Guest post – Nigel Wood at Womad 2015
The word on the hot acts – and the weather – at the annual world music festival in Wiltshire
It’s time for our annual report from Wiltshire. As he did in 2013 and 2014, writer, broadcaster and DJ Nigel Wood reports from last weekend’s Womad music festival at Charlton Park in Wiltshire. Nigel hosts the Ear to the Globe radio show on Dublin City FM every Monday from 10pm to midnight.
First, the weather report: the 33rd Womad caught a bad weekend weather-wise. It was the wettest, muddiest Womad since the catastrophic ”Womud” when it first moved to its current location in Charlton Park, Wiltshire in 2007. Friday was constant rain, Saturday dried out nicely with sun and wind, but then Sunday put the lid on it with heavy showers and liquid mud. However, the weather just could not dampen the extraordinary cultural showpieces and interconnections, the brilliant musicianship and the warm rapport between artist and audience.
All was looking fine and dandy at the end of a nice dry day on Thursday as we gathered around the main stage for the opening act. Shantel hit the ground running, playing unabashed Balkan-beat party fare with all the dumbing-down and relentless bombast expected of the genre. The crowd loved it and there was leaping and cavorting a-plenty.
The next act was the rain. It started well before breakfast on Friday morning and didn’t let up until well after dark. The afternoon saw the first wave of veteran performers – two septuagenarian acts banishing all thoughts of gloom. One of the glories of Womad is showcasing the cultural elders who carry the musical heritage of their people, sometimes almost alone. The Mahotella Queens were formed in Johannesburg in the mid 1960s and, with two of their original singing, dancing trio (the third has retired on doctor’s orders) and a 29-year-old new recruit, led us on a merry dance of old mbaqanga tunes.
Then it was another senior citizen, Colombian afro-roots singer and dancer, Totó la Momposina. She is 75 years old with the voice of a woman half that age. With a 14-piece band, including her grandchildren on backing vocals and a veritable battery of traditional percussion, she set up the ground-shaking rhythms that can be heard on the renewed version of her seminal 1990s album now out on Real World as “Tambolero”. Later, she redeployed some of her percussionists as a three-piece horn section, two flautists, and a guitarist and bassist, but it was the early earthy work-outs that were most memorable.
The guitars of Niger band Tal National rang out across the growing mud before it was time to duck away into the arboretum where we could hear the evocative tones of Pascuala Ilabaca calling out to the moon: “la luna llena… la luna llena”. The Chilean singer and accordionist was holding court in the wooded glade with her sophisticated band. Smart and cosmopolitan, they run the changes between Latin lilts, wig-out guitar thrash and heady jazz flights. One of the latter goes into some serious soloing territory and the crowd thins.
I race to catch the must-see McAnuff & Fixi several hundred metres of mud away on the Charlie Gillett stage. We make it only to discover that there is a half-hour delay on the show. Curses! Womad is an extremely well-run event and delays are rare, but the weather was taking its toll. We consolidate our position right in front of the stage and soon enough the stocky figure of French accordion wizard and producer Fixi and his beatbox companion appear before us. A few minutes later, Winston McAnuff strides in. The combination of Gallic accordion (and piano) and McAnuff’s passionate socially-engaged Jamaican vocals is a match made in heaven and one for dancing. The set reaches its peak with the sublime “Garden of Love” and we all enter in.
After checking that English folk big-band Bellowhead were in typically boisterous form as they prepare for a farewell tour in the autumn, it’s into a crowded Siam tent for one of the original world music masters. Tinariwen are in magnificent form. The slow power of their desert blues is a magnificent creation and the electric guitar lines unwind with a poise that is both meditative and deeply stirring.
Ignoring the evening mainstreamers and dance acts (De La Soul and Luke Vibert), our evening is spent in the company of Algerian/French chanteuse Souad Massi, a somewhat pale prospect for a Friday night amongst such cultural riches. She is pleasant enough, but we slip away to try out the Cambodian Space Project nearby. They are cut from the same cloth as Dengue Fever – Cambodian singer with a exploratory Western band- but don’t have quite the same panache. More development and more spaceyness please.
As we get back to the Siam tent, Souad Massi launches into her classic “Ghir Enta”, a dance-swoon of a song. I pirouette precariously in the mud. It’s a moment! The evening concludes with the gently authoritative voice of one of Mali’s greatest and best-loved singers Kassé Mady Diabaté in beautiful, timeless, acoustic dialogue with ngoni, kora and mesmeric balafon.
A breezy, sunny Saturday dries off the tents and the clothes, and the mud coagulates into a solid mass. A crowd gathers around the main stage in the early afternoon for a quiet legend of African music. With his brightly striped garb and long dreadlocks, Cheikh Lo is a musical maverick from the free-thinking Baye Fall Sufi sect of Senegal. Drawing from an early experience of James Brown’s live act, coupled with Senegal’s mbalax and love of Latin rhythms, Lo calmly steers his band through a set of perfectly pitched understated Latin-inflected funky pieces, cracking the sabar drums and switching from vocals to guitar to the drumkit.
Next up on the main stage is a rising name in Brazilian music, signed to the distinguished Sterns label, Criolo. Besides the triumphant return of so many veterans, one of the welcome features of this year’s Womad was the extra space given to South American music. Criolo is a rapper from Sao Paulo, but a more emotional, expressive performer would be hard to imagine. His lyrical concerns have a keen social edge but for the non-Portuguese speaker it just remains to admire the stylish beauty of the vowel sounds. He both sings and raps and his energetic and impassioned exhortations to the audience put me in mind of Freddie Mercury.
