Concert review: Womad Festival, New Plymouth

By Hayden Donnell

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Staff Benda Bilili perform at Womad in New Plymouth. Photo / Michael Flynn
Staff Benda Bilili perform at Womad in New Plymouth. Photo / Michael Flynn

Polio crippled the members of Staff Benda Bilili. It hasn't stopped them dancing.

The eight-piece band from the Democratic Republic of Congo whirled across the stage, wheelchairs swaying in time with the music, in a joyous set that brought the Womad Festival to a close for 2012.

Staff Benda Bilili were one of the headline acts for this year's festival, held for the eighth time at Pukekura Park in New Plymouth.

All five of the group's aging lead singers and guitarists were wheelchair-bound by childhood polio and living rough on the streets near a zoo in the city of Kinshasa before vocalist Ricky Lickabu brought them together to play music.

They were soon joined by Roger Landu, a teenager who fashioned a one-string guitar from an empty fish can. Landu still plays a modified version of his empty fish can in arenas and concert halls around the world.

At Womad, the group's take on Congolese rumba was a highlight. Their set was infused with pulsing rhythms, jarring one-string guitar solos and five-part call and response harmonies. Group members flew across the stage to dance with each other before wheeling heavily modified trikes back to the microphone for the next vocal stanza - all of it done with impeccable timing and unusual grace.

It was a great ending after an almost tragic start to the festival. Nars, band leader for Chinese group Anda Union, was hospitalised on opening night when he was burnt during a Taste The World cooking demonstration.

A band member accidentally knocked a simmering wok off a bench, spilling its contents down his neck and back. St John medical staff held the shaken artist under a cold tap before transferring him to New Plymouth Hospital where he was treated for superficial burns.

Less than 48 hours later, Nars took the stage with Anda Union, the sound of his throat singing cutting through above the 10-piece ensemble's array of traditional Mongolian acoustic instruments. There was little evidence he was in pain.

As he had told a festival publicist: "I'm a hard man."

Both Anda Union and Solomon Islands group Narasirato are translating the music of the distant past into a modern setting. Listening to the former feels like being taken back in time. Listening to Narasirato feels like being taken out on the town.

Using an array of increasingly large panpipes and drums, the group breathes new life into tribal music stretching back 75 generations. Their songs bear a surprisingly striking similarity to modern dance music, with rhythmical high panpipes playing over a driving bass beat.

That feel has propelled them to performances at Glastonbury and Roskilde festivals. It got the crowd dancing in New Plymouth.

One of the few lowlights of the festival came from Shogun Orchestra, the latest in a line of afro-beat and funk-inspired Wellington super groups. The 11-piece band dazzled with their technical proficiency but left little lasting impact. They were the only group to exceed their allotted time, playing 10 minutes over the set of the Sharon Shannon Big Band. It felt self-indulgent in the context of an international festival. Please Wellington, put a moratorium on being so funky.

Alabama 3 could show them how to run a set. Despite confessing to being hammered on "New Plymouth weed", singer Larry Love stumbled to the side of stage to check how much time he had left before closing out the group's Sunday night show.

They were one of the festival's most impressive and entertaining acts. Love's gravel voice growling out the lines to Woke Up This Morning - made famous as the theme song to The Sopranos - will be an enduring memory of a Womad festival filled with many great moments.

Highlights:

Ivory Coast artist Dobet Gnahore performing an impromptu concert while doling out food for the masses at Taste The World.

Gurrumul Yunupingu singing the beautiful I Was Born Blind as the sun set over Brooklands Park.

Having Sopranos flashbacks while hearing Alabama 3 vocalist Larry Love growling, "Woke up this morning and got yourself a gun".

Wheelchair dancing from the amazing Staff Benda Bilili.

Japanese 16-piece orchestra Pascals' mind-bending mix of whimsy, pop drama and a half-naked dancing percussionist.

Lowlights:

The Yoots' reggae-infused instrumental cover of Pokarekare Ana. Please, make it stop.

A bit too much Kiwi dub and funk. More than half the festival's local acts were cut from the same cloth. More variety please.

The words "acoustic bluegrass" appearing in the bio for Australia/New Zealand act Ash Grunwald. Not backed up by the music.

Anda Union band leader Nars being hospitalised after having boiling water spilled on him during a cooking demonstration.

* What did you think of the festival? Post your comments below.

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