WOMAD is now in its 36th year. The festival was founded by Peter Gabriel in 1982, it aims to bring together artists from around the world, for our and their benefit.
It is an exceptionally well organised event, given the logistical challenges of such a truly international line up. It caters to a rather discerning crowd who want their festival to be well stocked and staffed, nicely decorated and super family friendly, ethical and not too corporate, and certainly not drowned in piles of litter! The WOMAD organisers rise to the challenge. Sponsors are carefully chosen, the site is beautiful, cleverly laid out (after some experimentation over the years), well connected to both Chippenham train station and nearby Malmesbury by regular shuttles buses, very nicely decorated and the toilets are cleaned frequently, plus there’s plenty of them - a mundane but important detail. The spacious campsites have solar powered hot showers (ok, there are queues at peak times). Litter pickers scout around eagerly, there are enough recycling bins (meaning they aren’t overflowing), and the crowd helps too by doing their bit – most of them, anyway. Not all, but a lot of the cutlery, plates, cups etc used by the stalls can be recycled. This year, I bought some soup at one of the Thai food stalls, it came in a little bowl made from a dried and folded banana leaf! Let’s just hope those leaves didn’t clock up thousands of air miles.
A big section of the site with its own dedicated staff team caters to kids of all ages; there’s an abundance of activities, from gentle creative workshops to adventurous tree climbing with ropes, and there’s a big procession of children with their artwork on Sunday afternoon, for which all the stages take a break.
There are (expensive) glamping options. I tell all my friends who say they aren’t sure they can “do” festivals because of the, erm, hardships involved that they should try this one, and then reconsider. Ok, obviously not those friends who think a festival must have headliners like Coldplay (or similar) to be worth bothering with.
In 2018, WOMAD starts on one of the hottest days of the year (so far): Thursday, 26th July. The grounds of Charlton Park Estate, usually lush and green, now feature parched brown lawns and the odd dust cloud; on Friday, one of the standpipes we want to use to top up our bottles runs hot water! Hot, not just tepid. Accidental solar power! Thursday evening, the Malmesbury School Choir opens proceedings on the main stage, this time supported by the colourful Kafou Music Project with some beautiful kora playing. This is followed by Jazzanova (Germany/USA) in the Big Red Tent and Ken Boothe (Jamaica) as the final act on the main stage, Reggae being always a good choice on a sunny day. Jazzanova did not quite do it for me - couldn't really get into the swing of it, natch.
At lunch time on Friday, a sizeable crowd risks serious sunburn to witness Hanggai opening the main open-air stage with their very special brand of Mongolian folk rock. The music mimics galloping horses, they do throat singing, they can howl like wolfs, they have a guitarist who is dressed to look like - Johnny Depp in sunglasses. Cracking stuff, they could headline next year, as far as I'm concerned.
I want to check out The Scorpios (Sudan/UK), but somehow forget to do this over Tal National's (Niger) set at the Siam Tent stage. This tent is one of the biggest around, not just at WOMAD but at any festival I've ever been to, and it's a most welcome refuge from scorching sun/driving rain alike (I’ve sat out many a rain storm in there over the years). Later I find out that Tal National did not even get to play with their full band as some members could not make it to the UK due to visa problems. Impressive what they pulled off in their reduced state.
Over to Big Red Tent for the strangely named but otherwise most enjoyable My Baby (Netherlands/New Zealand). They are updating old rock & blues patterns for a new generation, and they're very good at that. It is by now so hot that any kind of shade will do, but all the music I want to sample is on the main stages, not in the lovely shady arboretum park area, where one really should spend a day like this, and many people do. It is a day to sit or stroll between the little arts and crafts tents, gently smile at the perceived benefits of a hand reading (£30? Ouch!) or gong bath and perhaps have a look at the Taste the World Stage where some of the artists cook a meal from their homeland with an audience watching. A fabulous idea. Or one could sit in the physics pavilion and be educated. Or join an interesting workshop. Much better than racing from stage to stage with (admittedly delicious) lime&mint sorbet from the ice cream stall in one's hand as the only way to help keep a reasonable body temperature. Much better, yes. One day I'll take my own advice and learn to chill properly, but I'm not quite there yet.
