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17 août 2008

Womad: what's the world coming to? When the world comes to Wiltshire


Mark Hudson reviews Womad at Charlton Park, Wiltshire

This year, the premier world music festival featured a quirky Canadian singer-songwriter, a thundering journey into 1990s drum and bass, a veteran gospel diva and the return of a 1980s pop-reggae icon.

Indeed, looking at Saturday's programme, there appeared to be just about everything on offer but world music. Did it matter?

The organisers had assembled a positive cornucopia of African talent, yet many of these artists were tucked away in odd corners of the bill. Appearing early on Friday evening, the Malian kora master Toumani Diabate hit the ground at a level of speed and lightning-fingered virtuosity that appeared impossible to sustain.

While the rest of his set was something of an anti-climax, his band's rather uncertain foray into jazz, with slap-bass and piano, was well received by the crowd.

Playing on the tiny Radio 3 Stage, hidden in woods on the edge of the site, Kenya's Kenge Kenge Orutu System got Saturday off to an exuberant start with their joyous energy.

Performing on cow's horn trumpets, flutes and wailing fiddles, and powered by muscular kit drumming, the high point of their set was an exuberant tribute to Barack Obama, whose Kenyan father is a member of their Luo ethnic group.

The gospel legend Mavis Staples effortlessly commanded the main stage, her fabulously throaty voice backed by low-riding, swamp-funk grooves. A stark and brooding version of the Band's The Weight was the high point of a set that took rock back to its most elemental roots.

If Martha Wainwright's set felt like an hour of adolescent whingeing set to music, the drum and bass pioneer Roni Size blasted the cobwebs away with a frenetic journey into rhythm that was exhilarating in its energy, but nightmarish in its claustrophobia and horrendous volume.

Eddy Grant may have been born in Guyana and now live in South Africa, but his headlining set felt as quintessentially British as a bank holiday in Margate.

A parade of his golden oldies - Can You Feel My Love, Electric Avenue and a glorious calypso-flavoured Gimme Hope Jo'anna - transported you straight back to Top of the Pops circa 1982 and left the crowd baying for more.

If all this Western-centred nostalgia left you wondering what had happened to the Womad spirit of visionary cross-cultural collaboration, a wander into the vast Siam Tent provided the answer.

Lying on the ground as mystical Islamic singers from Egypt, Uzbekistan and Pakistan intoned into the small hours, while psychedelic patterns played over the roof, it felt like Womad's inspirational oddness was doing just fine.

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