Charlton Park, Wiltshire
27-29 July 20182
A Feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
As we sped towards the comely town of Malmesbury late Friday morning on a purple and white Coachstyle bus from Swindon, our ears were held for ransom by a rather forceful woman behind, loudly speculating on WOMAD….’That heavy metal music, ugh, nobody’s going to get any sleep there!’ ‘I like classical, her seat mate quietly stated. ‘And that awful scratching, our guide continued, ‘I don’t like modern music, it’s just one beat,’ her low key companion agreed, ‘it’s the beat.’ ‘No, it’s the rhythm, the commentator then insisted. ‘Haven’t you ever played on your pots and pans?’ Silence while all within earshot, of which, there were several, pondered this pearl…’And I know the Indians are there, I saw their teepees', the expert quipped, ‘those Indians, they play their drums', adding almost wistfully, ‘They’ll be doing their bead work.’ The bus driver, chastised as she left for not stopping exactly where he usually did, could only shake his head.
We were heading to WOMAD (World of Music, Art & Dance) for its great diversity, drawn, as always, to sounds our ears were not yet acclimatized to, and, in many cases, would be unlikely to ever hear live again. We were after what we felt would be real experiences, capable of generating wonder and with musicians from 130 countries performing, there was a veritable smörgåsbord of options to choose from! Not surprising then, that with each WOMAD we attend, we encounter more and more locals who enthusiastically proclaim that they wouldn't dream of missing it for the world! We've also happily, noted a definite rise in Festival goers dressing for the occasion, i.e. colours, sequins, glitter, lights, you name it!
Malmesbury was bustling with activity and anticipation when we arrived Friday afternoon. Intermingled with locals were visitors in African and other native dress and several languages could be overheard, most notably, where I'd stopped, near Co-op, a group of French school children. We'd never seen the town this animated before, but we'd never visited on Friday of WOMAD weekend! Having stocked up on fresh fruit and, other healthy snacks from The Wild Food Store on the High Street, we boarded the hourly £1.00 shuttle bus bound for WOMAD among other smiling, openly over the moon passengers, two of which had lovingly decorated their baby's pram to match their tropical themed outfits.
One of the towns ladies had enthused about the 'great weather for the past 6 weeks' in Malmesbury, but a self - appointed weather woman in one of the shops had declared that thunderstorms would strike that weekend, despite the fact that it was obvious we and others were headed to Charlton Park, but I'd tried to ignore her, though I had to admit when we arrived it was obvious the dry, gnarled grounds were crying out for RAIN!
This was the first year we'd opted to camp in the Public campground and we'd already decided we'd try for a spot near one of the tree lined fences on the perimeter of the grounds, not far from the main, Red Gate and a block of porta-loos aka toilets, but when we got there, a row of tents solidly lined that area already. It was also the first time, since our first WOMAD in 2009 we'd arrived on the grounds on Friday, instead of Thursday, which was really, the deciding factor in our choice to camp there, rather than in the much smaller Press camp. Undaunted, we pitched on the side of a slight slope, ignoring overheard weather speculation.
All seemed well in time, so, after a quick change to more colourful, festival clothes, donning sun hats, we headed off to the Open Air Stage to catch what we could of Orchestre Les Mangelepa (Democratic Republic of Congo/Kenya), 'East African big band legends', who though nearing the end of their set when we arrived, left indelible memories via the gritty soulfulness of their music and warmth of manner. Multiple guitars fueled their outpourings with infectious, melodic grooves, well suited to searing summer days, particularly in WOMAD fields!
Who put the OH! in Omar? Omar Souleyman, that's who! From the very moment this beloved 'Wedding Singer' from Syria began to wail/sing, black, Blues Brothers shades firmly in place, good natured mayhem ensued and collectively built up to the point of delight, at least from where I was happily grooving along in the crowd, young people enjoying their clubbing years being among his most enthusiastic and vocal fans! Small wonder that O. S., who never cracks a smile, despite the fact that his audience, in this case, couldn't stop smiling, has '500 live albums', sure to be repeatedly spinning on turntables the world over. His set started off as seeming traditional before it took on House and Techno flavour! It took me a while to realize that some of the wedding reception ‘standards’ he was wailing out may not have been that unknown to the crowd after all, as well, a case in point being his version of a song suspiciously reminiscent of 'Hey Macarena! albeit with distinctly Middle Eastern accompaniment, making it all the more moreish!
