Festival Review: Mona Foma shines bright, weird and wonderful in its Launceston debut

Following ten years in Hobart – and a free block party last year in Launceston to test the waters – Mona Foma made its official debut in the Northern Tasmanian City this weekend, with a stellar weekend of art and music which took over Launceston for an event unlike anything locals have ever seen.

Grimy pubs were transformed into hubs of art and culture (and of course, beer), old halls into laser parties by night and orchestral showcases by day, and live music featured in spaces likely usually devoid of it. Some locals were no doubt confused, festival attendees were thrilled and organisers proved the concept of the event – which some may have expected couldn’t be taken away from Hobart’s Mona Museum and surrounds – can be successfully adapted in other locations.

I will say from the outset that this is my first Mona Foma, so any context of what came before relies on hearsay and content on this very website. But I feel I can safely say curator Brian Ritchie and the whole team have delivered an event with the same spirit as its Hobart predecessor. Someone I spoke to said that the event didn’t embrace the “weird” quite as much as they did in Hobart – perhaps they wanted to ease into things, or perhaps that’s just one perspective.

The main event – which took place from Friday through to Sunday – was situated at Inversek, a short walk over the bridge from Launceston City centre. It was here they took over the industrial surrounds of the University of Tasmania and the Queen Victoria Museum & Planetarium, with two outdoor performance stages, a number of art installations, and indoor activities – from a small theatre which featured surprise intimate performances from headliner Courtney Barnett and Brian Ritchie himself, to a VR experience and a specially created projection in the Planetarium that was inspired by Launceston’s famous Gorge chairlift and ran hourly. You could also catch Dylan Sheridan as he performed a few times a day with an orchestra of everyday items.

Entry to the main festival site was possible with an affordable three day festival pass, and single day passes were available as well. Back in the city, however, other select venues were part of the Mona Foma programme, with most opening their doors for free. A few exceptions to this were the Satu Vänskä and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, held on Saturday in the Albert Hall. This event proved one of the highlights of the whole weekend. Bird sounds littered the first tracks, then the solo violinist Satu came out with the sounds of crashing waves behind her, and an incredible performance. The music sounded familiar at times and always cinematic. It was like watching a David Attenborough documentary without his voice and in the early afternoon was a truly rewarding experience.

And then there was Faux Mo – an event which attendees of Mona Foma or Dark Mofo will already be very familiar with. This is where the truly “weird” experiences could be enjoyed, as the festival took over a laneway and Launceston’s stickiest nightclub for three stages of DJs and live performances (both of the “art” and “music” variety). Some were exclusive to the event – like HEXDEBT and Party Dozen, who played on the Friday night – while others like Belgian artist WWWATER used the event as an opportunity to show off their stage show in an indoor environment, ahead of their appearance at the Inversek outdoor site.

The event was absolutely rammed both nights, with the sold out crowd notably frustrated by the long queues to get into the indoor stages. But once inside, it was hard to feel anything less than wrapped up in the unique experience. To me, this is what Mona Foma had always been pitched to me as – a wonderfully weird, playful and eye opening experience featuring unknown musicians you’ll fall in love with, and performances that will entertain as much as it may confuse.

What really was remarkable was just how seamlessly it all ran, in spite of the massive crowds and the intricacies of the production. One minute a dance troupe would be performing with florescent headdresses on the dance floor, and the next a saxophonist and drummer were barraging the crowd with an incredible and loud live performance (as in Party Dozen). Lighting would be perfectly timed, and the level of production was something truly to behold. And every corner of the space was used – even a bridge over the laneway, where drag queens would lip sync to Opera, as Indian dancers were grooving on the outdoor stage around the bend.

Inside, dancers moved to a pulsating soundtrack on one stage, while a stage of nude “models” filled another room (with a sausage dog, naturally), as fantastically dressed drag queens drew them (life drawing, naturally) and ballerinas of some sort danced in the centre of the room. And then a local DJ came on to spice up the space further. True sensory overload in Launceston’s famously grimey nightclub.

On the Saturday at Faux Mo you could catch Neneh Cherry DJing, though it would be WWWATER who would prove the highlight of the Faux Mo experience, with the bombastic Belgian artist giving her all to the space, with a drummer and a electronic guy behind her. She rocked the double cow bell and got everyone dancing, as she jumped around, sung about masturbation (in the incredible track “SCREEN”) and absolutely brought the crowd to its knees. For me, she was THE discovery of the festival. Though when she played the next night outdoor in the festival grounds, it didn’t hit me quite as well. Maybe it’s more suited for an indoor environment, or maybe the thrill of the initial discovery added to the experience just that much.

There was no shortage of terrific performances across the two Inversek stages over those three days. Day one highlights included American artist Julia Holter, who played songs including “Sillohuette” and “City of Man” with a five piece behind her – trumpets, violin, double bass and all. Organ and harpsichord came in heavy for headliner Oneohtrix Point Never, as visuals and electronics sat at the front of the quartet’s performance. Highlights included “Still Stuff That Doesn’t Happen” and “Toys 2” (which sounds eerily familar to “My Heart Will Go On”), as he delivered a set that was intricate, melodic and stunningly beautiful.

On day two, Jonathan Bree played in all white Lycra with a four piece, with his beautiful take on Indie Pop. The Brunettes’ co-founder’s solo material is instantly enjoyable, though it’s the outfits and the dancers that really make it a unique experience. Remote NT outfit Southeast Desert Metal played songs like “Spirit Woman” and “Healer”, and were definitely influenced by early Metallica as they injected a good dose of Metal into proceedings.

