Womad is a big part of our family. We’ve been going since the now grown-up kids were small, not every year but most, starting off the summer holidays on the first weekend after school broke up. Now it’s become a weekend where the whole family comes together, relaxes and spends time with each other, with any distractions being pleasant and inspiring.
While it is principally a music festival, it has grown to include so much that it requires planning to see everything that appeals. We prefer to just wander around and, other than a couple of ‘must dos’, find what we find and enjoy what we stumble across.
The festival starts on Thursday, which is when most people turn up as the atmosphere builds very quickly as soon as the first arrivals pitch camp. The camping fields at Charlton Park are very big, much bigger in fact than the previous site at Reading where navigating back to your tent late at night with toddlers or after imbibing was next to impossible without calamity.
Every year the opening act is a collaboration between local schools and professional musicians and performers under the auspices of the Malmesbury Schools Project. This year the schoolchildren had spent four days leading up to the big day working with the artists (The Bollywood Brass Band, the Sona Lisa Dance Company, and vocalist Unnati Dasgupta) and together they provided a great curtain raiser to the weekend, really setting the mood with lively Indian rhythms and punchy brass. The children clearly enjoyed themselves, not at all fazed by the occasion and ever-growing audience, and put in a great, confident performance.
Next up on the main stage were the Juan De Marcos Afro Cuban All Stars. Juan De Marcos has a long history of taking Cuban music around the world, and at Womad his brass-heavy band were lively and soon had the crowd dancing. Sadly they were quite late on stage, and the early songs were marred by sound problems, but nobody out in the fields seemed to mind. The audience are chilled about such things and made the best of it. We had a relatively early finish on Thursday night, which was welcome after the heat of the day.
Apart from music, one of the indicators of a culture is food. It illustrates the history of a region and its peoples. Nestled in the shady arboretum in the extensive World Of Wellbeing is the taste The World Stage. Here, the musical performers cook meals from their homelands, play a few songs, and talk, expanding on their music and experiences.
Our performer and chef Friday lunchtime was Anandi Bhattacharya from Kolkata, Bengal. After a soundcheck that was so good it got a huge round of applause, we were introduced to Anandi and her band (comprising her father, the hugely respected Debashish Bhattacharya, uncle Tanmoy Bose, and Nishad Pandey). During the course of her talk, which was interspersed with spellbinding musical performances while still cooking, we learnt about the Muslim influence on Hindu food, particularly the introduction of garlic and onion.
We learnt about her early, very demanding tutelage under her father, which echoed the age-old tradition of enslavement to a guru. Now their relationship is clearly one of deep mutual respect and pride, with good natured chat bouncing between them, plain to see in the intimate setting. At the end, the freshly cooked chicken rezala and rice was served to those lucky enough to be at the front.
This is a great way to get up close to the performers and hear more about them. Questions from the audience about culture, food, music, and just about anything else are welcome. If fits perfectly with the ethos of Womad, encouraging a dialogue and knowledge of the history of cultures outside your own. This experience is repeated many times over the weekend, building bridges and understanding.
After a walk round the arboretum we found ourselves at the back of the crowd of the open air stage just after Santrofi began their performance. The eight-piece band originate from Ghana, playing a style of music known as Highlife that originated early in the 20th century and blends calypso and traditional Ghanaian rhythms. This was the first of this year’s great Womad moments and discoveries, an energetic performance with clear brass and beautiful afrobeat guitar and layered multivocal harmonies. The band fed off the audience’s enthusiasm, each urging the other to up the energy.
Santrofi were the perfect stage setters for the legendary Calypso Rose. She was a little late on stage but we could hear her whipping up her band backstage into a state of fervour, which just added to the anticipation. The band started playing as the 80-year-old singer was led on stage, carefully picking her way through the stage equipment and cables.
Once at the front, her sassy attitude came to the fore, absolutely not growing old gracefully, and loving every minute of her time on stage. Her band paid rapt, respectful attention to her as she cajoled the crowd into dancing, picking on individuals at the front who weren’t giving as much as they could, and congratulating those that were. Yet again the listeners rose to the occasion and everyone was having a great time, driven along by Rose and her band, the bassist particularly enjoying himself.
