Well what a wonderful WOMAD weekend it was, the weather turning out to be scorching - the ice-cream vans and hat sellers must have made a killing.
My companion and I arrived at Charlton Park on Thursday teatime with the still very warm sun shining, made our way to the camping area and claimed our pitch for the weekend. Tents up, it was time to relax with an aperitif, followed by a wander around the arena. The atmosphere was chilled and laidback with people sitting in the evening sun whilst the numerous colourful flags fluttered in the warm breeze. Other WOMADers wandered around exploring the site, releasing the stresses and strains of daily life, relaxing into the wonderful WOMAD vibe.
The arena is the main area for stages, bars and food vendors, the latter supplying top quality food from an extensive range of cultures. Other stalls sold retro to designer wear, original artwork, jewellery, musical instruments, hammocks, T-shirts made of bamboo, (apparently anti-bacterial, breathable and very soft), funky hats, Hawaiian shirts, Indian headdresses, ornate Moroccan lamps (look gorgeous lit up at night), even fun strap on animal tails! What more could you want? Suffice to say there was plenty to satisfy the most ardent shop-a-holics!
Quite a few of the stall holders I spoke to were non-profit making, raising funds for a particular cause or community and were fair-trade supporters. There is also ‘frankwater’; you buy a refill bottle from them which is refillable for free with nice chilled water from numerous stations around the site. All the profits go to fund access to safe water for some of the world poorest communities.
For you thrill seekers out there, there is the most beautifully decorated, vibrant ‘Carter’s Steam Fair’, with its traditional carousel of dancing horses, twin pirate ships, big wheel and other thrilling funfair rides.
The arena is pretty flat (so is with the camp site) so it’s reasonably easy to walk around or push/pull wheeled vehicles (usually with small children installed and beautifully decorated, that’s the trolleys not the children. Come to think of it, sometimes the children too!). Ditto for wheelchair users who are of course catered for with specialised facilities around the site.
You can get a cut-throat shave, henna tattoo, eyebrows re-shaping and if you go into the Arboretum (more about this place late), and a range of alternative therapies are available. Fancy telling someone what a great time you had at WOMAD, try the old fashion way – send a post card! Hundreds of cards to choose from and they even have a post-box. In the main camping area, you can get edible provisions and emergency camping gear, should you need them.
Wandering around, I came across such lovely things and interesting, enthusiastic, friendly people. Whether they be a service provider, stall holder, musician, volunteer or attendee.
In the Siam Tent I came across a group of young people waiting for a band to come on, sitting playing a game of flip-flop Jenga! I also came across a tall West Indian man with long dreadlocks taking pictures with a very old wooden antique camera. He then prints them himself (black and white) and touches them up with water colours; what a novel, creative idea. Something else I noticed whilst walking around the festival (which was a sell out this year) - no litter. There are plenty of re-cycle rubbish bins about and the festival-goers are certainly conscientious in using them. I also saw imaginative ways of people trying to escape the searing sun, by sitting in the shade of the bins, in the shadows of the flags, even under advertising A-boards!
One thoughtful soul brought a water pistol to the outdoor main stage and sprayed some of the crowd (which was most welcome). Apart from the bands playing the four big stages, you may well find musicians playing in one of the smaller bars at times or even wandering around playing to the crowds. The drummers are known to set up and start playing outside a particular stall late at night, inviting people to join in with other instruments and extra drums they take along.
Molly’s Bar and a Moroccan-type café bar play music into the early hours. Molly’s Bar also has a stage and a PA that is decked with drapes, carpets and comfy cushions, very cosy. There is a variety of real ale and traditional ciders on offer at the numerous bars around the arena, including for the first time this year the Craft Ale Bar (I had a very drinkable strawberry cider, yum!) The San Fran Disco Bar plays a good range of tunes spanning different decades and always keeps the clientele bopping and throwing shapes.
This year there was a new innovation: the Society of Sound Dome housing a bespoke Bowers and Wilkins sound system where a selection of DJs and tech heads entertained and educated the crowds using the astonishingly good equipment. Beardyman created an album from scratch and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop inevitably finished their session with the original Dr.Who theme music. For those of you who like to be interactive, drumming, yoga and dance workshops are a standard fixture at WOMAD, you can even learn how to make a musical instrument. A highlight this year was the Bachata dance workshop led by the charismatic Leandro from Cuba. This partially compensated for the strange dearth of latin-american music on the live music programme.
The arboretum, aka World of Wellbeing, is a magical place to be in the evening with the trees lit up and a very relaxed vibe. Here you can get a massage, acupressure, or range of other alternative therapies to ease those nagging aches and pains, or just for the pleasure of it, even an amazing ‘sound bath’. Not just being a place of wellbeing there is also another lovely little bar that wouldn’t look out of place on a beach in the Caribbean. Also another smallish stage where I saw the fabulous The Perch Creek Family Jug Band. A group of multi-talented youngsters playing foot stomping hillbilly tunes with an array of instruments including a washboard and a saw! Not only did they play a mean tune, the audience was also treated to a spot of tap dancing by the banjo and guitar playing lead singer – brilliant! I found out after their set that they had been performing for 10 years - they must have barely been out of nappies. Some other attractions in the Arboretum are the gorgeous rustic wooden xylophones you can play yourself plus one made of plastic tubing that makes a wonderful sound. You can also listen to someone telling their shipwreck tale or poetry, and hear comedians, even stories of a mad scientist!
