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02 août 2006

From Gypsy divas to Somalian rap, Womad brings the world to Reading

With its colourful flags, tents and musicians, Womad, the annual world music festival, has always possessed something of the camel fair about it. This feeling was reinforced as UK temperatures outstripped those of north Africa and plumes of dust drifted across the area in front of the main stage.

By mid-afternoon the festival's large Siam tent was overflowing with punters desperate to escape the sun, oblivious to whoever took the stage. This was, everyone agreed, going to be a long weekend. Beyond the heat - and many were already taking a dip in the nearby Thames - this year's Womad, the festival's 24th, looks to be the best yet, its line-up boasting everything from Hungarian Gypsy divas through Somalian rappers to legends of west African music.

It was one of the latter, Mali's Salif Keita, who provided the greatest respite from yesterday's heat. Keita, an albino blessed with a beautiful tenor voice, sang with the relaxed grace of a man completely at home in desert terrain. Poland's Warsaw Village Band may be from cooler climes but their energetic east European folk melodies made for a good-humoured celebration of this gathering.

With no Glastonbury this year, Womad looks set to be the summer's most engaging and imaginative music festival. Both Womad and Glastonbury share something of a dream-like quality, using music and dance to celebrate high summer and the fertility rituals that have always surrounded such events. Glastonbury obviously operates on a much larger scale but Womad, with its capacity of 34,000, is more easy-going and accessible.

Cynics may dismiss it as a gathering of organic tofu munchers and, yes, the overall vibe is polite, liberal and well behaved - in extreme contrast to the Reading Rock Festival which will occupy these same grounds in a month's time - yet Womad's radical booking policy is light years ahead of any other UK music festival, aiming as it does to promote international understanding through music, dance and food.

If there's a gaping hole in this year's programme it is the absence of any performers from the Middle East. As the world's focus remains upon the unfolding tragedy in Lebanon it would have made for a symbolic connection of sorts to experience that region's musical beauty here.

No matter: Womad 2006 provides plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

Scotland's Salsa Celtica managed to get more energetic punters dancing mambo; the London trombonist Dennis Rollins blew bright, funky jazz; Mexico's Latin-ska punks Los De Abajo provided the Zapatista movement with a soundtrack that recalled the Clash's energetic pop polemic. As temperatures dropped, France's masters of tango-dub fusion Gotan Project commanded the main stage. In a nearby tent Anoushka Shankar, the daughter of Ravi and half sister to Norah Jones, tuned her sitar and exuded glamour. Womad was under way in all its glory.

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