The World’s Festival
Charlton Park, Malmesbury
Photo by Adam Gasson
28 – 31 July 2016
A Feature by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!
WOMAD is living proof that music really does feed the soul. Soul, as in the raw, give it all voice of inimitable US soul-man Charles Bradley, and a host of other musicians, vocalists and/or dancers from around the world. All this and so much more to be experienced and, savoured in the course of a single, three day weekend by those fortunate enough to be there!
Mid-day Thursday, our long weekend began well, no worries with transporting ourselves first, to Malmesbury for a pit-stop, then the festival grounds. That said, our bearings dwindled along with the flickering sunshine as we fumbled round searching for the relocated and unbeknown to us, decidedly compressed press camp. With Siam Tent as a landmark, having first gone to the all but empty (apart from press tent) grounds where the Media Village was for years, we were re-directed, and, retracing our steps a bit further than before, bingo, realising at once why we’d been warned camp was nearly full when we’d collected our wristbands! Spying a spot by the footpath, not our usual choice, we pitched camp, moped the sweat off our brows and gamely headed out to the grounds. Things could be much, much worse…There were no deluges on the cards, all the usual, colourful stalls and enticing food stands were in place, so after a frustrating beginning we looked forward to a fun, trouble-free evening. Fatigue set in quicker than usual as we traversed the grounds, as, on my part, I’ve been battling a long term illness in recent months and haven’t been getting much exercise, my partner, from intermittent insomnia the night before. So, down went the picnic blanket, softening bumpy earth, plop went our bodies and…But before we could cut too many ZZZ’s, the excited roar of the gathering Thursday crowd announced that WOMAD 2016 was about to begin!
Having appreciated the Malmesbury schoolchildren’s project, which made a good job of infusing them with the rhythms of Rio, thanks to Escola de Carnaval (UK/Brazil), we sauntered over to the Big Red Tent to await the arrival of Imarhan (Algeria). Desert music has always been a firm favourite at WOMAD and the receptive, all ages crowd filling the tent definitely seemed up for it. Imarhan didn’t disappoint! The loping wall of sound created by frontman Sadam (cousin of super-group Tinariwen’s bass player) and his fellow, leather jacketed Tuareg musicians, bar one in native dress, from Tamanrasset in southern Algeria have their own unique sway with desert music. Prone to inflections of funk and psychedelic rock as they are, their blend set hips, shoulders and feet going nonstop. When we made our way back, across the grounds to the Open Air Stage where Asian Dub Foundation was loudly holding forth before a large crowd, hunger pangs struck and we indulged in some skin on fries with Himalayan pink salt, yogurt mint dressing and a dash of tasty, ‘healthy’ mayonnaise. Back in the tent, earplugs in place, our hopes for a long summer’s nap were dashed by an angst ridden thirty something woman from a tent way in back of ours who, full of drink, decided to party with friends right outside the bedroom of our tent, effectively chattering loudly in our ears until sunrise, after which, the toilet cleaning truck trumpeted its suctioning wakeup call!
Photo by Clara Salina
Shortly after, bleary eyed, we stumbled out of camp, not long after our imbibing neighbour had slunk back to the familial tent where her children slept, trudged cross Festival grounds and the fields beyond towards charming old Malmesbury. Its’ green woodsy areas, flowery byways and pared down streets, with their friendly folk have always been a source of refreshment during our years of WOMAD going. In the course of our journeys, we’ve seen acceptance of the World’s Festival among townspeople go from curious and/or somewhat worried to praise and fondness by those who’ve gone, and now, wouldn’t miss it. Another contributing, unforeseen factor to our sleeplessness of the night before, was that our air mattress retired before we did, deflating, in the aftermath of a formerly non-existent hole, leaving us flat, as they say, with nary a thing to cushion us from the hard ground below, apart from its flocked pancake remains and a couple of bath towels. Malmesbury charity shops to the rescue, having checked WOMAD Oxfam in vain…padded duvet and fluffy pillows brought hopes of normal noise prompting better sleep that night …Meanwhile, there was lots of great music awaiting us back in rambling Charlton Park! Hauling our booty across the Festival grounds to our tent, we could only hope musical inspiration would get our tired mojos working!
