How often do things you are already looking forward to wildly exceed your expectations? WOMAD 2004 had a good line up with some interesting bands but some of the most famous names were absent and so it was with an open mind that I sped up the M4 on my scooter to Reading…
I had managed to blag entry to a party celebrating Radio 3’s commitment to WOMAD and ‘world music’ in particular. When I found out that my pass was valid for the whole weekend, I made a snap decision to stay and cut a deal that I would guard the Radio 3 World On Your Street tent overnight in return for somewhere to stay. It proved to be an inspired move and the rest of the weekend was spent hanging out with these good folks.
But this is no gentle African music. With one of the Koras hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, Ba Cissoko create powerful and dynamic sheets of sound, trust me it was kicking
Enough of all that, so what about the bands? Well first up was Jesus CutiÒo at the aforementioned World On Your Street tent. The idea with this stage and the initiative in general is that anyone lucky enough to live in the UK probably has world-class musicians living and playing near them somewhere. And so it proved with Jesus. Although from the Oriente region in Cuba, he is resident now in London and a common fixture on the salsa scene with his Son group and easy-going stage patter. The sun beamed down on Jesus and the crowd did the steps they knew and waved their hands at the appropriate moments. Some game souls even came up to sing on stage. The guy jazzed it up nicely much to the assembled throng’s pleasure. The less said about the woman’s singing the better but full marks for getting up there in the first place.
Then it was on to catch Malouma at one of the larger tents. Malouma Mint Moktar Ould Meidah to give her her full name is a Mauritanian singer/composer hailing from the Trarza desert region of her homeland. Later on we were lucky enough to get up much closer to her when she did a short set for the Charlie Gillet show on BBC London and you couldn’t fail to be caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of this singer who looks like a housewife (which she was for some time in between her musical careers) but rocks it like a diva. Socially conscious lyrics delivered with an infectious joy in performing and mixing traditional and imported musical elements.
Back to the World On Your Street tent to catch the promising Carolina Herrera from Colombia. She sang a collection of songs drawn from all across Latin America and Spain. The simplicity of her set, just her and an acoustic guitar matched her perfect voice and confident guitar playing. For me it was one of the low-key but nonetheless memorable treasures of Womad. After the show, I asked her what her plans were and she told me that she was making the transition from being a practicing doctor in London to a musical career. Her love of these classic songs in her repertoire is obvious but as she says it is impossible to go back and compose stuff like that any more. The world has changed and so she is working on her own material drawing on the influences in her own life. Should be very interesting.
And now we go to one of the biggest names at the festival, and rightly so, Malian singer Rokia Traore. Unfortunately for me I was only able to catch the last part of her set but it was incredible. This explosive, sinuous performer is absolutely mesmerising live. Apparently, her first few songs were performed without the band and these were a highlight of the festival for many. Rokia represented, like many of the other artists at the festival, what I would call the death of ‘world music’ and the birth of ‘global music culture’, which is to say that the many fusions and the use of traditional instruments has stepped outside of that whole fusion/authenticity debate as a prison for creative souls. I can only hope that BBC Four shows the footage. In the meantime, you can hear some of the set on Radio 3’s website.
Crispin Robinson is the perhaps unlikely instigator of a group playing the Afro Cuban rhythms and songs associated with Santeria (the Cuban relative of CandomblÈ and Voodoo). Crispin’s credentials though are impeccable and he is an initiated bata drummer and a scholar. His group Afro-Cuban Fiesta de Santo, drummed, chanted and told stories to an ever increasing crowd attracted as much by the music as the dancers who would at times wander through the crowd as if possessed by the Orishas which were being honoured in song and story.
Koko Kanyinda blew everyone away with his fantastic band Soukous Koumbele. This was pure party music delivered by a band that was as tight as it was unrelenting
Somewhere around this time night fell on WOMAD and we found ourselves at the front row for Tinariwen. These stalwarts of the legendary Festival of the Desert are Touaregs or Kel Tamashek from Mali. To say these guys had presence would be woefully inadequate. In their full Touareg regalia they stand tall and proud, the men’s faces mostly obscured, a line up of mostly electric guitars, a percussionist and vocalist loom large on stage their traditional sounds infused with blues and honed through harsh years spent in exile and in conflict, they were simply awesome.
Time to wander outside on this beautiful night to catch the Master Drummers of Burundi combining percussive excellence with good old-fashioned showbiz before Daara J from Senegal came on. More torchbearers for global music culture, these guys are simply one of the finest and most talented hip hop bands around period. Like all hip hop artists, they represent where they come from but this is nothing less than a great hip hop band at the height of their powers and believe me they give one hell of a show. And let’s face it, no matter how much you love hip hop, live shows are a mixed bunch but Daara J are in a league of their own.
After a few hours sleep punctuated by the odd intruder messing about in the tent, Sunday followed Saturday as expected. Marred perhaps a little by the odd shower of rain but nothing too serious.
The afternoon was a very African affair kicking off with the incredibly talented Daby TourÈ. Originally from Mauritania, Daby followed his father to Paris and absorbed the wealth of music on offer. His own music is defiantly African but African in the sense of pulsing with the sounds of jazz, reggae and traditional music just as Africa itself does. Firing up a crowd of people who have spent a long time partying the day(s) before is no easy task but Daby pulled it off with ease. I expect to hear a lot more from Daby in the future.
Back to Radio 3 land for an elegant and deft performance by musical force and academic Ray Lema. It takes a musician of great intellectual ability to master the forces of complex harmony and produce something that appears simple and beautiful but Ray has these skills in abundance. A perfect afternoon performance of sublime artistry.
The same stage was the scene for another one of those festival epiphanies. Koko Kanyinda, master Soukous bongo player from Zaire, blew everyone away with his fantastic band Soukous Koumbele. This was pure party music delivered by a band that was as tight as it was unrelenting. Koko was obviously having a great time and enjoying the sight of his two male singers and their amazing dancing. Even better, at least for Londoners like me, Koko now resides here so I will be keeping an eye out for any of his gigs coming up.
And then, for my festipals and me things went a bit Latin. First off was the phenomenon that is Caramelo Son. A huge all-female son orchestra from Cuba, they were a late but very welcome addition to the programme. My friend Catherine, herself no mean salsa trumpeter, was in awe of this band that faced down all the machismo and earned respect with their polished Latin sound. The open-air stage was also the scene for DJ Dolores from Recife in Brazil. Not really cloudy afternoon music though so it was a shame not to see them under canvas later in the evening — good as they are.
Just time to nip back to the Radio 3 tent for one last gig and it was a blinder. Ba Cissoko is a master Kora player and his band combines percussion and bass with a two Kora line up. But this is no gentle African music. With one of the Koras hooked up to a wah-wah pedal, Ba Cissoko create powerful and dynamic sheets of sound, trust me it was kicking.
The last gig of the festival for me was Amparanoia from Spain. I am a huge fan of bands like Ojos de Brujo and it was great to see another band with the same spirit but a different sound rocking the crowd. Definitely another band on my list of those that need further exploration.
And then with weary eyes and a long scooter journey ahead of me I had to take my leave of my new friends and what had been a truly wonderful weekend and head back to London.
If you were there, drop us a comment on this page about the WOMAD you had – otherwise until next year — or maybe the Eden Session in late August if I’m lucky — it’s adios.
World On Your Street