Thousands of people huddle for warmth in a charmless warehouse in the middle of the Hobart “summer”. A middle-aged man in traditional Arabic dress saunters on stage, the keyboard fires out a few bars of Syrian electro-pop, and before the singer has time to do more than lift his arm, the crowd completely loses it.
This is Omar Souleyman, a former Syrian wedding singer who now makes club-style synth. And for thousands of different reasons, all these people decide at the same moment that this is exactly what they want to hear, and that they will dance like crazy for the next hour.
Souleyman sauntered up and down the stage at MOFO, the annual music and art festival that happens in Hobart in January (it’s one of the byproducts of the now-legendary MONA art museum). Dressed in a long black thawb with a red headdress and sunglasses, Souleyman did little more than stroll around ordering the crowd to amp it up, clap or tone it down with a few casual hand gestures. He was imperious, and he was obeyed. He looked bemused, as if he didn’t understand the crowd’s enthusiasm, and he was making the least physical effort of anyone there. He has a beautiful voice (he sings in Arabic — his only words in English are “thank you”); add a pretty good light show and this was as good as it got in Tasmania last Saturday night.
Because this festival is part of MONA, and because MONA is weird and likes to mess with people’s heads, I wondered if Souleyman is no Syrian wedding singer and actually lives in, say, Coburg. But the internet confirms that, yes, he is from Syria and has become a cult darling of the Western indie scene. This is his third Australian tour.
MOFO is a glorious, deliberate jarring of quirky acts you’ve never heard of and bands that have been playing for 20 or 30 years and command devotion from their followers — The Clean, The Swans, Shonen Knife. It runs over four days and finished on Sunday. This year, it was held at a waterfront warehouse at Salamanca close to the city centre (and quite a way from MONA, which is in the burbs).
Eccentricity was guaranteed both onstage and in the crowd, which ran from babies to people in their ’70s. North Fitzroy hipsters rubbed shoulders with Howrah baby boomers in sensible shoes. At times the mosh-pit was a sea of grey and white hair. This was more civilised than a Falls Festival or Big Day Out mosh-pit.
Japanese all-female pop-punk outfit Shonen Knife were a crowd favourite. The band formed in 1981 and took off in the early ’90s — they toured with Nirvana. Think Riot grrrl meets Hello Kitty. There are songs about cats, green tea and late-night ramen, delivered with an incongruous blend of punk rock antics and friendly smiles. “I only saw a Tasmanian devil once, at Melbourne zoo!” the lead singer told the crowd. “It was eating a rat!”
Shonen Knife also played the festival club, called Faux Mo; this time a short and sharp tribute to the Ramones. Faux Mo is held at a daggy old theatre in central Hobart. There’s a main stage, a dance den, an underground whisky bar … we wandered out the back and down a Dickensian alleyway. It was raining. Round the corner was a bar — still part of Faux Mo — with a laser light show beaming through hundreds of strips of plastic that hang from the ceiling. I saw German artist Johannes Sistermanns gazing at the installation. I figured he had plastic envy; for his festival piece he wrapped the inside of a gallery in cling film. Called Intuition Room 2015, Sistermanns’ artwork quivered and thrummed to a soundtrack.
The visual showpiece of MOFO this year was an enormous luminarium called Exxopolis, an outdoor inflatable sculpture that punters wandered through and around, a series of plastic tunnels that opened out into themed chambers. Part-cathedral, part-womb, it was beautifully lit, and relaxing.
To the media’s delight, the weather was so foul (cold, raining and very windy) that Exxopolis had to be deflated and laid in plastic lumps in front of the main festival venue — a sad tribute to Hobart’s fickle summers. (It was pumped up again at the end of the festival.)
*This article was originally published at Daily Review