WOMAD 2016: Sun, Song and Science

After an incredible time at WOMAD last year, RC & I returned in 2016 with a jam-packed itinerary to which it hardly seemed possible to stick. Over the course of three and a half days we managed to see more bands than we could keep track of – all of whom are discussed below, (some in more detail than others). We uncovered some real gems during the festival and thankfully the weather remained good for all that hastening across the arena and back. For the 10th WOMAD held at Charlton Park, the organisers decided to redesign the layout of the festival, and it took some getting used to the new configuration, especially in the Arboretum. Many stages were improved, especially the Open Air stage and the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage, but we couldn’t help but feel that the Taste the World stage (a favourite of ours) was a little far removed from the arena. The Physics Pavilion was an exciting new addition to the festival, and I hope that its success can be built upon for next year, with more space and a more exciting physical appearance, perhaps taking its cue from the fantastically decorated Taste the World stage.

DSCN0963For us Thursday’s highlight was Imarhan, a desert blues group taking their cue from Tinariwen. Imarhan have a less traditional presentation, most of the group dressed in jeans and t-shirts, and with a few more unorthodox chords and a funkier vibe thrown into their songs. It was an ideal start to the festival and the group consistently held on to its place in the upper echelons of our lists of favourite acts throughout the weekend. Thursday’s headline act was the powerhouse Asian Dub Foundation, whose songs often challenge current affairs and confront injustice around the world.
Friday began with a brilliant drumming workshop by the incomparable Abass Dodoo, who kick-started the day with his infectious rhythms and smile – then it was off to the Physics Pavilion for the first time, to hear about how science can be turned into music. After an introduction by Professor Roger Jones of Lancaster University, who works with the ATLAS experiment at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, we were showed how graphs can be transformed into music by DSCN1008overlaying the results on a piano keyboard; the y axis being pitch and the x axis time. The most incredible moment of the session came when we were shown five different musicians playing music transcribed from results from different experiments all along the LHC all at the same time. The perfect harmony of the music reveals how beautiful the fundamental building blocks of the universe are, and how close science is to music – (justifying the presence of a physics tent at WOMAD in just 5 minutes!)

DSCN1030Amaraterra played at the Charlie Gillett stage, with traditional songs from the south of Italy, and then we headed over to see Hindi Zahra at the Big Red Tent. The French-Moroccan singer’s tone was rich and soulful, her stage presence captivating. Her music style cannot be boxed into one genre, as she flows effortlessly from traditional jazz into North African rhythms and back again.

Our next stop was the Taste theDSCN1050 World tent, where Asig Nargile sang while accompanying herself on the saz (a long-necked lute made from mulberry wood) and cooked – although her exacting standards meant that there was little time for singing.

Bamba Wassoulou Groove are a Malian band to which it’s impossible not to dance. Touted as the next big heroes of West African music, following on from Super Rail Band, that well-loved amazing Malian guitar sound is there, but withDSCN1086 an added sprinkling of psychedelia. Unfortunately we had to leave the Siam Tent a bit early to nab a good spot for the Hot 8 Brass Band, who brought New Orleans jazz to WOMAD, mixing in a little bit of hip hop and funk along the way. Their social media hashtag is #webrasshard, and they aren’t wrong, pretty much playing solidly for a whole hour, morphing from one tune to another.

DSCN1100Hopping back across to the Siam in time for Ibrahim Maalouf was a wise decision, as the French-Lebanese trumpeter’s music was incredible. His tone was like melted butter, and the music was versatile – at one time
soulful and mysterious, the next upbeat and rock-infused.

Up next was Wiyaala at the Ecotricity stage, a fantastic singer whose afro-pop music had the crowd dancing. With meaningful lyrics encouraging peace and co-operation, and with one of the most mainstream sounds of the festival so far, it’d be great to see Wiyaala making the UK charts. Hopefully she will return to WOMAD in future years, at a bigger stage – perhaps the Siam, where Desert Slide were up next, with another interpretation of blues. Vishwa Mohan Bhatt invented his own instrument in the 60s; a cross between an Indian stringed instrument and a western slide guitar – and it sounded incredible. With night drawing in, we left the mystical sounds of the blue tent to wander across to hear Otava Yo, a troupeVersion 2 from St Petersburg with comedic flair, whose energetic folk music soon got us dancing again.

