Thursday, 2 August 2012

WOMAD Sunday July 29th 2012

I went to WOMAD three years ago, to catch a rare Peter Gabriel performance ( Along with my wife and ten-year-old daughter I had a very enjoyable day (although the latter started to develop swine-flu symptoms as the day drew to a close), yet I hadn't been back until last weekend. I was tempted in the meantime, but the fact is that unless you are a serious "World Music" buff, which I'm not, most of the bill comprises artists with unfamiliar names from unfamiliar countries who may or may not make a noise I want to listen to. This makes £65 a head for a one day ticket, and £195 for three one day tickets an unpalatable gamble. I was tempted this year by the prospect of Robert Plant and his Sensational Space Shifters headlining the Sunday, but then I'd seen them in May, and the coffers are looking a bit depleted to say the least. Anyway, a couple of weeks ago WOMAD offered a draw for free tickets to those who "liked" one of their Facebook entries. Hardly a chore, and I did like it, so nothing ventured etc., and the next day I received an e-mail telling me I had three tickets for Sunday, which given that the aforementioned daughter still gets in for nothing meant that we had a day out in prospect for all four of us, at no cost. If you believe in karma (the love you take is equal to the love you make and all that), then I'd put this down to the not inconsiderable few bob I've spent over the last forty years on Peter Gabriel's records, videos and concert tickets plus a few more on other releases by his Real World record company. As a founder of WOMAD I'm sure it was his waves of positive reciprocal karma that drew my name out of the hat. Then again, it might have been luck.

Following the apocalyptic downpour at Jodrell Bank a few weeks ago, the prospect of another open-air event in our green and pleasant land was greeted with muted enthusiasm by the rest of the troops, but I conceded that if it was pouring with rain we could delay our arrival until Mr. Plant's performance was imminent. Happily, though, Sunday dawned brightly, if rather cloudier than during the brief heatwave of the previous week. There remained the challenge of bringing two teenagers to functionality on a school holiday Sunday, but we got there in the end, and by 10.00 a.m. we'd arrived at Charlton Park in Malmesbury and claimed our wristbands.

A pleasant ten minute walk through the camping area saw us enter the main arena which was festooned with the brightly coloured flags that are now de-rigeur at any festival. They do lend a special quality to the field (you don't see much more than a forlorn Union Jack in most public places). I don't know what they cost (the same ones do the rounds through the summer, with new designs appearing each year), but I would welcome their spread outside the festival circuit. But then maybe they wouldn't be special any more.

There were a couple of classes in Yoga and Tai Chi underway, but otherwise the various stages were not due to gear up for a while,so there was time for a bit of exploration, a browse of the market stalls and a peep at Carters' Steam Fair.The kids judged this potentially more scary than their recent rides at Alton Towers as the machines' working parts are so much more obviously displayed! Aside from stalls selling food stuffs from fish curry and jerk chicken to doughnuts and ice-cream, folk are peddling those clothes that might seem cool at a festival but will languish in a cupboard when you get home, jewellery and domestic ornaments. Then there are hammocks, eco-friendly washing-up liquid and, of course, music and related publications. Some are also trying to sell ideas. One stall will inspect your skin for the wrong sort of mole while next door they'll teach breast examination, both commendable. Equally commendable but alas, I believe futile, are the "Free Tibet" campaigners. Yes, China should allow Tibetans self determination. Will they? Not unless hell freezes over, and no amount of well-intentioned hand-wringing will alter that. The Scouts next door are having a raffle. The atmosphere is akin to that of a village fete and The Sun Is Shining! Just when you think things can't get any better, the beer tents open up and the first major musical performances get underway. Beer is £4 a pint, i.e. a bit overpriced, but it is at least "real", even at the general arena bar, while the Real Ale tent offers a wider menu and the Siam bar has half a dozen ciders to try. No, I didn't, but in theory you could!

