WOMAD, World of Music, Arts and Dance is now in it's 10th year at its no-longer-new site at Charlton Park. I started going in 2002 ( the festival's 20th anniversary); it is still one of the most loved fixtures in my calendar, and 2016 was pretty much a perfect one: the music, the weather, the atmosphere, the food stalls old and new.....but one after the other.
For 2016, the festival site's lay out has changed a little. Pros and cons - instead of rushing from stage to stage on automatic pilot, I actually have to think about where I'm going, that slows me down but also makes me spend more time in previously neglected nooks and crannies. Access to the arboretum with its little stages and art installations is improved, the new bandstand area is cool, the new Physics Pavilion interesting, but none of my old shortcuts are working! Not that the latter would matter to newbies. The area in front of the main stage seems to have shrunk a bit. This could cause some crowd problems but I don't see any all weekend, not even for the headliners, so I guess it's ok. A change may be as good as a rest and all that - this is the best festival for bringing music from further afield to us, no matter how they position the stages. Although the Hip Yak Poetry Shack really should face away from the Ecotricity Stage, it is too close and interferes with the gentler musical performances. There, I said it.
So, first things first, the music.
As is now the tradition, on Thursday evening the main stage opens with Malmesbury Schools Project with Escola de Carnaval lots of fun, on stage as well as in the audience.
Then over to the Big Red Tent for an early highlight and new discovery: Imarhan from Algeria, who sound like the musical love-child of Goat and Tinariwen. Yes, really, and I swear I was almost completely sober and not alone in thinking that.
The main stage closes with the Asian Dub Foundation, who are in good form, some of their old material sounds more timely than ever ("Keep bangin' on the walls of Fortress Europe!").
Friday starts gently with Asiq Nargile (from Georgia) at the lovely Ecotricity Stage in the arboretum. She sings Georgian poetry.
This is followed by A Guy Called Gerald at the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System stage. The sound is as great as it should be with that stage equipment, but the set is - just a little underwhelming. Unlike Aziza Brahim (Saharawi) who sings her Western-Sahara-Refugee-Blues at the Siam Tent afterwards, supported by a great band.
Back to Ecotricity, where This Is The Kit do some more familiar sounding new folk. The shady arboretum also hosts a session with Blick Bassy (Cameroon) at Taste the World, the small tent where some artists can introduce us to their national cuisine. Apart from singing and cooking, Blick marvels repeatedly at the fact that over here it's now considered ok for men to cook and even be TV chefs : "That's not a sexy thing to do for a man where I come from!" he chuckles. Maybe not, but he doesn't let that stop him. Later, at the Big Red Tent, the aptly named Hot 8 Brass Band (from New Orleans) have some sound wobbles at first, but proceed to try to blow the house (ok, tent) down anyway. Very energetic and enjoyable.
John Grant closes the main stage, a somewhat unusual choice for a WOMAD headliner, but there he is. This is the second time I see him live (first was Field Day in London earlier this year) and... well, I guess he's just not really my thing, although I warm to him when he starts to make fun of himself ("you have to let me whinge just a little more: Here is Queen of Demark!"). Glad I gave it a try, though I probably won't repeat it.
But Desert Slide (India), who take to the Siam Stage afterwards, are my highlight of the day. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt is "The One" who many years ago recorded A Meeting by the River (with Ry Cooder). He still plays his East/West slide guitar hybrid, now accompanied by a singer and band, all virtuosos of their kind of music.
Another hour goes by at Jah Shaka's (Jamaica) long DJ set of roots reggae at the sound system stage - that's it, I'm happily knackered.
What a day, but wait for it, we can top it: Saturday has the most amazing music - and the most annoying schedule clashes. It starts at the main stage with splendid reggae from Meta and The Cornerstones (Senegal/USA), all bathed in sunshine, as this kind of music should be.
In great spirits and with a silly grin on my face, I potter over to the BBC 3 stage to see Hanoi Masters (Vietnam, obviously), who give an incredibly touching performance, of music inspired by the war they are veterans of. It isn't all gloom and doom though, their enthusiasm for introducing the audience to their unusual instruments is infectious, and their anecdotes about what noises can be made with discarded weapons and plane parts are touching as well as funny.
Back to the main stage to see Toumani Diabate (Mali) perform parts of Songhai, with several of the Spanish flamenco players he originally recorded it with. And now things get complicated, because they are running late - properly late, about 30 minutes, which means that their set needs to be cut short, but even so, I'm now running late for Anoushka Shankar, one of my absolute must sees! Tssk. Despite the long set up the Songhai performance has some sound problems, I can hardly hear the singer. The material is great, but it seems as if they did not have quite enough time to get it all back together. Fantastic dancing by one of the backing singers, though!
Anoushka Shankar could probably headline the Siam Tent on a Saturday, but for some reason she plays a mid-afternoon slot. Perhaps she likes it that way (her Glastonbury performance took place at a similar time) - she has a young family now, an excited toddler waves to her from somewhere in the audience and she beams back at him ("There is my kid! And he has brought all his friends with him!"). She introduces her new album Land of Gold, which is themed around the plights and hopes of refugees and migrants. Manu Delago (Austria), who co-wrote many of this album's tracks, is there with her playing Hang and percussion. The band also has a keyboard and bass player, and Sanjeev Shankar (a former disciple of her father) playing Shehnai, but Anoushka has now fully developed her vey own brand of fusion music and stepped out of Ravi Shankar's shadow. It is a great performance.