Saturday was no less full-on, with another drumming workshop, followed by Kachupa, a folk-rock band from the Italian South, who play ‘patchanka’, a hybrid music genre chiefly within the latin family. The band has a global outlook, and take their name from a Cape Verdean dish, the ingredients of which are poor by themselves, but together are full of vitamins and flavour. The band has achieved success in both the Italian charts and the world music listening on itunes, with their catchy song Siamo Tutti Africani.

Next up was Inna Modja, an edgy singer from Tombouctou, with synth featuring heavily in her music. Then a trip to Geneva – via a live video link from the Physics Pavilion to the ATLAS control room where science questions were answered by Steve Goldfarb. We then headed out to hear Songhai, by Toumani Diabate, originally collaborated with Ketama and Danny Thompson in 1988. 2016 saw it revived with Juan & Josemi Carmona and Javier Colina & Guests. Although delayed by technical difficulties, once Songhai was underway it was a special moment of which to be part.

Anoushka Shankar played to a packed Siam Tent, so packed that we decided to sit outside and listen to the drifts of sitar music which escaped the tent, before heading over to the Big Red Tent in good time to see Sons of Kemet, a DSCN1168drums, tuba and sax quartet from Birmingham and London, with energy in bucketfuls. Together they mix jazz with Caribbean and West African rhythms, with a slight New Orleans vibe – but above all, their own musicality and improvisation took centre stage over any particular stylistic homage. The audience was fully behind them as they relentlessly displayed their talent, and we came away astounded at the incredible music which can be made with just one saxophone, one tuba, and two drum kits.

Chouk Bwa Libète is a band from Haiti, fiercely proud of their country, traditions and music. It was one of the most fascinating Taste the World sessions, with the audience asking questions about the voodoo tradition with which some of their songs were DSCN1202concerned. The band members told us stories of the Haitian revolution, and demonstrated the musicality of the conch shell, a symbol of the revolution since the Haitians had used it as a battle cry against the French.

Following was Baaba Maal, a music fiend constantly in search of new cultural threads and collaborations across the world, with potentially his most well-known partners being Mumford & Sons. His catchy African rock beats filled the arena as he played at the Open Air stage, showcasing music from his first album in 7 years, “Traveller”. Dividing our time between stages again, we caught a few moments of Ana Tijoux, an MC of Chilean descent, who became involved in the hip hop scene in Santiago. Unafraid to confront political issues, she has become a more well-known musician among English-speaking fans due to a song featuring in cult TV show ‘Breaking Bad’. Then it was back to the Charlie Gillett stage to hear N’Diale, an exciting band combining French and Malian tradition – using instruments and musical styles from both countries. The result is a unique folk sound, which is surprisingly effective and pleasing to listen to, because there’s nothing quite like it!

DSCN1230George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic is an influential supergroup with roots back in the 1950s. Playing funk, soul, and rock, they entertained a massive crowd who we left dancing
to go and hear a completely different artist, Tetish, an Israeli indie-pop duo. The Brussels-based band Kel Assouf ended the night – similarly to Imarhan, they also update desert blues for the new generation, adding a heavier rock feel to the traditional sounds we’re used to. A greater use of synth distinguishes them from the mellower Imarhan.

On Sunday we began with Abass Dodoo alongside the Hairy Bikers at Taste the World, where a power cut led to Abass’s drummers providing entertainment while there was a brief pause because the set was being filmed for the Hairy Bikers’ television show. Afterwards, to bring back the dance vibe we headed to the Big Red Tent to hear some of Cabruêra, a Brazilian band blendingDSCN1263 together different beats and rhythms to create a unique groove which we wished we could have stayed longer for, but we were keen to get the best spot at the Siam Tent where Lura was getting ready to sing. With roots in Cape Verde, Lura is a charismatic singer whose personality shone on stage as much as her voice did. She got the whole audience singing along to her song Na Ri Na, and that singing continued when her bass player revealed that it was her birthday.

