WOMAD’s Ian Scobie: bringing the world to Adelaide


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By Lana Guineay

For four days every March, beautiful Botanic Park is transformed into a wonderland of the world’s best music, arts, food and performance.

Welcome to WOMADelaide.

From sun-up to starry night, the unique open-air festival draws crowds of over 90,000, with more than 45% of attendees coming from interstate, delivering a financial impact of $15.1 million annually to South Australia.

For the last 26 years, the festival has been a much-loved icon at the heart of ‘Mad March’ – perhaps lesser known, the same man has been directing WOMADelaide since it was founded in 1992.

For Ian Scobie AM, two and half decades haven’t dulled the thrill.

“I’m amazed every year. It’s life-affirming,” he says.

Ian Scobie AM

Ian has had a long and colourful career in the arts, with 14 years operating and managing the Adelaide Festival, and nearly two decades as Director of Arts Projects Australia, which he co-founded.

Ian was recognised in the Queen’s Birthday 2017 Honours List for his services to the arts, and has received the state’s highest arts honour, the Premier’s Award for Lifetime Achievement, and was honoured as a Chevalier des Arts et Letters by the Government of France in 2003.

Despite a lifelong interest in the arts, after Ian obtained his BA from the University of Adelaide life took him in a very different direction: an oil company in WA.

“It was a fascinating training ground, but at a certain point I realised I could easily work for Shell, as many people did, for their entire working lives.”

After four years Ian returned to his love of the arts, and home to Adelaide.

As a trainee administrator at the Festival Centre, Ian was soon offered permanent position at the Adelaide Festival, where he undertook a number of roles between 1984-1997 including General Manager. He became involved with WOMAD when the 1992 Adelaide Festival initiated the first event, and he has been involved ever since.

Attracting around 90,000 people annually. Image copyright: SATC

A lot has changed in 26 years.

“The revolution in communication has been quite extraordinary,” Ian says.

“When I started out, it was telex, basically a telegram. Then came fax and that was a phenomenon!”

“I’d travel for five weeks and it was a complicated to get a line for a phone call,” he remembers.

From fax to iPhone, technology has had a huge impact on audiences and the way we discover music.

“When we started, most [WOMAD] artists were completely unknown, so we spent a lot of time explaining who they were. Now when we include an act in the line-up, the audience looks it up on Spotify and YouTube, they have it all at their fingertips.”

“Generations have grown up with WOMAD.” Image copyright: SATC

In a climate where many music festivals are folding, WOMAD has gone from strength to strength.

Ian says an immersive approach has been key. Music is at the heart of WOMAD, but it’s not just for aficionados anymore.

“The point was always to add to the experience,” says Ian.

“From the very early days, Peter Gabriel’s ambition for WOMAD was to give a broader sense of the culture the artists were from, whether that’s workshops on how to play instruments, or ‘taste the world’ where artists talk about a particular dish and the audience can taste it.”

Beautiful Botanic Park by day… Image copyright: SATC

The family-friendly approach, with kids under 12 admitted free, means that generations have been exposed to WOMADelaide’s delights.

“It’s imbued in the culture. People of all ages have a sense of belonging, so it’s not an issue that your parents might be there…the diversity of the program and geographic spread of the park, you can have your own space.”

“There is excitement and discovery, but there’s also a degree of expectation and even comfort.”

In an age of constant connectivity, festivals like WOMAD offer an off-grid experience, something that today’s younger audiences take to, Ian says.

“Audiences feel like they’re transported somewhere, it takes you out of your normal state of busy being, something that’s popular now more than ever.”

…and by night. Image: Arts Projects Australia

For Ian the diversity of acts is “absolutely limitless”, making every year unique.

As an event and theatre producer, Ian has developed a reliable eye for what will work well in today’s complex market and travels regularly to keep in touch with the best of the world’s performing arts.

“There isn’t a formula” to producing the WOMAD line-up each year, he says.

“It’s an exciting journey – but it’s also hard yakka, much of it undertaken by a fantastic team of staff. One of the things that has changed is the Internet,  Bedouine is an example a relative unknown, it would have been less likely to program her [in the past] because no one had seen her perform but now we can watch her on YouTube.”

“We need light and shade, a big band to carry the main stage, finish with positive energy, in the late afternoon something smaller and more sublime is called for.”

The 2018 program features performances on seven stages by the world’s best traditional and contemporary musicians, dancers and DJs, KidZone, street theatre and visual artists, the Taste the World program, Planet Talks environmental discussions, Electrolounge, Artists in Conversation and about 100 food, retail and charity stalls.

Ian could live and work anywhere in the world – but says there’s something special about SA.

“I’ve worked a lot of places, including on events like the Sydney Olympics. One thing I learnt early on is that Adelaide is a festival city and you can make things happen here.”

“When we did The Mahabharata in 1988, there was a problem with aircraft flying over the show – so I rang the air traffic control tower and they said, ‘oh that’d be the Peter Brook show! We’ll see what we can do about re-directing aircraft’.”

“I always thought it’s illustrative of what it’s like working in this city, this state.”

“People here have a broader social concern and a real festival ethos.”

“In a big city it’s more complex to get a sense of a festival happening, of people’s participation. In cities like Edinburgh and Avignon, and here in Adelaide, you can animate and bring energy to a town – that’s exciting.”

WOMADelaide is held 9-12 March 2018, get your tickets here. Want a preview? Press play, turn up the volume, and have a mini festival in your house/ office:

Visit the I Choose SA for Industry website to read more stories about key industry leaders, why they’ve chosen SA as a base and how the state is enabling them to succeed.

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