Photo by John Couzens
We needn’t have worried, as La Mambanegra (Columbia) were just what any self-respecting, non-traditional doctor would order, with their polyrhythmic, dance inducing music. I was so swept away by their heady mix, any and all reasons why I might not respond as fancy demands were cleared by pulsating percussive beats and undulating infectiousness! The crowd embraced the group nearly as heartily as they played, in a give and take that was almost as fun to watch as the band itself, with many a Latino flavoured routine being played out in the Siam Tent and surrounding grounds, dancers switching gears along with the rhythms. Catching part of the set of Aziza Brahim (Western Sahara/Spain) following a walking pause, I was at once, appreciative and, impressed by her clear, strong voice, wafting over her fellow musicians, at once confident and expressive. Understandably political, in light of her history as resident of an Algerian refugee camp, the determination and sense of purpose behind the messages of her songs was always beautifully, at times, poignantly conveyed.
Photo by Stefano Buonamici
Moments of supreme revelation and genuine inspiration occurred with the arrival onstage of super soul singer Charles Bradley (USA)! Though Bradley recently released his third album, he was already in his sixties when he made his first recording in 2011, having lead a life of impoverishment, supporting himself and his invalid mother as ‘Black Velvet’, doing a James Brown stage show. Mr Bradley’s oft gut wrenching delivery truly stirred the souls of those listening, young and not so young as well, many of whom could be heard saying ‘wow’ aloud in response to his marvellously expressive voice, dancing along to him and his grooving band as tempo encouraged. Thoughts of Otis Redding, Junior Walker and my all-time idol, James Brown sprang to mind in conjunction with Bradley’s singing and I couldn’t believe there was someone of his calibre and feeling in existence in this world, or, that I was lucky enough to be hearing him live, in a WOMAD field of all places! Bradley’s young, all white band musically slotted into each and every nuance of his genuine, potent voice, adding accents wherever they, in their obviously soulful seasoning saw fit. There were times, too numerous to count during the set when the crowd nearly seemed to be floating on air, they were so openly happy! Each WOMAD I’ve attended has had its own revelations in terms of artists, previously unknown. For me, Charles Bradley’s set hit an all-time high that’s made me a forever fan!
Photo by Adam Gasson
At that point, with the weather turning decidedly cooler as the sun began to wane, we headed back to the tent for a change to warmer clothes, aware that Bamba Wassoulou Groove (Mali) with their three stellar guitarists would be taking to the Siam stage. Hearing their enticing grooves prompted quick changes, from bare feet to socks, shorts to trousers, so, with jackets in bag, we headed out. Rocking, solid, melodic…all of these adjectives and more apply to Bamba, loaded as they are, with presence, stage and musical. Joining the back of a heaving crowd, we alternatingly listened, clapped along and danced. Definitely a moreish ensemble…Across the fields, Hot 8 Brass Band (USA) of New Orleans were adding plenty of street stomping to their mix in the Big Red Tent, playing before a backdrop of clips of vintage looking ‘Naulins street parades and other Mardi Gras activities. Booming out, among other covers, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ before a happy throng of, by then, partying festival goers, we joined them near the rear of the tent, before taking to the grassy area outdoors, where the dancing continued. Pausing at the Radio 3 Charlie Gillett Stage, we took in part of the pensive, but rhythmic set of Blick Bassy (Cameroon). Bassy, a huge fan of Delta Bluesman Skip James, draws on his native land for inspiration while presenting a mix that’s all his own. Light-hearted singing, flexible, skipping stones, dazzling in its diversity and range. As Bassy’s set proved more soothing to our overly tired ears than stimulating, as it may have normally done, sadly, we found our energy flagging, so we headed back to camp in hope a momentary rest might rejuvenate us for the intriguing sounding musicians to follow.
Camp-side, with what then seemed to our weary minds to be merely, incidental music in the background, we committed a Festival no-no and laid down, only to awaken later to find we’d missed out on musicians we’d really wanted to see! As we fitfully slept, I’d been vaguely aware of the pronounced vocals of John Grant (USA) and fluid ragas of Desert Slide (Rajasthan). Both had been at the top of our must see list! Not to worry, I told myself next morning when I awoke with the dawn and hit the shower, each WOMAD is unique and you have to be prepared to roll with whatever comes. For weekend campers, however upsetting it may be to miss one of their most anticipated bands, there is the assurance, early on, at least, that there are still many more musicians to come and having been alerted to artists you were not formerly aware of, you can continue to happily learn about them and their music thereafter.
