WOMAD Festival – Charlton Park, July 27-29 2012
By Isabel Bedford
This year’s WOMAD at Charlton Park marked the 30th anniversary of the festival. To mark such a momentous occasion you might expect a knock-out line-up, but to be honest this year’s programming was a little underwhelming, despite being as eclectic as ever. Performances by the big names were a little too safe for my liking, but there were still a fair few musical gems to be heard over the course of the weekend.
There is always a very pleasant, good-natured atmosphere at WOMAD, which makes it a comfortable event to be at. What’s more, the crowd really listens to the artists, which means you can actually hear them. The weather held up this year. I managed to get away with not bringing wellies, although it did get pretty chilly overnight. Woollen blankets and colourful Mexican ponchos were certainly out in force on both Saturday and Sunday evenings.
Sadly I didn’t arrive in time to catch South African jazz trumpeter extraordinaire Hugh Masekela. So the first act I saw on Friday was Carlou D in the Siam Tent, which did not disappoint as an introduction to this year’s festival. As a former member of the highly politicized Senegalese hip-hop outfit Positive Black Soul, you might expect his solo music to pack a punch, but instead it is deeply spiritual, inspired by the teachings of his Mouride guide, Cheik Ibra Fall. He performed an uplifting set which got pretty damn groovy once the infectious Senegalese riffs kicked in, courtesy of his awesome backing band.
From one Senegalese artist straight to another, I headed over to the BBC Radio 3 stage, beautifully situated amongst the trees in the Arboretum, to catch Diabel Cissokho. I am a fan of Cissokho’s rootsy music, being easily won over by the kora, although I felt that this performance didn’t quite get going until it was almost over.
Living Jamaican reggae legend Jimmy Cliff was Friday night’s headline act on the main stage, and he successfully got the crowd swaying with feel good hits including ‘I Can See Clearly Now’ and ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’. Following this I headed back to the arboretum to try and catch some of Seth Lakeman’s set, but I struggled to get close enough to really enjoy it due to the large crowd the acclaimed English folk singer had attracted.
I spent Saturday moving between the different stages, catching different sound bites of the diverse music on offer. Portico Quartet were playing in the Big Red Tent, though I found it just a bit too dark and intense for 3pm on a sunny Saturday afternoon. BBB (formerly known as Balkan Beat Box) were also a bit too full on for my mood, but successfully got the large crowd gathered at the Open Air Stage jumping with their electronic beats and breaks and gypsy riffs.
Femi Kuti’s main stage performance was full of funky rhythms, growling horns and high-energy ass-shaking, which is to be expected from the Nigerian Afrobeat star.
One of the acts that made my ears prick up on Saturday was Batida, bringing their own special brand of kuduro to the WOMAD crowd. Fusing samples of Angolan music from the 1970s with contemporary beats, he creates a soundworld that is forward-looking, yet rooted in the past. Batida also provided visual stimulation for the audience in the form of kuduro dancers and by projecting images of Angola’s troubled past, creating a thought-provoking backdrop to the music. It was a highly contagious show that created a carnival-like atmosphere in the Big Red Tent.
Khaled’s headline set on the Open Air Stage was enjoyable and undoubtedly pleased the crowd but was a little too smooth and slick for my taste. Although I have to admit that I did have a bit of a moment when he finally played his big ballad ‘Aicha’ in the encore.
Good things come to those who wait and Sunday was by far the best day of the weekend musically speaking. I really enjoyed Urbain Philéas, the first act of the day on the Open Air Stage. Philéas plays a style of music called maloya, which developed amongst the slave community of the small island of La Réunion and is characterized by call and response vocals set against a multi-layered percussive backdrop. The amazing energy of this music, as well the acrobatic dancing which accompanies it, really gets me; I remember being similarly captured by Danyél Waro, arguably the most well-known maloya artist around, who performed at Charlton Park last year. I particularly enjoyed when the performers rolled three colourfully painted oil barrels onto stage and imaginatively incorporated them into their dance routine.
Jupiter & Okwess International was another noteworthy act on Sunday afternoon. Their driving Congolese riffs got the crowd moving their feet and shaking their behinds. Also highly enjoyable was Senegalese household name Omar Pene; quite as famous as Youssou N’Dour on his home turf, but without N’Dour’s international edge. The combination of the flawless backing band, playing its own compelling brand of mbalax, throwing reggae and jazz flavours into the mix, and Pene’s commanding vocals, his lyrics commenting on social issues from unemployment to emigration, permeated the crowd.
For me, the performance of the weekend, so spectacular and so moving it reduced me to tears, was The Manganiyar Seduction. This truly was an “audio-visual feast bar none” – the festival programme did not exaggerate about this show – featuring 36 Sufi musicians from Rajasthan. At the beginning of the show, the musicians were seated in their own box, which together formed a four-storey construction, and were concealed behind a red curtain. As each musician joined in they pulled back their curtain and were illuminated by naked light bulbs, fixed around each box in the style of a green room mirror. Director Roysten Abel explains that the show was inspired by a visit to the Red Light district in Amsterdam; “Over there it’s the seduction of the body. Over here (in India) it is the seduction of the soul”. As the musical textures and intensity built through the performance, the entire crowd was transfixed, seduced no less, by the magical spectacle they were witnessing.
I opted out of Robert Plant and his new band the Sensational Space Shifters, and instead headed back over to the Big Red Tent to check out DJ Toddla T and MC Serocee. I feel I made a good choice and enjoyed having a bit of a knees up to a set which cleverly combined hip-hop, garage, dancehall, electro and dubstep.
The final act of the festival in the Siam Tent, highly acclaimed Malian singer and guitarist Boubacar Traoré, was another a musical high point. It was an intimate performance for a highly appreciative audience. I found myself spell-bound by Traoré’s amazingly intricate and highly unique guitar technique, and I also loved his understated, but very cool, dance moves; the way he subtly swayed and shuffled with his guitar to the front of the stage and back again.
Music aside, there were many workshops, including laughing yoga workshops, to be enjoyed over the course of the weekend. At one point on Saturday afternoon, I found myself in the All Singing All Dancing tent having a go at Latin dance with teacher Homero Gomez.
The range of food stalls at WOMAD is consistently impressive, overwhelming almost, and you can happily while away a good part of the weekend deciding what to eat. I moseyed past The Taste the World stage, where artists cook up a dish from their home country, on a couple of occasions, but never quite managed to get in on the grub. I found it highly amusing when a fellow festival-goer told me that one of the Cameroonian musicians booked for his stage declared that he had never actually cooked before and couldn’t identify a ginger stem; “I live in a house with more than 30 women, why would I cook?”
One thing I’ve always been impressed and relieved by (excuse the toilet pun) at WOMAD is the state of the portaloos. In previous years, they have always been keep pretty clean and well stocked up with toilet paper, but this year they were actually quite grotty at times.
However, I was not disappointed by the number of djembes on site. I find myself amused year on year by the fact that there’s a section in the WOMAD programme dedicated to drumming, including the statement; ‘We reserve the right to ask persistent drummers to leave the festival site’.
All in all, another happy WOMAD weekend.