Womadelaide director Ian Scobie has spent a lifetime bargaining with international artists on behalf of his unassuming city at the bottom of the globe, and if ticket sales are anything to go by, it has paid off.

The world, music and art (WOMAD) festival celebrated its 30th anniversary last year with a record crowd of more than 110,000 over four days, selling out completely on the Saturday.

But Adelaide is a long way from performance hubs in the northern hemisphere and, for many artists, the prospect of travelling to South Australia can be considerably more daunting than, say, a short flight to a European city.

“We developed the New Zealand WOMAD quite deliberately as a sister event, so that we can have an invitation that wasn’t just for one festival in Adelaide,” Mr Scobie said.

“That helped make it more attractive for the artists, and it helped share the cost of travel.”

Florence and the Machine played to a sellout crowd at Womadelaide 2023.(Supplied: Jack Fenby, for Womadelaide)

The obscure and the mainstream

Another key strategy lies in the types of artists Scobie and his long-time associate director, Annette Tripodi, book.

The line-up can include an obscure musical act from a country most in the audience have never heard of — playing traditional instruments most have never seen — as well as mainstream acts like Florence and the Machine, which can leave some diehards questioning if they are truly reflective of “world music”.

But according to Mr Scobie, some in the “hugely dedicated” audience who came for Florence in 2023 would have experienced Womadelaide for the first time, loved what they saw, and will be returning this year.

“The festival has, if you like, had more popular artists in its program since it began, Men at Work, Midnight Oil,” he said.

“It’s that thing of casting the net widely, whether it’s a band, or a performance art piece.”

Archibald Caramantran’s giant puppets weave through trees and children in 2020.(Supplied: Grant Hancock, Womadelaide)

Once new audiences enter the gates, lesser-known acts across seven stages quickly drown out the buzz for headline acts with a multitude of drums, horns, choirs and stringed instruments of every concoction from across the globe. 

From India’s Manganiyar Seduction and its four-storey performance box, to the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe from Taiwan, Tibetan monks and African funk groups like Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Mr Scobie and his team trawl the world for unique acts. 

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

They sometimes stumble across artists — a band or a performance art piece that might never have performed outdoors before — and immediately know they just have “to make happen” at Womadelaide.

“They are artists who are basically making a statement about what it is to be human, to be alive, what their thoughts might be, and it’s an absolute f**king thrill,” Mr Scobie said.

“And you know that if you can deliver that to your audience, that will be reciprocated by them.”

Some punk bands, such as Gogol Bordello in 2018, get aggressive with more than just guitars.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Malcolm Sutton)

But it can come with risks as well.

“Quite some years ago, we presented a sound artist called Ray Lee with a pretty unusual piece called Siren,” Mr Scobie said.

“It was a visual sound installation and he’d never done it outdoors before so we were all a bit nervous, and as it first started it was very slow and quiet, and there was some guy standing there with a stubbie in his hand and he called out, ‘Do something’.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh, maybe we pushed the envelope a little too far’, but as the work built up, by the end everyone was completely absorbed and cheering.”

He said unexpected moments like these created lasting memories for audiences and “a sense of history” for the festival.

Transe Express played for a memorable moment in the rain at Womadelaide during 2010.(Supplied: Womadelaide)

“[They say] ‘Do you remember that year when there were the feathers, that year when there were the drummers under the crane in the rain?’,” Mr Scobie said.

“They’re significant of any festival, not just Womadelaide.”

A family-friendly event

Womadelaide too benefits heavily from its family-friendly, intergenerational environment, with children who came with their parents 30 years ago now bringing their own offspring to create their own memories.

A big part of that will be the festival’s setting at Botanic Park, a lawn-covered playground of trees, tents and even wildlife in the form of a colony of fruit bats that rise above the throng at sunset.

“During COVID we spent a lot of time looking around to see if there is a better venue, an alternative venue, if we could get larger,” Mr Scobie said.

“But if you think about it, we are an arboretum, 35 hectares in the middle of a city.

“It’s not like going to an arena or an oval setting. It’s got a wonderful sense of both arrival and calm about it.

“People get inside the gates and they go, ‘Ahhh’.”

Crowd favourites Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 are returning to headline Womadelaide on Saturday night.(Supplied: Arts Projects Australia)

Mr Scobie said there were no plans to change the location, or indeed any aspect of the festival in any major way.

“I’m very wary of reinventing yourself for the sake of it,” he said.

“I spend a lot of time out in the arena seeing how things work, thinking about how you can improve things, and I think a lot of the ethos of the festival comes back to, not just my time, but the ethos of the Adelaide Festival [of which Womadelaide is a part].

“You’re presenting it to the best possible standard of sound, lighting, artists, everything, and that’s one thing that’s kept Womadelaide not just ahead, but also kept it fertile to its audiences.”

Womadelaide’s 2015 crowd revels in the Colour of Time parade.(Supplied: Grant Hancock, Womadelaide)

Audience reaction the biggest thrill

Mr Scobie, who has been involved with the festival from its onset in 1992 as general manager of the Adelaide Festival, as director of Arts Projects Australia from its inception in 1997, and as Womadelaide director from 2007, has a long list of highlights but says he gets one of his biggest kicks from the audience itself.

“I love being in the crowd looking at the audience, the diversity of ages, cultures, people just having a wonderful time, discovering stuff, going ‘Oh, my God’,” he said.

“Provided the festival maintains that outward looking enthusiasm for different types of culture, different types of music, it will have a bright future.”

Womadelaide 2024 kicks off from Friday at Botanic Park in Adelaide.

Ziggy Marley, son of Bob Marley, is the headline act at Womadelaide on Monday night.(Supplied: Tim Cadiente, Arts Projects Australia)