Tent is up, possessions lugged across the parched terrain. Infernal heat - it’s going to be a sweat-athon! Buzzards mewing overhead.
A Philippine rice dish with curry sauce, dahl and chillis sets the stomach up nicely. We wander around, checking the layout, and purchase a Ghanaian recycled plastic basket in vibrant colours.
In the early evening the Malmesbury school gig begins, led by Diabel Cissokho. His kora is a lovely ringing sound across the arena.
We follow our Philippine rice with a shared bowl of Nigerian specials - jollof rice, fried plantain, spinach and bean cake.
In the Big Red Tent, Jazzanova lay down some surprisingly ‘80s disco-funk with sub-Prince vocals; kind of fun, but light and disposable too.
A quick beer and Ken Boothe is on the Open Air Stage. A little frail and not entirely convincing in his evening headline slot, his band with a feisty young saxophonist carry him through a series of nice rocksteady and ska grooves. A couple of ballads lose the momentum later on before the big sing-along on “Everything I Own”.
We repair to the backstage bar for some reggae and soukous from the in-house DJ. A late-night snack and we’re in bed around midnight.
We’re in the All-Singing All-Dancing Tent for the Yogatree morning workout. Stretched and invigorated we wander off in search of breakfast. The fried veggie breakfasts of yore, courtesy of Manic Organic, are nowhere to be found this year, but we come up trumps with the Indian breakfast in Madras Kitchen, run by volunteers to raise money for women’s groups in India. Idli, sambar, onion bhaji, chutneys, coconut sauce - yum.
The music programme proper begins at 1pm with Hanggai, the Mongolian folk-rockers. This is sturdy heavy-metal folk, hewn out of the rocky tundra. The front man and lead vocalist sports a gold-embroidered cloak, neck jewellery, hat with insignia and shades; the guitarist in a head band looks like a Bruce Springsteen sideman; the player of a two-string fiddle is also a throat singer, and there are strangely shaped banjos. They maintain traditional elements but their heavy riffs go down a treat with the audience.
Immediately afterwards Niger’s Tal National start up in the Siam Tent. A smaller ensemble than I expected (several members were denied entry visas) - just a four-piece - and not as raucous, they conjure up rhythms which lock into compulsive repetitions, spurring us into heat-defying dancing. The big exuberant leader and guitarist urges us on and lets rip in an extended guitar wig-out.
Back outside and it’s the veteran East African/ Congolese sound of Orchestre Les Mangalepa. Fronted by the longstanding trio of be-hatted orange-cloaked singers, they delivered a perfect dish of Swahili rumba, lilting and swaying, then stepping on the throttle for the speeded-up sebène section, twin guitars interlocking infectiously. A fine bass player looked a dead ringer for a young Gil Scott-Heron, and they had extra fire-power from a four-man brass section.
Three hours of the very best - yes this is Womad.
After an hour’s break for refreshment, Omar Souleyman was next on the big outdoor stage. He didn’t really need all that space for himself and his one-man-band keyboardist but they produced a big sound. Omar is a fascinating phenomenon and I have seen his techno four-to-the-floor beats produce dance-frenzy in a heterogenous audience before. Here it was my first Womad Heartful Moment of the weekend to see a big influx of youngsters into the crowd and a resultant multi-generational mass of feverish bodily agitation - all together now! Omar himself doesn’t dance but moves around the stage, stopping to clap along in a mannerly, rather sweet style, and to deliver his Arabic vocals, regularly punctuated by an exhortatory rising “Aaaahh”, setting off another round of no-nonsense rhythmic blasts bouncing off the dry ground.
A short rest and more refreshments are required at this point. We can hear Sharon Shannon’s accordion from the tent as we refresh.
Back into the fray and at the main stage The Original Gypsies of Camargue are whipping up the crowd with their 14-strong ensemble, guitars set to maximum strum. They are descendants of the Gypsy Kings and hit some fine strides but can be a little safe in their folkloric pop style, so we move on…
La Dame Blanche is in the arboretum at the Ecotricity Stage and she is wowing a younger audience with hiphop and reggae vibes and her engaging Spanish raps. On her last number she brings dozens of the audience up on stage for a festive conclusion.
After the more mainstream acts of Leftfield and Goldie have done their thing, a late addition to the bill takes the stage in the Siam Tent at 11pm. Miroca Paris is a Cape Verdean guitarist, percussionist and singer who was a one-time sideman for Cesaria Evora and it shows. He threw out a chorus of Cesaria’s “Sodade” which was heartstoppingly beautiful - hankies all round and another Womad Heartful Moment. But he also played lots of funaná with his excellent band - great for dancing, and when he moved from guitar to percussion the rhythms were dynamite. He had a fine guitarist and a young female trumpeter who he called up for several solos. An unexpected jewel and one of the highlights of the day.
