Thursday, March 11, 2010

the pixie hat stall is still there

So --

I'm home from Adelaide after a weekend spent covering Womadelaide. I had a photographer's pass on a lanyard around my neck, my notebook and camera in one leg-pocket of M.'s BDU pants (which were on my legs, not his; his were at home), and an ordinary plastic bag in the left-hand arse-pocket for the wrapping up of the hardware in case of rain. I didn't think it would rain, because it never rains at Womad, or if it does then the rain is only a sprinkle and not worth worrying about -- think of the light shower during the All-Star Jam managed by Johnny Kalsi in 2006, for instance, arriving with a breath of cool wind from the direction of the clothing stalls that, every year, sell thick felt pixie hats, handbags made from recycled tyres, and a heap of cheap yukata. (The heap of cheap yukata has vanished now. Why, I wonder? I think the pixie hat stall is still there.) But this year it rained. By mid-afternoon on Saturday I was soaked, and by eight that night when Babylon Circus was about to perform I was shivering so much that one of the professional photographers in the pit in front of the stage spoke to me for the first time, saying, You're freezing.

These experienced photographers own serious camaras fronted with huge long lenses like rows of black plastic cups wedged together, and by the end of the weekend I was feeling lens envy. My camera is a small digital one, wearing nothing but the truncated lens it was born with, and when I caught sight of a picture one of the others was taking, I thought, "Ow, I want one of those cameras. I want to zoom, baby." The picture was a close-up of Anoushka Shankar. She was onstage and we were in the pit. What a scrum it was, that Stage One pit, during the Shankar performance. Everybody's editor must have told them to get a good shot of Ravi. ("I know who you've come here to see," said Anoushka, laughing graciously, and acknowledging that the vast half-invisible crowd in front of the stage would not be so vast or so restless if this had been merely her. She was gracious too when a couple approached her at the airport the following morning as the entourage was going through the check-in for their flight. We saw your father last night ... How do I know this? I was standing a few feet away, zipping my boarding pass into my bag, thinking, suddenly, "That man in that wheelchair looks familiar. Of course he does. I remember that head. Ten hours ago I was trying to get the forehead into focus. And that fluffy, floating, wispy hair. His legs are so thin.")

Stage One is the main stage, the highest in the festival -- about, what -- seven feet off the ground? I haven't measured it, but it's above my head. There's a raised vertical lip -- like a rampart -- running along the front of the stage. One of the professional photographers discovered this when she tried to balance her camera on what she thought was a solid floor, and had to react quickly when it began to fall over the other side of the lip.

When a musician comes on from the back of Stage One I can't see them from the pit until they're standing at the microphone, which is usually back a little way at the centre. Then I see them from the waist up. Sometimes from the hips, if they come forward. Stage Two is lower, and it has a dark ceiling with a visible lighting rig, where Stage One has a smooth white shell ceiling that goes upwards at a curve. Standing in the audience for the Armada's performance on Sunday, I saw, in the gap between the bottom of this shell and the very back of the stage area, dark grey clouds welling up into the blue streak of sky, and thought, "It is going to rain again, and the Reject Shop this morning was sold out of plastic ponchos. I'll be soaked, I'll shake, and someone will say again, You're freezing."

(During the walk back to the hotel on Monday, I spoke to a man who told me the following story: a friend of his was at Womadelaide years ago when Jimmy Cliff came onstage during a storm and sang, "I Can See Clearly Now." At that the rain stopped.)

Stage Three is only about two feet off the ground behind a fence covered in black plastic hessian. There's a gap of perhaps three feet between this fence and the stage. The photographers sneak along doubled-up behind the fence. The Ravi Shankars and Eliades Ochoas of the festival never appear here, so there's never a photographer-scrum. (Ochoa is one of the surviving members of the Buena Vista Social Club, and when he appeared on Stage One the crowd cheered and screamed and a teenage girl crammed against the barrier shouted, "I love you! I love you!" Ochoa is sixty-three years old.)

Stage Four has a similar gap, but this one is narrower, and as the ends are blocked off with earthenware pots filled with long ornamental bright green grasses I concluded that we weren't supposed to use it. Everyone else must have concluded the same because I never saw anyone in there. The speakers or lights or something at the front of this stage bulged out into the rain so the crew covered them with a tarpaulin stuck down with gaffer tape. Part-way into Mairtin O'Connor the tape came loose and the musicians, all seated, were obscured by a cloud of rippling blue plastic.

