On Thursday afternoon, I arrived at Chippenham train station looking for the festival bus, only to be swept along by a jolly extrovert in a hurry who was looking for people to share a taxi to the camp site. Off to Charlton Park Estate we went without further delay - they seem to have exceptionally friendly taxi drivers around there, and if the car is brimful the price difference is minimal.
WOMAD organisers keep on experimenting with the site’s layout, it has been changed again. In its 11th year at Charlton Park, the festival somehow feels more compact now, but that works well. Stages are better positioned to reduce sound interference. The noisy fun fair corner has been broken up into several smaller areas dotted around the site - good, it was quite overwhelmingly loud as a close neighbour to the Big Red Tent in previous years. Some old favourites are missing - or did I just not find them in their new place? Where’s Manic Organic? Never mind, there’s plenty of other good food choices. Some are even quite affordable. For a festival on this scale (about 35,000 punters, if sold out, which it often isn’t), WOMAD feels incredibly relaxed and intimate in places, particularly in the pretty arboretum area with its small stages and activity tents.
Thursday is the day for easing in, as ticket bookings allow the cheaper option of Fri-Sun only, but even so it seems quite busy. Whether that is due to more people or the lay out changes I couldn’t say. The Malmesbury School Choir opens proceedings, as is the tradition, together with Sheelanagig this time, the kids look proud and the weather is good…. for now. I know no more than 20% (if that) of the bands listed in the programme, but it doesn’t matter. Never heard of Brazilian combo Bixiga 70, but they are taking funk and afro beat to another level with their horn & brass section and the crowd in the Big Red Tent is jumping. Orchestra Baobab (Senegal) are headlining, reliably good, they are one of the few where I do know what to expect. So we have Brazilian afro-beat and Afro-Latin music from Senegal in one evening, globalisation in its most enjoyable form in a park in Wiltshire. We round the night off with a few drinks at various bars, Molly’s has the longest opening hours and usually the best music.
I then spend a somewhat frazzled Friday flitting between stages as there are too many interesting things going on all at the same time: The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians’ performance is touching, The New York Theremin Society (with Dorit Chrysler) appeals to everyone’s inner nerd - a Theremin! Makes a sound without you touching it!! Yes, but the first 20 minutes are a bit wasted on playing hotel lobby style covers of very famous songs. It gets more interesting for those who stick with it when Dorit Chrysler takes over. The WOMAD app informs us that Inna De Yard (Jamaica) sadly didn’t make it to the UK due to visa problems, they are replaced by Dele Sosimi (Nigeria), impressive that the organisers pulled that off at such short notice. Orkesta Mendoza (Mexico/USA) are credited with having created their own sub-genre: indie mambo. Hearing is believing, they shake the Open Air Stage, but of all the new discoveries of the day, my favourites are Junun featuring Shye Ben Tzur & Rajasthan Express (Israel/India), who perform poems in Hebrew and Urdu set to astonishing rhythms and harmonies. One of those combinations that shouldn’t work for all sorts of reasons - but really does.
And then the rain starts properly and I know Oumou Sangare (Mali) who’s got the next slot on the Open Air Stage is fab (and has an amazing guitarist), but having recently seen her at Glastonbury I dodge the rain for some rest, food and shelter. Wimp, I know, but I have to be fit for one of my favourites who are on next: Goat and their Swedish psychedelia. They are brilliant and could headline these days, their shamanic masks and dancing work so well in the big dark Siam tent. Friday’s official headliners are Emir Kusturica and the No Smoking Orchestra (Serbia). I’m not a big fan of the Balkan-punk-rock genre, but the crowd is up for it. There’s XAOS, an interesting Greek/British sound collective to be sampled late at the Siam tent, and finally, some pleasantly soothing modern jazz by Bill Laurance (UK). That’s it. I won’t be able to keep up that pace all weekend.
So Saturday starts with the idea of taking it a little easier. A bit of Dhol Blasters (India/UK) to start with, later Bokante (mix of too many countries to list!) stand out for their singer’s soaring voice, the Zhou Family Band for their mix of music and comedy that transcends language, Bombino (Niger) for great desert blues & rock. Seu Jorge (Brazil) gives a very chilled performance of his Bowie covers - he sings in Portuguese, the crowd sings along with the original lyrics, as is to be expected. I love his self-depreciating banter between songs. Toots and the Maytals (hey, at least some Jamaicans made it) headline the Open Air Stage in the pouring rain, the muddy ground looks well churned by dancing feet afterwards. Officina Zoe (Italy) give a very romantic song and dance performance in the Siam tent around midnight.
If possible, the contrasts are even bigger as I start my Sunday morning with Taiko Meantime and Chieko Kojima performing a traditional piece of Japanese dance and theatre at the Big Red Tent, very entertaining and photogenic. Over to the Siam Tent for Noureddine Khourchid and the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus (Syria), and then from their trance like, fascinatingly mystical performance to the forthright, political back-to-earth style of Benjamin Zephaniah and the Revolutionary Minds at the Big Red Tent (where else, eh?), what a change of emotions in the space of a few minutes!
Simon Wood and the Mysterious Collective are a new band who play their own brand of folk at Molly’s bar, just before the start of the children’s procession. I’m pleased the rain holds off for this, it would have been a shame to see all the elaborate work being soaked. A lot of effort has gone into it - just have a look at the pictures. Ladysmith Black Mambazo are one of the well-known names on the line up, their performance packs out the Siam tent. Sunday’s headliner is a double bill of Roy Ayers, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, an energetic and spirited finish.
One little gripe: the outbursts of rain probably didn’t help here, but some acts are booked to play tents/stages simply not big enough for them: Portico Quartet (I would have quite happily watched them from outside the Bowers&Wilkins Sound System tent, but couldn’t hear them), Benjamin Zephaniah, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Seu Jorge’s Bowie tribute.
After the gloriously dry and sunny 2016 event, this year the festival caught one of summer’s very rainy stretches - but the WOMAD team has the organisational experience and expertise to cope with bad weather, and it caters to a resilient crowd that spans the generations, from babies in their parents’ arms to white haired folks with walking sticks. So far, I’ve done the WOMAD experience as a care free singleton, with a toddler and later primary school children in tow (this festival really caters beautifully for kids), and I surely hope to still be going once I’ve joined the greying camping chair brigade. WOMAD is probably not the best place to go if you want to get mashed and rave all night (although Molly’s Bar goes on until 2 or 3 am). It is, however, the perfect place for people who are interested in great music and in widening their musical horizon. On that front it never fails to deliver. I am only half way through my 2017 festival summer (3 behind me, 3 still to go), but as far as top notch music goes, I’m pretty sure I’ve peaked for this year.
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