Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth
March 13-15 | Reviewed by Alexander Bisley

NOTHING came anywhere near to Salif Keita and Mariza’s sensuous, mesmerising majesty at WOMAD 2008’s Brooklands Bowl. Though several bands, such as Fat Freddy’s Drop, clearly struggled with the main stage this year, Keita’s Malian compatriot Rokia Traore delivered a dazzling ninety-minute performance. Her third album Tchamantche, sets her beautifully textured, varied vocals against three ambient guitarists (standard, bass and ngoni, a four-string, lute-like Malian instrument). With a back-up vocalist/dancer added to Tchamantche’s guitar blend, Rokia gracefully commanded the stage. From her ‘The Man I Love’ cover to ‘Kounandi’, it was potent and intimate.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunnipingu also performed wonderfully. The Aboriginal singer was sublimely soulful, spirited and heartrending, singing from his debut solo album Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunnipingu. Blind from birth, Gurrumul’s exceptional sensitivity is particularly noticeable with sound. “I just hear all the sounds. The birds. People talking. The waves. Everything... I listen to things ‘cos I can’t see them. That helps me understand what’s going on,” he’s reportedly said. There’s a plangent, powerful connection to family and the natural world in Gurrumul’s music; songs like ‘Wukun’ (about the gathering of the storm clouds), ‘Djarimirri’ (the rainbow serpent carrying Gurrumul as a child) and ‘Wiyathul’ (the orange-footed scrub turkey). Gurrumul’s song about the totemic crocodile and a bird was playful.

Then there was elegiac ‘Bapa’ (Father), dedicated to Gurrumul’s father and Northern Territory, his homeland and English ‘Gurrumul History’, reciting his whakapapa and kaupapa. The audiences’ standing ovation left no doubt this was a special performance.

Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunnipingu

Seun Kuti, son of Fela and bro of Femi, also got the crowd fired up. With his massive big band Egypt 80, Seun delivered stonking, funky Afrobeat. I didn’t completely follow Oluseun Anikulapo Kuti’s opening riff on the feminine form, but this was no mistaking the lush energy of the music and dancing that followed. Joker/philosopher/lover/fighter, there’s no denying Seun Kuti. Seun added to Rokia Traore’s charismatic taki why Africans have to return to Africa to raise it up ‘cos no one else will, finishing with stirring words about the financial crisis. But, the prevailing feel was fun. “I have never performed on a stage with a clock on it. You people are more uptight than the British,” Seun jested.

Dengue Fever was a delight. Fusing Californian surf rock, psychedelic jazz-pop and Cambodian melodies, it’s no surprise Jim Jarmusch chose them for Broken Flowers’ final song. In addition to fine keys, horns and percussion, the lively, complementary group boasts extraordinarily bearded Zac Haltzman on vocals and guitar, droll Senon Gaius Williams on bass and diminutive, rather charming vocalist Chhom Nimol. Cambodian language songs like ‘I’m Sixteen’ and ‘Shave Your Beard’ from Dengue Fever were infectious. My favourite was ‘Tiger Phone Card’ from the aptly titled Venus On Earth, about doing long distance over miles and miles of ocean, NYC to Phnom Penh. The message: “And never let go.” The weather at WOMAD ‘09 was cracker, and Dengue Fever’s Gable Stage performance was set against an unqualified view of Mount Taranaki.

I should also give props to terrific Mayotte singer Mikidache (and his Madagascari sidekick Ivan) who radiated gentle charisma and exuberant vibes, fiercely vigorous national kapa haka champions Te Waka Huia, evocative Marseille singers Lo Cňr de la Plana and WOMAD’s outgoing artistic director Roger King.