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WOMAD 2016

WOMAD 2016

WOMAD 2016

By on - Photos by WOMAD Festival - Comment

The best thing about WOMAD is the range of music on offer, which remains unparalleled.

The mud soup that resulted from last year’s torrential downpours had us all a bit apprehensive about WOMAD 2016, especially since July’s weather had been extremely changeable this year. In fact, I think my boots had only just managed to dry out in time for the 2016 edition, such was the build-the-Ark weather of WOMAD 2015. Thankfully, the sun returned to Malmesbury in time for this year’s WOMAD, helping to usher in a weekend of superb musical enjoyment in the Wiltshire countryside.

WOMAD 2016

My WOMAD began on the afternoon of Friday 25 July, reaching the venue just in time to catch Charles Bradley’s impressive entrance on the main Open-Air stage. His powerhouse voice packed a soulful punch, the James Brown resemblance remains tangible, and his Extraordinaires band fits him like a glove. Bradley engaged the crowd like a lifelong pro, keeping everyone dancing and hollering on their feet for the entire set. So, a good way to start the weekend.

When Bradley had finished, I shifted to the Siam tent for Bamba Wassoulou Groove. I’d been a great fan of Malian guitar wizard Zani Diabaté, having seen him give a blistering performance in London in 1988 with his Super Djata Band, since Island Records had just reissued the group’s self-titled 1985 LP, but had not suspected that Bamba Wassoulou Groove would be presenting their version of that same LP in its entirety at WOMAD 2016. BWG has a different configuration than Super Djata, with two electric guitarists and one acoustic (plus Super Djata percussionist Bamba Dembélé and members of the famous Rail Band), and although there’s nothing wrong with their sound, it simply pales in comparison with the Super Djata original. The lack of backing vocals was a real omission, the acoustic guitar sounded a bit discordant, and although lead guitarist Moussa Diabaté had plenty of hot chops, he lacked the pyrotechnical skill of Zani. The end result left me feeling that too much was missing for them to continue going as they are; perhaps they should ditch the Zani stuff and concentrate on original compositions.

After the tuba-led madness of the Hot 8 Brass Band (who slayed the crowd in the Big Red tent with their version of ‘Poppa Was A Rolling Stone’), it was over to the Bowers & Wilkins sound system tent for a performance by Dawn Penn, here with a full 5-piece live band. Of course, everyone was waiting for her to do ‘No No No,’ and since she waited until the end to deliver it, there was a long sense of lingering anticipation in the crowd that made the set feel as though it began to drag at times, as she worked her way through renditions of standards like ‘The First Cut Is The Deepest,’ ‘Do I Worry,’ and ‘Baby I Love You So,’ but she delivered these songs all in her own way, dropping in bits of Erykah Badu’s ‘On And On’ and Sanchez’s ‘I’m Missing You’ along the way. The trombone player injected a bit of dimensional depth and the keyboard player kept things bubbling too. But ‘No No No’ blew the lid off the pressure cooker, finally bringing the release that the crowd craved.

I was then fortunate to catch Steve Rice and John Stapleton playing rare original reggae vinyl in a small guest bar, hidden in a tent in the backstage area. Steve and John are true connoisseurs of the music and what they played really floated my boat: a Heptones Black Ark 7”, complete with its dub, the Wrigglers impossibly scarce rock steady gem ‘The Cooler’ on Giant, ‘Black I Am’ by Scatty Bell, and plenty of nuggets from Studio One, with each track sounding better than the last. It’s just a shame that so few people were there at the time that they were spinning, but such is the nature of the guest bar at WOMAD, and in any case, they thrilled the crowd in the Disco Bear bar at the weekend. Well done lads!

On the way back to Bowers and Wilkins, an intriguing sound stopped me in my tracks at the Siam tent. It turned out to be an act called Desert Slide, which was a group of traditional Rajasthani musicians, led by the rather hippy-esque Jaipuri musician Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, who had customised a traditional Indian instrument by melding its body to a slide-guitar neck. Apparently he’d done some Grammy-winning album with Ry Cooder, which I must confess total ignorance of, but the group was simply fantastic, and I ended up staying for their entire set. In addition to Bhatt’s playful use of the slide-guitar contraption, the group’s castanet player was truly riveting, his flamboyant use of the wooden sticks focussing the group, who wove mesmerising patterns beneath Bhatt’s noodling. Even Bhatt’s ‘I love you’ singalong sounded great with these wonderful musicians behind him, and the packed tent was with them every step of the way. Discovering this kind of act is one of the things that always makes WOMAD such a treat: at this festival, you are guaranteed to hear something you’ve never heard before, from a less familiar part of the world, which can only ever be a good thing.

