WOMAD Festival 2018 – Charlton Park, Wiltshire

Photo by Ian Lauder

Music from far and wide – 130 countries to be precise – descended on WOMAD Festival (World of Music, Art & Dance) to turn the Earl of Suffolk’s beautiful Charlton Park estate in Wiltshire into a musical Mecca. Now in its 36th year, the four-day event holds a reputation for being one of the politest, most relaxed and feel-good festivals out there.

However, this year’s festival has been blighted by disconcerting press around the difficulty of international artists entering the country and the UK’s hostility towards acts going through the visa process. A sad and very worrying reality of the increasingly radical restrictions being enforced through the UK’s foreign policy in a post-Brexit Britain. The festival that celebrates global diversity and togetherness being quashed – with artists declining invitation to perform at the festival due to the ridiculous hassle and costs of visiting our country. Though this was a subject that murmured throughout the festival, the positivity and unity was ever apparent from beginning to end at WOMAD Festival.

With the music starting on the Thursday evening, old school groovers Jazzanova and reggae legend Ken Boothe launched the festival in fine fashion, making everyone even more excited for the remarkable wealth of music to come. Malawian internet sensation, Gasper Nali, made sure everyone at the Ecotricity Stage was moving their feet early on the Friday, playing at a blistering pace his simple yet feel-good dance music on his self-made and super-sized one string babatoni instrument. Early highlight of the festival saw the trance-like grooves from Khartoum, Sudan via London troupe, The Scorpios, cross many genres, with the aid of an outstanding female vocalist, an incredible horns duo and some wicked flare from their keys player.

The sunny sounds of Orchestre Les Mangelepa’s Nairobi swing complimented the scorching weather – a sound so pleasing and happy that you couldn’t help but move to its infectious rhythms. An act that will be leading the way in UK music in the coming years is hip-hip/spoken word act Kojey Radical, who showcased just why he is such a special performer. Managing to whip up a crowd that was giving him nothing to begin with into a frenzied mess by the set’s end. Former wedding singer and now Syrian trance legend, Omar Souleyman, was one of the more well-known names on the festival bill and his set on the Open Air Stage gave everyone a taste of why his four-to-the-floor tunes have reached such popularity around the world.

In what was an extremely special last ever performance of the Leftism LP, Leftfield produced a rousing hour and three-quarter set that saw them recreate the seminal album in its entirety. Big bass sounds and familiar melodies had the crowd dancing throughout to what is one of the most influential electronica albums to come from the UK. Epic visuals and an outrageously tight live show made this headline set one that won’t be forgotten any time soon. A special mention must go to the dance-inflicting sounds of Niger’s Tal National, making sure everybody was suitably worn-out before they headed back to their tents.

Day three was introduced with intermittent downpours and high winds. Though the skies were full of grey, the music was bright – none brighter than the infectious fun of bluegrass quintet Whiskey Shivers. The Texan act, which didn’t take themselves seriously at all, played a mostly fast paced set that had the Big Red Tent in laughter as well as a full-blown jig. Standing 12 onstage, with a six strong horn section and five different types of drummer, the Bollywood Brass Band impressively rescored old Bollywood film scenes as well as covering some of Bollywood’s greatest hits to a bewitched crowd in the Siam Tent. Hailing from Ethiopia, Selamnesh Zemene won my award for most unreal vocals of the festival, holding the ability to create such precise intricacies as well as such unbelievable power and sustain. When matched with the Ethio jazz/highlife/rock combination of her Badume Band, Selamnesh was a phenomenal talent to behold on the big Open Air Stage.

The unravelling trance of Maâlem Hamid el Kasri‘s afro-Islamic gnawa music then enchanted the Siam Tent, equipped with a drummer and four backing singers who also had krakebs (metal castanet-like hand percussion) to go with his lead vocals and guembri bass guitar. Each song was met with rousing applause from an amazed crowd full of appreciation in hearing a maâlem (master) in full force. It feels like every time I see Ezra Collective they amaze me, probably understandable being the band contains five of the top jazz musicians currently around. The fact that the majority of the audience most likely went into the Big Red Tent not knowing who they were seeing, then left thinking they had just experienced arguably the best performance of the festival, is exciting. They just don’t take no for an answer, forcing onlookers to have fun to their music and triumphing. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they become headliners of their own, as they really are one of the most exciting acts around.

