WOMAD 2014 – Live Review
aaamusic | On 04, Aug 2014
Friday 25th – Sunday 27th July, Charlton Park
After driving around the dark, deserted country lanes of Wiltshire and eventually finding the right gate, I arrived to the quiet, magical buzz of WOMAD and was hit by the wonderful smell of dew-coated grass and tents making their first appearances of 2014. Colourful flags, extravagant new tents for those who prefer a bit of ‘glamping’, wigwams, fairy lights and peace signs; a wonderful communal atmosphere and the sound of children’s giggles coming from tents – unable to contain their excitement! It was dark and people were settling down, ready for the following day, which promised to be filled with dazzling sunshine and amazing music.
Morning yoga sessions in the All Singing All Dancing tent were the way to begin each day (post sweaty hot shower queues!) and arrive with energy to the present moment to experience all the sensory gems there were on offer over the course of the weekend; true WOMAD style!
Next stop was to one of the Frank Water points to top up my new Frank Water bottle with ice-cold filtered water. Frank Water is a charity which was set up by Katie Alcott in 2005 which funds sustainable clean water projects in developing countries across the world and one of the ways it does so is by selling re-usable water bottles to festival goers for £5 with the promise of fresh cold water throughout the festival! How amazing is that!?
The plan was to go and chill out at the Ecotricity Stage to watch a set by Spanish singer-songwriter Chloe Bird and to ease into the day sat on the grass but I have to say it was a little too chilled out for my liking (in that nothing was happening musically or atmospherically). I didn’t particularly enjoy her compositions, which were bland and predictable, and her band weren’t tight; quite a disappointing start to the music. This was all recovered by some sweet reggae music from Jamaica’s Clinton Fearon on the Open Air Stage who was getting everyone dancing despite the heat. Next up was the Charlie Gillett BBC Radio 3 stage with Monsieur Doumani from Cyprus; a great insight into traditional Cypriot folk music with contemporary arrangements alongside their (often politically charged) own compositions. Guitar, tzouras and winds (mainly trombone, and flute) made for interesting textures and the attentive audience found themselves dancing to some lively numbers and intently listening to others. Following my sense of smell (and post-reggae dancing appetite) I went to investigate Madras Café, which relies entirely on the work of volunteers (all profits go to Action Village India) and tried a delicious onion bhaji and samosa whilst enjoying the shade of the canteen area.
After this short break from the music I headed over to the Siam Tent to watch Dave Okumu and The Invisible. Unfortunately Shingai Shoniwa wasn’t on stage with them as planned but it was a great set nonetheless. Everyone was enjoying the complex grooves and polyrhythms laid down by the simple trio set up! This was a great precursor to the epic 14-piece percussion ensemble from Spain, Coetus, who wowed the huge crowd on the Open Air Stage. A high energy-driven hour-long set, which didn’t waver once; even the downpour, which hit during their performance just added to the upbeat dynamic. Their technical and rhythmic precision was outstanding and their layered harmonies alongside repeated rhythmic cycles reminded me of Lo Còr de la Plana.
The evening was filled with great music; Melt Yourself Down was literally a burning melt down of grooves, outrageously slick bass playing (Ruth Goller), saxophone riffs and effects (Pete Wareham and Shabaka Hutchings) which built up to a climactic last ‘Fix My Life’. Some audience members got so hyped up that they decided to jump up on stage and run at members of the band!? Tunng calmed the atmosphere with their set on the Charlie Gillett stage and gave a contemporary folk performance of original tunes before Goran Bregovic hit the Open Air Stage and got a massive crowd dancing to Serbian and Bulgarian music with his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra. The atmosphere was wired and edgy – everyone was dancing and singing and being egged on by Bregovic’s ever-increasing tempo! Richard Thompson relaxed the evening’s proceedings with a down to earth, contemplative solo set and a Sandy Denny cover which appealed to some but not others. The last act of Friday and a wonderful way to round off the night was duo Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Another tight ensemble and their dexterity on the harp and kora respectively was very impressive. Seckou Keita’s creativeness in his improvisations was truly spellbinding and left the crowd a little dazed for their sleepy walk back to the campsite.
