Kamasi Washington in Auckland Pre WOMAD 2018
A friend described WOMAD as his “favourite white middle class celebration of diversity.” There is certainly an echo of truth to this as the crowd is still largely white and middle class, but this WOMAD for me represented that a better world is possible when we tune in to the ‘Harmony of Difference’. This phrase is the title of the 2017 EP by festival headliner Kamasi Washington. As Washington explained to a packed audience at his sole WOMAD performance, this title is about encouraging people to understand that despite all our differences, we can find harmony and peace by changing our perspective and seeing the beauty in our difference.
It was really pleasing to see that in the Kamasi Washington spirit, WOMAD is embracing real diversity more than ever. Under the guidance of a re-energised management team with Emere Wano as NZ Programme Manager it seems the local Taranaki Iwi have embraced the festival and added a significant element of sincerity to it. This year Te Wānanga o Aotearoa had a partnership with the festival and the Paepae zone was a hub of activity with local Kaumatua on site to talk to punters about Māori culture and look after kids at night. Almost every band who performed, spoke to the crowd at some point about the amazing warmth of the Powhiri and welcome they had received from the Iwi, which means it really must have been something special and more than just a formality.
As for Kamasi Washington’s performance, it was certainly a highlight for me. Pure ‘social music’ in the Miles Davis sense, Kamasi defies the ‘Jazz’ label. In fact he tears it apart and puts it back together in some entirely indescribable way. All the base elements are the same, but the end product is fresh. Kamasi and band may not the most technically proficient jazz players in the world, but that has never really been the point. Kamasi has that ethereal and indescribable spirit that cannot be taught, that which separates the greats from the rest in not just music, but in any field. He is channelling the universal spirit loud and clear through his tenor saxophone and drawing with the utmost respect and passion on the rich history of African-American musical tradition in his powerful compositions and stunning live performances. His 2015 debut album The Epic was a groundshift in Jazz history which led Washington to be touted as ‘the young savior of jazz’. It is no surprise Washington has worked with the likes of Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar and David Bowie on Blackstar and is the hottest in demand studio saxophonist around.
Kamasi also managed to get a late-afternoon crowd of mostly white New Zealanders dancing to jazz - and that in itself says a lot about how special this guy is. This was soulful jazz-funk with a real groove, massive hip-hop tinged basslines and dueling contrapuntal drum breaks in crazy timings. Kamasi even offered a ‘big ol hug’ to anyone that could name the timing in one of the songs. Either nobody could or they didn’t claim their prize. I sure would have, he is a highly huggable character - large in stature and a larger than life character with a friendly, humble aura and casual self-effacing manner. He doesn’t take himself too seriously, continuously joking and bantering with the crowd.
A great example of Kamasi’s playful pure loving nature was the tune he wrote when he was young based on his love for Charlie Brown cartoons. He explained to the crowd how he always liked the Charlie Brown TV specials, and he always wished that they would do an episode where the characters went to his neighbourhood, Inglewood. So in response to this desire, he created a theme song for a hypothetical special episode in which his own characters “Leroy and Lanisha” go to Inglewood (the impoverished neighbourhood that also brought us Snoop Dogg.)
Kamasi himself was the main event with scorching and screeching tenor sax solos reminiscent of Coltrane’s later work but with the funk and innovation of Miles Davis. With him, he brought a stripped back line-up of 6 to NZ (including two drummers) compared to the usual 11, however the band still managed to conjure a complex and expansive sound. It also says a lot about him that he has been playing together with some of these band members since he was three years old. Keyboard player Brandon “Hot Sauce” Coleman plays some amazingly saucy and funky solos capturing a sound reminiscent of fuzzed out electric guitars on a psychedelic James Brown track. Ryan Porter on Trombone was excellent and his own composition performed showed excellent songwriting chops.
Soulful female backing singer Patrice Quinn experienced the sharp end of some poor sound tech that unfortunately plagued quite a few more bands than is really acceptable at a festival of this level over the weekend. Her moment to shine early in the set was subdued by this. This was redeemed fortunately when the band closed on The Truth - the big single from last year’s ‘Harmony of Difference’. This song features five simultaneous melodies – Quninn’s stunning vocals, Kamasi’s sax, bass and keyboard melodies and Trombone. This aural message reinforced Kamasi’s wise words with the beautiful intricacies of its overlapping melodies, each individually beautiful, coming together to create an even more complex and beautiful whole.
