Thursday, February 16, 2006

Womadelaide 2006

Back in 1992, when Adelaide became part of the world music circuit with the first Womadelaide festival, the complex rhythms, the melodic riches and the variety of music on offer were something of a mystery to the general population.

In the 14 years since, Womadelaide has grown into an annual institution and with it has come a larger, more knowledgeable audience for the world music that it promotes. Even outside of the festival, acts from Africa, Europe and South America now tour Australia more often than they did 15 or 20 years ago.

Our world music credentials were given a boost last week when it was announced that the Australian National University in Canberra is to be home to the International Council for Traditional Music for the next three years. This 59-year-old body for the promotion, playing and study of music from across the world was established in London in 1947 and was based in Europe for 33 years, and then in the US until this year.

These developments, says Womadelaide program director Rob Brookman, reflect Australia's increasing willingness to embrace forms of music that stretch beyond the mainstream of rock and pop. Record advance ticket sales for this year's event would seem to strengthen his point.

"That's liberating for me as a programmer," says Brookman, who yesterday headed to New York in his other role as general manager of Sydney Theatre Company, whose production of Hedda Gabler is about to open there.

"I suppose it makes a difference being able to say now that we can bring in Orchestra Baobab in 2006 and know that they will be greeted with the understanding in our audience that these guys are of enormous stature in their native Senegal and that they should be regarded as something special to see.

"On the other hand, back in 1992 they may have said, 'We really want to come because Crowded House are playing."'

Orchestra Baobab, one of Senegal's most enduring and hardworking bands, are a good example of the talent that will be on display in Adelaide next month and also of the cross-pollination of styles that makes world music a movable feast.

The group formed in Dakar in 1970 and their music was informed by a number of styles including - through political alignments between the two nations in the 1950s and '60s - Cuban dance music.

Their traditional rhythms and songs were to some extent overtaken in the '80s by the mbalax dance rhythms popularised by Senegal's most famous musical export, Youssou N'Dour, but the group has enjoyed a resurgence of late and their insistent groove will be one of the Womadelaide highlights, Brookman says.

Also from Africa comes Guinea's Ba Cissoko, who combine the traditional and the modern by using an electric and an acoustic kora, a 21-stringed African harp, and set that unusual mix to often frenetic dance rhythms.

Other drawcards include English-Indian dance innovator Talvin Singh, South Africa's veteran diva Miriam Makeba and Jamaican legend Jimmy Cliff.

Brookman says the willingness of musicians to experiment and incorporate other forms, other cultures, into their music is one of the most rewarding aspects of the festival.

"There was a time not that long ago when hip-hop was the domain of a few cool dudes on the west coast of America," he says. "Now you can hear it in the music of Europe and, of course, in African music."

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