‘It’s gone right into the cultural psyche’: How WOMADelaide changed the Australian festival landscape

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‘It’s gone right into the cultural psyche’: How WOMADelaide changed the Australian festival landscape

Words by Andrew Handley

The enduring nature of WOMADelaide is just one of the festival’s many charms.

Celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, the festival is returning to its home at Botanic Park, after doing a scaled back series of seated concerts last year due to Covid-19.

Ian Scobie has been a part of WOMADelaide since its beginning in 1992, where he was the General Manager of the Adelaide Festival, which included WOMAD in its program. Now Festival Director, Scobie says multiple factors have led to the festival’s longevity. “It was a time pre-internet, where the world still had a degree of complexity and exotica to it,” he says. “The other side of the world was a long way away and a lot more expensive.”

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“It also [ran] on the back of the culture of the Adelaide Festival, which is essentially double the age,” explains Scobie. “We [had a] community that was pretty well developed in terms of the notion of festivals trying new things, and a sense of adventurous tastes’.”

Scobie also thinks that the smaller population and size of Adelaide, compared to other major cities, has helped the festival prosper. “When WOMAD is on, people know it’s on,” he says. “Adelaide does have that festival, village-y sense, with the size of the population, and [an] appetite for getting involved.”

While in the early years the festival put some larger acts on the bill to draw crowds, like Crowded House and Men at Work, Scobie says they became more adventurous as the festival grew. “People increasingly stopped asking, ‘who are these bands?’…and understood that they could take the festival’s recommendations on trust, and come on the journey.”

“I think audiences found as they returned… there was always new things to discover and explore, and it wasn’t just bands on stage,” Scobie says. “Not that there’s anything wrong with bands on stage, but it had that depth and complexity to it that I think [meant] people got their fix, or a sense of cultural value from the experience, and they generally came away from it feeling they had travelled around the world.”

The original WOMADelaide was meant to be held at Belair National Park, though this was scrapped last minute due to fire danger. Instead, Scobie found Botanic Park, which the festival has called home (except last year) ever since. “[It] is a huge advantage for us, because [when you] walk in there… you immediately feel better about yourself, and life, because it’s such a lovely place,” he says. “The artists always refer to what an amazing place it is to perform, and the vibe is so welcoming, and open, and that enables them to give their best performance.”

Another unique aspect of the festival is that many of the bands on the line-up play twice over the four days. “When we shifted to a four-day format, adding that extra time took the pace of the whole event down a bit, and just brought an air of calm to it… and people didn’t have to be as manic, rushing from stage to stage.” Scobie explains. “I think we’re also lucky in having the different scale of stage, so you can see a big band like Youssou N’Dour up on the main stage, but then you can see, if not him, another band on a much smaller stage, and you get that different experience of a large-scale event – something that’s far more intimate, where you can see their hands on the instruments up close.”

Reflecting personally on festival, Scobie says that it’s been a huge part of, not just his, but many people’s lives. “The extent to which it has grown and expanded, and also the extent to which audiences with a passion [has grown] has been both fascinating and wonderful to see.”

“It means a lot to a lot of people. You’re talking a number of generations now – you have people who are bringing their kids, who were taken as kids. It’s gone right into the cultural psyche of many people, and that’s really the most exciting and rewarding part of it.”

“It’s been equally fascinating to see how, not just trusting, but how adventurous our audiences are. When we’ve done some of the weirder, out-there performance art kind of works, people have lapped them up. Rather than going ‘What’s this doing at a music festival?”…our audiences have really embraced that notion that WOMAD is about the world of music, arts and dance,” says Scobie.

While Scobie gave honourable mentions to Gurrumul, The Dirty Three and Nusrat, his favourite performer over the years has been Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté. “When he played the first time in 2007, with the Symmetric Orchestra, you could see people’s ears prick up,” he says. “That sense of excitement of people hearing something completely different, that magnetic appeal of it is really thrilling to witness happen.”

This year’s festival will see mostly Australian and New Zealand artists perform due to unknowns regarding Covid-19. “When you look back, the border restrictions only began to be relaxed in November, which was well after we had to commit to our program,” Scobie explains.

“It’s been challenging, but rewarding. At the end of the day, it’s been great to see the depth and breadth of cultural diversity within Australia. We could not have possibly programmed [this] festival even 10 or 15 years ago from within Australia,” he says.

Hopefully, next year will allow for more international acts, and Scobie says the festival will be even bigger and better than ever. “We’re going to have a second go at our 30 years, because it’s been 30 years since ’92 when we did the first WOMAD as a part of the Adelaide Festival, but 2023 will be 30 years since it happened as a stand-alone event.”

WOMADelaide will take place in Botanic Park from March 11 to 14.