WOMAD: Malmesbury, England, July 29-31, 2011

Martin Longley By

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Charlton Park
Malmesbury, England
July 29-31, 2011

The World Of Music, Arts & Dance, which will celebrate it's 30th anniversary in 2012, is almost certainly the biggest, best and longest-established international festival of global sounds. With its roots in England, the organization has steadily cultivated a worldwide presence, with editions in Spain, Sicily and Australia enjoying the greatest longevity. The art and the dancing can always be found on site, but the crucial emphasis is on music.
Fraught with difficulties in 2007, when the festival moved from its old home of Reading, WOMAD has since settled into Charlton Park, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire. That sodden '07 event was re-christened WOMUD, as a week of heavy rainfall turned the site into a brown lake of suction. Since then, the park has basked in reasonable, if not scorching weather, and the layout has been fine-tuned into an optimum state.
WOMAD always attains a level of excellence, but this year's weekender was particularly notable for its musical heights. Normally, there will be a vast majority of prime performances, with a small clutch of absolutely transcendent sets. In 2011, there was a massive arc in the ratio of such standout stretches. The festival is compressed into three days of multi-stage simultaneity, often allowing few moments of respite if the attendee is suitably attuned to a broad range of musical styles. It's almost as if a person desperately trawls the schedule for gigs that they don't want to see, just so that time for general bodily maintenance can be found.

As ever, there were a large number of West African artists present, with an emphasis this year on Mali. Unfortunately, a large clan of global music followers treat this zone as a home for what amounts to functional dinner party music, often shunning more esoteric musics. There has been a tendency over the last decade to welcome increasing amounts of fusion, but the best swirling of styles invariably involves some degree of startling perversion, often in opposition to radio-friendliness. That said, there were two female artists who confounded this "rule," both of them at the dawn of their solo careers, and both adopting elements from the mainstream rock or pop sphere.

Gasandji, from Congo, took her demo into the BBC's Broadcasting House, pushily trying for some air-space. The tactic worked, and her live session on Radio 3's "World On 3" programme directly led to her WOMAD debut. Her deeply soulful voice suggested American influences, but her own land's roots remained strong, making her songs more accessible as heartfelt ballads, but still comfortable on an African stage. She wasn't afraid to be open and direct, with these qualities hopefully not in danger of being eroded as she doubtlessly achieves greater global success.

Fatoumata Diawara is further on down the line, having been a backing vocalist for Oumou Sangare. Even so, this Malian is now branching out into a solo career, and her Western influences are decidedly rockier. As if in a rebellious response to comments heard about her so-called timidity when compared to Sangare, Diawara proceeded to curve her set towards a quite unnerving rock'n'roll freakout, as she bounded around the stage, shaking braids, emitting frightening screams and urging her guitarist to churn out post-Hendrix solos, even though he'd previously been delicately picking in a rootsy Malian style. This was assuredly good fusion!

The raunchiest singer from the area was Khaira Arby, a Malian out of the gritty Sahara whose guitarists intertwine in the fashion familiarized by Tinariwen. Mingling acoustic and electric textures, the strings lifted Arby's exultant vocals up to an unshackled plane of abandonment. It was instructive to catch her in the Taste The World tent, where artists demonstrate their cooking skills, whipping up their cherished local dishes. Stirring two steaming pots, breaking out into periodic song as her band sat around her feet, her larger-than-life character was oddly more apparent in the kitchen than on the main stage, where she became more of a conventional performer. It was best to experience both aspects. The large-scale set was in fully bombastic mode, with Arby garbed in all her striking stage finery.

Vieux Farka Touré is the son of Ali Farka Touré. After years of sounding only subtly more Westernized than his father, Vieux has recently begun to operate on a Hendrixian level, cutting his band down to a tight trio, which includes a drummer who is clearly influenced by Mitch Mitchell. Touré still sounds like a hardcore desert- dweller, but his spiralling guitar solos are many, and majestically inclined, his tunes repeatedly building up to a frenzied release. But his music remains steeped in Malian stock and delivers something that few are capable of, marrying fuzzed rock with authentic Saharan blues.