Half an hour later Hashmat Sultana didn’t appear as billed (although they materialised later in the weekend), and their place was taken by Ustad Haji Ameer Khan and his Qawwali group. Rather incongruously flanked by a hoarding advertising their availability for Qawwali and Bollywood events, they clapped and sang their hearts out passionately, urged on by their rather grumpy-looking master. None of the high-wire vocal gymnastics of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and his ilk, but a solid ending to a fine day of music.
Not a great night’s sleep. The wind buffeted the tent incessantly and there was rain. The joint action of the two seems to have weakened our tent’s defences and a bit of water had trickled in. We make our way to yoga. The big tent is full and we are just outside. Half way through the class the rain starts to spit. I go back to the tent for waterproofs, although the rain doesn’t amount to much and the sun comes out as we queue for porridge at the Oatopia stall. After breakfast we have a wander through the Wellness area in the arboretum where meditation, massage, gong baths, and upside-down therapy all take place among sculptures, musical instrument workshops, interactive art installations and the like.
Musically Belgium’s KermesZ A L’Est are first up. Recommended by Simon Broughton of Songlines magazine they are exciting and hilarious. Eight leather-clad men playing sax, trumpet, trombone, clarinet, tuba, banjo and marching percussion. The monitors are decorated with the head of a deer, a squirrel and some weasels, there are soft toys and dolls lying around, and on the stage are two prams full of flowers, skulls, bones and bric-a-brac. It’s Balkan brass meets Belgian surrealism. Frantic manic energy, blasting percussion and squawking horns, but these guys can play as well. Crazy choreography and ridiculous routines - I haven’t laughed so much at a gig for a long time. They finish with their heavily-bearded horn player dressed as a bad female impersonator roaring and barking into the microphone as the brass and percussion go apeshit behind him. Great fun.
For total contrast we scurry across to the Charlie Gillett stage for Tamala, an acoustic trio also based in Belgium. Two Senegalese musicians - Bao Sissoko on kora, and Mola Sylla on vocals and percussion - join Belgian folk violinist Wouter Vandenabeele. Mola’s voice is magnificent while the intertwining of the kora and fiddle is exquisitely beautiful. Wouter’s posture and wind-blown hair gives him an air of professorial eccentricity as he picks and bows his fiddle. As the set continues complex instrumental patterns weave to an ecstatic level, interspersed with songs of powerful beauty. This is something very special and my highlight so far.
Still on a high from Tamala’s performance we glide down to the Big Red Tent where contemporary Istanbul singer Gaye Su Akyol is performing. Unfortunately this is too much of a contrast. After the sublime and delicate artistry of the Belgian trio, Gaye’s silver cloak and head-dress, and her band’s masks, just look a bit silly and I can’t get into it at all. She may well be in the forefront of a Turkish new wave, and in different circumstances it might work well, but we hotfoot back up to the main stage where Ethiopian singer Selamnesh Zemene is rocking out, backed by Brittany’s Badume Band, last seen supporting Mahmoud Ahmed no less. This is a pleasing rush of energy, capturing that Golden Age style of Ethio funk-rock and supplementing it with wig-out guitar.
Next up in the non-stop Saturday afternoon musical marathon is Hamid El Kasri, renowned master of Moroccan gnawa. Hamid plays the guimbri and sings the ancient texts of gnawa tradition with a touring group of four qarqeba (metal castanet) players and singers, two on each side of him in their cloaks and head-dresses with white shell insignia, plus a kit drummer. The percussion could have been a little further forward in the mix to catch that sibilant intensity. This was clearly gnawa for stage presentation but it was a compelling performance with a strange trance-like stillness at its centre.
The big collective, Havana Meets Kingston, assembled by Australian producer Mista Savona, were on the Open Air Stage, combining the rhythms of the two Caribbean islands. They were bit unfocussed at times but the opening two tracks of their album, “Chan Chan” and “Carnival” sounded great and mass dancing broke out among the crowd.
The Côte D’Ivoire singer Dobet Gnahoré played a memorable set in the Siam Tent. She is a very strong and powerful performer who, in a manner reminiscent of Angelique Kidjo, brooks no dissent, overwhelming all resistance with her near-dominatrix costume, extraordinary bursts of athletic dance, and leading vocals. She has a contemporary sound exemplified by her two most distinctive songs, “Djoli” and “Miziki”, and her band offer solid, if uncharismatic support. The charisma is all hers!
Camille is delivering an adventurous-looking show involving a lot of voice and movement on the main stage, but we need sustenance and refreshment after some six hours of continuous performance, and it is well into evening before we join the throng to hear the Malian ambassadors Amadou & Mariam. It had been several years since I had seen them and at that time they seemed to be heading down a highway of anonymous boogie, so I am glad to report that they seem in very good shape with Amadou’s Malian blues-rock sound well intact and Mariam’s distinctive vocals punctuating nicely.
