Last weekend’s Womad Festival offered a huge variety of music and an equally diverse range of weather: First two days of heatwave, which meant it was too hot to be in a tent after 8 a.m. Then an in-between-day with clouds and some showers and finally gale force winds and heavy rain that came at tents horizontally. I consider myself quite an experienced festival camper yet I have never had my tent flooded before. Apparently the ground was so dry that the rain could not sink in. My stuff wasn’t half as muddy as it sometimes gets, but definitely much wetter.
Thankfully the music was top-notch and it was all worth it. I only get to go to Womad when it does not clash with the Cambridge Folk Festival and this is a shame, because Womad is wonderfully different. The absence of Glastonbury this year meant that I had done my homework thoroughly and my shortlist of must-sees turned out to be fab.
These were the best:
1 DOBET GNAHORÉ
Dobet is a singer/songwriter/dancer/model from Ivory Coast. I had seen her previous Womad appearance in 2010, and liked her back then, but she has completely gone and reinvented herself. I remember her as quite mellow and melodious, but now we saw a powerhouse of a performer, who put on a spectacular show. Dobet was accompanied by three musicians and she used simple props to reinforce her message about celebrating life and empowering women. A fabulous gig; remember her name! Dobet also attracted the largest army of photographers of the weekend.
The following day I went to see her at the Taste The World stage, which invites guests to cook a dish from their country, whilst talking about their music, their country and their life, and there are some songs too. Dobet charmed everyone with her stories and her wicked laugh. The food smelt great though I did not get to try any.
2 B C U C
Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness are a 7-piece from Soweto, who had caught my ear on a Songlines CD. Now how am I going to describe their music? It is tribal, loud and in your face. The singer reminded me of James Brown; sometimes also of Bruce Springsteen in preacher-mode. The music is edgy and funky, but there is also a girl with a beautiful voice who sings lovely melodies. And it is a spectacle. If I hadn’t been so blown away by Dobet Gnahoré they would have been my number one. Many people I spoke to in the campsite on Monday declared them their highlight of the festival. The CD sold out before I could get it. Also the first time I have ever seen a moshpit at a world music gig. Fabulous!
3 CAOIMHÍN Ó RAGHALLAIGH
Caoimhín is best-known as the guy with the Hardanger fiddle out of the Gloaming, but I also remember seeing him way back in Bewleys Theatre in Dublin accompanying Waterboy Steve Wickham. At Womad Caoimhín was doing a solo show in the d&b Soundscape tent. d&b are a loudspeaker specialist who have their own stage at Womad. Their tent previously suffered from sound overspill, but better scheduling (not overlapping with adjacent stages) resolved that. Caoimhín played long medleys and improvisations, speaking briefly in between. It was hypnotic and mesmerizing.
This was on the Sunday, when I had woken up in a flooded tent with all my stuff wet. I didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night, but I wasn’t going to miss any of the music. After an hour of listening to Caoimhín I felt as if my head had been cleansed and everything was going to be okay (it was).
Talisk are from Scotland and they are guitarist Graeme Armstrong, fiddler Hayley Keenan and wizard Mohsen Amini on concertina. Mohsen is the current BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards Musician of the Year, and he had charmed me with his simple acceptance speech at the awards ceremony in Belfast back in April. This is as fast and furious as trad gets, and they were in a perfect slot at 20:15 Saturday night at the Charlie Gillett stage. It was all instrumentals; a few slow ones but mostly fast, building, and faster. Good trad can whip a crowd up better than a techno rave and Talisk are masters at this.
And this is only one of the bands that Mohsen Amini is a member of. No wonder he was sipping Red Bull in between songs. Just in front of me coincidentally were Cara Dillon and several facepainted little Lakemans, who I noticed don’t protect their hearing, despite this being a riproaringly loud trad gig.
This four men band from Kraków take you back to Poland in between the wars. They have taken poems from the 1920s and 30s (anti-communist, anti-bolshevik) and turned them into punk, played with banjo, clarinet and tuba. I guess you’d have had to have been there. One band member explains in a very pleasant manner what the songs are about. The banjo player (who looks like Robert Carlysle in the original ‘Trainspotting’) steals the show with his mad antics, disappearing into the crowd several times. They went down incredibly well at the Charlie Gillett stage, receiving the longest applause and demands for encores I witnessed over the weekend.
6 SHARON SHANNON
I love Sharon Shannon, and have done so since first seeing her with the Waterboys back in 1989. She never disappoints. I made a point of arriving early to get front row. Sharon and band always bring the magic and at the end of the show there isn’t a single person who is not smiling. Some achievement. They played the staples that they cannot leave out (‘Mouth of the Tobique’, ‘Galway girl’, ‘Music for a found harmonium’) but also five sets from their latest album ‘Sacred Earth’. The album was co-produced by Justin Adams and features Seckou Keita on kora, and this being Womad I had hoped they might do something special. As it happened it was the usual quality show from Sharon, Jim, Sean and Jack. I have been good and bought only two CDs over the weekend. One of them was Sharon’s - ‘Live in Minneapolis’.