Now for the music.The acts may be unfamiliar, but there is no doubting the quality control that goes into devising WOMAD's bill. Unfortunately with three or more stages in action at one time there is an element of luck to whether you see the "right" ones. Buying a programme was a wise move, as the potted biographies give some indication of what's in store. Still, would you know what to expect from a band whose music hales from Tajikistan? O.K., clever clogs, so where is Tajikistan, then??! Yup, north-east of Afghanistan, and judging from current news reports (airport closed, "hundreds" believed dead), it's about as safe. This may be why The Alaev Family, who performed from noon in the blue Siam tent, have lived in Israel for two decades, rather than their ancestral homeland. No, let's not get into debating whether as Israelis they originated in the levant before being dispersed to Tajikistan and reclaiming their Zionist birthright. This is supposed to be about music, and musically they draw their repertoire from Tajikistan and the Bukharan region of neighbouring Uzbekistan. Confused? Well, when it came down to it, they sounded remarkably western at times. I suppose the overall tone is middle eastern, with three generations banging away on frame drums, but the presence of keyboards, a fiddle and straightforward bass-and-drumkit over which unintelligible but passionate chants are intoned gives it a peculiar familiarity. I was reminded of seeing The Fisherman's Friends doing their sea shanties and oddly at one point an off-beat rhythm turned the proceedings into a Madness-like ska style. So what if we had not a clue what they were singing about? You got the drift that the energetic performance reflected some common emotion and the sense of fun being had up on stage infected a sizeable crowd enough to reward them with a good ovation. A very good start to the afternoon.
Alaev Family

We drifted over to the main open-air stage for the majority of a set by Urbain Phileas, who comes from a small French island in the Indian Ocean called Reunion. I was tempted to watch Irishman Damien Dempsey in the Big Red Tent but on the basis that he's more likely to cross my path again, and has a reputation for miserable songs such as might depress your spirit, he lost out to M. Phileas.
Urbain Phileas

Urbain Phileas and his small band play maloya, a musical combination of call-and-response vocals (ideal for a bit of audience participation) and basic percussion which might quickly pall if played in a clinical way, but a bit of charisma goes a long way. Banter between stage and audience, much of it in French, and extrovert presentation of the performance (why bang an oil drum with your hands when you climb onto it and stamp out the rhythm?!) consequently made for a fun time and another enthusiastic audience.
Seckou Kouyate & Joe Driscoll

We wandered off to find some lunch, and having chosen to go Creole gastronomically, found ourselves close to the Charlie Gillett stage, one of the smaller ones, but drawing a disproportionately large crowd. The act was Joe Driscoll from New York in partnership with Seckou Kouyate from Guinea. The former speaks no French, the latter no English, but without getting too soppy about the universal language of music, the sound they make does support the notion that speech is an over-rated form of communication! There are words - Driscoll's background is rap and beatboxing- but the extended instrumental passages featuring his acoustic guitar and Kouyate's kora, both fed through effects pedals, at times achieved harmonies that might belong on a Carlos Santana album from the mid-seventies. To me, that  is not a bad thing, by the way, and the fact that they had drawn an audience of all ages has to suggest they were getting something right. Fusion in music is great when it works, terrible when it doesn't, and cross-cultural fusion doubly so. This permutation seemed to have cracked it.
The Pine Leaf Boys

Slightly more familiar territory next, with The Pine Leaf Boys, a five-piece cajun band from Louisiana. Well, they sing in English and the musical format and instrumentation are familiar, but despite Gloucester's annual Cajun & Zydeco festival, it's not a sound I hear very much. On what was now a sunny afternoon and with a few glasses of Bath Gem ale soaking gently into my brain, a bit of cheerful up-tempo and dare I say it, light-weight music accompanied with some slumping on the ground to read the programme was an appropriate prescription. What the Pine Leaf Boys do is not original (the set features Jambalaya and a Jerry Lee Lewis song), but it is good for the heart and performed with absolute enthusiasm, competence and, I suppose, authenticity. Sometimes that is a lot more than adequate.
Keb' Mo'

Keb' Mo' may have come from Compton, birthplace of NWA, but you wouldn't know it. He has played the blues for President Obama and now it was my turn to be impressed. Again, as a formula there was nothing innovative. The man played his guitar and sang a bit. Both his voice and his strings had a credible and unlaboured tone. His is the cool, restrained an un-flashy approach that works best for me. No question he's a fine guitarist but the crux is expressiveness rather than impressiveness. I'm sure he could show off, but mostly he doesn't. Of the performances I saw it may have been the most conservative in that it sounded exactly as I expected it to, but it was also one that I'd have liked to have gone on for longer.

Over the following hour we wandered some more and saw a little of the parade organised (as far as I could tell) to exhibit the artwork resulting from various workshops held over the weekend. Accompanied by samba bands, the artists (many of them children) carried their handywork around the arena in a low-key procession, mercifully spared any rain but slightly challenged by a stiffening breeze.