Nothing could have prepared me for the rush of emotion I experienced listening to the fiery rumba and flamenco of The Original Gypsies of Camargue, (France album), in response to the unrelenting beauty and passion of their music and dynamic way of performing it! Having been a fan of the seminal, long term favourite World Music band, The Gypsy Kings in the '80's, it seemed almost surreal hearing songs I'd loved and replayed back then, and I found myself, all these years later, absolutely thrilling to the sounds of not just the songs they chose to play from their classic albums, but whatever they played, and whoever was singing it! Reyes siblings Patchai, Paul and Canut, plus brother-in-law Chico Bouchikhi, all members of the original group, form the nucleus of this new, unimaginably improved version. Or maybe it's just that hearing them play live gets to the very marrow of their songs, and hence, the hearts of their listeners.
Having retreated to our tent for a change of shoes, jacket and a freshen up, I found myself on the road to the Open Air Stage again for House masters Leftfield performing Leftism Live (UK). Even if I hadn't been impressed with their performance, which I was, the infectiousness of the massive, pulsating throng in the field would have been irresistible! Drawing on influences on a global scale, skillfully joined with digital imagery, electronica, and all manner of sound inspirations, generating a host of off shoots, proverbial sparks flew in all directions as viewers/dancers of all ages and descriptions interpreted the audio offerings as they saw fit. In short, being there was a real happening, of epic proportions! Getting down to the ever changing fluidity of reverberating tempos and beats, steered by those who'd masterminded this seminal work in 1995, while a rare lunar eclipse was visible overhead was classic WOMAD! Announcing that this still futuristic performance of Leftism, would be their very last clinched it.
In the middle of the night, and I mean middle, we were awakened by what seemed like near gale force winds, whipping through our tent, challenging its advertised claims of strength, bringing sheets of rain along for the ride. Words from the storm sequence of King Lear intermingled with lingering strains of music I'd heard so far, both kept me awake until Friday morphed damply into Saturday morning. When I finally ventured forth to the loos, beneath a fading full moon, I saw that the wet had hardly made a dent in the gnarled, dry ground.
Words like 'sublime' would not be out of place for the music of Maalem Hamid El Kasri of Morocco, nor would adjectives like hypnotic and mesmerizing. Having already enjoyed an invigorating morning walk into Malmesbury for some farm fresh fruit for Saturday's breakfast, we settled in near the front of the Siam Tent for 1 PM, unprepared for the unusual, high caliber treat awaiting us. Hamid is a maâlem, 'a master-musician charged with protecting a particular style', in this case, 'the soul music that is gnawa', the North African music of former black slaves, which he plays on a guembri, a three stringed hand - made (by him), which, we learned the following day at his workshop, is made from a piece of ancient wood, several thousand years old, the skin from a camel's back, and strings made from goat intestines. Not exactly what a vegan wants to hear, but oh, the intoxicating sounds coming from it when Hamid plays! Topped by his deep, expressive voice, accompanied only by four backing singers on krakebs, castanet-like-hand percussion, the resulting sounds seem deceptively simple at first listen, though layer upon layer of underpinned emotion, skill and intelligence soon become apparent.
Havana Meets Kingston (Cuba/Jamaica) on the Open Air Stage afterwards was a complete change of pace from what had gone before with its buoyant and bright music and dancing. Affectionate, warm, uplifting, and tributary to both countries of origin, the resulting musical outpourings, combining reggae, dub and dance hall with son and salsa inspired much dancing, clapping and singing along. As the Cuban singer Erik Rodriquez said, “Jamaica is like the flow. Cuba is the beat. We understand each other.” This collaboration between two countries with distinctly different musical styles has proven so fulfilling that a second album is forthcoming.
