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Live Review

WOMAD 2023

WOMAD 2023

Courtesy Garry Jones


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Charlton Park, Malmesbury
July 27-30 2023

What shall we do, if the first bands play at 1pm each day, at this, the UK's oldest and greatest global music festival? Why, we shall Taste The World, investigating a cookery demonstration performance that begins daily at noon! Artists are invited to display their regional culinary skills, a process which can vary between hands-on expertise and advised team-work. They also get to perform their music, with musicians seated down below the kitchen counter. This might sound like a television concept, but it often ends up being more chaotic, more unpredictable and more amusing. Sometimes there is more music than cooking.

Your scribe mobilised himself at high noon, on the Friday and Saturday. Rokia Koné is a Malian singer, dedicated to a modernised variation on the tradition, and the Balimaya Project is a London-based ensemble that explore West African genre-extensions in another direction, steeped in jazz, rock and funk. Together they made an exciting and spontaneous teaming, Koné singing as she stirred her chicken yassa, while the Balimayas revealed their more traditional acoustic Malian roots. The tunes were transcendent, and Koné effortlessly mashed up varying tasks, with regular presenter Roger de Wolf being simultaneously subversive smartass and sage wit.

On Saturday, your scribe caught the alternative rock bunch Leenalchi, from Seoul, suddenly realising that he'd deliberately missed their set on Friday, in favour of Balimaya. Anyway, here was the compensation, to bask in their strangely tilted groove progress, noticing their psychedelic tendencies, and their possible appreciation of Cologne experimentalists Can. All while the pork belly bubbled (jeyuk bokkeum).

Finally, at 4pm, the London-based Afrobeat singer and keyboardist Dele Sosimi dominated the chopping boards, probably the most at-ease of all musicians with this split activity. Also the most dryly humorous. His full Orchestra had opened up the Saturday main stage programme, but the smaller combo gathered here showed off a looser, quieter sound, organic and intimate, but no less intense. Sosimi didn't delegate much of the work on his jollof rice.

WOMAD equals World Of Music, Arts & Dance, but they don't specifically mention culinary adventure...

There were also some other sets happening during the weekend. The actual fully-blown Balimaya show was just that, a marked enlargement of volume, density and power, as they thundered intricately through a flashy display of Malian-derived hyperactivity, bolted to jazz-rock styled themes, like a West African Mahavishnu. Balimaya don't exude a muso attitude, however, just a seething sense of uncompromising complexity, gritty in their mission to stun. They appeared in the large d&b Soundscape tent, home of the original WOMAD audience's offspring. This is to say that a majority younger crowd convenes in this more dance-culture orientated home. The only (retroactive) concern was missing the simultaneous Leenalchi set on the main stage (see above).

Los Wemblers de Iquitos promised a retro-flashback to the daze of psychedelic chicha, but in reality they turned out to be more traditionally conventional, lacking any tinny, Farfisa-type frills. Cumulatively, the Sanchez brothers songbook became quite repetitive, but this veteran Peruvian crew were still worth witnessing. Singer Susana Baca, also Peruvian, sounded overly mellow, when your scribe dropped in at her Siam Tent set, so it was time to see Ibibio Sound Machine, originally a hard Afrobeat group, on their recordings, but lately broadening out to a wider embracing of straight pop-groove, even though still flecked with Nigerian traces.

Rokia Koné's set seemed to puzzle some folks, as she's re-shaped Malian tradition into a rock-pop-electronic originality, loaded with topical words and conceptual attitude. She still sounds localised, but is attempting to craft a fresh approach. Some of the songs didn't quite hang together convincingly, but she must be applauded for her efforts to innovate.

One of Friday's best acts was Polobi & The Gwo Ka Masters, a veteran singer appearing with a tough-sounding Guadelupian percussion band, who have also worked with saxophonist David Murray on several occasions. Their new album is available on Real World, this festival's own record label.

Snapped Ankles are a mysterious British forest-dwelling rock'n'roll outfit, dressed in Swamp Thing fashion and involved in building up a chugging wall of repetition, the ratio between guitars and keyboards switching as they riffed. Perhaps they can be too insistently one dimensional, but the amassing of heaviness was still impressively driving.

Spanish flamenco artist Israel Fernández played late at night in the Siam Tent, his volume hiked up way too high, his vocals distorting unintentionally. Perhaps this was due to the Siam being depopulated at this stage, with fewer bodies to soak up the sound. A move to the benches in front of the real ale tent, right at the rear, made for a pleasing volume reduction, and favourable sightlines to the stage. This volume problem wasn't present during the daytimes, so the human-acoustic-baffle theory seems plausible.

