Guest post: Nigel Wood at Womad
The sights, sounds and rain at last weekend’s world music festival in the UK
Nigel Wood reports from last weekend’s Womad music festival at Charlton Park across the Irish Sea in Wiltshire. Nigel hosts the Ear to the Globe radio show on Dublin City FM every Monday from 10pm to midnight.
Founded by Peter Gabriel and others in 1980, Womad has run festivals in many parts of the world, but Charlton Park in the English countryside has been its home stamping-ground for the last seven years. Cultural diversity is the musical menu and it is one of the wonders of Womad to witness the warmth generated between practitioners of some distant little-known musical genre and the appreciative open-minded punters that swarm to this mecca of interculturalism.
In fact, much of what we hear at Womad is at the very apex of cultural achievement in its country of origin. We had the long-established quartet Huun Huur Tu from the plains of Tuva in Central Asia, the young successors to Tinariwen in the form of Touareg guitar band Tamikrest, the Pakistani Sufi qawwali group led by Asif Ali Khan and Brazilian Tropicalia legend Gilberto Gil. While the cultural diversity of the audience doesn’t quite equal the musical diversity, there is considerable diversity of age – babies to grandparents and beyond – and the overall atmosphere is as generous and sunny as the weather…which took a bit of a nosedive on the Saturday, of which more anon.
For the earlybirds, Algerian punk rai-rocker Rachid Taha was the main event on Thursday evening. He blew open the gates in style with a combination of new songs from the “Zoom” album, which reference both Oum Kalthoum and Elvis Presley, old standards such as “Ya Rayah” and major crowd-pleaser “Rock the Kasbah”.
Friday was the hottest day in every sense, with burning sun and smoking music. There was no let-up from the opening London-based Mavrika, who bring an indie-guitar muscularity to their reworkings of Greek rembetika, to Jagwa Music from Dar Es Salaam, with their wild percussive attack, thrillingly accented with Casio keyboard and the MC vocals of Jackie Kazimoto. There was also Ondatropica, the Colombian project of Will “Quantic” Holland and Mario Galeano, featuring some of that country’s rootsiest veterans in an infectious brew of cumbia, salsa and ska. Three hours down and we’re getting into our dance stride.
It can take a leap of faith sometimes to bridge the cultural gaps and Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, one of the giants of Cajun, initially sound a bit two-dimensional after the swing and swerve of Ondatropica. But the class shines through pretty soon and Riley’s accordion sucked and blew in full swampy effect. The Touaregs are next, and there are none more current than Tamikrest, the heirs to Tinariwen’s throne. Unruffled and purposeful, they belie the trouble back in Mali with an impressive set of measured electric blues-rock.
Five hours on the trot now, moving smartly from the BBC Radio 3 stage in its tree-lined hollow to the huge blue Siam tent, and backwards and forth to the Open Air Stage. And now it’s Max Romeo and Lee “Scratch” Perry, Max in tremendous voice on “War Inna Babylon” and a host of classics. For me, though, the band are a half-beat ahead of themselves and don’t carry the deep roots of the originals so I wander off to graze amongst the World Food options. More diversity!
A surprise substitution took me off-guard and I missed much of the set of contemporary indie-samba auteur Lucas Santtana. The big gig tonight is Seun Kuti and it provides an interesting comparison with Femi Kuti’s widescreen extravaganza at the same venue last year. Seun starts with less of a bang but builds in intensity, the leader writhing and contorting, stripped to the waist – the very image of his old man. Accompanying him were some veterans of the genre, the shekere master in particular shaking the rhythms into transcendence. There is late night stuff in the Siam tent from the Polish strings of Kroke to the sweet naive harmonies of the Malawi Mouse Boys. It’s been a classic day.
Saturday dawns fair but the weather loses its grip mid-afternoon and Osibisa’s “Sunshine Day” is not to be. Before the rain, the young Brazilian samba-ragga artist Flavia Coelho comes on strong with the infectiousness of a female Manu Chao. She doesn’t totally convince but, by contrast and in the same language, up-and-coming Portuguese fado singer Carminho absolutely steals the show. Her spell-binding passionate performance, simply delivered without airs or graces, was my show of the weekend and garners a big audience response despite its early afternoon slot. Still in the tent with the rain falling, Malouma from Mauritania delivered some deep earthy blues as well as a couple of bland ballads, but then made up for that by rolling around the stage in her bright blue robes in a gritty rock ‘n’ roll finale.
Rokia Traoré was perhaps the major rain casualty and her tight muscular rhythms and perfect impassioned vocals deserved a much bigger and more open response than the buttoned –down forest of umbrellas that greeted her. One of the most stimulating and contemporary of African singers, her celebratory words about diversity could serve as Womad’s keynote address – they should invite her every year.
Perhaps Arrested Development suffered from the rain too. I don’t know because I was down in the woods sampling the wild and wacky distillation of Brazilian tradition that is DJ Tudo. Later, the Mongolian quartet Huun Huur Tu are mysteriously exotic with their throat-singing and traditional instruments, but their tunes were also mesmerising and quietly catchy, like a Central Asian JJ Cale (RIP).
The rain mercifully stopped around midnight and Sunday produced the right amount of sun and breeze to avert the threatened swamp, but La Chiva Gantiva would probably have blasted it dry anyway with their prodigious amounts of energy, chutzpah and verve. They are a Colombian-Belgian outfit with charismatic front-man, a huge funky outlook and absolutely no respect for any musical category as they put on a great show.
From the wild and unruly, it was onto a highly sophisticated and virtuoso musical re-enactment of the Southern Italian pizzica tradition from Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino. Then, it was the haunting percussion-voice trio fronted by Christine Salem from La Réunion, with the audience sweetly singing back the refrain she taught to them earlier in order to persuade her to play another one (only at Womad!) and the classic sound of Pakistani qawwali music with powerful male voices and urgent handclapping from Asif Ali Khan and his band.
Zimbabwean newcomers of the year Mokoomba were a sure-fire hit with their pan-African dance-friendly repertoire. Fanfare Ciocarlia are the pneumatic titans of Romanian brass, pumping away at breakneck speed and prompting some reckless dance-moves in the middle of the tent. A little later, Song Yuzhe’s DaWangGang were the curio of curios, with Chinese art music which drew on folk traditions, Chinese opera and rock to make a compelling eccentric sound – the David Byrne of Beijing?
It was left to Gilberto Gil to settle us down after all the excitement, which he did in a masterful, highly accomplished manner with some fine musicians. Not the peak of excitement, but then he is 71, albeit in very good shape and totally at home in the diversity of Womad.
And that was Womad 2013. Not a classic year – the evening programme was a little light for that – but a fine collection of multi-hued musical gems nonetheless.