Guest post – Nigel Wood at Womad 2014
A report on what was very close to a five star Womad in the rolling fields of Wiltshire as captured by Nigel Wood
Sunshine and a vintage line-up contributed to a sell-out at Womad for the first time in the current venue, the extensive grassy fields and arboretum of Charlton Park in Wiltshire. There was some reshuffling of stages this year, with the Society of Sound stage in addition to the five main stages to celebrate 25 years of Real World Records. This impressively be-domed stage with its bespoke Bowers & Wilkins sound system featured talks and lectures, such as an interview with Peter Gabriel about the history of Womad and Real World, performances from Iarla O’Lionaird, Beardyman and the Radiophonic Workshop and DJ sets from David Holmes, Ashley Beedle, Adrian Sherwood and Richard Blair.
At the main event, Malian ngoni hero Bassekou Kouyate launched proceedings in an unusually well-attended Thursday night session. Surrounded by family – his wife, Amy Sacko, two brothers, two sons and a nephew, on vocals, ngonis and percussion – he set a cracking rhythmic pattern, his solos reaching a hypnotic frenzy of counter-rhythmic excitement and Amy in superb authoritative voice. An unchanged formula from previous visits – even his stage patter was very similar – but a winning one and a perfect opener.
On a blisteringly hot Friday afternoon, the first three hours were musical heaven. Clinton Fearon, one-time member of the ‘70s Jamaican vocal trio The Gladiators, gave us the classic reggae sound laced with infectious good humour and positivity, on a set of songs new and old (“Chatty Chatty Mouth”), and a reminder of the sheer joy of a good 1970s reggae bassline. Next in the Siam tent, Hungarian five-piece family outfit Söndörgö, playing a Serbo-Croat repertoire, were a virtuosic whirlwind of strings, horns, whistles and lusty male voices. They swapped instruments – traditional tambura to percussion, to whistle, to trumpet – played everything brilliantly and at high speed. A real tour de force.
Of West African heritage and based in Paris, Debademba feature the powerful voice and riveting stage presence of Mohamed Diaby, and the remarkable bluesy fingerwork of veteran guitarist, Abdoulaye Traore. They start off as a very stylish, contemporary Malian roots band with some jazzy overtones and great impassioned ballads before, half-way through the set, exploding into rock’n'roll riffs, with Diaby channelling Howling Wolf and Robert Plant in an utterly compelling and highly danceable affray.
Manu Dibango, 80 year old veteran Cameroonian saxophonist, holds court in the Siam tent. He revisits his considerable back-catalogue of funky Afro sounds and delivers jazzy versions of “Big Blow” and “Soul Makossa” that completely belie his years. Next door on the main stage, it’s Mari Boine, one of the earliest signings to Real World. She is Norwegian of Sami heritage, and she transforms that tradition into rock grooves, urged on by a big drum sound, bass and guitar. Several times, she hits shamanic heights, her voice wheeling and gliding over a searching rhythmic framework.
The evenings on the main stage are for the big gigs. The shopping is over, the kids are asleep (maybe?) and everyone is up for it so it’s less intimacy and more bombast. On Friday, it’s Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra, and there’s plenty of bombast in this pumped-up brassy Balkan festival fare. Ludicrously upbeat and wilfully riotous, it engenders chaotic and ridiculous dancing.
A different engagement is happening in the Big Red tent where Congo Natty sharpens dancehall reggae in a jungle style to a younger audience. Richard Thompson – one man and his guitar – plays a great set of depth and experience with “Beeswing”, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, “Read About Love” and many more. Passing the Charlie Gillett stage, now headquarters for the BBC Radio 3 operation, the Polish band, Caci Vorba are finishing off an acoustic gypsy set. Back in the Siam tent, a big Welsh harp is onstage, and next to it a kora. The final performance of the night is from Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita and their award-winning Wales-Senegal harp-kora combination. It’s beautiful: intricate and delicate, swinging and gliding, a glorious interplay of two magnificent instruments on a repertoire which pays tribute to both their traditions. An excellent conclusion to the first day.
After an entertaining and good humoured question-and-answer session with Peter Gabriel on Saturday morning, it’s time for music. Amira Kheir, young Sudanese jazz singer, doesn’t quite engage, but SANS, Andrew Cronshaw’s quartet of UK, Finnish and Armenian personnel, are riveting. Taking their place on the Ecotricity stage among the trees of the arboretum, they play weightless drifting drones and soundscapes that pick you up and deposit you somewhere else entirely. Twin wind instruments – reeds and duduk – interact with Cronshaw’s zither, fujara and kantele and the Finnish folk voice of Sanna Kuki-Suonio. Categorise as “otherworldly”. Some parts of Amjad Ali Khan’s performance immediately afterwards were similarly meditative, while other sections were fast and furious as the master sarod player jousted with his two sons over propulsive percussion.
Anna Cinzia Villani represents the music of her native Salento with her fine voice – from soulful songs to tambourine driven pizzica dances. Kobo Town is a great favourite next on the BBC Radio 3 stage delivering a good old knees-up among the sun-baked audience. Led by Drew Gonsalves, who grew up near Port of Spain in Trinidad before moving to Toronto, they play calypso of a hard-hitting, danceable variety with plenty of the social comment common to the genre. Back on the Ecotricity stage Tunisian percussionist Imed Alibi plays rhythmic Arabic soundscapes which would sound great on the bigger stage drifting across the landscape.
