Where does one start writing about a festival as diverse and multicultural as WOMAD? So much more than simply another music festival on the UK calendar, the World Of Music And Dance (WOMAD) is a celebration of the wonderful and diverse world of expressive art through various mediums, with music at the heart.
This year, Leftfield performing Leftism for the last time, Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, and electronica legends Thievery Corporation headlined the festival. However, it is the fantastic line-up of foreign and UK talent that exposed the audience to new vibes and sounds from around the globe.
In years past, WOMAD has been known, not only for its amazing line-up and great community-spirited atmosphere but also as a place where people with ohm tattoos could let their freak flag fly without being judged. Traditionally a family festival, WOMAD is quickly becoming an attractive event for the younger generation in their late teens and twenties with a line-up featuring some of the UK’s hottest hip-hop, afrobeat, and alt-jazz artists, and activities gear towards the younger crowd, such as the ‘teenager only activities tent’ that featured its own schedule of open-mic sessions.
A multi-cultural celebration of diversity, 90 acts with artists from over 130 countries performed for over 30,000 people on the five main stages and an array of smaller stages, some of which were powered entirely by renewable energy. But it’s what lies beyond the music that makes WOMAD such a magical place.
In the Taste the World tent, well-known musicians, such as Dobet Gnahoré, cooked dishes from their home country while singing and talking the audience through it and eventually sharing the food with everyone, or at least the lucky ones in the front.
There was the World of Wellbeing, to relax and rejuvenate from an evening of dancing, the World of Words where poetry was presented and talks were held, the Physics Pavilion, where some of the world’s leading physicists would push your grey matter to breaking point.
Dotted around the festival there were numerous workshops on anything from Salsa Dancing to Meditation. What really impressed me was the World of Children, a huge area dedicated for children to learn, explore, play, and create with hundreds of free activities throughout the day on this year’s theme of insects. The creative outputs throughout the weekend culminated in a procession around the festival where children could show off the sculptures they had built or the percussion skills they had learned.
Unfortunately, as with so many things these days, there is no getting around talking about Brexit. As a result of tighter immigration restrictions, Sabry Mosbah (Tunisia), Wazimbo (Mozambique), and some members of Tal National (Niger) were declined entry to the UK and had to pull out of the festival or play with a smaller ensemble.
Festival founder Peter Gabriel told the Radio Times that ‘artists have accepted our invitation and then looked into the visa process and told us, sorry we’re just not going to do this. That’s a situation we should be ashamed of.’ Festival organiser Chris Smith also criticised the difficulties artists had with their visa applications as more performers had declined invitations to the festival than in previous years because of the Home Office’s difficult visa application process.
However, the news of bands not performing because of immigration problems, which was conveniently delivered as pop-ups on the WOMAD app, did not dampen spirits and other bands quickly stepped up to play additional sets. This is what the spirit of WOMAD is about. Over the long weekend, there were so many wonderful and highly entertaining artists that came from all around the world to perform for the adoring and openhearted crowds.
With so much fantastic music, performances, activities, workshops, cooking, and talks going on, I had to plan my weekend carefully, if I was going to see all the bands who captured my imagination when I checked them all out online in the weeks leading up to the festival. The nature of big multi-stage festivals is that inevitably there will be clashes, but I was able to see the majority of ear-marked bands and a few unexpected gems. All performances were of the highest order, but a handful particularly tickled my musical taste buds.
Kicking off with one of the UK’s hottest hip-hop artists, London-based Kojey Radical took about two seconds to get everyone bouncing along to the deep rhythms of his distinctly east London sound. A wonderful feature of WOMAD was that some of the English-speaking and lyric-heavy acts had simultaneous British Sign Language translators on the side of the stage, in cases drawing bigger applause when introduced than members of the band. What a great idea!
Last year, a friend told me about a band, local to me, that I absolutely had to see: K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade. Somehow, I never managed to catch them, but when I saw them on the line-up, I knew this was my chance. From now on, I will listen more closely to my friend! K.O.G. and the Zongo Brigade brought the most wonderful Ghanaian Afro-Fusion coupled with lush funky UK hip-hop to WOMAD and definitely made their way onto quite a few playlists.
Following the young guns of UK hip hop and afro jazz, it was time for some of the longer-standing bands, who come with their own following of fans who ‘have seen them a million times, man’. UK’s much-loved funk soul reggae jazz outfit, The Herbaliser, have been going for 25 years now and were joined by hip-hop artist Rodney P for their set.
Watching a band play, who have been playing together for so long, is like watching two familiar footballers anticipate each other’s moves. Everything flowed in the same direction with an effortless harmony between instruments and perfect timing. I’m glad that I got to see The Herbaliser again, and hope that they will play more UK dates in the near future.
Playing their seminal album Leftism live for the last time, Leftfield drew in the crowds to headline Friday evening. With every ounce of energy as when it was first released 23 years ago, the pumping house music of Leftism was the perfect way to end my first day. With so many bands on show, it is often easy to become musically saturated. However, Leftfield brilliantly captivated the audience and there were smiles, laughs, dancing, nodding, and good mood all around.
With Friday’s ephemeral smell of sunscreen slowly fading, things cooled down a little, weather-wise at least, on Saturday, and a light breeze made it more enjoyable to dash through crowds from one stage to the next. WOMAD did a great job, not putting on bands on adjacent stages, so getting from one stage to another was made easier.