For the rest of the afternoon and evening I'm trying to stretch myself as a part-timer over the Hackney Colliery Band (more brass fun), the astonishing throat singing of the Alash Ensemble from Siberia, Roots Manuva, Baaba Maal, George Clinton, all quite good, but all trumped by relatively unknown Kel Assouf's (Belgium) brand of desert rock as they close the BBC 3 stage for the night. There is still some most unusual a capella singing by Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei (Sardinia) to be heard at the Siam stage. So much of the music on that Saturday was simply amazing, it is impossible to pick just one highlight.
On Sunday, the main stage opens with Kim Juhong's Ensemble Noreum Machi (South Korea). They fill our ears with the sound of their drums, unusual brass instruments and a capella singing, plus some astonishing dance moves. Their set is alien and really engaging at the same time, all made even more remarkable by the fact that they only arrived in the UK at 2am on Sunday morning after a 20 hour flight - respect!
The Monks from Tashi Lhunpo Monastery are on the BBC 3 stage, their rituals are framing the traditional Tibetan songs of Ngawang Lodup. The Free Tibet campaign is making the most of this opportunity to raise awareness.
Just like Roots Manuva, Dubioza Kolektiv (Bosnia) are a bit too loud and full on for me in the early afternoon, though I'd probably love watching them on a cold night - with a bottle of strong liquor to assist me. Not that they need me, the Big Red Tent is packed to the rafters with a jumping crowd of Balkan-Ska-Punk fans. I'm off to see the more melodic Aynur (Turkey) with her great backing band instead. Folky The East Pointers, on the other hand, are now a bit too gentle for me (I know, it's hard pleasing some people), so I'm off to wriggle along to the fabulous percussions of Konono No1,(DR Congo).
Out of curiosity, I then pop over to the main stage to check out Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana), who I have never heard of. They win my prize of "best band to dance to" for this weekend, no DJ can touch them! What a treat for a happy and appreciative audience. Halfway through the set all the stage speakers suddenly cut out - but the band plays on, completely unfazed, until everything is restored. The guitarist later makes a laconic comment along the lines of: Don't worry, that's nothing. Back home, we are used to playing all night even when the lights go off! Right after their set, a guy with a grievance about Amnesty International (who have a presence at the festival) somehow manages to get on to the stage and starts a rant. This is interrupted by stage management, but it seems a pity that he chose this moment, as it distracts from the band's triumph. Get yerself onto twitter or some other social media, mate, you are likely to get noticed by more people that way and might even get a proper response to your problem.
The following children's parade looks fantastic with its large colourful animal sculptures, they must have worked their little socks off in all the arts and crafts workshops in the Kids' Area. Later I read in the programme that these creations are inspired by a Rio carnival and Olympics theme.
Mercedes Peon's (Spain) fierce talent scares me a little, not in a bad but in a super intense way. Les Amazones D'Afrique (Mali/Nigeria) puts some of Africa's best female performers together on stage: Mariam Doumbia (half of Amadou & Mariam), Mamani Keita, as well as the talent and beauty of the younger generation with Inna Modija and Nneka. A great pleasure to watch.
St. Germain has never been on my must-see list, but I am persuaded by someone else's enthusiasm to have a go, and with a full band, I like him much better than I ever imagined possible based on radio play alone. Best of all the headliners, in fact.
Federico Albanese (Italy), is the pianist and composer who plays the Siam Tent's beautifully mellow final gig. Having more gentle performances on this stage late at night is probably a concession to noise/licence conditions, but it is also a really good way to unwind. Afterwards I'm spent, and plans to see the night out at Molly's Bar are abandoned for a quiet drink and an early (well, early by my festival standards) night. But hey, at least I didn't fall asleep in front of the stage. Watching security try to gently wake the last remaining audience member after nearly everyone else has left is quite funny.
A weekend full of fantastic music. Can I voice a tiny little gripe? I miss the Dhol Foundation. When and why did they stop being one of WOMAD's house-bands?
I actually manage to eat really well in the middle of all this. The food choices are glorious (although not exactly cheap). There are the good old festival favourites like Manic Organic, but some really good newer stalls too, I particularly enjoyed meals from Manna, Thai Angle, Paellaria - the latter's portions being very generous, tasty and they do a half portion for smaller appetites at almost half price! Top marks for that.
This year, the only mud to be found is around the water taps. It's a bit of a problem at all festivals, not so much the mud but the waste of spilled water it represents. Would it be possible to have taps that target the water better into the bottles people are refilling regularly? If I had that problem at home, I'd simply use a cut off piece of garden hose. No, I don't want to get paid for this idea, free tickets for the rest of my life will do nicely, ta. Probably not possible anyway due to some health/safety/hygiene problems.
Yes, Womad 2016 was better than 2015. Both years had the great line ups, good facilities and organisation we are now expecting, but there was one big difference - the weather. After last year's freezing wash-out the weather gods took pity and decided to make this one pretty much perfect. Can we have that next year too, please? I'll be really good, I promise! (But I'll be back anyway, even if it should be rains cats & dogs.)
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