Next, there's a Japanese artist on the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage, I'm being told, Yama Warashi. How come I did not notice her in the programme, I'm always interested in Japanese acts - ah, because she's not in there. Her performance is listed on the WOMAD app, as a replacement for Wazimbo (Mozambique), who could not make it. Visa problems. Yama Warashi and her band are based in Bristol and so can step in at short notice, she is particularly fascinated by the moon, it features in several of her folk based songs and she is all excited about the impending lunar eclipse, or blood moon. I hope she got to see it, we only caught the tail end here due to thick cloud cover. K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade are a great band from Sheffield (and Ghana), they know how to move a crowd with their eclectic mix of reggae, dub, afro beat and horn section and you name it, but I've seen them not long ago at venue in Hackney (now sadly closed - we miss you, Passing Clouds!), so I head over to the main open-air stage for Omar Souleyman, the famous Syrian wedding singer. His voice soars, accompanied only by a young man on a keyboard, who plays something that sounds like - middle eastern Psytrance. Maybe I shouldn't have so much cider in the heat, but that's really what it sounds like. Better have a break for some grub, the choices are delicious if a little pricey.
Then the Original Gypsies of Camargue take to the main stage with 10 guitars, no less, ok one of them's the bass, but still. Fabulously retro, they get away with musical quirks that one would have thought to be best left behind in the 70s (they've incorporated a few original members of the Gypsy Kings). Friday’s headliners are Leftfield who, under gathering clouds, play their classic Leftism album live in its entirety. Actually, more than its entirety, the gig is about twice as long as I remember the CD to be. A great crowd pleaser with a good light show too.
I’m always looking forward to the late performances in the Siam tent, but the one I want to see that night, Hashmat Sultana (India), is cancelled. The artists have visa problems. We wander over to Molly’s bar instead, that venue just outside the arena that’s open until very late (or early, depending on your point of view), to see Henge, a musical space invasion from - Manchester, of all places. They encourage the assembled “earthlings" to rave to a swirling mix of psychedelia and whatever else you can think of, hilarious and brain melting at the same time. A good way to finish a great day of music.
A rain storm arrives overnight, and by Saturday morning, the temperature has dropped to about half of what we had the day before, it’s now something like 17 degrees. Wind and occasional showers sweep the site. At first, that feels like a relief and provides the welcome opportunity of a lie-in. Having overdone that lie-in a little, I only catch the end of Seby Ntege’s (Uganda) set on the BBC 3 stage, which is a pity as he’s great and obviously enjoying himself.
At the Siam tent, the Bollywood Brass Band with Jyotsna Srikanth (UK/India) take to the stage, they re-write old Indian film music and perform it to spectacular effect, complete with clips from those films in the background. Mesmerising.
Then, finally and somewhat belatedly, I make it to the arboretum area to see Edmar Castaneda (Columbia) play his harp on the Ecotricity stage. Ecotricity is one of the regular sponsors at WOMAD, they have in the past offered free tickets to people who switch to them as a provider. Sad observation – one of the large Sequoia redwood trees that form natural gateposts to the entrance of that area has died. We noticed last year that it wasn’t looking too good, and now it’s gone completely brown and dry. What a pity, also a bit of a problem as the high wind rattles in the dry branches and shakes some loose. No one is injured, but I guess the Estate will have to do away with the remains of that tree soon.
It’s starting to look like rain, so I dive into the d&b soundscape stage (d&b is another sponsor) to see Erland Cooper and supporting musicians perform his haunting album “The Solan Goose”, based on his native Orkney environment. It’s the kind of stuff that needs good sound and a quiet, attentive audience. He’s got both here.
Now some proper rain arrives, and I must admit to chickening out for a proper rest back at basecamp. This means I miss Ezra Collective (UK) who, according to reliable sources, play an excellent set – regrets, I have a few... but then again, I was quite knackered. Back at the base, I can later hear “Cucumber!” shouts wafting from the big red tent, the rallying cry of the passionate vegan that is Macka B, from Wolverhampton. He’s good fun but I don’t feel so bad about missing him, having just seen him perform at Nozstock in a sunny orchard.
Mr Jukes (UK) is the project of Jack Steadman, a former Bombay Bicycle Club member. With good musicians, it probably would be outstanding in most other line ups, but with what’s on offer here, it almost seems a bit middle of the road jazz.
