ReadingRoom

The problem with Womad

Wellington publisher Mary McCallum went to Womad with 17,000 people each day, just before the lockdown.

It’s a fortnight since people headed home from Womad in New Plymouth, some going straight into self-isolation as a preventive measure. Held on March 13-15, it was the last large gathering before Government measures were ramped up to stop the spread of Covid-19. The country looked on as 17,000 people rocked for three days in Pukekura Park, many of them camping nearby, and wondered if it should have been cancelled. Some who attended experienced a social backlash on returning home. So far nobody who has attended has been diagnosed with the virus.

I was there. It was my first Womad. I stayed even when everything started to suggest it was a very bad idea.

On Friday the 13th, we dropped our things off at Donna’s dad’s place in Fitzroy and drove to Brooklands on the edge of Pukekura Park.

The three of us – Donna, Julie and I – walked down through trees and lights, through the bag check and the wrist-band attacher, to a place of more trees and lights and dells and glades, with stages that ranged from the natural grassed amphitheatre called the Bowl to a platform that looked like a garden-party gazebo, food trucks with every sort of deliciousness from seafood paella to mushroom burgers, banks of hi-tech water stations, and bars with NZ-made gins and craft beers.

And people came with us, shoals of them: gold card carriers with hiking sticks and backpacks, teens in tight groups, cheerful dads with kids on their bare shoulders, hippies with dreads, middle-aged professionals with parasols for the day and Gore-Tex for the evening. Many of the crowd had dressed up: in kilts, harem pants, ball gowns, funny hats, fluorescent paint, feathers, lights blinking from hair and waists.

They carried fold-up chairs, pop-up tents, blankets, crocheted pillows. Walked, danced. All movements were fluid and gentle. Children climbed on low branches. Teenagers stepped to one side to let their elders past. Smiled. Nodded. Smiled. Everyone was doing it.  Some hugged and hongi’d. Kiwis hanging out. That was us, then.

*

Two days earlier a pandemic had been declared, and two weeks earlier Covid-19 had finally snuck into New Zealand. While we didn’t like the sound of this, the only people who seemed to be actively protecting themselves were the already anxious, the immune compromised, and the older folk, who were not only vulnerable but knew what pandemics could do.

I’d felt mostly sanguine but went on mild alert when my 90-year-old author Renée decided to cancel her gig at the Auckland Writers Festival to the disappointment of the organisers. Before she’d made that call I’d consulted my GP friend, John Rowland, via messenger. Would he discourage his mum from going to an event like that? A perfunctory, “Yes. No debate,” came back, and so the decision was sealed.

But when Donna, Julie and I left Wellington to drive to New Plymouth via the Wairarapa, there were still only seven cases of Covid-19 in the country and as yet no community transmission. The Festival of the Arts in Wellington was continuing to pack people into the Michael Fowler Centre to see jetlagged performers do their thing, and Womad musicians had arrived in Auckland from places as far away as Finland and Scotland, Mali on the West Coast of Africa and Alabama in the US. The Auckland Writers Festival was still going ahead in May. Jacinda Ardern said she didn’t want Kiwis to avoid public gatherings needlessly.

Still, people began talking about the wisdom of going ahead with Womad. My mum was one of them.

As our car swung out of Pātea heading for New Plymouth I posted a photo on Facebook of the open road in front of us and the steep-sided deep-blue splendour of Mount Taranaki. Cheery friends commented “Womad!” and “See you there!” Matt said, “Poi e!’” My mother, Norma, tapped out a note of warning: “Take care. Should have been cancelled in my view.”

But Waikanae, where my parents live, and Wellington and Motueka, where we three hail from, felt far away. We were in the shadow of a great mountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama were calling us; alongside them in the packed programme were bands we’d never heard of with beguiling names like Soaked Oats, Tuuletar and Linker e os Caramelows.

We’d wash our hands and avoid hugs and hongis. We’d be sensible. We’d be fine.

*

Standing in front of the main stage at Womad on that first evening, with a moat and back-lit trees, people sitting and sprawling on the sides of the huge grass bowl that faced it, we could hear the sound of harps, each note falling like water. Follow the music, and we were in the area called the Dell. Welsh harpist Catrin Finch was playing, with Seckou Keita from Senegal on a kora, an African lute harp.

It was our first Womad act and almost filmic in its perfection, and really quite – I don’t use the word lightly – heavenly. Is it the harps that make me say that? Perhaps. But it was a feeling in the air too – of gentleness, lightness, joy.

Have I said Wellington felt far away? Light years. What about the virus? Yeah. Nah. Covid-19 made its presence felt for sure. There were signs on every second tree, every food tent, outside every toilet block. Soap and water and sanitiser in bulk. There were people in the loos spraying cubicles after one use. We all washed our hands while singing happy birthday twice. Sanitised.

But then we walked off to a stage under trees and stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of strangers rocking out to acts like Scottish band RURA with its bagpipes and fiddles and bearded redhead, who encouraged us to wave our well-washed hands about.

When the Scots finished there was Troy Kingi and his band belting it out on one stage and Shapeshifter on the other, people on their feet dancing or drifting, a fat moon pulling itself up lazily into a starry sky … and I’d lay a bet that the last thing on any of our minds was Covid-19.