Saturday brought the rain, and thence the mud. The result was nowhere near as extreme as the notorious WOMUD, in 2007, the festival's debut year at this Charlton Park site. Nevertheless, with its thin grass, or even green-balding state, we ended up with a situation where nearly every pathway was coated in a thin layer of squelch, leading to a foot-sucking ruination. Matters were destined to improve on Sunday, as the sunshine started to dry up the site, but we're not usually accustomed to such extreme bad weather on this particular weekend, and in this particular West Country location. Halfway through the weekend, we were ground down into submission, only to be reborn for the final run.

On the main Open Air Stage Dele Sosimi opened Saturday ideally, leading his Orchestra through an undiluted Afrobeat songbook, providing a startling momentum with a full horn section blast, not least from Tamar Osborn and Ben Plocki's baritone and bass saxophones. A few hours later, the star power was unleashed during Mariza's late afternoon show, this leading Portuguese fado singer's charisma, style and skill undiminished, following the long period since your scribe had last bathed in her presence. She remains one of the best performers around.

Alogte Oho and his Sounds Of Joy play gospel, but not the American gospel probably expected by most folks. These Ghanaians rank as one of the festival's chief discoveries, although their latest album has already been receiving good radio airplay. Two even more exciting unearthings arrived in the shape of Lokkhi Terra and Paprika, both of them displaying dazzling combinations of geographic origins within their ranks. Lokkhi Terra are led by the Bangladeshi keyboardist Kishon Khan, but this doesn't hamper their predilection for what could be termed Latin Afrobeat. Tamar Osborn returned, with most of Dele Sosimi's horn section, and the man himself is also a firm friend of the band, guesting towards set's end. Diverse ingredients collected themselves into a consistent songbook, flavoured with retro tones, while still sounding contemporary to the UK scene, heard here in variegated form. The other wild new experience came courtesy of Paprika, a Balkan band that hyperventilates their tunes at an extremely vigorous pace, filled with extreme virtuosity, and unusually guitar-orientated. Band members have backgrounds in Serbia, Romania and the UK. They also have an equally unusual twin-accordion front-line, for added duelling opportunities.

There was a real weakness in the starry firmament of main stage headliners for 2023. Clearly this is a factor that's dependent on personal taste, but there were at least three 'headliners' that were to be avoided. Your scribe is not compelled to even mention them. The Cinematic Orchestra had a mission to dominate and climax the Saturday night, but ended up being way too introverted, with their only 'projection' being the ever-present live video backdrop, quite an unimaginative display, involving an old typewriter, ad infinitum. When accustomed to the soloing skills held by many jazz combos, the Cinematic attempts at improvisation were markedly pallid. In this prime position, they really needed to perform their 'greatest hits,' but the lack of a Roots Manuva or (definitely not) Fontella Bass made such a feat impossible.

Straight afterwards we were invigorated by Salami Rose Joe Louis, already caught a fortnight ago, during Gent Jazz. This Californian was on an extended tour of the European festival circuit, a constant drizzle prodding your scribe frontwards, to shelter under the Ecotricity stage's hooded canopy. Hence, a more intimate experience, a quieter sound of subtly active electronics, skipping manual beats and keyboard exotica, SRJL crooning sweetly through verses of sometimes sinister cosmic content. Next, she was headed for the Green Man festival in the Welsh mountains.

Reggae veteran Horace Andy's set was marred by its strong presence of rawk guitar soloing, and less of the expected dub content, while the mighty fine Japanese alternative rock trio Kuunatic didn't quite manage to reproduce the production concept of their recent Glitterbeat album. Soon after these two sets, the Sunday night finished off in potent style, with the headlining Femi Kuti and the Positive Force, sustaining and projecting dynamism at length on the main stage, and then the Algerian-French singer-songwriter Souad Massi mixing up introverted ballads and full-on rocking in the later Siam environment. Guitarist (and Massi's recent producer) Justin Adams guested on a clutch of numbers, significantly upping the electric flash, but Massi's own axeman was well equipped to match solos, doubling the frazzle. The bandleader gave her players a lot of room, purposefully standing back for much of the time. Massi's voice sounded strong, so she wasn't resting, but rather showing genuine enthusiasm for sharing the spotlight. There was ample time for rocking out and contemplative musing, so why shouldn't she deliver both, at length. Whatever the sonic style, Massi's songs remained compelling.

Despite the rain, and then the mud, audience fortitude was repaid with a strong ratio of rousing performances, this weekend not being one of the very best WOMADs, but still rising way above many lesser mainstream-inclined festivals.

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