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26 juillet 2008

Rachid Taha's wildness restates festival's mission of connection

Womad Festival, Charlton Park, Wiltshire

The French-Algerian punk maverick Rachid Taha closed WOMAD's first night with a show of dervish wildness the rest of the weekend will do well to match.

There has been mild controversy this year about the high number of Western chart acts, including Squeeze and Chic. But one listen to Toumani Diabate's Symmetric Orchestra earlier in the day reminds you that WOMAD is about inclusivity and connection, not austere authenticity.

Diabate begins solo on the harp-like Malian kora, of which he is a maestro, casually unfurling an insanely rapid silver stream of notes. But this music's basis in religious trance also recalls Wasis Diop's claim that African music is inherently psychedelic.

And when the Orchestra appears, barrelhouse piano, weird chicken-scratch guitar and deep funk bass attain a swirl half from Mali, and half from some 1960s West Coast acid den. As throat-singers from the near-mythical Central Asian republic of Altai strike up on one stage, Chic offer New York City's thrilling melancholy of disco, making their debut in WOMAD's Wiltshire field.

Golden-crowned Cambodian dancing girls and the veteran Bedouin Jerry Can Band, who play Israeli army debris left in the Sinai Desert, are no stranger than Shane MacGowan's appearance with Sharon Shannon's Irish big band.

Rachid Taha is a magnetic mix of 1940s Casbah spiv, Richard III, Joe Strummer and a free-spirited French-Algerian energy all his own. There is something appealingly unhealthy yet entirely benign about him. There are Spaghetti Western fanfares, Europop tackiness and rai rhythms, a restless, rolling surprise putting everything that catches his ear through an Algerian prism.

It is Taha, though, that brings this British crowd up short, with how far we still have to go to really lose ourselves in the world's music. He is staggered at our monolingual inability to sing with him, in French or Arabic.

He finally gives up, puffing his cigarette in eloquent disgust. But then, he bends down, talking in French about Iraq. And when he stands up, he is singing "Rock the Casbah", reclaiming The Clash's punk roar against Islamist intolerance. If WOMAD's mission needed restating, Taha has done it superbly.

By Nick Hasted,, Saturday, 26 July 2008

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