Massively popular in Bosnia, Dubioza Kolektiv are a high-energy satirical group from the Balkans with lyrics poking fun at the status quo, and a musical style to get everyone dancing. Queueing for the Physics Pavilion where Steven Moffat was due to speak at 4pm, the line stretched back far enough for us to still hear them playing. A huge turn-out at the Physics tent was only to be expected for such a well-loved TV writer with a gigantic fanbase from Doctor Who and Sherlock, and the questions soon drifted away from science to questions about anything and everything, ranging from which episodes Moffat was most proud of, which monster was his scariest, and how long it takes him to write a script. It was great to receive this snapshot into his world and think about how much work goes into crafting just five minutes of the cult TV shows.

Back out in the sunlight we headed off to see Soom T, an Indo-Scottish MC with a unique sound and a long list of collaborators, including many faces seen elsewhere at WOMAD this year. An interesting voice to listen to, with tongue-tripping lyrics and a passionate performance.DSCN1292

Our last trip to the Taste the World stage was to see Moh! Kouyate, from Guinea. Moh told the audience about his background and his playing; he learnt guitar by copying styles from the radio and listening to the advice of others, constantly improving and learning. His West African guitar sound is pure and needed no accompaniment, so it was interesting to see how he played differently later in the night at the Charlie Gillett stage, with backing musicians, creating a much more up-beat, mainstream sound. Although that sound was also great, there was something much more mesmerising about hearing him play and sing on his own. After tasting the dish prepared by Moh and his helpers, we trekked across the arena in time for one of the big names of the weekend, Les Amazones d’Afrique – an astounding group made up of all-female singers each of whom are distinguished in their own right. Most notable are Mariam Doumbia (of Amandou & Mariam), and Mamani Keita, but the rest of the line-up are also all-star and together made a fantastic sound (albeit slightly too amplified). This group is surely an iconic moment in the history of African music.

Afriquoi were the last band we heard before heading back over to hear Moh! Kouyate, and they approached the end of WOMAD with gusto. Pitching themselves at a new generation of world music lovers, the group combines African dance music with electronica, producing a club feel which is so much better than the club music churned out at so many venues in the UK. Although by this point our energy levels were low, we continued dancing until the last note! Thank you, WOMAD 2016 – see you next year for another fantastic musical experience, full of unique artists and sounds. World music is, above all else, a vibrant community, with musicians and listeners alike keen to come together and share the wonders of the globe; WOMAD truly captures this spirit.

More information about the artists and the festival can be found on the WOMAD website.DSCN1141

(All images my own, copyright lsilverlock)

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WOMAD 2015: The Drumbeat Goes On

http://ichef.bbci.co.uk/images/ic/1200x675/p02xzdkn.jpgFor those not in the know, WOMAD is the World’s Festival. It showcases some of the greatest musicians from across the globe – the only drawback of which being that there is simply not enough time to see and listen to everything, as my good friend RC and I discovered.

We did our best:

Arriving at the arena after the horrible experience of pitching our tent in the driving rain, we were sucked straight into the Siam tent by the sound of Mahotella Queens – a band I was unfamiliar with but have since discovered are one of the great stalwarts of the world music scene, originally formed in 1964. None of the original singers remain, but judging from the sound, the sights and the response of the audience at WOMAD, Mahotella Queens will be entertaining the world for another fifty years and more.

