WOMAD Festival 2023 - The Review

One of the most diverse festivals around reels in another year of cultural and musical discovery

By Katharina | Published: Tue 22nd Aug 2023

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Thursday 27th to Sunday 30th July 2023
Charlton Park , Malmesbury, Wiltshire, SN16 9DG, England MAP
£260 for 4 days - £210 for 3 days - Day tickets are £125 each
Daily capacity: 40,000
Last updated: Thu 13th Jul 2023

Us early Thursday arrivals are treated to 4 days of camping and revelling and music and access to around 200 workshops across the lush and lovely grounds of Charlton Park, and it’s been part of my annual festival routine since 2002. As expected, the line up was littered with interesting but unfamiliar names, and I was looking forward to a weekend mixing a few familiar sounds with a lot of surprises.  

 

As the tradition demands,  Thursday arrivals are welcomed by  a performance by the Malmesbury School Project, this year in co-operation with Jamo Jamo Arts, a collective of West African artists, and the result is some inspired drumming and dancing, and a good smattering of proud parents in the audience. The happy, gentle warm up is followed by seriously energetic hip hop/jazz/house fusion from the Jungle Brothers (USA) who had the first slot at the D&B Soundscape tent. Quite a contrast to the main stage headliner, Kate Rusby, the “Yorkshire nightingale”, who told us that that this was the festival she’d always dreamed of playing. A lovely set, spiced up with little anecdotes about how she, her band and loved ones made it through the locked-down time and how they missed being able to perform for a liveaudience. Quite touching.

Kate Rusby - WOMAD Festival 2023

On Friday, we still had pretty perfect festival weather, mostly dry, warm enough with some cloud cover preventing sunburn (this year’s Glastonbury heat-fest left me looking like a vanilla stick, all shrivelled and desiccated). The main stage opened with Dutty Moonshine Big Band (UK), a wonderfully energetic 12-piece from Bristol with a fabulous horn section - they mix up pretty much anything that goes in the urban music scene to great effect. This band, and quite a few others, were accompanied by one of the BSL interpreters who worked around the site. WOMAD is somewhat ahead of the competition when it comes to catering for diversity. Great fun to watch them grove along to the music whilst interpreting, but I reckon they spent quite some time looking at the lyrics in advance to prepare for this. 
Los Wemblers De Iquitos (Peru) were next on the smaller Charlie Gillet stage, they’d arrived from the Peruvian jungle with their own genre: Cumbia Amazonica; a merger of local music with psychedelic guitars.

Back at the main Open Air Stage, Leenalchi (South Korea) introduced me to Pansori, a singer & percussion type of story telling that they have developed to appeal to ears from all sorts of cultural backgrounds. There’s something very special about the drumming style from that part of the world. After the pleasant surprise of ADG7 last year, I'm willing to give almost everything coming from there a try.

Following that, I sampled some uplifting Sufi music from Amrat Hussain Brothers Trio (Rajasthan), another group coming from a family with a long line of musical tradition, and then Ibibio Sound Machine (Nigeria/Ghana/UK), with Eno Williams as their fantastic frontwoman, provided even more positive energy. 

Ibibio Sound Machine - WOMAD Festival 2023

I managed to get catch the end of Queen Omega & The Royal Souls (Trinidad & Tobago) – another great voice.

Mokoomba followed on the main stage, and gave, in my opinion, the best of the afrobeat performances this year (and that says something if the competition includes names like Dele Sosimi and Femi Kuti, who were also very, very good). Great guitars, great moves, great tunes, and a singer with really unique timbre. 

Bombay Bicycle Club are the headliners on the main open air stage Friday night, and they too are good, although our home grown brand of rock sounds a bit plain after all that went before. But their singer reminds us of another thing this festival is really good at – activities for children, now that I have a contrary teenager on my hands, I sometimes forget that! “My two year old says he had the best day ever today!” is a ringing endorsement, as is the large number of families in attendance. 
The large Siam Tent runs its lower decibel late session until the small hours, I sampled Israel Fernandez (Spain) and his emotional flamenco singing and later a group of exceptional sarod player from India: Amjad Ali Khan, Amaan Ali Bangash, Ayaan Ali Bangash

Bombay Bicycle Club - WOMAD Festival 2023

There was more revelling to be had at Molly’s bar, still situated at the entrance to the camp site, where Chris Tofu ran a DJ session for the undefeatable, but I wasn’t one of them. 
 
Whilst Friday only had a smattering of showers, on Saturday some of the weather warnings started to come true, wind and rain arrived and the site changed from lush and green to trampled and muddy around the main paths and stages.

Some happy sounds from Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra helped, but the ultimate refuge from bad weather at WOMAD is the large Siam tent, and there I had my best moment, watching the Orchestral Qawwali featuring Rushil Ranjan & Abi Sampa. Who did exactly what the their name promised to do – they merged two very different genres - no mean feat, as one is mostly improvised and free flowing and the other mainly based on sheet music. It was an utterly mesmerising experience. The set finished with a cover of Dam Mast Qalandar (original Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) that truly soared, although it was cut slightly short by the stage team  – a pity, but they’d overrun by about 15 mins by then. Seems to be even harder to subject Qawwali to western ideas of time keeping than it is to merge it with orchestral music! 

 

Cha Wa (USA) were at the main stage next and brought a us a special tradition from Louisiana that merged native American themes with the New Orleans sound: the Mardi Gras Indian. Highly energetic, splendid outfits of course, and another scene I’d never heard of before. Then Ajate (Japan) played a set of ... errrm... Japanese afro funk-punk... perhaps, that made the whole tent jump to their drumming.