Wandering in the Wellness area of the grounds early Saturday morning, we stopped off at one of Greenpeace’s time machines, inside one of the pods, taking the audio trip designed to remind us that ecological promises made by leaders have since been broken. To our dismay, we found some of the wood bench lined pods strewn with an array of discarded plastic bottles. It had been our intention to visit the new Physics Tent on our travels but it had yet to open and signs posted outside indicated that most, if not all of the upcoming talks and activities were already fully booked. Rest and recuperation is the name of the game in the leafy Wellness area and we took advantage of its healing ambiance before reconnecting with the main Festival grounds. Sidestepper (Columbia) made a welcoming re-introduction to the weekend’s festivities with their rootsy, mainly acoustic sounds, heavily laced with peppery percussions. Dancing with renewed gusto amid the crowd in the Siam Tent, we found ourselves just as into enjoying the group’s infectiousness to the max as they were. So taken with Sidestepper were we that we reconnected with them at their Workshop later in the World Rhythms tent, where they demonstrated the various types of music, among them Caribbean and Latin, that infuse their international sound with its irresistible flavour, while dancing along!
Photo by Adam Gesson
In between double portions of Sidestepper, we had the privilege of being in the packed Siam Tent for the thrilling set of Anoushka Shankar (India) daughter of late Sitar supremo Ravi Shankar, for some years a consummate musical artist in her own right. Just before the set, which we’d been waiting some time for, began, a few older adults pushed into our viewing area, blocking any hope of seeing the stage for a small middle-aged Indian woman standing beside me in the crowd. After two young members of the press, both taller than me, shamelessly pushed in right in front of us after, I suggested she get in front of me and possibly, snatch a glimpse of the stage looking round them when and as she could. This lead to her getting a bit further ahead in the crowd, for which she expressed thanks to me, tearfully remembering Anoushka’s later father, Ravi, whom she’d seen live many times over the years. Before a rapt audience, Shankar, her personal mystique aligned with her artistic Sitar playing, dazzled at times, with self-penned compositions affording listeners glimpses of ancient in tandem with modern. Drawing from her new album, ‘Land of Gold,’ inspired by our current world refugee crises, Shankar movingly indicated, musically and, verbally that though grave, the situation is not without hope. An obvious fan of both Rock and Ambient music, Shankar takes her instrument to new heights, where, I believe it’s safe to surmise, no Sitar player has, ever, as evocatively gone before. The incredible experience of being there, in that space and time, exuded a sense of timelessness, inviting viewers to momentarily shed their own worldly cares in favour of an intensely increased awareness of those of their fellow life travellers the world over, as well as the power of music to transport listeners into an artist’s creative space.
Photo by James Medina
Reliable, ever experimental and entertaining, WOMAD stalwart Baaba Maal (Senegal) took to the Open Air Stage Saturday evening amid welcoming cheers. Small wonder, as hearing Maal’s emotive voice and West African guitar playing, seems to somehow, strike familiar and formerly uncharted chords at the same time, all, emotionally expressive. Whether amusing or informative or a combination of both, Maal always manages to straddle that fine line between classic and being in a class by himself, aided by his very fine band, and some of the most energetic African dancers you’re likely to see in such an informal setting as a WOMAD show. At one point, Maal and one of his very excellent drummers climbed over the barrier down front to join the crowd, the exciting results of which are shown below in a You Tube clip kindly shared by one of our fellow Festival goers! Charismatic to the last, Maal is one musician you can easily see again and again, as I have had the pleasure of doing over the years. Interested in all things international, political, cultural and historical, having engaged in many collaborations with musicians from various cultures, Maal’s music, whether rhythmic or movingly plaintive, always, lovingly reflects on and/or returns to its’ strong Senegalese roots.
