Happy Birthday Womad! As a celebration of the rich musical cultures of the world, spanning the internationally famous to the virtually unknown, Womad Charlton Park pushed out the boat for its 30th anniversary. With the likes of Jimmy Cliff, Khaled, Femi Kuti and Robert Plant headlining the main stage, there were plenty of big names to get excited about, yet for the musically curious there were many more gems to be heard across the festival site over the weekend.
The expansion of the Siam Tent to accommodate the dramatic spectacle of The Maganiyar Seduction – a boxed structure four storeys high and twice as wide – more than paid off. Indian theatre and film director Roysten Abel and his merry troupe of Maganiyar musicians from the desert of Rajasthan treated the audience to a music and light show second to none. Over an hour and a half, the performance gathered momentum from the opening solo to the rapturous 37-man orchestra going full tilt on vocals, drums, strings and reeds for the finale, while the bare lightbulbs outlining each box, flashed on as each musician inside played and off as they finished. The idea for hanging red curtains in each box came from the windows in Amsterdam’s red light district, yet the richness of colour rather suited the intensity and spirituality of these Muslim and Hindu folk songs. Reggae veteran Jimmy Cliff had the hard job of following on the Open Air Stage on Friday night, but his set provided the perfect release, the whole crowd singing along to his hits.
Later that evening came another of the weekend’s highlights – the collaboration between experimental Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen and the hair-raising vocalists of Ukraine’s DakhaBrakha – three ladies in fabulously tall black oblong hats and a male singer & instrumentalist. Their spirited playing of a variety of drums and percussion plus the earthy sounds of the cello, as their voices soared around Kimmo’s accordion, brought rapturous applause and encores, resulting in a large turnout for both Kimmo’s solo set and DakhaBrakha’s workshop the following day. Small wonder the Womad shop sold out of DakhaBrakha CDs.
Narasirato from the Solomon Islands provided another spectacle of the weekend with their huge bamboo pipes and impressively nimble dancing back and forth across the open air stage, while reports also reached me of impressive sets from Vadoinmessico, the UK’s Patrick Wolf and the infectious dance-friendly sounds of Angola’s Batida. Hats off to Spiro who brought a breath of fresh air to the festival site after the bass heavy Dub FX caused birds to fall out of trees in the arboretum. Spiro redressed the natural balance, sparking off one another as they layered up the hypnotic melodies and cyclical rhythms that define their systems music. I’m not sure who was enjoying it more, the crowd or the band. Later, Femi Kuti & The Positive Force blasted the audience with full-on Afrobeat while Algeria’s King of Rai, Khaled, had us singing along to his hits Didi and Aicha. On the Charlie Gillett Stage, Greek rembetika band Apsilies provided the perfect late night bluesy end to a great day’s music, as did Niger’s Abdallah Oumbadougou on the BBC Radio 3 Stage.
Reports of a polar bear sent me off to the arboretum on Sunday morning, I thought they lived in the Arctic but apparently not. While Paula was resting in her Greenpeace igloo I soaked up the sights and sounds of kids banging away on musical instruments and digging for insects in the undergrowth while groups of adults indulged in laughter therapy or queued for their morning coffee among the trees. The sweet smells of Cameroon wafted out of the Taste The World stage and the more I wandered the more I discovered, every nook and cranny buzzing with some activity or other, catering for everyone from the music enthusiast to the bookworm to the hungover and festival weary.
Tajikistan’s Alaev Family did a great job of waking up the audience in the Siam tent on Sunday morning as they enthusiastically bounced on to the stage singing, drumming and playing their hearts out. It was a perfect start to the day, unfortunately I had to be elsewhere but as I was heading home, reports reached me of blinding sets from Damien Dempsey, DRC’s Jupiter & Okwess International and Malian veteran Boubacar Traore, not to mention the Magnificent Mr Plant with his Sensational Space Shifters featuring Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara. What a party that must have been!
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