A dip into Thomas Brooman‘s (one of the co-founders of WOMAD) new auto-biographical ‘My Festival Romance‘ reveals that Saturday 17 July 1982, the second night of the first-ever Womad Festival, was both a ‘surreal triumph’ and one of ‘gut-dropping fear’. His baptism of fire remains one of his most vivid life recollections. That weekend featured performances from the Drummers of Burundi, Tian Jin Dance Ensemble from China, Echo and the Bunnymen (who were joined at one point by four Burundi drummers) and The Chieftains. While this first event nearly led to financial ruin it thankfully went on to become the biggest and best world music festival we have.
Fast-forward 35 years to a slightly wet and muddy Charlton Park. While some of the people behind the festival may have changed, one thing hasn’t. Womad’s organisers, from the artistic director, Chris Smith, to his team and crew. They have an incredible enthusiasm that goes beyond what you grow to expect from a festival. In an age where ticket sales dictate headline acts and homogenised line-ups, Womad still has a fresh and original approach to curating its stages – you simply can’t beat it however hard you may try. In the two years I’ve attended (yes, I’m still very much a Womad virgin) they have brought over acts that include those that have never set foot outside their own country. Record producer Ian Brennan during his introduction of two such acts: Tanzanian Albinism Collective and Khmer Rouge Survivors, couldn’t praise the festival enough as he explained the problems they had trying to secure passports and visas for artists to perform. Such acts are not financially viable, but Womad allows such voices to be heard. Throughout the weekend similar stories were shared, and while I don’t want to sound too soft…while at Womad, you do feel like you belong to a huge family. The whole weekend was great soul food.
To anyone that read my Womad Guide for this year’s festival, it will come as no surprise that I didn’t get to see all of those performers. Luckily we arrived on the Thursday and managed to get off to a great start courtesy of Bixiga 70 from São Paulo whose blend of avant-garde, pop, jazz, dub and Brazilain music scenes was the kickstart I needed to get into festival mode, closely followed by Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab by which point everyone’s dancing legs had had a great workout.
While I saw many of bands I wanted to see, there were many I didn’t, but I did see bands that were new to me that left a big impression such as Las Cafeteras from the Chicano neighbourhoods of east Los Angeles. I caught them performing by chance one evening as I sheltered under a tree from the rain. BBC 6 Music’s Cerys Matthews was also clearly impressed by them as she had them perform the following sunny Sunday morning for the BBC Radio 3 and 6 live simulcast. Their music was bright and uplifting, positive energy transmitting from both their voices and dances to an engaged and receptive audience. They offered a strong voice of hope for the future as they delivered a great set that included Woody Guthrie’s This Land is your Land.
That voice of hope and a call for unity was ever present throughout the weekend. It left us all on quite a hopeful high. Eliza Carthy and her 12-piece Wayward Band delivered a staggering powerhouse set on the final evening that joined in that call and set everyone jumping in union as Dizraeli joined them and took the whole set up a few attitude notches. The previous evening saw an another powerful set from the Afro Celt Sound System on the Charlie Gillet Stage. It was raining, and there were umbrellas out but that didn’t stop the energetic dancing going on all around me. It was like a non-stop party which many of bands fuelled the fire for including Ghana’s King Ayisoba who lit up Sunday afternoon who lived up to the urgency and intensity of his performance reported on by The Guardian.
While I’m on the power scale, Brazilian band Metá Metá, whose fans include Afrobeat king Tony Allen, were a vibrant wall of sound and beatific jazz moments, ranging from samba to North African music with a punk attitude. It was during their set I began to think about the many different levels Womad reaches people on. It’s not just the music; it’s the culture and awareness that these bands bring to the stage as well. Metá Metá reminded us of the corruption in Brazil and the coup d’etat. The Tanzanian Albinism Collective and Khmer Rouge Survivors spoke of genocide, and Benjamin Zephaniah fuelled the fire of revolution and change. Meanwhile, on the Ecotricity stage an open debate, hosted by Channel 4’s Jon Snow, was being held on the ecological impacts in areas such as energy, transport and food – the three areas that make up 80% of our carbon footprint. Like the musical performances, there was a real positive spirit, a true belief that we can make a change and that’s a powerful and positive thing.
