamenco.

This year’s Bowl Stage finale was entrusted to Austria’s Parov Stelar, an energetic showband with a party-friendly fusion of swing and disco that bordered on camp. But the real finale was on the smaller Gables Stage, where young and sublime South African vocal trio The Soil sang their songs of joy. They spoke of how strongly they had been affected by the welcome they had received in New Zealand, and paid respects to those around the world who had supported the South African struggle for liberation. Their harmony style reached all the way back to Solomon Linda’s Evening Birds (the Soweto group that recorded the song that came to be known as ‘Wimoweh’ in 1949), yet also encompassed beatboxing and rap. They inspired the best crowd singalong of the entire festival. They didn’t perform any Bob Marley material – though somewhere in their ecstatic doo-wop I swear I heard the familiar cry ‘a yo yo yo’.