My late night session was Rafiki Jazz who have the reputation of being the most multicultural outfit in the UK. Indeed they are like a village of inhabitants with different trades and roles, a community managing the complex task of moving together, democratically, as one… or more or less one. It takes them a little while to get started but then there are lovely touches from oud, kora and berimbau, backed by Arabic percussion and even steel pans. They conclude with a rousing “Jhooli Laal Qalandar” and it’s goodnight.
A persistent rain and a relentless little wind conspired to worry our tent into letting in water during the night. By 6 am I was bailing water from the door area and trying to move the bed and possessions away from the side of the tent. Tightened the guy ropes and managed to achieve equilibrium. Meanwhile the rain kept coming and we abandoned all thought of yoga and indeed of getting anywhere for the time being. Eventually in the late morning the rain relented and we ventured forth for coffee.
We just caught a couple of numbers from the Basque folk-rock band Korrontzi. They sounded fluid and agile, playing a fast and memorable set of reels with a tongue-twisting vocal breakdown. Very slick and very good. After that my colleague, Paola, being from Gran Canaria, had a patriotic duty to check out Papaya, a three-piece Indie band, singing in Spanish, from that very same island. Smart and snappy, led by Yanara Espinoza on guitar and vocals.
Replacing Sabry Mosbah, whose visa was refused, were the Punjabi sisters Hashmat Sultana. This was Sufi music, female qawwali singing but in a contemporary band format with guitar, keyboards and drums as well as Indian percussion. One of the singers just looks too young but that would be just my prejudice requiring qawwali masters…usually masters…to have seniority and authoritative control over their units! The sisters are fine vocalists and the band make all the right emphases. There is a sense of Bollywood bhangra rhythms lurking in the background threatening to break out.
The first of two Haitians on today’s bill is in the Siam tent now. Melissa Laveaux is a funky singer-songwriter, singing tales of Haitian history in breathy tones. Good but not totally compelling - would sound great in a small venue.
I was hotly anticipating the next gig from South Africa’s Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness (BCUC), being greatly intrigued by the two lengthy tracks making up the bulk of their “Emakhosini” album. However I couldn’t have imagined the ecstatic intensity of the performance, which blew me away. The combination of deep soul singing from Kgomotso Neo Mokone and the ferocious roars and exhortations from Zithulele “Jovi” Zabani Nkosi, backed by the manic pounding of the two big upright drums which race off like an express train, is simply staggering. I am laughing and almost crying from the exaltation and sheer joy of it. The dancers among us are leaping and cavorting as if our lives depended on it. The front man, Jovi, is magnetic and I can’t take my eyes off him. A magnificent show and a Womad Magical Musical Moment to be sure.
Staggering from the intensity, we stumble out of the tent and fall into the crowd for the return of Amparanoia, Amparo Sanchez’s kick-ass Spanish-Latin combo of yore. What a burst of sunshine on a cloudy day! Old favourites from the Amparanoia canon - “En La Noche”, “Ella Baila Bembe”, “La Fiesta” et al, all delivered with positivity and passion, Amparo bouncing in the fun of it all. Welcome back!
Briefly checking Renata Rosa’s rural Nordeste Brazilian folksongs, I keep going - I don’t want to miss the other Haitian artist - Moonlight Benjamin. She’s playing in the somewhat unsympathetic surroundings of the D&B Soundscape stage, shrouded in misty blue light. In the earlier part of the set she struggles to make an impact - the band seem on a parallel course, busy doing their thing, perfectly competently, but forgetting to get right behind her. I thought they were nervous but it turns out they had had a difficult and frustrating journey to get there. Anyway when they slowed down to play “Chan Dayiva” things started to gel, and from there on they played as a unit producing their trademark heavy vodou sound. Moonlight has charisma and a compelling presence and has the potential to command the stage but she is not quite there yet on this showing.
The last act of my Womad for this year was the Finnish accordionist Kimmo Pohjonen, a late addition to the bill playing with his two daughters under the name Kimmo Pohjonen Skin. Kimmo is a theatrical and experimental performer on a large modified accordion. He wears what looks like a kind of leather apron and he looks like the blacksmith of the accordion, vulcanising new sounds to dazzle us with. His daughters provide robust backing on guitar and electronics, and drums. It’s an intense and fascinating show with lighting to match, and demonstrates the amazing range of sounds and styles that an accordion can produce.
And that was Womad 2018. There is nothing like a Womad Festival - the fantastic range of skilled and passionate performers from all over the world. We are privileged to witness it and I just hope that Chris Smith’s warning words about the difficulties in the visa system for visiting musicians find sympathetic hearing in the Home Office.