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club continue the legacy of the original band made famous by Ry Cooder and the movie of the same name. Understandably few of the original members, many of whom were elderly when they came to the world's full attention, are still with us, but the remaining stalwarts are now surrounded by representatives of the next generation tasked with continuing to popularise Cuban music.The Latin beats at its core mean that standing still is not really an option once the band gets going, and some of the audience, so substantial that it spilled out of the open sides of the Siam tent, were attempting "proper" dancing. Your correspondent was content to wobble his overweight carcass from leg to leg, but by my standards, that constitutes dancing! An hour-long set was about right.Unless you are a serious fan, the tunes do start to blur together, but the Orquesta probably gleaned the biggest cheer of the day and were one of thopse acts that you feel privileged to have seen. The latter part of the show featured Omara Portuondo, an original Buena Vista vocalist "of mature years" to be as delicate as I can, who was utterly charming and more than willing to shake a tail-feather, even though walking on and off the stage was evidently a challenge. Unforgettable.

Over on the open air stage,the penultimate performance from Senegal's Omar Pene was already underway by the time the Cubans were done. His compatriot Youssou N'Dour toured extensively with Peter Gabriel in the Eighties, and while he has a remarkable voice, I always found his music hard to like despite hearing it several times. (That's probably a statement to get you on some kind of grisly ritual WOMAD punishment!) Omar Pene's work seemed more accessible. Still verbally untelligible, its arrangement seemed to draw a little more on western influences. Maybe that's a sell-out, but if Mr. Gabriel can borrow from Africa it seems fair enough for Africa to do some borrowing of its own.

As the crowd thinned after Omar Pene's departure I made my way through what remained to within a body or two of the crush barrier stage centre. Despite a clear indication on the WOMAD website that photography is prohibited during performances, I found myself in the midst of gentlemen with heavy telephoto lenses. Reluctant to repeat the Jodrell Bank a-removable-lens-does-not-a-professional-camera-make debate, I had just packed my little Lumix pocket camera, which does at least have the advantage of fitting in your pocket! There was still well over an hour until Robert Plant's scheduled arrival at 21.40. The crowd were mostly affable enough until a young lady of European accent (and attitude) tried to barge through to the front a few minutes before showtime. We may be legendary for our willingness to queue, but us Brits don't take kindly to queue jumping or other disruption of what we perceive as the natural order. That wasn't quite how the Scottish photographer next to me put it, and while the girl felt that being "not from here" excused her behaviour, he explained that manners are universal and she needed to acquire some. Others chipped in, but she was going nowhere so I spent the next ninety minutes supporting my weight and resisting most of hers! Guess that means the hip replacement has bedded in, then. One day she'll realise that a pretty face gets you a long way, but not everywhere!

That's Juldeh's ritti
Never mind. The Sensational Space Shifters were upon us and from the off it was apparent that the reflective, restrained performance at Gloucester Guildhall was not to be repeated. A bigger stage did allow the band to throw themselves around a bit more and guitarist Justin Adams in particular took full advantage of the fact. This was for the most part a rock band performance and while Juldeh Camara's ritti (hey, I found out what it's called at last) drags the sound in a less mainstream direction, Led Zeppelin fans should not have been disappointed. The set list was shorter than at Gloucester, and broadly similar, although the temporary absence of Patty Griffin, fulfilling commitments elsewhere (thanks Jessica!), definitely shaved an element of subtlety and harmony from the proceedings. The songs may have remained the same, but the order was significantly shuffled and the arrangements toughened up. Robert Plant himself was a little more talkative, at one point accusing Peter Gabriel of cheating at tennis, while praising the WOMAD concept. As the just-past-curfew encore of Gallows Pole drew to a close it was hard to argue with his enthusiasm. O.K. I did have the rose tinted spectacles of someone with £195 more in his bank than a non prize winner, which helped, but if WOMAD exists to broaden musical horizons and encourage multiculturalism it does work in many ways. Only the business side of it bothers me. Those ticket prices are probably unavoidable but another year or two of austerity may also make them unsustainable. While BBC Radio 3 broadcasts part of the festival, the money assocated with television coverage may be the only thing to rescue its long-term future. If Sky Arts can splash out on the Cambridge Folk Festival and even the past-its-sell-by-date Cropredy, they really should be persuaded to have a look at WOMAD. It doesn't just sound different, it looks different (HD Colour was invented for it).

Anyway my thanks (and those of the family) to WOMAD for the tickets. A Grand Day Out.

P.S. My general comments about WOMAD 2009 are on my original blog here:

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