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WOMAD 2017

WOMAD 2017

WOMAD 2017

By on - Photos by Mike Massaro - Comment

Since the festival site location has reportedly now been secured until at least 2030, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event.


Despite a pretty severe battering from the elements over the course of the last weekend in July, the 35th anniversary edition of WOMAD was a resounding success, with an array of music on offer from around the world, and plenty of bass-heavy content for reggae heads. The festival has steadily grown with each passing event, resulting in a record-setting attendance of 35,000 people this year, and the professionalism with which it is managed, coupled with a family-friendly atmosphere, all help to make it a very appealing entity. Add excellent beer from local small-batch breweries, organic wine from family vintners Yalumba, and better-than-average festival food, plus various workshops, food and music fusion events, and different stages to choose from throughout each day (including the awesome Bowers and Wilkins sound system area), and you get a unique and likeable festival that simply gets better each year. There is an unusual commitment to ethical matters as well on a level not often seen at a music festival. For instance, this year there was a petition at the Amnesty International stall in support of Nakiea Jackson, whose brother Shackelia was the victim of police brutality in Jamaica, with Nakiea and family now facing intimidation from the police; there were also stalls with campaigns in support of Tibet and other flashpoint areas of conflict. Ultimately, of course, WOMAD’s greatest appeal lies in the range of music on offer, with known and unknown acts from all over the world vying for the attention of the attendees.

I was unable to attend the preliminary opening half-day that takes place on the Thursday evening, which meant that I unfortunately missed sets from Brazilian Afrobeat big-band, Bigixa 70, and perennial Senegalese rumba favourites, Orchestre Baobab, but am told that both delivered top-notch performances, in keeping with their usual high standards.

Mike Massaro - Bixiga

Arriving at the site on the Friday, there were some unfortunate disappointments in store, not least because Inna De Yard were somehow refused UK visas at the very last moment, resulting in an unexpected cancellation from the great Jamaican grassroots collective. With their Soul of Jamaica album fresh in everyone’s consciousness, the UK debut of the project has been greatly anticipated, and it really boggles the mind as to why their visas did not come through; is it the spirit of Brexit biting back against a group that is already touring widely throughout Europe? Does a group that is feted in France by playing at the flagship arts venue in Paris for a sold-out event deserve to not be allowed to please its British fans at WOMAD? None of this reflects on the festival, of course, nor the band, and is instead indicative of how difficult and arbitrary the process of obtaining UK visas has become for musicians in our paranoid and punitive age, and as you will see from the review below, several other acts had visa issues too. Come on, Home Office, get it together and recognise the value of international performing artists…you gain nothing by denying visas to acts like this, especially ones whose members have performed in this country in earlier years without incident.

In any case, my Friday highlights included Malian diva Oumou Sangare on the main stage, looking regal as always and sounding in fine form, even if her backing band was a bit Europe-heavy in terms of composition, though the female bass player proved capable and versatile. The London-based jazz/rap hybrid project Blue Lab Beats in the Bowers and Wilkins tent were also highly appealing, and totally unknown to me before WOMAD, another fine discovery brought to my attention by the festival and delivered with lots of bass and trippy synth sounds, the excellent fidelity of the resident sound system allowing us to really hear what they were doing. Then came the first heavy rains, and sloshes of mud, which meant I had to miss Howie B and Craig Richards’ latest dub-influenced House project, called Hurtle, which apparently drew mixed results.

Mike Massaro - Oumou

Saturday thankfully began with enough sunshine to dry the mud, and in the early evening, another unique WOMAD musical experience came in the form of the Zhou Family Band, whose mastery of unknown Chinese traditional instruments was totally out of the ordinary. Then, Bombino on the main stage gave us a really rocking set of Touareg desert blues that included a high proportion of numbers clearly in the reggae zone, taken from last year’s ‘Touareggae’ hybrid album Azel, which blended reggae rhythms with traditional styles such as Tende and Takamba. You could hear it most brilliantly on songs such as Iwaranagh (We Must), which had a lovely skanking lilt between the bursts of guitar pyrotechnics, and the chilling Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar (A Great Desert I Saw), with its intricate guitar work and complex drum pattern, as well as the quicker blasts of Timtar (Memories). The set maintained a high level of intensity throughout, and I’d say that he and his band have gotten stronger since the last time I saw them perform. If you’ve not seen Bombino yet or are not familiar with his music, then by all means, take the plunge! His guitar mastery is impressive, the reggae backbone is strong, and everything about the man and his music is mightily compelling.

Unfortunately, the ensuing heavy downpours that turned the WOMAD festival site into a sea of mud meant that I opted out of Afro Celt Sound System’s set on the Charlie Gillett stage, since it is too exposed to the elements in the open air, and the Bowers and Wilkins tent was too full to enter for what everyone agrees was a mind-blowing set by the Strut Records project, Addictive TV: Orchestra of Samples. But there was no way that I was going to miss Toots and the Maytals on the main stage in the headlining slot, so it was on with an extra layer of rain poncho and up with the super-sized umbrella, for a delightful set of skanking with Toots, along with the whole of the WOMAD festival audience, who were joyously dancing for its entirety, oblivious of the wet, cold and mud.

