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WOMAD 2012, Charlton Park | reviews, news & interviews

WOMAD 2012, Charlton Park

WOMAD 2012, Charlton Park

Robert Plant, Jimmy Cliff and a host of musicians celebrate the global festival's 30th birthday

The flags fly, and the beat goes onSuzie M Blake

You know, as someone tweeted, that the acid has kicked in when you see Prince Harry wearing a duck’s hat backstage, writes Peter Culshaw. For every newcomer like Harry or Channel 4’s Jon Snow, who raved about it, there were as many others others for whom WOMAD is an essential part of the British “summer” (although this year they were lucky with the weather). Now 30, which makes it an institution, the Peter Gabriel inspired Festival is a pretty well-oiled machine by now.

While some of the more famous headliners - Femi Kuti, Khaled, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club - were predictable, and though enjoyable enough seemed to be on cruise control, other veterans like Robert Plant and Jimmy Cliff were on top form and the Manganiyar Seduction (pictured below by David Corio) were startlingly original.

Robert Plant calls his current band the Sensational Space Shifters, and at the core of the set was the blues Plant fell in love with as a teenager, with Howling Wolf’s" Forty-Four" a stand-out. A couple of Led Zeppelin songs such as "Black Dog" and "Whole Lotta Love" were turned inside out, partly due to the presence of the Gambian Juldeh Camara playing a one-stringed fiddle, which occupied the musical space which might have been taken by harmonica.

Camara plays with Plant’s guitarist Justin Adams in an outfit called JuJu, and Adams managed the almost impossible task of rocking out without resorting to rock cliché. Plant talked to the audience as if it was his front room – 5,000 being a small crowd for him. Seeing as he could be retired, running a trout farm or making untold millions in a reformed Led Zeppelin, Plant seems to be enjoying his continuing musical adventures and communicated as much to a fired-up audience.

The fact that Camera was Gambian make me think that more of the African contingent at WOMAD and elsewhere tends to be from Francophone Africa – notably Mali and Senegal. That is partly due to the fact that Paris has always been better as a hub for African music than London – but does mean we only rarely get to hear new music from Anglophone countries like Ghana or Nigeria.

One of the best things about WOMAD is that even for battle-hardened world music types, who may have seen Femi Kuti (pictured left by David Corio) several times and still miss his father Fela (the biggest problem Femi has compared to his father is a lack of a sense of humour), there is enough on the smaller stages to discover to keep the interest going. Notably on the Radio 3 Stage. Claudia Aurora is a remarkable fado singer, and Abdallah Oumbadougou's Touareg desert blues had the requisite power to rouse a late-night audience. The band featured Daniel Jamet, once of France’s finest rock band Mano Negra.

The problem this music highlights is that there is little context for it. In a previous year WOMAD introduced a tent called Speakeasy, for talks and films, which seemed an excellent idea and has now been discontinued. What is happening in Mali between the Touaregs and the Islamists and the breakaway independent Azawad country is not clear, but fascinating and of considerable geopolitical importance -  there must be WOMADers interested in finding out more.

One thing I did do was borrow from "The Human Library" - they have lists of interesting people and you borrow them for half an hour. The woman I took out, or rather was allocated, was self-described as a Rapid Cycle Bi-Polar survivor. We chatted about the creative benefits or otherwise of mania. Then I checked her back into the library. 

The most charming music of the weekend must have been the vallenato music from Colombia, another troubled country in recent decades that the musicians might well have told us about. This had Jose Hernando Arias Norguera on accordion accompanied by singer Angelica Lopez and her band. Jose has been chosen as the recipient of the World Routes Academy, in which a young musician is mentored by a more experienced one - in his case the Bogotá-based king of accordion Egidio Cuadrado. (They played last night's Prom together to an appreciative Colombian crowd. This first ever Colombian Prom had what must be the best audience dancers in Prom history; their encore of "Hey Jude" meant I found myself singing the Na-Na-Na bit for the second time in a week, after the Olympic Opening Ceremony.)

The most arresting spectacle was the Manganiyar Seduction which had 36 Rajasthani Sufi musicians in boxes lit up by bare lightbulbs, four stories high. They were behind curtains until they started to play, in different combinations of flute, fiddles and drums, with the lights flashing like a mad disco.It was apprarently partly inspired by director Roysten Abel seeing the girls in the red light district of Amsterdam but “Amsterdam is the seduction of the body. This show is the seduction of the soul.” It was in any case something special for the 30th birthday.

More from Garth Cartwright overleaf

WOMAD turned 30. I estimate I have attended around 15 of its festivals over the past 21 years. The dire state of the UK economy was reflected in how prices in the arena have risen – average price for a plate of food is now £8 while a pint of ale is £4. Oh, the toilets were the worst in recent years – maybe there’s been a spending cut on the sewerage blokes?

