It's official - Thursday the 25th July, the day I arrived at Charlton Park for the 37th issue of the World of Music, Art and Dance festival, is the hottest day ever measured in the UK. I am parched and exhausted, new routing having made the final bus leg of the public transport journey a bit more cumbersome than usual. But hey, for most punters the walk from the new White Gate into the campsite is short, avoiding that evil steep slope one has to conquer coming in from the purple gate.
In 2019, WOMAD somehow feels a bit more compact, but is still green, still clean, and still one of the best organised festivals I've ever had the pleasure of attending. Still one of the best places for the musically curious. Still great for trying unusual food, still here and, miraculously, still somewhat underrated - meaning it doesn't sell out months in advance. Three generations of one family could go together, all having a really good time each in their own way, and by the look of it, some families do exactly that.
At 7pm on Thursday, the main open air stage opens with a by now traditional set with the local Malmesbury School Choir. This time the kids have gone all "drum and brass" , collaborating with the Bollywood Brass Band, singer Unnati Dasgupta, and Sona Lisa Dance company, so there's horns, drums and dancing, quite a spectacle.
Afterwards our group strolls over to the new big d&b Soundscape tent that replaces the now gone Big Red Tent as a venue (there was a d&b venue last year too, but much smaller). This is one large experiment in new sound technology, and I won't even begin to try and explain how it all works, as I don't understand half of it. In a nutshell, many loudspeakers are placed across the stage and all around the tent, making it possible, with the help of some seriously complicated software and IT equipment, to place the sound all around you, anywhere in the tent, and to exactly co-ordinate what you see with what you hear. It's becoming de rigeur at major concert venues, and is quite something to have at a festival.
However, on Thursday, it's probably somewhere close to 40 degrees inside that tent, and no amount of exquisite sound engineering can make me stay in there. I'm listening to Meute (Germany) from the outside fringes. The band merges two very German genres - techno and brass band marching music. They are even wearing funky military parade jackets to go with their instruments. Respect - they must be feeling boiled-in-the-bag at the end of their performance. The audience bounces up and down, they are all so much hardier than me! As the scorching day turns into a balmy evening, back at the main stage we listen to Juan de Marcos' Afro-Cuban All Stars - they stem from the same cradle as the famous Buena Vista Social Club and the band incorporates several generations of a musical family and friends. Lovely to dance to.
Friday is blessed with some clouds and much more bearable temperatures. In fact, the whole weekend has pretty much perfect festival weather from now on, some sunshine mixed with clouds, a gentle breeze and temperatures in the 20s. Aaaah.
The main stage openers on Friday are the fabulous Canzoniere Greciano Salentino who are playing in the musical tradition of Southern Italy, although many of their songs are new and their own. We are treated to a spirited performance, further enhanced by a beautiful dancer and an explanation of the "Tarantuala" as a dance form. These guys could do headline slots with ease, the audience loves them.
Iberi Choir (Georgia) are performing next at the Siam Tent. They "look like warriors and sing like angels" - these are the compere's words, not mine - and just as I am trying to leave to catch a bit of Moon Hooch at the Charlie Gillett Stage, Iberi Choir break into a most atmospheric song that I have known for years but never heard live before: Kate Bush uses it on Her Hounds of Love album (part of the Ninth Wave suite). I have to tear myself away afterwards, clashes are the bane of my festival life (second only to ankle deep mud, but fortunately there is none of that here this year).
WOMAD does Jazz very well, not so much the beard-stroking-variety but the one that wants to sweep an audience along. Like Moon Hooch (USA), for instance. It's a bit of a pain to find categories for music like this, the programme calls it Jazz-funk, it is loud, it is heavy, it involves a massive baritone sax, it is thoroughly engaging and, according to lore, was honed and toned by them playing on the New York underground. Phowar. That's how they got so loud!
Next on the main stage are Santrofi (Ghana), a new band who just started touring, they say, but made up of seasoned musicians; they maintain and update a West-African musical tradition known as the highlife. The crowd loves it - here's another band who could be a headliner at any festival that isn't a rock/pop exclusive. Then off to the Charlie Gillett stage again, for something completely different: Anandi Bhattacharya, who comes from a family line of esteemed musicians and has been nicknamed "the voice of modern India" in some publications. She wears the weight of expectations lightly, but makes no secret at her annoyance with some feedback problems.
Calypso Rose (Tobago) is the Queen of ..... Calypso, of course. This is probably my one and only chance to see her live. Up on the main stage, she seems in good form, but then I see her arriving for a signing session later (at the merchandise tent, where apart from WOMAD T-shirts and programmes, CDs and records by most of the artists playing here can be purchased), she seems quite frail. Maybe it is just exhaustion, but she is nearly 80.