Mike Massaro - Toots and The Maytals

Despite a pretty severe battering from the elements over the course of the last weekend in July, the 35th anniversary edition of WOMAD was a resounding success, with an array of music on offer from around the world, and plenty of bass-heavy content for reggae heads.

Seeing and hearing Toots on the main stage that night, it was really hard to believe that the man is 74 years of age. His voice is still that powerfully rich, deep tenor that holds all the power of a gospel preacher, harnessing his tones to the lashing of reggae, ska, and occasional rocking funk of the backing band, which still includes the ever-dependable bassist Jackie Jackson, drummer Paul Douglas, and guitarist Radcliffe ‘Dougie’ Bryan, who have played consistently with the Maytals since the early 1970s. With a couple of female backing singers (namely Toots’ daughter Leba and Marie ‘Twiggy’ Gittens), rocking lead guitar from the enigmatic Carl Harvey and a full keyboard sound from Inner Circle alumnus Charles Farquarson, the band were certainly up for the challenge of keeping pace with Toots, who changes things up at every performance, so that even if the set list remains somewhat similar, no two Toots and the Maytals performances will ever really be alike. And on this occassion they were joined onstage by a sign-language interpreter too, who really got into the spirit, along with the rest of us.

By the time the band leapt into a sprightly take of Sweet And Dandy, they were fully in their stride, and Toots sounded perfectly at home atop the off-kilter rhythm. Louie Louie was delivered with plenty of impassioned intonation from Toots, and Farquarson made space for a skanking organ interlude. Then, Pomps And Pride got the start-stop rhythmic treatment, and there was an a capella segment from Toots before it all moved into a funky double-time portion towards the end. Pressure Drop was a real crowd-pleaser that got everyone deliriously dancing, despite the deepening mud, proving that the Brits are a thick-skinned lot, and showing the power of the music to light everyone’s soul on fire, even in the eye of the storm. Then, a very startling and profound moment, as Toots donned a semi-acoustic guitar to shift to the foundational rhythm and blues of Never Grow Old, sounding every bit as fresh as it must have done when the song first surfaced in the early 1960s. Toots, you have proved the truth of the song’s lyrics right there! Never Get Weary from the Knock Out album was an unusual choice and a very tasty one too, and everything went funky as we were blasted by an extended cut of Funky Kingston, which again moved to double-time before its end. With the band in need of a rest, Toots drew for the semi-acoustic again for a great, non-standard cut of Bam Bam, and after a rambling introduction in which Toots somehow seemed to want to indicate that it was his and several band members’ symbolic birthdays, we were on the singalong high of Country Roads, given the reggae treatment to the max, with that delicious keyboard solo in the spotlight. Then, hefty delights of dancing madness to Monkey Man and the final number, 54-46, the only disappointment being that the main stage had to close, so no time for a well-deserved encore (though with the set lasting 90 minutes, we really can’t complain). King Toots, you are immortal, and this performance was easily one of the true highlights of WOMAD 2017. Long may he reign!

Although local DJ heroes Dub Boy and Jonesy Wales kept the diehards skanking in the Disco Bear tent to the wee hours, it was time to slosh through the mud for some badly needed rest, in order to be back on form on Sunday morning, for the BBC Radio 3 live showcase simulcast, presented by Cerys Matthews and Lopa Kothari on the Charlie Gillett stage. Tanzania’s Msafiri Zawose demonstrated considerable skill on a number of traditional instruments, but the real stars of the showcase were the Ska Vengers, India’s sole ska band, who gave a teaser of the set they would deliver twice later, on two different stages, despite having travelled from Camp Bestival on the south coast up to Bradford in the far north, and back again, leaving Bradford at 4 in the morning and reaching WOMAD just in time to hit the Radio 3 stage (more on the band below).

Mike Massaro - Skavengers

Mamadou Diabate and Percussion Mania is fronted by the master balafon player from Burkina Faso, and his equally talented brother on another balafon. Had he not revealed it on stage, you would never have known that the group was another to suffer from visa issues, meaning that some band members were absent, and that the excellent flute player had never met nor played with the group before this superb performance. If you get the chance to see this band, do not miss it – they hold a lot of percussive and melodic power, and what they delivered on the WOMAD main stage on the Saturday was very memorable indeed.