Where UK dance music festivals have been plagued with violence this summer, WOMAD is an oasis of good vibes, a chance to believe that maybe saving our planet from its worst tendencies is possible. It is a very pleasant, well-mannered event. Even the all-night bongo sessions that used to drive campers to distraction appear to have faded away. It’s in the paucity of European and Asian music on offer that WOMAD most disappoints. Not one Romany Gypsy artist performed this year (and this is true for most years). When was the last time a flamenco artist performed? Mid-Nineties, surely. Or a Galician or Basque musician? Nothing from such politically troubled, musically rich lands as Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan, Syria, Yemen, Zimbabwe (many of whom have diaspora communities in Europe - including the UK) or Brazil. Yet dull rock, electronic and fusion acts proliferate.

A few notes on some memorable artists:

HOLLIE COOK: daughter of Sex Pistol Paul, Hollie plays a tough punky reggae that recalls the late-1970s and especially her mentor Ari Up. Drummer/toaster Horseman helped make this a notable festival debut (her first ever) if too damn loud.

JIMMY CLIFF (pictured above by David Corio): the Jamaican veteran has a well-received new album out and was in fine voice and spirits. With an excellent band he played the most uplifting set of the entire weekend. A Nyabinghi percussion-only version of "Rivers of Babylon" proved one of those sublime festival moments.

NUBA NOUR: a Nubian band from Egypt this tough, Sufi desert music sounded just superb in the sunshine.

DEOLINDA: Portuguese fado-inspired four-piece with a dynamic singer who favours big dresses and bright commentary. Lots of fun.

APSILIES: from Greece and thus the only Balkan band in the entire festival, this four-piece played rembetika, the bluesy folk music of Asia Minor. Quite striking and very mournful, this was a treat.

ALEV FAMILY: originally from Turkmenistan but now based in Israel, they were the only Central Asian musicians of the weekend. I very much looked forward to them, but added rock drums, bass and moves rendered them un-listenable. Recently produced by fellow Israelis’ Balkan Beat Box (who also played and were truly abysmal), the Alevs were a sad example of what happens when vernacular musicians think they can “cross over" by aping rock music’s worst aspects.

Watch a video of the Manganiyar Seduction

David Corio's latest photographic exhibition is at Chat's Palace. His website is here. 

Seeing as he could be retired, running a trout farm or making untold millions in a reformed Led Zeppelin, Plant seemed to be enjoying his musical adventures

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Although I had a thoroughly enjoyable weekend and got to hear and see loads of great music I do agree with the heart of your piece that the WOMAD programming has become progressively safer and formularic. The reasons for a preponderence of French speaking African artists is I think partly down to "musical fashion" (eg. anything '''''"desert bluesy" has had a head start on everything else for 8 or 9 years now) but also partly down to the changes in UK visa/immigration arrangements a few years ago. It's a long story but the outcome is that far fewer projects and tours are being originated in the UK now... we are no longer at the cutting edge of this scene. One other area where I think socks could and should be pulled up is around the site. It's a beautiful and practical site but year on year the overall sense of "wow" seems to decrease. Although there are flags everywhere they are pleasantly bland and there is a distinct lack of other site decoration. I didn't always actually like the style of decoration used in spaces like the Siam Tent but now there is nothing the tents are unloved and characterless. For a festival that used to lead the way in these areas and has the words "arts" in it's title it has now fallen far far behind many other events. It lacks "edge" and innovation. My other major concern is the make up of the audience. Of course a promoter cannot decide who buys the tickets and I'm sure financial pressures are such that costly attempts to woo more people from diverse backgrounds are quickly ruled out but nonetheless I find it disappointing at least that 25-30 years on the audience is even less representative of this country's cultural mix than it was. WOMAD is still, I think, a wonderful thing that has made a huge contribution to our cultural life and good times whilst assisting in developing audiences and careers for an incredibly long list of artists from all corners. I know, and have a lot of love and respect for, many of the people who work incredibly hard and with open hearts and ears to make it happen so I am loathe to criticise but I do think it is time for a shake up in some areas if it is going to improve and develop and last another thirty years.

I have been attending WOMAD for over 25 years now, and I agree with the comments by Pete Holden. All a bit tame these days, and although I enter the site for the 3 days and feel fantastic, some of the magic is missing. I would love to see more artistic events, plus smaller dance troups etc. and some decoration of the Siam tent, yes. The flags are lovely but no where near as bright as they used to be. Tra la la. Funny that isn't it, here I am an old crusty asking for a more edgy WOMAD - I think it is because I come from a pre- corporate era and long for risk taking. Ho hum. Peace and love. Liz

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