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18 août 2008

Womad at Charlton Park, Malmesbury

Bubbles, balloons and colourful flags filled the blazing blue sky above the utopian kingdom of Womad over the weekend. Thankfully, the sultry summer heatwave was much kinder to the global village fête after last year’s muddy relocation to this new Wiltshire site.

A genteel and family-friendly affair, Womad increasingly feels like the model for an ever-expanding calendar crop of eclectic boutique festivals such as the Big Chill, Bestival and Latitude. This year it felt more gentrified than ever, with luxury spa facilities making their debut. The only serious flaw was a lack of running water onsite, a surprising oversight for such a well-organised event.

Womad inevitably attracts grumbles from world music purists, but such sniping seems to wilfully misunderstand the event’s egalitarian, mongrel spirit. After all, any dissenters repelled by Squeeze’s nostalgia-laced Britpop or Martha Wainwright’s quirky confessionals could simply take refuge in the austere purity of the Uzbek folk singer Monajat Yulchieva or the devotional wailing of the Pakistani Sufi maestro Asif Ali Khan. All tastes were catered for.

One of the weekend’s early highlights was a rare appearance by the sporadically active 1970s disco legends Chic. Although the guitarist, songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers is the group’s sole surviving founder member, the polished funk-pop classics, including Good Times, Le Freak and Everybody Dance, still sparkle like fine champagne.

Fusions of oriental and western pop were a feature of the weekend. One of the most entertaining was Dengue Fever, an LA-based group who overlaid a lively mix of psychedelic garage rock with the fluting vocals of the Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol. The punk veteran Jah Wobble also unveiled his latest project, Chinese Dub, a collaboration with his Chinese-born wife Zi Lan Liao that features reggae-rock arrangements of Mandarin, Mongolian and Tibetan folk songs.

Attempting something similar from a Chinese perspective, the award-winning Mongolian singer Sa Dingding sang traditional songs over modern pop instrumentation and electronic textures. Often likened to Björk, the elfin young diva wore a selection of spectacular costumes and ended her Sunday afternoon set on her knees, headbanging furiously. Weird but alluring.

Overall, this was a weekend of sunny celebration, from the rousing Franco-Algerian rabble-rock of Rachid Taha to the shimmering Afro-Caribbean pop of Eddie Grant, who inspired the crowd to form giant conga lines with vintage hits including I Don’t Wanna Dance and Give Me Hope Joanna. Sunday peaked with the West African veterans Orchestra Baobab, Senegal’s answer to the Buena Vista Social Club, whose undulating rhythms and mellifluous harmonies cross easily across national and generational borders. Perfect Womad headliners.

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