Review: WOMAD festival, Charlton Park

Published in The Independent on August 1, 2018

Womad’s great strength is its eclecticism: there are bands from right across the globe, offering glimpses into lesser-known musical traditions from more than 50 countries, or slamming them together in unexpected combinations.

Where else would you see a Polish punk band performing 1930s protest songs on the banjo and tuba (Hanba)? Or a Finnish girl group closing a major tent with a mix of a cappella choral arrangements and beatboxing (Tuuletar)?

The crowd, although itself curiously un-diverse, features lots of young families and a goodly turn out from the grey pound, swathed in rainbow kaftans. It all makes for a pleasant, easygoing atmosphere; people are here for the music, but it’s never too precious.

Still, looking at the Friday line-up, you could be forgiven for thinking the festival was nostalgically catering primarily for the mid-Nineties caner.

After a pretty dated set from hip hop/jazz fusionists The Herbaliser, and a more bouncing DJ stint from Goldie, the headliner was Leftfield playing Leftism, their classic 1995 dance album. While it may have no great emotional resonance for me, it nonetheless proved to have a coherency of vision that makes it worth revisiting in full.

After months of baking heat, Saturday brought the rain; grey drizzle felt like quite the wrong backdrop for sunny headliners Amadou & Mariam, although they still brought their reliable, laid-back Malian grooves.

Even a deluge couldn’t dampen Camille, who takes the idea of the French chanteuse and flings it into a wildly new shape. From flailing, rolling-on-the-floor dance moves to her inventive body percussion and shamelessly orgasmic gasps and moans, she offered a quirky yet enjoyable set, with a trio of sweet-voiced backing singers/dancers adding to the general sense of theatrics.

Another highlight was Ezra Collective, a London-based jazz outfit with charisma to spare. They delivered raw power on the horns, and boasted an impressive rhythm section, irresistibly tight and funky; an unlikely cover of Noughties one-hit-wonder “Sweet Like Chocolate” ignited the crowd.

Driving rains cleared by Sunday afternoon, and the festival seemed relieved just to have survived (unlike cancelled Camp Bestival), with boingingly upbeat acts seeming to bring out the rainbows. Too Many Zooz – who started life as buskers on the New York subway – almost blew a tent away with their bounding “brass house”, their trumpet and baritone sax assaults getting heart-rates chugging and hands in the air.

Congolese collective KOKOKO! were similarly high-energy, their Kinshasa grooves delivered with fiery spirit and electronic beats. Closer to home, Django Django didn’t perhaps match them for raucous spirit, but still delivered a set of accessible, dance-hooked electro-art-rock.

A shout out must go to the smaller stages, where you really never know what gems may await. A highlight was La Dame Blanche, a Cuban queen with a million-watt smile and cigar in hand. As her music skittered between hip hop, dub, and dancehall, she slipped between rapping, playing jazz flute, and singing with a voice of rare, muscular majesty.

Then there was Edmar Castaneda, a Colombian harpist whose virtuosic, experimental command of the instrument proved mind-blowing. From strumming like a Spanish guitar to palming it like slap bass to pitch-shifting individual strings, the inventive techniques were also at times simply swept away by the sheer speed and rhythm of his joyous playing. It was utterly unique – much like Womad.

Where next?