It would be impossible to talk about Saturday without mentioning the manic craziness of Belgian Balkan-Brass band KermesZ a l’Est. Decorating the stage with taxidermy and sculptures worthy of even the darkest David Lynch movie, shooting confetti from a trombone wearing a gimp-mask over the finest mullets I have seen in years, could only be described as one of the calmer moments of their performance. Traditionally street performers, KermesZ a l’Est brought joy and unrestrained smiles to the festival. Merci, les gars!
Following the spectacle that was KermesZ a l’Est it was time for a wild performance of a different kind and one I had been looking forward to for a while. Performing on our shores for the first time, Gaye Su Akyol owned the Big Red Tent with her powerful and musically seductive Turkish folk-rock laced with wonderful instrumental interludes. Not many people can pull off a golden cape and thigh-high silver boots but somehow it made perfect sense listening to Gaye Su Akyol’s wonderfully bohemian yet provocative performance, proclaiming that ‘things are getting worse, not just in Turkey’.
Continuing on a rockier theme, and one of my highlights of the weekend, London-based Ezra Collective put on a show of highly energetic afro beat Jazz punctuated with some of the finest hip-hop around. A true massage for my creative senses. Ezra Collective played as much for each other as for the crowd, and this translated into one of the most memorable, super-tight, and rather slick sets of the festival. The Collective are on European tour throughout the summer and back playing in the UK in November. Do yourself a favour and go see them.
So far Saturday had been wild, and Ivorian Dobet Gnahoré was not going to change that. Gnahoré’s performance mixing traditional themes with modern electronic music was a beautiful combination of singing and dancing alike. Despite being one of Africa’s most acclaimed female voices, ever-smiling Gnahoré remains true to her roots and later prepared a traditional African dish for everyone at the Taste the World stage.
Heading to the d&b Soundscape tent, to see one of Israel’s hottest acts, you could hear the crowd singing along to Camille’s rendition of the Dead Kennedy’s song about being too intoxicated for intimate relations. Despite main acts, such as Camille, performing on the bigger stages, the politically outspoken Israeli singer-songwriter Noga Erez filled the d&b Soundscape tent with her spell-binding and hard-hitting electronic pop.
The d&b Soundscape tent was a new addition this year, with its highly advanced speaker system that tracks artists on stage and no matter where you are in the tent, it delivers a perfectly balanced 3D soundscape. The technology is a little too much for me to go into, but do check it out, it’s mindboggling. The rest of my evening was spent sitting in a field letting the rhythmic afro beat of Amadou & Mariam wash over me before calling it a day, a very beautiful day at that.
Sunday night, Zeus decided to open the heavens and to turn the dried-out fields of Charlton Park into a muddy affair. But even the strong winds and heaviest rains couldn’t dampen the great mood of everyone and the rains soon stopped. Thor decided to pay a couple more visits throughout the day but these were short-lived and nowhere as bad as in years past. as most of Sunday remained dry with only the smallest of drizzles.
The first days of WOMAD had been spectacular and when Basque folk outfit Korrontzi started playing at midday on Sunday, it was clear that the final day had something special in store. Korrontzi performed traditional Basque folk songs, with two wonderful dancers performing traditional Basque dances along with the music. Ambitiously, they even got the audience to sing along in Euskara, a language notoriously difficult to master. Sunday was off to a great start.
Lending proof to the fact that the UK Jazz scene is very much alive and kicking with both legs, Yazz Ahmed’s Haifa Band performed wonderfully mellow psychedelic Arabic jazz, transporting the audience to magical and mystical places far away.
WOMAD’s core philosophy is to bring people and cultures together to form a unique fusion of artistic expression and diversity. French-Colombian band Pixvae embodied this sentiment not only in nationality but also musically, marrying traditional Latin chants with deep, sometimes heavy, French jazz-rock, in what Pixvae dubs Latin core.
It was impossible not to fall in love with the hypnotic rhythms, spellbinding singing, and immaculate guitar playing from the very first bar. Pixvae was a definite highlight, not only for me but for many of those who watched them perform on the main stage.
If you spend a lot of time browsing video clips of buskers on YouTube, you will inevitably have come across Too Many Zooz performing their version of brass house music in New York City’s subway. But the trio is much more than a viral internet sensation. Dressed in colours, reminiscent of 90’s De La Soul, the three musicians killed it with their foot-stomping, shuffle-dancing instrumental house music interspersed with tight jazz excursions in front of a predominantly young crowd.
Tipped as one of the bands to watch, BCUC from Soweto, South Africa, easily exceeded expectations and left hundreds of fans jumping with their drum-intensive songs that went straight to your soul. Drawing inspiration from traditional ritual and church songs but spicing them up with modern rap and a punk attitude, BCUC beautifully captured the spirit of traditional sounds of South Africa.
Rounding off the festival was dub reggae electronica band Thievery Corporation. With drilling baselines and percussive rhythms supporting a range of soul and hip-hop guest singers, Thievery played songs from their latest release Treasures from the Temple through to their first album Sounds From the Thievery Hi-Fi. I run out of superlatives to describe the positive vibes and immaculate sound of their set, but it left me listening to their Culture of Fear and The Temple of I & I albums for the next couple of days.
I can say without a doubt that WOMAD was one of the most entertaining, well-organised, and friendliest festivals I have ever been to. It is not often that I wake up on Monday morning left with such a serious case of the festival blues. I for one fondly remember opening my mind that little bit further taking in what the world of music and dance has to offer and cannot wait for July 2019 and the next instalment of WOMAD. Namaste!
Review and Photography of WOMAD Festival 2018 on 26 July to 29 July 2018 by Gunnar Mallon.