Saturday, March 24, 2007

WOMAD March 2007, Taranaki, New Zealand. Part one - Friday.

WOMAD - the Bowl stage. This time last week I was at WOMAD 2007, in New Plymouth, Taranaki, New Zealand. It was the most wonderful festival I've been to in a long time. I reckon WOMAD, and the incredible venue of Brooklands Park and the Bowl, are two of this country's best-kept secrets. Well - to the 20,000 other people at the sold-out event I guess WOMAD is not so secret, and of course the citizens of New Plymouth have long been aware of the wonders of this particular venue, but for the rest of the country? Not so much.

Our introduction to the venue was spectacular, to say the least. We parked out on the road (to save being jammed up in exiting traffic later on), and then walked across the racecourse to the WOMAD site. It was late Friday afternoon, the sun was still shining, and we joined the end of a long queue of people making their way down the bush-clad path towards the entrance to the venue. Sunlight glinted through the thick trees and native bush - and it was just about the most beautiful location for a queue I think I've ever seen. Quite magical, in fact.

After about half an hour we finally reached the gates to WOMAD, had our bags checked and wristbands put on - and I was standing there in awe, not quite believing what an amazing place we'd found ourselves in. We were at the foot of a huge natural amphitheatre, edged on two sides by beautiful native trees. To our right as we came through the gates was the main stage - the Bowl Stage - a sweeping curved permanent construction set within a little lake.

The grass-covered slope of the amphitheatre flowed right up from the water's edge to the top of the hill, and the entire area was just full of people. Thousands were already sitting on the grass watching the performance on the main stage, others were walking up the path which took you to the top of the hill and towards the global food village, global village (market) area and 3 other stages, while others were milling around, greeting friends and generally being thrilled to be there. It was quite awesome. What a gorgeous place!

We arrived just as Huun Huur Tu - the Tuvan throat-singers - were doing their thing on the main stage, and we decided that we'd have a bit of an explore of the site first, and catch them the following day.

I've been to WOMAD once before - the first year it came to NZ and was held in Aotea Square in Auckland (not the ideal venue for WOMAD, but never mind) - and the performer who'd completely and unexpectedly blown me away was Shivkumar Sharma, the Indian santoor player. I was so pleased to see he was at WOMAD again this year, and Lou, Jason and I decided to go see him on the Brooklands Stage.

Shivkumar Sharma has been playing the Indian folk instrument, the santoor, for over 50 years, and his son Rahul Sharma is now a master santoor player too. Their performance is accompanied by the most amazing tabla player Yogesh Samsi, and it's incredibly hypnotic - and absolutely compelling.

The santoor's a shallow open wooden box, and has 100 metal strings stretched across it, somewhat like a zither or dulcimer. It's played using a pair of wooden rods, upturned at the ends. Shivkumar and Rahul play in the jugalbandhi style - where their two instruments compete and contrast with each other in an on-stage improvisation based on a classical raga. I love this description by Wellingtonista so much, I think I'll just borrow it:

Using a 100-string santoor in chromatic arrangement Sharma creates complex webs of beautiful, ethereal, shimmering sound, mounting improvisation within improvisation within the raga form, climaxing in furious blowouts with fiery tabla virtuosos and frenzied, ecstatic glissando.

Shivkumar describes the effect of Santoor music as "something like a whisper and a cascade of a waterfall." Which interestingly enough is almost exactly how Sarah described it, after seeing him perform the following day.

Here they are. The deepdeep throbbing notes you can hear are the sound of the bass tabla underlying the melodies:

We decided we'd take a look at the Bowl Stage next, and catch a little of the Gotan Project. I seem to remember we were a wee bit hungry by that point, so we stopped at the global food village on the way. YUMMY food from all over the world, great coffee and a lovely atmosphere. And recycling bins everywhere, clearly labelled with what should go inside them (plastic, paper, cans etc). "Hmmm", we thought "wouldn't it have been lovely if we could have done that kind of thing at The Gathering..." We spent quite a lot of WOMAD comparing its organisation with that of The Gathering. A very interesting exercise.

The Gotan Project were pretty good (lots of people have asked me this week if I saw them), but I have to admit (to my shame) that they didn't grab me like some of the other performers did over the weekend. I think perhaps it's because we didn't see the whole show, as we were busy filling our faces first, and we were sitting pretty far up the slope of the amphitheatre, which means you're miles away from the stage - plus there were plenty of other distractions (see next video). Anyway, everyone else seemed to be massively enjoying them, so there you go. My loss!