Saturday and Sunday were hot. The sun shone down as determinedly as the moon had mooched. We stumbled on a trio from Mali, ran down the hillside for the pure vocals of New Zealand’s Reb Fountain, and found ourselves in front of Ifriqiyya Electrique playing ‘slave music’ that sounded like death metal, and then there was the laid back charm of L.A.B, the infectious energy of Albi and the Wolves, and star quality of the blind gentlemen from Alabama in their lamé jackets.

We were in the world, you see, but also weirdly out of it. There was so much to absorb right there in front of us that it felt like the brain simply couldn’t stretch to what was happening to people elsewhere. The virus. We hadn’t forgotten it but for now, for Donna, Julie and me at least, it wasn’t centre stage. From the way everyone else was acting, it wasn’t centre stage for them either.

But something was happening in the wings.

*

"On the ground up front a woman in a pink dress danced – tossing her long red hair and white shawl like she was doing the flamenco...." Photo by Mary McCallum.

On the Saturday we heard the Pasifika Festival in Auckland had been cancelled, and there was talk of events having number restrictions – including the one Renée had opted out of, the Auckland Writers Festival.

It didn’t take much googling to find that the number of people dying overseas from Covid-19 was still climbing sharply, others were confined to their homes unable to get out except for food and medicine and as an antidote were singing wildly from their balconies (music, it’s everywhere), and the world economy was tanking. That night in New Plymouth the likeable guy who fronted L.A.B. called on everyone to dance like there was no tomorrow. “Do it!” he yelled. “It might be the last festival we get to for a while.”

On the last day for Womad, the Sunday, I got a text from my husband to say that the arts festival event he was attending that night had been cancelled.

Up in Brooklands our brains were still struggling to take it all in.  I mean, look at all the people here, relaxed, happy, healthy, from different countries and cultures, weaving together in and around the grassy slopes of the Bowl like one huge colourful kete. Look at the sun shining in the sky like a drawing in a child’s picture book. How could it end badly?

Late afternoon and the festival was winding up. The last acts were doing soundchecks. Donna was hanging out at Te Paepae with her whānau, listening to a woman talking about planting by the moon. Julie and I joined her. It was still hot even in the late afternoon sun. We put up our – yes – parasols.

There was a small stage close by, and a bunch of young men in black leather jackets, carrying brass instruments and taxidermied animals leapt on board.  The Belgian band KermesZ à l’Est started to play something that could be called frenzied Balkan metal/jazz.

After a couple of songs, the four women who made up the Finnish band Tuuletar were invited to jump up onto the stage too, and they did, and the two bands jammed – spit and sweat flying. The unexpected get-together electrified the crowd.

On the ground up front a woman in a pink dress danced – tossing her long red hair and white shawl like she was doing the flamenco. Nearby an older couple kissed and kissed while people eddied around them. A boy was practising with juggling sticks, using two to toss one in the air and catch it. A toddler wiggled his fat belly and his mum chased him, her dress falling from her shoulders.

And the woman in pink danced and flicked her shawl and tossed her long red hair.

Then one of the Belgians was waving a bottle of Belgian beer. He drank deeply, and passed it down to the woman in pink. She drank from it, wiped the back of her hand across her mouth, and passed the bottle to another young woman beside her, who drank, too.  

Even though Wellington felt light years away and the rest of the world further than that, even though the virus still felt like a concept a bully had invented to bring us all into line (scaring people then getting them to sing happy birthday over and over), and even though we were all standing there sated with music and sunshine like a bunch of Lotus-eaters, still we knew that crushing on the stage, kissing in the crowd and sharing the beer were all wrong.

Now.

All wrong now.

*

When we left the next morning and headed home we’d find out exactly how wrong it all was. We’d find more Kiwis diagnosed with the virus, people self-isolating, events cancelling, businesses fighting for their lives, hugs and hongis displaced by raised eyebrows and awkward elbow gestures. Everyone perplexed and uncertain at best, deeply anxious and frightened at worst.

Some of my Facebook friends wondered aloud how they’d greet people who’d attended Womad – weren’t we as bad as the tourists from the cruise ships? Shouldn’t we self-isolate? One of them posited, probably tongue in cheek, that we’d be the last people to get the virus as Womad people always come home with silly smiles on their faces, and everyone knows that happiness improves your immunity and improved immunity means you’re less likely to get the virus. It had been sunny too – Covid-19 didn’t like the sun.

By the time I dropped Donna and Julie at the airport on Monday afternoon to catch a flight to Motueka, the media was reporting that Milk Crate, the Ghuznee Street café where I bought coffee on my way to work, was closing its doors because the seventh confirmed case of Covid-19 in New Zealand had eaten there.

Almost exactly a week later our prime minister would announce the country was going into lockdown. In between there would be media reports about two Taranaki people being infected by the virus, and the journalist had to make it clear that they weren’t at Womad, because, well, you’d think …

There were reports too about infected people at the airport at the same time Donna and Julie were checking in. And then the Carterton diagnosis would come through, and with it the reality of community transmission, which led inevitably and in a matter of days to Stage 4 and the lockdown.  

But for now in the late afternoon sunshine at Pukekura Park, we grinned at a bunch of crazy Belgians, rolled our eyes at a kissing couple and, following the lead of a woman in pink, danced like like there was no tomorrow. For a snatch of time before the world rushed in, we were wild, horrified and free.

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