WOMAD 2013 is unlikely to be viewed by many who went as a classic year, although the reason for that isn't immediately apparent. All things considered I think the weather played a big part, usually WOMAD is an oasis of good festival weather in a desert of drab weekends. This year however a month after it last rained at Glastonbury, the weather closed in to knock a hole in the weekend on the Saturday.
On Sunday bad weather was forecast and this lead to many deciding to get up early and get into the arena whilst the sun shone. In fact the weather held off leading to good crowds throughout the day and a happy vibe.
This year's musical line-up seemed on paper to be a bit less impressive than last year's 30th Anniversary, but then it's hard to match the visual appeal of The Manganiyar Seduction by Roysten Abel (the musicians in boxes). Many of the acts may have been less visually quirky, but I felt there was some great musical offerings across the musical spectrum. There were still enough quality new acts for this WOMAD veteran to sample.
The likes of Malawi Mouse Boys, throat singers Huun Huur Tu, Zykopops, La Pegatina, Parov Stelar, Nano Stern, Yes King, Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys, alongside repeat acts like Babylon Circus, Kissmet, and the outstanding Gocoo, and the like providing great entertainment. Popular charting act The Heavy also appealed to many and proved a big draw too.
Big hitting DJs like the terrific (over far too soon) Craig Charles, Cheeba, and the dubstep liking David Rodigan all provided the tunes for the masses to dance to. It felt like there was a lot of DJs this year, but in fact looking at it there was less than in 2010, a similar year I remember as also being quite DJ heavy.
Whilst there were no big, wow factor attractions on the bill, the headliners and big guns still delivered. Okay, The Magic Flute opera with L'Orchestra di Piazza Vittorio on Thursday missed the mark for me personally, and Rachid Taha seemed slightly off form. It wasn't the set the place alight early entry Thursday we've come to expect from WOMAD.
On Friday Max Romeo also sounded a bit flat, although the brilliant Lee Scratch Perry and Seun Kuti and Fela's Egypt 80 set up a great evening for many with Molly's Bar, and San Frans Disco Bar both providing the late night grooves.
On Saturday the weather hit, but Arrested Development pulled out a terrific headlining performance, which would have been immense if the rain hadn't been driving down. It was nice to know some of the late night acts I missed that night would be appearing on other stages the next day.
On Sunday Gilberto Gil also provided an upbeat groove and a few warm singalongs, including a Marley number or two. In fact once again WOMAD seemed to prove the rule that the best music to connect to an audience is reggae. All the headliners drew big crowds, and this year WOMADers seemed to make good use of the site, the wide open space in front of the Charlie Gillett Stage was used more than previously with families, couples, and groups chilling in the grass. This year the audiences seemed much more evenly spread throughout and I don't think I ever saw an act playing to a paltry crowd.
WOMAD is a festival in three parts, the first of which is the car parks and camping areas including disabled, well lit and easy to navigate which radiate out from the arboretum. The second is the Arboretum a green tree filled area that rarely gets muddy and houses the World of Wellbeing, plus the Taste The World stage, Radio 3 Stage and bar, and is flanked on one side by the late night 'campsite bar' the Molly's Green Stage, and the World Of Kids, and on the other the arena itself. The final area is the arena, accessible via wristband checkpoints it is home to the main Outdoor Stage, the vast tented Siam Tent, The Charlie Gillett Stage, World Rhythms Stage, Roots Architecture Stage, the Big Red Tent, and San Frans Disco. It's also home to the Steamfair, most of the food stalls, good causes, shops, toilet blocks, water taps, the three main bars, public seating, and those fluttering flags. Plus ample opportunities to get Henna tattoos, transfer tattoos, facepaint, wings and pirate accessories to keep the kids happy.
The facilities were as good as ever, the Oxfam stewards seemed intent on making everyone smile, rubbish sorters kept the site looking good, the toilet cleaners went far beyond their duty to organise queues and appeared to clean each cubicle after nearly every use. Some of the security appeared to be a bit grumpy, but I'm so used to upbeat ones that the more usual variety seemed a bit out of place.
We camped in the campervan field which had sold out, and yet vast swathes of it were empty all weekend, and were tightly packed in at the front. That seemed a little odd, maybe lots of people decided not to come at the last minute? On the plus side it made getting out easier, as we avoided the usual WOMAD queues with a late night exit across the empty field on Sunday.
Despite being a WOMAD veteran I'm not particularly jaded by the myriad of food stalls, and shops the festival offers, nor its colourful flags, and bustling family friendly vibe. Quite the contrary the festival created each year is one of my favourite places to wander about in the festival calendar.
But there didn't seem to be any chances to get involved in anything much in the arena, this year the build it stage was built already, and the Roots Architecture place felt, to me at least, a bit less inclusive. Another area which I felt was good a few years ago was the speakers forum in the Arboretum, and perhaps the return of something like that would provide more variation from the healing and therapies on offer. The relocation of the Radio 3 Stage was a great idea, and worked better in amongst the trees especially when they were lit up at night.
It also seemed that the drop-in adult dance classes and workshops had greatly shrunk in the number on offer this year, and again that spontaneity of joining in with the arts seemed less available. Conversely the childrens workshops seemed as busy as ever, and moving Molly's Bar nearer afforded the occasional parent a chance to enjoy a drink and a live act whilst keeping their kids in eye line.
Another area I like The World Of Words was still there, as were the containers housing their films in the World Of Art, but it seemed rather a sparse place labelled as a celebration of art, and it seemed that this side of the festival had still been scaled back, perhaps due to budget. The films themselves and the soundsystems for the audio were impressive and both the visuals of 'The Very End' and 'Wars End' with its slowed cathedral bell proved very memorable. There also seemed to be less roving entertainment in the arena this year, and less entertaining distractions, although on Friday night the stall Moorish becomes home to a terrific group of drummers whose beats cause the crowds to dance and remind me what it used to be like at night and SamSam the bubble man wowed young and old with his bubble act.
This year however the food did seem a bit more expensive at around £8 a meal and the £4 a pint price tag meant that money didn't seem to go as far. Although perhaps that the moorish real ale and real cider options which are still a wizard idea. WOMAD does of course allow personal alcohol for consumption in the arena, but even so it felt the prices were higher because the majority could afford it, fortunately the local Thai place still did a meal for a fiver, and for those on a tight budget WOMAD is still just about affordable for all, and certainly all ages were in attendance.
There also seemed to be a few regular stalls missing, and the lack of Chai Chapel removed the underlying beat of drums all day long, and it felt like some of the in arena spontaneity was missing.
Thinking about it we had the audience participation things in the past, such as the air guitar record attempt , the outdoor dance workshops in the arena at Reading, and that seemed to be missing. There was the obligatory outdoor Jacuzzi, the must have at all outdoor festivals this summer, I was tempted to fill one of the plastic bins up and make my own. The WOMAD Spa aggravates me more each year. This is a festival that's about global inclusivity and yet there's a whole other bit on offer for those prepared to pay more. It doesn't seem to be part of the right ethos.
Maybe I'm just too used to the new WOMAD location, this may be the first year I've totally got used to the Malmesbury site location. All the ingredients were there this year but for me it didn't mix to make something memorable, maybe it needs something new each year, as a talking point like many other festivals do. I do think it was the fact weather changed for the worse for once, that made it feel a little odd this year. I've no doubt those coming to the festival for the first time loved the location, the set up, and the entertainment. It's still a fantastic weekend at the centre of the festival year.
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