Womadelaide and a gum tree celebrate 30 years of music, art, dance

Womadelaide and a gum tree celebrate 30 years of music, art, dance

When I was a seed I heard the thump, thump, thump of distant drums.

I didn’t understand the language but heard the words “Paul Kelly” and “Archie Roach” and sensed new life in the earth as it trembled and my shell cracked apart.

“Womadelaide is born,” those voices said. It was 1992 but I was just a gum tree germinating underground. 

A year later, when the drums returned, my first leaves were above the dirt and I could see lights, stages, colourful clothes, and hear the call of the earth through what they called a didgeridoo.

It was played by a group called Yothu Yindi and I felt my little trunk strengthen with pride because they knew who I was, even if I was too small to be noticed.

A crowd of people are covered with explosions of colourful powder at a festival
Womadelaide’s crowd numbers reached a peak in 2015 with 91,000 people.(Supplied: Grant Hancock via Womadelaide)

Then there was a musician called Peter Gabriel and everybody cheered because he was the one who brought us those drums, those colours, those strange sounds that made me flex my leaves, bob my crown, even if I was too slow to be seen.

But the noise didn’t come back for two more years and I instead watched people have picnics in the grass surrounding me, a place they called Botanic Park in a city called Adelaide, a park filled with trees like me who liked the music too.

Two men stand on a stage at night time with smoke around them
WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel appeared on stage in Adelaide in 1993.(Supplied: Womadelaide)

The festival returned in 1995 with many more people — 55,000 they said — a greater variety of sounds, and something they called the internet that they put in a tent and people looked at.

I preferred it when people danced, however, because by then I was the same height and liked watching their heads bounce about.

Thousands of people sit around an outdoor stage in a park with trees.
Crowd numbers jumped from 33,000 in 1993 to 55,000 at Womadelaide in 1995.(Supplied: Womadelaide)

I was even taller in 1997 when a band called Midnight Oil played on the first night and were so loud that everybody shook and bobbed and danced and shouted.

The drums that year were also bigger and louder because a band called Afro Celt Sound System used them to sound like three countries at once.

Three men play percussion on an outoor stage during the day
Afro Celt Sound System, pictured here in 2001, have played Womadelaide several times.(Supplied: Womadelaide)

By then I had learnt Womadelaide was about world music, art and dance, which in 1999 came from places as far away as Tibet, Zimbabwe, India, Israel, Cuba, Ireland, France, Jamaica and Senegal.

In 2001 an American guitarist called Bob Brozman looked up at me and noticed how tall I had become, which made me feel proud. But lots of people were looking at us that year because a man called Craig Walsh had used a machine to show our faces at night and call it Humannature.

A group of musicians looking excited on a stage
Badenya Les Frères Coulibaly were an energetic hit during 2003.(Supplied: Tony Lewis via Womadelaide)
Womadelaide at Botanic Park
The trees of Botanic Park and the shade they provide are integral to Womadelaide.(ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)

In 2003 it was hot and people weren’t just looking at me. They were spending the entire day underneath me, utilising my shade.

But the drums from a West African group called Badenya Les Frères Coulibaly were so fast and happy that the people stopped huddling beneath me and danced anyway.

The festival came back just one year later and brought with it fire, lots of it, in little pots and burners installed by French artists Cie Carabosse that made me uneasy, but I liked them all the same.

A circular structure filled with pots of fire
French fire artists Cie Carabosse created a popular installation at Womadelaide in 2004.(Supplied: Andy Rasheed via Womadelaide)

They also brought food in a tent called Taste the World and it smelt like what I imagined other parts of the world would smell like.

The bands came every year after that on an increasing number of stages: Ozomatli from America, Jimmy Cliff from Jamaica on a rainy day —  rain no-one complained about because there was a drought and everybody knew we needed the water.

I heard Femi Kuti, the Gotan Project, Buena Vista Social Club, Mavis Staples, Dan Sultan, Neil Finn and a group called The Cat Empire who kept on coming back to the festival, just as I kept on growing.

