Womad's a little different from all of those other summer music festivals. Chris Schulz explains why.

As Alice in Wonderland characters performed co-ordinated dance moves to Pharrell's pop hit Happy, a band full of trumpets, violins and beards warmed up on stage while, on the grass in front of me, a pair performed impossibly acrobatic couples yoga moves.

Over at the craft stalls, you could buy hats made of hemp, flower crowns for your hair, or get your spirit animal temporarily tattooed onto your body. The smell of incense was everywhere, except near the donut stand, where fat, dough and cinnamon smells combined with the coffee cart next door for an intoxicating combination.

During Aldous Harding's mesmerising Friday night performance, a man dressed as a shrimp and a woman dressed as a Christmas ornament sat down beside me. Later on, Aladdin joined them. As a Womad virgin dressed in just jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, it felt like I'd jumped through the looking glass.

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Punters enjoy the scenery at Womad at the Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth. Photo/Charlotte Curd
Punters enjoy the scenery at Womad at the Bowl of Brooklands in New Plymouth. Photo/Charlotte Curd

Yes, on a weekend in which you could see rowdy rap titan Big Boi and ageing nu-metallers Limp Bizkit perform in Auckland, things moved at a more ethereal pace at Womad, the colourful three-day festival held at New Plymouth's stunning Bowl of Brooklands and surrounding park.

Fans lazed on the venue's angled grass banks in chairs and tents while eating home-made food, all of which was allowed to breeze past security at the gates. People chatted under shade, tucked into a dizzying array of food, danced in nooks and crannies, or took in spoken word performances on a stage surrounded by trees. Smiles seemed to be mandatory.

Over at the Wellness Village, you could rent out a person from the Living Library, just to hear their life story. I haven't been to a music festival where you can do that before.

Sometimes there was so much to do it was easy to forget that Womad's stages were full of a breathtaking array of globe-trotting acts.

There were big name local acts Aldous Harding and Dragon, who performed a set packed with singalong hits like Rain and April Sun in Cuba to a rammed bowl. There was everyone from Ghanian Jojo Abot to Thievery Corporation, who closed out Friday night's musical offerings with a fired-up blast of funk, electronica and dancehall grooves while their bassist stalked the stage doing high knees the entire time.

At all times there was something interesting to check out. During one crazed half hour on Saturday, I saw the end of jazz icon Kamasi Washington's electrifying set, watched Mark Williams belt out singalong hits like Rain and April Sun in Cuba with Dragon, then high-fived strangers during Ghanaian JoJo Abot's eerie performance.

At another point, a friend messaged to say he was being taught how to count to 10 by an Iraqi guitarist. I replied that I was watching a 12-strong band of "gypsy punks" going crazy.

That group, the Lemon Bucket Orkestra, proved to be Saturday night's highlight. Hailing from Toronto, their performance was an all-in street party of horns and drums and violins that dared you not to dance.

They felt like the perfect Womad group, the living embodiment of the festival's mellow, colourful vibe, one where animal print sweaters mixed with light up hats, where toddlers danced next to grandparents, where a paella stand served bowls of chorizo sausage and seafood for $15 near vegetarian eatery Wise Boys Burgers ($14 each). I can confirm both were delicious.

One festival-goer seemed to sum things up with a T-shirt that read: "Worry is a wasted emotion". Too right. But you couldn't help but worry just a little about Aldous Harding after her showstopping performance on Friday night.

Refusing to get into the festival's cheery mood, Harding's hour-long show was a dose of pure emotional torture, one that forced you to dive into dark places with her. It was gripping and heartbreaking in equal measures, and stayed with you long after the fact.

Aldous Harding performs at Womad at the Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth. Photo/Charlotte Curd
Aldous Harding performs at Womad at the Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth. Photo/Charlotte Curd

After Womad, Harding is taking the rest of the year off to work on the follow-up to Party, TimeOut's best album of 2017 winner. But after her Womad shows (like many acts, she played again on Saturday), you can't help but wonder if there's something else behind her break, one which recently saw her cancel a world tour and admit to the Herald she had issues with alcohol.

The show ended with her bandmates leaving her alone to perform a new song called Heaven is Empty, and if you think she's perked up since Party's bleak dissection of a failed relationship, you'd be wrong. It was a stark ballad devoid of hope, one that ended with the line: "That place is empty."

To recover, my wife and I hugged, checked we were okay, then headed to the queue for hot chocolates and donuts to recover. Like those around us, talk quickly turned to Harding's affecting performance, the toll it had taken on us, and what it must take out of her, performing those songs night after night.

We were quickly silenced when we realised she was standing right behind us, deciding, as we were, whether to order the eight pack of donuts ($4), or the 16 pack ($6).

I haven't been to a music festival before where I queued for food with a headlining act just minutes after they left the stage. If you're wondering what Womad's all about, that says it all.

Womad
Where: Bowl of Brooklands, New Plymouth
When: March 16-18