Later, Mulatu Astatke and the Black Jesus Experience was proceeded by Subu Orimo playing the recorder on stage screaming into the microphone, throwing his clothes off into the crowd, mooning the crown and then running off totally naked. It was unclear if that was part of the performance. Then it went into some hypnotic Ethiojazz, which Mulatu is credited as founding; the legend standing at the front of the Black Jesus Experience on a massive xylophone.

Night two headliner Nenah Cherry, who likely had the biggest crowd of the weekend, told the crowd early in her set that “we can all be Tasmanian Devils tonight”. And she worked hard to ensure no one left feeling anything less. Accompanied by a six piece which included a harpist (!!), “Fallen Leaves” opened the set, with songs that followed including “Natural Skin Deep”, “Soldier” and “Buffalo Stance”, which ended the main set. It was a variant on the original, but still shined live. Her encore included a surprise rendition of “7 Seconds” – given she rarely plays it live – and a cover of the Cole Porter classic “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”.

Day Three, Ewah and the Vision of Paradise (Tasmania’s best band right now in my humble opinion) were playing as I arrived on day three, and did not disappoint with their beautiful vocals and impressive instrumentation‪. HAŃBA‬ sung in Polish about Polish history (so I’m t‪old) with tuba and accordion and a whole lot of party – polish gypsy style! It reminded me quite a bit of Gogol Bordello. They got everyone dancing and clapping, unsurprisingly. ‬Nakhane then went on to become my favourite performance of the weekend at the main festival site. The beautiful vocalist (dareisay “angelic”) held a great presence in platform shoes, with a two piece behind him. He performed songs like “Presbyteria” and “The Dead”, while his diverse and powerful music held tinges of Arcade Fire and Everything Everything.

Courtney Barnett meanwhile, rocked out as she ran through her well crafted festival set with songs like “Charity”‬ and “Pedestrian at Best”, with her trio behind her. And it all closed with PNAU, who delivered a great light show (lasers and all) accompanied by vocals from Kira Divine. It may have been “not Underworld” (as listed in the programs printed before their booking), but few seemed to mind as they danced the night away. The set included “Nothing In This World”, “Chameleon”, “Baby”, “Wild Strawberries”, “No More Violence” and much more. It was a cathartic – if not surprisingly pop – way to end a very big weekend.

Beyond this, there were roving performers, including dancers and people playing skin (“Skinmusic”) as instruments walking around. It would have been recommended to avoid the smell in that heat. Speaking of great smells, food and drink was stationed throughout the event – some mainstays of the event coming up from Hobart, others more local institutions, providing everything from calamari and chips, to haloumi dogs, salmon burgers, lobster rolls and tacos, with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options available for all punters.

Craft beers and gins were on display too (including a “Violent Femmes” lavender gin which was remarkable), alongside Mona’s signature Moo Brew, which had a number of stations, including the Launnie Longneck Lounge (“Launceston’s second most popular monkey enclosure”), where a new Lager was produced just for the festival. The longnecks sold out early, proving to be a popular and affordable option for those keen to enjoy a few beers on the day. Prices were reasonable across the board though and the quality of all the food and beverage was high – not that you’d expect any less from the region.

The sustainability of the event also has to be applauded, with bins around the festival for your cups, your plates, even your napkins, as everything provided could be and was reused. The portaloos even had nice soaps! People from all ages were in attendance and they definitely had something to cater for all.

Meanwhile, the undoubted highlight of the free program in he city was Robin Fox’s laser and music show in Albert Hall, held both Friday and Saturday night, with the event closing on Saturday night at 11pm with a special live performance by the Ensemble Offspring. There were 5 parts to the performance, which featured drums and the harpsichord, primarily, and proved an incredible experience.

Another highlight were the installations at the Workers Club – as classic a pub as you’ll find in Australia.

Upstairs, the room was transformed into a bright and colourful catwalk by artist Rosie Deacon which emerged from a Koala and encouraged everyone to dress up and strut their stuff. Downstairs, a work by Kenny Pittock was painted on the outdoor wall (he also had his pun-tactic work appear at the main festival site), while inside the drab bar was taken over by artist Heath Franco who added a clown into the fireplace, via a video installation, projected a huge video on the main wall that was reminiscent of Tim and Eric and even projected onto one of the old pool tables with a green man swimming a pool of smaller green men.

“It’s so fantastic to see Launceston come alive like this is a beautiful industrial landscape” I heard some older locals say in passing, and they weren’t wrong. It was my first time to the city, but there’s no question the city was brought to life in a way the city has never seen before. Like Hobart before it, the festival and the government who’ll be backing the event in Launceston for at least the next two years are hoping this renewed interest in the city will see more flock to the region year round, and bring more events to the city of a similar ilk. Events like Party at the Paddock (held next month) are already making their own waves in Launceston, and only time will tell how Mona Foma influences the city. But for now, the event has been a success on every level – from the much talked about Air Mofo experience through to the incredible performances, installations and even  Parer Studio’s inflatable “Man” at the Gorge – bringing a new audience to the city (I wasn’t the only one visiting for the first time because of the event), and ensuring positive word of mouth will only grow these visitors year on year.

FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

For more details about Mona Foma, which this year was held from 13th to 20th of January, head to mofo.net.au. The event will return to Launceston in January 2020, while its sister winter event Dark Mofo will continue in Hobart in June later this year.

The trip to Tasmania was made possible thanks to Qantas / Air Mofo, Tourism Tasmania and Mona Foma. While in Launceston we stayed for three nights at the Mantra Charles Hotel (287 Charles St, Launceston TAS 7250).

Larry Heath

Founding Editor of the AU review. You can find him on Twitter @larry_heath or on Instagram @larryheath.