July 28-31, 2016
In 2015, half of the WOMAD festival's long weekend suffered a deluge of rain, the strength of its music having to do battle with a general spiritual soddenness. This year's edition thankfully featured uniformly pleasant conditions, with the downpouring held off until Monday morning's packing-away activities. The World Of Music, Arts & Dance has now reached its tenth year on this Charlton Park site, with a few 2016 tweakings and rotations of its physical set-up, just to keep the crowds from becoming complacent. A key joy of WOMAD is its persistence in presenting a significant number of artists who are making their UK debut, or are otherwise unfamiliar. There are always major discoveries in global sound to be made during this festival. Not that it's ever lacking in known headliners, this year's starry acts being George Clinton, John Grant, Baaba Maal, Asian Dub Foundation and St. Germain.
In the Bowers & Wilkins tent, matters often took an electronic turn, to show off this hi-fi company's sound system. A Guy Called Gerald played remarkably early, opening Friday's programme at 2pm, surely one of this Manchester native's earliest sets in nearly three decades of performing. Although his "Voodoo Ray" became a key minimalist electronica recording in 1988, Gerald Simpson's sound has moved with the times, currently incorporating multiple elements and sounding very much in the now, and very much a product of live improvisation. About halfway through his concise one hour set (most of this fest's artists don't get to play any longer than that), the stuttered beats started to knit together in a tightly-stepping web, different sonic layers meeting at rhythmic intersection points, as Gerald entered a 30 minute climax, reaching just the right cut-off point when desired. The bass bumps were heavily loaded, but the trebly gnashing was equally pointed.
The Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra offered a complete contrast, relying on the old school rock band construction, although subtly streaked with trace elements from her heritage territories (she grew up in Paris). The very traditionalist presentation was what marked her out, with an attention to grand stadium gestures, but without any annoying crowd control measures. Zahra possessed a kind of hippy abandonment, garbed in a long, voluminous dress, topped with a jaunty cocked hat. Once this titfer was removed, there was much shaking of long tresses. The band's moves were reliably predictable within this rocking vocabulary, but very effective nevertheless, as they were executed with good taste and clenched restraint. Zahra hopped between French and English, with a peppering of Berber language. She knows how to work a crowd without irritating them, coming across as completely and sincerely involved.
One of the main festival highlights arrived early, with the Polish string quintet Volosi, taking folk and classical fusion to new extremes. They weren't exactly a hardcore Polish fiddling combo, with their cello and upright bass, the repertoire and style containing hints of a classical deportment, but Volosi's physical delivery was about as extreme as they could take it, without smashing up their frail axes. They had a love of gathering together in a tight cluster, as the tunes reached their flailing points, ever-quickening virtuoso peaks topping each other in an unstoppable rush. They took tunes higher, faster and harder, ripping out massive detail and depositing it on the eager crowd, creating a civilised rabble at only four in the afternoon.
Virtually straight afterwards came Bamba Wassoulou Groove, another of the weekend's supreme peaks. Featuring drums, percussion, bass and a trio of spangling guitars (the Super Rail Band's Moussa Diabaté dazzling on one of them), their full power was revealed when singer Ousmane Diakité came onstage, his vocal power thrusting forward and upwards, goading the tunes towards a tougher existence, with the aid of his hand-held tail-duster. Certainly one of the weekend's dancing hot spots, loaded with compulsively complicated, light-footing prompts.
Later, in the same Siam Tent, the Lebanese microtonal trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf
led his large Parisian band, their thrust having graduated to an even greater bombast nowadays. Maalouf fronts a rousing crew, not least along with his fellow trumpet section, but the presentation was almost too enthusiastic, too much on an epic scale. He was undoubtedly carried away by the moment, but these epic musical gestures sometimes sounded too overblown, particularly when surrounded by some of the subtler sounds found at this festival.