Reading the programme made me curious about Les Filles De Illighadad. Tinariwen are well known Touareg musicians that have reached the mainstream but there is clearly more to come. This female duo are led by Fatou Seidi Ghali (one of only two known women Touareg guitarists in Niger) accompanied by her cousin Alamnou Akrouni. They were joined by an unnamed percussionist who sat low down behind the cousins and played anonymously. Their sound was haunting and melancholic, deeply traditional, with immediately identifiable desert rhythms.
They seemed shy, lost in their own world, playing and singing for its own sake, and paying little heed to the large audience who’d come to see them in the Siam tent. The sound was evocative, the vocals in their own language adding to the atmosphere. Again it was a Womad moment. While not eliciting rapturous applause from the audience, they nevertheless brought a sound that you’d never hear in everyday life in the UK.
Macy Gray‘s set shortly after was one of the highlights of the festival. The whole show was an entertaining and rousing experience. The set began with the self-love anthem Sexual Revolution, with Macy amping up the feel-good factor by getting everyone to proclaim how sexy they are. From there the set continued to keep up the energy and good times, with Macy engaging with the crowd frequently. Just after the halfway mark, a cover of Radiohead‘s Creep took the crowd by surprise, but nonetheless received the second largest singalong of the night. The largest singalong was inevitably her iconic hit I Try, the final song of the set that ended the show with a real flourish, with the crowd cheering and whooping.
A wander around the festival food stalls followed to the accompaniment of Ziggy Marley playing from the outdoor stage. Clearly the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, with the reggae sounds being unmistakably Marley at the core, yet clearer and somehow updated. His set was mostly from his latest album, Rebellion Rising, which was charged with anger at current world politics, but Ziggy dipped into his father’s back catalogue towards the end of his set, playing Jamming and One Love to the delight of the fans.
An hour later I found myself at the front of the d&b Soundscape stage for LTJ Bukem’s DJ set. Acknowledged as a pioneer of drum & bass, he has been doing the rounds for just about 30 years and has released a number of well-received albums. Despite such a long pedigree, his audience were, for the most part, so young I’d guess the majority weren’t born when he made the change from musician to DJ.
In their excited anticipation of the set, the revellers at the front were vocal but very good natured. The man himself appeared a few times on the dimly lit stage before being formally announced and launching into the music carried along with an energetic MC. It was more like a party than a gig, and the tent became a tumultuous sea of arms, bodies, and legs as the fans released their pent-up energy and danced with abandon. Once going, the audience became less aware of the personalities on stage, carried along on the sonic wave and relentless 140 bpm rhythm. The show wasn’t visual at all and very dimly lit, but that wasn’t a concern to the crowd.
Starting 30 minutes after LTJ Bukem at Molly’s Bar on the edge of the campsite was ex snooker champion Steve Davis’ DJ set. I had the impression his sets were lively and great fun, more accessible to me than drum & bass, but I have to say I was disappointed. The music played was obscure and anonymous psychedelia, and while he and his partner Kavus Torabi were clearly having a great time laughing and sharing jokes, not even Kavus’ animated dancing held my or the attention of anyone more than a few rows back from the stage.
The audience became distracted and the back of the crowd drifted off to the DJs playing at the lively Lunched Out Lizards chai tent across the way. I regretted leaving LTJ Bukem’s set – the contrast was stark, both artists clearly loving what they were doing but one much more in tune with the audience and so providing a far better experience, irrespective of the music choice.
Saturday started leisurely, as we took in the vibe and watched some poets and speakers on the World of Words stage. During this I began chatting to Original Ras Korby, his surname meaning “born out of my house”. He was a typical friendly Womad punter, active in breaking down barriers and promoting the arts. He is an artist, promoter of music, peace activist, advocate of culture and art, and an environmental campaigner from South Sudan although his Jamaican-themed suit suggested otherwise. He had a firm view that people shouldn’t just take, they have to give, and help the next generation.
It was a pleasure to while away a bit of relaxed time listening to his experiences from all over the world. I mention this as an example of a typical Womad experience. The line between performers and punters is blurred, and you just don’t know who you’re standing next to or who you’re speaking to. It’s a real pleasure to be able to get to know strangers and find common ground and understanding.