Partially in order to stay warm and dry, I then wandered over to the other big tent, D&B, with the special sound system, to watch Liraz (Israel). A woman fronting a cool band that sounded and looked surprisingly like The Egg. Their front woman, an Israeli of Iranian origins, uses the engaging music to communicate her seriously political message about the restrictions on women’s rights across in Iran. She’s even recorded with some of them in hiding in a basement studio in Istanbul. Another exceptional performance.

Liraz - WOMAD Festival 2023

Alogte Oho & His Sounds of Joy (Ghana) at the Siam Tent turned out to be yet another great surprise, merging music from Ghana with horns and gospel influences to great effect.

Justin Adams & Mauro Durante (UK/Italy) played a lovely set of mainly South Italian traditional music at the Ecotricity Stage. Unfortunately I had to leave just before they finished as I did not want to miss the start of The Comet Is Coming (from London), who appear to have decided to end their run in December. Why, oh why do they want to do that? Theirs is one of the most immersive and far out jazz experiences to be had – who needs guitars, anyway! Their latest album is called “Hyper-Dimension Expansion Beam”, and that title explains their sound as good as any words I could try to cobble together. I went away from their set in the D&B tent with my brain slightly melted and a bewildered grin on my face. Watching them meant I had to skip the headliners, The Cinematic Orchestra. Well... can’t have everything. I was ready for something mellow by then, and Kayhan Kalhor & Erdal Erzincan’s (Iraq/Turkey) delivered just that, combining traditional Turkish lute and Persian violin. 
 
Sunday, well, that was the day then the weather really turned for the worse.

Lia de Itamaracá, who was probably one of the oldest performers this years (a lady in her 80s in a splendid golden yellow dress) stood straight as a rod singing Ciranda to a crowd who faced some seriously inclement conditions with her. Coming from a beautiful part of Brazil, she must wonder what the British call summer. By now it was chilly, raining hard and seriously windy to boot. I wandered back and forth between her set at the main stage and the arboretum area, seeking shelter from wuthering winds amongst the trees and smaller stages that offer experiences of spoken word, cooking sessions, debating politics, learning how to build your own solar charger at the Physics Pavillion, try out alternative therapies, and, and, and... It is quite possible to spend all weekend there, protected from all weathers and not bothered by the main stages at all. I bet some people do exactly that.

Partly to get out of the rain I dived into the Siam Tent when Lova Lova (Democratic Republic of Congo) was playing and discovered another performer with a really distinctive voice and great energetic tunes. 

 

For Malkit Singh (India/UK) and his uplifting banghra set I had to face the rain again, but it was worth it. 

The children’s procession, lead by a magnificent phoenix sculpture, catches some of the rain, but at least not the worst of it. Imagine having spent 3 days  perfecting an artwork or outfit for it to be drenched and ruined in minutes. 

Asmaa Hamzoui & Bnat Timbouktou (Morocco) were on the programme next, but did not manage to complete their visa applications in time, so Gangstagrass (USA) stood in as a short notice replacement. Theirs is an interesting fusion of hip-hop and political bluegrass which was very well received. 

Needs must, I had to take a food break then, eating yourself around the world is being made easy here for those of us who don’t want to make a saving by bringing their own, which is also possible. It’s not cheap, but the are bargains to be found like Asian Grub Foundation’s (yes really) large samosas. 

Horace Andy with Dub Asante Band (Jamaica/UK), featuring Matic Horns were in great form when they played the main stage later – that’s something I did expect, but not the interesting surprise of Kuunatic (Japan), 3 young women with painted faces dressed in white traditional robes who play an unusual  set of – what exactly? Psychedelic sci-fi prog rock? Could be anything, sounds fascinating.

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force are heading the main stage they do not disappoint with their well-honed mix of great beats, dance, and a serious political message. 
Souad Massi (Algeria, with a band including Justin Adams on guitar) was the final performer at the Siam tent. Another powerful set with a political message, following death threats she fled her home land to continue to perform. 

Femi Kuti & The Positive Force - WOMAD Festival 2023 
In the past some performers played more than once across the weekend. That doesn’t happen so much these days - a pity - it would help compulsive “must see everything” punters like me. I am sorry to have missed a few sets that must have been brilliant. But that’s life. 

I finished WOMAD 2023 with a slog across some muddy camp site paths to the secret forest area. I really wanted to see the Museum of the Moon, an art installation by Luke Jerram. You could follow a line of colourful lights leading there from the arboretum, and I am glad I made the effort, damp, tired, sore of foot and knackered as I was. It’s a large, internally lit globe made to look like the surface of the moon. You can lie underneath it, sit or walk around it and contemplate, accompanied by mysterious ambient music (which included the complete new album by Peter Gabriel on Friday and Saturday night, btw). A perfect end to a near perfect festival. Well, the Sunday weather wasn’t their fault. 

Any downsides? Ok, the switch to compost toilets is a very good idea, in principle, but they need some work. There are several steep steps to climb to get the actual place of action, that can be hard to do in the dark for the somewhat intoxicated punter and then random air currents in the cubicles make for some odd adventures when trying to put toilet paper where it belongs. Not the most comfortable place to be in windy, rainy weather. Enough said. 

As travel regulations have become more restrictive due to politics and epidemics, and festival economics forever more complicated, the WOMAD line-up now features a few more home-grown (or based) performers than it used to, but it is remains unbeaten in musical variety and quality. Every year, I have a few moments where I discover something new that makes me go – wow, this is just brilliant! 

Roll on next year, I can’t wait!

View the full photo gallery

WOMAD Festival Site 2023


review by: Katharina

photos by: Phil Bull


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