Tinariwen

After this welcome to the festival the first item on our agenda was to head straight across to the much fêted ‘Taste the World’ tent, a stage where the artists not only perform in an intimate setting, but also answer questions about their music, lives, and the cuisine of their country – all while a dish is being prepared just behind them. This was the perfect setting (save for perhaps the desert) to hear Tinariwen performing their Tuareg blues. Some might describe their stage presence as quiet and unsmiling – the atmosphttp://www.folkeast.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/Bellowhead-2012-album-cover-image.jpghere inside the tent was relaxed, and the band members enjoyed answering questions and explaining more about their music and the Tuareg way of life to a rapt audience. This National Geographic article explains and investigates the situation in North Africa. When asked if there could ever be a Tuareg state, band member Eyadou Ag Leche answered ‘Yes, certainly it is possible, but only with patience.’ The attitude of calm and patience which surrounds Tinariwen is only made more remarkable by the context of the North African struggles; and serves to show that the spirit of the desert is what is most valuable to the group.

Returning to the arena saw us wander past Canadian group Sagapool‘s energetic Gypsy-style performance where we couldn’t help but stop to listen (and shelter from the unceasing rain).

By the time we paid our first visit to the Open Air Stage we were so thoroughly drenched by the rain that I barely noticed it while Bellowhead were performing. It was great to have some old English songs represented at the world’s festival and this contemporary folk band exceeded my expectations, creating a vibe of great energy which soon got the entire crowd dancing. I am glad to have got the chance to see them in action especially as they have announced their disbandment next year in 2016.http://cache4.asset-cache.net/gc/481823960-naomi-diaz-of-ibeyi-performs-on-stage-during-gettyimages.jpg?v=1&c=IWSAsset&k=2&d=X7WJLa88Cweo9HktRLaNXki6hqeVzEKi%2FvRwJ7%2Fr5%2BrcvqtK%2FhhBFchtwaOQqQ%2FFdqTJgz1064IoGGBH0oS%2BwA%3D%3D

After again appraising Tinariwen from afar and counting myself lucky to have heard them earlier at Taste the World, I managed to get across to the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage to join RC for a couple of haunting songs by the edgy Ibeyi, the French-Cuban twins who have taken the internet by storm, with 3 million YouTube views on just one track, River, from their debut album.

The evening’s line up saw our second timetabling dilemma of the weekend. deliberating between catching the world-famous masters of hip hop, De La Soul, or heading over early to the Siam Tent next door. After a compromise of enjoying to two or three numbers by the Long Island band, whose set had what felt like the entire arena partying in the mud, we retreated under cover and claimed our front row spot for one of my favourite artists, http://www.wrasserecords.com/Souad Massi. The decision was a good one. Her unique voice, coupled with our closeness to the stage, gave the experience the intimate feel of one of the much smaller tents. Hearing songs I been playing on CD for over 10 years performed live by this amazing Algerian singer was an incredible experience, and Souad’s relaxed demeanour and casual rapport with her band made it even more enjoyable. The closing song Ya Wlidi banished any teeth-chattering cold and fired us up for the wade back to the campsite and a surprisingly good night’s sleep, despite hearing the distant closing chords of the brilliant Cambodian Space Project, whom we assumed to be the third casualty of Friday’s timetable.
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On Saturday morning the act which caught our attention was the Kakatsitsi Master Drummers From Ghana – definitely master drummers but also master dancers; the joy and expression which the entire group put into the drumming, singing, and dancing was tangible. Stopping by a stall for an excellent Pad Thai and eating while sitting on the (unbelievably) dry ground while listening to Cheikh  confirmed the fact that today was going to be a good day. The Senegalese artist’s music felt difficult to pin down as a particular style, but contained a fair amount of gentle reggae beats which lifted the mood of the entire arena.

We headed back to the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage where we’d seen the Ghanaian drummers to hear the most traditional music of the weekend, that of the Shikor Bangladesh All Stars. The highlights here were without a doubt the beautiful singing voice of Baby Akhtar and the mastery of Jalal Ahmed’s bamboo flute playing; a mystical sound.

