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WOMAD

Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara at WOMAD Charlton Park July 24, 2010

Photo by Matt Crossick

 


Charlton Park - Malmesbury, Wiltshire


22 – 25 July 2010

 

 

 

 

 

THE IMPOSTERSary Couzens

A review by Mary Couzens for EXTRA! EXTRA!

 

Forget travel to distant locales - there’s one way to circumnavigate the globe over the course of a single weekend that is not only much more cost and energy efficient, but perhaps, in some ways, even more informative and enjoyable, namely, the annual WOMAD (world of music, art and dance) Festival in Charlton Park, Wiltshire.

After erecting our tent in lashing rain late Thursday afternoon, we set out to peruse the vast grounds, with their huge fluttering sky blue and amber flags. Giant flowers flanked the arena exit nearest the media camp, opposite the big, blue Siam Tent. If you’ve been to WOMAD before, it’s like coming home being there again. If it’s your first time, be prepared to rock, roll and be wowed like never before while dancing your way through an ever shifting kaleidoscope of music performed by masters who’d be just as outstanding in any of the many locales they perform in around the world as they are in Charlton Park.

Take Thursday evening, for example, when after a brisk stroll around the colourful grounds, with their plethora of food stalls offering everything from pie and ‘real’ mash to samosas and green Thai curries, clothing from funny hats and garlands of flowers to flip-flops and wellies and novelties like light up bubble-guns, we found ourselves at the Open Air Stage as former James Brown saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis (composer of ‘Cold Sweat’ and ‘Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud’) , UK guitar virtuoso Justin Adams, griot riti (one-stringed African violin) master Juldeh Camara and singer Mim Suleman from Zanzibar joined the children of Malmesbury School - kids through teens, to perform songs from Adams and Camara’s award-winning CDs, before a crowd comprised chiefly of press and townspeople.  The energy and enthusiasm of  these youths, most of whom sang along while one talented boy of about eleven, at one point, accompanied Camara on violin, showed evidence of gig worthy days to come. Boys break-dancing on either side of the stage added motion, as did the girls, who swayed in time as they sang, choir style. The ensemble, which Adams directed, inspired him to state proudly that he’d ‘never performed with such a group.’ After their upbeat set, Chiekh Lo’s (Senegal) winning combo of highlife, rumba and Afrobeat spurned much dancing and cheering, rounding off the preview evening’s entertainment on the Open Air Stage. Lo’s latest album, Jamm, comes out next month on World Circuit records.

Friday’s feast kicked off with the high kicking Drummers of Burundi emanating enough electricity with their powerhouse playing and dancing to illuminate the Festival and far afield. In their first appearance, at the first ever UK WOMAD in 1982, then in Reading, they were the hit of the weekend.  This kick-start gig was closely followed by an exhilarating set by inimitable veteran Calypso Rose. Not one to mince words or suffer fools, Rose has taken on every topic from the politics of sexism to politicians in her songs, of which she has penned upwards of 800! As she explained in an interview in the Festival programme, in the male dominated era of Calypso she made her way in, women were largely demonised in song, so she felt inclined to stand up for them and ‘do them justice through music.’ Rose’s cheeky, cheery perspective was as much a crowd pleaser as her fabulously infectious music and the musicians accompanying this sprightly 70 year-old seemed to love her as much as the audience did. Our next musical indulgence was provided by equally vibrant, but vastly different group, Sierra Maestra of Cuba, a band which, since the mid-‘70’s has been proudly dedicated to the pursuit of son, the distinctively Cuban style of music formerly made famous by Buena Vista Social Club, some of whose members have since passed on. Latino influences spice Sierra Maestra’s mix at times, which is always, hugely enjoyable and highly danceable. Next, reggae artist Horace Andy took us to Jamaica via the Open Air Stage, where we joined the throbbing mass of dancers getting down to his pulsing beats and ‘sweet’ voice, which Andy is well known for. A visit to the BBC Radio 3 Stage, situated in a pleasant clearing in the trees was rewarded with a lively peppering of La Rumba Congolaise by Safroman aka Safro Manzangi and his animated band. Manzangi was dubbed Safroman in honour of his stellar guitar playing which elevates his group to ‘must see’ status. After an hour spent writhing and wriggling among the happy crowd among the trees, we were delighted to learn that Safroman has been living in London for the past two decades, making it more likely we may be able to see him again. Having missed Toumast’s (Niger/France) set earlier on, we were delighted to catch their workshop in the Real Ale Tent, at which their personable frontman, Moussa Ag Keyna spoke, before the group played to an enraptured audience. Though Keyna sings lead, it was gratifying to see a female guitarist in this expressive group. Tinariwen originally opened doors to Toureg music, but Toumast manages to funk theirs up without losing any of its’ social or political impetus. Our next hour was split between two different sets and a soulful hour it was too, as the groups were fronted by former Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen and Skip Mc Donald of Sugar Hill house band fame respectively. American guitarist Mc Donald has played on records by both Grand Master Flash and Afrika Banbaataa, among others. Allen, one of the venerable men of Afro-beat meets jazz, blues, and you name it, sat on a platform above his group, establishing groove after groove, while Mc Donald aka Little Axe and company offered low down dirty blues replete with unexpectedly jazz/funk twists, sending the dancers among us, including us, into overdrive. The close proximity of the Real Ale Tent then led us to the workshop of Hanggai, known as China’s answer to The Pogues.  This band rocks out, in contrast to their rather quaint native grasslands dress, exhibiting their own, entertaining take on punk. But before Hanggai could rock the house as Friday’s closers in the Siam Tent, enthusiasts were first treated to a sublime set from Syriana (Algeria/Ireland/Jordon/Palestine/UK) whose spell-binding music had first ensnared us at Womad’s festival within a festival at the Tower of London last September. Rendering music that is evocative and atmospheric, the band is self-described as being ‘a place where themes of tolerance and hope come wrapped in Arabic rhythms and played through a western filter.’ Their latest EP, ‘Al Bidayeh’ was available exclusively in WOMAD’s CD Tent, but with accompanying footage of the locales being musically traversed and their people, created by Italian filmmaker Nico Piazza accompanying the band’s stunning set at WOMAD, fans’ appetites will have been whetted for their forthcoming album, The Road to Damascus, set for September release.