Back to the large Siam Tent for some shade and some accomplished desert blues: Les Filles de Illighadad (Niger) will appeal to anyone who finds the idea of an all female Tinariwen intriguing. Macy Gray takes to the same stage 2 hours later, she needs no introduction over here, nor does Ziggy Marley who headlines the Main Stage on Friday, with a set that mixes his own and his famous father’s work. There's always that debate about musical dynasties and their merits (or lack of it), but none of the Marley family I have seen live have disappointed me so far, it's not easy for them to plough their own curve. And they are all carrying the political message into the next generation(s). I like that.
We stroll over to the Siam tent, there the not-quite-so-loud entertainment is permitted to continue until the small hours, curfew for the main stage is 11pm. Rura are a keeping up the tradition of Scottish folk, they are doing an excellent job.
I have every intention to return later for the final act on this stage, Vaudou Game (Togo/France), but a little wander around the site to take in late sights and sounds results in us stumbling over a good old favourite playing the tiny Rebel Rebel stage - it's a band called ChantLive, but they look like The Egg, and then, after a bit of re-arranging, they really morph into The Egg! They are not listed in the programme, "did you know about this?", I ask the bf, who is an egg-chaser like me, but usually a bit more on the ball when it comes to last minute information. "No." he says - it's sheer serendipity, bit like one of those fabled Glastonbury moments. So our evening finishes at a tiny stage, as the band plays one of their sets, beset by some minor technical problems, as is often the case, but we love them all the more for it.
Plenty of workshops are on offer to keep the early birds occupied, but for me, the gentle drizzle that comes down on Saturday morning is a welcome excuse for a lie-in (we nearly made it to the "Science of beer" session in the Physics Pavilion, though! Good intentions and all that... By the time London's Soothsayers take to the stage, the sun is out again. I can't believe I haven't managed to sample this band before, given that we are based in the same town, but I'm glad I finally got round to it. They are great and sincerely believe in the uniting power of music. They even run their own "Youthsayers" group - a group of very young musicians who might steal their crown one day. Every really good teacher cherishes finding a pupil or two who will exceed them in their chosen field one day. Well, ideally.
I spent an hour with the completely different Kyai Fatahillah Ensemble (Indonesia), who are performing a gamelan song and dance in the Siam tent. A group of beautifully attired dancers performs something that looks entirely traditional to me, but turns out to be a modern composition.
I was meant to go somewhere afterwards, but it doesn't happen, in fact, I have forgotten what it was. Passing the main stage, I get caught up in the utterly mesmerising event that is JoJo Abot (Ghana). In front of big visuals of herself in an African landscape, she struts and dances across the main stage in a fiery-red part high-fashion/part tribal outfit that is terrifying and alluring in equal measure. She roars like a lion(ess). She makes something she herself calls afro hyposonic music - an almighty fusion and overwhelming onslaught on the senses. Her storyline, at least for this gig, is the quest to forgive oneself and let go of hatred - a big and timely topic. Describing music is notoriously difficult, and here, words just fail me. There are some interesting clips to be found around the internet, though. Here's another one who could headline pretty much anywhere (the third I've seen, and it is only Saturday afternoon!) Book her for Glastonbury!
A bit of Petite Noir (South Africa) at the d&b stage, this time it's a man in fiery red, and then back to the Siam tent for the excellent Nadine Shah (UK), another woman with a mission but a completely different style.
It suddenly occurs to me, that a lot of the bands I've seen so far are fronted by women, although I wasn't seeking them out for that reason. And Anna Calvi is headlining Saturday night. Food for thought, as some festivals are trying to gender balance their line-ups a bit. Kokoroko (UK) do splendid afrobeat and Dakhabrakha (Ukraine) are womad favourites, returning for more shamanistic drumming and chanting.
Salif Keita (Mali) got the legendary slot of the day, if there is such a thing. I am a bit surprised he's not headlining, but he's already been there and done that. Playing in the gentle early evening light somehow really suits him.
Then there's Anna Calvi (UK), who I kept missing at other festivals and now I finally have the chance to catch up with her. The third performer in the fiery red outfit today (this is starting to feel like a co-ordinated coincidence) but more importantly, here's a woman who loves her guitar. Very, very good. Perhaps inspired by the likes of Jimi Hendrix.
Later at the Siam Tent, Ustad Saami (Pakistan) performs an ancient trance inducing form of music that has made him the target of death threats in some places (the human mind can work in mysterious ways - religion is at the bottom of this particular paradox). Just the thing for an introspective late night chill. And then, at 12.30 it's the witching hour! Out comes Victoria Hanna (Israel), another one to defy her own religious teachings. She looks severe and sounds otherworldly, her performance full of stark surprises and incantations, it echoes Diamanda Galas. It is very intense, so much so that we bow out towards the end to sooth our spirits at the Channel One Sound System (Jamaica/UK) set. Nothing like those grooves to chill a slightly frazzled mind.
Even late at night, the site is remarkable clean. Organisers have decided to go for semi-reusable plastic cups, there are water taps near the bars and you are encouraged to rinse and re-use your cup. Rubbish bins are now all in one, I guess trying to get sozzled people to separate out what type of rubbish goes into what type of bin was always a lost cause. So the separating is done later by profis, and we pay for the privilege. So be it.