The next group we encountered was the South African a capella trio The Soil. It is testament to their skill that they managed to hold the Big Red Tent crowd despite ‘only’ being three people with no supporting band or instruments. I would have liked to hear more of them, http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2014/7/9/1404927199711/Cambodian-Space-Project-010.jpghowever top of our list of priorities was to hasten over to the Taste the World tent, where we had discovered that Cambodian Space Project would be performing. As early birds we grabbed seats at the front and our anticipation was amply rewarded by the show to follow. In contrast to Tinariwen the previous day, Cambodian Space Project treated the show more like one long improvisation, at one point deciding to just make up a new a song. With band members from Sydney, Phnom Penh and the UK, one audience member asked ‘When do you rehearse?’ – the answer was along the lines of ‘we don’t’, and they don’t need to. Channthy’s vocals sounded as perfect whilst she was cooking up a steak salad and dancing behind the kitchen counter as they do on the album recordings, if not better. We were left singing Dance Twist to ourselves for the remainder of the weekend!

Back in the arena we caught the end of Red Baraat’s show in the Big Red Tent, and instantly knew that an appointment at their Rhythm Workshops gig the following day was compulsory. Red Baraat is a jazz/Bhangra band from Brooklyn, bridging the two cultures to create an absolutely fantastic sound. Think Bollywood meets American Jazz Club.

Stopping by at the Siam Tent before heading to our tent for a well-earned nap, we saw Mbongwana Star, a Congolese band whose sound was a combination of electronics, guitars, vocals, and of course drumming. On our way back to the arena after a snooze we encountered the Hot Potato Syncopators, whose traditional banjo sound strummed out classic melodies from the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, and including some umbrella-balancing to boot. The real star of the night however was the Egyptian Project, http://www.togezerproductions.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/slide_EP1-816x450.pnganother act who was worth settling down on the muddy ground a good three quarters of an hour early for. They were similar to Tinariwen in outward seriousness at first, but as the music began to flow, there was a huge sense of personality about each of the band members. As was almost becoming standard, there was a percussion break with the drummer entertaining us solo for a good few minutes, demonstrating the versatility of the instrument, and the skill with which he played. Egyptian Project’s mesmerising electronica was the perfect end to the evening, leaving the audience shouting for more.http://www.jazzonthegreenomaha.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/Red_Baraat2_by_James_Bartolozzi.jpg

Sunday saw the return of the rain, but that was offset by the return of Red Baraat at the World Rhythms Workshop, led by dhol-playing Sunny Jain. Sunny explained the music to an audience which filled the tent and crowded outside. Pros by this point, RC and I occupied seats at the front and spent an amazing hour learning how to dance Bhangra-style and learn about thehttp://i.ytimg.com/vi/COghD-UyE3U/maxresdefault.jpg different rhythms and roles within the band.

Brass was one of the main themes of the day, for next up was the Macedonian Romani Kočani Orkestar, and with a brief interlude spent listening to Ghost Poet, we took up position in the Big Red Tent for the James Brown-inspired Osaka Monaurail. Along with Red Baraat and Cambodian Space Project, this group was one of my top discoveries at WOMAD. Having no idea what to expect, besides ‘funk’, the energy and comedic value of this group was a reward – as was the lead singer’s humble thanks to the crowd for choosing to come to see them. The tent was http://quehacerensantiago.com/sites/default/files/8467590038_86e1ba0cb9.jpgpacked; and the award for the most enthusiastic dancing goes to the audience of Osaka Monaurail.http://www.independent.co.uk/incoming/article9129771.ece/alternates/w620/5661292.jpg

After the bizarre energy of Osaka Monaurail it was difficult to get into the music of Laura Mvula, which had a comparatively mellow atmosphere. Her songs however have a well-crafted sound, created to be beautiful and meaningful. Sing To The Moon was a song she sang at the piano with no other accompaniment, but for most other songs Laura was joined on stage by her brother and sister on cello and violin respectively. We ended the night at the Big Red Tent with Shy FX & Stamina MC, experts at the decks, for a party fit to end the weekend.

With such a huge variety of artists, stages, merchant stalls, cuisine, and activities on offer, WOMAD really did make us want to be everywhere at once. I can hardly wait to find out who will be on the line-up next year already, though having experienced WOMAD 2015 I feel confident that no matter who’s there next year, it will be an incredible show of talent from across the globe.

These pictures are not my own. All photo credits available as alternative text.