Saturday’s headliners are the ever reliable and enjoyable Amadou & Mariam (Mali), who these days are playing main stream festivals too. Fortunately, the weather holds out for their set. After a few minutes at the Siam tent with Tuuletar (Finland), four women giving an eccentric acapella performance (fascinating in parts, but a little high pitched for my ears) we decide that we should make use of the dry spell and walk over to the BBC 3 stage, where House of Waters (USA/Japan/Argentinia) are playing, a cracking three band made up of bass, drums and, wait for it, dulcimer.
The last act, very late on the Siam tent stage, are Rafiki Jazz. A collective of musicians who are based in/around Sheffield, they are probably the most nationally diverse band of the weekend, with members from four continents playing West African kora, Caribbean steel pans, Indian tabla, Brazilian berimbau and Arabic oud. They’ve blended influences and traditionalise from their different backgrounds to great effect, often using traditional tunes and poems. Theirs is a truly spell-binding performance and my highlight of the weekend.
Sunday arrives with even stronger gusts of wind and ominous storm clouds, but we escape the fate of Camp Bestival that had to pack up early that day. Tent pegs need replacing and hammering down.
Jiggy (Ireland) provide a very lively start, upbeat and uplifting, just what a still foggy brain like mine needs right now, rarely can there have been a band with a more appropriate name.
Sabry Mosha (Tunisia) was meant to play at the Siam tent next, but didn’t make it because, you probably guessed it by now – he’s having visa problems. Sadly, this is becoming an increasingly common complication for the organisers who report that some bands have even turned down invitations to play because they can’t cope with the onerous visa requirements. As is happens Sabry is now being replaced by Hashma Sultana, whose visa finally came through 24 hours after their scheduled performance time on Friday. I am glad I get to see them at last.
Then there’s Pixvae (France/Colombia) on the open-air stage, with a smashing guitar sound but the contrast with the Colombian singers grates a little on me – I suspect that might be the desired effect.
Maalem Hamid El Kasri’s (Morocco) is a famous guembri player (a North African lute also known as sintir - yes, of course I had to look that up). His band’s performance is mesmerising and trance inducing with its riff repetitions and shamanistic dancing in colourful traditional outfits. Suddenly I have a kind of epiphany – this must be one of the inspirations for Goat, the psychedelic Swedes that played here last year!
Sunday afternoon I manage to catch up with a friend/former colleague who I haven’t seen in ages, and we exchange notes (and gossip) – yes, Ezra Collective, very good, made that tent bounce (go on, rub it in), and I should have tried to see Abatwa (Rwanda) who was brilliant too. I also missed the French dance company Cie Pernette perform a very charming piece under the big Ferris wheel, too many distractions, although they did several performances over the weekend.
On the up side, we then watch the bug-themed children’s procession together as it passes through the site, during a rain free slot, I keep my fingers crossed for them every year, they look so proud and excited about it all.
Amparanoia (Spain) takes to the main stage next, we’d seen her earlier at Taste the World preparing a meatball dish (“don’t stir just after you’ve dropped the meatballs in – they’ll disintegrate!”). We wander over to the big red tent to catch a bit of KOKOKO!’s (Democratic Republic of Congo) set too, this turns out to be a stroke of luck as the next heavy downpour happens just whilst we are in there. The quick dash over to the Siam Tent for Django Django (UK), although I would also have liked to see Moonlight Benjamin who played the soundscape stage at the same time, decisions, decisions.
Towards the end of Django Django’s set, whilst we are still discussing whether they are a dead ringer for Tame Impala or not, another downpour brings us a large beautiful rainbow right behind the Siam tent, and that’s the end of the rain – the headliners, Thievery Cooperation (USA) get to play to a happy crowd under dry skies. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but their live act is interesting and varied with influences from around the world, and features the liveliest bass player I’ve ever seen strutting a stage. Highly entertaining and a very befitting final for the festival.
Kimmo Pohjonen still plays an eccentric final set in the Siam tent, but I am spent. It’s hard work having so much fun.
It's been another great weekend for music. Writing this back at home, I'm listening to the Rafiki Jazz CD I picked up in the festival merchandise stall (available for streaming too from the usual sources). It's mostly devotional music, and I’ve never had a single religious bone or thought in my body, but it's utterly beautiful; I don’t have to be religious at all to appreciate it. When faced with the “other”, with something so completely different from your own background and experience, you can either open your heart or close your mind. Let’s remember that we are the lucky ones, because we still have these choices. Thanks, WOMAD.
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