Day 2 (Saturday)
Ahhh, another beautiful morning in the south-west. After a bracing cold-water shower (shower!), a nice cuppa and a fried breakfast cooked in a wok, we were set. There were a couple of people we wanted to see, so we made loose plans and hoped to take in some bonus acts along the way. This is Womad’s true forte: the voyage of musical discovery you’re forced to embark upon. It’s inevitable you’ll only be familiar with a handful of names on the bill, unless you’re a true connoisseur of world music, so you have to experiment. Don’t like something? Move on. And if you do like something, chances are you’ll fall head over heels for it. Like when you take a punt on a CD by a group you’ve never heard of and it’s brilliant. It’s that feeling you’ve unearthed a gem that makes it feel that little bit more personal, more intimate. Thirty years have given Womad the time to perfect their formula, and its determined open-mindedness is what truly sets it apart from other music festivals.
First, we stopped to watch Raghu Dixit, who wasn’t on our radar at all. He’d made a stir in the UK with noteworthy Jools Holland and Glastonbury performances, and took ‘Best Newcomer’ at the Songlines World Music Awards in 2011. It wasn’t hard to see why. An easy chemistry with his band—he was instantly likeable and a natural performer, the songs charming and accessible. Combining the sounds of traditional Indian music with Western folk-rock, he says they “represent what India is today”—a melting pot of history, culture and globalisation. They stayed behind to sign CDs and pose for pictures with their fans in the blazing lunchtime sun, and seemed to be enjoying the festival as much as everyone else.
I was really excited about the next act on our list, but they weren’t playing until 3pm so we had a couple of hours to kill. All the cultural input had made me hungry, so we sat down to shredded rotisserie chicken and garlic mayo in a seeded bap. This may have been the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten, but that may also be a rose-tinted memory, so I’ll just say it was delicious and we’ll leave it at that. There were bargains to be had too. I bought a book of MC Escher drawings for £3 and a nice new flat-cap for a fiver. My girlfriend had other ideas, burrowing headfirst into a bucket of glowsticks. We only ended up buying about 16 billion in the end (we’d become jealous of all the other colourfully-lit camps) and made our way happily to the Big Red Tent with our swag.
We got there just before Portico Quartet were due to start and pitched up outside. The sun was too good to miss, so we made sure to set down within good earshot while still soaking up our fix of vitamin D. I wasn’t as familiar with their music as I’d liked and I was banking on a good live performance to pique my interest. They killed it. They occupy the space where deep electronica meets contemporary jazz, incorporating hypnotic beats and ambient prolonged melodies, warmed with a gorgeous double-bass, saxophones, xylophones... you name it, they make it work. These Mercury Prize-nominated East Londoners could be loosely compared to Cinematic Orchestra, but their distinct and evocative sound is entirely their own. In the end I had to watch the second half of their show inside, so I could marvel at them in action, and to hell with the vitamin D. Easily my second favourite gig of the weekend.
The hunger kicked in again soon after that and we were cooking this one ourselves, so it was back to the encampment to make tuna pasta. The problem with making pasta, in a wok, on a camping stove, in a brisk evening wind, is that it basically doesn’t work, so what was meant to take thirty minutes ended up taking ninety. As a result we had to listen to the sounds of Femi Kuti drifting over the breeze, instead of watching him live on the Open Air Stage like we’d planned. This was possibly the only real disappointment of the weekend though, so we wolfed down our al dente (read: uncooked) pasta and got back amongst it.
We peeked in at a couple of the workshops—not really my bag if the truth be told, and the cacophony of 35 amateur drummers can fast become tiresome—then went to see another DJ set back in Big Red. Secousse was a club night founded by Parisian DJ/producer Etienne Tron as an antidote to the mainstream music culture, combining dance music from all over the world—Syria, Brazil, Sierra Leone—into a dynamic blend of styles that he’s taken on the road. Though I wholly agree with the sentiment that informed Secousse, sadly much of it missed the mark for me. That was more down to my personal tastes than any shortcomings; the set itself was slick and good fun, I just found the selection uninspiring and lacking direction.
We did end the night on a high though. Blick Bassy was scheduled for 11pm in the Siam tent and while I’d never heard of him before, the programme told us to imagine “a West African version of Smokey Robinson’s falsetto,” his love of Brazilian music promising a Cameroonian interpretation of jazz fusion. It was an elegant set, Bassy’s beautifully sweet voice and luscious songs held us rapt, until they showed their diversity and broke out the up-tempo numbers, finishing with a ten-minute jam that had everyone smiling like idiots.
And so ended day two. We saw five minutes of Deolinda before we turned in for the evening and five minutes was enough. The Portuguese fado quartet were a bit tongue in cheek for my liking, all breathy vocals and cheeky strings. Alas, you can’t like them all.
Day 3 (Sunday)
Sunday was open to debate. The 9-5 was looming over the horizon at us and the forecast on every weather app and report we could find threatened a day of grey skies and heavy showers. We were prepared to leave early if things were hideously unpleasant and on waking up to the patter of rain upon the tent, we feared the worst. We decided to stick around for a while, eat some food, drink some chai, and see what happened. Come lunchtime, the clouds parted and the sun shone through, and that was pretty much how it stayed. Not only were we lucky with the weather, but by the end of the day we also had a strong feeling that the organisers had saved the best until last.
First, we saw New York rapper/beatboxer Joe Driscoll and Guinean kora player Seckou Kouyate. They were at pains to point out their collaborative work was only a few months old, but the self-effacement was totally redundant as they blazed through a dazzling set, Kouyate’s incredible kora-playing perfectly complimenting the live hip-hop of Joe Driscoll and his band. The funk was strong; I couldn’t stand still the whole time and the set just got better and better. They bowed out on a high, and Driscoll insisted everyone wave so he could take a picture to prove to his Mum he was having a good time. Bless! Their album’s due out later this year and surely worth a look.
Not long after that, we saw Jupiter & Okwess International, a Congolese Afro-funk troupe fronted by the charismatic Jupiter Bokondji. He was the leading man in Jupiter’s Dance, a 2006 documentary highlighting the wealth of musical talent in his homeland (Staff Benda Bilili also featured, stars of their own critically-acclaimed documentary). “Kinshasa is not for the eyes. It’s for the ears” he said in the film, “because in each and every house there’s a musician.” You could feel the Congo in every note and syllable; the infectious percussion and blistering riffs providing Jupiter with a rich foundation to growl and sing over in his unmistakeable baritone. And they knew how to rock the stage, man, seriously, what presence. They were my favourite act by far and I left on a buzz, unable to stop talking about what we’d just seen. They play the UK again on 8th September, at Granary Square in Kings Cross as part of Damon Albarn’s Africa Express tour, and I promise that anyone who makes the effort to catch them live will be very glad they made the effort. See you there?!
And then it was time for us to leave, which meant we unfortunately passed on what I heard was a memorable set by Robert Plant. But I’ve since thumbed back through the programme and wondered what other musical delights we missed. This is where I extol the virtues of the internet and blah blah blah, but ironically, for a few days there at Womad, I forgot all about technology and the other marvels/constricts of the modern world, and just fell back in love with music. I already can’t wait to go back.