The World Of Music, Art & Dance has been running since 1982, when its inauguration was a glorious cultural success, but unfortunately a complete financial disaster. Peter Gabriel was a founding (and funding) force, so he decided to reunite with Genesis bandmates to play a massive benefit gig. Given a second life, the WOMAD organization began to build a sound infrastructure, and the festival has subsequently become a revered global music institution, maintaining its annual English core version, as well as sprouting offspring in Spain, Chile, Australia, and New Zealand. There was even a short-lived US edition, close to Seattle.
July 25–28, 2019
Since 2007, WOMAD has been ensconced at Charlton Park, a stately home in the Wiltshire countryside. It’s a sprawling tent-event with five main stages, but it’s not so immense that folks are fighting for space, and there’s still a village nature to the proceedings. Since its beginning, artists have arrived from every part of the globe, representing ancient folk traditions or modern stylistic fusions. Down the decades, such genre blending has increased as musicians have increasingly travelled and collaborated. Roots music, by its very nature, is never pure—there are always conversations between styles, as well as interactions with fresh technology, whether in terms of instruments or internet.
This year’s WOMAD was blessed with the expected diverse gathering of bands, including the outstanding Soothsayers (UK), Iberi Choir (Georgia), Bantou Mentale (Congo/France), Canzioniere Grecanico Salentino (Italy), and the Kyai Fatahillah Ensemble (Indonesia/UK).
Turkish psychedelia has been growing in popularity as of late, whether through the original recordings from the late 1960s and early ’70s, or the current breed of new combos dedicated to an updated revival. BaBa ZuLa represent the most extreme, grizzled alternative. They use traditional instruments, but amplified and distorted with a hellish brutality. Osman Murat Ertel plays electric saz, whilst Periklis Tsoukalas brandished his self-constructed electric oud. Their early evening Sunday set provided the festival climax, broiling into a heady, repetitive cosmic churn, as most of the band waded off on a parade into the audience, setting up an island in the midst of the crowd, where massed responses were spontaneous, rather than goaded by the players. This was the heaviest extreme of Turkish psychedelia.
Less than two hours later, Robert Plant played an alternative headline set in the d&b Soundscape tent, which should have offered a delicate embrace for the mellow singer-songwriter fare of Saving Grace, his new band with fellow singer Suzi Dian. Instead, the other headline set from English electronic duo Orbital was booming through during the quieter songs—pretty much the entirety of Plant’s repertoire. It was a deliberately low-key, introverted approach by Plant which nevertheless crammed the large tent to absolute capacity with lovers of Led Zeppelin ballads.
Most years, it’s recommended to visit the Taste The World tent, which is dedicated to artists giving cooking demonstrations, talking about the culinary traditions of their homelands, and also playing a few tunes. This year, your scribe caught four, count ‘em, four sessions—all of varying degrees of liveliness and informativeness. Whether he was responding to the amalgamation of two former live music stages into a single marquee, and therefore fewer bands to catch, or whether he is finally settling down into some kind of foodie connoisseur dotage, we might never know. Lindigo, a vocal-and-percussion group from Reunion Island, presented the exuberant maloya style of song. This set was probably better than their official gig, although not by much, given that this band seems to be permanently inspired.
On the Saturday late afternoon there was an astounding run of acts alternating between the two biggest stages, topped off by a fresh discovery on one of the smaller platforms. The Klezmatics gave one of their more extroverted performances. Most of their NYC gigs are in medium-sized halls, but they easily projected across the massed crowds of the main Open Air Stage, whether romping through high-speed dance songs or taming themselves into a ballad sadness.
Nadine Shah is blooming into the complete rock star, expressing herself with an unselfconscious sense of fun, while her songs remain dark and uncompromising, in both their socially observant words and visceral guitar extremity. Dwelling in the north-east of England, she’s of mixed Pakistani, English, and Norwegian backgrounds. Shah was amusingly natural, but we’d also not heard rock music of such directed intensity in quite a while, as she moved eloquently with a star-sized pose-shaping. Shah constantly seemed to make fun of herself—and indeed the entire ritual. We smiled and shivered with tension in equal measures, as her low-toned, emotive soaring struck hard. Shah doesn’t seem to have much Stateside reputation yet, but will soon be conquering the nation. Nick Cave has some competition.
The freshly 70 Salif Keita followed directly on the Open Air Stage, with a relaxed, confident, celebratory, and consummate reflection on a career that he’s halting—at least in terms of recording, and probably heavy touring. This knowledge contributed to the sense of majestic occasion, as one of Mali’s (and indeed Africa and the globe’s) greatest singers fronted an excellent band: ranging from equal-punch backing singers, to a scintillating kora player, to a weave of singing guitar parts. Even though Keita has probed the pomp-zone a few times during his career, he’s presently in the position of shaping the finest aspects of traditional Malian material and Paris-pointed rock-fluidity. The meld created a perfect occasion to perhaps say goodbye.
WOMAD invariably presents surprise wonders each year, and straight after Keita’s set, it turned out to be a wise choice catching Delgres, the French Creole-styled blues trio with a background from Guadeloupe. Guitarist and singer Pascal Danaë was joined by Raphaël Gouthiere (sousaphone) and Baptiste Brondy (drums), shunting the vibration towards a power-pumping excess, flooded with sliding gashes and huffing-raspberry solos. There was much talk around the crowd after this set, with several folks heard enthusing over discovering this combo.
While London singer-guitarist Anna Calvi didn’t reach the heights of those preceding sets, her darkly gothic-flamenco-prog-diseased balladry performance as headliner on the main stage certainly held a dramatic clutch around the neck, as she loaded all of her being into swooping dark-cape vocal acrobatics and sometimes deranged, out-there, guitar solo extravaganzas. The entire curve of this night, from klezmer, to rock, to West African, to swamp blues, and back to rock again, made up one of the most exciting WOMAD stretches in many years. It’s highly unusual for such energy to be sustained continually over around seven hours, with hardly any respite from the quality onslaught.