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Festival City Stories 20 Dec 2021

For the Love of Music!

While producing one of Australia’s largest music festivals is always a monumental task, mounting a 30 year celebration during a global pandemic requires a certain calm and tenacity that can only come from decades of industry experience.

Annette Tripodi has been part of the WOMADelaide team since the late 90s, and the ever-positive Associate Director has always had a hand in the festival programming and logistics.

During the uncertainty of the past two years, she’s charged on with her unmistakable musical taste, forged enviable industry relationships and worked hard to remain as upbeat as possible, having learned from festival life that the only thing you can predict is that change is inevitable.

Annette says she couldn’t be described as ‘laid back’ while riding through the COVID storm, but adds that her childhood probably contributed to her openness and adaptability.

“My father worked for the Department of Immigration for decades. I went to kindy in The Hague (The Netherlands) and Adelaide and when I was about nine Dad became Australian Consul in Thessaloniki before we relocated to the Australian Embassy in Athens, Greece.”

Changing homes and schools three times in as many years was daunting. The school in Athens had over 2,000 students, many of whom were fleeing the war in Lebanon, and classes had 30 different nationalities in them.

“It was a radical – slightly terrifying – change from East Marden Primary School, that’s for sure,” she laughs.

Through school, and family travel, she was exposed to many different cultures, languages and customs. This led Annette to learn how to adapt to changing environments and to see the world in a different way – but her love of music probably started before that.

“Dad’s background is Italian and Mum’s is Maltese. Neither of them were musicians, but there was always a festive atmosphere at family gatherings, with aunties singing, uncles on the piano accordion,” she says.

“My parents had a 1950s-70s vinyl collection covering classical to country, Shirley Bassey to Elvis Presley – it might seem daggy now, but I enjoyed it all. My youngest auntie had me listening to ‘Little Stevie Wonder’, as he was then known, and American soul artists.”

But it was possibly Disco in the late 70s that shaped her musical taste from her teenage years onwards – something you wouldn’t necessarily notice from the lineup she curates with Director Ian Scobie and her WOMAD UK colleague Paula Henderson.

“Mum got into Disco – Donna Summer, The Silver Connection, Anita Ward, Hot Chocolate – and it rubbed off on me. In the years that followed, as I discovered a love of reggae and Ravi Shankar (even musical theatre with Mum), I was most drawn to disco, funk and dance music in general,” she says.

“The live bands at WOMADelaide are fantastic, but the DJs in Speakers Corner are a personal highlight. It’s a beautiful natural dancefloor – you’re on the grass, in a grove of tall trees – and the air is often skin temperature. After a day of too much talking and walking, I somehow always find the energy to jump around and finish on a high.”

As a teenager Annette half-heartedly studied piano and in her 20s took singing lessons with a Chinese opera singer, even joining a ‘pretty awful’ covers band called Blue Ice in Sydney.

While her festival career started in Adelaide, it was shaped on the road, in the flamboyant nightlife of the LGBTIQ scene in Sydney and the club and festival world in London.

“In my 20s, my uncle (a dancer) and his partner (a fashion designer) introduced me to the emerging warehouse party phenomenon. The R.A.T., Bacchanalia and other big raves at the Hordern Pavilion and around Oxford Street were like nothing I’d ever experienced,” she says.

“Living in the UK took things to another level. Gigs were plentiful and so affordable … the Rolling Stones at Wembley with 100,000+ people, incredible jazz – Chick Corea at Ronnie Scott’s, Ella Fitzgerald at Royal Albert Hall, Nina Simone at Hammersmith Odeon – blues festivals, the Edinburgh Festival and electronica like The Orb at Brixton Academy. I got into it all.”

A career shift

After working in public relations in Australia and laid-back temp jobs in London, Annette secured the role as Publicist for the 1994 Adelaide Fringe.

“Particularly after volunteering at the Edinburgh Fringe, I was determined to find a job that would allow me to immerse myself in the Australian festival experience,” she says.

“I learned so much at the Fringe in ’94 and ‘96 and was building an understanding of events and the overall arts scene here. I felt I’d found my niche and it solidified my desire to stick with festival work.”

In late 1997, after being unemployed for six months, Annette started as Program Coordinator for Come Out festival (now DreamBIG) and was given the opportunity to work ‘behind the scenes’ in the area of festival production.

“Moving from the publicity and marketing side of things to working on the creation of that festival, under Artistic Director Nigel Jamieson, proved to be a massive turning point. I thought ‘I never want to have to sell a story to the media again,” she jokes.

A four-month contract from late 1997 as Operations & Program Manager for the Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM) eventually got her a foot in the door with Arts Projects Australia (APA) – the company that produces WOMADelaide, ‘the world’s festival’.

“I wanted more than anything to work on WOMADelaide,” she said.

“Before I got the APAM role I’d cheekily sent a postcard from Europe to the APA Directors saying as much … something along the lines of ‘hey, if you’re ever looking for staff, I’m keen and available from X date!’,” she said.

She was a volunteer ‘artist minder’ at the 1997 festival, looking after Misia from Portugal and Radio Tarifa from Spain and gradually got involved with administration and then some programming.

