It is quite common these days for music festivals to attempt to present themselves as something more than a mere gathering of bands and artists. In this respect WOMAD is arguably no different, but the more time spent at Charlton Park the more it becomes clear that this is a festival with a wider agenda and more defined purpose than most. The assembling of over 80 acts from almost as many countries, alongside musical workshops, art installations and a comprehensive range of children’s activities makes for an overwhelmingly positive, rewarding experience.
It also emits something of an equalising force. It’s fair to say that many attendees come armed with little in the way of detailed knowledge of the music on offer, simply in possession of an open mind and a willingness to be surprised or enlightened. It’s a festival where the concept of musical discovery, whether planned or by chance, seems to be elevated just that little bit higher than that of other events.
Thursday may be the day set aside for tents to be erected and bearings established but the multinational L’Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio get things off to a strong start with their colourful interpretation of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. It’s an enjoyably sprawling opening to the festival that simultaneously retains elements of the original while adding in new aspects (the story is given a decidedly WOMAD twist with the inclusion of a ‘magic kora’ alongside the flute). Later, Rachid Taha is the first headliner on the Open Air Stage, treating the already sizeable crowd to his ragged, bluesy rock refracted through an Algerian lens.
On Friday Mavrika bring their contemporary take on Greek rembetika music to the BBC Radio 3 Stage. Many of the songs performed date back to the 1920s & ’30s, but they are conveyed with a direct vibrancy. Tracks like Dervish Dance have a raw-nerved, Mediterranean flair and with lyrics delivered in Greek, Turkish and Cypriot they make a strong impression.
Next, the brass-powered, irresistible grooves of Colombian funk ensemble Ondatrópica have the Siam Tent in full-on dance mode. If WOMAD is one of the most overtly celebratory festivals then the Soundway Records signed outfit produce an early contender for one of the most celebratory performances of the weekend. Guests are introduced to the stage one by one and a buoyant atmosphere ensues. Their most inspired moments come when the accordion is subtly pushed to the forefront of their sound, while the vocal trills add an energising touch.
They are followed by the intoxicating, interlocking Touareg rhythms of Malian six-piece Tamikrest. The temperature outside hits a sizzling peak as they take to the stage and their arid hybrid of rolling guitar jams and exclamatory song ensure a musical equivalent is felt inside the tent. The moments when the male and female vocals synchronise and guitars and drums unite are genuinely thrilling.
Later, the appearance of Mala In Cuba serves as a reminder of the musical breadth on offer at WOMAD. The dubstep pioneer’s set is arguably one of the most contemporary and cutting edge of the weekend and it draws a visibly younger crowd. Breaks and bass rumbles find a suitable home in the darkness under the Big Red Tent but are offset by escalating piano chords, electronic blips and live percussion.
The main draw for the evening is Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 on the Open Air Stage and they don’t disappoint with a high impact, high energy performance. This is Afrobeat that is both lithe and lean, tightly controlled and jazz-infused. The first full day is brought to a close by the intriguing combination of music from Mongolia and Poland in the form of Urna & Kroke. The mix of Asian classical strings and Eastern European folk idioms exerts a gravitational effect as the darkness sets in.
Saturday begins with the cleansing and bracing Georgian vocal polyphony of Iadoni in The Siam Tent. Shortly afterwards, Roopa Panesar opens the action on the BBC Radio 3 Stage with her glittering sitar playing, aided by a group of musicians who add the sounds of the santoor, tanpura and tabla to the mix, creating a sound that hangs together in shimmering style.
One of the most commendable aspects to WOMAD is the way it subtly broadens its core programme. The Taste The World stage is an example – a smaller space where musicians cook a dish that is representative of their country, then serve it to the festival goers. Mauritanian singer Malouma appears on stage to make a sort of lamb-filled pancake while talking about the politics and society of Mauritania. She signs off with a slow-burning, yearning song (she later plays a full set to a much bigger crowd in the Siam Tent).
Back on the BBC Radio 3 Stage the Imperial Tiger Orchestra impress with their briskly propelled jazz workouts. They announce early on that despite hailing from Switzerland they play “Ethiopian music”. Their music certainly has a lot in common with that found on the highly regarded Ethiopiques compilations but it’s just as possible to detect a modern European jazz dimension to their music. As with several bands over the weekend they’re keen to tell the crowd that theirs is “music to dance to” and they gradually convert a seated crowd, rendering any questions of musical authenticity redundant.