The Afrocubism project has been a long time in the making. This was the band that would have come together back in the mid-1990s, if the Malian contingent's passports hadn't gone astray. The World Circuit record label had organized a musical summit in Cuba, where local players would mingle with starry Malians. This was not to be, so the studio time was used to record what would eventually become the Buena Vista Social Club (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1997) album.

Belatedly, but triumphantly, this supergroup has now released its debut disc, Afrocubism (World Circuit, 2010). In the end, it's the Malians who are better- known, with the Cuban contingent being quite obscure, apart from their Stetson-topped singer-guitarist Eliades Ochoa. Toumani Diabaté (kora), Djelimady Tounkara (guitar) and Kasse Mady Diabaté made up an impressive front line. Although the Malian roots dominated the Cuban sound, this didn't seem too unfortunate, as their songs were being judged on another level entirely, rich with intertwining facets of mostly acoustic rippling. Tounkara was particularly outstanding as he delivered a run of frequent guitar solos.

Great disappointment and frustration arrived with the Saturday evening headline set from Baaba Maal. This Senegalese master normally delivers an energetic show of magnificent proportions, but his somewhat subdued appearance this time around seemed to leave the crowd feeling hollow. I arrived around 20 mins into the set, when Maal was seated, softly strumming his guitar. A peaceful interlude, I surmised. Unfortunately, this lowkey approach dominated most of the performance. Now living in London, Maal's accustomed Dande Lenol troupe was absent, his band made up from UK residents. Hardly a guitar forest in sight, and not much percussion, but what this new band did have was a full horn section. Possibly, Maal was attempting to craft something bold and unfamiliar with this lineup, but the whole set was marred by a slow pace, an introverted flatness and anticlimactic finish. It would have been more acceptable in a relaxed afternoon slot, but the demands of the evening's final main stage set are such that the vast crowd requires an explosion of sorts.

On Friday night, Afro-reggae singer Alpha Blondy (from Cote D'Ivoire) delivered just such a release. His large band might have stood on the slick side of the street, songs populated with howling solos from twin lead guitars, but Blondy opted for a lumbering show of basslines and cutting horn punctuations, songs full of protest or social observation. It was a suitable way to end (well, almost end) the night, because the main stage headline show is where the entire festival audience seems to converge, after spending most of each day divided between several different stages. There's always a sense of communal coalescing at this point in the evening.

If we're talking explosiveness, though, the full enchilada spattered outwards on Sunday evening (no, this is not a reference to the site's excitingly diverse food stall opportunities), appropriately enough for the weekend's main stage blowout. Gogol Bordello illustrated exactly how to headline and provide the festival climax. This was the first time that I'd caught this rabble in action, but surely not every gig they play is as desperately charged as this one?

These gypsy punk rockers are renowned for their excesses, but this was a spectacularly hyper-real show, dominated, of course, by leader and mega-frontman, the Ukrainian exile Eugene Hütz, clad in his trademark circus tights and manhandling a battered acoustic guitar. The combo's vocal front line indulged in repeated jumps onto the monitor speakers, in a kind of choreographed chaos. Hütz was playing a game of constantly throwing or kicking his mikestand onto the floor, glugging from a wine bottle, spraying the contents every which way. Even though the songs were residing well within the borders of punk rock, the lineup featured hardcore gypsy fiddling and accordion-pumping, so the Gogol Bordello sound aimed for crossover without diluting its Eastern European core.

At no point was the mind of the audience allowed to drift off: this was compulsively entertaining, terminally dynamic showmanship, possessing a genuine edge of uncontrolled danger. The outfit looked like it was perpetually on the brink of succumbing to total mayhem, but always managing to keep its scimitar of precision perfectly honed. There were even some softer moments, all the better for kicking over when the next rampant charge bolted out. Gogol Bordello projected to the furthest reaches of the arena, cartoon giants of gypsy rucking.

