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Gig Review: Auckland Arts Festival

Auckland Arts Festival

7 - 24 March 2024 

Photographs/Words by Nicholas Lindstrom 

 

Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Arts Festival is a rich celebration of our dynamic, diverse and expanding city through arts and culture. Since 1948, the Auckland Arts Festival has been introducing Aucklanders and visitors to new, once-in-a-lifetime performances, art works and ideas. This year’s festival was no different, with 60+ events happening across Tāmaki Makaurau between 7 - 24 March 2024. We sent bGig Reviewer Nicholas Lindstrom along to three Auckland Arts Festival shows. Below are his reviews of Angélique Kidjo, Afrique en Cirque and A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings: 

Angélique Kidjo (Benin/France): 9 March 2024

It had been a gloomy overcast afternoon in Auckland. Overtly dressed P!nk fans had earlier provided streaks of colour that contrasted against the drab grey of Queen Street. As the afternoon faded into night, the glow of city lights foreshadowed the vibrant colours that were set to accompany the uncompromisingly exuberant performance of African Pop Diva Angélique Kidjo. 

Hailing from a continent of fifty-four countries, Angélique Kidjo has beat tremendous odds to cement her place as Africa’s foremost diva. The five-time Grammy winner has plied her trade worldwide, singing in multiple languages and across several genres. With a career spanning forty years, it is hard to imagine that Kidjo could encounter anything new However, for the first time ever, Kidjo would be taking the stage in Aotearoa, as a part of the Auckland Arts Festival. 

Town Halls are traditionally places of gathering. That is why it was extremely fitting that Kidjo’s performance would be taking place at Auckland’s iconic Town Hall on Queens Street. The evening’s lineup alluded to the fusion of people and cultures with Kidjo’s blend of sounds accompanied by Tāmaki Makaurau-based kapa haka, Angitu. I could already hear the melodies of Angitu as I rushed down the carpeted stairs of the Town Hall and into the main Concert Hall. Angitu is an encompassing sensory experience. The power of their entrancing waiata and arousing Haka give the impression that there are more members of their rōpū than there appeared to be on stage. At certain points, the stage of the Town Hall shook with a force that evoked the tremors I had grown up experiencing in Wellington. The force of their performance was reciprocated in the form of uproarious applause.

There was an audible break in the murmur of intermission chatter as the lights dimmed in anticipation of Kidjo’s entrance. The nearly full Town Hall was in silence as we waited for Kidjo to join her band who had now taken up their instruments. The band consisted of two sets of percussion instruments, a keyboardist and an electric bass. It was clear from the outset that the rhythm section would be the dominant instrumental feature supporting Kidjo. Entering from the right of the stage, Kidjo needed no spotlight as the vibrant orange of her dress seemed to glow in the faint light. My own childish excitement and anticipation were embodied in the two young children who stood transfixed at the front of the stage. 

Kidjo was an immediate presence. From the outset, the 63-year-old possessed the energy of a true performer and a charisma and ease that take years of performance to be comfortable in. Kidjo’s vocals were powerful and were made even more impressive by the Diva’s dancing. It is important to note how visually stunning the performance was. Kidjo’s orange dress moved like a roaring flame and she moved in time with her band. The band not only provided a tight sound for Kidjo’s vocals to shine on top of, but they also were amazing performers in their own right, cheekily goading Kidjo to dance in parts and interacting with the audience. There were genuine smiles from the band members, they were having just as much fun watching and interacting with Kidjo as the audience was. One of the night’s highlights was Kidjo dancing with the two young fans at the front of the stage as they stood in awestruck wonderment. 

Angélique Kidjo embodies what it means to be truly eclectic. With a career spanning over forty years, Kidjo has influenced and been influenced by an impressive array of performers. In an interview with okayafrica. Kidjo expressed her adoration of Cuban icon Celia Cruz; “For me to witness a female salsa superstar on stage was a game changer. I was like, ‘Women can do that? There's nothing I can't do then.”

Kidjo’s set included a triumphant rendition of Cruz’s hit “Bemba Colorá” a fitting tribute to the inspiration behind Kidjo’s own inspiring sound. The tributes did not stop there, with the Diva performing an Africanized version of “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads. Despite highlighting her various global influences, the Benin-born singer remained true to her African roots by ending the show with a rousing performance of Miriam Makeba’s “Pata Pata” before launching into her global hit “Afirika”. Kidjo was joined on stage by Angitu who provided jubilant back-up vocals and energetic dance moves. It was a beautiful sight to witness an ethnically diverse crowd of Kiwis all proudly singing along with Kidjo, chanting the chorus “Ashè é Maman, ashè é Maman Afirika, Maman Afirika”. As the applause reigned from the Town Hall's upper levels, Kidjo embraced members of Angitu, punctuating her performance's celebratory mood. 

Angélique Kidjo’s performance at the Auckland Town Hall was an example of why she has had so much international success. Kidjo is not just a star, she is the radiant light that emanates from it and illuminates a world that can be overcome by darkness.

Afrique en Cirque (Canada/Guinea): 14 - 17 March 2024 

Afrique en Cirque serves as a love letter to the West African country of Guinea. The brainchild of seasoned circus performer Yamoussa Bangoura, Afrique en Cirque literally puts Guinea on the world stage, drawing inspiration from daily life in the country. From March 14-17 Guinea took centre stage at the Civic Theatre in Central Auckland, as Afrique en Cirque graced the stage as a part of the Auckland Arts Festival. 

The stars that litter the roof of the Civic seemed to glow a little brighter than normal as we awaited the performers of Afrique en Cirque. The pseudo-ambient nature sounds that filled the theatre created an atmosphere of mystique, an atmosphere that was heightened into curious excitement with the entrance of frontman Yamoussa Bangoura. The gregarious Bangoura welcomed us all with a smile and a ‘Kia Ora’ which was well received by the crowd. Bangoura offered some exposition in the form of a soliloquy describing his home country of Guinea. This opening monologue prepared us to experience the beautiful blend of Guinean culture, afro-jazz and circus spectacle that would take the stage for the next hour and a half. 

The Kora is a traditional West African instrument that is believed to have been developed sometime around the 16th century. The difficulty of the instrument combined with its rich history means that musicians capable of playing the instrument command a certain respect. The show began with Bangoura flexing his multidisciplinary skills, displaying his proficiency with the Kora. The sheer breadth of sounds the Kora can produce is incredible, paired with Bangoura’s vocal melodies, the Kora served to invite the audience into Afrique en cirque’s intimate imitation of Guinean life. 

The show had an underlying kinetic energy that wasn’t exclusive to the feats of acrobatics. Throughout the performance the stage was constantly evolving as instruments and props were brought in and out. The only constant on stage was the cabanas that housed the rhythm section (composed of a drum set and bass) and a saxophone. The musicians commanding these instruments commanded a sound base which helped to heighten the emotions elicited by the performers. 

It is truly difficult to explain how it felt to watch the acrobatic feats of the Afrique en Cirque performers. There was an almost bodily effect that accompanied every incredible twist, turn and flip. The crowd’s respect for the circus elements of the performance were apparent in the audible gasps that rang out in response to the amazing circus performance. Despite attempting feats that could be potentially fatal, there was always a sense of ease amongst the crowd. The confidence of the movements and the smiles that graced the performers' faces were enough to assure the crowd that it was okay to keep our eyes transfixed on the stage. The variety of circus elements was impressive, but the highlight would have to be the performance of contortionist Mohammed Ben Sylla. Ben Sylla’s movements were the perfect balance of horrifying and enticing. At times it was hard to look at but it was even harder to look away. 

Talking to 1News ahead of their performance, creator Yamoussa Bangoura said that the aim was to produce "something people can feel, and people can have a picture of my country" Afrique en Cirque succeeded on both of those objectives.The circus feats elicited both emotional and bodily reactions, while the more reverent items such as Bangoura’s Kora playing, provided glimpses of the beauty of Guinean culture. Africa en Cirque was not only a marriage between circus tradition and African tradition, it was a marriage in a perpetual state of honeymoon bliss. A true one of a kind spectacle.

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings (Ireland): 21 - 24 March 2024 
Gabriel García Márquez ia an author that needs little introduction. I was first introduced to Márquez’s work through his Nobel Prize novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Márquez’s ability to world-build seems to be his defining talent, with his stories having an uncanny ability to play out so easily across the imagination. Beloved in his home country Columbia and around the world; any adaptation of Márquez’s work is bound to draw an audience of expectant fans. The inclusion of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings on the Auckland Arts Festival schedule was no exception to this rule. 

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is the work of renowned Irish Director and Writer Dan Colley. Colley’s play is an adaptation of Márquez’s didactic tale of the same name. For weeks leading up to the event I was conflicted about whether I should read the story in preparation. Eventually, I decided against it, a decision that was rewarded by the epic story-telling of Genevieve Hulme Beaman and Manus Halligan, the actors who were tasked with bringing the world of the tale to life. 

The audience was ushered into the Herald theatre to the sound of whispered conversation. Hulme Beaman and Halligan were already centre stage, leaning over a desk as they seemed entirely engrossed in each other. The desk was joined on stage by a conspicuous looking bookshelf, filled with the kind of miscellaneous objects that would be at home in a sixteenth century cabinet of curiosities. The air of mystique that hung in the air was duly dismissed by Hulme Beaman’s sudden exclamation of ‘Welcome to our story!’ followed by the disclaimer that ‘It’s not our story but we are going to tell it’ It was with that abrupt start that we began our journey into the world of A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings aided by our guides Genevieve Hulme Beaman and Manus Halligan.

I will spare you from spoilers by not recounting the plot A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. Just know that the story involved Crabs (lots and lots of them), a sick baby, morally flawed humans, a chicken coup and of course a ‘Very Old Man With Enormous Wings’ With a story so rich in imagery there is an acute pressure that comes with adaptation to the form of a play. I believe Colley’s adaptation succeeded in translating Márquez’s imagery while also elevating the story-telling by finding inventive ways to bring Márquez’s words to life. From projections of real-time camera footage shot on GoPros to the use of loop pedals to enhance the plays emotive quality. Not only were the techniques used in the play effective, they were efficient. It was truly remarkable what the actors managed to do with a small amount of props. Halligan not uttering a single word throughout the show made the interplay between Genevieve Hulme Beaman and Manus Halligan even more impressive. 

A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is an exemplar of what it means to be respectful to your source material. Despite the clever use of theatrical devices and props, the show was reverential to Gabriel García Márquez’s legacy by never compromising on the story-telling. The show was comical yet didactic, absurd yet grounded in aspects of reality. A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings is a worthy tribute to one of the world’s greatest storytellers.

Thank you again to Te Ahurei Toi o Tāmaki Auckland Arts Festival for letting us come along!