Review: Womad 2019

Review, and photos by David Katz

WOMAD is a musical institution that remains a highlight of the summer festival season in Britain. The World of Music Art and Dance festival, as it began way back in the early 1980s, is the brainchild of Peter Gabriel and it remains the largest and longest-running festival devoted to world music. The infamous debut event staged in 1982 lost so much money that Gabriel had to reform Genesis to pay off the debts, but he and his team’s determination to champion unjustly-neglected sounds from across the globe has seen its steady rise and gradual expansion, with satellite events staged in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, the USA and elsewhere. A lot of great things have come out of WOMAD over the years and many artists that would otherwise be totally unknown outside of their country of origin have broken through to wider prominence, thanks to its efforts. Reggae has always been part of the picture and as the festival has grown and widened its palette, there has been a pleasing increase of reggae performers, as well as related genres such as dub and dancehall.

Photo © David Katz

WOMAD’s current location is in the lovely confines of Charlton Park, on the outskirts of the quaint and historic village of Malmesbury, Wiltshire, lies on the edge of the Cotswolds and not far from the hub of Salisbury. Beautiful as the location is, the park is right in the middle of a floodplain and since the 2017 and 2018 editions both devolved into seas of mud amidst heavy rain and strong, chilly winds, the WOMAD massive were somewhat on tenterhooks in the weeks leading up to the festival, during a summer that has seen record heat followed by heavy downpours, resulting in flash-flooding. Thankfully the weather gods were with us for the entirety of WOMAD 2019, meaning that even as much of the rest of the country was hit by heavy rainfall, WOMAD seemed in a kind of protected sun zone, its positive energy driving the rains to just outside the park’s perimeter. With lovely doses of sunshine beaming down, especially on the Sunday, there was a warm feeling all around the grounds, raised higher all the while by the inspiring and unique musical performances.

Although the festival itself began with some preliminary activities on the evening of Thursday 21 July, my WOMAD began on the Friday, unfortunately just at the end of Calypso Rose’s set, the feisty octogenarian in fine form according to those who were fortunate to catch her on the main stage. Instead, I started with a dose of female Kel Tamashek group, Les Filles de Illighadad, in the smaller Siam tent. The two founding cousins that form the group’s core hail from a remote village in Niger; their choral call-and-response chants are framed by the scintillating lead guitar lines of Fatou Seidi Ghali, together conjuring mesmerising musical patters that inevitably brought images of nomadic desert life to mind. If there was a downside, it came in the notion that most songs were not easily differentiated, though no doubt with time the group’s evolution will eliminate the caveat.

Womad Festival – Photo © David Katz

Meandering over in the shady grove that houses the Ecotricity stage, I sat down for the meditative sounds of Pakistan’s Ustad Saami, an elder practitioner of Surti music, which predates the Islamicisation of that Asian nation. Already 75 years of age, his voice sounded a bit ravaged by the passage of time and he and his troupe delivered a fascinating sound that was somewhere between a Hindu raga and the Islamic Qawwali style. Then, a real treat on the Charlie Gillett stage came in the form of Gili Yalo, an Ethiopian Jew that found his way to Tel Aviv as child after having been expelled from Sudan; he and his band brought a modern twist to the Ethiopiques jazz funk and Yalo himself makes a great front man, bounding around the stage and getting the audience involved all the while. There was a touching moment towards the end of the set too, when he revealed that the performance would be the last with the keyboard player, who had other commitments, with a touching embrace to mark his exit.

