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The Guardian

Womadelaide 2023: blockbuster headliners and record crowds drive a euphoric long weekend

By Walter Marsh,

2023-03-14

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“It’s been a long time coming, these shows,” muses Billy Bragg on the opening night of Womadelaide. “Those tickets had 2020 printed on them.”

For three years the cyclical rescheduling and postponement of Bragg’s Australian tour has been my personal way of marking time in the pandemic era. Now he’s here, his Womadelaide show capping a week-long run in Adelaide, it’s hard not to feel like an epoch has ended.

The organisers and crowds at this year’s Womadelaide certainly seem to hope so. After 2021’s abridged concert , then last year’s mostly domestic lineup , 2023 feels like the globally minded festival is in full flight again.

Emphasis on full: those crowds are enormous , with the long weekend largely sold out thanks to blockbuster headliners Bon Iver and Florence and the Machine, and luminaries like Kronos Quartet, Youssou N’Dour, and Béla Fleck.

For Florence Welch’s all-twirling set of baroque stadium pop, a seemingly endless sea of adoring fans is packed tight in every direction. They bellow along to Dog Days Are Over with well-earned hope and joy, just as they turned Justin Vernon’s aching classic Skinny Love into a kind of communal catharsis the night before.

With perfect weather all weekend, the rest of Botanic Park is a sea of picnic rugs and sprawled families, as all the lockdown babies conceived in 2020 now run barefoot through the grass. Queues for food stalls and toilets are long, but despite some complaints, it’s a far cry from the boggy hellscapes that have marred other Australian festivals recently.

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Womadelaide 2023: punters offer free haircuts in the grounds. Photograph: Wade Whittington

Related: K-everything: the rise and rise of Korean culture

Away from the big names, the festival’s spirit of discovery and exchange is back too. South Korea’s ADG7 (Ak Dan Gwang Chil) serve an alternate take on K-pop to the currently trending crop of slick girl and boy bands. Deploying traditional Korean instruments from the saenghwang to the stringed gayaguem, their colourful show is part folk reclamation, part spiritual art pop. It’s impossible to resist.

At times, the festival’s bid to recapture former glories is more explicit. The return of 2018 centrepiece Place des Anges by French troupe Gratte Ciel ends each night with winged clowns and acrobats spinning and soaring over the crowd from ziplines. As it reaches its crescendo, the aerial performers shower the crowd with a blizzard of white feathers alongside a giant inflatable cherub.

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Gratte Ciel performs Place des Anges at Womadelaide 2023. Photograph: Wade Whittington

The angels drew a storm of controversy in their first outing from vegans and asthmatics (this writer is both, unfortunately), but most of the crowd seems nonplussed, more than happy to be swept up in the fluffy spectacle – even if the novelty ebbs with each nightly deluge.

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Members of the crowd react to Place des Anges. Photograph: Wade Whittington

The return of another familiar sight is an unambiguous triumph. “We played on this small stage,” Sampa the Great tells the crowd of her first Womadelaide appearance years earlier. “Now we’re here with my family onstage, on the main stage – this is what dreams are made of.”

The Zambia-born, sometimes Australia-based rapper growls, struts, and wiggles across the stage, backed by a red-hot ensemble she proudly declares is the first all-Zambian band to play Glastonbury, Coachella, and the Sydney Opera House.

With her summer festival run slightly truncated after a principled withdrawal from Bluesfest , Sampa seems happy to be back in Botanic Park, prefacing her euphoric Angélique Kidjo collab Let Me Be Great with the story of meeting her hero right here at the festival – as a fan asking for an autograph.

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An unambiguously triumphant return: Sampa the Great performs at Womadelaide 2023. Photograph: Wade Whittington

Sampa’s ascendance is a reminder to keep an eye on those smaller stages, like the Saturday afternoon set by Gold Coast/London-based singer Beckah Amani. It’s Amani’s first time working a festival stage and crowd, but if she hadn’t told us you’d never know – she won’t be on the outer stages for long.

Later that night, Dem Mob from Pukatja in the APY Lands had the same tent quaking with an impressive, fast-flowing set peppered with Pitjantjatjara and calls for justice and sovereignty. “Will it ever change? What’s it going to take?” the young men shout, as they implore the crowd to raise fists in solidarity. A few moments later, they have that same crowd jumping again.

Solidarity is also the order of the night at Ukrainian-Canadian act Balaklava Blues. Singer Marichka Marczyk is flanked by two balaclava-clad bandmates sitting atop bass drums, as translated surtitles share stories of loss, resistance and life in a warzone.

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‘Every time we sing these songs, it is not only an act of resistance, it is an act of existence’: Ukrainian-Canadian group Balaklava Blues. Photograph: John Hemmings

At the end of their loud, bracing set, the men remove their sweaty ski masks and hold them aloft in more defiant fists. Encores are rare at the festival, but Marczyk and her bandmate and husband Mark are allowed to duet a cappella on a traditional piece they sang with their countrymen on the last day of medic training before deployment. Afterwards, they explain, their commanding officer ordered them away from the frontlines, insisting they serve Ukraine by spreading their music and message with the world instead.

“A lot of the music that we’re singing is inspired by 1,000-year-old traditional Ukrainian polyphony,” Marczyk explains. “Every time we sing these songs, it is not only an act of resistance, it is an act of existence.”

Related: Adelaide Writers’ Week: rare moments of empathy and nuance found amid a storm of controversy

Like Adelaide writers’ week a few days earlier , Womadelaide is a potent reminder of the power of art and festivals to observe and honour our differences, but also to bridge them.

By Monday the crowds have thinned a little, the feathers on the ground a little thicker, while American singer-songwriter Angel Olsen provides an exquisitely dreamlike soundtrack for the comedown. That is, until Genesis Owusu and his Black Dog Band shocks the crowd back to life. For 60 glorious minutes Owusu seems like the coolest guy on planet Earth, cutting sick across the stage in red matador jacket and sunglasses at night as his band veers from riotous rap punk to lithe funk jams.

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From riotous rap punk to lithe funk jams: Genesis Owusu at Womadelaide 2023. Photograph: Michael Selge

With the Black Dog Band still ringing in peoples’ ears, 62-year-old Kingston dancehall legend Sister Nancy gets the last word, riffing patois and fly-kicking across the stage. When the needle drops on her endlessly sampled 1982 hit Bam Bam , the mood is euphoric, the crowd in full voice. Nancy clutches a Jamaican flag to her chest, welling with pride.

Back at the start, Bragg put it succinctly. “Music can’t change the world,” he says. “Music has no agency by itself.

“You need to take some of that solidarity home, so that you know however marginalised you feel in your school, in your home, your workplace, you know there’s a park full of people in Adelaide who give a shit about this stuff.”

This, Bragg says, is the power of music and, by extension, a festival like Womadelaide: “Not the power to change the world, but to make you believe the world can be changed.”

  • This article was corrected on 15 March 2023. An earlier version said Beckah Amani was based in Melbourne; Amani is based between the Gold Coast and London.

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