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Perfect Harmony at Womad

 Ahead of this year's festival, Joanna wane looks back to when she felt the vibe at Womad.

It was a classic Margaret Mahy moment. “I walked through Africa in this shoe,” said a man called Stan, who was wearing what looked like road kill on his head. “Then the sole came off so I turned it into a hat.”

And he was just a random guy in the crowd.

Charlie O’Taney, billed on the official Womad programme as “the Brooklyn Healer”, should have been wearing a hat to match his pin-striped suit and New Joisey charm.

A former Mafia hitman with slicked-back silver hair and heat radiating from his hands, he ushered groups of five at a time into his black saloon. Behind its darkened windows, medicine-man potions dangled over the dash.

The car, on closer inspection, was a Honda Odyssey. “If he was any good, he’d be driving a Mercedes,” cracked someone waiting in the queue.

A 1968 Bedford, at the campground

At the lake to the left of the main stage, pukeko walked on water – scudding over the lilypads as if they were suspended by some celestial grace. In the Village of Wellness, an “angel communicator” gave consultations next to the laughter yoga stand, while kids jammed on African bongos with a part-Masai kickboxer in dreads and reggae gear who ran on the track for Kenya at the 1984 Olympic Games.

Gaggles of teenage girls with bronzed legs and flowers in their hair cruised the ethnic stalls for henna tattoos, and the line never seemed to get any shorter at the Hungarian fried-bread stand. After dark, “galactic stingrays” covered in luminescent lights glided along the pathways, as bubbles gushed from towering interactive totem poles that metamorphosed from day to night.

Tape artists Erica Duthie and Struan Ashby covered a blank wall with vignettes of the crowd, crafting life-size murals from shreds of blue sticky tape – then ripping them down at the end of each day to create a fresh canvas.

For two and a half days, a small group of Tibetan monks took turns sitting cross-legged in the shade of a mandala tent, painstakingly creating a delicate work of art using tiny grains of coloured sand, ground from Himalayan rock.

As the festival drew to a close near midnight on Sunday, the sand was scooped up into an urn, blessed by chanting monks and then poured into the flickering water of the lake, to demonstrate the impermanence of life.

And some people came for the music.

A Tibetan monk creates a mandala from millions of grains of coloured sand.

New Plymouth’s Pukekura Racecourse was already humming by Friday afternoon as we filed into the centre of the track behind a straggling line of Kombis and gypsy trailers and cars stuffed with camping gear.

A caravan of love, a friend called it. Tell that to the outliers who’d nabbed a prime spot near the showers and fenced off their “patch” with white tape, like some kind of police cordon. That’s so not cool, guys.

Next to us, a bloke with a broken arm was hammering in tent pegs with his cast. In a wooden shelter, some folkies whipped up an impromptu jam with a collection of instruments that included a fiddle, a tin whistle and a keyless Irish flute. Nigel, an anaesthetist from Nelson, showed me his mandolin, made in Vietnam and inlaid with mother of pearl.

“Look, there’s a hippie,” said my daughter, pointing to a woman playing with her toddler outside their tent, her tumble of hair wrapped in a tie-dye headband. Honey, I thought, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

As a teenager, I’d never made it to Sweetwaters, New Zealand’s most iconic music festival until it collapsed amid scandal and financial ruin. Far too young for Woodstock. Too squeamish for Glastonbury, with all that mud and sweat and other people’s bodies pressed uncomfortably close. Anyway, I wouldn’t have had a thing to wear.

“Come to Womad,” said a friend who lived in New Plymouth, when the World of Music, Art and Dance moved to Taranaki in 2003 after a misguided (and costly) decision to stage the international festival in Auckland’s Aotea Square. “Bring the kids.”

A young percussionist tries out his talents at a marimba workshop.

I thought she was mad. Yet here we were, almost 10 years later, “shaking our coconuts” in the sunshine with Grace Barbé, the sensual, barefooted Queen of Afro-Kreol from the Seychelles. Alongside her were musicians from the Cayman Islands, Europe, the UK and Australia; Barbé’s sister played the drums. Later that afternoon, she was back on stage cooking her favourite dish, Creole Coconut Fish Curry, with Masterchef’s Jax Hamilton in a makeshift kitchen in the Taste the World marquee.