Ziggy Marley – Photo © David Katz

Ziggy Marley on the main stage then placed reggae firmly in the spotlight, during the peak headlining period of 9:30-11pm. Rebellion Rises was the main focus and although the man needs no introduction it was a bit surprising to hear the band break straight into “I Will Be Glad.” “Rebellion Rises” set out his overarching ethos and “World Revolution” continued the theme, “See Dem Fake Leaders,” though aimed at the likes of Donald Trump, sounding all the more pertinent in the first few days of Boris Johnson’s dreaded premiership (the buffoon reaching the helm of this nation without being voted in by the public). “Justice” then morphed into Marley Senior territory with a “Get Up, Stand Up”/“War” medley, before “I Am A Human” brought us back to Ziggy’s personal views. “Give A Little Love,” “True To Myself” and “Wild And Free” revisited some of Ziggy’s earlier efforts, before a decent cut of “Coming In From The Cold” brought another audience singalong. “We Are The People” again emphasized the collective and “Love Is My Religion” was a bright musical note, but “Jammin” scored more audience attention. Closing out with an extended “Look Who’s Dancing,” Ziggy made the most of the moment by slipping into ragamuffin mode, as backing vocalists/dancers Samantha and Tracy went full-on into Butterfly mode. As ever, bass and drums kept things locked down tight in the rhythm section and I’m not really sure who was on keyboards and guitar, but it all hung together nicely. Ziggy later voiced his approval of climate change campaign group, Extinction Rebellion, who raised a crop circle at WOMAD this year. Nice one, Ziggy!

As weariness began to set in, it was time for a well-earned break at the Real Ale tent, sampling the likes of Barnsley, Gaucho and other delightful ruby ales, as Scottish folk band Rura raised a powerful sound in the Siam tent, with a mean fiddle player and a lively bodhran—the perfect way to end day one in the midnight hour.

Soothsayers – Photo © David Katz

Saturday began with a beautiful bang on the main stage, with the Brixton-based Soothsayers bringing their particular blend of roots reggae, Afrobeat, dub and jazz to the large gathered crowd in the glorious sunshine—“a little bit of heaven,” as BBC Radio Three’s Lopa Kothari described them, herself a longstanding champion of the group. Starting off strong with an instrumental take of Bob Marley’s “Natural Mystic” that rapidly moved in an Afrobeat direction before settling in the jazz milieu to make the most of saxophonist Idris Rahman and trumpeter Robin Hopcraft’s combined melodic skills, they soon moved on to “Remember Rico,” their moving instrumental tribute to the Jamaican trombone giant, with whom they worked for many years in different settings. With dancer/sign-language interpreter Jacqui Beckford making an expressive splash to stage left, “Human Nature” was a wake-up call to save the earth and “Overcome” a warning to resist the lies of politicians, while “Nothing Can Stop Us,” which the group had first recorded with Cornell Campbell, a bright blast of optimism with a fine guitar solo. Julia Biel then took the lead on the moving “Watching The Stars,” which apparently speaks of finding a soul mate with which to face life’s hardships, before Hopcraft got the audience involved for “Dis & Dat,” from their latest album, Tradition, another song expressing bafflement at the political hypocrisy and incompetency of our terrible present. Then, for “Eagle Song,” members of the Youthsayers youth jazz group came on stage, with three trumpeters, two saxophonist, a hot trombonist and a number of percussionists showing their budding skills; the trombonist made a particular impact, before drummer Saleem Raman upped the pace in a rousing drum solo and current bass player Emmanuel Afram kept his lines meaty and melodic throughout and keyboardist Kishon Khan of Lokki Terra provided subtle jazzy chords in the backdrop. Towards the end of the set, “Blinded Souls” had many in the audience singing along and somehow it was all over too soon; the band simply goes from strength to strength and it was a real joy to see and hear them at WOMAD.

Later in the day, the Guinean group Nimba was another audio-visual treat in the Siam tent, its many percussionists and dancers performing stunning acrobatic feats as the players perpetually whipped up the pace. Don’t miss them if they come anywhere near your vicinity—a real spectacle to behold. 

Womad 2019 – Photo © David Katz

WOMAD always runs a tight ship, so all of the bands typically begin their performances on time and the stages are spaced and scheduled so that there is seldom any bleed-through or overlap. However, because there’s always so much great music happening, deciding what to watch can be daunting. Since I had not seen him for a number of years, I made sure to catch Salif Keita’s performance on the main stage and he certainly did not disappoint, with his voice in good shape, a great band behind him and some energetic dancers towards the latter part of the lengthy set. Unfortunately, it meant that I had to miss rising jazz outfit Kokoroko in the d&b Soundscape tent, but it was great to hear tracks like “Wele Wele” again.

