This year I optednotgo to Cambridge Folk Festival, but to Womad instead, as I was keen to see something different. I had been to Womad before, as a punter, and I knew that the festival can be counted on to program acts that you would not see elsewhere.
I went as a volunteer this time, therefore a certain amount of time was taken up by work. In the remaining time I tried to catch as much music as possible, which meant I missed out on the many other offerings, such as literary events, the popularTaste The Worldcookery presentations, wellness sessions and the Moon art installation.
Womad gets top marks for their site. The Arboretum is a lovely place to wander about. The funfair adds to the festival vibe. Food is expensive but good and varied. The merch and music tent is well stocked. All toilets were of the compost variety and they remained fairly clean throughout. And finally the terrain coped well with the significant amount of rain that fell during the festival. Of the five music stages three are open air. The public took out rain gear and umbrellas and took it all in their stride.
The festival lineup is 50% female, without boasting about it, and without resorting to watery pop acts to reach that percentage. I looked at a few Womad reviews prior to writing this, and no two experiences are the same. Some had almost no overlap with what I saw. These were my highlights:
VASSVIK - Ecotricity Stage
I have been a fan of throat singing (and joiking; not the same, but similar) ever since catching Yat Kha at Roskilde years ago, and I never skip an opportunity to witness this extraordinary music. Norwegian Sámi joiker Torgeir Vassvik leads this project, writes the music, plays guitar and sings - and growls! His bandmate Juhani Silvola plays electric guitar. When Torgeir sings his eyes roll and disappear, so that you only see the whites. It was all quite dark and menacing, but very impressive. To me it had a similar overwhelming effect as the show that Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq put on at Womad in 2010. Despite all the otherworldliness and the late hour, Vassvik drew a large and appreciative crowd. When Torgeir finally spoke, he was smiling and appreciative. He dedicated the concert to the memory of Sinéad O'Connor. Vassvik's 2019 album 'Gákti' is an extraordinary piece of work.
ORCHESTRAL QAWWALI PROJECT - Siam Tent
I had seen this project during lockdown, as part ofCeltic Connectionsonline, and I was keen to see them live. The project plays Qawwali music, accompanied by an orchestra. The outcome is far more special than this simplistic description conveys. I spoke to several people who said they had been moved to tears by this performance. Beautiful music, sang by Abi Sampa, an extraordinary singer. As is tradition she was seated while singing, and I was amazed by the power of her voice. Behind her were four backing singers. The project is led by Rushil Ranjan, who writes and arranges the repertoire.
Just two things prevented this concert from being a 10 out of 10 score. An English language ballad towards the end felt out of sync with the rest of the performance. And the collective blatantly ignored the stage manager's gesturing that they had to finish their set, or at least keep the last song short. Instead they launched into a full-blown version of 'Dam Mast Qalander', extended tabla solo's and all, leaving the stage manager no other option, after ten additional minutes, but to do a Lana Del Rey on them.
SOUAD MASSI - Siam Tent
Souad Massi's gig was the final show I saw on the last night - a great way to finish the festival. Souad is an Algerian singer/songwriter, based in France. She started of with some mellow ballads, but her set gradually got heavier and heavier. She was accompanied by a superb band, who were all given ample time for instrumental solo's. Justin Adams, a Womad regular, who produced her latest album 'Sequana', guested on electric guitar.
KATE RUSBY - Open Air Stage
KateRusby said she had always wanted to play Womad. She was given the Thursday headline slot and she had the voice, personality, songs and band to fill that big stage. Her band included husband Damien O'Kane and singer/guitarist Sam Kelly. 'The boys' did an instrumental bluegrass set, which nicely broke up the folky material. Kate sang songs from her recent album '30: Happy Returns', as well as her covers album 'Hand Me Downs'. I was disappointed that she didn't play 'Friday I'm In Love' and I am not a fan of closing song 'The Wild Mountain Thyme', but other than that this was a class show.