7 KIMMO POHJONEN SKIN
I discovered Kimmo Pohjonen when I heard his album ‘Kielo’ in Borders record shop back in the day. I loved his unusual sound and have followed him from afar ever since, but this was my first time seeing the great man live. Kimmo Pohjonen studied at the famous Sibelius Academy in Helsinki and describes himself as an accordion adventurist and indeed his music could not be further removed from Sharon Shannon’s, although he did include a traditional Finnish polka towards the end. The band Skin consists of Kimmo plus a female drummer and guitarist. All three sing wordless sounds and they make a glorious strange and slightly scary noise. Kimmo looks the part too, with his mohican and a skirt like a butcher’s apron. This was the last show on Sunday in the Siam tent and what a fitting finish.
Another unusual Finnish act, Tuuletar are a female vocal quartet. They perform without instrumentation, though they encorporate beatboxing. This is a show that would be equally at home in a theatre. It included a Finnish poetry slam, where audience members had to pick a page in a book and the girls improvised at breakneck speed from there. There was some joiking too, which I particularly liked.
9 MAÂLEM HAMID EL KASRI
Another name that was unknown to me, but my research revealed that Hamid has many classic albums on iTunes. He sings and plays a three-stringed bass lute, and is accompanied by four men in dresses and elaborate headgear with percussion instruments. His playing and singing sounds Arabic to my untrained ears, but the call and response interchange with the four men was like desert blues. They went down really well with the large and wonderfully attentive Siam tent crowd. We had to participate in some complicated rhythmic clapping. A wonderful gig.
10 MARI KALKUN
Atmospheric Baltic music from Estonian singer Mari Kalkun, who played accordion and an instrument I believe is called a zither. She was accompanied by a girl who played keyboards and drums. This gig took place in the Arboretum, a lovely open space in the forest where the audience tend to sit down to listen. Mari is a storyteller too and came across as a really nice person. Her music reminded me of that other great Estonian, Maarja Nuut.
When Hanggai played Womad in 2010 they were the surprise of the festival for me and in fact my number one over the entire festival season that year. They have gained some members, gotten slightly rockier, had an album produced by Bob Ezrin and won a Chinese X Factor type show - something I wish I didn’t know (however, I didn’t abandon Dervish after Eurovision, so I shouldn’t dismiss Hanggai; it is hard enough for bands to survive these days). The band are from Inner Mongolia in China, but identify as Mongolian. Despite the rock influences their music has throatsinging, a morin khuur (horsehead fiddle) and a lot songs about horses. They also have an entertaining rocker frontman who addressed the crowd enthusiastically and at length in either Chinese or Mongolian.
I was standing right at the barrier behind the photographer’s area, and in front of me was a girl who was seated and sketching on a tablet. I had never seen that done before and it was fascinating to watch. I have since discovered that she works under the name ‘gigsketchart’ (www.gigsketch.co.uk). Check her out.
12 AMADOU & MARIAM
Probably the biggest name on the bill. I have seen Amadou & Mariam from Mali many times over the years and they always put on a quality show. I recently read Amadou’s biography which gave me an added interest. I know that from a very early age on Amadou took his music incredibly seriously. He felt that as a blind boy in a poor country it was the only way he could avoid becoming a beggar. Amadou is now 63. How nice to see how successful he and his wife have become. They attracted a huge enthusiastic crowd at the main stage, despite the rain on Saturday night.
Calan are a Welsh quintet, two guys, three girls. Their show had instrumental numbers and songs, sung in Welsh. There was footstomping, Welsh step dancing and they have a stand up harpist. Rock ‘n roll! Despite looking very young the band have been together for twelve years. They played the Charlie Gillett stage, which had a particularly strong line up this year. The stage is presented by BBC Radio 3 with Lopa Kothari and Kathryn Tickell as compères.
14 EVIE LADIN & KEITH TERRY
This duo are based in Oakland, California. Evie plays the clawhammer banjo and has a great voice. She is also a songwriter and she comes up with the clapping arrangements and percussive dancing that they do. Keith is almost more like a circus artist or a comedian. He does ‘body music’. They put on a very entertaining show, although at times I found myself wishing that they would cut down on the audience participation and joking and play more of Evie’s songs, which are really good.
15 WHISKEY SHIVERS
From Texas. I don’t think they could have been from anywhere else. Whiskey Shivers are a bluegrass five piece, fronted by a fiddler with a mullet, glasses and a farmer’s tan. The band played the ‘innocent Americans abroad’ card very well and had no difficulty winning over the early afternoon audience in the Big Red Tent. The guys are very talented instrumentalists, perhaps a bit lacking in a strong vocalist. They did a lovely cover of the Cure’s ‘Friday I’m in love’. They will be the opening act at Cambridge Folk Festival and I am sure they will go down a storm there.
I like my 90s techno and I had been looking forward to this full album show of the classic ‘Leftism’. Dance music and live concerts remain a problematic proposition though. It is not very interesting to watch two men behind keyboards. They brought a live drummer, but I wondered why they bothered with that when many other instruments, and John Lydon’s voice, all came from tape. It sounded magnificient (top marks to all the sound people working at Womad; it was superb) and there were some visuals projected behind the stage, but all in all it was a disappointing headline show.
As this report illustrates I had a wonderful festival and it is my hope that Womad may continue for many years to come. This may not be getting any easier in the current climate. Peter Gabriel wrote a Letter to the Editor about this, published in The Times on 1st August: