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01 août 2005

Last Night: WOMAD, Rivermead, Reading

Led Zeppelin meets Latino in this festival of fascinating rhythms

Published: 01 August 2005 ; By Phil Meadley

Sometimes it takes one vital spark to ignite a festival. This year at Britain's biggest and best-loved world music festival it was Ethiopia's Mahmoud Ahmed who provided it. Now in his 63rd year Ahmed has remained one of Addis Ababa's best-kept secrets for decades; military rule between 1974 and 1991 keeping his vibrant blend of east African funk a local phenomenon while the country's strict censorship remained.

Only recently, through the wonderful Ethiopiques compilation series, his uniquely soulful singing has been heard in the West. Making two appearances this year, his Saturday performance at the Village stage impressed. His seven-piece band wove insistently funky, horn-led Fela Kuti-style passages round a truly majestic vocal range, conjuring up images of James Brown at his soulful best.

Robert Plant's performance provided one of the most talked-about moments of the first day. His heavy, riff-driven set split the audience down the middle in terms of those who yearned for the classic Led Zeppelin tunes, and those who sought to escape to the Radio 3 acoustic session to see Syria's premier zither player Abdullah Chhadeh, or else search in earnest for a Chai tea. A couple of middle-aged women couldn't help shouting, "We love you Robert" but his often leaden delivery bemused as many people as it inspired.

Saturday was far more enticing. Aside from Mahmoud Ahmed, there was Madagascar's colourful Jaojoby who mix traditional Malagasy rhythms with the new, funkier salagey style, which became popular in the Eighties.

Cape Verde's Lura performed a very polished Creole/Latino-inspired set, and jazz-drumming legend Bill Cobham fused world influences with complex, jazz-funk fusion workouts. The fascinating Japanese trad-meets-electronic dub collective OKI Dub Ainu Band fused sounds from the northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Although rain threatened to dampen the evening, the Fatback Band and Algeria's Akim El Sikameya kept spirits up on the two main stages. The latter's mix of Algerian Rai and Andalusian music was saccharin- sweet at times, but there was no denying his musical virtuosity or powerful, falsetto vocal range.

Youssou N'Dour and his Senegalese band Super Etoile were the most anticipated act, and for the most part this much-loved African superstar didn't disappoint. Running an extensive repertoire, which stretches back to the late 1970s, he was at his very best duelling with the mind-bogglingly dextrous Talking Drummers. At his worst, his heavily Westernised and overly sincere pop ballads such as "My Hope Is In You" and "Seven Seconds" seemed oddly out of place.

Sunday was the debut of hotly anticipated blind Malian couple Amadou & Mariam, who played a funky set of Malian rock 'n' roll and provided one of the most exciting and electrifying moments of the festival. Beside Amadou's phenomenal guitar playing, his mostly French band provided a tight background to the blind couple's compositions.

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