WOMAD festival, UK edition, hosted in the quiescent Charlton Park Estate, Wiltshire, happens annually on the final weekend of July and has been functioning as a cultural celebratory carnival for the past 35 years. With the festival scene in Britain becoming somewhat saturated over the last five, many are not able to bear the enlarging competition. However, remove the acronym and Peter Gabriel’s vision of a World of Music, Arts and Dance is firmly anchored by its robust ethics and loyal frequenters; showing no signs of suffering. If you’re a fan of cultural pluralism, social diversity and music or instruments you may never have heard before, then this is the fiesta for you!
Spending time at WOMAD is an effective way to raise your consciousness and vibration; even if spirituality isn’t your usual philosophy. With a stage set in the enchanting arboretum sponsored by Ecotricity (Britain’s Greenest electricity supplier), copious recycling opportunities and more choice of massage and meditation than you can shake an incense stick at; it is quite difficult not to be wooed by this festival’s charm and available escapism. Alongside topical interviews, talks and debates on the World of Words stage and from inside the Hip Yak Poetry Shack the options are endless.
Food, music, craft and produce from all over the world can be found within this intimate 40,000 strong festival. International traditions and influences flood the diverse stalls of traders and artists, echoing WOMAD’s multicultural sentiments and intercontinental connections. WOMAD is far more than just another music festival and incubates creativity and consideration of all, to all.
My partner Vaughan and I arrived at the Purple gate on the Thursday morning picked up our press passes and reversed back down the road to Red gate where our housemates had settled into the main campsite and started constructing the tepee village we would shortly be so familiar with. The stubborn heatwave that the majority of Europe had been dealt was intense but glorious and made overcoming our snapped tent pole slightly more challenging as we lashed it back together under the sun beaten canvas an hour after its initial erection.
The festival officially opens on Thursday at 7pm with the Malmesbury Schools choir who were joined this year by Kafao Music Project and shortly before we headed into the festival arena through the shaded sanctuary of The World of Wellbeing’s geodesic domes. While we explored and reoriented ourselves with the WOMAD microcosm, taking in the sights and smells before the festivities fully fired up, I quickly remembered why it is such an anticipated and necessary event in my friends and my own social calendar.
Friday was a cool 27 degrees Celsius compared to the intensity of the day before but the need for hydration was greater after sampling a selection of chilled ciders from the Cider Bar on opening night. As I queued for water with my foldable aqua sack still full of life from the year before, I was informed by a friendly festival-goer that my most anticipated act, Humberto Carlos Benfica, famously known as Wazimbo, had been cancelled and was no longer performing in his 4pm slot. Ever since I had discovered his sublime and soothing sound on the WOMAD website’s playlist I had been eagerly awaiting the moment I could hear him with my own ears. Possibly Mozambique’s most revered musical export, Wazimbo has helped to shape the Marrabenta musical genre. Conceived on tin-can guitars in the colonial 30s and 40s as Portuguese Folk mixed with Mozambican dance rhythms, today the genre excites a wider audience as it identifies with urban rhythm, blues and reggae.
When the Guardian article headlined ‘A Brexited Flatground‘ quoted from WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel was published the day after the festival ended, the reasons behind Wazimbo’s disappointing cancellation were confirmed to us; Wazimbo was declined a VISA at the final hour along with three other expected acts. Additionally, for the first time in its long history a selection of WOMAD’s invitees had declined to participate due to the increasing difficulties and pressures surrounding the obtainment of a UK VISA.
WOMAD’s Event Director Chris Smith echoed Gabriel’s views as he criticised the hostile environment the UK seemed to be creating by furthering a startlingly restricted access to the country, even for those with the purpose of business and education. When the majority of our nation voted to leave the EU no one had an awareness of the consequences, as the move was unprecedented. But with the decision to disengage from our neighbouring countries seemingly still going ahead, albeit precariously, I agree that the future of freedom of movement for musicians is uncertain and we may experience the discontinuation of talented and influential overseas visitors. The once romantic life on the road may soon be littered with no entry signs.
Nevertheless, and in the spirit of living in the moment, we advanced to MY BABY to fuel our feisty Friday feeling underneath the big blue canopy of The Big Red Tent. Here we find brother and sister Joost and Cato van Dijck who are from Holland and New Zealander Daniel Johnston making sweet tunes guaranteed to invite several ear worms to move into your brain for the weekend. The band play with a touch of country surrounded by a tribal hue, with a base coat of blues and Cato’s alluring vocals complimented the sultry summer air perfectly. The quality and eminence of the groups handpicked to perform at WOMAD is exemplary year after year and has the ability to promote every newly viewed band into a firm favourite position.
