Guest post – Nigel Wood at Womad
The despatches from the annual world music extravaganza in Wiltshire
It’s time for our annual trip to Wiltshire. As he did in 2013, 2014 and 2015, 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.
As I regularly reminded friends and colleagues – and myself – you just can’t see everything at Womad. The festival in its 34th year was as splendidly diverse as ever and a packed schedule provided some tough dilemmas. Impassioned songstress of Kurdish Turkey versus Hanoi survivor musicians of the American war; Toumani Diabaté’s historic flamenco project versus fierce Galician vocals and percussion. When will I ever get to see any of these again? And many such hard choices.
This, then, is my personal journey through the multiplicity of cultural highways and byways of Womad. The mainstream is out for a start. I heard John Grant’s baritone wafting about the arena, St Germain provided some quality interlude music and George Clinton and co’s arena-wide funkathon was a damn good party, but these were not my focus.
For the early-birds, Thursday had three performances. The traditional collaboration with the local Malmesbury school offered a Brazilian collaboration this year for the young voices. It swung, was not cheesy and brought a tear to my eye. Ah Womad.
Then, it was new generation Touareg band Imarhan, who have a blood connection to the great Tinariwen, and are musically closely descended, but with a harder funkier edge. They can rock out convincingly but it was the deep grooves of the slower numbers that really impressed. They are signed to City Slang, which might get them attention outside the world music ghetto, as some would see it. An issue highlighted much later in the weekend by Belgian-Congolese rapper Baloji: “this is not world music” he said more than once, seeing it as a “third-world music” type of put-down.
After Imarhanm it was the Asian Dub Foundation on the big stage, a kick-out-the-jams outfit with plenty of politics about them. They were a little too full-on for an easy-going just-arrived Womad crowd, but the sentiments are great and they do pack a fine punch. I particularly liked the juxtaposition of a very homely-looking sign language woman at the side of the stage, jigging a little as she signed, while right next to her the ADF jumped up and down roaring “keep banging on the doors of Fortress Europe”. At least she had some significant messages to translate; I can’t imagine what she made of George Clinton. Another song entitled “The Swarm” redefined David Cameron’s famously pejorative term for migrants as “highly intelligent community action”.
Friday afternoon and we’re away. La Mambanegra are from Cali in Colombia and are a hard-driving salsa-funk band that kick-started proceedings with zest. I caught the final drama of London-based Salento pizzica band Amaterra, as a duo of tambourines built up a taranta frenzy, a dancer acting out the response to the spider’s poisonous bite.
I was sorry to miss the Grit Orchestra’s tribute to Martyn Bennett on the main stage, but I had read a stirring review of a Hindi Zahra gig in Essaouira and needed to check her out. Cosmopolitan with Moroccan Berber roots, she is a compelling performer with effortless poise. The band were good and much more powerful and driving than on record, but Zahra had something very special which kept me transfixed until the end. Her dramatic “headbanging” was a recreation of the Gnawa trance dance.
After that intensity, the slight hesitancy of Aziza Brahim’s opening number was magnified, but with warm support from the audience, she relaxed and delivered a soulful swirling set. Brahim is from the disputed territory of Western Sahara, grew up in a refugee camp and now lives in Barcelona. Her voice is not as strong as others from North Africa, but her melodies are engaging and moving.
Classic West African guitar music from Bamba Wassoulou Groove was a chance to get limbered up. They are connected to legendary Malian musicians such as Zani Diabaté and the Rail Band and it’s a magical thing how one catchy African guitar figure can play through an entire song and still sound as fresh at the end as when it started.
After getting well limbered, I dashed away to get a quick look at Zmei3, purveyors of rough Romanian soul. I was in time to witness the harrowing denouement of their performance, based on the sufferings of 1950s freedom fighters in the Transylvanian mountains, with singer Paula Turcas in full dramatic breakdown.
Then, it was a choice between flamenco vocalist Buika serving up a rather messy fusion of jazz-funk and rumba and the brassy bombast of the New Orleans’ Hot 8 Brass Band, who began with a chunky “Master Blaster” and finished with a lengthy work-out on their signature “Sexual Healing”.
Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf was a classy jazz-rock production, including a crowd singalong to the finale, but it was Blick Bassy who held my attention. He played banjo, guitar and whistley things, and was accompanied by trombone (and keyboard) and picked cello. He sang sweet airy tunes, went deep down, shouting and chattering in the background, channelled the spirit of his hero Skip James, and gave an engrossing and theatrical performance. A thoroughly modern African musician, Bassy pointedly sings in his mother-tongue (from Cameroon) and is a true original.
As John Grant preached to the masses, I went down to the woods to hear a new Ghanaian singer, Wiyaala. Feisty is not the word – she is a powerhouse in the mode of a young Angelique Kidjo, Effervescent and funny, she rocked the crowd and got a great reception. One to watch. Time then for a bit of a lie-down in the Siam Tent while the extraordinary Vishwa Mohan Bhatt played supersonic slide guitar to a background of Rajasthani voices on a bedrock of Indian percussive mastery. Finally a late night wander took me to the Bowers and Wilkins soundsystem tent where London reggae and soundsystem veteran DJ Jah Shaka was midway through a somewhat meandering three hour set.
I was slow getting moving on a sunny Saturday morning and was in the middle of my Manic Organic breakfast fry-up when I should have been over at the Charlie Gillett stage, checking on the Senegalese multi-instrumentalist and kora player Diabel Cissokho. I got there halfway through and it was brilliant – high-speed kora work over a muscular rhythm, plus fine guitar and talking drum. His high-powered multicultural band were the perfect foil for his virtuosity.
I went straight to Sidestepper, one of the most anticipated acts of the weekend. Richard Blair has run his Colombian operation for many years now and has provided some of the most satisfying world-dance fusions that I have come across – his 2000 album “More Grip” is never out of my DJ bag. His new recording, “Supernatural Love”, is less for the dancefloor, though, and is more subtle acoustic groove. It worked well live, the Colombian voices were uplifting, and the rhythms were deliciously danceable.
The historic Songhai collaboration between Toumani Diabate and Carmona flamenco brothers was due next, but there was a hitch and I was off down to the Big Red Tent for the unique Mercedes Peón, another riveting female performer. Still shaven-headed, going solo with programmed beats, playing percussion and Galician pipes, this was a brave, exploratory and unforgettable performance. Her voice really is the most thrilling of instruments, and when she let it rip in all its fierceness, it went right to the soul.
At the back of my mind, though, was the thought of the Songhai performance – surely a Womad centrepiece? I chose right though. Plagued by delays and under-rehearsed, I heard later reports that it was a disappointment.
I missed the beginning of Anoushka Shankar’s performance, having caught the start of Chouk Bwa Libete’s vodou drums, but what I saw was extremely impressive. A serious suite of songs on the theme of refugees and migration, Shankar was accompanied by the master percussionist Manu Delago, bass, keyboards and interjections from the gorgeously wild sound of the shehnai oboe. Her sitar playing was quicksilver and sparkling, and the whole performance had depth and resonance. We can look forward to something very special when she visits Dublin’s National Concert Hall in October.
Something equally special took place with Alash Ensemble, a trio of throat singers from Tuva playing lute, kemanche type fiddle and a large drum. The sounds of their voices were staggering in range and depth, but the way they combined these with the instrumental sounds was quite brilliant (for instance, playing the jew’s harp while singing and setting up deep rocking grooves under the voices). Yat Kha, back in the day, would have touched on the same territory but not with the same beauty. It was unearthly but also soothing and calming. After several minutes of deep growls and lonesome whistles, they stopped and the percussionist asked us conversationally ‘how’s everything?’
Baaba Maal looked resplendent in blue robes and he occupied the main stage like the world music royalty he is. After the excitement and intensity of what I had been watching all afternoon, I felt a bit impatient with the big production and its lumbering scale, but gradually he won me over. “African Woman” sounded good, “Cherie” was a lovely singalong and Maal disappeared into the audience, security guards on uneasy stand-by, to be at one with his people. Later there were harder driving pieces from the new “Traveller” album, but the dramatic ending brought poet Lemn Sissay on to deliver an agonised reading of their collaboration “Peace”. The audience lapped it up peacefully, except for a small and dignified protest asking him not to play Israel.
Having recommended to colleagues that they go to the Breton-African band N’Diale next, I surprised myself by going to Ana Tijoux instead and I’m glad I did. France-based with Chilean parents, she is a great performer of Spanish hip-hop with a strongly feminist stance. Another example of strong women standing out at this year’s Womad.
Later after the George Clinton party, Polish five-piece band Muzykanci took the stage in the Siam tent. All fiddles and hurdy-gurdy, their front-woman and singer is the slightly over-eager Joanna Slowinska, while their secret weapon is fiddle player Stanislaw Slowinski who soloed breathtakingly on the slow air. On the faster pieces the racing rotating hurdy-gurdy was a wonder to behold. Even later Brussels’ Kel Assouf played hard rocking Touareg riffs, and the five Sardinian singers, Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei, sang a capella, beginning each song in a tight circle on stage.
On Sunday I was invited to breakfast at the BBC, followed by a live Radio 3/6 Music simulcast hosted by Cerys Matthews and Lopa Kothari. We were treated to short performances from a lithe Canadian trad trio the East Pointers, Buika (much better in this intimate setting), Brazilian cellist songwriter Dom La Nena and London-African band Bafula.
Then it was out on the town again. Cabruera kicked off a North-Brazilian manic guitar funk, followed by Lura from Portugal playing the music of Cape Verde. A small figure in a flower-print dress with an afro hair-do, Lura was yet another fantastic female artist, singing a song dedicated to strong women, and playing a tribute to Cesaria Evora. Hugely engaging, she won every heart, while behind her was the epitome of a relaxed bass-player, a big easy-going guy whose fingers seemingly just strolled around the strings on their own.
From Cape Verde to Kurdish Turkey in a two-minute stroll and a hugely different culture. After a weekend at Womad, you truly are a citizen of the world. Aynur hit the heights of passionate delivery in the second number after a beautifully ascending clarinet solo. Several times during the set, over a building swirl of guitar, tar lute, bass, percussion and bass clarinet she soared to realms of ecstasy, or it could have been torment, but it sure felt good down in the audience. Aynur finished with two more upbeat numbers including a reggae-ish folk dance.
Next, the best rock ‘n’ roll dance band in the world, Konono No 1. Two percussionists, two likembe hand-held amplified thumb pianos and a formidable front woman. With virtually no distractions and no lead-in, they just laid it down. The Kinshasa band seem to have always done it this way, ever since we heard about them, and they see no reason to change.
While they’ve done a very successful album with DJ/producer Batida, they just do their thing live – and what a wonderfully primal thing that is. Over a battery of percussion they chant, and call and respond, and then in the instrumental passages the likembes shift accents, set up grooves, bring it up and down. If you don’t dance like a maniac, you’re not getting it. Totally exhilarating.
Then, it was straight into Pat Thomas and the Kwashibu Area Band. The warmth, soul and groove of those highlife and afro-funk rhythms, after the freneticism of Konono, was like a balm and a bath. It was ecstatic to stretch into them. They reached right to the heart and, when the band hit “Gyae Su” with its stirring backing refrain, there was a magical Womad moment. I turned round and, seemingly and suddenly, everyone immediately behind me ignited into full-tilt delirious dance together. It was beautiful, man!
I then caught the end of Mercedes Peón’s second set – brave and beautiful again – and heard some of The Breath with Armagh’s Rioghnach Connolly on vocals. I got back to the Siam Tent in time for Les Amazones d’Afrique. I was unclear as to what to expect here. The band, including drummer Mouneissa Tandina and two female backing singers, kicked off and Kandia Kouyaté was helped on to the stage, taking her seat on the couch and singing one number. She had a very successful album a year ago, but the stroke she suffered prior to that has clearly taken its toll.
Next was Mariam Doumbia, partner of Amadou, who sang a number to a rocky backing, Mbongwana Star’s Doctor L joining the band on gritty guitar. Mariam sat on the couch with Kandia, where they stayed for the rest of the gig, as Mamani Keita came on. She was well able for the grinding guitar work going on behind her and sang a couple of fine songs. Then, it was the younger contingent and Inna Modja, Nneka and Rokia Koné all sang powerfully. It was a great showcase of Malian women, oriented towards the younger generation and a rockier contemporary sound.
Another hour of West African dance rhythms followed at the last gig of the night with Moh! Kouyaté – great guitar and a good showman. Finally, a last wander down to the Bowers and Wilkins tent where Glasgow’s Optimo provided the best late night DJing that I heard there and that was it for another year. Womad – there’s truly nothing like it. Do yourself a favour and book in for next year.