World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) was established by Peter Gabriel in Reading some 28 years ago – making the leap into the Wiltshire countryside in 2000 – and has become something of an institution for the scores of hippies, lefty middle classes, and families who make the trip every year. With no corporate sponsorship or earth-shattering headliners WOMAD lacks the hysteria endemic at the major festivals, instead reducing its visitors to a groovy pulsating mass, concerned only with a having a good time
Early birds arriving on Thursday are in for a treat. First off live drum and bass quartet The Bays unveil their new project. Since 1998 the group have been pushing the boundaries of performance, improvising whole shows without rehearsal. But tonight they’ve stepped things up a notch. Composers Simon Hale and John Metcalfe sit stage right on their laptops; scoring an accompaniment to The Bays, which is sent via a network of LCD screens to the Heritage Orchestra centre stage, who play it on the spot.
Feeding off each other like some kaleidoscopic musical circuit the spectacle is awe-inspiring. Combined, the drifting textures of electronica, fizzing combo of live bass and drums and the elegant orchestral rushes create something truly unique, transcending the sum of their parts into uncharted musical territory. The festival has barely begun and already this odd collective have stirred the tent into a frenzy of flailing limbs.
On Friday morning with a yell and the pounding of drums, WOMAD begins. Grinning from ear to ear and leaping high in the air, the Drummers of Burundi stride out onto the Main Sage setting the beat for the weekend. The untimely death of former WOMAD patron and dedicated world music fan Charlie Gillet hangs heavy in the air this year, and as the newly renamed Charlie Gillet stage is opened Mr Gabriel himself emerges to pay tribute and introduce Gillet’s final tip for the top: Zoo For You. This (very) young band demonstrate a grasp of funk and Afrobeat that belies their British origins. Cracks are visible but with time and breaks like this they may well go far.
That afternoon the atmosphere is shattered by Palestinian rap trio DAM (Da Arabian MCs) who spit tales of the injustice and hatred enveloping their home in guttural Arabic. They have the passion for a crowd twice this size but the sense to lighten the mood with a few toilet jokes. As they perform, footage of life in the occupied territories plays on screens behind them. The combination of the group and this film offers a real insight into a generation born into violence. Unfortunately though it was the music of Eminem and other hyper-successful American MCs that filtered through to Palestine and inspired these boys. Thus the music never strays far from a pretty derivative base point of stark beats and breaks. Sadly the idea of DAM is more interesting than the reality.
That evening, while wheelchair-bound Congolese beggars Staff Benda Bilili softly soundtrack the sunset on the main stage, SOIL & “PIMP” SESSIONS howl into the darkness. The Japanese six-piece play self-styled ‘death jazz’, a hyperactive and fiercely intelligent collision of free jazz and heavy metal. Their songs screech in all directions as each member attempts to wrestle control for themselves and dash off on their own deranged little tangent.. Signed to Gilles Peterson’s Brownswood label they approach their music with an intensity and power rarely seen in jazz. Frontman Shacho’s sole role is to keep the audience on the boil, leaping around and screaming at us for a response which we dutifully return.
The show is stolen and not even Afrobeat legend Tony Allen can win it back. He may outrank every drummer in the world right now but he looks as though he isn’t even trying. After S+P you don’t half wish he’d get a little bit excited.
First stop on Saturday is with undisputed breakthrough act of the festival: Rango. Story goes that mainman Hassan Bergamon is the world’s last living exponent of rango, a trance-inducing mystical music originating amongst slaves deported from Sudan in the 19th century. Save for Hassan the entire genre was eliminated by the religious establishment in Egypt and Sudan. Built around a xylophone-like instrument also called a rango the songs utilise a variety of drums, a lyre-like instrument called a tanbura and tribal chanting. This particular rango is nearly 200 years old and one of only three left in the world. Their rickety call and response grooves may not be raucous, but cannot fail to lighten your mood and get you dancing. It has been specifically designed, through shamanic rituals, to send you into a hypnotic state. Thus – unassuming as they may be – by Sunday and the end of Rango’s final show the audience is so desperate for more that their manager emerges to plead for an encore with the stage manager desperate to pack up and go home.