MARIZA - Open Air Stage
As a long timeSonglinesreader I was aware of Mariza's status as a world music superstar, but I had never seen her live before. I am generally not keen on fado, but Mariza blew me away with this show. There were plenty of laptops and loop machines on stage at Womad. I am aware that in the current climate some artists have no choice but to resort to them, but when watching Mariza I found myself thinking that everything about her show was proper: Five very good musicians and a proper diva in a beautiful dress who really connected with the audience.
AMJAD ALI KHAN - Siam Tent
The late night shows at Womad have a very special atmosphere. At Glastonbury all the late night entertainment is of the dance variety, but at Womad you can watch Indian sarod players for example, starting at 00:30. The sarod is a Hindustani instrument, different from the sitar, though sounding not unlike it to untrained ears. Amjad Ali Khan is a Real World recording artist, and he performed with his sons Amaan and Ayaan Ali Bangash, also on sarod, and two unnamed but equally excellent percussionists. This group also dedicated their show to the memory of Sinéad.
STAPLES JR. SINGERS - Siam Tent
The variety on offer at Womad is a wonderful thing. When the Staples Jr. Singers come on, you feel like you have entered a different world altogether. They are a family group from Mississippi, who sing traditional gospel. Their back story is charming. Siblings Edward, Annie and A.R.C. Brown started singing when they were 10, 11 and 12 years old, naming themselves after their idols, the Staples Singers. They made an album, 'When Do We Get Paid', in 1975, of which 500 copies were pressed. They then got on with their lives and jobs. In 2019 a song from that album ended up on a gospel compilation ('The Time For Peace Is Now') on the Luaka Bop label, co-founded by David Byrne. The label then reissued the one album the group had made, and this led to international shows for the band, some of whom had never been on a plane before. It took them a little while to get through to the Sunday afternoon Womad crowd, busy with their phones and with children in carts, but win them over they did.
THE OLLLAM - d&b Soundscape
The Olllam released their debut album in 2012. I saw them live at the time, when a percussive dancer was part of the band. Now they are back with a second album, 'Elllegy', and an extended lineup. The Olllam's music is instrumental, with trad melodies, played by Belfast musician John McSherry (formerly of Lúnasa) and American fellow whistler/piper Tyler Duncan, over jazzy and electronic arrangements. Their lunchtime show at the d&b Soundscape tent was one of the best attended of the festival. It all sounded perfect, but I kind of missed the dancer, as there was very little in terms of engagement with the audience.
SAHRA HALGAN - Charlie Gillett Stage
Sahra Halgan from Somaliland played on Sunday afternoon in the most challenging weather - wet and windy. Despite this, the audience grew as her impressive gig went on and intensified. Sahra sings in that typical East African way that I associate with Ethio jazz. Her band, three French musicians on guitar, drums and keys, provided a decidedly heavy backing, which worked brilliantly combined with Sahra's singing. The overall effect was quite hypnotizing and fully appreciated by the Womad crowd. Sahra held her country's flag in her hand for the entire show.
SOUL II SOUL - Siam Tent
Although I was into dance music in the nineties, Soul II Soul somehow passed me by. The current Soul II Soul touring band is a 13 man/woman collective, led by Jazzie B, who put on an entertaining show, perfect for festival stages. Out front are two vocalists (Charlotte Kelly and Nadine Caesar), two violinists and three backing singers. Jazzie B towers over the operation, standing behind a desk, and he later comes down to toast. The band play tribute to Sinéad by covering 'Nothing Compares 2 U' and finish off with the smash hit ' Back To Life'. A fun gig.
Acts that got great reports from others:
- Lova Lova (Congo)
- Mokoomba (Zimbabwe)
- Puuluup (Estonia)
Acts I had wanted to see but could not:
- Mari Kalkun (Estonia)
- Ana Tijoux (Chile)
- Rokia Koné (Mali)