The sun was already beating down hard by the time the music started and anticipation was running high. Siyaya from Zimbabwe was both an exciting musical performance and a visual feast! Elaborate costumes and dancing made for a great way to start the day and also fashioned a coherent trail to the last act of the day (also in the Siam Tent), the Sonia Sabri Dance Company which was minimalist in comparison but a powerful performance, full of character and idiosyncratic musical inflections from India. SANS, a peaceful, unique wash of sound on the Ecotricity Stage was of great contrast to the driving Zimbabwean beats of the previous hour. The duduk and Sannu’s plaintive voice blended beautifully and I particularly liked the choice of bass clarinet to accompany the duduk. Not surprisingly many people were sheltering under the shade of nearby trees (it was in the arboretum after all!) and downing their refills of Frank Water. The Ecotricity Stage tended to attract families; partly because it was more of a sit-down-and-listen vibe and partly because of the shade. I was a little disappointed by Martin Simpson and Dom Flemons on the Charlie Gillett Stage; a duo that I’m not sure worked as well as their individual solo acts but perhaps it was just an overload of fusion music that made me head over to the Mexican food stall for a black bean wrap…
Snarky Puppy were one of the most popular acts as far as I could tell by the hoards of people trying to squeeze into the Big Red Tent! Impressive, funky horn lines over hip grooves and a tight ensemble but not as exciting as I thought they would be; great for a dance but not necessarily the most electric atmosphere. A mind-boggling performance and live album creation along with an impressive whistle-stop tour through his various technological equipment purchases and commissions by Beardyman on the Society of Sound Stage continued the evening’s music before rounding off the night with Sonia Sabri.
Somehow the bathroom and toilet facilities were still clean by day 4 of the festival – compliments to festival staff on litter picking and toilet duties! Not to mention the fact that there was an initiative to recycle and keep the arena and campsite clean on the part of festivalgoers throughout the weekend.
Despite the fact it was a Sunday morning and the last day of a pretty intense festival experience, I was surprised to see a large crowd who had turned out to see The Magnolia Sisters. Not only were they present, but they were enthusiastic dancers too – some of them were evidently familiar with Cajun dancing. As for the music, it was great to see such a good, honest performance by some talented musicians who explained their music and put the pieces they were playing in context. After this was some amazing music from Madagascar played by Justin Vali & Ny Malagasy Orkestra which was fascinating to watch and listen to – lots of new sounds for me; the valiha, native to Madagascar, which was one of the most prominent sounds of the performance is an intricate cylindrical instrument made of bamboo with strings running down its surface and has a beautiful crystalline zither-like sound.
I then had the big decision of whether to follow the crowd sifting into the Siam Tent to watch Dakha Brakha from the Ukraine or to go with my original plan of Maz O’Connor. The four-piece group, the females of which who were sporting tall black fluffy hats were incredible – a wise decision to follow the crowd and I’ll go to see Maz in October at the Green Note! An ethereal sound was pouring out of the Siam, which attracted more and more people during the performance. The vocals were piercing and heart wrenching, the percussion was driving and powerful and the cello was a strong rooting bass, not to mention its ornate decoration! An extraordinary performance which led to both tears and to energetic dancing – an act not to be missed next time they are in the UK!
A little break in the music and a wander around the festival watching last minute purchases being made and children having water fights before a politically charged musical encounter with Masha and Marjan Vahdat, sisters from Iran who spoke of their right to free speech and expression through music and how it is not honoured in their country. A hypnotic set and an important message! Unfortunately Brushy One String was not able to get to WOMAD as his visa wasn’t granted in time so instead I found myself captivated by the colourful, musical procession marching through the arena. Queen bees, dragons, men, women and children were all contributing to the eye-catching procession promoting peace, the salvation of trees, bees and seas and community. One of the big acts, which I was expecting to be a highlight, turned out to be disappointing to say the least. Fatoumata Diawara (Mali) and Roberto Fonseca (Cuba) found themselves in a murky midpoint in which rock grooves had to be used to mold them together. Both parties had to compromise their own sets too much (perhaps some more than the others) and whereas Diawara is usually a woman of power on stage, she was taken over by one too many jazz piano solos… a real disappointment and a shame to see so many musicians on stage and so little happening.
‘World of Art’ in the Arboretum was an interesting visual exploration involving ice, chalk oil and air, as was Chorus, a hypnotic drone-based composition played on giant metal tripods, each containing a loud speaker producing a specifically tuned note. Many gathered for the last evening performance outside Molly’s Bar as the sun started to descend in the sky. Nitin Sawhney gave a fantastic performance as he played his latest album OneZero to a full Siam tent of supporters. Despite the open-tabla surgery halfway through, the performance was faultless and the band was brilliant. I never get over the beauty of ‘Nadia’ from Beyond Skin! Songhoy Blues brought music from Mali and had a subtlety of time feel beyond the grasp of a less experienced band. With the understated layers of riffs simmering away it was impossible to stand still. A quick jog over to the Big Red Tent for some good old-fashioned foot pumping with Greg Wilson rounded off by Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move on Up’ before swinging by the Siam for the ultrahip Public Service Broadcasting to send us back to Molly’s Bar for the end of the night.
Overall an exemplary weekend of great music, organisation and atmosphere. What a privilege to hear such a wide variety of fantastic music and experience a British festival solely focused on art, music and people. This is not an opportunity to be missed here in the UK and there is no wonder that it was a sell out; bring on WOMAD 2015!
Review + Photos: Heather Ryall