Kermes Z à l’ Est (Belgium) referred to as a 'leather jacket-clad gang delivering the most raucous klezmer/Balkan riot imaginable' nearly came across as much a gang of comedians as they did able, diverse musicians! Offering the crowd 'love' as well as music seemed to set the tone for frivolity, masking highly strung musical skill sets, as the band posed, vogued, flirted, and otherwise wreaked havoc on serious music in general and the very idea of seriousness, as it relates to music. Plenty of belly laughs were on offer, along with the group's very impressive musical talents. Fun, fun, fun!
Retreating to our tent for a 'short nap' (famous last words), after the largely, sleepless night before, found us returning to the grounds, seemingly accompanied by every available teenager, families with young children going in the opposite direction, around 11 PM or so. At lively Molly’s Bar, our ears were caught by the archly poetic, succinctly political, rapped lyrics of Undercover Hippy, whose front man deftly strummed his guitar, reggae/pop style. Having heard of, but never heard this West Country band perform before, I was happy to have stumbled on them, with their refreshing and necessary take on society! Fans of the group, predominantly young people, waved their arms along to the music. One middle aged man, dressed in multi coloured, world traveller apparel, with long hair and a beard showed his approval by putting his fist in the air a la ‘power to the people.’ Despite drizzle and a temperature drop, strolling the grounds, with its neon lit fairground rides and World ambiance late night, where there were, in fact, people of all ages, is, in itself, a hugely enjoyable experience that seeps its way into your memory banks.
A repeat performance of the high winds and rain of the night before ensued pre - dawn, shaking our tent to its too surface foundations, causing its front to collapse into the bedroom area, as sod's law would have it, when I was in the tent alone! Small puddles now appeared along the edges of the dirt walkways, though nothing major enough to cause any real disruption. During the night, as during the one before, I could hear WOMAD workers riding along, intermittently asking campers if they were alright. Crying toddlers topped the middle of the night cacophony. In the trash area, the number of collapsed and broken tents was up, from one to four.
Sunday found us revisiting a Djembe drumming workshop we'd participated in at WOMAD 2016 in the World of Rhythms tent, this time, as listeners, followed by a workshop in which Maalem Hamid El Kasri of Morocco revealed enlightening facts about the significance of he and his group's performances in his homeland, treating the crowd to an informal, illustrative performance in the process. Their drummer, who said he was 'doing his best to hide his French accent', was our interpreter/commentator. Among the facts revealed were that in Morocco, their music is used for healing, during which time, they may play for five or six hours straight, while the sick person before them may slip into a trance or even, have a convulsion, after which, their illness will invariably be gone! It was matter of factly claimed that this approach never fails. Understandable then, that the pieces they played started slow, gradually becoming more and more rapid. This wondrous group performed again later that day on the Open Air Stage.
Over to the BBC 3 Stage for JM and Juanin: Los Crack del Puerto (Chile) who reminded us just how soulful and moving heartfelt love songs can be. Juanin Navarro and his cousin JM, at age 80 and 73, compared to Buena Vista Social Club elders, oozed bittersweet wisdom through song, singing their hearts out as they have done for many a year in their hometown, the port city of Valparaiso. The feeling and sense of longing with which they imbue their songs endears them to listeners. Having lived normal lives, with day jobs, they now stand poised on the threshold of late coming fame as their innate charm and true life experiences shine through.
KoKoKo! (Democratic Republic of Congo) handily whipped the crowd in the Big Red Tent into a frenzy, with their D I Y electronic instruments, constructed from trash, and almost tribal vocals. The resulting music was infectious, beat driven, and I suspect, socially on the mark. Other great groups have come from Kinshasa in recent years, among them, Staff Benda Bellili and Jupiter and Okwess but as wonderful and unique as both bands are, I'm happy to say that KoKoKo! are nothing like either one of them. Dressed in yellow boiler suits, as if to indicate danger, their performance was riveting, compelling and highly evocative, not to mention infectious to the point where you could not stand still in their company! We were among the appreciative dancers in the tent that night who moved through their entire set...KoKoKo!
Following a chorus of 'wows' in that brief space between sunset and twilight, we joined other festival goers basking neath the glow of a rainbow, too beautiful and well timed to seem real, trailing its way across the sky over the Festival grounds, fluffy white clouds at either end! In its aftermath, the sky took on hues of burnished gold, orange, pink, purple and blue, making it feel like you were moving through the landscape of an Impressionist painting.