Over in the Big Red Tent, non-standard Brummie dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah gave us a great politically-relevant set of thought-provoking work, based on his latest album, Revolutionary Minds. He was backed by the players on the album, namely bandleader / musical arranger / keyboardist / sequencer Corin Pennington, Craig Boorman on drums, the rapper Ami True as a complimentary vocalist, and roped in for the live band, though not featured on the album, the highly talented Inyaki of Basque Dub Foundation on bass. The opening number, Earth Liberation Sound, set the tone with a roots reggae template, made more three-dimensional with True’s rapping contrast to Zephaniah’s slowly chanted rant; title track Revolutionary Minds let us know that people of that calibre ‘don’t give a damn,’ and instead just get on with the business of fermenting change. The President A Mash Up The Resident took Shorty the President’s old sound-boy tune as a concept but flipped it into a rant against corrupt world leaders, which is particularly pertinent in the age of Trump; Cool Down called for an end to self-destructive violence. Then, some thoughts on injustice in Palestine, the punitive face of Patriarchy and other ills prefaced In This World, which led on to a complex number, What The Death Of Stephen Lawrence Has Taught Us, which is something along the lines of, the road to liberty is as long as the road through slavery, or words to that effect. The Bass Is Coming Down was then a welcome form of musical release, the chorus chanted in unison to remind that reggae’s subsonic core is part of a means to trample inequality, with Inyaki using his musical weapon to demonstrate exactly that point. More Animal Writes was a symbolic soliloquy to all the ‘sexy vegans’ out there, and closing everything off appropriately enough was the unifying cry of One Tribe, the only number not from the Revolutionary Minds album. With the crowd roaring for more and the tent overflowing for the entire set, it seemed that Zephaniah & Co could easily have been placed in the larger Siam Tent, if not the main stage, but in any case, this was a fine performance from an individual talent who has never dared to address difficult topics, head-on. All very inspiring!

Following a spot of Eliza Carthy’s very modern take on folk music on the main stage, it was soon time for the Ska Vengers’ main performance of the day, over at the Ecotricity stage in the heavily shaded Arboretum, which is on the edge of the festival site. Another of the many bands to lose members due to visa issues, the core of the group was supplanted by a number of local players, who were now fully integrated following extensive touring. The Delhi-based band is a most curious beast in general, blending roots reggae, dancehall, and rap elements into an overriding ska milieu, and the lyrics are often hard-hitting songs of social commentary, even if the music sounds merry as hell. They are fronted by a good double act on the microphones in the form of yoga television hostess Samara Chopra, AKA Begum X, and Taru Dalmia, AKA Delhi Sultanate, a toaster, music producer and activist that has also founded Bass Foundation Roots, India’s first Jamaican-styled sound system. Then there is Nihkil Vasudavan pounding away on the drums and Chaitanya Bhalla’s understated approach to guitar, supplanted by Sergio Dinette on bass (in place of Tony Bass), Dan Somers on keyboards (filling in for Stefan Kaye), plus Woodnote on sax, Wilf on trombone and Tim Quick on trumpet. Opening number, apparently called Mulatu, was a cool roots reggae groove with disturbing lyrics from Begum X, repeating chanting, You wanna reign me in', and Delhi Sultanate weighing in with, ‘circumstances turned me into a monster’—quite an unusal start. The audience’s attention was sparked from the get-go, but when the band launched into a rousing ska cut of Herni Mancini’s A Shot In The Dark, everyone went ape-shit, skanking all over the place. Then, Vampire warned that corrupt politicians are sucking our blood to a hot ska backing that borrowed from the Upsetters instrumental of the same name, while Shut Your Mouth was more in 2-Tone mode, with Begum X channelling the likes of Pauline BlackGunshot then saluted all the revolutionary outlaws out there in the form of an up-tempo rub-a-dub, with Delhi spitting lyrics rapid-fire and Begum chanting ‘I’m waiting for some change’ on the chorus. After such a message, the diversion of No No No felt a bit off-kilter, though it had the crowd rocking the arboretum, as Delhi countered Begum’s wails with another JA-styled rap. Then came the perplexing Frank Brazil, apparently based on the true story of revolutionary Udham Singh, who travelled to London in the 1930s to assassinate Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the former Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab; hard to follow if you don’t know the tale (it makes more sense when you check the official video for the single on YouTube), but the edgy roots rap rhythm that housed the track was mighty fine indeed. Another hot curveball then came with a Latin rendition of Cumbanchero, which of course was the basis of Rockfort Rock in Jamaica (and namechecked by Delhi as Red Fort Rock in tribute); mid-way through, the mood shifted as the band launched into a roots reggae adaptation, highlighting the way that music travels across borders unhindered. Double X was a roots anthem that saluted Naxalites, Zapatistas, MPLA and other fallen freedom fighters, and 011 (Jasoo’s Swing) was a reaction to the spying tactics of India’s twin intelligence agencies, whose members have evidently been tailing the band; the track began as a slow skank, building up to a fast-chat rap crescendo. Then, more light relief with Begum’s sultry take of I Put A Spell On You, followed by the defiant Kick Up Rumpus. Closing number Champion AKA Recapture, referenced Leroy Sibbles of the Heptones and reggae revival hero Chronnix, stating that Ska Vengers ‘ain’t no Major Lazer mish mash.’ And the crowd was simply roaring for more, so they had to come back to deliver a last sultry ska number, Boy Who Radiates That Charm. Before the applause had even died down, the band were making their way to Molly’s Bar to deliver the final set for the night…the hardest working band in show business, or what?

Mike Massaro - Womad's public

Over on the main stage, jazz funk pioneer Roy Ayers did a brief opening slot for headliner Seun Kuti, who closed out WOMAD in a mode of political relevance—a fine way to end an action-packed weekend. Since the WOMAD site location has reportedly now been secured until at least 2030, I’m already looking forward to next year’s event—whatever the weather…


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