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Tower Festival 2009

 

WOMAD

 

Tower of London

September 19 & 20, 2009

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

 

WOMAD, World of Music, Arts and Dance, founded by U.K. former rock giant Peter Gabriel in 1982, is all about transcending differences related to nationality and/or culture and uniting people across the globe through common creative interests. Having recently had the honour of reviewing the U.K.’s weekend festival in Charlton Park, Malmsbury, at which Gabriel performed for the first time in many years amidst audible grumbling from several home members of the audience claiming that his performance ‘wasn’t in keeping’ with the festival’s World Music theme, I must admit that although I looked forward to WOMAD’s two day event at the Tower of London, it was not without some trepidation, for conversely, my fears were the opposite at home, London being style conscious London.

On Saturday, the most popular outing day of the week, the grounds were pretty nearly packed by the time we arrived, so we spread our former WOMAD camping mat down and sat near the back. The plastic seating behind us was similarly crammed and as children under the age of 13 were admitted free, many youngsters happily cavorted on and around their family’s respective picnic spaces.

Young, energetic South Korean troupe Dulsori opened day one of this auspicious event, instantly igniting the children in the audience into cheers and excited clapping. The troupe bases their performances, which include high-powered drumming on instruments of various sizes, from small hand-held, right up to the huge drums depicted at London’s Peacock Theatre when their visiting troupe’s in town, on traditional rhythms of Korea. Judging from the smiles all round, even while shouted Korean passages were intermittently taking place during their percussive playing, Dulsori’s set was a huge success, particularly when they took to hammering on three huge wall -filling drums.

 

Dulsori

Photo courtesy of WOMAD

 

Next up was the delightfully frenetic Paprika Balkanicus, aptly described on Last.fm as ‘masters of good atmosphere’, who collectively hail from Romania, Servia and Slovenia. Second guessing the smart London crowd, the group’s leader, who also plays double bass amiably quipped that they ‘still ride on horses’ where they’re from, then proceeded, along with fellow musicians to play some of the most infectious Balkan music ever, visibly enlivening, but not generally managing to bring the largely familial occupied audience to their feet without additional, fiery encouragement from violin, guitar, accordion and singer on double bass, who cheerily called out, above their raucously joyous music.

 

 

Paprika Balkanicus

Photo courtesy of WOMAD

 

Admittedly, Nathan Flutebox Lee & the Clinic (India/UK) did little to light our fires, apart from the superb playing of one Indian musician in their group, who wove his own musical magic on tabala and flute.  So after a much needed, momentary break for the complimentary ice cream sundaes this year’s Tower Festival Sponsers, Continental Airlines offered each ticket holder, we looked forward to the appearance of the next act, The Imagined Village. It wasn’t that Lee’s group was not worthy of consideration, it was the fact that, for the most part, there was basically, little new in what they were doing, and when it came to rapping, it was immediately a foregone conclusion that that particular  art form should be left to those more capable of performing it credibly. Two fellows robotically loping along on either side of whoever was performing at any given time added little character to the mix.

 

Nathan Flutebox Lee

Photo courtesy of WOMAD

 