Here are the freaky stiltwalking Quidams making their way across the site. You can hear the Gotan Project in the background:

The next performer we saw was to be one of my stand-out shows of the whole festival - and I am SO grateful to Lou for suggesting we go and see her.

Mariza is a fado singer from Portugal. I suppose I should say the fado singer, because although she's still pretty young she's already being compared to Portugal's greatest fado icon Amalia Rodrigues.

I guess you could describe fado as a bit like the French torch song. Passionate pieces about love, and life, about joy and tragedy - not simply sung but felt with every ounce of the singer's soul. Mariza was completely amazing in this regard. She's charismatic, gorgeous, sexy and absolutely charming - she had us in the palm of her hand throughout the set - and she has a KILLER voice. Really - it's truly fantastic.

But I think it was the emotion and passion that she poured into every song - both with the tone of her voice and movements of her body - that really blew me away. Mariza secured a new fan that night - and I'm sure I'm not the only one. Here she is singing Primavera - in two parts because my little camera can only do 3 minutes at a time.

Apologies in advance for the way the camera strays from the subject matter from time to time in the first clip. I was trying not to annoy those around me with my bright camera screen by closing it up while filming and only checking it once in a while. About halfway through I thought "fuck this" and started filming properly. Thank goodness. Here's Mariza...

During Mariza's performance we (and everyone else around us) were assailed by the only annoying people we encountered during the entire festival. This pair of drunken middle-aged men were intent on having the loudest conversation possible, extolling the virtues of Mariza's voice, her body, her passion - and just about everything else you can think of. "We're in the presence of greatness here, Richard!!" (yes I know we are, but do you have to share your every thought with Richard quite so loudly?) Honestly, I thought the guy was going to come in his pants right then and there... Eventually Lou turned around and shushed him very firmly, and he pretty much shut up after that. He gave us daggers when the lights came up afterwards, but who cares?

Oh! I must mention the (normally) dreaded subject of festival toilets at this point. When you gotta go, you gotta go, and I decided sometime during Mariza's set that I hadda go.

Anyone who's ever been to a festival will tell you that the toilets are generally a complete nightmare. It's either converted cattle stalls over a shitty pit (Glastonbury for many years) or stinky, overflowing port-a-loos (The Gathering, I'm afraid - however hard we tried to get them emptied regularly). You hold on as long as you can, and then you have to take your own loo paper and put a peg on your nose, and get in and out as fast as possible before you're overcome by the grossness... you know what it's like. Not so at WOMAD.

The loos at WOMAD were a complete revelation. Every single loo I used throughout the festival was a flush loo, properly plumbed, clean as a new pin, sweet-smelling, with its own loo paper, basins with running water, soap and their own supply of paper hand towels... it was quite amazing. Wow. You might think a festival's not a festival without disgusting loos, but let me tell you - nice loos are a truly wonderful thing - even (or especially) at a festival. Huge props to the organisers for having it so beautifully organised and under control.

At some point during the evening it got pretty cold - the threatening rain had held off, but that meant a clear and starry night - and the temperature dropped quite dramatically. I found a gorgeous Indian blanket at one of the stalls in the global village market, and after that I was one happy and snuggly bunny. We also rooted around in the pirate's treasure chest that was the bead stall (thousands of bangles for sale in all shapes, sizes and colors) and I found six lovely bead bangles in natural materials in shades of orange, brown and ochre. Well, if you can't stock up on your hippy costumes at WOMAD, where can you do it?

We wandered back to the Bowl stage after Mariza and caught a bit of Femi Kuti, but we were all pretty tired by that point (it's a 5+ hour drive from Wellington to New Plymouth), so we decided to head home to our rented 1970's throwback house and get some shut-eye in preparation for the 2-day, 12 hour day marathon that was ahead...

More later, gentle reader, more later...

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HPR said...

Hello, it is wonderful to hear about your experiences with Shivkumar Sharma's music. I was completely captivated by his music several years ago, when I heard his "Raga Kaunsi Kanada" [from the album "When Time Stood Still"] for the first time! Since then, I have gone ahead and collected all his albums (more than one hundred of them!)... His music is, simply put, life transforming, soul stirring.

Through santoor, I have come to know him closely as well. One of my friends has started a new venture to serve Indian classical music, with Shivkumar Sharma's inspiration. Please take a look at and