WOMAD returned to Charlton Park, Malmesbury, from July 27-30 2017, and it was a rather fine musical weekend with a few real gems thrown in.
OK – let’s get the weather out of the way: yes, it did rain a bit and there was a little mud, but it was no big deal really. And yes, there was a fair amount of sunshine, too, and sitting on the grass. It was an English summer festival after all, wherever the music had come from, and WOMAD’s genteel audiences generally come with sensible rainwear to hand.
If the musical menu was typically diverse, certain themes and cultures emerged, with Greece and Brazil well represented and a fair smattering of French influence among the rockier performers. The latter provided an interesting ‘compare and contrast’ exercise between Lamomali and Ifriqiyya Electrique . While Lamomali’s main stage rock’n’rap set was glamorously excessive it was only when kora legend Toumani Diabate and son Sidiki dueted alone that it felt properly African, with the younger player’s effected sound adding a contemporary tone.
The raw street energy of Tunisia’s ecstatic Banga ritual was very much the centre of Ifriqiyya Electrique’s unbroken wall-of-sound set, however, three traditional singer-percussionists flanked by incongruously goth electric bass and guitar in front of documentary film of the actual spirit-possession ritual. Their combination of trance insistence with jarring noise-rock recalled the shock of first seeing Konono No 1 and had a similarly animating effect.
Brazil’s contingent interestingly rarely fitted the usual expectations of Brazilian music, with Bixiga 70 hiding Samba in Afrobeat and young big band Nomade Orquestra gleefully mixing funk, jazz and psychedelia with great results. A solo Seu Jorge (apparently sitting on the dock of the bay à la The Life Aquatic) led a packed audience singalong to his versions of David Bowie songs, albeit he was singing his own Portuguese lyrics while they stuck with the English originals.
Best of the Brazilian bunch was Metá Metá whose magpie set embraced weird tango, surf-jazz, full-throated punk and old-school fusion thrash. There was something of Rip, Rig and Panic and something of Siouxsie Sioux and it was pretty brilliant.
The Greeks, on the other hand, stayed closer to their cultural roots, especially London-based Kourelou, who even got some of the crowd line dancing, Greek-style. Striking traditional instruments fronting the electronic soundweave of Xáos included the bowed lyra and bagpipes made from a hairy goatskin, contributing virtuoso improvised flourishes to the slightly doomy post-rock ambience.
The most spectacular Greek performer, however, was singer Savina Yannatou, one of those spellbinding performances that draws out the individual character of ancient music and channels it through precise vocal stylisation. She was one of many fine acts on BBC Radio 3’s Charlie Gillett stage, with singing Haitian-Cajun cellist (yes, really) Leyla McCalla, the haunting Malagasy songs and jaw-dropping acoustic guitar of Toko Télo, sadly without the recently departed accordionist Régis Gizavo, and Officina Zoè’s sizzling Italian trance-folk all well worth catching.
Of the big name headliners it was definitely Roy Ayers Afrobeat collaboration with Seun Kuti and Egypt 80 that stood out, the rhythms as tightly compelling as they should be for Mr Ayers vibraphone to sparkle over, reviving the spirit of his legendary encounters with Seun’s dad Fela.
Toots and the Maytalls spread their requisite hits across their set with a lot of padding in between and Emir Kusturica’s Balkan irony was upstaged by following Oumou Sangare’s upbeat new grooves and GOAT’s theatrical psychedelic rock-out – both immensely crowd pleasing.
There was general delight with Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band, too, as the be-corseted singer and fiddler marshalled her 11-strong backing band through energetic arrangements of tunes like Turpin Hero (which got both a string trio opening and a reggae backbeat). As the ambassador for Englishness at a world music festival she managed to be both fresh and true to roots that spread as wide as The Mighty Sparrow, and as a potential successor to the now-defunct Bellowhead the band seemed well up to the challenge.
So a classic WOMAD experience then – dazzling new ‘discoveries’, reassuringly great favourites and a heap of those moments where you think you’ve picked the wrong stage but have a great time anyway. They may have had a whole world to choose from but it’s to their credit that WOMAD provided another exhaustingly satisfying musical weekend.
The excellent Brazilian big band Nomade Orchestra play Canteen on Thursday August 10.
Read more: 51 festivals happening in August 2017