WOMAD 2017 – Bamako and Bees

I wrote the majority of a blog post following WOMAD 2017, but, for a variety of reasons, I never finished writing it. With WOMAD 2018 coming up quickly, I have re-visited this draft, and completed my thoughts about the groups I saw on the Sunday of WOMAD 2017.

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For me, WOMAD 2017 was the year of Mali. Given that nation’s number of incredible musicians, this comes as no surprise, but heavyweights Oumou Sangaré and Toumani Diabaté stood out among the plethora of diverse musicians hosted by the festival this year. Appearing this year as part of ‘supergroup’ Lamomali (which also featured Toumani’s son Sisiki Diabaté, the French singer -M-, and another renowned Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara), Toumani Diabaté amazed the crowds at WOMAD yet again (after his appearance last year performing Songhai).

My third year at WOMAD, and this year not only was I accompanied by RC but also another friend CS, enabling us to cover far more ground between us, in fact I think one day went by and we only saw each other all together once. Arriving on the Thursday was again proven to be an excellent decision, as not only did we get to hear the Malmesbury School Project with Sheelanagig, a Bristol-based folk group, but the party really got started by the incredible Bixiga 70 from Sao Paulo.

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Orchestra Baobab were the first act to grace the Open Air Stage this year, and proved that their fame is justified. Arguably Senegal’s best-known band, Orchestra Baobab entertained the crowd, who were making the most of a rain-free evening dancing and swaying to the music, which to me was reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social Club’s sound.

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Friday’s festivities began with a workshop given by Rajab Suleiman & Kithara, introducing the audience to Taraab music from Zanzibar. Rajab explained about the history of Zanzibar, its language and its music, answering questions and giving a demonstration of his instrument, the kanun.

RC and I then wandered over to the Ecotricity stage to listen to bit of Cuban singer Dayme Arocena, before heading over to our favourite stage, the Taste the World Stage. Here, Alsarah was teaming up with Omer, the author of a new Sudanese cookbook, to

DSCN1808demonstrate traditional Sudanese food, and talk about their own experiences of  rediscovering their Sudanese roots. Alsarah spent her childhood in Khartoum, Sudan, and then in Yemen, until conflict necessitated her family’s relocation to the USA. She now lives in Brooklyn, where she works on creating music inspired by the Nubian diaspora created by the construction of the Aswan dam.

I then went to hear Joseph Arthur play at the Bowers & Wilkins stage, accompanied by a variety of speakers and microphone effects, with his only percussion being a box he stamped upon. His voice was the most impressive element however, sweeping from bass notes to falsetto with minimal effort.

Maarja Huut with Hendrik Kaljujarv put on an atmospheric show, presenting Estonian folk music and tales, with Maarja using her violin and ethereal vocals to create loops. Together with Hendrik controlling the electronic soundscape, the result was magical although unsettling, and a full hour set was a bit too intense.

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After catching only a few strains of Orkesta Mendoza I headed off to secure the best ‘seats’ in the house for Oumou Sangaré, a queen of the Malian music scene, as mentioned above. Already well-known for singing since the age of five, Sangaré has gone from strength to strength her debut album Moussoulou (1989) was a huge hit in Mali, but now her audience and appeal is truly global. Not only is she a captivating singer with huge stage presence, but she is an inspirational figure and an advocate for women’s rights. Her set at WOMAD had the crowd dancing; although you couldn’t call our efforts dancing compared to the moves which her two backing singers and dancers possessed.

After leaving the Open Air stage we wandered over to the absolutely jam-packed Siam Tent to catch a bit of Goat, the eccentric, bizarre, rock group from Sweden. Entirely anonymous, they strut the stage

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bedecked in masks and headdresses, clothed in massive draped robes, leaping about like crazy creatures; the energy they emit is electric. The group is almost impossible to describe, with fact being obscured by fiction and contradictory stories being told about its origins and its members. What I can say is that it is worth going to hear them. If that description piques your interest, you can read more about them in this Guardian article.

Energy levels continued to soar with a visit to hear Jamie Smith’s Mabon play a few quick-paced folk numbers which had the crowd (at least those at the back with room enough to do so) dancing jigs and swinging each other in chain dances. This Welsh band takes a great approach to their music, which they describe as InterCeltic; using elements from all celtic regions, not just their homeland. As a result their music sounds a little broader, a little more enriched than ‘standard’ folk ensembles.

On Saturday morning I managed to catch a bit of the Big Green Britain Chat with Jon Snow, during which the panel discussed questions from the audience, and proposed such schemes such as increasing holiday allowances and shortening the working week, so that people would have more time in which to travel, and therefore less need to do so quickly, thereby cutting fuel emissions. Of course this was met with much applause. It is unlikely to catch on, unfortunately. Other proposals were for the vast increase in public transport, and eating less meat – or cutting it out entirely. There was much discussion on the role of councils and governments compared to individuals, and I came away with the clear picture that it is down to both to change the world. We can’t rely upon our governments, but they have to do something. Likewise we can’t sit, safe in the knowledge that someone else is ‘in charge’. We can do something ourselves; whether it’s being vegan, offsetting our carbon footprints, recycling every last scrap of paper, or shopping ethically.