Sunday morning I'm on a mission to find the festival's new "secret area". This is not easy. Even people who've been there are a bit at a loss when they try to describe the way there. For the record, it's past the glamping and family camping in a little forest on a hill, and it's an interactive sound installation with a little bar. Probably best explored late at night with a few tipsy friends who are willing to make the most of enticing sounds by moving in peculiar ways. There's also a new covered dining area in the arena, complete with benches and for dedicated shoppers, a covered Artisan market area offering nicely crafted merchandise.
On my way back through the Arboretum area, I sample some lovely soothing sounds at the Ecotricity stage, that's Brona McVittie with her harp. Way more temperamental is the Korean drummer Kim So Ra at the Charlie Gillett Stage, her drum is supposed to evoke the sound of rain, she says. Bringing the sound of rain to an English country park bathed in sunshine really makes her chuckle. I try to catch a few minutes of the A Change is Gonna Come (UK/USA) set that honours songs of the American Civil Rights movement; Carleen Anderson is the singer.
Back at the main stage, we arrive just in time for one of the festival’s really joyous moments - LiNDiGo (Reunion Island) have started and the band's liveliest dancer has joined the audience crowd, challenging some of us to a little dance-off with him. Quite a few people are game and some are almost a match for him.
Later on Sunday we come across the one (for us the only) crowd movement problem. Brushy One String (Jamaica) has been booked for the little Charlie Gillett stage, turns out he is way too popular for it. We can't get near, we can hardly get past, so we decide to trundle to the Arboretum instead, aiming for a good spot for The Breath (UK) at that lovely little Ecotricity stage amidst those healing and well-being pavilions. We expect that to be busy too, and it is. Some punters have staked out their territory there well in advance and do not take kindly to disturbances. It can get a bit sedate around this stage at times. The folksy set is great, though, and touching tunes are interspersed with Rioghnach Connolloy's juicy banter.
The stages take a break now to let the children's parade through, the themes are space/moonlanding and environment and as always there are stunning creations and outfits, all made at workshops in the busy kids entertainment area. The kids field is opposite Molly's bar, a buzzing late night venue that runs some bands and kids activities throughout the day. I've spent quite a few nights roaming and raving around Molly's over the years, at some point it was pretty much the only late night venue on site, but it's got more competition now.
WOMAD gives a platform to several charities, big and small, and of course Extinction Rebellion are out and about. To the latter - folks, you are a little wasted here, preaching to what is probably the most converted-to-the-cause crowd you will find outside one of your own protest camps. I bet a good percentage of them fall asleep contemplating the air miles that some of the artists had to clock up to get here, and feel a pang of guilt about enjoying their music that much for this reason. So, out of the cosy echo chamber, into the places that need more of your message, I'd say. Not that I expect anyone to listen to me.
Cymande (Guyana/Jamaica/St Vincent/UK) are now taking over the Open Air Stage with some lovely funk. It's great, but I am intrigued by the programme's description of Baba Zula (Turkey) - psychedelia from Istanbul! I love a bit a psychedelia, me. So I trundle back to the Ecotricity stage, and hey, it no is no longer the genteel sedate place we left earlier - everyone is on their feet dancing wildly. Generationally and musically this band is somewhere between Hawkwind and King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard, with an Arabic undercurrent, and everyone there absolutely loves it. "This is a complete freak-out", says the guy dancing next to me at the end. And then adds "every festival should have a freak-out!" Indeed. Whilst JoJo Abot's was the performance that knocked me off my feet more than any other, Baba Zula are the band I am most likely to trace obscure CD outlets for (I have already started).
I reconnect with my group for Fofoulah (UK/Gambia/Senegal), knowing that we'll soon split again - some of us are really keen on Orbital, others not so much. I opt for Saving Grace (UK), Suzi Dian and Robert Plant's new project. A muted affair, playing well crafted songs that Mr Plant has dug out on his wandering around the Appalachian region, mostly. Very traditional. Their encore finishes with an Incredible String Band cover (Good Night), a very nice touch and a fine piece of harmony singing.
Dhafer Youssef (Tunisia) is a master of the oud who plays with a jazz band and his is the last performance at the Siam tent. I love the late night sessions at that venue, they are special, and this one is no exception. I could have finished there quite happily but we decide to check out the DJ at the d&b tent, Sonido Tupinamba (Argentina), and although I generally prefer live bands to DJ sets, her set is as good as DJs come. Great use of drums samples.
And then it's over. I feel unreasonably sorry for myself, in the morning I'll be on a train back to the real world full of work and baffling political developments, and that's before we even get to climate change. I'll have to draw on experiences like this for some time. But it's good to know what's possible. Same place, same time next year, I hope.
latest on this festival
video of the day
WOMAD 2019 review