Then, it’s Afrobeat inna London style. Yaaba Funk’s Ghanaian funk roots are infectious, enthusiastic and danceable, though they are blown away by the tight power and funkiness of Ibibio Sound Machine. Guitar, bass, beats and percussion with a horn section too, but the winning card is the female singer Eno Williams, who is a star from the moment she steps on stage. She transforms a powerful band into a turbo-charged rocket, and when she roars “Let’s Dance!” we don’t ask any questions. Mayhem in the moshpit.
9Bach are contemporary Welsh folk who sound moodily impressive, while New Zealanders Fat Freddy’s Drop have us skanking around the outside of the Siam tent to a gorgeously infectious reggae groove. The unmistakeable voice of Senegalese mega-star (and politician) Youssou N’Dour calls us back into the fray. He first appeared at Womad in 1986 and, at 54 years of age, seems as energetic and enthusiastic as ever, cruising through his back catalogue of songs such as “Birima” and even “7 Seconds” propelled by the sabar drums and a fine band, his sinuous voice wailing and imploring. The best of the African veterans.
The late night session in the Siam tent was a rewarding experience. The Sonia Sabri Company are a UK/Indian dance company specialising in kathak dance with four dancers and five musicians. The music was a revelation: sarangi fiddle, percussion and extraordinary soaring female vocals provided a mesmerising rhythmic concoction, transformed into movement by the dancers. Another highlight. Clinton Fearon came back without his band for an acoustic finale of voice and guitar. As easy and relaxed as they come, he warmed up the entire crowd with his presence, his positivity, and his words of wisdom before he even sang a note. Then when he did sing, it was like a reggae gospel session – “keep your lovelight shining” – and a great little dance was had before bed.
Sunday began with The Magnolia Sisters, a Cajun oufit from Louisiana who were a little straight-laced for my taste. Nuru Kane straddles a couple of genres involving Senegal, Morocco and elsewhere. The opening few numbers of pan-West-African, Spanish-tinged rock didn’t quite convince, but when he strapped on the Moroccan guimbri and entered the gnawa portal, it all came together.
Then came the most compelling hour of the whole festival. Three women in white dresses and tall furry stovepipe hats sitting in a row, one playing cello and other two on percussion. To their right, a balding nondescript man in an embroidered jacket with a concertina and hand-drum. This was DakhaBrakha from the Ukraine, a one-time visitor to our own, late, lamented Dun Laoghaire Festival of World Cultures. The women sing, their voices wild, free and magnificent; the cello sets up a riff like heavy metal, and the percussion marches like a shamanic army. The big crowd in the tent is utterly bewitched. Suddenly, the percussion stops and the male figure plays a gentle tune on the melodeon and then accompanies it with the sweetest falsetto voice. This beautiful piece continues until the percussion and cello crash back in and he roars and growls like a demented being over the top of it until it all quietens again and he is back to a sweet falsetto. Extraordinary, surprising and inspired. The show ends with a huge roar of approval and a mass waving of Ukrainian flags.
The Gloaming were up next and it didn’t work for me with the big amplification, so I took the opportunity to catch the Iranian sisters, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat, and their beautifully heartbreaking voices, which reduced many of the audience to tears. They don’t have the right to sing in public in their own country, which gave an extra poignancy to their performance. Then just in case we were left in despondency, Vinicio Capossela struck up the band over to our right and we were away in a playground of Italian and Greek underworlds. Sporting a variety of hats, his veteran Post Office Band are named in honour of drawing their pensions and they come across like some tongue-in-cheek Mediterranean cowboy band.
Another highlight was the inspired pairing of Cuban pianist du jour, Roberto Fonseca, with Malian songstress Fatoumata Diawara. They have one recorded piece on Fonseca’s last album, but this was a full-on collaboration with Diawara in powerful voice and the Cuban providing driving riffs and spectacular solos.
Later, the main stage hosted one of the biggest names in Malian music and one of the first to break through in the West, Salif Keita, back with his 1970s band Les Ambassadeurs which included Amadou (of Amadou & Mariam fame). Salif’s voice was not heard to best effect on the huge sound system, and he left plenty of room to others – indeed seeming a little lost at times – but the band played well (no horns though) and overall it was a great restatement of a golden era in Malian music.
The final section saw Çigdem Aslan play a solo set. Born in Istanbul and now resident in London, Çigdem sang with London klezmer band She’Koyokh but has recently launched a solo career specialising in the rembetika style of the Greek and Turkish underworld. She is a fine singer, but sounded a little polite in the context of some of the other acts on show.
The alternative to Sinead O’Connor’s finale show was Malian indie guitar band Songhoy Blues, a four piece who cranked out a gritty workmanlike blues. A current sound from Mali, recently highlighted on Damon Albarn’s Africa Express project and somewhat reminiscent of Lobi Traore’s electric sound, they were fine and earthy, but didn’t have a great deal of variation.
The final act of the festival was Zimbabwean veteran Oliver Mtukudzi who arrived too late for his afternoon slot. He was in fine form on guitar and vocals with supporting bass and drums and two backing singers. His loping style would probably have gone down better in the afternoon and I confess to slipping away for a while to check out the Richard Blair (aka Sidestepper) DJ set in the Society of Sound where the remaining dancers were disporting themselves extravagantly to a selection of South American beats.
There were many many other acts and events which I didn’t get to – Mulatu Astatke was a big miss, also Hazmat Modine, Afrikan Boy, The Jolly Boys, Tunng and more – plus talks, workshops, DJs and more – but from what I saw, this was very close to a five star Womad with Dakha Brakha, Debademba, Ibibio Sound Machine, Clinton Fearon and SANS providing memorable sets.