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WOMAD 2015

WOMAD 2015

WOMAD 2015

By on - Photos by David Katz - Comment

There is really no other festival that has the range of artists featured at WOMAD.

Torrential downpours turned WOMAD into Whoah-Mud! this year. Yet the diabolical weather could not dampen the spirits of the attending revellers gathered in the Wiltshire countryside, with the many musical highs provided by a range of class acts being more than enough to carry us through. With Friday such a terrible washout as to turn the grounds of Charlton Park into a sloppy soup of very slippery ankle-deep mud, making every trouser in sight a canvas of brown and even mud splattering atop umbrellas, it seemed miraculous when the sun returned on Saturday, warming the earth enough to allow us to bask in its glory on picnic blankets. But then came Sunday, which if not quite as bad as Friday was certainly, wet, windy and wild. Nevertheless, the quality of the music on offer, and the professional manner in which it was presented, still made WOMAD one of the best British music festivals of 2015 by far.

In addition to the usual round of world music A-listers, the WOMAD 2015 line-up had plenty of unexpected curveballs to emphasize its commitment to global diversity. For instance, London rapper Ghostpoet in the Siam Tent on Sunday was an inspired choice, his particular take on conscious hip-hop evidencing a skilled and original practitioner in the form. The pairing of Deemus J with Daddy G of Massive Attack in the Big Red Tent on Saturday was another great idea, and the jungle posse got their fix with Shy FX and Stamina MC, plus Wrongtom Meets Ragga Twins, both pairings taking place in the Big Red Tent on Sunday afternoon. De La Soul’s return after many moons kept the hip-hop heads happy at the Open Air Stage on Friday night too, despite the inclement weather.

Windton McAnuff and Fixi

This year’s WOMAD began for me with Winston McAnuff and Fixi, holding court on the small Charlie Gillett Stage on Friday evening, playing to a large crowd despite the driving rain. Aided by Marcus, a beat-boxer that used one arm to whack his drum with, the ‘Electric Dread’ warbled platitudes atop manic accordion and piano from Fixi, who head-banged through most of the set like a man possessed. Tracks like ‘Johnny’ and ‘I’m A Rebel’ garnered enthusiastic praise from the crowd, and for the closing number, ‘Garden Of Love,’ McAnuff leapt into the audience to greet the people properly, brandishing some kind of hand-crafted rose. I wasn’t always that sure about the album they created together, but seeing it live places the material in a whole new light, and McAnuff’s banter about millionaires wanting to pay peanuts to their performers was cryptic food for thought.

Then, Mali’s desert blues superstars, Tinariwen, were simply excellent in the Siam Tent. I had not seen them for a good few years and it has to be said that the level of musicianship was truly superb, with very good on-stage communication. As intricate guitar lines wove through with their choral voices and quietly insistent percussion, there were the great and occasionally funky bass lines to act as a dramatic counterbalance. Some moments reminded of the pioneering work of Ali Farka Toure, yet of course Tinariwen have a sound all their own, and the absence of members due to the crisis at home has not diminished them one iota. If you have any opportunity to see them in future, do not turn it down!

Unfortunately the mudslides made it too difficult to reach the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System tent for Mad Professor’s live set on the Friday night, but no doubt Prof kept them entertained with his original dub works.

My WOMAD Saturday began with Senegalese troubadour Cheikh Lo at the Open Air Stage. He’s been missing in action a good few years, so it was great to see him back where he should be, with a tight band that featured plenty of delicious mbalax percussion. His voice was still strong and he had plenty of stage presence too. So with all of that in mind, it was hard to understand why the audience’s response was so lacklustre. Was it just that they were still trying to get last night’s mud out of their hair, or did the programmers simply have Lo play too early?

Considering they were totally acoustic, Shikor Bangladesh All Stars had plenty of power on the Charlie Gillett stage. Delivering traditional Bangladeshi folksongs with dhol drums, harmonium and other customary instruments, lead singer Baby Akhtar belted out some meaty vocals, but the really chilling element was the bamboo flute played with skill by on of the band, at stage left.