“It took another ten years to fully inhabit the role of Operations & Program Manager and my input has grown organically from there. The team here is like a family to me and I live and breathe this wonderful job.”

It’s not a no, it’s a not right now

As Associate Director of the festival, Annette is often asked what she looks for in a WOMADelaide act.

“We have such a varied audience – from babies to grandparents – so delivering something that will appeal to such a broad demographic means we are pretty free to experiment. We steer clear of repeating artists for two festivals in a row to keep every program fresh. We love presenting artists who’ve never played at the festival, or been to Adelaide or Australia before.

“Our audience trusts us so, first of all, the artist has to be good! But it’s not just about the type of music they play, it’s also about the live experience. In an ideal world, we like to see bands play live before we invite them because you can’t always make the call from recordings; you have to see them, hear them, feel the audience vibe, get an understanding of how they are onstage,” she says.

“To make the final decision, it’s also about who else we’re programming – the overall music mix and balance – plus practical things like cost, availability, how complex they might be on a technical level … with a fair bit of luck thrown in. It’s a jigsaw puzzle.

“Sometimes an artist isn’t my personal taste, but I can feel confident that our audience will love them, so I take the leap. Sometimes it’s not a straight ‘no’, it’s just a ‘not right now’.”

The joy of discovering new talent

Annette says one of the biggest joys of her job is being able to provide a platform to emerging artists.

Seeing artists like Sampa The Great at Melbourne’s Northcote Social Club playing to 150 people, or John Butler in the front bar at The Gov, and having them at the festival as their careers take off is rewarding.

“I remember seeing The Cat Empire at the Garden of Unearthly Delights in 2002. The friend I was with said ‘I think my little brother plays basketball with these guys’! They were so dynamic live that I invited them to play at the WoZone (festival club) in 2003 and the following year they played the main stage at WOMADelaide.

“It’s awesome to see someone at the start of their career and be able to watch them grow. At the 2022 festival we’ll have three graduates of our new WOMADelaide x Northern Sound System Academy (NSS) performing and I can’t wait to see where they go next.”

For the love of scheduling

While loving being a key part of WOMADelaide’s programming team, Annette confesses that she also gets a kick out of creating the schedule for the four days of the festival.

“I like that moment when I’ve finally locked in all of the artists and can sit down and look at the day-to-day schedule of who’s on when,” she says.

While it might not seem it from an outsider’s perspective, scheduling a festival like WOMADelaide is a fun, creative challenge.

“There are more than 100 shows over four days. I imagine being in Botanic Park, the light and atmosphere at certain times of day – picturing the bands, the audience and wondering what might 4pm Saturday feel like, which band suits a lie-under-the trees moment, who works best when everyone wants to dance after sunset, which crowd wants to see the West African grooves, or the contrast of the hip-hop on Stage 7?

“We do our very best but ultimately we know that people will make their own choices. They might see half of a band’s set and be racing off to another when they get distracted catching up with long-lost friends for an hour, before popping into a Planet Talk, then seeing everything possible for the rest of the night. That’s the magic of the festival.”

Coping with compromise

So how did Annette manage to bring WOMAD to the stage in 2021, in spite of a global pandemic? She says it came down to learning how to compromise, to be flexible, and to move quickly.

“COVID has turned the world on its head, and for a long time in 2020, we didn’t know if we would be able to present a festival in 2021. We started out programming a full-scale event with seven stages in Botanic Park – albeit with a 100% Australian lineup – but when that didn’t get through SA Health we had to quickly implement a Plan B,” she says.

“In a matter of weeks, we had a COVID-modified festival on sale, with one stage in a new parkland venue (King Rodney Park), 11 Australian bands and 6,000 reserved seats each night. It wasn’t an easy flip but it turned out beautifully.”

Celebrating 30 years of WOMADelaide

With the 2021 event now feeling like a distant memory, Annette is now looking forward to returning to Botanic Park to celebrate WOMADelaide’s 30th birthday in 2022.

“We are thrilled about returning to Botanic Park. There are of course still COVID/travel/border issues to consider, so the lineup is mostly Aussie, but with a distinct ‘WOMAD flavour’,” she says.

“On the downside, I’ve missed being able to see interstate and international artists play live and it’s a little sad that we can’t program our usual 40+ groups from overseas.

“Timelines and deadlines have been fluid and everyone in our team has experienced higher than usual levels of stress and exhaustion while we all try to figure out the rules for living in a pandemic. Thank goodness we’ve also enjoyed many silly moments and laughs together.

“Since May, I’ve spent hours on the phone to agents, artists and managers, and thousands of emails have flown. We’ve confirmed so many wonderful groups, including a sprinkling of internationals, such as Brazilian jazz-funk legends Azymuth and Marcos Valle.

“There’s also huge excitement about some of our commissioned work with excellent SA artists, including: the NSS Academy graduates;  Carla Lippis’ Mondo Psycho (a new Spaghetti Western/Italian project); and a new live show by Motez. We also have new partnerships with Nexus Arts in Adelaide and Music In Exile in Melbourne.

“We’re hopeful that the show will once again go on, and will be a glorious celebration of 30 years of WOMADelaide. After a two years of such uncertainty, we couldn’t be more ready for a party!”