 

 

Syriana at WOMAD Charlton Park July 23, 2010

Photo by York Tillyer

 

 

Hanggi’s ninety-minute set in the Siam Tent propelled the crowd into shouts of delight and some pretty wild dancing from where I was bobbing along. They’re not your typical ‘east meets west’ group as ‘former punk’, Mongolian style throat singing front man Ilchi gives a low, rumbling growl, falling to his knees before his band-mates, two of whom play along, traditionally speaking, on horse hair fiddle or morin khuur and tobshuur or local, two-stringed lute. Electric guitar adds a potent punch to this unlikely blending. By the end of their full on set, even their formerly stoic looking Buddha like drummer was smiling.

A few turns on the makeshift dance floor of the media bar to some comparatively stale sounding, watered down disco and soul, and it was time for some shut eye - with ear plugs inserted against the audio onslaught of the bar, conveniently located, literally, on the edge of our campground.  

Saturday morning found us far less bleary eyed after a decent night’s sleep, and we headed out early in search of more musical adventures. After strolling the grounds and picnicking, Takht Al Emerit’s (UAE) sultry middle-eastern sounds on the Charlie Gillette stage got us off to a good start on the day’s global journey. Afterwards, the beautifully rendered flow of violin laden Sentimento Gipsy Paganini (Hungary) on the Open Air Stage, alternated between poignantly sad and joyously upbeat, inspiring dancing to match. Flight delays caused the switching of the time slots of La Brass Banda of Germany and the U.K.’s Ukelele Orchestra, whose high-point had to be their comically precise rendering of ‘Shaft’, complete with backup chorus chanting the title in appropriate places. Talking Head’s hit ‘Psycho Killer’ was another favourite which many, including yours truly, sang along to. On our return from BBC Radio 3’s 10th Anniversary reception in the Radio 3 Bar, we caught the tail end of Angelique Kidjo’s (Benin) well-attended set, for which she was joined onstage by a number of children from the audience. Two of our favourite musicians – the UK’s Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara of Gambia, who’d opened the festival with the children of Malmesbury School, performed a great set in the Siam Tent, which set the crowd to dancing and clapping along to every number, before receiving a much deserved Songlines Music Award for Cross-Cultural Collaboration, presented by none other than WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel. This is not the first time this dynamic duo has won such an award and we’re sure it won’t be the last. Later, smooth as their grooves were, Bibi Tanga and The Selenites served up an undeniably hearty dose of soul and funk on the Charlie Gillette stage that was also, irresistibly danceable and infectiously grooving, setting my partner’s feet in fast motion, coming as he does from a similarly soul/funk perspective.  Culture Clash author, social commentator and dub reggae DJ supreme Don Letts set many alight in the Big Red Tent following Tanga and his group’s warm-up. However, we eventually traded a postage stamp sized patch in the tent for free space outside, near the dazzling lights of the fairground, where it’s’ twirling and spinning rides seemed to coincide with Letts’ alternately deep and light grooves. A brief pit-stop in the Siam Tent where Navalima was playing red hot salsa to a steaming crowd lead us to plead tiredness before crashing out as the witching hour came and went.