Next I headed off to the Taste the World Tent to see Savina Yannatou, a Greek singer accompanied by instrumentalists on the kanoun and the ney. While they performed music and answered questions from the audience, a traditional Greek dish was being prepared behind them at the Taste the World kitchen. Savina’s voice was exquisitely rich and she engaged the audience extremely well. Coupled with the atmospheric sound of the ney and the kanoun, this was a very special way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning.DSCN1916.jpg

To get feet dancing once again, Amsterdam Klezmer Band‘s gig at the Big Red Tent was my next stop. They didn’t disappoint, with fast-paced klezmer music to tire us out. The band celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2016, so here’s to another 20 years of music-making!

I wasn’t expecting to find a brass band at WOMAD, so when I saw the listing for Hannah Peel and Tubular Brass, I had to go along to investigate. The first half of the set featured the brass band combined with electronic music from Hannah Peel in an atmospheric and mesmerising imagining of a journey to Cassiopeia, accompanied by visuals on a screen. The journey could have been improved by a bit more movement and involvement from the individual instruments, which, on the whole were consigned to providing a wash of noise. However, it was effective. Then followed Tubular Brass alone with the brass band arrangement of Tubular Bells. The band was excellent, and it’s great to see the standard orchestration of the brass band being used for something completely different to the usual repertoire.DSCN1963

Next up, Bokanté – a group assembled by Michael League from Snarky Puppy. A vibrant, modern sound, multilayered and multicultural; with lyrics in Creole and French. (Revisiting this blog post after so long, I can now add that Bokanté’s album ‘Strange Circles’ is one I frequently listen to).

(Also written recently:) My notes inform me that the next artist I heard was Bombino – a musician from Niger, with a desert blues vibe, and songs often referencing the issues facing the Tuareg. Certainly one of my favourite styles of music, however, Lamomali steal the crown for being my favourite act of WOMAD’s offerings of the last three years’ combined. They had magnificent stage presence, and brought such an amazing combination of brilliant musicians together – as mentioned in my opening paragraph. Both Toumani and Sisiki Diabaté were incredible on the kora, moreover Sisiki’s vocals on Manitoumani (below) were soul-uplifting.

Afro Celt Sound System rounded off the evening with an energetic set, and a beautiful blend of cultures. The rhythms so inherent in African and Celtic music blend so well together; it’s strange to think how far apart geographically their origins are. This is certainly a winning formula, and part of me thinks that celtic music won’t be quite the same again without underlying African drumming.

Another stand-out of the festival was the first outing of ‘Bee Banter’, which, judging from its introduction, is a talk which the organisers hope to revisit in the future. On Sunday morning a panel of experts with roles in Buglife, the National Botanic Garden of Wales, and Ecotricity were hosted by Springwatch presenter Gillian Burke, and not only discussed the problems facing bees, but also divulged a wealth of information about the variety of species and what we can do to help them. To listen to the talk in full, click here.

Next up, Mamadou Diabaté and Percussion Mania – in contrast to the Diabatés of Mali (see above), Mamadou’s expertise lies not in the kora, but the balafon, which is a kind of wooden xylophone. Together with the Percussion Mania, the blend of sounds was warm, rhythmic, energetic yet soulful.

Far too long had now gone without a trip to the Taste the World Tent. We headed over to see Vesevo, a neopolitan folk band. You might think that Italian cuisine is not very exciting, too well-known, and perhaps this is true when compared to the other foods I’ve tasted at WOMAD, but this was a very interesting show, and entertaining! Of course, each member of the band – and their manager – had different opinions on how the dish (a cannellini bean pasta) should be made. Despite this (or perhaps because of this) I actually managed to recreate the dish at home, and it tasted pretty good!

Over at the open air stage, the Angolan legend Bonga was holding court, with music perfect for sitting at the back of the crowds, relaxing and letting the festival atmosphere wash over you. Bonga’s history is fascinating; he supported liberation of Angola from Portuguese colonialism by not only changing his name to show his African heritage, but also by releasing music steeped in a political messages and inspired by the turmoil suffered by the country in its struggle for independence.

Raising the energy levels, !!! – a New York City dance punk band, pronounced ‘chk chk chk’. More mainstream (sacrilege to a punk band!) than many acts at WOMAD, not my favourite group by a long way either, so to write more would probably do them a disservice, so I’ll move on to Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band. A lively folk group assembled by Eliza Carthy from across the country’s entire folk scene. Almost filling the stage, the band was certainly a force to be reckoned with.

World music heavyweights Ladysmith Black Mambazo were of course, magnificent. Having heard their recordings before, but not seen them live, I didn’t expect them to be so humorous and entertaining; it wasn’t just about the music. That, however, was amazing, the blend of voices sounding timeless.

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I ended WOMAD 2017 by arriving early at the Ecotricity stage to listen to Ariwo, a Cuban/Iranian group made up of trumpet, drums and electronics. The rhythm of the percussion and electronics kept the music’s current alive, while the buttery tones of the trumpet soared overhead. It was an amazing conclusion to the festival, and the perfect set for a late night, each track seeming to merge and blend into one, the audience carried away on a journey expertly woven by these musicians. I never want WOMAD to end, but I felt especially reluctant to leave the festival after this final Sunday evening in 2017.

Tricky although writing about 11 bands almost a year later has been, the benefit is that I am now looking forward to WOMAD 2018 so much; and I only have around 2 weeks to wait! I’ll be sharing my thoughts about this year’s artists with you soon!

 

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