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  • Writer's pictureJack Latimore

Street-music from the steel pole section

The song cycle started in the early hours of Monday, at the front steps of the Adelaide Hilton, on an otherwise deserted street. It had been a large WOMADelaide Sunday afternoon of west African rhythm harps, dub sirens and desert wind synth-trails courtesy of Julian Belbachir and friends. It was electrified by Fantastic Negrito’s hill country stomp and delta groove blues with added layers of hymnals and funk, and spurred on by the 14-piece Ondatropica, whose one-show-only late night set blasted hot salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat, reggae, and Latin jazz horns.

The crowd mingling on the pathway in front of the hotel’s portico swelled with each arriving shuttle bus of musicians, managers, and organisers, buzzing over a set they’d delivered or seen, high from kicking all day with other performers backstage.

From the edge of the steps, Nidia Góngorabegan to sing a Colombian folk song a cappella that struck the crowd of artists dumb. It began plaintive and rose to an emboldened call and response. A circle formed, keeping steady time clapping hands, stomping feet on concrete paths, stairs, or walloping the portico’s masonry. The song cycled up, rolled around, was met with ecstatic hollering. Then somebody brought out a Brazilian tamborim drum.

Artists in the hotel rooms above rode the elevators down. More folkloric songs from other corners of the world cycled in. Cultural songs of longing, despair, and sad beauty; old songs of loss, dignity, and triumph; each performed at the top of the lungs.

When the hotel concierge emerged, begging for an end to the impromptu concert, the session moved to the street. First beside a bench, then a nearby sliver of park, and finally at the empty roadside, where Góngora now began to play the steel pole of a street lamp masterfully with a set of wooden drumsticks.

Players spontaneously joined her pole percussion section. A cowbell revealed itself. A squeezebox entered, then a clarinet and a tenor saxophone from the German techno marching band, MEUTE. A flurry of Romany violin streaked in next, played by the virtuoso, Gheorghe “Caliu” Anghel. His bow dashed across the catgut, the rapid riffs squiggling off his shoulder into the skinny morning air.

Euphoric cheers. Then somebody produced a zither, or maybe it was a west African Qanun. The street pole rang out with another blend of tropical rhythms. More and more bodies emerged from the hotel lobby, dancing towards the group. Everyone wanted in, they understood what was unfolding. The sharing, the common ground, the exchange, it was not only the reason for their presence at the festival, but the reason for all being.

“Music is the power that brings us together in life,” Julian Belbachir told me inside the hotel lobby mere moments before the plaintive notes of that Colombian song broke out. “We’re all connected, coming together, being on the ground and connecting with all the other different artists through music. At Womad, you find yourself sitting at breakfast with a room full of people who have dedicated their life to this practice.”

Two days earlier, his band’s flautist and percussionist, Eddine Imad, was walking the streets with the legendary Malian guitarist, Moussa Diakite, trying to buy cigarettes when Imad spotted a familiar face across the street. He cried out to Ibrahim Mani, resident of Geneva, Switzerland, who had just joined the Moroccan Guembri blues-trance band Bab L’Bluz. The pair knew each other from an instrument store in Marrakesh where Imad had once worked. Until that moment, neither had seen nor spoken to the other in over 15-years.

That’s the way of WOMADelaide, an event regarded among the artists as being more like summer camp than a regular music festival. Generally, when artists tour, particularly on the Australian festival circuit, they come in on a truck or bus, head straight to an exclusive access backstage area, perform the show, get back on the transporter and leave.

At WOMADelaide, the artists mix in common areas, which festival associate director, Annette Tripodi describes as the “magic formula” that creates an energised, inspired community.

“They’re staying at the same hotel, they’re travelling on the same shuttle buses together to get here and then back to the hotel, and they’re hanging out in a mutual backstage where there are no egos, generally,” Tripodi says. “There’s a lot of thought that’s been put into having everybody together.”

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