After a sound sleep, we joined the 6,000 plus festival goers taking part in the record breaking ‘Tai Chi for Cancer’ event in the vast area before the Open Air Stage the following morning. People of all ages, laughed, groaned or showed off their Tai Chi prowess as the session progressed, with those not yet registered dumping hoards of change into pink breast cancer buckets after.

 

 

Tai Chi for Cancer at WOMAD Charlton Park July 24, 2010

Photo by John Couzens

 

An old man wearing pixie ears shot past me in an electric wheelchair as I left the session and I couldn’t resist following him. His companion turned a knob on the box on his chest so he could hear us when my partner asked him if he’d grown the ears himself. ‘Got them in a little shop at Glastonbury,’ he said with a grin, adding, ‘but there’s a pixie on my shelf who’s threatening to take me over’....

Mama’s Gun, a young band from London new to WOMAD, obviously inspired by groups like the Jackson Five, who add their own updated musical excellence to their mix, provided some sunny, unexpectedly bendy grooves to further stretch those muscles to on the Charlie Gillette Stage. After, the marvellously diverse Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars fired up the masses at the Open Air Stage, from toddlers through oldsters. Easily slipping from African to reggae to soca and back again, the group inspired as much as they entertained. Blinding Spanish guitar playing from Javier Conde, accompanied by his father and a friend brought us back to the Charlie Gillette Stage where we joined the rapt listeners already riveted by his playing. At LA-33’s workshop, we were shown film clips demonstrating the differences between various types of salsa down through the years, dependent on region of origin, and where they fit on the salsa timeline. The musicians, regrettably, did not play, insisting it’d be better to watch their set later on, citing their recent arrival and subsequent need to acclimatise as the cause. There was no way we could not have attended Australian institution Rolf Harris’ set in the Siam Tent. There were so many fans there, their chairs and blankets fanned out on every side of the venue yet we managed to squeeze inside the tent. Corny to the max but perpetually lovable nonetheless, Harris milked his self-composed theme song, ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport’ for sing-along, while someone in the audience held an inflatable kangaroo in the air. That said, I must add that Harris’ ‘Two Little Boys’ his song about two soldiers looking back to their innocent youths, has always put a lump in my throat – never more than here, with hoards of fans singing along. Harris has to be one of the spryest eighty year olds I've ever seen! Also an accomplished artist, Harris opened an exhibition of his paintings at a London gallery on July 19th.

 

Rolf Harris and his one of his inventions - the 'wobbly board' at WOMAD Charlton Park July 25, 2010

Photo by Zak Hussein

 

Next, ever reliable, ultimately unique Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Contonou took the crowd at the Open Air stage by storm, beginning their set with a chant. The reasons for their name became increasingly apparent as their set progressed, offering a number of interwoven sounds to latch on to and release in favour of an endless stream of other pulsating options. Like the consummate performers they are, being long standing institutions in their native Benin, the Orchestre treats the soul as well as the ear-drums through their excellent expressions of African musical artistry. Switching gears once again, we opted for the swinging set of rockabilly gal Imelda May (Ireland) whose band rocked through her own sassy songs and numbers by Howling Wolf and others, right through to her concluding full on version of ‘Tainted Love.’ In actual fact, May’s voice and delivery seem more gospel than rock, which oddly enough, suits her own particular rockabilly aesthetics. After watching part of the entertaining, highly proficient and imaginative set of Lepisto and Lehti of Finland, on accordion and guitar respectively, which delighted the small crowd watching, it was once again time to head over to the Open Air Stage.  The smallness of their audience for this, their second set, was down to the fact that, what was to be one of the crowning sets of this year’s WOMAD Charlton Park was soon take place.  