I was advised not to miss the act on the Open Air Stage at 3pm. Jo Jo Abot proved to be a genre-bending performer, joined on stage by a drummer behind a normal drum kit (and driving samples and loops) and two backing singers/dancers. Jo Jo, who had a pair of tom toms and red sticks herself, and her singers wore costumes that offered an almost Gaultieresque take on tribal costumes, all black and red and very striking.
Jo Jo owned the stage with her power and passion, performing in front of clips of her in the desert and dry mountains, projecting an ownership of all around her. Her sound was big and powerful, spiritual, and commanded attention.
The sound veered across genres, an interplay between electronica and driving tribal rhythms overlaid with Jo Jo’s strong vocals and sometime harmonies with the backing singers. It’s a sound she herself has coined Afro-Hyno-Sonic. The drama reached a crescendo with It Doesn’t Have To Be This Hard, a feminist attack on the world at large suffering from selfish and entitled leadership. Her all too brief set closed with My Body My Choice, which received rapturous applause. Her refreshing, unique sound and performance made this another memorable Womad moment.
Her set over, we made a dash across to the Charlie Gillet stage to see Emmanuel Jal. He was a child soldier at seven years old, smuggled to safety by an aid worker at 11 and adopted, only for his adoptive mother to die in a car crash a few months later, and his adoptive father to disown him. This experience has inevitably shaped his music, which is how he found expression for his emotions.
The first two songs were upbeat, positive, full of energy. At one point he was so fired up he leapt into the photo pit, jumped the barrier, and sang from the audience, not a gimmick but an uncontrollable outburst. His past was really brought to the fore on the set’s third song, Forced To Sin. A spoken word piece that told the harrowing tale of his escape from the Sudanese civil war as people around him died, his best friend right next to him, it cast a silence across the audience. The sense of injustice was palpable.
The call “forced to sin” was answered “forced to sin for a living” by the audience. A powerfully emotional piece, it elicited a stuttering, subdued round of applause at the end, and a moment for reflection. Then his sister Nyaruach joined him on stage. Her story is little better, being separated from the family at the age of four, enduring horrors that no child should, and not meeting her brother again for 20 years. The music returned to a buoyant African rhythm and harmonies for a song about misplaced love. This was a thought-provoking experience and clearly affected a number of people watching, but the message was one of hope and the need to look forward and improve the world, not rail against past injustice.
The next musical highlight was Anna Calvi. She’s possibly considered to be an artist chosen as a more commercial and well-known headliner, but her set was dramatic and powerful, angry. The stage was stripped down, stark, the band minimal. The sound was loud and spacious, the lighting high contrast, all black and highlights, glare and mystery. She delivered an emotionally charged set, starting with Hunter, the title track from her latest album which provided the bulk of the set.
Her clear, piercing voice was used to great effect for Don’t Beat the Girl and she played her guitar aggressively throughout, almost destructively on Alpha. Although the set was scheduled to finish at 11pm, it finished abruptly some 15 minutes before that with no comment. The audience were clearly hungry for more of Anna’s theatrically dramatic music, but after a delay the lights came down and it was clear the show was over.
It was time to lighten up and the prospect of a Channel One Sound System set was the perfect answer. The legendary reggae sound system has a reputation going back 40 years. Playing on the d&b soundstage it was again a low-key start on the dimly lit stage, more like a soundcheck that ran into the main set, and again attended by a really young crowd full of enthusiasm and the joy of being in the moment. The bass-heavy dancey dub rhythms were lapped up by everyone, so there was a real sense of elation and release.
Elated, we set off to Molly’s Bar again to catch the end of Australian band Loonaloop’s set. It felt like a cross between a ’60s happening and a rave, the band sounding like Hawkwind fell into a ’90s underground club and got stuck there. The audience were a mix of steampunks, ravers, hippies, and all sorts. The four-piece band were communicating well with the tightly packed throng, every track whipping up a frenzy. There was a similar appreciation from the audience here as at Channel One but the tempo was up, less blissed and more lively. Simply, it was a great way to end the night.
Sunday is the day the festival children take centre stage.
Throughout the weekend they had been making colourful and clever costumes in the World Of Children for a parade around the site that takes in the bigger stages where performances are stopped as they pass. Inevitably the anniversary of the moon landings had a big influence on the costumes, which are all scrap creations. The children are accompanied by marching bands and dancers and applauded by all as they pass. Unaccompanied adults get involved too, it’s a fantastic positive way to involve youngsters and make them a big part of the weekend.
