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31 juillet 2007

Magic amid the mud

As Peter Gabriel launched into his anthem of the open air, Solsbury Hill, I and several thousand other Womad-goers were picking our way through acres of thick, elastic mud in semi-darkness. And there's something poignant - or perhaps pathetic - about hearing a song about striding up a Wiltshire hillside while clambering through a real-life Wiltshire bog, particularly when the situation is largely man-made.

After 17 years at a leisure centre in - of all places - Reading, our premier world-musical festival has moved to the more rarefied atmosphere of an aristocratic estate. Yet the feeling is that this famously laid-back event has been woefully under-prepared for weather conditions that were known about months in advance. With two stages engulfed by flooding, vehicles stranded and the main thoroughfares a vast mud bath, Womad - notably friendly to families and older people - makes the young people's festival Glastonbury look like a model of efficiency.

Yet it is still possible to encounter the kind of magically unexpected moments that have become Womad's trademark. Making my way into a wood through which swirling shadow patterns were being projected, I came upon a tiny stage on which the Malian lute master Bassekou Kouyate and his group, Ngoni Ba, were belting out their densely percussive music to a small but clearly enchanted audience.

Saturday dawned warm and sunny, and Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora got a huge response for her easy-shuffling rhythms and majestically unhurried delivery. Arizona's Calexico created a similarly dreamy feel, blending mariachi trumpets and swooning pedal steel guitar in a hallucinatory Mexican border vibe.

As the predicted rain commenced at 8pm sharp, the hyper-energy of the Asian Dub Foundation's agit hip-hop proved just the thing to revive the soggy and depleted crowd. Britain and Asia met again in the Imagined Village, an attempt to reinterpret English folk song in the light of what Britain now is, with veteran folkie Martin Carthy joined by Billy Bragg and various British Asian musicians. If it felt a touch worthy at times, there was a sense of being in on the birth of something new and exciting.

Whatever else Saturday's headliner, Isaac Hayes, might be, he is not new, and despite the super-tightness of his band, his performance soon descended into tired cabaret funk in which the man himself seemed to have little interest. But then, just as you were wondering if this could really be the man who created the inspirational tension of the Theme from Shaft, he launched into an extended version of that very number, carrying the dialogue between wah-wah guitar and stabbing chords to a pitch of excitement that almost topped the pure genius of the original.

Mark Hudson reviews Womad at Charlton Park, Malmesbury, Wilts

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