Although I was firmly in the camp which maintained that festival founder Peter Gabriel had every right to perform at the event he himself had founded at Charlton Park in July, I must admit that I’d always feared that the nature of the ‘home’ acts scheduled in a London WOMAD event might prove worrisome if marketing concerns were to take precedence over mindfulness of WOMAD’s principles when scheduling them. However, happily, as things turned out on day one, the only other non ‘other’ act on the bill was The Imagined Village (UK), a group of erstwhile musicians which includes that ever ardent rebel rouser Billy Bragg as well as fellow able-voiced and spirited musician/singers Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy and Chris Wood. Village was the brainchild of Afro Celt Sound System veteran Simon Emmerson and the resulting group is one designed to stimulate both musically and socially as it collectively seeks to ‘reinterpret some of England’s most venerable folk-songs by fusing old and new sounds to reflect the multicultural society of the country today’, a mission which it achieves admirably. An Indian drummer formally dressed in white as though he was about to perform before a Colonialist audience added ‘exotic’ undercurrents along with an expert tabla player, each assuring the group’s mix assumed the desired multi-cultural flavour. As such, this group with its varied musical tastes and performance styles via songs from three distinctly different singers, including Bragg, who has performed at many WOMAD festivals in the past, are in keeping with what might be seen as ‘indigenous’ music and therefore aligned with WOMAD’s healthily unifying world view. Paying tribute to his working class London roots Bragg stated, ‘My grandfather used to sell ice-cream on Tower Hill and my other grandfather worked in St. Catherine’s Dock, so this is kind of a home gig for me’.  Demonstrating that he also knew his audience, Bragg, resplendent in a black suit with collar trim a la Pearly King, which he called, ‘my vernacular garb’ added, ‘If you’re going to cop off on some Dick Van Dyke vibe, I don’t care,’ referring of course, to the aversion many residents of London sporting affected, or ‘generic’ (as a linguist termed the phenomena) accents tend to exhibit towards those rare, London born and bred individuals not wishing to alter/up-market their natural way of speaking. The group’s encore, ‘I Don’t Know Why Anymore’ originally performed by U.K. pop group Slade was, one concluded, an intentionally ironic, arm-waving crowd pleaser.

 

 

The Imagined Village

 

Algerian super-star Khaled rounded off the evening with somewhat westernised offerings of ‘soul, reggae and rock’ as the programme states, though many of the numbers also had flagrant pop overtones. Whatever genre he was wonderfully warbling his way through, Khaled handled it well, always beaming smiles at the audience, occasionally adding gestures that his heart was theirs for the taking. During more slowly paced moments of his programme, Khaled’s singing transcended his accompaniment, offering visual images of mountains, great expanses and domed Mosques in a setting sun, as his voice momentarily seemed to lift us out of the everyday , towards a more mystical realm.

 

Khaled

 

By day two, we had learned our lessons and lined up early enough to secure picnic style seating front and centre near the stage, so that when Siyaya (Zimbabwe) whose name literally means, ‘on the move’ hit the stage we would have enough room to respond appropriately, aka dance.  We’d already savoured Siyaya’s performance in their must-see musical show Zambezi Express at Riverside Studios, but seeing them up close with ample room to allow us to make our own comparatively feeble attempts at dancing while watching the incredible moves they make, often in unison, and the marvellously infectious sounds they generate at the same time was an incredible experience. As EXTRA! EXTRA! writer Chad Armitstead said of them after watching Siyaya electrify their audience in Zambezi,’ It saturates you in the energy of true performers’, a statement I agree with wholeheartedly. Buoyant sunshine will always await you when you’re in the company of Siyaya, whatever the weather.  

 

Siyaya

Photo by John Couzens

 

 

Speaking of which, the weather on Sunday, which predicted rain, held out, unlike the sunny predictions for Saturday, which fell through when clouds opened in the late afternoon dumping a brief deluge on the crowd, only to intermittently return in further, in vain attempts to dampen spirits later on.

The music of the next unique group, Abdullah Chhadeh & Syriana (UK/Syria) who will soon be releasing an album, is truly, mesmerising. Chhadeh, composer, singer and recognised master of the 10th century oriental string qunun, has ‘re-designed’ his own instrument, adding an octave to it, enhancing, according to his website, ‘its tonal range, enabling him to challenge the qunun’s traditional repetoire.’ In truth, given my thoroughly Western background I cannot confirm whether Chhadeh has actually achieved this end successfully, but I can definitely verify that the sound of his instrument and the way in which he plays it is unlike anything you’ve ever heard before and far more captivating. Chhadeh and Syriana’s set enthralled the crowd, so much so that two male audience members enthusiastically cried out to Chhadeh in his native tongue, such was their appreciation. Meanwhile, judging by the positive responses to each number, we and those around us were similarly savouring this unique performance, which was one very aptly demonstrating the essential mission of WOMAD in action – to introduce the oft hidden treasures, and pleasures of World Music to those who’ve never had an opportunity to see or, hear it performed before.