Other highlights of our weekend included Jamie Smith’s Mabon and their evening performance on the Ecotricity Stage in the Arboretum which drew a huge crowd of eager dancers! Then there was Estonian singer and fiddle player, Maarja Nuut who was given some incredible atmospheric electronic backdrops courtesy of Hendrik Kaljujärv. Some of the folk tales she told over her music were haunting – especially the one about the three sisters picking fruit in the forest. Yes, folk tales are often dark the world over – and this one caused a few mouths to drop open, including our kids. Yes, our British folk songs are not unique in death, murder…
Another Estonian band I highlighted in our Womad guide was Trad.Attack! They didn’t disappoint. They cleverly built up their set, and each of the trio shone with no one person overpowering the other. Combining bagpipes, drums, whistles, guitar and jew’s harp alongside their own voice and field recordings of old Estonian singers they delivered a unique and refreshing set. It comes as no surprise that they have performed in 29 countries, their music is unlike anything else I’ve heard. Between them and Maarja Nuut, they put Estonia firmly on the map at Womad.
Some performances were signed. While the signer for Loyle Carner apparently stole the show, Trembling Bells also had a signer who was well and truly in the moment and brilliantly expressive as they unleashed their psychedelic vibes on an enthusiastic audience. Further psychedelic offerings came in the form of Sweden’s Goat – a masked troupe who danced around on stage like they were weightless to their prog and voodoo like rhythms. If that was an experience Ifriqiyya Électrique offered one of the most immersive and unusual performances as they played along to a documentary which led us on a bleached out desert highway to witness the Banga ritual of Sidi Marzûq. It was hypnotic and at times felt like you were part of the film…the feeling of challenge and confrontation is prevalent and made all the more potent by the live performance.
If you preferred a slower gentle-paced escape, then the grace and serenity of Noureddine Khourchid & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus were heavenly. Their performance of sacred Sufi songs known as inshads are mesmerising and dreamlike to watch. Likewise, The Orchestra of Syrian Musicians put on a graceful performance – all smiling faces, glad to be performing in the UK again following last year’s partial reunion (which you can watch here). Equally mesmerising was the perfect vocals, harmonies and movements of Ladysmith Black Mambazo of South Africa who came to fame through Paul Simon’s Graceland. There was, not surprisingly, a huge audience turnout with dense crowds gathered in and outside the Siam Tent to get a glimpse and dance and sing along.
Like the colourful flags that adorn the festival site every year, Womad offers such a diverse array of everything: music, poetry, debates, workshops, food, drink… As well tasting the best coffee – thanks, Proper Coffee, you are spoilt for food from vegan to the slow cooked, smoked and spiced. A firm festival food and drink favourite hangout was the Tiny Tea Tent which resembled an eastern bazaar. Their electricity was provided by solar power and their hot water from a Heath Robinson looking woodburner back-boiler which was cosy to sit around, especially on a wet evening.
Unlike last year, I found time to enjoy some of the spoken word offerings. These took place in the Arboretum area, one of my favourite places at Womad with its wooded seclusion giving it a mini-wilderness and intimate feel. It’s here that you find the body and soul offerings, the Physics lab and the ever popular Yalumba Taste the World where you can watch your favourite artists cook food and taste it. There’s also the outdoor Hip Yak Poetry Shack which, despite the weather, I caught some great performances. From the observational poetry of North-West London’s Zia Ahmed who was shortlisted to be the Young Poet Laureate for London on 2015/16 to the hilarious John Hegley whose sing-a-long Puffin song will remain with me for a long time as the audience had to join in with certain actions to the words he spoke.
In the World of Words tent, I also caught a number of great debates as well as Squeeze’s Chris Difford who treated us to Cool for Cats and Up the Junction, the later hit song is a reminder that a chorus is not a song structure requirement. He interspersed song with recollections and tales that brightened up the tented stage no end. Straight after I was treated to another weekend highlight – John Osborne‘s show ‘John Peel’s Shed‘. His self-effacing personality drew the audience in from the start as he told how he’d won a box of records from John Peel which was promptly delivered by two of John’s friends who discovered he had no record player (when he finally did acquire a record player it still took eight years to listen to them all). What unravelled from this was not just his love of John Peel but also his love of radio and how important a part it plays in many of our lives. This naturally led onto some amusing tales surrounding shyness and near miss relationship possibilities to discovering the outright weird offerings out there on the radio after he took it upon himself as part of his daily routine to listen to every radio channel on his digital radio for a day which led to the publication of his book Radiohead. At the end he also read some of his poetry – the reading of ‘Gwyneth Paltrow’s daughter Dave Webster’ led to a long, orderly queue to buy his small poetry book ‘No-One Cares About Your New Thing’….myself included. I chuckled away reading it afterwards with a nice cuppa.
It was a superb festival, and the rain didn’t dampen spirits. As we departed Sunday evening, we spent the journey home going over our highlights…what I’ve written above were just a few. It was another magic year. If you’ve yet to sample the magic of Womad, don’t miss out next year…it simply doesn’t come any better than this.
Till next year that is.
Photo Credits: Mike Massaro