And for those of you in love you can declare your intentions in a Hand Fasting Ceremony. This is an ancient ritual used long before the wedding ceremonies we know now. It consists of the two sweethearts hands being bound together and vows being exchanged. There is sometimes the exchange of food and drink. It isn’t legal marriage but can be a beautifully romantic ceremony, as seen in the film Braveheart between William Wallace (Mel Gibson) and the love of his life Murron. Another amazing thing on offer was to have your very own Yurt built. What was different about these Yurts was the addition of a perspex skylight, proper locking wooden doors, opening wooden framed windows and the option to have a stove and chimney up though the skylight.
I nearly forgot to mention the Kora workshop. The Kora being a 200 year old African instrument that sounds not unlike the harp. It usually has 21 strings but can have more, it has a big belly(resonator) made from a hollowed out Calabash gourd. They are traditionally covered in cow hide with a long neck and are beautifully decorated with studs. In the Kora workshop you didn’t just have the opportunity to play one but they were actually making one over the course of the weekend with the intention of it being played and then auctioned off to raise funds for the WOMAD Foundation. And what about the man carving tables out of a solid piece of wood, that look like numerous branched trees with the canopy of the tree forming the table top; they were amazing.
What am I like! There is also the World of Kids where the little darlings can be entertained making toys powered by elastic bands, learn circus skills, play the ukulele, make puppets or a rocket, masks, print your own T shirt, listen to stories and more. Something for kids of all ages. There is soooo much at WOMAD to see, hear and do you could spend a week here and not do it all.
Now a bit about the WOMAD Foundation. A very worthwhile cause, bringing people together, bridging gaps, reaching into areas that have a difficult reputation. Providing positive cultural exploration & experience in the classroom via music and the arts -check out their website for information on their work worldwide.
Now here is a small selection of the bands I particularly enjoyed:
Septeto Santiaguero from Cuba were marvellous, getting the crowd on their feet in the searing heat on Saturday lunchtime. Cuban dance teachers Leandro and Jose were on hand to lead the dancing down at the front - great fun! Melt Yourself Down, described in the programme as ‘horn-powered free jazz tribal funk’ were, well, hot! Snarky Puppy from the USA were amazing, their sparring keyboard players were incredible. The crowd enthusiastically appreciated their skill, talent and performance. Sonia Sabri Company from the UK and India had me spellbound with their Kathak dance. The hand and wrist movements mesmerising, delicate and sensual. DakhaBrakha from the Ukraine provided another OH MY GOD WOMAD moment. What a sound, what harmonies, just sensational. The Chair from the Shetland Islands played some boisterous stomping good music to a larger than expected crowd on the main stage, when asked to sub in for a late-arriving band; deservedly so too, such fun and energy. Greg Wilson did a splendid DJ set in the Big Red Tent for those looking for an alternative to headliner Sinead O’Connor. It was great to see a mostly young crowd grooving to 80’s disco hits remixed to give them a more up-to-date dancey feel Ashley Beedle in the Society of Sound dome did a great DJ set too, very danceable and the sound was fantastic. I was disappointed with The Gloaming, obviously extremely talented but for me they chose the wrong set, far too laid back on the whole.
WOMAD is known for ‘world’ music but one area of the globe that wasn’t represented at all this year was South America. Added to the fact that there were only a couple of bands from Central America and the Caribbean, this was disappointing for lovers of Latin rhythms, but I guess you can’t have everything. Hopefully this will be rectified next year! There was enough good stuff to make up for it anyway. In fact so much so that you can run yourself ragged trying to see all the bands you have circled in your programme - I know I have done it.
One more thing I think I should mention, the washing facilities. As it was soooo hot this year I didn’t think a strip wash in my tent would suffice so with trepidation I went for a shower. Well I was very pleasantly surprised - warm water, spacious and a small section partitioned off with a shelf and hooks for clothes. And I must have timed it right because I only had to wait 10 minutes although I heard later that the queues in the morning were long. There was only one disappointing happening this year. At 2am in Molly’s Bar (open til 4) the volume of the music was turned so low you could hear people talking more than you could the music. People who complained were informed that the DJ had been told to turn it down by the police with a warning that if they didn’t do so, they wouldn’t get a licence next year!! This was puzzling as people who were camped the closest to Molly’s Bar said they couldn’t hear the music.
I met such lovely friendly people of all ages on my rambles getting information for this review; overall the festival was another great WOMAD experience!
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