Photo by Adam Gasson
Long term, ever influential Funk Master, aka Dr. Funkenstein himself, George Clinton, Godfather of psychedelic funk, and his large, animated group, Parliament Funkadelic (USA) one of the Festival’s main Saturday draws, had the plum performance slot 9:30 – 11 PM and the openly enthusiastic, can’t wait to dance crowd to go with it! Following Baaba Maal’s engrossing performance, my partner and I literally, occupied spaces at the barrier down front, in anticipation of the groups sure to be revved up arrival. To my right, an elderly, white goateed Englishman in colourful, pyjama like ensemble with matching cap confessed to being a Funkadelic virgin, quickly adding that the, unbeknown to him, unruly and proud of it, group’s set ‘should be exciting’, a statement which, in hindsight, proved to be THE understatement of the entire festival! Marking ourselves out as true fans (who else would dance to a sound check?) from our coveted vantage point down front, we were able to intermittently, engage with the band throughout the course of their hour and a half set, not just when singing along, but on a more personal level, my partner sharing a ‘high five’ with Sir Nose and me, at one point, being hugged by another band member who’d come down from the stage to stand on a railing nearby the better to address the adoring crowd! Never in my history of WOMADS have I seen more people dancing along to a band in the wings, and, virtually all the press photographers hang around for an entire set! Such was the case once the ‘old man’ of Funk and his artistically potent crew got down, Clinton resplendent in a multi-patterned kaftan of sorts, fedora perched gamely on his head. Alternating between band leader and rebel rouser of sorts, rasping out iconic catchphrases on now anthemic funk tunes, ‘One Nation Under a Groove,’ ‘Give Up the Funk’, ‘Free Your Mind (and Your Ass Will Follow)’ and ‘Atomic Dog’, and speaking his inimitably related ‘talk’, urging the crowd to sing and dance along, his super funky band ground out more tight, grooving riffs than the huge, into it crowd down front had swaying hips. Younger members of the group, some related to Clinton, did their things here and there, more hip hop than backbone slipping, with some pretty slippery lyrics for an all age crowd, though the accompanying get down cacophony was easily, enough to put ears in a tail spin. George speaking on ‘Maggot Brain’ with crowd members behind us loudly saying every word along with him, took the proverbial biscuit, as did the young black boy leaning against me as though I were his body-board riding the wave of the crowd! The group’s guitarist supreme performed a rock/funk solo that might have made Clapton weep. Sir Nose, well known for his rubbery anatomy, appeared in full length white feather coat, Super-fly hat and matching cowboy drawers to entice the ladies, while a trio of girlish back-up singers in form fitting attire rode the ebb and flow of each song bodily and, vocally. George’s growl could be heard coasting atop the group’s funky drummer, wailing guitar, thumping bass, percussion galore, ripping horns and much, much, more…What a way to see out the last weekend in July on an all time, Funkadelic high! My neighbour’s assessment? ‘Stunning!’ As if that wasn’t enough, some band members came to chat post show and my partner ended up with an autographed drum stick, personalised with the message, ‘Keep it funky brother!’ We sure will!
George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic
Photo by Adam Gasson
Knowing we wouldn’t find a fitting follow-up to such a kicking set, we roamed round the grounds, pausing momentarily for a few twirls on the floor in the Bowers and Wilkins Tent, with its crystal clear sound and capacity crowd, mostly, on that occasion, older teenagers. Not wishing to overstay our welcome, once the DJ’s disco fever had passed, we left, wandering the grounds in the night air, heading back towards camp, with a promise of the new tomorrow.