Waiting in the diverse crowd at the Open Air Stage prior to this memorable set was an experience in itself, as never before had I been so acutely aware of the varying ages and nationalities of those waiting alongside of me. There was literally, every age group and style of dress represented, with a broad shouldered man directly in front of me wearing what looked like robes of a Tibetan monk and another man donned in Arabic whites and wrapped headdress to my right. Accents from around the world were detected and we all, collectively seemed to hold our breath when the legendary American musician, author. composer and poet Gil Scott-Heron appeared onstage. But there was nothing about this ‘star’ that seemed the least bit pretentious, or thankfully, burnt out, as he joked about rumours of his alleged ‘disappearance’ and how those he’s never met are often most apt to ‘dissect’ his life in print. ‘A funny thing happens when you disappear,’ he quipped drolly, ‘you get sampled,’ ironic, in light of the fact that Scott-Heron is credited with inadvertently starting the ‘rap’ genre of music as well as being a major influence on hip-hop. Scott-Heron has never been anything less than painfully truthful and the crowd hung on his every word, sung or said like seekers before a wise man. For me, an ex-pat who’s long been a long way from home for many years and hasn’t seen Scott-Heron perform for the better part of twenty years, the definitive highlight of his from the soul set was ‘Winter in America’ as I have long lamented the established, continuing coldness of the US regime and the numbing effect its’ had on some of my country’s people. ‘We Almost Lost Detroit’, Scott-Heron’s post Three Mile Island accident treatise against the use of nuclear power was another seminal highlight as were his pared down renditions of ‘New York is Killing Me’ and ‘Where Did the Night Go’ from his latest album, I’m New Here, his first studio release featuring new original material in sixteen years. Scott-Heron’s closing number, ‘The Bottle,’ a comment on man’s addiction to escapism within the context of his everyday life is a number that even he views as his theme-song of sorts. Like a good friend, he cautioned us, within the context of his music, that if we really want peace, we’ll have to ‘work for it’ - over and over like a resonating mantra. Scott-Heron was accompanied by friends too, each of his three musicians being ones who’ve played with him before, many times over the years, who were all obviously very glad, as the audience was, to have this seminal poet and man of truth back among us. Thanks to Gil Scott Heron and his group for priceless moments of true soul.

 

 

Gil Scott Heron at WOMAD Charlton Park July 25, 2010

Photo by Zak Hussein

 

 

A short amble to the Siam Tent and we were in the presence of obscure but none the less legendary, Rango (Egypt/Sudan) who were an extremely exciting close to a wonderfully diverse festival. I’d missed them at St. Luke’s Church in London last year and wondered if they’d ever cross my path again and here I was, before them, in all their hypnotic, good natured glory, dancing without knowing what direction they’d take us in next. Their heady set made for a fantastic closing hour, capped by the screams of a number of young girls who’d been dancing their hearts out to each rhythmic song. Rango’s witch doctor, donned in white feathers from head to foot came out into the crowd, encouraging us to express ourselves. No encouragement needed. We were all far beyond stopping in our dances, so much so that many of the young people in the tent lingered by the stage long after the set had ended and our host had told us he’d ‘see us next year.’ There was something amazingly cleansing about their joyous, trance like music that seemed to revitalise everyone in the tent, even after a long weekend of back to back, non-stop, undeniably great music.

As is always the case, there was a host of musicians we’d missed, which we hope to catch sometime in the not too distant future, among them: Kinshasa’s Staff Benda Bilili who won the Songlines Award for Best Group, Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole (USA), Gabby Young & Other Animals(UK),Ozomatli(USA),RafikiJazz of Zanzibar, Uk Senegal, Colombia, Gambia, Zimbabwe, Maritus and Brazil, ,SkaCubana (Cuba/Jamaica/UK/Japan/Montserrat), Zoo For You (UK), Dobet Gnahore (Cote D’Ivorie), Geata Krar Collective (Ethiopia), Gilzene & The Blue Light Mento Band (Jamaica), La Brass Banda (Germany), Orchestre National de Barbes (Algeria/Morocco/France), Phantom Limb (UK), Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali (Pakistan), Steven Sogo (Burundi), Toubab All Stars (France), Afro Celt Sound System (UK), Anxo Lorenzo (Spain), JazZstePpa (UK/Israel/Germany), Kanda Bongo Man (DRC), Khyam Allami & Andrea Piccioni (Iraq/UK/Italy), Los Chinches (UK/Peru), Muntu Valdo (Cameroon), Rupa & the April Fishes (USA), etc. etc. You get the picture...

WOMAD, wherever it takes place around the globe, is a celebration of life as it should be - without boundaries or divides. Will I be there, in Charlton Park next year?  I wouldn’t miss it for the world, and neither should you!

 

 

 

Flags at WOMAD Charlton Park July 24, 2010

Photo by John Couzens

 

 

 

 

http://womad.org

 

Editor’s note: You may camp from Thursday through Sunday for a small fee in addition to the usual (bargain) weekend ticket price.

 

 

 

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