The crowdpleasing award of the weekend must go to LaBrassBanda, a young quartet from Bavaria, whose childhood playing together in (you guessed it) a brass band, laid the foundations for the simmering blend of funk/techno/gypsy jazz on display tonight. Rocketing along at tremendous speed the group are possessed of a tension capable only of lifelong collaborators. The tuba-player, introduced as ‘the beast of Bavaria’ looks as though he might explode; squeezing out more notes per second than you would have believed possible, beatmatching the rap that tumbles out of the singer’s mouth in breathless German. If this sounds utterly ridiculous and beyond the bounds of taste then you must understand that I cannot even begin to convey how inexplicably strange and amazing it is to see live. At one point the band set the crowd singing a melody and clapping a beat while they all pile offstage with their instruments and march through the crowd, playing along to our accompaniment. The whole stunt takes nearly five minutes as they circle the whole tent but the audience is still singing and clapping their hearts out as they clamber back onstage and launch straight back in on the beat.
Gil Scott Heron may be the most famous name on the poster this weekend but the name on everyone’s lips is Salif Keita. The albino singer – who traces his bloodline back to the founding dynasty of Mali – found international success in the 80s blending African music with Western pop sensibilities on ‘Soro,’ a crossover hit. Yet since 2000 he has returned to his roots, producing beautiful acoustic records like ‘Moffou’ and ‘M’bemba’ which have elevated him to the status of royalty among his fans. He strides out on stage leading the finest band of the weekend. In a festival packed out with exceptional musicians this is a truly world class performance. Keita’s songs are gorgeous blends of composition and assured improv which he conducts with an assured calm. He barely even uses the voice that won him so much and yet he carries the audience in the palm of his hand. A giant – unprecedented in world music – Salif Keita is a wonderful example of the opportunities for diversity and evolution inherent to the genre. This man breathes pure music, sweeping away pretenders to his throne with effortless style and grace.
Much of what is so refreshing about WOMAD is demonstrated by the first performance on Sunday. Opening the main stage, the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars play music so sweet and sun kissed it’s hard to believe their traumatic story. Among the thousands displaced by civil war in the 90s the group began playing together in refugee camps to pass the time and raise their spirits. Yet borne out of this tragic event comes a sound that can set several thousand stuffy, apathetic Brits dancing under an overcast sky.
As evening approaches the arena has cleared a little as an enormous crowd squeezes into the Siam Tent to catch Afro Celt Sound System’s comeback show. WOMAD is of special significance for the group as it was where they performed their first show, and today 15 years since their last appearance they are hosting something of a love-in. The rest of us make the most of the space to jostle into the main stage where a silent audience wait patiently for a legend. When Gil Scott Heron strolls out, seating himself alone behind a Fender Rhodes, any worries that he might not have made it evaporate into applause. When he speaks silence falls again. Listening to Heron jabber on about volcanoes and disappearing tricks is almost as good as listening to his music. But not quite. For when he sings the whole field is enveloped in his crackling voice and the soft hum of the Rhodes. He plays a ragtag collection of covers and obscure oldies while he waits “for his boys to arrive,” which they do halfway through ‘Winter In America‘. Comeback album ‘I’m New Here’ is barely touched upon save for an airing of ‘I’ll Take Care Of You,’ transformed into a ballad as Heron slopes around the stage playing the crooner, stepping back into the shadows to make way for a flute solo. Set against a chequered history of drug addiction, jail terms and a lengthy drift into obscurity it’s wonderful to see this old gent so content and humbled by the reverence with which he’s treated. It’s a wonderful performance infused with emotion and nostalgia. Gil Scott Heron’s tour this summer has become a reconciliation with himself, his fans and his legacy. Nothing else could have closed the weekend quite as well.
WOMAD is a quietly growing phenomenon unrivalled in it’s eclecticism and laid back righteousness. A few miles from the quaint village of Malmesbury numerous different cultures and sensibilities collide in a celebration of sound. If you can set aside your cynicism you’ll find an event that celebrates musical talent, beauty and diversity, with a sense of the spectacular refreshingly free of ulterior motives. Even without knowing any of the bands this festival would still be worth it’s ticket price as you are guaranteed to stumble on at least one moment of magic among a thousand sights and sounds that will make you smile. World music is rapidly outgrowing it’s crusty reputation as conventional Western genres expand and bleed into it, searching for something fresh and ‘4REAL‘. As common ground and inspiration is found among artists working across the globe and in different fields, a term as crude as ‘world music‘ will cease to be relevant. WOMAD is pushing this process forward year by year. All hail Gabriel.