Wow…after three long years, it was great to be back at WOMAD! This musical institution has been a highlight of the British summer festival season from ever since, having been founded 40 years ago by Peter Gabriel to showcase the music, dance and culture of the developing world and far-flung territories of our planet. Although it has inevitably become more commercialised over the years, it remains a very special festival because you are bound to encounter performers you have never heard of, so spending time on the festival grounds is always an education as much as anything else. With a mellow, family-friendly vibe and an undercurrent of political activism in its manifesto, WOMAD attracts an easy-going and largely middle-class crowd, with even the late-night raves at Molly’s Bar and Disco Bear welcoming spaces for all and sundry.
This year my route took me across two sets of roadworks, with some incidents on the motorways causing more traffic chaos, so I arrived later than usual on the Friday, missing Fatoumata Diawara’s set the night before, which evidently went down a treat, and everyone raved about the return of Two-Tone legends, the Selector. Reaching the main Open Air stage just in time to catch the end of Fantastic Negrito’s set, where he described himself as a ‘recovering narcissist’, the US neo-bluesman sang of gritty, sordid encounters, bouncing off the stage on a high as the band gave it their all.
Kae Tempest’s spoken-word set in the Siam tent had confrontational energy, the anger and angst of hip-hop channelled through an uncertain and shifting musical accompaniment that somehow made the words leap out and embed themselves.
Moving over the smaller open-air space of the Charlie Gillett stage, the pan-Turkish/Kurdish repertoire of Olcay Bayir was an instant hit, the enchantment of her wide-ranging voice backed by a group of talented musicians that included a great violin player who doubled on saz and flute. Olcay took the time to give contextual introductions to what we were listening to, informing of each song’s region of origin and something of the meaning behind it. With plenty of heat radiating throughout the festival grounds long after the sunset, Olcay’s voice was a soothing evening balm.
Benin-born Paris-based diva Angelique Kidjo is a WOMAD mainstay and a definite crowd-pleaser. The Open Air stage was the right setting for her and there’s no doubting the skill in what she does; interspersing her Afro-pop with individual renditions of songs from the Talking Heads’ Remain In Light album was a nice idea, but nothing really stood out for me. The crowd certainly ate it up, so maybe what they were hearing just didn’t filter through to my ears.
Friday’s true highlight came after midnight, when South African-born Manchester- based cellist Abel Selaocoe thrilled a very responsive audience in the Siam tent. This man’s approach to his instrument is completely unorthodox, and that’s definitely a good thing because there’s never a dull moment as he scat-sings while conjuring scales with lightning speed, and his creative use of effects pedals allowed him to loop vocal and percussive refrains and then build on them with both cello and voice. He even got the audience to make a droning hum for the entirety of a lengthy number, feeding on their energy and as the audience elevated him, he elevated us in turn – an inspiring display of musical symbiosis. It was an awesome set by a very talented individual and you owe it to yourself to seek him out and catch him anywhere you can. His thoughtful interjections allowed us to appreciate what he was doing all the more too. Thank you, Abel Selaocoe, for your creative individuality!
After catching a few songs from black choir the Spirituals, beaming out from the main stage, Saturday began with Ghana’s Alostmen on the adjoining Charlie Gillett stage. With Stevo on a homemade kologo melding with the furious strums and chants of frontman Wanlov the Kubulor, as well as an expressive talking drum player and a propulsive kit drummer, the group’s cryptic lyrics were delivered in a mix of pidgin and their native Frafra language. In the opening number, they informed that teaching us how to get cash didn’t equal telling us of how to spend it, neither did advertising how to eat meat, rather than teaching how to hunt it. They kept things playful and interesting throughout the set, which was captivating, and which drew a good crowd response.
Fusion titans Osibisa have been around forever and their take on jazz, highlife and soul didn’t really deviate from the script, the inoffensive sound floating in the background and feeling a bit incongruous with the worsening weather, which was damp at the edges and very grey (but still drier than on most previous years).
In the Siam tent, nu-fusion act Nubyian Twist had a strong soul vibe in their musical stew, and I was totally unprepared for the surprise appeal of ADG7, a South Korean stadium act who interpreted traditional music for non-specialist audiences. Despite the crowd singalongs being a bit hammy, the melding of classical South Korean sounds and K-pop stylings worked surprisingly well, rendering them another of those unexpected WOMAD pleasantries.
Back in the Siam tent, I enjoyed the North African blues hybrid of Bab L’Bluz, blasting us with a rocking set that had plenty of musical spice. The D&B Soundscape tent is a marvellous space with top-notch sonics that are noticeably high-end; in earlier years it has hosted Channel One and Jah Shaka, among other sound system greats, making it hard to understand the absence of reggae and dub at this year’s festival. Nevertheless, my first venture into the space for WOMAD 2022 was to see the Fulu Miziki Kollectiv, an adventurous group of Kinshasa space cadets who fashion their instruments out of garbage, dressed in way-out intergalactic outfits. But somehow, the music didn’t quite live up to the spectacle. I love the idea and they certainly looked the part, but the banging and clanging lacked musicality, sounding more like the rhythm sections that perform on j’ouvert morning in Port of Spain than anything else.
Over to the far reaches of the Ecotricity stage, which is a bit away from the main site in a small clearing, I was fortunate to catch some of the Hempolics’ jaunty performance. This is as close as we got to deep skanking over the entire weekend and what I heard was certainly enjoyable, the song ‘Me Love To Sing’ coming with plenty of up-tempo, laidback optimism.
