In 1992 Adelaide Festival booked the stage production of Sarafina!, a musical depicting anti-apartheid riots in Soweto. Opening night coincided with the vote to abolish apartheid in South Africa.
As the audience took their seats at 8pm on that balmy March evening, there was no way of knowing what the outcome of the referendum would be. At 11pm, after the curtain had fallen and bows had been taken, writer Mbongeni Ngema walked onto the stage and announced that apartheid was over.
The Soviet Union had collapsed three months earlier. It was the beginning of the end of apartheid, and in this climate the 1992 Adelaide Festival brought the world to Adelaide via the very first WOMADelaide festival. “It was a near-run thing,” says Rob Brookman, the artistic director of the 1992 festival. “A lot of people had to stick their necks out to make it happen.”
In its own way, WOMADelaide was a radical concept. Air travel alone devoured obscene amounts of money, and operational costs and guarantees were scraped together over the years from government departments, the Festival Centre Trust and donations. It flew by the seat of its pants at times – the first festival brochure announced WOMAD would be in Belair National Park, a location vetoed at the last minute in case of fire danger. Current WOMADelaide director Ian Scobie, then festival administrator, hopped into his little VW and drove frantically around Adelaide scoping for a new site: he found Botanic Park, where the festival happens to this day.
As the 1992 WOMADelaide weekend wound to a close, Brookman stood on stage with Thomas Brooman (WOMAD UK’s artistic director) and declared that WOMADelaide would be back. “That was just an act of bravado,” says Brookman today, laughing. “We had zero idea how that would actually happen.”
But happen it did, and in a powerful way. Although WOMAD is known around town as “that hippie festival”, it was tuned in to the zeitgeist right from its first program. It included Youssou N’Dour, a passionate activist rallying for Nelson Mandela’s freedom and Trio Bulgarka and Voices of Georgia, representatives of Eastern European nations emerging from the Soviet shadow.
Later, WOMADelaide’s politics spread from the music program to the Planet Talks, forums designed to combat undignified and malicious discourse around science and climate change. In 2001, even the forks got political: all crockery and cutlery was required to be biodegradable – a green statement from an already green organisation.
This year, French art-theatre company Carabosse will present Exodus of Forgotten Peoples – a spectacular of flame and giant wooden puppetry that reflects on Article 13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: the right of freedom of movement. The piece was created in 2012 in response to the refugee crisis. In 2017 WOMADelaide is also aligning itself with the Recognise campaign, and will acknowledge the 50th anniversary of Indigenous people being counted in the Census and given the right to vote.
WOMAD has seen the demise of apartheid and the dawning of Trump. The festival’s 25-year legacy is one of open hearts and minds, a willingness to earnestly embrace others, and a commitment to the betterment of our planet. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime show, and we host it every year. Here’s to the next 25 years.
Womadelaide runs from Friday March 10 to Monday March 13. Tickets are available online.