Most of the highlights of this WOMAD happened to revolve around a rugged rock'n'roll extremity. Originally planning on checking out only a number or two by the Alabama 3, on the way to another stage, I was ensnared within moments and ended up remaining for their entire set. Once again, even though tightly directed, the vocal front line imposed a deliberately casual looseness on the proceedings, making their routines appear to be improvised rambles. This London band hanker after Americanism, and you really would believe that both of their lead singers hail from the southern United States. This band enjoy parody, but they are also more real than most other black-clad "mood acts" could ever be, elemental purveyors of grimy country gospel, tinged with oscillating, bass-wrenching acid house. The joy of the vocalist threesome is in its variegated nature. Larry Love is the grizzled, bony, wasted rock'n'roll archetype, whilst The Rev D. Wayne Love adopts a narrative posture, part beatnik, part rapper, delivering rambling rants of sociopolitical observation, coupled with absurdist wit. Meanwhile, Aurora Dawn is a more conventional soul-rock belter. This combination is perfect. Once again, this was a performance that never let up, steadily accumulating a rabid energy, trundling along with abraded layers of scuzziness.

The WOMAD appearance by Dissidenten was apparently only their third UK showing, after over three decades as a highly influential global-splicing act, the other gigs a pair at the Glastonbury Festival. Such an opportunity had to be seized, even at the expense of missing Booker T.'s clashing set, who I'd thankfully already caught thrice during the last few years. Dissidenten have mostly devoted themselves to the meeting of alternative rock with North African sounds, spreading their attention as far as the Middle East and even India. The core German trio have always been deeply sympathetic to their sources, and have crafted some of the mightiest (and earliest) global fusion music. Their Sahara Elektrik album (Globestyle, released in 1985, though recorded in '82) was a groundbreaking classic, highly influential in certain circles.

The drums, bass and guitar foundation is handled by the original trio, but their foreground players are usually more authentically grounded in various folkloric traditions, so on this occasion they let loose a vocal/oud/hurdy gurdy front line. Dissidenten rocked with conviction, but their North African embellishments were consistently convincing as hardcore Arabic or Berber motifs. The extra thrill came courtesy of hearing a core run of songs that had become ingrained on the consciousness during ye olde vinyl years.

The weekend's biggest revelation came with Axel Krygier's set. This profoundly eccentric keyboardist arrives from Argentina, but plays warped cumbia from Colombia, or 1980s-derived ethno-pulsations that could have been belched out by a German act such as DAF. He also samples farm creatures, and pitch shifts his own voice, aiming for slapstick but ending up sorta sinister. Krygier pulled forward an instant gathering of appreciators, starting out by impaling himself on his flute, then proceeding to perform an airport moving-walkway impersonation across the stage. His retro-overload keyboard style was often onehanded, his other mitten used to wave or punch the air. The performance was bountiful in its attention to warped humour and unpredictable acts of anarchy. The music was pretty arresting too, mostly danceable, mostly descended from various Latin beats, but also rocked up and Euro-dancefloored, rife with athletically-polyrhythmic drumming and stuttering guitars a-go-go.

Not rock, but still rolling and tumbling, the Australian blues songster C.W. Stoneking was, in the flesh, very young and very white. Hearing his gravelly, old timey, would-be 78s, you might be expecting to see an octogenarian Aborigine on stage, so vintage is Stoneking's deep down-under blues. He's another one of those performers who doubtless feels like he was born in the wrong decade, but he certainly compensates for this during a typical gig, joined by ramshackle sepia horns and a clumping boot or two.

Another of the weekend's outstanding sets was delivered by something of an outsider figure, from the poly-cultural Réunion Island. Danyèl Waro, whose wild thatch and thick-rimmed glasses lent the appearance of an alternative physicist, sings in Creole, and plays in the maloya folkloric tradition. To the virgin ear (or even the experienced ear), his music was rich with elements of traditions from Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, France, Madagascar and Cape Verde, at the very least. Waro's vocals soared expressively, and the bulk of the instrumental backing was constructed with percussion patterns, often played as a cross-weave of minimalist parts. One player was kicking and scraping his drum with his heel, whilst tinkling a tiny, tiny triangle. Such sparse constructions were capable of creating the greatest musical substance. The interplay of the quintet was astounding, heightened by their frequent swapping of percussion instruments. The dominant sound was that of the kayamb, a large rattle in a rectangular tray-like shape, shaken persistently from side to side. Waro might not be the best man to bring in the cocktails at your soirée.

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