Australia at WOMEX 2022 – my highlights

Every industry has an annual global gathering.

For the music business, it’s WOMEX – Worldwide Music Expo. A conference, trade fair, and showcase at the same time, it’s the most international and culturally diverse meeting of all. It’s also the best opportunity to network and strike business deals.

Australia was present at the expo this year as well. So was I. And today, I’m bringing you some highlights from what went down in the Aussie camp.


WOMEX is traditionally organised in Europe. In 2022, it took place over 5 mid-October days in Lisbon, Portugal.

From my newbie delegate perspective, the program was fairly packed. I was running between talks and workshops, day and evening gigs and different stands at the trade fair. But it was totally worth it.

Just so you get a better understanding of WOMEX’s importance in the music biz, here are some official stats from this year’s edition.

There were:

– more than 3,100 music professionals (including 280 performing artists) from 113 countries representing 1,630 companies;
– 1,150 event promoters;
– 660 labels, publishers and distributors;
– 520 governmental, educational and other institutions;
– 940 individual booking agents, 840 managers and 340 producers;
– 230 national and international journalists (including me and my blog);
– 676 exhibiting companies from 57 countries with more than 260 stands;
– over 60 showcase acts with 280 musicians representing 42 countries on 8 stages;
– 111 speakers from 45 countries in 19 conferences, 9 networking, 9 mentoring sessions, and 3 associated presentations;
– 21 music-based documentaries from across the globe.

Australia shared a stand with New Zealand (they’ve been doing that for some time now, I’m told). The joined space served primarily as an information point run by both countries’ export offices (in Australia’s case – Sounds Australia). It was also used as a place to hang out for the Aussies and Kiwis on the ground.

Seven delegates from Down Under came to Portugal in 2022. One of them, a First Nations artist from Arnhem Land, Ngulmiya, had an official showcase on Friday night in a beautiful venue, the Tivoli Theatre.

Ngulmiya Nundhirribala is an iconic ceremony and cultural leader, songman, dancer and educator. He fronts the traditional dance group Red Flag Dancers and the band Yilila, directs the Numburindi Festival, and frequently collaborates with the Australian Ballet, G20 Orchestra and Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Just a week before the showcase at WOMEX, Ngulmiya had released a special new album. In this project, he performs ceremony songs and Dhumbala (Red Flag) stories, rooted in centuries of his family’s long relationship with Makassan traders from Southeast Asia. His powerfully expressive voice transcendently improvises over shimmering arrangements played by the 40-piece Budapest Art Orchestra.

“It’s the point where traditional music from Arnhem Land, as sung in isolation for millennia, organically develops into high art, which Ngulmiya intends will >show young people in Arnhem Land that you can sing this traditional style with any other culture<.”

Although in Lisbon Ngulmiya was accompanied only by contemporary classical composer and pianist, Luke Howard, and Darwin-based violinist currently living in the Netherlands, Emma Williams, I thought it was a captivating performance. It actually brought me to tears.

Ngulmiya’s son, Nayurryurr Nundhirribala, provided backing vocals, which added to that special moment. The artists sang in their native language, boasting an incredible vocal range, with Ngulmiya explaining in between what the songs were about.

As is customary in Indigenous cultures, vivid facial expressions, hand gestures and some traditional choreography also formed part of the performance, making the storytelling element that much more credible. The whole showcase was a celebration of sacred Aboriginal ceremony music but combined with contemporary arrangements that are not usually incorporated in the First Nations artists’ performances.

Ngulmiya’s background is quite important in this context as well. It was discussed in a bit more detail the following day during a conference session called “Ceremony Music from Oceania”.

Supported by his two collaborators, the previously mentioned Luke Howard and songwriter/arranger Anthony Gray, Ngulmiya spoke generously about his heritage. We were afforded a rare glimpse into some rituals and customs performed in Arnhem Land and got to see rarely shared footage. The ceremonies, Ngulmiya explained, are the foundation of his latest recording. They’re sometimes his interpretations, fused with spontaneous chanting and vocal lines.

The Australian focus this year at WOMEX was definitely on Ngulmiya’s showcase. Even the Northern Territory’s peak music body, MusicNT, sent their Executive Director Mark Smith to support the artist.

But the other muso delegates have equally interesting stories to share.

Paulo Almeida, a Timorese artist, activist and cultural ambassador for Timor-Leste who spent some time in Australia, co-chaired a fascinating (and I’m saying that from a white person’s perspective) Pan-Indigenous Networking Session entitled “Indigenous Music Is Not a Genre”. He talked about how music is a powerful form of resistance in Timor’s struggle for freedom under a brutal Indonesian occupation after 400 years of Portuguese rule in the country.

Paulo is taking Timorese music and culture to the global market through the Maubere Timor Project – the only one of its type, a collaboration led by David Bridie (Wantok Musik) and Berliku, an original Veteran and guerrilla freedom fighter. This music lays the cultural foundation for future generations of Timorese youth who are increasingly turning to traditional artistic practices to form a connection with their heritage.

Andrea Kirwin, an Australian/Fijian artist, is another delegate I had a chance to get to know a little better at WOMEX.

She runs her own record label, agency and event programming company, Peace Run Records, from the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. Having released 5 albums, Andrea has a 13-piece band for her original music but is currently touring a Tracy Chapman tribute show up the east coast of Australia.

What stood out for me while speaking to Andrea was the way she sees creating and performing in general. A passionate advocate for the live, independent scene, she also hosts regional shows and helps emerging artists with music industry mentoring.

The sense of community and grassroots approach is what she finds the most sustainable for an artist’s career at the moment. According to Andrea, there’s no point in wanting to “make it” in Melbourne or Sydney, where the competition is stiff and the chances of being noticed are rather slim. Instead, you should concentrate on building a community around you and your craft locally. She practises what she preaches by programming events on the Sunshine Coast where she resides and running a successful Patreon page for loyal fans.

I’m going to continue the conversation with Andrea about some interesting ideas she mentioned very soon. So watch this space.

I wish I’d had more time to meet two more delegates: an artist blending African influences with blues-infused melodies and soaring vocal harmonies, Miriam Lieberman, and a cross-cultural creative and director of Small Island, Big Song, Tim Cole. But that will have to wait for next time.

Nevertheless, WOMEX 2022 was a great (if a little intense) opportunity for me to say hello to Sounds Australia again and connect with new artists and industry-related people in an all-encompassing music setting.

Hopefully, these new contacts will bring some cool collabs in the near future. After all, this is what WOMEX is all about.

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