MY BABY performed in the Big Red Tent (The Big Sweat Box).
The heat from the sun was concentrated beneath The Big Red Tent and after the exertion of MY BABY an hour before, we re-entered for round two, naively thinking the next show couldn’t be as groove inducing and stimulating as the last. We were wrong.
Based in Sheffield, the next 9-piece band is as eclectic as bands come. Big brass hooks led the way with Ghanaian and African beats underneath, but it was the front men who robbed the circus. Kweku Sackey aka KOG was born to perform and even if we were partying in the depths of winter in Alaska, we would still have left tent in a ball of sweat. Each song grew to a fevered pitch and the band’s energy and enthusiasm was mirrored by us on the floor.
So much passion was exerted through expressing our appreciation of these bands that we returned to camp for sustenance and shade, ahead of more incredible global recitals.
After dark, as Leftfield sent their first rumbling bass note out through the Open Air sound system, a mass frisson ran through the crowd; setting off a nearby car alarm, igniting an already palpable atmosphere and causing the masses to go wild. Their sound was powerful and unfaltering and it felt like everyone in attendance at WOMAD had congregated for the spectacle.
Lost in a live Leftism the crowd were capering under the Blood Moon for two hours knowing it was the last time anyone would ever participate in this legendary live performance. From what I witnessed and heard of the tales from those who raved for the whole set, Leftfield performing their iconic 1995 album was truly a special wo-ment.
A few from our WOMAD family and myself ventured from Leftfield early and took a tranquil walk back through the World of Wellbeing towards the afterhours stage. Making the most of the scarcely occupied arboretum we gazed at the multicolours illuminating the ancient canopies above, still able to hear Leftism’s entrancement.
A select few awaited us in Molly’s Bar hungry for a live electronic rave dub funk punk explosion executed by The Age of Glass.
This musical trio proved that you don’t need to be playing to a 30,000 strong crowd to still give a remarkably unique performance, oozing with hypnotic and electronic energy that is exuberated from their idiosyncratic frontman, Rory Charles. Throughout the next hour the audience grew, each addition being drawn in by the trance-inducing purple and green lights, infectious beats, raw funky bass lines, and almost angelic vocals from a bearded bloke with very expressionate eyes.
Age of Glass.
On Saturday we awoke and our fractured tepee was still miraculously standing. All those years in the Scouts tying knots had clearly done Vaughan and I a favour. After several Tia Maria Cappuccinos and group jam to one of our favourite Martin Harley songs, we left the cool comfort of our housemates’ carpeted canvas bell tent and dived back into the action.
Staged at the front of Molly’s we came out in full support of local lad Funke and the Two Tone Baby’s first WOMAD performance. Funke is a one-man-electro-blues-band with more mojo than a nonet. He had the crowd singing his snappy songs and made this group of Maidstoners very proud
Next we were treated to two veterans of the world music stage, Amadou and Mariam, a married partnership from Mali. Nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary World Music Album in 2008 we had been waiting for their WOMAD showcase for many years and the couple did not disenchant us. Check out their songs online as a great introduction into the Worldbeat genre.
We crossed the midnight threshold into Sunday surrendering to total escapism through the fragrant torrent of extraordinary musicianship, hypnotic bass-lines and mercurial melodies; all led by a Hammered Dulcimer creating a truly exclusive experience. Welcome to the House of Waters.
House of Waters is embodied by a male trio hailing from Japan, Argentina and the United States of America. Bass player Moto Fukushima uses his Berklee education, Japanese heritage and African influences alongside original thought to command his 6-string bass guitar. Argentinian Ignacio Rivas Brixio is the newest member, drummer and vital side to the triangle. The arrangement is completed with the ‘Jimi Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer’ according to NPR, Brooklynite Max ZT.
Each song flows with as many notes as a cascading waterfall and carries centuries of heritage and jolts of innovation. The trio create a transcendent atmosphere, orchestrating a divine experience and play with an astounding mastery of their instruments. House of Waters were the highlight of my WOMAD 2018 experience and I think we all need some more of the hammered dulcimer in our lives!
Recently signed to Snarky Puppy’s GroundUp label, I hope and pray that we will be seeing much more of this band on the global music stage.
The House of Waters.
