I arrived at an absolutely bogging new Charlton Park site at midday to a scene of total and utter chaos. The new WOMAD location is in a wonderful area of bucolic North Wiltshire beauty, the campsites ringed on a hill overlooking a far more expansive site than that at Reading. But local weather problems just over the border in Gloucestershire had left the organisers bereft of tracking and flood protection equipment, with a late Thursday downpour rendering the main site a vast muddy mess. Vehicles were being towed into the car park. That’s how bad it was, and the word “schlep” took on a whole new onomatopoeic dimension as I trudged through 12 inch-deep sludge to the wrong campsite (the first of many organisational cock-ups that weekend – correction: second, there were nowhere near enough shuttles buses departing too infrequently from the nearest train station 7 miles away. No, wait: third, I’d already circumnavigated the whole 3 mile festival site having been sent in the completely wrong direction by clueless gate staff).
Thank goodness for the unique spirit of the WOMAD crowd, and of course the music, kicked off by the Tanzanian roots band the Zawose Family, who carry on resolutely where late founding members Charles and Hukwe left off. Toots and the Maytals were next, and reggae always goes down well at WOMAD, particularly when performed by the great Freddie Hibbert. What can be better than a soul singer lost in a roots-reggae sound? Well, Samba Mapangala & Orchestre Virunga’s old-school (ie mid-‘80s) electric rumba came close. By now the hardier Womaders had acclimatized to the pitiful conditions, and a pleasing snake of conga-ing teenagers meant that at long last we were up and running. Amerexican diva Lila Downs was next, slightly contrived for my tastes, except when leaving the bare bones of an acoustic guitar and harp to support that extraordinarily rich voice.
All that was main arena fare, but a delightful feature of the new site is the arboretum, where workshops take place in sun-dappled glades, and the Radio 3 stage sits protected from sound spill for the first time ever at the top of the hill. The spiralling, high-energy traditional bagpipe-and-tabla dance music of Southern Algeria's Marzoug was the first of many highlights there, another one being the mighty Bassékou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba. The ngoni-wielding maestro, his band and his gorgeous, honey-voiced wife Ami Sacko are the new stars of world music and tore the place up on three separate occasions over the weekend. Long may they be ignored by mainstream ignoramuses and nostalgia junkies, because I don’t want the thrill of seeing such a wild and inventive sound at close quarters taken away from us yet awhile. Speaking of mainstream, earlier I’d managed fifteen minutes of headliner Peter Gabriel, a nice enough chap but pretty dull musically, I found, despite a host of exciting artists from Daara J to Guo Yue.
A short day for me (you’ll be pleased to read) because I was away to a wedding later in the day. But I did catch the superb, entrancing Egyptians El Tanbura, Bassekou again, and the sunny electric guitar pop of Mozambique's Massukos (complete with the surreal sight of a tractor gliding effortlessly through the audience at one point).
This meant I missed the rainfall that ended the participation of quite a few of the less hardy (or, it has to be admitted, able-bodied) attendees, and also the apparently storming performances of soul-to-roots-to-gospel songstress Candi Staton and nu-English-folk project The Imagined Village (by all accounts, the appearance of Billy Bragg thankfully failing to spoil the work of various Coppers, Carthys and other English folkies from Anglo to Asian). And a (reportedly) huge, and hugely disappointing, Isaac Hayes.
Back with a vengeance, starting with the Cambodian "blues" singer and long-necked guitar player, Kong Nay and his very pretty protégé, Ouch Savy. It was all very bluesy as well, straight out of Mississippi by way of...wherever they’re from in Cambodia, and one song in particular sounded as if it could be translated straight to English and handed as-is to Otis Taylor. Steel Pulse were a tad disappointing, on early because of motorway-delayed problems for other acts, they re-trod early seventies roots-reggae competently enough without really setting the place alight. A quick diversion via the beautiful Chinese classical-folk music of the Silk String Quartet to the ever-sparkling Sam Tshabalala from South Africa. Then on to the big names. Tinariwen were somewhat depleted due to illness but really rocked the place anyway, their stagecraft coming on a treat in lieu of personnel, and the stripped-down sound forced the power from their playing rather than sheer volume. Worked a treat.
After a brief pleasant tea-time interlude with a DJ slot by the great (and, happily, healthier) Charlie Gillett and his mate Hamid Zagzoule, we had fado superstar Mariza at her powerful, beguiling best, in fine vocal form and back to the stark three-guitar backing that suits her emotive phrasing. The Taj Mahal Trio were somewhat disappointing, reluctant to stray from a pretty straight 12-bar blues, so Antibalas had to provide an antidote with their multi-cultural, funky Afrobeat-to-jazz dance music. Baaba Maal and his Daande Lenol were the headliners, but were a bit of a let-down, the act far too mannered and ponderous these days. It’s a fine enough electro-mbalax sound, but is nigh on 25 years old now and needs shaking up a bit. Relief was provided by the acoustic parts, and the day was finished off exquisitely by the perfectly-judged delivery of Le Trio Joubran’s reflective (m)oud music.
Every WOMAD is great and original in its own way – this one will be remembered for uncharacteristically bad organisation and poor communication throughout (even allowing for the exceptionally bad summer weather), numbskull security (this lot thought they were at Glasto: they need to tap into the unique WOMAD ethos), the fact that some stewards hadn’t introduced their collective arse to their elbow, and the sheer breathless complacency with which many of the organisers and festival-goers approached the potential effects of the weather.
But it will also be remembered (as ever) for some of the greatest musical moments of many people’s lives. Oh, and I got to see the beautiful Mariza looking as incongruous as possible wearing green wellies and digging into a pizza. Worth 120 quid of anybody’s money.