On the morning of the first day there was a media call-up before the festival opened. We gave our names and received manila envelopes. These contained our passes, a Womadelaide programme, a wristband, and two sheets of paper laying out the rules. There would be no filming of Ravi Shankar, there would be no flash photography of Ravi Shankar, and this year the media would only be allowed to remain in the pit for the first ten minutes of each show. (This was enforced by security. The guard on Stage One was the most brusque. "All right, time's up, fellas." People lingered over the final snap. Oh how the front row in the Shankar performance must have hated us. They all had to sit down (this was the only sit-down show on Stage One) while we, of course, were allowed to stand, and right up the front, too, going click click click click -- and this was audible over the sitar.)

After we had our envelopes we watched two short performances by Ochoa and Mariem Hassan, "The Voice of the Western Sahara." Once they were finished we were allowed to conduct interviews. I wondered who the starched-casual group of men were behind me; later when I saw them on Stage Three and realised that they were the mugham ensemble from Azerbaijan I wished I'd spoken to them. Ross Daly, who is a tallish man, was inclining his noble head over a small crowd of journalists, his white hair whisking around in the wind. Days later at the All-Star Jam a larger wind blew up and the hair streamed out to the right until his head was an immobile comet followed in its inert progress by a cone-shaped tail.

The Voice of the Western Sahara was being photographed next to her percussionist, a round woman swaddled in fine orange gauze. I thought of her as The Orange. The next day she wore a green set of robes and I thought of her as The Lime. On Monday she was in pink and I thought of her as a Strawberry Gelati. What she wore on Sunday I do not know.

The crew had tied red and white striped tags to the lower branches of some of the trees. Those were gone by the time the park opened for the festival that afternoon. Why were they there? Why were they removed?

What else? We had a Media Tent, with tables and chairs, a water dispenser, and an internet connection. I ducked in during the rain and found the professional photographers sitting in a group discussing their cameras. In the background, on Stage Three, the Public Opinion Afro Orchestra was chanting, "Rain, rain, go away," in a call-and-response duet with the audience. But Jimmy Cliff wasn't there, and it didn't.


  1. One day I will get to Womad. What were the highlights this year? Anyhow, love your story!

  2. I'm working on another post about the musicians, so that should be up later today or tomorrow. Highlights? These --

    -- The Ethiopiques. Mahmoud Ahmed, Ethiopian nightclub singer of the 1960s, fronting a band from Brittany playing in the old Addis style, with snaky keyboard, brass, and so on.

    -- Young Wagilak Group. A mob from Arnhem Land, dancing and singing. Everything but the dancing and singing was disorganised (they arrived ten minutes late to their own show, which was unprecedented in this tightly-run festival) but once they opened their mouths to sing their bodies and minds seemed to snap into focus. The man in the middle (whose name I didn't catch) was one of the best traditional singers I've heard -- an articulate voice with a firm backbone.

    -- Yamato, the Drummers of Japan. Wadaiko drummers from Nara Prefecture. A crowd favourite, with lots of synchronised clowning. The atmosphere in the audience here was one of the reasons I'd pick them as a highlight. Goodwill streaming back and forth from stage to crowd and from crowd to stage.

    -- Ross Daly & Ensemble. Daly, an Irishman, has lived in Crete for thirty years, studying the music and learning the rebab. A rapt, serious performance.

    -- Gochag Askarov. A mugham singer from Azerbaijan accompanied by a four-part ensemble. Again, a serious, thoughtful, dedicated group of experts. The man on the tar was particularly good -- by this I mean that he was technically adept and emotionally expressive. His attention never wavered. He kept a constant eye on his fellow musicians too -- you could see him fine-tuning himself to match the kamancha.

    -- The moment when Eliades Ochoa, surviving member of the Buena Vista Social Club, announced his next song with a Spanish sentence that included the words, "Compay Segundo," and "Chan Chan" -- and the whole crowd purred with excitement.

    -- Kathakali Dance Ensemble. An Indian group performing a story from the Mahabharata in two one-hour blocks. The costumes! The gestures!

  3. Oh, and Grrilla Step, for its combination of krump and PNG war-dance (an ingenious idea), and VulgarGrad, partly for the pleasure of listening to Jacek Koman's stage patter.