Gilles Peterson, seasoned UK DJ, capped off this year's offerings in the Big Red Tent nicely for us, seamlessly moving between one decade and another as only experienced DJ's can do, delighting those of 'certain ages', capable of changing their dancing along with the eras, at the same time as he baffled younger dancers accustomed to one and only one tribal dance for all occasions! We were even laughed at by a pair of look - alike teenage girls who found our movements odd and out of time. What they didn't stop to consider was that, as long term dancers, it would have, in fact, looked and, actually been odd if we'd have adopted their trademark tribal club dance! Non - stop primitive animations added to the atmosphere. Brazilian music being a particular favourite of Peterson's, along with soul from anywhere and everywhere, regardless of era, he's also been known to play records of any type, from anywhere in the world, and does! Gilles threw what must have been a real curve ball for some, with a sprightly rockin' Nina Simone number near the end, but, as we love DJ's from whom you can expect the unexpected, we really enjoyed his set!
As we've seen, and loved Kimmo Pohjonen Skin of Finland at two WOMADS past, with different collaborators than those he had here, we were quite happy to sit ourselves down on the grass before him as he wrapped up WOMAD 2018 in the Siam Tent as only Kimmo could! Those who've seen him before know exactly what I mean! Kimmo has reinvented, not just music, but the accordion itself, customizing his own with effects and Midi. This, coupled with his inventive spirit and personality, not to mention persona, enraptures audiences who seem to enjoy not knowing where he is going to take them next! At one point in the set, Kimmo, who rarely speaks, spoke of his love for a Finnish Polka he and his father used to play, after which the crowd began to whoop and holler, twirling one another round like they were at a square dance! But, as predictability is definitely not Kimmo's style, we listened and watched, with knowing smiles as he began to slowly unravel the tune until it resembled something from a broken down, warped fairytale, a la Tim Burton.
A long haired, middle age fellow seated on the dried up grass in front of us suddenly threw his hair back, turning his backpack aka makeshift wineskin, upside down over a goblet of sorts, into which he proceeded to pour something, shaking his head from side to side, while an elderly man to one side of us waved his Shawn the Sheep backpack in the air in an attempt to keep time with Kimmo's offbeat mix! WOMAD all the way!
Once our kindly, hatted host in the Siam Tent had wished us safe journey, goodnight and thanks until next year, with a reminder that it ‘wouldn’t have been possible without you good people,’ we felt this year’s WOMAD had officially drawn to a close.
You can always count on WOMAD to surprise, inspire, entertain, challenge and enlighten, and 2018, our 6th Festival in nine years, was no exception! During our time at the World’s Festival, we’ve seen some of the greats, several of whom have passed on since, and we’ve been privileged to discover and savor the music of artists, some on their first trips out of their homelands, from far flung corners of the world. Each festival is different, but somehow, each seems the best while you are experiencing it. I can only add here that always amazing WOMAD means the world to us and the memories of this year’s Festival, along with the others that we’ve lived and loved, will continue to resonate until next year and beyond!
Editor's Note: As is always the case, there are far more artists performing at WOMAD than it’s possible to see. Among those missed this time round were: Ken Boothe (Jamaica), Thurs. night, Hanggai (Mongolia), whom we loved at one of our first WOMADS, Tal National (Niger), Daara J Family (Senegal), Gasper Nali (Malawi), Mr. Jukes (UK), Aeham Ahmad (Palestine/Syria), Daniel Haaksman (Germany), Dobet Gnahore (Cote d Ivoire), Erland Cooper (UK), Macka B (UK), Talisk (Scotland), El Pelujancanu (Spain), Moshen Sharafian and the Lian Band (Iran), Seby Ntege and Band (Uganda), Strut Records DJ's (UK), Tamala (Senegal/Belgium), Well Oiled Sisters (UK), Abatwa (The Pygmy) (Rwanda), B C U C (South Africa), Hashmat Sultana (India), Melissa Laveaux (Canada/Haiti), Too Many Zooz (US), Vishten (Canada) but to name but a few!
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