sat 13/07/2024

WOMAD Festival, Charlton Park review - global music festival’s 40th birthday party goes off with a bang | reviews, news & interviews

WOMAD Festival, Charlton Park review - global music festival’s 40th birthday party goes off with a bang

WOMAD Festival, Charlton Park review - global music festival’s 40th birthday party goes off with a bang

A weekend of fine music from all parts of the globe

The Great Gilberto Gil

Without doubt, the WOMAD Festival is a major international music institution and an annual landmark in the UK summer festival season. It has also been the major catalyst in the popularisation of non-western music in the UK and further afield from the 1980s onwards.

2022 marked the 40th anniversary of the WOMAD Festival and so theartsdesk sent Peter Culshaw, a veteran writer about the scene and an attendee at the first WOMAD, and Guy Oddy, a regular festival visitor but WOMAD newbie to join 40,000 punters and check out this major music event.

Prologue – Peter Culshaw

It was the 40th anniversary of the first WOMAD, and unlike my fellow reviewer who was attending his first, slightly shockingly I went to the first one. We piled in a van from my London squat and a whole world opened up. Actually there was a “world music” underground in those pre-internet days.  It seemed obvious that the best music, like the best food, wouldn’t necessarily come from the U.S. and England and we were into Fela Kuti and would save up to buy vinyl at one of few London outlets for African records like Sterns, or would go to salsa nights on a Sunday in Leicester Square or catch Indian classical music at odd venues like the squatted Cambodian Embassy.

The first WOMAD was a revelation – this world music underground tribe was bigger than we thought. And it was thrilling to be woken up by the Drummers of Burundi playing outside my tent. How some artists got to be there was often strange – in their case, Malcolm McLaren found their music in a library at the Pompidou Centre in Paris (he fancied the librarian – who played the record at the wrong speed). Malcolm thought that would make a great backing track to a pop record and played it to Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow, who he at one time managed. This speeded up rhythm became well known and the Drummers of Burundi got themselves a following. I am fairly sure the Drummers were playing faster than they usually would to accommodate the Pompidou’s librarians mistake.

Actually, WOMAD started partly due to theartsdesk’s Mark Kidel conversations with Peter Gabriel, An idea of the energy of first edition can be heard on a recently released live album from the first edition – there were pop artists like The Beat mixed with the likes of the Musicians Form The Nile and it certainly brings back intense memories. Since then, I’ve been to at least half of the subsequent WOMADs, and each has had numerous inspiring and uplifting moments. One of the most intense was the second WOMAD when everyone present was blown away by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan – in my recollection sang for hours over his allotted time and no-one left the tent. That sent me on a global wild goose chase and I ended up at a Qawaali festival in Islamabad and spent 9/11 there with Abida Parveen – but that is, as they say, another story.

Since then, WOMAD has gone global – as far afield as Adelaide, Chile and Russia. In fact, one of the most extraordinary WOMADs was in Abu Dhabi, where the audience was a total mix of ethnicities, as opposed to WOMAD U.K. which is not very diverse at all. When I asked about this at a talk about WOMAD’s 40th with the great Peter Gabriel on the panel, prefacing it by saying how many amazing moments WOMAD had given me, this, someone said after this question was “Like someone farting at a vicar’s tea party.”  But it did start a discussion – one Asian journalist came up to me after and said, “the basic thing is that Asians and Blacks really hate camping.” Fair enough – and the Abu Dhabi experience means it’s not an absolute given that the Festival audience is mainly white Guardian readers like me and made me want to experience WOMAD Chile or some of the other global versions.  A cheaper, urban edition would also clearly get a different audience.  Regardless, the impact of  the "world music" ( a disputed term in itself) movement which WOMAD has been cheerleader has sometimes been profound  – an extreme example being the Buena Vista Social Club record, which Cuba's Minister of Tourism said "saved the Revolution" and brought millions into Cuba and made a younger generation appreciate the value of their heritage and there are many other, if less dramatic examples to be had.

Thursday – Guy Oddy

We arrived at Charlton Park on a humid summer afternoon and headed straight onto the festival site to grab some food and to soak up the atmosphere. Sitting in the sunshine with a souvlaki in one hand a beer in the other, we couldn’t help but sink straight into the good vibes of reggae and afro-beat sounds that were pumping out of every stall and stage that had a working sound system. Indeed, it was clear from the off that we could look forward to a relaxed few days of being exposed to unfamiliar but engaging music, surrounded by an audience of punters drawn predominantly from the weird-ish end of the UK’s white middle-aged, middle-class music lovers and a fair few of their family members.

First impressions of the idyllic site were raised significantly when we realised that we weren’t dealing with the usual fields with no protection from the elements but that there were trees aplenty, with lots going on among them and that they hadn’t been fenced off away from the crowds. The crowds also included lots of multi-generation family groups, with plenty of bands of grandmothers, mothers and younger kids – and loads of camping trolleys with sleeping babies protected from the elements with shawls and hippy fabrics. No-one was going to break into your tent and help themselves to your gear among this lot, unless you were very unlucky indeed.

As Thursday was really just an easing into the weekend, there wasn’t so much live music to get things moving. However, after the main stage curtain raiser of local Malmesbury school children’s collaborative performance of Spanish and Italian dance and music with Amaraterra, the Selecter bounced onto the stage of the Siam Tent and banged out a fine set of high-energy ska that got feet moving and hips swinging. “Missing Words”, “On My Radio” and a cover of the Ethiopians’ “Train to Skaville” warmed things up nicely, but it was the final mash-up of “Too Much Pressure” and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop” that really hit the mark.

Thursday’s headliner was Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara (pictured above), who lay down a superlative set of funky West African grooves. Fatoumata’s swampy, psychedelic guitar soloing added buckets of colour to a show that included tunes from her most recent Fenfo album, a cover of Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman” and plenty of call and response singing with the crowd, as she made the stage her own. It was a show that certainly set things up for a weekend of unexpected treats.

Friday – Peter Culshaw

I had been put off the poet Kae Tempest by assorted commentators, friends and the general vibe I had got was that Kae was some kind of miserabilist puritan who would probably be sternly lecturing us all. The other thing that put me off was that I have spent several of the worst nights of my life at poetry and jazz nights. In fact, the words worked very well with the backing music and she is clearly a real artist rather than a mere pusher of political lines.  A line that she repeated about seeing peace in everyone’s face got a large round of applause and was strangely but genuinely moving. One thing about the musical buffet of festivals like WOMAD – you get to sample artists you might not have wanted to spend a whole evening with and impressions can be reversed.

I managed to see Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwaals twice – their intensity got rather lost in the Open Air Stage but worked better indoors late at night in the Siam tent – the second half of which I could hear with pleasurably low volume from my tent in the back stage area. It does occur to me that plenty of intense healing music like this Sufi ecstatic expression really should be given more time for the magic to work. Generally, Qawaals take hours to get the audience on their side - then everything takes off. This applies to lots of other trance music like Moroccan Gnawa for example. WOMAD could have another tent in the woods where some artists like this could play for three hours or whatever they need rather than forcing themselves into an hour, good and impressive as they are. They are also not mere traditionalists - and have collaborated with Susheela Raman in a memorable concert at the QEH in London.

The revelation of the day was Cimafunk (pictured right), the latest Cuban export. Their innovative mix of funk and Cuban styles feels genuinely original and you get a kind of smell of a band on an upward trajectory with everyone on board. Cimafunk channels George Clinton as much as Cuban bands like Los Van Van and NG La Banda to make something with fresh energy. The two women brass section reminded me of a brass section for someone like Dexy’s or Mano Negra as much as anything Cuban. The feeling you got from other star bands within Cuba in recent decades like Los Van Van was that they were somehow running to catch up with Western influences. Cimafunk plunders the past in a wholly enjoyable way – who doesn’t love classic funk bass and a super tight rhythm section but is totally plugged in and may indeed be ahead of what’s happening in LA or London.

Saturday – Guy Oddy

After a hot and sunny Friday which included a new mind-blowing discovery (for me, anyway) of Soweto’s BCUC and their mosh pit-friendly punk rock Funkadelic-like set, as well as Angélique Kidjo’s Africanised take on Talking Heads’ Remain in Light album – which included a truly sublime version of “Houses in Motion” – and Fantastic Negrito’s soulful heavy blues, the weather cooled down somewhat for Saturday but the music certainly did not.

In fact, as I was wandering across the site, hoping to check out Osibisa’s sunny afro-rock in the early afternoon, I was distracted by the sounds of Elaha Soroor and Kefaya coming from the Siam Stage. Every festival should have a band that you’ve never heard before but with whom you are immediately entranced and for me, WOMAD 40 produced this sensual blend of Afghan folk music, trance rock and dub to fill that particular spot. I only caught about half of their set, which was largely drawn from their Songs of our Mothers album, but was mesmerised throughout and skipped off straight to the WOMAD shop to pick up some of their vinyl, once they had left the stage.