Heading to WOMAD on the Friday night we were puzzling over why every year it seems there are never-ending road works between Wellington and New Plymouth scheduled for this weekend. Someone pointed out that it is perhaps due to the proximity of the weekend to the end of financial year so the regional Councils are all spending any excess money on works. Fair enough, but note to self - leave earlier next time.
As a result, we arrived just in time to witness the dying moments of a scene of great beauty as Aldous Harding entranced the massive Bowl Stage crowd with her slightly spooky and off-kilter minimalist folk tunes. It was a bit like gate crashing the intimate moment at someone’s wedding where the vows are exchanged. During her rendition of the stunning Horizon you could have heard a pin drop as the last drops of misty rain for the weekend fell onto a mirror-still pond reflecting Aldous’ image in a tailored white suit rippling out in fractals around the bowl. The space between her minimalist guitar plucks and drawn out vocal lines echoed her beautiful poetic anthem towards the distant horizon in the amphitheatre sending hairs rising on necks all round. I suspect she took a lot of the crowd by surprise as I heard there was quite a Friday night party atmosphere at the start of the set. That was all gone by the end - Aldous cleansed WOMAD’s spirit like the fresh autumn shower and set us up for a weekend of beautiful weather and musical moments in this enchantingly natural Aotearoa music venue.
Yes, I can see it, take me home,
Say again, this place
Say again, this place
Here is your princess
And here is your horizon
Here is your princess
And here is your horizon
Aldous Harding, Horizon.
Also hypnotic and entrancing, as was to be expected by anyone who knows this nomadic Tamashek psychedelic Desert band was the performance by Tinariwen. This group was the main attraction for many at WOMAD 2018, so it was a surprise to see them in an unexplainable timeslot nearly closing out the festival late on Sunday evening after many fans had been forced to leave to get back home for work. This elusive and quite mythical band have been simmering on the global scene for some years now, building a legend through touring and releasing a number of highly acclaimed albums since 2000. For a full explanation of Tinariwen, their history and the history of their nomadic ‘Kel Tamashek’ culture and music, please check out the ethnomusicological essay I wrote earlier this year.
The last time Tinariwen came to New Zealand in 2012 they were without lead singer and guitarist Ibrahim Ag Alhabib and another key member due to the ongoing civil war in the hotly contested and volatile desert region they call home. It is easy to see why the group could fall a little flat without Ag Alhabib as his presence was a driving force in this WOMAD performance. Although most of the band take turns at leading songs and all have the beautiful deep melodic tone, there is something untouchable and unique about the charisma and passion in the voice of Ag Alhabib as he drifts and slides through the pentatonic scales in the Tamashek tongue like shifting sandstorms, never quite settling but always present.
The members are all masters of their electric guitars and bass and weave complex polyrhythms that create a gently rocking and soothing hypnotic groove. For those new to the band, it seemed to take a while for them to warm to it, or perhaps they were still in shock, at seeing a band of guys with faces covered in traditional tagelmust veils playing these instruments with apparent ease like it was another day in the office. Which it was, these guys have been playing this style of music as long as they can remember and it felt intimate like we were being invited into a casual campfire side jam rather than them putting on a show.
No member of the band speaks more than a word of English, so crowd interaction was limited to a few heartfelt ‘merci beaucoups’. This really didn’t matter, in fact it added to their aura of mystique and made sure everyone was fully focused on the music itself, rather than the lyrics. You could feel their humble sincerity and peoples’ hearts genuinely warmed to the band. By the end of the set everyone was dancing hypnotically or at least nodding their heads involuntarily and clapping their hands in unison to the pounding bass kick of the electric pickup powered gourd percussion and djembe drums. This is ancient and traditional trance music at it’s purest - it uplifted our collective consciousness to a state of absolute joy. It is impossible not to enjoy this band and leave with a smile on your face.
Tinariwen played their now ‘classic’ hits such as ‘Cler Achel’ (complete with Berber shrills) in the background and ‘Soixante Trois’ both from 2007’s breakout Aman Iman ["Water is Life"] album . They also treated us to live renditions of Tenere Taqqal and the immediately catchy Sastanaqqam off 2017’s Elwan album. These tunes had pockets of the crowd singing along in an ancient Berber dialect showing that the band’s creative output is nowhere near fading away, in fact they appear to be becoming more refined with age if anything.
Pat Thomas and the Kwashibu Area Band
One of my key draw cards at WOMAD 2018 and long-time Afrobeat heroes, Pat Thomas of Ghana did not disappoint. Playing the first of two sets with his Kwashibu Area Band. Thomas has been playing since the 1960s and a star since the '70s, when highlife music was born out of a fusion of James Brown era funk and traditional African dance music. This was just about the closest thing to seeing the great Nigerian Highlife God Fela Kuti live that New Zealand audiences are likely to experience. Thomas has played with other highlife legends such as Ebo Taylor and Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer) so has a genuine lineage.