Sunday started off with a bang as Kanda Bongo Man took the Open Air stage. The soukous master reminded us that WOMAD was partly responsible for breaking him internationally, and his delivery did not disappoint, the bright guitar melodies, ravishing dancers and dual hype mic men causing crescendos of action throughout. He obviously still runs a tight ship; the band works very hard and Kanda himself looks in good shape for one in his late sixties.
Then, Mexican punk cumbia outfit Son Rompe Pera totally blew us away in the Siam tent, delivering a frantic and frenetic set that channelled the traditional cumbia of Latin America through the excesses of thrasher punk, with lashings of surf guitar for good measure. With a bassist who would not be out of place in the Misfits, a rock-solid drummer, and a peppery percussionist whose elongated earlobes and tattooed face marked him out as a modern primitive, the real magic of the group came in its dual marimba attack, the second marimba player sometimes drifting off to hit us with the surf guitar licks.
This innovative quintet had us completely captivated from the get-go, starting out as if they were playing standard cumbia, but then switching to double-time ska mode, balancing the punk excesses with western film soundtrack guitar melodies. Taking songs like ‘La Piragua’, ‘Cumbia Oscura’ and La Sonora Matancera’s ‘Vamos A Guarachar’ and making them very much their own, Son Rompe Pera proved that cumbia is no one-trick pony, and that traditional marimba music need not be off-limits for pogoing punk fans. The long-haired lead marimba player played an incredible solo piece that highlighted his impressive musicianship, before the band joined him for a grand finale, lowering the marimba onto themselves at the climax. I loved every minute of their set and cannot recommend them enough – do not miss this band if they come anywhere near your vicinity under any circumstances!
Then, as the Dhol Foundation used dhol drumming as a means to mix with various western genres on the Open Air stage, in the D&B Soundscape, Hollie Cook delivered a tight set of her pop-reggae originals, showcasing her recent album, Happy Hour. Backing band General Roots are talented musicians and Cook has grown more confident on stage over the years, and although Prince Fatty has not been at the mixing desk for several years, whoever did the mix kept hitting us with plenty of dub elements to make things more dynamic as Cook ran through her own take on contemporary lover’s rock.
Over at the World of Words area, there was an inspired discussion between authors Courttia Newland, Bidisha and Irfan Master about The Cuckoo Cage, a book of fictional short stories informed by actual historic events. The nearby Taste the World tent always had something interesting cooking up – both literally and figuratively – and when Barbes-based act Al Qasar were in residence there, the accompanying music made me sure to catch their set at the Ecotricity Stage, where their loose brand of Arabian psychedelia proved a winning formula.
French post-punk/world/chanson act Les Negresses Vertes are old friends from the 1980s, and last-minute additions to this year’s WOMAD. Accordionist Matthias and guitarist/vocalist Cheb still sounded on good form, the bass was pumping, and the horn section as rousing as it ever was.
Then, the Minyo Crusaders were another unexpected pleasure on the Open Air stage. This Japanese big band have a mission to revitalise traditional working-class Minyo music and to do so, they funnel it through salsa, ska, Afrobeat and other forms – plenty of fun, from a listener’s perspective.
Over in the Siam tent, 80-year-old samba/tropicalia/MPB icon Gilberto Gil presided over an elaborate band comprised of family members, with children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren part of the proceedings, with son Ben the impetus behind the project who is also the musical bandleader. The lengthy set allowed this master to trawl his voluminous back catalogue, reaching back to albums like Refavela, celebrating the cultural contributions of African descendants in the creation of Brazilian society, and there was plenty of reggae in songs like ‘Vamos Fugir,’ originally recorded with the Wailers for the Raca Humana album, and ‘Nos Barracos da Cidade,’ from Dia Dorim Noite Neon. Even if the rendition of ‘Girl From Ipanema’ felt gratuitous and the version of the Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ somewhat out of place, everything was delivered with grace and invention, and Gil still cuts a commanding figure, perfectly at home on the stage and in the bosom of his family. By the time he hit us with ‘Toda Menina Bahiana’ from the Realce album, everyone was on their feet and singing along. Witnessing this performance felt like an honour, and I have two quibbles for WOMAD programming: first, the obvious place for Gil and family was the Open Air stage. Why consign them to the Siam tent, making Liane La Havas the night’s headliner instead? A strange choice, methinks, though I guess her set of multidimensional R&B went down well enough. Plus, Manchester post-punk funkers A Certain Ratio were on at the same time as Gil, over at the Charlie Gillett stage, so I’m none the wiser as to the quality of their performance.
As the midnight hour drew nearer, it was time for a stroll through the campground to the ‘hidden forest’, where Luke Jerram’s incredible artwork, the Museum of the Moon, shone brightly. The large inflatable replica was very lifelike and made all the more eerie by Jazz Ahmed’s spooky soundtrack, which was audible from speakers hidden amongst the trees; I’m sorry to have missed the special performances given there by Manasamitra on Saturday night, but one needs to keep one’s ears to the ground in order to catch everything at WOMAD.
This year’s WOMAD finished off with a rousing set by Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwals, led by two of Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan’s nephews. Spurring each other to higher heights of devotional expression, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan gave stunning virtuoso performances, ending everything on a spiritual high.
WOMAD still retains its intimate atmosphere, regardless of the 40,000 attendees. The range of music on offer continues to impress and the entire festival site still feels like a voyage of discovery, with so much to see and hear and do at every turn. Thanks again, WOMAD, for keeping it real as you welcomed us back with open arms, and here’s to another 40 years!