Live Music + Gig Reviews

Festival Review: WOMAD 2022

28-31 July 2022

40th anniversary event offers a thrillingly diverse selection of global sounds, its magic flourishing in spectacular, life-affirming fashion

Gilberto Gil at WOMAD 2022

Gilberto Gil at WOMAD 2022

This year’s WOMAD festival arrived with double cause for celebration. It was the first since a pandemic enforced two year gap, but more importantly it marked the event’s 40th anniversary, a remarkable achievement on many levels. Many things may have changed since the first festival in 1982, but its core ethos remains the same – to curate and present a thrillingly diverse selection of global sounds that deliver joyful experiences to the broadest possible range of people. This year saw Charlton Park welcome over 40,000 festival goers, making it one of the most well attended events in recent years. Given its longevity and unique identity, it’s not unreasonable to think that it should be held in similar high regard to the likes of Glastonbury. Those who came were rewarded with a reliably excellent weekend that showed the event to be in good health, despite certain ongoing visa-related logistical issues that regrettably saw some acts cancel. 

Thursday saw Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara deliver a headline performance full of vocal prowess and high energy which confirmed her growing status. She may have only released two albums to date, both of which are represented tonight, but there’s enough in her set to suggest she’s on her way to taking her place in the next generation of world music royalty. Her set also features a strong dance element as she spins and gestures in a striking red and gold outfit, an aspect which also brings to mind that the festival’s origins lay as much in dance as music (for anyone unaware, WOMAD stands for World Of Music, Arts & Dance).

Friday’s action opens with Joji Hirota and the London Taiko Drummers who introduce a key WOMAD theme to the weekend, namely percussion. Their Japanese polyrhythms are so impactful they seem to ring around the full site and their matching outfits also add an element of colourful visual choreography. Next, UK/Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed brings a more familiar sound with her big band-led progressive jazz. There may be some traditional nods along the way but, commendably, she’s also not afraid to challenge the audience. Later, the musical journey continues with a quick detour to Pakistan as Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwals deliver a powerful set of qawwali music. It also presents another connection to WOMAD’s past (Rizwan and Muazzam are the nephews of famed late Qawwali legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who starred at the festival back in 1985). The crowd takes in every note, rapt by the horizon-broadening spectacle.

Fatoumata Diawara at WOMAD 2022

Fatoumata Diawara at WOMAD 2022

Egyptian vocal and percussion ensemble Mazaher prove to be one of the most fascinating discoveries of the weekend. They play a traditional form of ‘zar’ trance music that draws on sparse but heavy rhythms and raw vocals. Together, they depict a rugged musical terrain but there’s also something alluring and mystical about their ancient, interlocking passages. Later, Morocco’s Electric Jalaba strike a more contemporary note with their fusion of vibrant, groove-based desert rock with traditional gnawa music. One of the highlights of the weekend comes with Kae Tempest who delivers a moving and powerful set that focuses on latest album The Line Is A Curve. In particular, tracks like No Prizes and These Are The Days articulate deeply felt individual experiences that set the overcoming of personal adversity to an often hard-hitting, electronic backdrop. The day is brought to a close by Angélique Kidjo performing her version of Talking HeadsRemain In Light, with WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel joining her on stage. 

Saturday continues the myriad showcasing of musical styles. Elaha Soroor & Kefaya kick things off, blending golden, glittering filigree sounds that reflect their geographical reach (singer Soroor hails from Afghanistan while Kefaya are from the UK) and their set perfectly brings together the exotic and the familiar. Later, Sarathy Korwar continues the fusion theme, playing from second album More Arriving. He may be a reserved frontman but it’s another set that encapsulates the WOMAD spirit (and his ensemble’s bespoke football shirts that have a ‘Fly Immigrants’ sponsor logo emblazoned across the front adds a memorable visual touch).

Les Amazones D'Afrique at WOMAD 2022

Les Amazones D’Afrique at WOMAD 2022

Les Amazones D’Afrique are an all female African supergroup and they arrive on the main stage with lively, charismatic presence and energy. Songs from 2020’s Amazones Power are dispatched with impact and precision, not to mention also featuring many powerful messages promoting equality and the rights of women. Next, we venture over to see Nitin Sawhney play to a packed Siam Tent. One of the biggest names on this year’s bill, his set begins with him touching on some of his earlier classic tracks alongside some delicate, soundtrack-friendly classical pieces. Last year’s Immigrants album also features, offering another celebration of diversity and inclusivity. 

Much is rightly made of WOMAD’s carnivalesque atmosphere and the choice of The Flaming Lips as Saturday’s main stage headliner makes sense in this respect (frontman Wayne Coyne also makes the valid point of them being musical outsiders of sorts, which further helps assimilate them into the overall ethos, even if theirs is a sound that is more mainstream than most of the acts playing this weekend). Their maximalist, joyous show may be familiar to many, but here in a different context, they gain new fans, both young and old, all mesmerised by their psychedelic yet relatable songs, inflatable stage props, confetti cannons and general embracing of life’s possibilities.

Sunday arguably offers the strongest day of music of all. Congolese soukous master Kanda Bongo Man immediately blows away any lingering cobwebs with his sunshine-infused, circular guitar sounds. These days he may primarily concentrate on singing and dancing, leaving the guitar playing to his band, but he’s undoubtedly an endearing figure to rally behind. He reveals how he “started his international music career” at WOMAD in 1983, yet another acknowledgement of the event’s illustrious history. “WOMAD took us from nowhere and put us on track. Never forget my name – Kanda Bongo Man!” he exclaims. We won’t Kanda, we won’t. 

The Flaming Lips at WOMAD 2022

The Flaming Lips at WOMAD 2022

Next, we dash to see Mariachi Las Adelitas, an eight-strong, all-female Mariachi band. As the sun beats down their theatrical, engaging performance is simply irresistible and they provide a welcome boost of energy and good vibes to see us through the closing stages of the festival. The next two acts we see both have a connection to India. The Dhol Foundation place the dhol drum at the centre of their bhangra-led sound and they use it to striking effect, galvanising and enthusing a large crowd in front of the main stage. Later, sitar player Jasdeep Singh Degun and his ensemble provide a calming, restorative set that offers a welcome balance to some of the sonic intensity experienced elsewhere. 

It’s left to Brazilian polymath Gilberto Gil to close the festival. He appears on stage with his extended family (including his great grandchildren) and they make for a superb band that allows Gil to lead his way through a selection from his wide ranging back catalogue. New album Em Casa Com Os Gil shows that he’s still a creative force of note despite his advancing years and songs from it pepper the early stages of the set. It’s a typically fleet footed and laid back affair, evoking Brazilian imagery and projecting an undeniable, strong sense of fun. The rest of his set offers the sort of fluid, musical manoeuvring you’d expect from someone who has straddled multiple styles over the course of his career. He even throws in a Portuguese language version of Get Back by The Beatles for good measure.

In many ways, it’s a perfect way to end the festival, a set by a heavyweight of world music that projects pure happiness while crossing styles, uniting generations and further building on its impressive history. This review only scratches the surface of the scale of the event and the desire to be in two places at once is again a sensation that is acutely felt throughout the weekend. Quite simply, the WOMAD magic continues to flourish in spectacular, life-affirming fashion.

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