Once Desert Slide had obliged the crowd with a heartfelt encore, I went back into Bowers and Wilkins for a few hours of the mighty Jah Shaka, playing his usual blend of classic Jamaican roots reggae, and unknown UK steppers exclusives. I’m a longstanding Shaka devotee, having regularly attended his dances since the 80s, and although WOMAD did not have the ability to let him play all night, it was good that Shaka could play for a good few hours, up to 2 AM. And the great thing about the Bowers and Wilkins tent is that the sound system has excellent audio clarity, so we could hear the music presented with new ears. Of course, he wasn’t able to blast as loud as he normally does on his own set, and it was kind of strange to see Shaka up on a tall stage, with two turntables at his disposal, but Dennis Brown’s ‘Bubbling Fountain’ sounded excellent, as did Barrington Levy’s ‘Praise His Name’ and the several cuts of Pablo Gad’s ‘Hard Times’ that Shaka dropped on us. In the later part of the set, once Shaka was firmly in UK steppers mode, he treated us to some unknown works by Earl 16, Yami Bolo and Fred Locks, among others. His upful manner left us all with a big smile on our faces at the end of the night, slinking off for sound sleep until the morning.

My Saturday agenda began with Meta and the Cornerstones, led by the New York-based Senegalese singer Meta Dia, who has assembled a truly international band: as United Reggae readers may already know, lead guitarist Shahar Mintz is from Israel, rhythm guitarist Hocine Benameur is from Algeria, keyboardist Aya Kato is from Japan, drummer Biguy is from Ivory Coast, and bassist Rupert McKenzie is Jamaican. Wow, that’s real diversity! Although the Island-era Marley influence looms large (with Steel Pulse not far behind), by the time the band launched into ‘Lion Roar’ they had won over the crowd, with a good keyboard solo by Kato at the beginning and some rocky lead lines from Mintz in the middle. ‘Tijahni’ also sounded nice and the North African intro of ‘Silence of the Moon’ chimed with the ‘world music’ crowd. The autobiographical ‘Cornerstone’ went down well too, as did the moving ‘Somewhere in Africa.’ All in all, the set was, as Meta would say, ‘Sweet!’

WOMAD 2016

I’m not sure how I missed Toumani Diabate’s latest venture, Songhai; I think they started a bit late, and I’d gone to hear the poet Lemn Sissay recite his verses underneath the trees of the Arboretum instead. Sissay’s poems have lost none of their evocative power, but he came across as a bit unhinged on this particular occasion, having a strange conversation with himself about his own performance in between poems…all very distracting and strange. In any case, I’m glad I was able to catch the acoustic Haitian voodoo of Chouk Bwa Libete on the Charlie Gillett stage, and the brash jazz-noise of Shabaka HutchingsSons of Kemet in the Big Red tent, which placed his cacophonous saxophone over two pounding kit drummers and a tuba player. The Hackney Colliery Band sounded good from a distance too. The highlight of the evening was undoubtedly Baaba Maal on the main stage, doing something of a similar set that I’d seen him do at the Southbank Centre last January; probably his latest band was at the start of their tour engagements then, so the set felt much tighter at WOMAD, with most of the kinks ironed out (though Mansour Seck was unfortunately absent at WOMAD). Maal is no stranger to WOMAD and the opening ‘Yele’ got a warm greeting, except for from the young woman that was (largely unsuccessfully) trying to distribute leaflets in the crowd, calling on Maal to cancel an upcoming performance in Jerusalem. Maal then launched into a lecture on the merits of travel, suggesting that the way forward is to travel to places and influence change by forcing governments to address their wrongdoings in person…whether the sentiment expressed had anything to do with the leaflets is unclear. In any case, as the set progressed, ‘Cheri Cheri’ sounded better than last time, despite the over-prominence of the keyboards; the Latinesque ‘African Woman’ was the usual crowd-pleaser, and ‘Lampenda’ from the new album went down well too. Then it was time for a bit of Maal crowd surfing, before the band’s Cuban drummer launched into a brief solo. Lemn Sissay joined Maal for ‘Peace’ from the new album too, and the collaboration really came to life on stage, the band taking the ball and running with it through a strong percussion solo and rocky guitar parts, once Sissay had completed his recitation.