Sunday dawned with the twin trumpeting of the toilet truck and what sounded like a sad little socialite, pouring her heart out to a man she hardly knew about a fellow she apparently, wished she’d never met. Not to worry, armed with a decent night’s sleep, we hurriedly prepared ourselves for a full day, heading happily onto the Festival grounds just as the first few, early-bird stalls were opening. After our health conscious repast of fresh fruit and yogurt, we once again headed towards the Arboretum to see if we could possibly get into the Physics tent. When that turned out to be unfeasible yet again, we headed back from whence we’d come to follow up on the next thing we’d decided to try out. For someone who’d never put their hand to a drum before, Sidiki Dembeli’s djembe workshop in the World Rhythms tent came as something of a surprise. Not only does it make your fingers and palms ache to play a hand drum, but you have to hit it quite hard to get a decent sound from it. So much for those experts who make it look easy! We were first shown Rio rhythms, then more African ones, learning a couple of pieces in the course of the session, on drums generously loaned from the instrument shop on the grounds nearby. While I liked the drum itself and sitting with it standing between my knees, ready for action, the rather limp wristed action I executed on it wouldn’t encourage me to give up my day job. My partner on the other hand, having had prior experience with the instrument and others like it, happily hammered away! Love the sound of it still, but won’t be drumming in future. Still, WOMAD’s a great place to try out all sorts of things you’ve considered, but haven’t got round to! In past years, we’ve also attended sessions in the All Singing, All Dancing tent, where you learn all kinds of dance styles, and the Taste the World tent, where some multi-talented musicians take time out to cook and talk about cultural dishes the audience then gets to sample. All the workshops and tasting sessions we’ve tried have been fun as well as very informative! Next year, we’ll aim to try one of each!
Photo courtesy of WOMAD
Festival goers definitely work up an appetite, given all the exercise and fresh air they get at lovely Charlton Park, and there are all manner of food items on offer, from all over the world, as well as drinks, alcoholic and non for those taking a healthier route, like us. Frank Water, clean and always, chilled, available all over the grounds, helped keep our mojos refreshed! There are always lots of picnics in progress, wherever you look, all over the grounds, and thankfully, as the only rain we had all weekend was down to a few light sprinkles, opportunities for al fresco munching abounded! Sunday afternoon, the sun was certainly shining on the Open Air Stage, and Kim Juhong’s Ensemble Noreum Machi (South Korea), so much so, that, after watching their troupe of musician/acrobats skilfully, often wittily blend past traditions with more carnival like present ones for a time amid a crowd of lounging onlookers, we headed over to Radio 3 (Charlie Gillett) Stage to await the arrival of Tashi Lhunpo Monks & Ngawang Lodup (Tibet). The atmosphere was decidedly more hushed among the group waiting there, and cooler, given the advantage of shade, thanks to the stage’s shell like overhang. Deeply moved by the unusually emotive singing of Ngawang Lodup, a former Tibetan monk now living in exile, tears unexpectedly slid down my cheeks, as they did on a woman beside me, who, in the break between Lodup and the Monks performances confessed that she always feels emotional in the presence of Tibetan Monks. After a brief conversation in which both of us acknowledged the hardships Tibetans have suffered, the Monks returned, unceremoniously, despite their rituals, exuding an inward peace that many spend their lives hoping to attain. Long horns had begun the programme, prior to the appearance of Lodup, leading now, into the playing of other instruments and what sounded like a Tibetan form of throat singing. When they’d left the stage, they left a lingering sense of peace behind them. Host read out descriptions of each segment,
Tashi Lhunpo Monks of Tibet
Photo by John Couzens
Seeking contemplative music, we made our way to the Arboretum, where earlier, we’d watched children being taught how to tree climb, not small, but tall trees. Leafy was definitely desirable, and when we first arrived at the Ecotricity stage, it seemed every shaded spot was taken. However, as we were there to hear Hanoi Masters (Vietnam) older Vietnamese musicians responding, many years after, to the horrors and aftershocks of the Vietnam War, we didn’t necessarily need to see them, so we chose a spot to one side, among the mixed age crowd, not far behind some young people who, like us, didn’t understand the music, meant to be guiding us through history during the Vietnam War, but unlike us, chose to light-heartedly poke fun at it. While it’s true that at times, the group was barely audible, given the soft-spoken manner of the woman performing and the lightness of the instrument(s) being played, it was, admittedly, very different than what we’re accustomed to. One of the reasons we love WOMAD is because it introduces us to new sounds, sights and even tastes, from all over the world, many of which we might never get to experience otherwise. That said, for every person making mirth of misunderstanding, there were many other people enjoying the set for what it was, and, possibly what it was meant to be, based on prior experience, either of the group themselves or travel to Vietnam and experiencing such music in context. It really tickled me then, that when the woman playing the mysterious sounding string instrument I could only glimpse, roared into a stirring rendition of that old Vietnam GI favourite, ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix, imploring people to come down to the front to dance, those who’d been punning them the most took off like shots! Soothing, disturbing, educational, all in one, that was what I got from Hanoi Masters. Uncompromising, history by music to accept or reject, learn from or shy away from out of ignorance, kind of like responses to war itself.
