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19 août 2008

Womad Festival, Wiltshire, UK

By David Honigmann, Financial Times, August 2, 2008

The first person on Womad’s main stage this year was Johnny Kalsi. Generally, the worst that can be said of the amiable frontman of the Dhol Foundation is that his drumming forces fellow musicians to wear earplugs. But for many in the audience, the last time they had seen him was when he announced from the stage last year that their cars, having been hauled from the mud by tractors, were being towed away by the police.

Kalsi made only uneasy allusion to the shambolic mudbath that was Womad 2007: “Don’t mention the m-word”. But it was surely no accident that the act he introduced, the monks of the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery, are regularly invited into homes to clear bad energy. As they sounded their 12ft horns, residual bad energy started to shift. But then they paraded round the stage with a giant umbrella, the Womad equivalent of talking of rope in the house of the hanged.

Chris Smith, Womad’s new events director, explicitly saw the role of this year’s festival as “rebuilding trust”. Lots of things went his way including the weather. On Saturday afternoon, serendipitously, the RAF’s Red Arrows aerobatics team flew fighter jets low over the site. “We didn’t organise that but it was pretty impressive,” says Smith. When not scorching, Womad was bucolic. Giant inflatable sculptures lurked amid the trees; passing punters banged away at a woodland gamelan; diners removed their shoes to sit in the sushi yurt.

Vibe is one thing, music another. The 2007 festival pulled out all the stops for its programme; this year’s lineup was less glittery. Nonetheless, almost every one of this year’s winners at the Radio 3 Awards for World Music played. Bassékou Kouyaté sat on a monitor at the ront of the main stage and played his ngoni while the rest of his band crept theatrically behind him and his wife, Amy Sacko, smiled indulgently when not singing her heart out.

Sa Dingding gave a stunning show, complete with dancers. She ended kneeling on the stage, whipping her long hair around her in a frenzy. Rachid Taha stormed the main stage on Friday night, Bo Diddley riffs ablaze on the oud, electric guitars crunching, and the crowd singing along as he transmuted The Clash’s impertinent comment on Middle Eastern politics into “Rock El Casbah”.

The usually reliable Siam Tent seemed cursed. One of the acts there, Toumani Diabaté, swapped the hushed religious ambience of this year’s wonderful solo concerts for a band, including his son Sidiki (who has his father’s flashy fingerwork but, as yet, none of his subtlety). A new composition, “Essaouira”, sounded like Weather Report with a twin kora frontline. “You promised we could go to the steam fair,” complained a child, loudly. The Senegalese singer Wasis Diop was lacklustre there as well. It took Shane MacGowan, slurring through “Fairytale Of New York” with Sharon Shannon, to bring the tent to life.

Breaking into the big time were the Los Angeles-based band Dengue Fever. They played Cambodian pop music from the 1960s, riding a wave of electric organ and twanging surf guitar. David Ralicke played saxophone solos that could have been composed by Mulatu Astatke. Chhom Nimol jumped around like a Cambodian Debbie Harry.

Away in the arboretum, Jah Wobble gave the performance of the festival. His new project, Chinese Dub, started as a relatively modest commission for Liverpool 08, marking the city’s year as European capital of culture, and grew into a tour and an album. Wobble, in grey suit and hat, played forceful basslines that could have performed CPR two fields away. Dodging about the stage, he cued other players to drop in and out. His wife, Zi Lan Liao, sat playing the guzheng, a plucked zither. Clive Bell played Chinese pipes.

Dub and Chinese music proved a perfect mixture. The earnest folk melodies leavened the dub’s conceptual self-importance; the dub hardened the Chinese music against kitsch. As if to demonstrate the kinship, the band played Augustus Pablo’s “Java”, echoing with melodica and a guzheng solo dovetailed in as the rhythm dropped out. Later, Claire Rose sang Dawn Penn’s “No, No, No”, rising from a low growl to impressionistic wails, accompanied by the Tibetan singer Gu Ying.

Midway, Wobble brought on two mask-changing dancers. As they twirled and high kicked, red and yellow silk cloaks whipping around them, their masks constantly changed from one eyeblink to the next, expressions and colours and designs constantly transforming as hands flashed across faces. It was a moment of stage magic so surprising, and so inexplicable, that the audience was dumbstruck.

This year’s big names played surprisingly safe. Squeeze essentially performed a compilation album in its entirety. Chic stretched their one glorious rhythm over 75 minutes: parents and toddlers channelled Travolta while teenagers pretended to be orphans. Eddy Grant mixed the highlights of his songbook with one less familiar number, “Hearts and Diamonds”, that was one degree from Dire Straits.

And then again, away in the woods, the Marseille choir Lo Còr de la Plana was issuing an irresistible a capella invitation. Within 90 seconds, the audience had linked hands and formed a running line, threading in and out of the trees like an Occitan village festival. The rhythm, beaten out on frame drums, quickened, more and more people were sucked in, and Womad’s true spirit of serendipity lived again. Even Johnny Kalsi was forgiven.

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