I have never been to a WOMAD before I visited this year’s at Charlton Park. I have been to many other festivals, large and small, but never to a WOMAD. And I have to admit to not knowing what to expect when I arrived. What would make WOMAD different to other festivals? Why should you go to WOMAD rather than, say, Latitude of Bestival? Should you go to WOMAD at all?
With my clothes drying, and WOMAD now over for 09, as I reflect back on the festival I can safely say that I am glad that WOMAD was not my first ever festival. If it was then I would now expect all my festivals to have good food, excellent recycling facilities, clean(ish) toilets, and fantastic music. I enjoyed WOMAD immensely, and even in the pouring rain it has to rank up there in my top 2 festivals for character, the general vibe, and the music (the other probably being Hydro Connect which is now bi-annual).
Upon arriving, after a 5hr motorway journey which should have taken 3, we were greeted to a ground decorated with hundreds of beautiful flags, colourful stalls selling a vast variety of fair-trade and eco goods from many different countries, food stalls selling a range of exotic dishes or locally produced food (a bit of a contradiction I think, but that is a different debate!) and all surrounded by trees. Most of the stages and stalls are based in one arena at WOMAD, only a 5 minute walk from end to end, which really persuades you to make the effort to try a different band out. Only the BBC Radio 3 stage was outside the arena, based in an arboretum, the stage tucked into the trees.
Every performance on this stage was enhanced by the beauty of the location, the organisers have created a very special place to play or listen to music.
But I digress. The site looked beautiful, and a sense of fun was in the air, and I was instantly enjoying myself, eager to get the music started. The fellow festival goers were a mixture of families, ages, races and dress styles, and all weekend most looked like they were really enjoying themselves. It wasn’t the style of crowd to get stupidly drunk by 6pm, I didn’t notice any aggression all weekend, though that could have been down to the constant smell of cannabis in the air! Though there was a police presence, they kept low-key, and took a very relaxed approach to the drug; on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing is down to your own personal views.
I thought the food at the festival was pricy, in tradition with most festivals, but I also found it to be delicious. I fell in love with the food from a Thai food stall, and heard great things about the goat curry from another. But the thing which really stands WOMAD out from the other festivals was the cleanliness and recycling methods. All food in the festival was served with paper plates and wooden cutlery, all drinks into paper cups, so everything could be recycled in one of the regular well placed recycling bins. With kids getting their 10p for every plastic pint collected and returned (whoever came up with that idea deserves an award) the whole festival was the cleanest I have ever been to.
For the families there were kid’s areas, an area of children’s workshops, and many of the bands performed workshops throughout the daytime, so there was plenty of alternative entertainment to keep them happy. And then there were the bands themselves; Zambezi Express bring out the child in everyone, and Styl O’ Style would have kept any child mesmerized.
But though the festival was a friendly, colourful, tidy, fun place to be, it was still the music which triumphed. I thoroughly enjoyed the eclectic mix of music and dance on show, and I came away with a real interest in following up on bands from far off places.
The Friday’s bands included Besh o droM, from Hungary, who mix their traditional wedding band music style with Romanian, Greek, and Egyptian styles, amongst others, and play them at a speed which produces, as described by them, “1000mph musical mayhem,”. They also do it in a tremendously frenetic and fun way. The first 5 minutes of Australia’s The Black Arm Band’s set consisted of a video showing the brutal history of the Aboriginals at the hands of the English, it was a good reminder that WOMAD is not just about the music. Their set however was more positive, celebrating the now positive solidarity between the two cultures.
Solomon Burke was the headliner on the Open Air stage, and he deserves a mention even if only for the fact that he has 90 grandchildren. Yes, 90! After 50 years are performing gospel, soul and blues, it really felt like the Grandfather of Soul was onstage, and the crowd lapped up his fantastic voice and songs. From American Soul to a Mercury-nominated jazz four-piece from the UK, Portico Quartet are certainly a unique band, and they created soundscapes which captivated your attention.
On the Saturday, there were bands from Spain, India, Zimbabwe, Mongolia, Azerbaijan, Niger, France, Senegal, China, the UK, and Zimbabwe. As mentioned before, the Zambezi Express were brilliantly entertaining, bringing together Zulu dancing, township jazz and joyful exuberance. The Hypnotic Brass Ensemble entertained with their modern take on brass music, whilst Orishas from Cuba combined traditional Cuban sounds with Hip Hop from America. Sclomo & The Vocal Orchestra blew everyone away with their beat boxing, this reviewer in particular was astounded and amazed at their skill and musicianship.
Not wanted to repeat his performance from a couple of years ago, he played lot of covers in his drive to promote his new charity, Witness.org. Whether the crowd wanted to hear covers or not, it was still special to see this living legend on stage.
On Sunday the heavens opened, but it could not dampen the spirit of the crowd. With bands from Corsica, Germany, Guinea, Spain, India, Ethiopia and Argentina to name a few, you could listen to Aboriginal songwriting, Corsican capella, Balkan brass, Slovakian Gypsy music, West African R&B, Acid Jazz, Scottish Folk, Latino Reggae and punk, plus many more. The headliner of the day was Youssou N’Dour, who needs no introduction. Having first played a WOMAD in 1986, his success has brought Mbalax music from Senegal to the rest of the world, and though the rain lashed down onto the stage, it could not stop his dance rhythms and melodic guitars from lifting the crowd.
The beauty in WOMAD lies in this range and quality of music it offers. For anybody who likes something a bit different, who enjoys music in any form, and who would like to come away from a festival better educated and aware of plights and sounds from various corners of the world, there really is no competition. It really does seem to have it all. This is as far removed from a V festival or T in the Park style festival as you could get, in many ways it is more like a festival than many ‘festivals’ in the UK, which are more like rock concerts.
If I could only go to one festival next year, I think that WOMAD would be it. If you have any rhythm or soul in your blood, go, you will not be disappointed.
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