That night the weather decided to be as divergent as the music and a summer storm danced above us until the sun rose. Our tent staying up whilst we rested beneath it was nothing short of a miracle.
Sunday was Vaughan’s birthday and his ninth celebrated with the WOMAD family. The line up on this, the fourth day of living in The World’s Festival, was set to be a test of stamina and endurance, with back to back bands billed and several stages fighting for our unfaltering attention. We kicked it all off at 1pm sharp with Dublin collective, Jiggy; and boy did they serve up a nutritious breakfast. Jiggy brought life to the Open Air Stage with their Irish folk fused with Indian elements and funky beats with vocal lilting. The audience fed from the energy on stage and interactive interludes raised the spirits of all within reach.
At 2pm we left the arena as we had somewhere to be after promising a Bossa nova guitarist we’d met the night before that we’d watch his set on the carpeted stage of the nomadic Coyote Moon tent. We’d been meaning to visit the Berber styled venue as we’d heard the breakfasts are the best on site but I had always liked the idea of breakfast more than the actual act. We removed our wellies at the entrance and relaxed on to the rugs and scatter cushions for an hour of chai tea, acoustic vibes and energy replenishment.
Coyote Moon Café in the World of Wellbeing.
Too Many Zooz were the act we were most eager for on Sunday’s line up so we found our friends and settled in our usual position at the front left of The Big Red Tent stage to watch the preceding act. Apart from being an incredibly innovative Ethio-jazz songwriter, Meklit has a profound and emotive persona on stage and addresses her audience with joyous and motivational spoken word offerings in between and during her songs. Her messages resonated with all as did her individual yet familiar African vocal styling.
Next up were the unconventional trio consisting of Lee Pellegrino on baritone saxophone, Matt Muirhead on trumpet and David Parks on drums. The band played Charlton Park a positively exhausting hour of their self-defined genre, Brass House and although we were familiar with their work, the originality blew us away. Initially performance buskers from the subways in New York City, Too Many Zooz seemed more than at home on a main festival stage but still communicated the spontaneity and fun we’d become so accustomed to. Undeniably Lee Pellegrino’s unique style and impressive control of the baritone sax distinguishes him from the rest and he commands his instrument like few I’ve seen before. If you’re having a bad day their subway performances are life affirming and can be found on YouTube.
Lee Pelligrino and Too Many Zooz on the WOMAD stage and in the NYC subways where it all began.
Despite an already fulfilled weekend of outstanding performances, we collected ourselves and mustered up the motions for one last knee’s up. We headed again to Molly’s Bar, our home from home, to close out our festival with the final live act to grace Molly’s stage for another year. For me WOMAD would not be the same without hearing the seductive rhythms and high spirited tempos of a Bristolian, Gypsy Jazz band with a flare of Swing. The Rin Tins, as they are known, did not leave me wanting. This sextet played a collection of lively originals often with politically comedic undertones and a medley of entertaining and well known covers such as Ghost Town and Monkey Man.
During The Rin Tins’ third encore I locked eyes with Vaughan and saw that he had about as much fuel left in his tank as I did, but in celebration of his birth I raised my tired knees higher still and let my inner gypsy have her final twirl. I wasn’t usually much of a dancer but the ceaseless beats of WOMAD had infected my mind with movement, so much so that I’ve been struggling to stand still ever since.
In the small hours of Monday morning we stepped away from the festivities and over our collapsed tent which had become irreparable after one too many assaults that afternoon. We joined our already retired team mates in the comfort of their luminary bell tent and I breathed a great sigh of satisfaction. Once again WOMAD had been as wholesome as a roast on Sunday but as adventurous as boarding a flight to an unexplored destination.
The World of Wellbeing in the Charlton Park arboretum illuminated at night.
To be honest the promise of another lightly battered, soft shell crab burger housed in a brioche bun slathered with satay slaw is enough to temp me back next year, but clearly I don’t need much convincing. Nevertheless, if fancy seafood isn’t your thing, the 30 varieties of loaded toasties for £4 a pop (with an added discount if you have the WOMAD app) should seal the deal for you. Or maybe the promise of four whole days of dancing, chanting, gallivanting and encountering will swing it?
Regardless of whether my interpretation of the WOMAD festival is your ideal, I sincerely recommend you explore and listen to not one but all of the artists mentioned in this review and in turn I hope you unearth many a melodic treasure. I wish you well on your journey into a musical world without borders.
Review by Holly Slater