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WOMADelaide: The Iconic Festival’s Enduring Support of First Nations and Indigenous Talent

As the 2021 edition of WOMADelaide edges ever closer, we take a look back at some of the stunning First Nations act on the bill, and the festival’s history of supporting stellar Indigenous talent.

2 panel image of WOMADelaide 2021 performers Archie Roach and Miiesha

WOMADelaide 2021 performers Archie Roach and Miiesha are two of the acclaimed First Nations and Indigenous artists that the world-renowned festival is showcasing this year.

Adrian Cook*; triple j Unearthed

Ever since the very first WOMAD event was held back in 1982 following its founding just two years earlier, the international festival has prided itself in consistently living up to its name by providing a true World of Music, Arts and Dance. A glorious multicultural celebration of what makes global art so unique and special, it took only a decade before Australia was treated to the arrival of the festival, with the local edition being held in the South Australian capital as WOMADelaide since 1992.

Ask any South Australian who grew up with WOMADelaide as a constant presence within their musical calendar and they would agree that the festival’s annual (biannual prior to 2003) appearance served as equal parts a musical education and a cultural revelation.

A welcome respite from the standard fare of rock and pop bands on the scene, and a unique insight into global culture, it goes without saying that without WOMADelaide, music fans of young and old would likely have never been exposed to the eclectic range of artists that the festival provided. After all, where else could they have seen the likes of Gil Scott-Heron, Youssou N’Dour, The Pogues, Tinariwen, Mavis Staples, and even festival founder Peter Gabriel?

Of course, while the festival managed to shine a light on countless exceptional international acts, and even more local artists, it became easy for festivalgoers to take many of the smaller names for granted, and – most notably – overlook the talent in our own backyard.

For as long as WOMADelaide has existed, so too have an immeasurable amount of Indigenous and First Nations joined the bill to showcase their equally immeasurable amount of talent. While names like Coloured Stone, Yothu Yindi, and Sunrize Band appeared in the festival’s early years, WOMADelaide’s inaugural events also featured a few familiar names for those heading to this year’s festivities, with the likes of Archie Roach and Vika and Linda Bull both appearing in 1995.

Back in 1995 though, both artists were arguably at pivotal points in their career. While Roach – a Gunditjmara and Bundjalung man – had released his debut album, Charcoal Lane, just a few years before, a second album and a rising wave of popularity had seen him become one of the most iconic voices in Australian Indigenous culture at the time. Though his career has never once waned, personal and health issues have plagued him over the years, with his resilience and tenacity something to be admired.

In 2015, Roach was made Member of the Order of Australia, while just last year he was named the 2020 Victorian Australian of the Year. 2020 was also supposed to bring with it his final-ever national tour, alongside a 30th anniversary celebration of Charcoal Lane’s release, but plans were put on hold following the advent of COVID-19 and its still-lingering effects.

Meanwhile, crowds in 1995 managed to catch the rising Vika and Linda Bull – sisters of Tongan descent – at the start of their solo career. Having launched their self-titled album in 1994, six years after rising to fame as members of The Black Sorrows, the pair were on track for a whirlwind rise to the top of the Australian music scene.

While their debut record peaked at number seven on the ARIA charts, and was even nominated for best Breakthrough Artist at the 1995 ARIA Awards, it also made them household names, with the dazzling interplay of their voices soon becoming a soundtrack to countless lives around the world.

Over the years, both Vika and Linda have remained incredibly busy (including spots in Paul Kelly’s backing band), though 2020 brought with it a new album by way of their Sunday (The Gospel According to Iso) record, and their first chart-topping release thanks to their ‘Akilotoa anthology. Even now, decades on from their commercial breakthrough, the pair have proven why they’re staples of the Australian live scene.

While the 2021 lineup of WOMADelaide features a handful of the ‘old guard’, so to speak, the festival also sees itself shining a light on new talent that will one day be considered groundbreaking artists.

One of the names set to perform at this year’s festivities is Kaiit, a Gunditjmara and Torres Strait Islander woman on her mother’s side and a Papua New Guinean on her father’s side. Having emerged onto the music scene a few years ago with her single “Natural Woman” from the Live from Her Room EP, Kaiit quickly found herself receiving widespread acclaim, including the ARIA for Best Soul/R&B Release for “Miss Shiney”, and the Archie Roach Award for Emerging Talent at the 2018 Music Victoria Awards.

While folks are still waiting for Kaiit’s debut album, the rising star has been busy over the last year, writing music regularly, and even making an appearance on songs from the likes of Kota the Friend and MXXWLL.