 

Abdullah Chhadeh & Syriana

Photo by John Couzens

 

 

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any more intriguing, Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara (UK/Gambia) appeared. Adams really rocks out on his guitar in the traditional rock n roll sense of the word, while ‘one-string fiddle virtuoso’ (Adams’ words) Camara gets down in ways that should, according to logic, clash with Adams’ playing, but surprisingly winds up blending, enhancing, over-riding and/or under-scoring it in turn, all the while being praise worthy in its own right. While you’re marvelling at how Camara gets any sound at all from a one string (actually strung with ‘string’) fiddle which appears to have an over-sized gourd for a body, he plucks another inexplicably beautiful note from his instrument and the two musicians go at it again, back to back, side by side, always electrifying in unison, not only with their sounds, but in their mutual senses of appreciation and purpose. Their set, appropriately for English rocker Adams, took the biscuit in terms of live, exciting collaboration.

 

 

Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara

Photo by John Couzens

 

Nigeria’s late, great musician/activist Fela Kuti, founder of Afro-Beat and all round genius had a much acclaimed drummer named Tony Allen. Allen’s own marvellously full-bodied group with its two female singers, two guitarists, bass, hand drums, keyboard, two saxophones, trumpet and of course, the inimitable rhythm maker himself seated at his drum kit atop a platform overseeing all he’d got together, performed a relentlessly rhythmic set, causing the crowd to surge forward en masse, all gyrating to the same irresistible grooving beats.  By the time Allen’s group had finished their hip-shaking, shoulder wiggling set, amid much watch-checking by waiting stage hands, as the preceding groups had all stuck to the half hour time limit and by the end of it, they’d been doing their thing with joyous abandon for closer to forty minutes, the crowd seemed ready for anything.

 

Tony Allen and his band

Photo by John Couzens

As circumstances, or London would have it, the last UK based act, The Bays/The Heritage Orchestra/Simon Hale/John Metcalfe promised far more intrigue and innovation than it actually seemed capable of delivering, though given all of the high tech trappings onstage, they were bound to get caught up in their own wiring. Far from throwing away, ‘every accepted notion about live music,’ as the programme claimed, The Bays, in conjunction with the oddly named Heritage Orchestra (everyone in the group seems to be in their early to mid twenties) seemed to openly embrace a plethora of ‘accepted notions’ incorporating dozens of recognisable riffs, tonal themes and musical phrases into a rather bland, self-important mix, peppered with predictable club beats. The combined efforts of these two groups, with all of their expensive equipment, including a software program displaying the notes to the music they were ‘composing on the spot,’ and a multitude of screens, to the tune of untold thousands of pounds, effectively managed to break down all that WOMAD had built up during the course of the day. Though, in hindsight, by visibly dividing the audience into those who ‘got’ what they were doing and those who’d rather not go there, they inadvertently confirmed what those of us who were still heady from the delicious displays of originality displayed by the more low tech musicians on the day’s programme were thinking in regard to this dreary, hour long experiment - it’s not what you do, or what you do it with, but how you do it...

 

 

Heritage Orchestra

Photo by John Couzens

 

 

 

 

 

http://womad.org/

 

www.towerfestival.com

The Tower of London, EC3N 4AB
10th to 20th September 2009

Tickets on sale to person callers at:
Group Ticket Office
Tower of London

Tower Hill
London EC3N 4AB

10.00am - 4.00pm daily

Branches of HMV as follows
London - 150 Oxford St, 360 Oxford St, Trocadero, Covent Garden, Hammersmith, Islington, Westfield Shopping Centre, Bluewater Shopping Centre, Croydon
Birmingham - High St
Edinburgh - Princes St
Aberdeen - Union St

Tickets available by credit card from the following agents:
Ticketmaster 0844 847 2519
See Tickets 0871 230 1080
Ticketline 0844 8889991
HMV
Keith Prowse (Seatem) 0844 2090335

WOMAD 0845 146 1735

The festival is an open air event and will go ahead regardless of bad weather.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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