Photo by Adam Gasson
Konono No 1 (Democratic Republic of Congo) in the Siam Tent brought the term ‘trance’ to a new level with their mesmerising mix of percussive driven polyrhythms and chant like singing, infusing nearly everyone within earshot with the desire to dance, en masse, non-stop! Their set was so rich with texture and pulsing layers that they were able to turn a handful of irresistible numbers into a heady, extremely infectious set that went by much too quickly!
Konono No 1
Photo courtesy of WOMAD
Likewise, Hi-life music pioneer, Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band (Ghana) following, on the Open Air Stage. Given the attention vintage African music has been receiving in recent years, Thomas and his newly released album are a welcome addition to the growing group of originators who are thankfully, recording and touring once again. More dance worthy numbers than you can count, but who was trying? Mojo working, but feet flagging, we chose the end of Thomas’ funky flavoured Afro set to head back to camp for some much needed socks, long legged trousers and sleeves to guard again the breeze…
Pat Thomas & Kwashibu Area Band
Photo by Adam Gasson
On the flip side, we were fortunate enough to catch the final segments of amazing voiced Les Amazones d’Afrique (Mali/Nigeria) in the Siam Tent, their soaring vocals carrying to and, elevating those near the back of the house. Many song styles were represented, among them, blues and soul. Blues, sung African style was especially evocative placed alongside traditional guitar, drum and bass playing, as it added another dimension. Divas all, the splendid ladies of song took a collective bow at the end to thundering cheers and applause. St Germain (France) aka Ludovic Navarre, producer extraordinaire, spearheaded a wonderfully West African way to close this year’s offerings on the Open Air Stage! Many musicians are skilled, but this knowing group is also inventive, entertaining and adept at leading listeners wherever they want them to go, without them guessing where they’re being lead. The sense of, oft misjudged anticipation was incredible, based on the group’s thrillingly played, co-mingled riffs, smooth, yet unexpectedly executed fades and groove building funkability. St Germain were one of our favourite bands at this year’s WOMAD! We can’t think of another group of musicians that blended so many different styles together in the course of one set, one we wished would never end! Many dancers in the crowd seemed just as delighted as we were with this versatile, jazz, funk, soul, Afro, R and B, altogether fantastic outfit of master musicians and their imaginative leader.
Closing WOMAD 2016 in the Siam Tent was Federico Albanese (Italy) who seemed to epitomise the way we, and by the look of things, many were feeling, as this year’s Festival was drawing to a very special close, thanks to his curiously refreshing, heart-felt, yet intriguingly contemporary playing of self-penned pieces designed to inspire reflection on piano. The perfect anecdote for party overload, busy minds, waning attention, and/or all of the aforementioned and, their polar opposites. Multi-levelled tranquillity expressively rendered, designed to create and/or top off a weekend of moments to remember! Over the years, we have had many late night moments to treasure in the Siam Tent. Albanese’s piano painted pictures join the list of luminaires that flicker on in our memory banks. Pause, then pause again, drinking in the rapturous music of this inspired pianist/composer. Never having been to WOMAD, or any world music festival before, for that matter, Albanese professed to have been so enchanted by his enjoyment of the music he’d heard that day, that he nearly forgot he was meant to be playing himself, closing actually, that night. His being there was, for him, as it was us, a privilege. WOMAD continues to amaze, outdo and present itself anew, causing one to look forward to next year!
Photo by Beniamino Barrese
As the Siam Tent’s cheery, pork pie hat wearing host said in conclusion, ‘stay safe, love one another, be happy, see you…’ Laughter may be the best medicine, but if WOMAD 2016 is anything to go on, music’s a close second. Though I was quite tired by Festival end, I also felt rejuvenated, and more eager than before to continue my journey back to health, encouraged and inspired by loving music from round the world, ever confident in its healing aftereffects.
View of Siam Tent from the Media Village
Photo by John Couzens
Baaba Maal in the Crowd at WOMAD 2016
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