Channel One Sound – Photo © David Katz

British sound system legends Channel One are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year and expectations were high as they took to the d&b Soundscape arena in the midnight hour, and although enjoyable, sound issues and the selection process ultimately detracted from the set, making it far from the exemplary session held at this year’s International Dub Gathering in April. At WOMAD, again with no introduction, selector Mike Dread grabbed the packed audience’s attention from the start with Bunny Wailer’s take of “Soul Rebel”/“Run For Cover,” followed by freed jailbird, Buju’s “Destiny.” Bob Marley and The Wailers’ “Coming In From The Cold” had everybody whooping and hollering, and a vintage Culture track and a late 70s take of “Satta” satisfied the roots connoisseurs. Peter Tosh’s “Leaglize It” naturally gained approval too, with mike man Ras Caleb stoking the flames, and Bunny Wailers’ “Battering Down Sentence” went down a treat. Somehow, a shift of focus to the “UK Steppers” and “Euro Steppers” style of digital roots felt like a sideways move, though the youth in the audience had no problem with it. Nevertheless, an excess of dry ice making the air in the tent somewhat unpleasant and a muffled sound made it feel like we weren’t really hearing Channel One at their finest, and it never really became clear whether there was a noise limiter in operation or whether the engineer had technical issues. In any case, when I left the tent after 1am, it was still full of rocking young party people, who evidently enjoyed the entire proceedings.

Sunday afternoon saw me entranced by Lindigo, a maloya group from Reunion Island, their sounds of resistance proving irresistible and luring me away from Charles Hazelwood’s orchestral reworking of Kraftwerk in the d&b area. Lindigo’s percussion and chanting called on the ancestors in a style that was forged in slavery days and banned by the authorities during the 1960s, yet the group had a lot of fun with the performance too and suprisingly channelled the spirit of Nigeria’s Fela Kuti towards the end of it. The group was another of those entities that we encounter unexpectedly at WOMAD and are all the richer for the experience—do not miss them if they come anywhere near your area!

Brushy One String – Photo © David Katz

Brushy One String on the Charlie Gillett stage was another slice of unique Jamaican creativity. With a battered acoustic guitar with just one single string, Brushy had the capacity crowd with him every step of the way. The defiant “They Are Going Down,” which attacked perceived enemies, soon gave way to a playful rendition of “Just My Imagination” that had the audience singing along, before shifting back to the spirited original “Life Is For Every Man” and a humours track about “Broadway.” The original “War And Crime” was a bridge to his rendition of “Get Up, Stand Up”/“No Woman No Cry,” and he had us all cracking up with his expressive autobiographical ballad, “Play One String Play.” Later, “Lotto Song” and a number about climbing up the ladder had the determination and drive that have framed much of his peculiar tale, making him another act to catch whenever you have the opportunity.

Over at the Charlie Gillett stage, Istanbul’s psychedelic powerhouse, Baba Zula, gave an excellent performance that spoke to their commitment to breaking down the barriers. Proclaiming a disbelief in the physical and psychic borders of nationhood, class, religion and other divisive factors, the group churned through an ever-shifting sound that was simultaneously modern and ancient, often defying classification.

Over in the Siam tent, nu-mambo group Orquesta Akokan was another musical delight. This Cuban big-band where simply phenomenal, with the extremely high levels of musicianship that one expects from Havana’s musical pedigree. Led by Jose “Pepito” Gomez and backed by a slew of top-notch musicians, including a dynamite trumpeter, a brilliant bassist and a terrific timbales player, the band had us on our feet and dancing for the entire set, which flew by in an instant. It’s easy to understand how the group was signed to Daptone and they come highly recommended for any live performance.

Techo-dance laptop duo Orbital were not at all to my tastes, and their presence on the main stage says something of WOMAD’s current direction, though I was glad to catch a bit of the hybrid group Hejira, which seem ripe for fuller investigation. I ended this year’s WOMAD with a bit of Generals Hi-Fi, playing a touch of vintage dancehall and current UK roots in the Disco Bear tent, before leaving the site with a huge smile on my face. The organisers behind WOMAD still make it feel like a family operation, despite the record numbers of attendees this year; with such an array of talent on display and such a lovely vibe all over the site for the entire weekend, I’m already looking forward to WOMAD 2020.