Another name that has been turning heads at every opportunity has been that of Miiesha, a Aṉangu and Torres Strait Islander woman, who first made music-lovers stand up and take notice by way of “Black Privilege”. In 2020 though, Miiesha truly kicked things up to the next level, with her debut album Nyaaringu. Reaching #28 on the Australian charts, the record features interludes from Miisesha’s grandmother, while the overarching tale of her journey from Woorabinda to her current station in life plays out.

Of course, the accolades didn’t stop there, with Nyaaringu sweeping awards across the board, including an ARIA for Best Soul/R&B Release, a J Award nomination for Australian Album of the Year, and is currently on the shortlist for the Australian Music Prize. Add to that recognition as winner of the New Talent of the Year award at the National Indigenous Music Awards and you’ve got an artist whose career is already off to an amazing start just a couple of years in.

Most notably, one of the most prominent showcases of Indigenous and First Nations talent at this year’s WOMADelaide event comes by way of Midnight Oil’s performance of The Makarrata Project. Longtime supporters of Indigenous arts, culture, and rights, the veteran outfit returned in 2020 with their first record in 18 years, with The Makarrata Project serving as a response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, utilising numerous Indigenous and First Nations voices throughout the seven-track record.

While the likes of Jessica Mauboy, Kev Carmody, Adam Goodes, Frank Yamma, and the late Gurrumul Yunupingu appeared on album, so too did Dan Sultan, Alice Skye, Troy Cassar-Daley, Tasman Keith, Leah Flanagan, and Bunna Lawrie, who will be joining Midnight Oil at the premiere of their ‘Makarrata Live’ show on the closing night of WOMADelaide on March 8th.

However, while Midnight Oil will be showcasing timely compositions with their closing night performance, and while the likes of Kaiit and Miiesha find themselves on the cusp of becoming household names, WOMADelaide also finds itself in a unique position where they’ve been able to help shine a light on the next generation of First Nations talent and give them the high-profile spotlight they so richly deserve.

One pair of artists who are receiving said spotlight is MRLN X RKM – a collaboration between Larrakia, Kungarrakany, and Torres Strait Islander man Marlon Motlop AKA MRLN, and Tulampunga Pakana man MC Rulla Kelly-Mansell AKA RKM – who will be opening for Midnight Oil thanks to the WOMADelaide x NSS Academy partnership.

Announced in January, the WOMADelaide x NSS Academy team-up exists to identify a number of artists from First Nations and multicultural communities to take part in an extensive year-round program of workshops and activities, culminating in many of them performing at WOMADelaide 2021 and 2022.

While NSS – that is, the outstanding youth-focused music venue and industry training hub Northern Sound System – has long fostered creativity and provided opportunities for aspiring artists, this new partnership exists to shine a light on much of the First Nations and multicultural talent that exists within the state.

“Over many years we have nursed an ambition to help build the future careers of young musicians, not only through experiencing the extraordinary artists who perform at the festival but through a tailor-made development program,” explained festival Director Ian Scobie upon the WOMADelaide x NSS Academy launch.

“We are thrilled that the Academy will combine professional mentors with NSS’s acclaimed training initiatives, further building WOMADelaide’s connection with local emerging talent and audiences across the community.”

While MRLN X RKM are two of the most noteworthy names to come out of the WOMADelaide x NSS Academy partnership, the likes of Sokel, Barnaba$, Elsy Wameyo, Estee Evangeline, Katie Aspel, Tilly Tjala Thomas, DEM MOB, and Sonz of Serpent are also taking part in the upcoming series of workshop and activities, with many of these names undoubtedly set to appear at future editions of WOMADelaide.

With next year bringing with it the 40th anniversary of WOMAD, and the 30th anniversary of WOMADelaide, both the local and international legs of the festival have made a concerted effort to ensure that music-lovers are treated to the finest art and music from cultures that are often overlooked by the mainstream.

Though recent years have seen said mainstream beginning to pay more well-deserved attention to these artists and their respective cultures, there is much work still to be done. Thus, it is festival such as Australia’s WOMADelaide that continue to highlight the work that these stunning artists create, and to continuously provide a platform on which these artists can share their work with the world.

Without festivals such as WOMADelaide, one can only imagine what the Australian music scene would look like, and how many talented First Nations and Indigenous artists would have been left without opportunities to progress their career. It’s something that many of us would choose not to think about, but it makes us appreciate the work that WOMADelaide do even more.

WOMADelaide 2021

Friday, March 5th

Sarah Blasko
Archie Roach
Lior, Westlake & ASO: Compassion

Saturday, March 6th

Midnight Oil
Vika and Linda

Sunday, March 7th (Sold Out)

Tash Sultana

Monday, March 8th

Midnight Oil
The Teskey Brothers
Siberian Tiger

Friday, March 5th – Monday, March 8th
King Rodney Park, Adelaide, SA
Tickets & Info: Official Site