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The (marginal) pride of South Australia – Mad March in Adelaide


The (marginal) pride of South Australia – Mad March in Adelaide

Mad March in Adelaide: this article was originally written by in The Daily Review on March 20, 2014.

Nearly March already?

What’s up with Adelaide’s Mad March? The place rocked! I completed my sabbatical to the Adelaide Festival. Now that it’s over I need to breathe and ask what is happening in my old hometown?

Small cities do great festivals while big cities create great art. This over-planned Anglophile city of about 1.23 million explodes in March but there’s nothing subtle about it anymore. It’s festival chaos. The Adelaide Festival, once Australia’s major biennial festival is now annual. The Adelaide Fringe Festival, a star for emerging and edgy artists, has grown to a Megalotherion comedy and whatever-else-can-fit festival. My favourite, WOMADelaide, the poster child of the musically worldly, is now a middle earth experience laden with concessions for the middle class children of Gaia.

Yet there is no doubt that Adelaide is the nation’s best festival city where anyone can, for one summery month, be enveloped in excellent theatre, music and dance. Dreamlike spaces can transport you from Gatsby-esque oeuvres at Lola’s Pergola to the edgy carnie magic of Garden of Unearthly Delights and the enchantment of WOMAdelaide at the Botanical Gardens. I am marginally proud to have come from there.

Adelaide is a small and organised city with good food, one fine market, great beaches, and three or four interesting streets. If you have a car, and you need a car in Adelaide, you can access country and city, seaside and hills in less than 30 minutes. The city creates a sense of mild hedonism for its better off burghers.

Its citizens repeat mantras in conversations with visitors: “You can get from Adelaide’s hills to some of the best beaches in the world in 25 minutes”, “SA wines are the best in the world”, “We are the festival state”, and “We have the most Mediterranean climate in Australia”. Jokes about Adelaide, unless told by Adelaideans, are not welcome, especially from “traitors”, (like me), who abandoned Adelaide.

WOMADelaide is the only international “world music” festival in Australia. I have loved it since 1992 when I saw the late master Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It has become a little Nimbin Lite and like many things Adelaide, neat. This time I fell for Concha Buika the Spanish singer who originates from Equatorial Guinea. Her arte and Duende was carried on her raspy Flamenco voice. Then there was Arrested Development the progressive hip-hop ensemble from the 90s.

I embarrassed my 11 year-old son by trying to bop to the 1992 hit, People Everyday.

“Your old man was cool mate”, I screamed out to him.

“Are you serious? ‘Was!’ ‘Was’ dad’,” the surly pre-teen said and lost his Play Station privileges for the weekend.

WOMADelaide this year was full of Baby Boomers and Gen X-ers, greenies, asylum seeker advocates, old leather tanned hippies, teens and 20-something youth in Nepal-chic playing Frisbees and at times playing percussion – all sharing the Botanical Gardens with sellers of hand-made jewellery, hand printed T-shirts. We must legislate against untrained people playing percussion, and white people performing doing belly dance, or donning henna tattoos.

Iced chai latte on tap, falafel, tofu and a range of ‘ethnic’ food melded with world grooves. Chatting to one of the concession holders, he admitted that he does six-months of takings in the WOMADelaide weekend. Another concession holder has just finished a round of markets in NSW and was preparing to go to Bali after Adelaide and ‘sort out’ his property.

The Adelaide Festival is still the best arts festival in Australia. Leaving aside any discussion about this year’s events (though my favourite was An Iliad by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson based on Homer’s Iliad) the festival as a whole was a joy. Lola’s Pergola was an ethereal experience, an endless casual and well-catered party – a place for Lotus-eaters. John Paul Hussey as roving performer Darren – the official drug dealer for the Australian Olympic Team added acerbic wit to a night that I did not want to end.

Yet outside the safe womb of the festival Adelaide felt a little desperate. The city’s consciousness of its halcyon days of prosperity and progress seem to add to the desperation. The old days when visionary Premier Don Dunstan freed the city from its churches, by loosening licensing laws, promoting multiculturalism, decriminalising marijuana, endorsing gay lifestyle, and initiated food and wine tourism and supporting the arts, seem very distant now. Adelaide also gave rise to arts entrepreneurs and impresarios such as the late Kym Bonython who introduced contemporary jazz to Australia in the ’60s and in visual arts, Paul Greenaway, one of Australia’s most impressive contemporary art curators and thinkers.

But by the late ’80s as Bank SA collapsed, most of Adelaide’s economy had already slowed down and a brain drain ensued. Things are better now but the state’s economy still lags and is only second last to that of Tasmania’s. Efforts by all SA governments to restart the economy and reassert Adelaide’s cultural standing continue and many innovations are born. Adelaide once the third largest city in Australia it is now the fifth.

Mad March is part of Adelaide’s constant exertion to find a moniker, a hook, or a draw card. Many are thrown about: the ‘smart city’, the ‘tertiary city’ and the ‘festival city’. It is the only state where the Coalition and ALP look and talk the same. It’s the only place where a form of social and cultural apartheid still exists in less than two square kilometres of the city between east end of Rundle Street and the west end of Hindley Street which like no other, expose the heart of Adelaide.

The east end of Rundle Street, has lost its uniqueness, it’s grungier, artsy, hip intellectual, youth and wog status of the ’80s and ’90s. It has become vanilla, neat with brand outlets, and franchise eateries, some restaurants and take-aways. Much of the change is a natural outcome of middle class moving back to live in the city. One hopes the Exeter Hotel, the heartland of university garage cool, wards off the encroachment of blandness. At  8pm Rundle Street transforms into an mass alfresco eatery beset by beige linen-wearing types, while after Iam it begins to look like a young woman who drank a too much at the party.

Hindley Street, harnessed in one end by crass strip clubs and barnyard pokie bars, has an endearing authenticity. Recent immigrants to Adelaide, North Africans, Sudanese, Iranians, South Asians and Afghanis have taken over what were once Greek, Lebanese and Italian café bars. Shisha cafes straddle each side of Hindley Street emanating sweet smelling apple and strawberry flavoured tobacco smoke and Iranian pop music. They are patronised by the young non-Anglo faces – faces not often seen in the East End of Rundle Street, or in the trendy Market of Gouger Street. In Adelaide’s balmy night, sitting blowing a Shisha and having an aromatic tea with a friend after five hours at Lola Pergola, I was seduced.

Adelaide has many great things, but not enough messy humanity, entrepreneurial grunt and community and organic development. The things that makes Melbourne and Sydney what they are is their messiness. But messiness is not welcome in Adelaide, even though when the good burghers go to sleep, the place turns into an unwieldy youth party.

As an old boy from Adelaide, born and bred, Adelaide High School Old Scholar from Thebarton, I have seen the transformation from inner metropolitan suburbs from wog towns to vanilla areas. Much of my Adelaide has also been sadly transformed into an over planned Lego town.

But Adelaide still puts on a great festival. The danger is that there may no longer be an Arts Festival, a Fringe Festival or a WOMADelaide, those events that made Adelaide unique. Instead, in that rush to be something, to grow again, to prove something, Mad March might simply swallow it up. At least the beach and the hills are close.

This article was originally written by in The Daily Review on March 20, 2014.

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