Early evening saw Gwenno take the the d&b stage. Kicking off with a word on language, Gwenno’s set took the crowd on a linguistic journey through her two mother tongues, Welsh and Cornish, exploring the relationship between language and identity. She set the scene early on with Welsh song Chwyldro, Meaning “revolution” in English, it’s a psychedelic track that encourages the audience not to forget “fod dy galon yn y chwyldro”, which means “your heart is in the revolution”.
Checking in regularly with the audience to educate us on the origins of her setlist, Gwenno kept the conversation going throughout the show. The Welsh and Cornish among the crowd responded in like, with a member of the audience leading them in a round of “Oggy, oggy, oggy” during a break in the set. “You’re good at chanting,” she responded. “That will come in useful later!”
Another highlight was Tir Ha Mor (Land and Sea) in which we were taken on a synthy, dreamy journey to the Cornish seaside. This was before we came to the explosive finish of Eus Keus? an unlikely, rousing Cornish anthem with ’80s Curesque guitar based on a traditional cheese-based exchange, which goes something like this:
“Eus Keus?” (“Is there cheese?”)
“Eus po nag eus?” (“Is there or isn’t there?”)
“Mar seus Keys, dro keus.” (“If there’s cheese, bring cheese.”)
“A po nag eus keys – dro’n pyth eus!” (“And if there isn’t cheese, bring what’s easy!”
The willing audience rose to the singalong, making for an exuberant, explosive close. Dro keus!
Cards on the table I’m a massive Robert Plant fan. I was so pleased he was playing Womad with his new project Saving Grace and looked forward to it all weekend. Robert played the d&b stage, closing the festival on Sunday night at the same time as Orbital on the Open Air stage, which was a shame as I would’ve liked to see both artists. But, faced with the choice, there was no contest. The set opened with a subdued Standing, Robert appearing on stage after the song had started, very low key, almost unobserved and singing backing vocals for Suzi Dian.
He proceeded straight into Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, which led to an almost pleading vocal of Led Zep classic In My Time Of Dying. Interestingly this didn’t elicit great cheers from the crowd hoping for a visit to previous glories. It was a sensitive moment treated with some reverence. Then Robert opened up to the crowd, cracked a few self-deprecating jokes, and commented on the thudding bass that could be heard coming from Orbital’s set. Although lighthearted, the bass was a constant annoyance drawing regular comment from him between songs. He also explained where the years-in-the-making Saving Grace project had come from, and spoke about each song, its relevance to him, or provided an anecdote about the original performers.
Cuckoo and Soul Of A Man led to a sedate Too Far From You. The harmonies had real depth, and I was glad we were in the d&b stage tent as the PA was superb, providing a rich sound with sharp clarity, and a tight bass.
Your Long Journey was followed up with Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday, and as ever Plant took songs from his past and reworked them, changing direction, adding twists, and refreshing them.
A prime example was an uptempo version of Band of Joy’s cover version form the 2010 album of the same name. Plant stood aside and watched the band play with obvious pleasure. Tony Kelsey was on the mandolin, with Matt Worley alongside on the banjo, and Oli Jefferson on drums keeping things moving along at a lively tempo. During this song we had a few vocal reminders of the Golden God, as Robert reached up to top end of his range.
A haunting She Cried, with beautiful melancholic harmonies over a sustained deep tone, continued the theme of loss, longing, and romance that seemed to run through the set, as both singers bended their notes to heighten the almost mystical atmosphere.
Moby Grape’s It’s A Beautiful Day Today came next, again reworked to sound both older and fresher than the original. Robert lightened the mood with an anecdote about the Everley Brothers recording Ray Charles’ Leave My Woman Alone, with both believing they had the lead vocal. The harmonies on the chorus really captured the essence of the Everley Brothers sound with Robert and Suzi taking alternate verses, the whole piece dovetailing perfectly.
Donovan’s Season Of The Witch was next to receive the Saving Grace treatment, and I thought it was a better arrangement than the original. Last song of the set was Patti Griffin’s Ohio, so bookending the performance with Griffin-penned tunes. Robert complimented Griffin as a great American songwriter before performing the extensively reworked cover. So different from the live release of 2012, it rose and fell, and was the strongest song of the night, with the whole band shining, giving a soaring rendition that lifted the spirits.