Brazil’s Criolo is aptly named, since he melds reggae, samba, soul, jazz and other elements into his particular take on hip-hop. I’d seen him a few years back at one of Camden’s lesser venues, but the Open Air Stage was the perfect home for him and his band, who got the crowd rocking away in the sunshine. It was a great performance that made us all want to hear more.

Ester Rada is another of those performers I probably would never have seen, if not for her being a WOMAD. This Israeli singer has Ethiopian origin and there’s a bit of an Ethiopiques feeling in the backing tracks, yet Ester favours r and b more than anything else. Somehow, it all hung together well despite pointing in different directions, and Ester’s confidence and natural stage presence carried things through.

Over in the Siam Tent, I found Staff Benda Bilili-spin off goup, Mbongwana Star, to be rather disappointing. Staff Benda had presence, and the homemade instrument in place of lead guitar made its music all the more outstanding, but Mbongwana Star just belted out fast-paced soukous with boring rock guitar in the background, and the vocals lacked finesse. I haven’t heard their debut album, so maybe I’m missing something, or maybe they were having an ‘off’ set?

Tiken Jah FakolyBack at the Open Air Stage, Tiken Jah Fakoly delivered a lengthy performance that had everybody skanking in the fading sunlight. Early on in the set, ‘Ouvrez Le Frontier’ got enthusiastic response and of course that song sounds more pertinent now than ever before, given the migrant crisis gripping Europe. ‘African Revolution’ felt like a singalong moment in English, helped along by the two female backing singers, and ‘Le Dernier Appel’ made plain the talent of his accompanying musician, playing what looked like a kambele ngoni. All in all, it was one of the stronger sets I’d seen Tiken Jah do, and the WOMAD massive were certainly feeling it.

Somehow, the moments I caught of Atomic Bomb! The Music of William Onyeabor didn’t really cut the mustard. Everything was too messy, spiralling out of control, and several guest artists seemed largely unrehearsed, with Cheikh Lo not really gelling with the band on stage. Maybe it was a nice idea in someone’s head that didn’t really end up too successful in reality, or perhaps I just didn’t get it. In any case, the crowd ate it up, which is the main thing.

Back in the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System tent, Don Letts kept up the pressure with his usual blend of reggae-tinged punky rock mashups. A year-2000 house music re-mix of Toots‘Broadway Jungle,’ rather than the ska original, was typical of the set, but Don knows how to work his crowd and did a good job of linking together what he presented. The Bowers & Wilkins Sound System tent itself has been enlarged this year, and the larger space allows for more revellers without sacrificing any of the musical quality. It is a delightful space in which to hear and dance to reggae, dub and related music, with tremendous sonic clarity inside, and was definitely the place to be until midnight on the Saturday night.

Sunday had some definite highlights, despite the deteriorating weather. The pairing of the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars with London-based salsa group LoKkhi TeRa should not have worked, but really did. Kishon Khan’s keyboard and artistic direction allowed the Bangladeshis to meld with his Cuban rhythm section to really fine effect, blending Latin, Afrobeat, jazz, dub and all manner of other elements to create something truly exceptional. Once again, you are unlikely to hear anything like this outside of WOMAD and I’m not the only one that was really glad the organisers featured it.

Mahmoud Ahmed on the Open Air Stage was also particularly resplendent, coming at a time when there was a break in the rain and a good vibe all over the festival site. He was on fine form throughout and had good energy for his lengthy set, and although they’re not quite as strong as his Ethiopian backing musicians, Badume’s Band made an admirable effort.

After that, we became drowned rats once again, soaked through to the bones, entirely. So were unable to see whether Cheikh Lo’s closing spot on the Charlie Gillett stage was any better than his earlier appearances, and I was bummed to miss the Analog Africa Sound System too. But there is really no other festival that has the range of artists featured at WOMAD. It’s a greatly anticipated spot on the summer calendar for so many of us, so I know I will definitely be back in Wiltshire countryside for WOMAD 2016, whether rain or shine!

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