Thomas’ Ghanaian style of highlife is certainly no rip-off of Fela Kuti’s Nigerian style. In fact Highlife music emerged in Ghana before spreading around the rest of West Africa. Highlife uses the melodic and main rhythmic structures of the traditional music of Ghana’s Akan tribe. This music has a real tropical West-African feel and incorporates elements of this historically and culturally diverse region. One popular rhythm Thomas and band played for example was the ‘Zouk’ - a French Caribbean style that reached Africa through the French colonists and caught on with the local population.
Thomas certainly lived up to his tagline of “The Golden Voice Of Africa” with his soulful vocals incorporating a massive range and strength. He was the commensurate big-band leader, controlling the show like a pro from his position at the front occasionally playing percussion on bongos and chatting with the crowd naturally. He was accompanied an excellent band of younger musicians who are keeping the style alive with that youthful energy and vigour that is so key to highlife. He was charming and engaging with the audience who were very much up for a party on a Friday night with so much excitement and anticipation of music to come. I heard Saturday’s set was just as good and judging by the crowd reaction from afar the band rocked the bowl stage like not many bands can do.
In the early afternoon on Saturday, legendary Chilean cumbia band Chico Trujillo also took to bowl stage and ramped things up a notch. This band has almost two decades of experience performing globally in the highly popular pan-Latin American genre of ‘cumbia’. Cumbia is a 19th century Afro-Colombian music style combining West African, Native American and European influences. That this modern nine piece cumbia group is one of the most popular bands in Chile today, is testament to the extent to which this music form has shaped Latin America’s cultural and musical history. For a more detailed look at cumbia and where Chico Trujillo fit in, read my ethnomusicological piece I published before WOMAD 2018.
I am somewhat of a cumbia aficionado having listened to it for years and having spent time in Colombia, however the Chicos impressed me en vivo more than I had expected from watching their videos online. As a live band they were fantastic. The band-leader Aldo Asenjo and other key members were part of a famous Chilean Ska outfit La Floripondio [The Datura Flower] before Chico Trujillo, and this high energy ska feel is evident as well as a reggae and at times even hip-hop vibe. The ska underpinning is the perfect complement to the driving yet relentlessly slow Chilean big-band style of cumbia, as it allows the band to explore dynamic tempo shifts and keep things interesting. They sped up at times throughout the set to a frenzied ska tempo, but ultimately as it does, the slow cumbia tempo was always the victor, barely ever stopping, even between songs.
The WOMAD crowd loved the (Cuban as much as Colombian influenced) big-band style with a heavyweight brass section of trumpet, trombone, two saxophones. Despite a surprisingly light percussion section of drums and a guiro/bongo player both Bowl stage sets saw jam packed dancefloors of people shuffling away to this irresistible cumbia rhythm. It wasn’t just pure party music. Asenjo is now getting on in years and looked like a cumbiero-Papa Smurf with his bushy white beard and beanie on but he bounded around the stage delivering pretty complicated rapid staccato call and response lines with absolute ease. It's clear these guys are extremely tight and in total control after so long playing together. In their second set on Sunday night, he was joined by a special guest in compatriot Nano Stern, the face of Chile’s New Folk movement who was also on the bill. His duet with Asenjo on Chico’s hit song Loca [Crazy Chick] which near every Chilean knows just added more dynamism to a lyrically excellent song. Check out the video of this rare moment below:
Nano Stern’s own set on Sunday was another major highlight for me. As mentioned above, Stern is extremely highly regarded in Chile as a folk musician and face of the New Chilean Folk movement. In this role he is seen as picking up the heavy mantle of the great revolutionary socialist folk music hero of dictatorship era chile, Victor Jara. Chile is currently in pretty dire political circumstances yet again, with a newly elected Right-wing government and a society feeling the effects of decades of massive scale privatisation and neoliberal rule, so they need another socially conscious hero like Stern more than ever. Stern certainly has the song-writing ability and performance skills, which he demonstrated to full effect at WOMAD. I don’t believe anyone present could help being moved by his passion and musical skill even if they didn’t understand his deep lyrical content.