Later I drifted between George Clinton on the main stage, which was a total roadblock, and Iration Steppers in the Big Red tent. The crowd was so huge for Clinton that I could not really see him properly, but there’s no doubt that the band rocked the house and Clinton certainly sounded like his usual self on classic tracks like ‘(Not Just) Knee Deep.’ As for Iration Steppers, I was too far away to see who was joining Mark Iration on the mike…no Macky Banton this time, not sure whether Dennis Rootikal and Danman might have been there. In any case, Mark zigged and zagged with the selection, aiming to please the maximum headcount of the youth-heavy audience, so along with Alborosie’s ‘Policeman and Soldiers’ and Danman’s ‘Wicked Haffi Run’ (produced by OBF), there was an unknown remix of ‘No No No’ and the standard cut of Bob Marley’s ‘One Love.’ So nothing too adventurous, but the crew exuded a lot of positive energy, and crowd lapped it up, which was the main thing. I’m not sure why Mark had to request that people stop fighting in the tent… maybe there was some agro close to the stage, or substances got the better of somebody at some point.

Sunday began at the Charlie Gillett stage for a BBC Radio 3 showcase, expertly presented by Lopa Kothari and Cerys Matthews, who made a great double-act. Each of them is a natural-born presenter and in addition to being very knowledgeable about music, they are both very passionate about music, too, which really shows when they’re introducing acts live on the air. Highlights included Tuvan throat singing from the Alash Ensemble, a hot jazzy number from Buika, and jigging and reeling from the East Pointers, a talented trio from Prince Edward Island. Then, Kurdish singer Aynur gave an emotive performance on the Open Air stage, followed by the usual ‘Congotronics’ shenanigans from Konono No 1 in the Siam tent, but a true highlight of the day came in the delightful funky highlife delivered by Pat Thomas and Kwashibu Area Band on the Open Air stage, who never let the action drop for a moment – not even when the power cut for a time. If you get the chance to see Thomas and Kwashibu, definitely go for it – you are guaranteed not to be disappointed.

The East Pointers impressed me so much at the Radio 3 showcase that I opted to attend their workshop in the World Rhythms tent, and boy, did they deliver something impressive there. With just a fiddle, a banjo and an acoustic guitar, they created such a powerful and energetic sound, it was a true joy to behold and the entire place erupted into spontaneous dancing throughout, showering the boys with praise. The workshop setting allowed them to tell of the tales behind the music too, giving a sense of life on their remote Prince Edward Island of Canada.

I couldn’t really make my mind up about Les Amazones d'Afrique, the ‘supergroup’ of West African female singers that included Mariam Doumbia of Amadou & Mariam, along with fellow traditionalist Mamani Keita, and young upstarts Inna Modi and Nneka. The whole thing came across as a bit messy and would surely have benefitted from more rehearsal time, though did have its moments along the way.

A much better way to end the evening was experiencing St Germain’s performance on the main stage. Anyone who knows me knows that house music is not part of my vocabulary, but I always liked the album Tourist, because it was so tastefully put together. I’d never seen St Germain live before and didn’t really know what to expect, and what he delivered really impressed me. Instead of just some dude twiddling nobs or fiddling with a laptop, we were treated to an excellent band composed of players from Mali, Guadeloupe, Martinique, French Guyana, and Brazil, who manipulated St Germain’s backing tracks in real time, even as he was manipulating what they were playing too. There was plenty of reconfigured tracks from Tourist, along with numbers from the latest eponymous album, and all of it really sounded great. I’d say it was a typical WOMAD masterstroke, a choice that could have fallen flat, but instead lifted us all even higher.

Every time I’ve attended WOMAD, it strikes me just how much other festivals could learn from it. The placement of the different stages is done in such a way that there is typically no bleed-through from one to the other, and everything is run with uncommon tightness, so the schedule normally proceeds as planned. There is a range of decent festival food on offer, with my favourite this time being supplied by an authentic Tibetan food stall, and the Real Ale tent has an excellent range of regional brews from small breweries, all on tap. And this year there was a new partnership with the Yalumba wine company of Australia—who knew that Tasmania produces such fine sparkling wine, and who’s ever heard of decent wine on offer at a music festival? With plenty of workshops and spaces for talks, as well as a science tent, there is plenty to keep the whole family occupied. There are good facilities for members of the press as well, and staff members are always helpful with arranging interviews and assisting with other logistical matters too. Even in the wee hours, the crowds are respectful and the young people manage to behave themselves. Yes, it’s a very English festival in many ways, and is certainly weighted towards the middle-aged and middle classes, but the best thing about WOMAD is the range of music on offer, which remains unparalleled.

All in all, I’d say WOMAD 2016 was one of the most enjoyable I’d ever attended; salutations to the entire WOMAD family, I look forward to seeing you again next year!

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