“Music is a universal language,” says Peter Gabriel, who co-founded the first Womad festival in the UK in 1982. “It draws people together and proves, as well as anything, the stupidity of racism.”

While there’s a certain earnestness to all that brotherhood-of-man and save-the-world shtick (a Scottish folk-fiddling trio sang about the plight of the bumblebee), everyone is just so damned happy it’s impossible not to get caught up in the vibe.

“Who knew there were so many old hippies in New Zealand?” I commented to someone, as a middle-aged man in sun-faded Indian cotton writhed to the music, his eyes closed in that trippy, blissful way. “That’s because they’re usually wearing suits on Lambton Quay,” she said.

No wonder the luxury “glamping” option and solar-lit Gomad Teepees sold out this year.

If there’s one event that’s transformed Taranaki’s image from gumboot backwater to cosmopolitan epicenter, it’s Womad. Over the past decade, it has pumped $58 million into the province, with roughly half of the tickets sold to out-of-towners.

New Plymouth is the smallest city in the world to host Womad, which has now mushroomed across 27 countries, and has just been re-signed up for three more.

During this year’s three-day festival in March, some 40,000 people spilled into the stunning Bowl of Brooklands, its natural amphitheatre festooned with billowing flags and art installations. At night, the trail through Pukekura Park twinkled with coloured lights, guiding weary campers back to the campground at the racecourse next door. Falling asleep to strains of music drifting from the bowl, you risked being woken before dawn by muffled hoof-fall, as riders wearing headlamps worked their horses on the track.

Celebrated South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela performs on Womad’s opening night at the main TSB Bowl of Brooklands stage.

The New Plymouth model for Womad is seen as such a success that representatives from Vancouver have flown over for the past two years on scouting trips before they play host for the first time in 2014.

Yet the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust (TAFT), which runs the event here, aims simply to break even. Artist fees alone for the 400-plus musicians chew up $1.3 million of the budget, raised primarily by commercial sponsorship. And yes, there’s a certain irony to the oil and gas industry’s Todd Energy stage.

But you could see where the money goes. It’s all so wonderfully civilised. Babies in slings wore neon-coloured Womad kiddie earmuffs (one local came with her nine-day-old twins). There was hot running water and clean toilets that still flushed at the end of three days. A zero-waste policy and recycling booths – manned by volunteers – made it seem like profanity to leave behind litter (or spew) on the ground. Community Work offenders helped pack down the site.

For the first time this year, deaf festival-goers could pre-book a sign language interpreter, and you could download a free phone app to get info on the artists and the stage schedule.

Seniors long past their mosh-pit days had their own elevated viewing platforms. At the Human Library, you could take out a free loan and spend 30 minutes in private conversation with – among others – a female police officer, a local kuia, a singer with Asperger’s, or the child of a multiple sperm donor.

For two and a half days, I raced madly from stage to stage – there were five of them – sampling everything from the reggae riffs of Jimmy Cliff to the keening yoiks of Norway’s Mari Boine; from Afropop to gospel choir, hip hop to boogie woogie, electronica to gypsy choirs.

Most of it was music I’d never heard before and will probably never seek out again, but utterly magical to see live – like the three women from Siberia dressed in wolf fur who performed after dark on the intimate Dell Stage with only Jew’s harps. Yet later, when I looked at the programme and realised how much I’d missed, I wondered what on earth I’d been doing with my time.

On Sunday, as the rain finally fell after weeks of glorious sun, I danced with my daughter and a sea of others to the Aotearoa National Maori Choir and the Yoots belting out Poi E. I fell in love with Mr Bruce, the singer from sleeper-hit UK band The Correspondents who jerked and spun his way across the stage like an ecstatic praying mantis, poured into a skintight black and white outfit that would have made Split Enz proud.

“To a fellow correspondent,” he wrote on the CD I‘d rushed off to buy for his post-concert artist signing. A slight and terribly polite young Englishman, he looked so small and ordinary off stage in his white buttoned shirt and blue jeans.

But in a weekend of memorable moments, what moved me most was Sam Hunt performing J.K Baxter’s Gunner’s Lament with David Kilgour – two old campaigners themselves, mourning the dying moments of a young Maori soldier in the paddyfields of Saigon.

Put me down for world peace, after all..

This was originally published in the May 2013 issue of North & South

This year's festival runs from March 17-19,  find more info at www.womad.co.nz


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