Brighton’s MarthaGunn was an unlikely inclusion on the WOMAD bill, but very much held their own in the wooded Ecotricity stage. Playing an indie sound with hints of Fleetwood Mac all over, the young band have not only progressed into an impressive live act but were a breath of fresh air, winning over an unexpecting world music-loving crowd. Jack Steadman’s Mr Jukes has been a revelation over the past couple of years, releasing a debut album which is so far away from his previous musical venture (Bombay Bicycle Club) yet still so great. On the live stage of the Siam Tent, Mr Jukes’ big band featured an array of the most talented musicians about to create some of the most feel-good r’n’b/soul/funk/pop music you will hear, making sure everyone had a smile on their face.

Saturday’s headliner was the Grammy-nominated, Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, playing a short but sweet set featuring their collection of hits to date as well as tunes off the new album. It felt like the atmosphere didn’t quite hit where it was the night before with Leftfield. Though with portions of the crowd still getting down to their varied sound, not everyone left disappointed by any means.

With the weather’s continual threat to dampen everyone’s spirits on the final day of the festival, the mellow Arabic vibes of Yazz Ahmed’s Hafla Band was an impressive start to the fourth day of music. A sense of uneasiness naturally came across in the make-up of the music, but with all musicians reading sheet music you also got the feeling they weren’t entirely comfortable themselves. One-man fiddler Caoimhím Ó Raghallaigh continued the relaxed mood, creating incredible dream-like sonance in the audiophile tent, d’n’b Soundscape Stage. With the entire tent letting the expressive music envelope them, the final song was met with an ovation from the sitting crowd, overjoyed with the quiet, peaceful happening created by the Dublin virtuoso.

Meklit’s phenomenal energy and passion for what she does is empowering. The Ethio-American singer is a scholar and a remarkable musician, bringing Ethio-jazz into a more accessible territory through her special expertise from songwriting. With an energetic stage performance, it was Meklit’s unbelievable control over her voices’ dynamic range that left a lasting impression in the Big Red Tent. The Hiatian-Canadian singer-songstress, Mélissa Laveaux, performed her blend of afro-Caribbean rhythms with a core root in blues music, to a resounding reaction from the crowd. Her beautiful hushed vocals and lovely melodies, matched with the obvious expertise from her drummer and bassist, had the tent moving as one and wanting more of Mélissa’s great songs.

Now for a performance that I’ve coined as one of the best I’ve ever seen – a seven-piece post-gospel hybrid called BCUC from Soweteo, South Africa. Using a bass guitar, two big bass drums, bongos and three singers as their ammunition, their sound was raw, wild and untamed. It was angry, totally intense, and thunderous. A totally unique and draining experience controlled by the otherworldly energy of their lead singer, who not only darted from one side of the stage screaming and howling into the audience but made sure to keep his band in a frenzied state to make this one of the most powerful and enthralling shows I’ve ever witnessed. Unsurprisingly, everyone seeing this huge sceptical quite literally “lost their shit” and tried to reciprocate the energy the band were emitting, but impossible, with BCUC remarkably taking it up another couple of notches for the final ten minutes of their hour set. It’s inconceivable to think that anything could follow a set like BCUC’s, however, Renata Rosa was the best possible outcome.

Pioneering a disappearing north-east Brazilian folk sound, Renata played some of the most uplifting and arresting music to come from WOMAD 2018. With an immense golden sunset and rainbow sitting over the festival site, the gleeful faces on all appreciative spectators outlined exactly why the festival has such a special reputation. Rounding off a resounding festival was American trip-hop legends Thievery Corporation headlining the Open Air Stage. Their eclectic range of different sounds in their party music not only summed up the spectacular inclusivity of the festival’s musical web, but had the crowd with their hands in the air for one more night of dancing.

Iain Lauder

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