L’Hijaz Car were the ideal accompaniment to a pint of craft beer at the sunny far end of the arena. A flowing Mediterranean sound of oud, fiddle and bass clarinet, they were both stimulating and nicely relaxing. Afterwards, Ester Rada impressed as an r’n'b vocalist of Ethiopian heritage, although her band lacked that extra edge of dynamism. Meanwhile, a significant event awaited us in the Siam tent. Previous Womad favourites, Staff Benda Bilili broke up a couple of years ago amidst much acrimony. Two of the ex-members from that band of disabled one-time Kinshasa street musicians have linked up with Liam Farrell, aka Doctor L, Irish-Parisian producer and bass player, and formed Mbongwana Star, a rough ride through the Kinshasa streetscape. Their album on the prestigious World Circuit label married Coco’s and Theo’s yearning vocals to some funky rumba-rock rhythms very successfully. But is it a band…. or a project? The jury is still out. Farrell’s heavyweight rhythms and a hyperactive guitar sound tended to overwhelm the vocals, although the two guys dancing in their wheelchairs were a rousing force, together with a live-wire youngster on percussion and vocals.
It all got a bit fragmented after that. Tiken Jah Fakoly began to deliver his straightahead Ivorian reggae set on the main stage. As he launched into the powerful singalong of “Ouvrez les frontiers”, I roamed off to check out The Very Best in the Big Red Tent – who didn’t really grab me – and Swiss wild cards, Orchestre Tout Puissant Marcel Duchamp, for some unhinged, uncategorisable propulsion involving trombone, marimba, fiddle and scratchy guitar. An impressive ensemble, singing in English and boasting John Parish on production duties. Yes I bought the album!
Luzmila Carpio is a celebrated Bolivian singer of songs from the indigenous Indian communities of her country. She accompanied herself on a ukulele-like tres guitar and sang at times in an unfeasibly high-pitched tone, while somewhat incongruously backed by a standard piano, bass and drums trio. She performed a stunning tribute to the bird sounds of the “altiplana”, eloquently articulating the sounds of each one.
While a collective gathered on the main stage to interpret the works of legendary eccentric William Onyeabor and Daddy G laid it down in the Big Red, we had deeper folk fish to fry and we made our way back to a packed arboretum for Womad favourites, Spiro. Hailing from Bristol, they are an instrumental quartet of fiddle, mandolin, guitar and accordion who take folk tunes as a starting point for the construction of patterns and layers which can, and do, reach crescendos of hypnotic intensity. It has connections to classical minimalism and dance music, and yes, you can dance to it. Transcendental folk!
Our choice of late-night viewing was another highlight. Aurelio is cultural ambassador for the Garifuna people of the Caribbean coast of Central America. His lovely warm-hearted rhythms find space between an Afro percussion sound and the Latin lilts of his homeplace, and he was accompanied by a guitarist who crafted one beautifully jaw-dropping solo after another. A fitting end to the day.
Sunday was hard. Everything had dried, the mud had hardened, things were getting very manageable and then the rain lashed for hours turning the dried mud into a quagmire. We got on with it. Secure under canvas, Macedonia’s Kocani Orkestar were fine and their tight and agile brass arrangements could turn on a sixpence. Sporting two fine singers, they powered off a mix of gypsy tunes – just the right side of cheese – and some very hot instrumentals.
Outdoors was another matter. Noura Mint Seymali is a powerful young Mauritanian singer backed by corruscating electric guitar. She might well have been railing against the weather and she did it well. The next two visitors on the outdoor stage were both veterans. Dona Onete from the Amazonian region of Brazil is a history professor who has just released her debut at the age of 73. She had to be helped to her tropical-themed throne in the middle of the stage from where she delivered the most heart-stoppingly adorable infectious danceable songs of the Festival. She was perfectly accompanied by a tight spare young trio of guitar, bass and drums, and, for me, “Moreno” was the song of the weekend – and she did it twice.
Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the original voices of the golden age of Addis Ababa in the 1960s and 1970s and he was backed by Badume’s Band from Brittany, who are one of a number of bands who have dedicated themselves to the Ethio style. Mahmoud is a big powerful man who has an aerobic dance routine and demands major vocal collaboration from the audience.
Olcay Bayir, a young classically-trained Turkish singer and London resident, gave a strong performance, backed by clarinet, very fine fiddle, accordion and guitar. She played songs of the near Eastern region – Turkish and Armenian – donning the appropriate garment for the tune “Cardigan of my Modesty”.
The final act of my Womad was a multimedia event by young Frenchman Christophe Chassol. Performing live keyboards as part of his ultrascore “Big Sun” with a drummer, he accompanied the stunning images on screen – shot in Martinique – and also interacted with them. It was a riveting experience for those hardy souls who saw the Festival out to its end.
It was a challenging one, but the weather, bad and all as it was, was no match for the cultural riches on display. The audiences at Womad offer a warmth of support to artists from all over the world which is rare, and much appreciated by the musicians who visit. This year, it was particularly heart-warming to witness performances by women who are grandmothers. They might otherwise be in nursing homes or under the care of family members, but instead are on tour and wowing audiences. They’re showing us what’s possible – still dancing, still singing, still blazing.