Charlton Park, July 26-29, 2012
All words and photos by Alex Kavanagh (http://www.alexkavanagh.com/)
When you think of Womad, it’s hard not to conjure up images of middle-aged chin-strokers and families of dairy-intolerant Guardianistas tapping their Birkenstocked feet to ultra un-trendy World Music. As a newbie at the festival, which celebrated its 30th anniversary this year, I was lucky enough to be able to see it all through virgin eyes, and the preconception really didn’t match the reality.
Given the wide spectrum of acts appearing throughout the weekend, it’s inevitable that you’d enjoy some more than others, but I was having my mind blown several times a day by the high standard of music on offer. No precocious 19 year-old indie brats here; the performances were considered, well-drilled, and delivered with a heart-felt passion that brought the music to life in a way that made me feel lucky to be there.
Another pleasing revelation was the diversity of the crowds. The atmosphere is one of fun, inclusion and acceptance, staples of the Womad ethos, and you are free to be yourself. The 18-30’s aren’t absent, just diluted by all the other represented demographics. Overall the average age is older than most music festivals, so you’re wholly unlikely to find large groups of drunken lads throwing up over your shoes as they jump around to the Kaiser Chiefs. If that’s a bad thing, well, I guess I’m just getting old. Sue me bitches.
Baaba Maal, a Senegalese musician who featured in 2011, summed up the atmosphere perfectly in the festival programme: “What makes Womad so very special is the audience it attracts. They come to party, of course, but more importantly they come to listen. From the stages at Womad, I always sense that I have to give my very, very best.”
Day 1 (Friday)
A heady mix of hunger, heat and excitement drove us from the tent at an hour I’ll never grow accustomed to seeing. But sleepiness never hangs around for long if you’re doing something fun, and after arriving late Thursday night and being too tired to investigate the twinkling lights and enticing smells (samosas, curried goat, churros, weed), we were keen to get out and explore. Our first impressions were good. There were rows of Camden-style stalls to mooch around, and tall, brightly coloured flags wherever you looked. A friendly, relaxed atmosphere held sway, to a backdrop of cobalt skies and a light breeze. This was the way to start a festival.
Hugh Masekela was first on my list. After having my earbuds teased when I saw him at the Graceland show with Paul Simon at Hyde Park a few weeks back, I wanted more. The crowd at the Open Air Stage (read: main stage), to a man, sat with wide grins in anticipation. We knew what we were in for: the man’s strong, coarse voice, inherently musical, and warm South-African grooves that cannot fail to make you happy. It was a well-judged move kicking things off with such a seasoned vet, and it set things up nicely for the weekend ahead.
Then, a walk several metres to the right took us inside the Siam tent ready for the next performance. This is another of Womad’s great strengths. The arena where the majority of the music takes place is just the right size – big enough that there’s plenty of space, and the music doesn’t flood the entire site – small enough that you can cover several different stages in an afternoon without feeling like you’ve walked across a county. The acts are staggered too, giving you a chance to catch as many as possible. All terribly thoughtful. It’s almost as if they want you to enjoy yourselves. Next, and possibly the most exotic in the entire line-up of Womad 2012, were Narasirato. Hailing all the way from the Solomon Isles, they play a style of music simply called ‘bamboo’, a dizzying whirlwind of polyrhythmic sound and energetic dance, making pan-pipes do things you never thought were possible. (I may or may not re-edit this line to make it sound slightly less Carry-On-Camping).
We happened upon Ane Brun on the Friday afternoon too, a Norwegian singer most recently featured on Peter Gabriel’s New Blood album. After eight strong albums of her own in ten years, you’d think she’d be better known; as it was this turned into a pleasant surprise and one of the highlights of the weekend. Brun’s haunting voice quietened the watching crowd, transfixed by her ethereal songs. It was a majestic and captivating performance, and although perhaps better suited to an evening slot, the people that were fortunate enough to see it were clearly charmed. Take a listen:
The Peatbog Faeries were in full swing when we strolled back toward the main arena, their high-octane Celtic beats unmistakeable across the warm air. Their mix of accessible fusion, irresistible folky sound and flawless playing at tempo is made for dancing (as you can see). A real crowd-pleaser.
Next came something really special. I had overhead snippets of conversation all day; there was a genuine buzz about Roysten Abel’s Manginayar Seduction. It was no secret of course, and freely available to view online, but I had made a point of saving myself, as it were, for the big event. Inspired in part by the red light district of Amsterdam (“…the seduction of the body. This show is the seduction of the soul”, described Roysten Abel), its four-story construction loomed over the stage like a behemoth, promising musical wonders and a visual spectacular. Made up of 36 man-sized boxes, each covered with a red curtain and ringed by naked lightbulbs, it came to life slowly, each box illuminating the musician within as their respective contributions became part of the piece. Their Rajasthani instruments and folk songs gained momentum, as did the lightshow, all coming together for a spine-tingling crescendo. Truly unlike anything I have ever seen, and definitely another highlight. If the picture doesn’t quite convey the brilliance of the concept, take a look at this:
After that, we’d planned to watch the remainder of the Olympic™ opening ceremony™ at a large open-air screen in the campsite bar, but we changed our minds. Sky+ had been tasked with making this a Monday lunchtime comedown-o-rama upon our return, and besides, there was far too much to discover, especially now the sun was falling in the sky and everything looked so purdy. Instead, Jimmy Cliff’s set on the Open Air Stage provided the soundtrack to our evening wander. Again, I’d seen him briefly at the Paul Simon gig and wasn’t overly bothered about paying too much attention. The use of his somewhat middle-of-the-road songs to advertise everything from Warburtons to the Conservative Party has dulled his already limited appeal. Instead we raved it up for an hour or two in the Big Red Tent (the scene of more personal highlights from Day 2) to the international beats of Maga Bo. A Rio-based producer with an impressive list of collaborations (Mulatu Astatke, Issa Bagayogo), he blends a diverse mix of styles from samba to dubstep, and the much younger crowd packed inside were suitably appreciative for all the hedonistic beats. We headed slowly back toward our tent and stopped en route to hear Revere playing on the Charlie Gillett stage, who were doing their best bad impression of Joy Division. Or The Editors. It was hard to tell. I don’t think they were entirely sure themselves.
Part 2 to follow, including: Portico Quartet! Jupiter & Okwess International! NZ Shapeshifter! And more glowsticks than are socially acceptable!