Saturday’s headliners were the Flaming Lips who produced a mind-blowing show that included lazers, confetti and giant inflatable rainbows and robots – and, of course, Wayne Coyne’s own blow-up bubble. For me though, the music was a bit whimsical and melancholic to really catch fire, but it was a memorable performance nevertheless.

My own particular highlight of the day, however, came from French-Moroccan psychedelic blues quartet Bab L’Bluz (pictured below). Fronted by the guitar-like awisha-wielding vocalist Yousra Mansour, the band laid down hypnotic trance grooves that drew from the North African desert and the various colonisers that had set up camp there over the centuries. In fact, they made such a positive impression on the crowd that they were joining in with hand-clap percussion before Bab L’Bluz had played a single note from their superb Nayda! album. Indeed, the band had the crowd eating out of their hands and dancing like their lives depended on it throughout a set that included strange castanet-type percussion, strident calls for gender equality, headbanging and Yousra taking a bow to the sings of her instrument Jimmy Page-style.

Elsewhere, Nubiyan Twist brough soulful and funky Latin grooves with plenty of acid jazz vibes. There was even dub flavours in the fantastic “Tittle Tattle”, as the crowd got distinctly sweaty in the humid early evening, bouncing along to their infectious sound. Nitin Sawhney offered up an opportunity to draw breath during his chilled multi-cultural acoustic guitar and electronica-heavy set, while the now three-women strong Les Amazones d’Afrique treated the main stage to some serious West African funk-heavy girl power.

This is not where the day ended at all though. Zed Bias delivered a rocking set of dubstep beats into the night at the d&b Soundscape stage, DJs raved drum’n’bass takes on tunes like AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” from Molly’s Bar and there was the Museum of the Moon art installation in the Secret Forest, which was more than enough to pin anyone to the spot in admiration.

Sunday – Peter Culshaw

Plenty of artists at WOMAD were doing what they have done for ages but extremely well, like the Qawaals, like Kanda Bongo Man, who was on top form. The danger is some of these artists can find themselves going through the motions (like Toots and the Maytals at the previous Womad, although it’s possible he was ill) – but Kanda Bongo Man still has it in spades. If anything, he is more tender and sweeter than before.

One of the big disappointments of the Festival was the cancellation of the Garifuna Collective for unspecified travel woes. With all the strikes, visa problems and channel blockages it was perhaps miraculous that nearly everyone advertised did turn up. Out of all the acts at WOMEX, the world music showcase event a couple of years back, the Garifuna Collective were quite astonishing. Catch them if you possibly can.

Any WOMAD has to have non musical interludes. Mine included a great discussion by Sam Lee and Ian Brennan discussing their books – The Nightingale and Silenced by Sound respectively. They are two of the most interesting current musicologists and in the case of Sam Lee, an archivist with a wonderful voice who makes folk music for people who think they don’t like folk music.

A giant moon was suspended in the woods on the edge of the site to recorded music by Yazz Ahmed (another revelation of the Festival with her retro-futurist jazz stylings). A simple idea but pregnant with atmosphere, reminding us that for many WOMAD is a as much a pilgrimage with a spiritual dimension as a jolly break for drinks and global music.

The big daddy or indeed great-grandaddy of the last day was Gilberto Gil. Glastonbury had Paul McCartney at 80, WOMAD had Gil at the same age, touchingly on stage with four generations of his family, which might have been a bit cloying but as with McCartney, you can forgive him a lot. His family gang included 17 year-old Bento and 5 year-old Sereno with his guitar, even if not plugged in. Gil has been a giant of music, who rebelled against the dictatorship and went into exile in the U.K. where he still has fond connections. And he is still opposing the excesses of Bolsonaro and had a considerable and positive effect on Brazil’s culture as Minister of Culture.  As a pioneer of Tropicalia, he has always mixed his genres, interested in African roots, in funk and reggae and well as samba and forró. In spite of health scares a few years back, he was in fine vocal fettle and ran through numerous hits from “Barato Total” and “Vamos Fugir” via the Beatles “Get Back” and that greatest Brazilian evergreen “The Girl from Ipanema”. A great way to wind up a classic WOMAD.

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