Spain's free WOMAD creates an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere

WOMAD Caceres 2009 Review

published: Mon 11th May 2009

Rachel Unthank and the Winterset

Thursday 7th to Sunday 10th May 2009
Plaza Major, Plaza San Jorge and the Gran Teatro, Extremadura, Spain, England
last updated: Mon 11th May 2009

The ancient old town of Caceres, which can trace its origin back to Roman times, provided a spectacular backdrop to WOMAD's 19th festival in the capital of Spain's Extremadura region. Gazing down from the old city walls the views of the surrounding countryside are spectacular, but it's the huge crowds in front of the main stage in Plaza Mayor - just outside the old town - that really catch the eye.

around the festival site
Musically the festival was superb. Starting on the Thursday with, by all accounts, a stellar performance by Amadou & Mariam (we had to miss the thursday) the festival effectively finishes on the Saturday Night, though there were a few workshops scheduled for the Sunday. While the performers all hailed from either Africa, Europe or South America there was no lack of variety.

In fact we didn't see a duff act all weekend though perhaps Rachel Unthank & the Winterset's glacial, ethereal Northern English folk harmonies would have been better suited to an intimate auditorium. As gorgeous as their minimal arrangements were, their struggled at times to command the imposing space created by Plaza St Jorge and their set needed more uptempo moments to have really engaged the crowd. By contrast Soweto's BLK JKS could have done with a bit more space between their hectic movements; their set was captivating and full of energy, but it had no room to breathe, with each manic, effects laden riff-fest plunging headlong into the next.

It was Progressive Rock at 200 bpm; imagine Jimi Hendrix fronting Battles with the Muppets' Animal on drums. Astounding to watch, and the most musically adventurous act I've seen at any WOMAD, but hard to fully engage with. Other African acts - Salif Keita, Victor Deme, Seckou Keita, Toumast - were much more successful at locking the crowd into some undeniable grooves, the latter in particular producing some serious fist pumping and body shaking. Kings of the dance floor, however, were undeniably the multi-national Paprika Balkanicus, who turned the whole of Plaza Mayor into one whole sweaty dance pit. The Spanish crowd, never slow to tocar las palmas (clap hands), are as enthusiastic as any you care to mention. They also don't mind being taught a thing or two about their own musical traditions, as when Israeli Mor Karbasi and her virtuouso band of Brits and South Americans, laid down a masterclass in traditional Ladino (Spanish Jewish) folk to a captivated audience.

Being a free festival, unsurprisingly most of the town, young and old, turns out with estimates of numbers in the region of 70,000, though many of the younger ones are probably just their to hang out. Many clutch 5 litre squash bottles now filled with litros of rum and coke with the top cut off so they can get ice in - the botellon phenomenon. Elsewhere, tiny souvenir shops hired in huge fridges in order to serve up chilled beer and litros to the festival crowds, while the world food market was always popular, and prices generally were very reasonable and much cheaper than any UK equivalent.

around the festival site
However, despite the numbers which occasionally cause major bottlenecks in the narrow streets of the old town, the atmosphere is overwhelmingly positive. The crowds, while huge, aren't packed - it's quite possible to move through them without getting shot dirty looks ever 3 paces. However, with the acts of the 3 stage - the main stage in Plaza Mayor and two smaller ones in spectacular settings up in the old town - conveniently scheduled to largely avoid clashes, we soon developed the tactic of leaving 10 minutes early in order to get to the next act in time to bag a space near the front.

Watching acts do workshops, which were generally just a performance with a bit of audience participation, was also a good way to catch acts in a more intimate space; Victor Deme's workshop was particularly endearing. In between there were markets to browse, a cinema and lots of enterprising buskers or varying quality who had set up on street corners and in squares to take advantage of the crowds.

There was no accommodation offered by the festival, but most people had found a room easily enough while the campsite we stayed on (connected by bus to the centre of town) had lots of free space, though booking ahead is always advisable. Otherwise just do what the Spanish do - stay up all night and party, and take a siesta in the park in the afternoon.

Paprika Balkanicus
review by: Theo Berry

photos by: Theo Berry

Thursday 7th to Sunday 10th May 2009
Plaza Major, Plaza San Jorge and the Gran Teatro, Extremadura, Spain, England
last updated: Mon 11th May 2009

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