The band came back for an encore, playing Low’s Everybody’s Song. On a roll now, Robert really opened up and let go, reaching those distinctive tones, and making it seem effortless. It was like he could’ve done it anytime and all night, but didn’t because it just wasn’t necessary.
As the band then all gathered around a single microphone and acoustic guitar to perform We Bid You Goodnight, the magic and intimacy between the members really became apparent. They were clearly enjoying themselves and each other, all smiles and knowing looks.
It feels like this project was signposted from Page & Plant‘s Walking Into Clarksdale, taking influences along the way from the Alison Krauss collaboration Raising Sand and Band Of Joy projects. The sound ranged from Bluegrass through to ’60s West Coast acoustic. Plant was happy enriching songs as part of a band, not needing to be the big frontman, even though you could argue this band is born out of an indulgence. If there’s any justice, a live album of this group’s performance will be released. They really are something special that I’d give my right arm to experience again.
Meanwhile, Mrs. P took in Orbital and said: “They filled Womad with sound and light – so much so that Mr. Plant got to enjoy them too! Their ’80s/’90s electro dance was the perfect way to complete Womad. The brothers from Sevenoaks engaged the crowd with their rave vibe and for many took them on a trip back to their youth. Viewing them from the top of the Ferris wheel was amazing. They brought the whole site to life and created a great atmosphere of friendly energy that warmed through the crowd and left everyone feeling positive at the end of a fantastic weekend.”
So there we have it. Apart from the younger revellers wringing out the last hour or two of fun at Disco Bear or the Lizard Chai Tea Shop, Womad was over. Or almost. I ended up in the campsite medical centre until 4 am. I have to mention the staff there, volunteers from Festival Medical Services a not for profit organisation that (as the name suggests) provides medical services at festivals. They were really attentive and made a potentially very unpleasant situation tolerable with good humour. Thank you.
Throughout the weekend we dropped into various workshops, talks, and demonstrations. With a space theme to the fore, the World of Physics was particularly popular. From talks on supermassive black holes to conversations with astronauts in Texas, the experience was interesting and engaging. We got to experience photographic light painting by artist Andy O’Rourke, which entertained and amazed the kids no end and another activity that makes Womad a great place to take the whole family.
There were six music stages, two bars with DJs, two large dedicated workshop marquees, Taste The World, World of Words, Hip Yak Poetry Shack, World of Wellbeing, World of Children, and World of Physics, all offering a huge range of free activities, and some paid-for treatments. Over the weekend there were hundreds of performances, demonstrations, and workshops. Yet, even with nearly 40,000 people on site, it never felt crowded.
The site was well laid out, moving between areas was easy, nothing was far away, and (other than up front at the stages) there was always plenty of space. Charities were well represented: the Oxfam clothes stall is always very popular, and a number of specific projects had stalls to raise awareness and funds. This year there was a large Extinction Rebellion presence. They planted rows of silver birch trees either side of the stage and were very active all weekend, but not obtrusively, particularly involving children in activities that related to the environment and what can be done to slow down and stop global warming.
If you’ve never been to a festival but are considering it, Womad is a pretty good one to go to as a first-timer. There is music for all, plenty to do, good food, and if you’re squeamish about communal toilets and showers there is always the Womad spa with its hot tubs and cocktail bar.
The musical artists I’ve chosen to write about are the standout moments for me personally, mostly highs and one disappointment, but it is down to personal taste. A lot of time was spent wandering, just taking in the atmosphere of the whole event, whether browsing the stalls, relaxing in the arboretum, stopping for a few beers in one of the many bars, or enjoying the wide range of food available, from cheap gut fillers to some really top-quality meals from every part of the globe.
Womad is all about diversity and inclusivity. The range of what’s on offer would make it impossible for everything to be to everyone’s taste, but there are always moments of jaw-dropping discovery if you’re prepared to keep an open mind (not just musically) and that’s why we go. I defy anyone to spend a weekend here and not come away as a big fan of a newly discovered artist or genre of music.
Simon Partington and family were at Womad 2019 at Charlton Park, Malmesbury on 25th-29th July.