Three dancers on a stage with a singer
Femi Kuti’s electric night time set was enormously popular during 2007 at Womadelaide.(Supplied: Tony Lewis via Womadelaide)

Children wearing no shoes started climbing my branches, which I liked because it made everyone happy and no-one seemed troubled.

They also liked the puppets and parades that worked through the crowd, the dancers and acrobats, the reams of food trucks, stalls of homemade crafts, and those colourful clothes people seemed to pull, at least temporarily, from 1969.

Three large puppets move through some trees and into a crowd
Company Archibald Caramantran weave through trees and children at Womadelaide in 2020.(Supplied: Grant Hancock via Womadelaide)

In 2010 when that horrible drought finally broke, I saw a man called Xavier Rudd temporarily stop the rain, playing one of those wonderful didgeridoos in a beam of sunlight as if he were an angel.

There was also Ravi and Anoushka Shankar from India, and it must have resonated because next year there were even more people — 89,500 — and they decided to make Womadelaide go for four days instead of three.

By then there were seven different stages and they started a new program called The Planet Talks, which I liked because people from around the world talked in a tent about the world and helped me to understand it.

A man sings into a microphone from among the audience a night.
Féfé gets close and personal with the Womadelaide crowd in 2011.(Supplied: Tony Lewis via Womadelaide)
Colourful Angelique Kidjo on stage
Angelique Kidjo was a headline act at the 2016 festival.(ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)

I heard Hanggai from China, Goran Bregovic and the Weddings and Funerals Orchestra from the Balkan Peninsula,  Groundation from the United States, Arrested Development and Sinead O’Connor.

Some French people called Cie Artonik brought The Colour of Time with them in 2015, which is when they threw coloured powder into the sky and danced and danced.

Sinead O'Connor performs at WOMADelaide Festival
Irish singer Sinead O’Connor let loose a smile during her 2015 performance.(ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)

There was De La Soul in 2016, an inflatable replica of Stonehenge by Jeremy Deller that children bounced on, and more fire from Cie Carabosse, although this time it was stashed away in a corner to be safer, I guess.

They put on a big movie that should have made me sad about a world with too many people, but it was accompanied with music from the Philip Glass Ensemble and that made it strangely hypnotic.

The Manganiyar Seduction from India light up Botanic Park.
The Manganiyar Seduction from India lit up Botanic Park in 2018.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)

In 2018 some 40 musicians from India’s Rajasthan played in a strange, multi-story box, The Avalanches and Thievery Corporation brought the house down, and angels came to Botanic Park and made us all feel like we were in a snow dome.

The Gratte Ciel’s Place des Anges climbed across the sky and dropped millions of white feathers that fluttered over the world and made everyone smile like children.

Blue and white glitter and lights as part of Gratte Ciel's Place des Anges above a crowd at Womadelaide.
Gratte Ciel’s Place des Anges is among Womadelaide’s greatest moments in 30 years.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)

In 2020 I watched two-person act Sleaford Mods nearly blow the place up with their energetic spoken word music, a UK dance troupe called Wired Aerial Theatre defy gravity on a raised stage, and Craig Walsh came back to show our faces again.

The next year a weird thing happened. There was no festival in Botanic Park because a virus they called COVID-19 meant it had to be smaller.

They put it among some different trees but I heard Lior and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra left a big mark, along with Sarah Blasko, Midnight Oil and Archie Roach who was back again but older.

Iconic flags at Womadelaide
Angus Watt’s iconic flags arrived at Womadelaide for the first time in 1999.(ABC News: Malcolm Sutton)

But here in Botanic Park the soil has been vibrating again. The festival’s coming back this weekend and I feel like it’s going to be a special one.

It’s also its 30th anniversary, which makes me proud because it’s my birthday too.

I’m also really tall now, so tall that I can see everything across the park, even you.

If you come along, please say hello, take off your shoes and enjoy our earth.

Womadelaide Festival
Womadelaide returns with seven stages to Botanic Park from Friday until Monday.(Supplied)