If anyone deserves to bask in warm sunshine today it is Malian singer Rokia Traoré but unfortunately her set coincides with some of the heaviest rain of the weekend, resulting in a significantly smaller crowd than she merits. A ceiling of bobbing umbrellas at the front of the Open Air Stage confirms audience approval however and she banishes any worries about the festival getting dragged down by inclement weather with a truly joyous performance of sublime songs from latest album Beautiful Africa. Tracks like Lalla and Tuit Tuit are deft and sensuous, and swoop and soar without ever sacrificing their underlying fortitude.
Iranian percussionist Mohammad Reza Mortazavi achieves just as striking an impact, albeit one derived from very different means. Using only two drums – the tombak and daf – he exerts a mesmeric affect over those watching. It is music that is both insular and primal, possessing a singular focus not to mention an unexpected urban, fractured quality. It’s a gripping performance that draws in those that have come to listen.
In some ways Arrested Development don’t seem to be a typical WOMAD headliner but they start in slick, polished style, with frontman Speech revelling in their “20 years of revolutionary hip hop music”. They may slightly lose steam halfway through (epitomised by an overly long cover of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song) but on the whole they strike a positive, crowd-pleasing note that is nowhere better demonstrated than when they close with People Everyday.
Sunday gets underway with the boisterous, Latin-flavoured, high velocity sounds of Belgium’s La Chiva Gantiva. They bring an inclusive party feel with them and are the perfect band to get the crowd energised for the day ahead. They also reflect a reoccurring theme to WOMAD, namely projecting a musical style that would not be immediately associated with their country of origin.
Similar could be said of The Bombay Royale who may be based in Australia but have their roots in India. The sense of enforced theatre that surrounds their set may be off-putting for some but thankfully their music offers greater rewards. Like the best Bollywood movies it is has drama in abundance and is full of colour and life. Later, singer Parvyn Kaur Singh leads a packed Bollywood dance workshop in the All Singing, All Dancing Tent.
Christine Salem is next up on stage flanked only by two percussionists. WOMAD welcomes many politically active artists that have been on the receiving end of condemnation from their home states. Salem has attracted her fair share of controversy back in Reunion for her stripped down, elemental form of maloya music and she brings an enigmatic presence to the day. She explains more about her music in a translated interview in the World Rhythms tent later. It offers a great chance to see her play the kayamb – a flat board-like percussion instrument – close up also. The Hidden Orchestra may not hail from exotic lands or have the colourful background stories of other bands appearing over this weekend but they turn in one of the most discreetly atmospheric sets of the day, comprising the Cinematic Orchestra-esque sounds of last year’s excellent Archipelago album.
Back in the World Rhythms tent Mokoomba play an a capella set, their vocal harmonies shot through with tangible passion and educational messages. Later they grace the Open Air Stage with their gritty, potent Zimbabwean guitar sound and Tonga rhythms in full. Their performance has a stark emotional quality to it but their co-ordinated dance routines ensure it is balanced by a happiness and lightness. KonKoma do similar immediately afterwards on the BBC Radio 3 stage, arguably with greater emphasis on expansive brass lines and a low-slung funk sensibility.
It seems a little futile to try to pick winners from the weekend but Asif Ali Khan makes a strong claim to achieving the festival’s purest form of musical expression with his devotional (and highly melodic) qawwali songs. Striking individual vocal contributions rise out of the group but importantly retain their place as part of a greater whole. It’s a transcendent, enriching set and also is a prime example of the ‘WOMAD moment’ that regular attendees promise will be experienced at some point over the weekend.
Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi only intermittently translates the Gothic tinges and electronic undercurrents found on her debut album Kelmti Horra (mainly due to competing sounds from other stages) but it’s still enough to confirm her as a performer to watch over coming years, corroborating the Natacha Atlas comparisons that have formed around her. It’s left to Gilberto Gil – very much the world music elder statesman this weekend – to close the festival with his headline slot that incorporates the Brazilian folk and gently samba-inflected rock of his long career to date. It seals a hugely successful weekend that combines wonderful musical performances with a refreshing sense of idealism and ambition. It’s easy to understand why so many people return each year.