However, Stern has also brought this Andean influenced Folk style into the new Century and has a real rock and roll vibe and attitude which is highly refreshing. He was accompanied here by a simple backing band of drums/percussion/charango [Sth American ukulele] and bass but both also sang backup beautifully in order to create nice overlapping harmonised vocal lines. His hit song ‘Carnivalito’ with beautiful rhyming verses ostensibly about centipedes, snails and botflies getting dressed up for a ‘little carnival’, had the audience clapping along.
To finish his set Stern proposed a toast with a cup of Red Wine before downing it in one and launching into El Vino y Destino [Wine and destiny] as his encore. In this song, This song toasts the wine ‘that teaches us to sing’, his land of Chile and its roads, seas, from a pale city across the seas that will not let you go (presumably Switzerland where he lives). It is a beautiful song that appears to speak of loss, longing and a sense of place and rootedness as well as overcoming one’s fate.
Pero yo prefiero el vino | [But I prefer
Que es una vieja poción | [Which is an old potion]
Que a todos nos vuelve finos | [Which makes us all fine]
Y nos enseña a cantar | [And teaches us to sing]
Ahora que canto del vino
| [Now that song of wine]
Como no voy a nombrar | [That I will not name]
A mi tierra y sus caminos | [To my land and its roads]
Yo no los voy a olvidar | [I will not forget them]
The Thievery Corporation
Closing out the Friday night on the Bowl stage, legendary US dub-pop band The Thievery Corporation certainly surprised a few people. Most of my crew including myself had grown up listening to the hit albums of 2000 release, The Mirror Conspiracy, and 2002 record The Richest Man in Babylon on their Eighteenth Street Lounge Music label so were looking forward to this show but a little unsure what to expect some 16 years after the fact. However, we were all pleasantly surprised that this project has evolved into a full live band while incorporating the electronic elements. In hindsight there were clues to this such as the 2004 record The Cosmic Game, with its more psychedelic sound featuring high-profile guest singers on it, including Perry Farrell, David Byrne, and Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips fame.
The band put together here by Rob Garza and Eric Hilton saw them with their live DC based rhythm section playing with collaborators from their 2017 album The Temple of I & I recorded in Jamaica over two years. This is an extension of the dub ethos and aesthetic that they’ve always favoured but with authentic Jamaican crooners, toasters and rappers. The sole female vocalist Racquel Jones (apparently a model and former Miss Jamaica contestant) was a classy addition. The sitar was still present but not so much the main piece here - the vocalists took over that role and all impressed with amazing energy and great lyrical prowess. This mashup worked pretty well and they still pulled out great live renditions of the classics such as Richest Man in Babylon to please the crowd. But this was certainly no rehashing of the past, it was a new project with forward-looking energy.
The amazing and hypnotically charismatic young Ghanaian born woman Jojo Abot was a slow-burning crowd favourite at WOMAD 2018 and a great choice to close out the festival on Sunday night. Abot is pioneering a new era of truly global Afro-futurist electronica. She splits her time between cultural hubs of Accra, Copenhagen and New York and her music is a blend of electronica, Afrobeat, jazz, neo-soul, house and reggae. Performing with a live electronica DJ, a drummer and, Abot took to the stage with fellow Ghanaian dancer. The ladies both donned traditional, yet sexy Afro-futurist outfits and hairstyles straight out of the ‘Black Panther’ movie and danced their way through the set with disembodied shamanistic movements and a primal and ancient coolness.
Jojo’s songs in English and her native tongue were similarly tribal and shamanistic with a soul-piercing familiarity and irresistible groove. Her sound was sort of a hybrid of Thomas’ Ghanaian Highlife, the hypnotic desert trance of Tinariwen and the electronica stylings of The Thievery Corporation. Her songs seemed to deal with social issues to such as ‘illegal touching’. Abot attracted many people back for a second dance to her subtle grooves, and was even joined onstage for her finale by a number of special guests including members of Pat Thomas’ band and Wellington’s own up and coming African descended global-futurist electronica producer and performer Estère on percussion. As I was watching Jojo’s first set, I was thinking how similar her vibe was to Estère. I then found out subsequently that they actually share the same African label, so let’s hope we see more collaboration between these two strong and talented African female artists. Hopefully can see Jojo in Aotearoa again soon. It is great to see a new generation of young artists are innovating and using the best of traditional styles and modern technology to keep things interesting and fresh in the ‘world music’ space.
Check out part
two of my WOMAD review featuring: Anoushkar Shankar, Havana
Meets Kingston, Bixiga 70, Lemon Bucket Orchestra, Violons
Barbares and Blick
Bassy here WOMAD - A Harmony Of Difference Part 2