Festival season is booming. There’s fire breathing spiders, makeshift dystopian villages, literary-muso extravaganzas and cheap flights to line-ups basked in guaranteed sunshine.
Then WOMAD. An immaculate campsite. No fancy dress Fridays or 5am skies spotted with lanterns. A cider tent decorated with… kegs of cider stacked behind the bar. And only a smattering of beautiful site installations; giant flags, live graffiti boards, a huge interactive crossword, playable percussive pipes and the 3D WOMAD sign, incomplete without its annual drapery of upside down children.
Founded by Peter Gabriel in 1980 WOMAD needn’t worry about competing with the glitterati festival zeitgeist. For a start, there’s natural bunting aplenty - over 302 different species of tree illuminating the winding pathways through the picturesque confines of Wiltshire’s Charlton Park. And every year the World of Music and Dance remains steadfast in its original mantra: an expert and unrivalled world music line-up. Truly, everything else is a bonus.
For 2016, over 90 artists from 50 countries performed across seven stages to a 36,000 strong crowd. Our party started Friday lunchtime with La Mambanegra’s streetwise salsa. Songs slipped into solos and back again as the Colombian nine-piece delivered horn heavy, polyrhythmic Latin American heat - self-professed ‘break salsa’ that ended with a sing-a-long cover of Kool & The Gang’s ‘Celebration.’
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Friday stayed hot and funky. Bamba Wassoulou Groove proved that Malian guitars really are in direct conversation with the sun. Percussion, drums and vocals only serving to elevate the psychedelic, soaring tangle flowing from the four guitarists lining the front of the stage. Charles Bradley’s costume change from Blue satin one-piece to black velvet suit cemented his status as a former James Brown impersonator turned soul sensation in his own right. Backed by The Dap Kings / Budos Band all-stars The Extraordinaires, his new black blazer was instantly whipped off as he raised the mic and hip-jutted into the sweet old school funk of ‘Ain’t It A Sin’, a performance only just outdone by his smoke, sweat and soul ballad ‘Changes.’
John Grant seemed an unlikely WOMAD headliner, but on Friday night his deluxe baritone croon was the perfect unifier. A dirty limerick ushered in the sweaty underground funk of ‘Black Belt’, while the entire main stage crowd chanting “I am the greatest mother-fucker” along with ‘GMF’ was a sight to behold. Defiant, heaving piano ballad ‘Glacier’ cut the deepest. Depicting the struggles overcome by the LGBT community Grant paced the stage arms stretched out wide, readily offering hope to any and all wounded souls in attendance, the mark of a true frontman.
Saturday’s highlights began in India. For the second time this summer I watched Anoushka Shankar elevate the sitar’s mandala-like blooms into ferocious and intimate forms. New album ‘Land of Gold’ is a response to the refugee crisis and her band reflect the desire to re-contextualise the sitar’s ancient calls into more modern, accessible music. Sampled news headlines cued ‘Crossing The Rubicon’, an exquisite eleven minute composition that sees hang, double bass and the winding shehnia contort around Shankar’s movements through sadness, suffering and anger to a finale full of sobering optimism.
With emotions on high alert, Lula Pena soothed and settled beneath the glorious leafy canopy surrounding the Ecotricity stage. A rare outing for the Portuguese Fado singer, songwriter and guitarist, her head remained bowed over her guitar where she cajoled intricate flamenco inflections into seductive, John Martyn like blues. The Alash Ensemble were also a wonder. The trio of Tuvan throat singers’ guttural, syncopated voices were full of tough nomadic resilience and strange psychedelic twists thanks to a shared penchant for Jimi Hendrix. If only the same psychedelia could have been found in George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic’s Saturday night headline set. The colour, the chaos and the crowded stage were expected, the poorly mixed sound and repetitive phrases were not.
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Sunday delivered my best combo. A four act run spanning 11,687 miles: Italy to Tibet to Bosnia and Herzegovina onto the Democratic Republic of Congo.
It began with sacred acapella from Sardinia, the five members of Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei crowded around one microphone to deliver close harmonies ingrained with the slow steady wisdom ancient chords never fail to impart.
BBC Radio 3 discovery Ngawang Lodup, a former Tibetan monk, drew the crowd into silence, a sole Tibetan flag waving up high. His tales of home danced over cyclic plucks of traditional Nepalese lute the damyan. Joined by the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo monastery, who matched choral singing and bell ringing with 37 mudras - hand gestures representing the deities that must be visualised during their song, the audience were left with the kind of heavy, contemplative quiet typically reserved for a candlelit corner of a Tibetan monastery, not a field of festival goers 15m from the nearest bar.
The riotous, dub shaking ska of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Dubioza Kolektiv whipped together a different kind of communion, the limb skanking crowd spilling from each corner of the Big Red tent. “Let them come inside,” came calls from the stage. “There are no borders in this tent. No segregation.” They later wrapped themselves in a huge black flag emblazoned with the logo for peer to peer file sharing site The Pirate Bay, launching into viral sensation ‘Free.mp3 (The Pirate Bay Song)' with calls for freedom of movement of all kinds, virtual and physical.
Finally, Congolese experimentalists Konono No 1. who cemented their status as groundbreaking national treasures and worthy recipients of Thom Yorke and Bjork’s adoration, their churning electro-traditional rhythms in constant flux beneath the spiralling chimes of multiple likembé, resonating thumb pianos that glisten and transport. Much like WOMAD itself. Still a prize jewel in our busy festival calendar, with enough integrity, spirit and exemplary music programming to outlast them all.
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Words: Kim Hillyard