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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.


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