The centre of gravity appears to have shifted in the three years since my last WOMAD experience, away from the main stages to the Big Red Tent at the opposite end of the excellently-appointed Charlton Park arena. I know in the past that strange dance-related events happened there long after we grey-hairs were tucked up in bed (sometime after 9:30pm), but just an hour into Friday and the young Womadeers were already out in force, packing the space for a serendipitous wig-out to blazing Congolese stand-in Baloji. The Belgium-based singer’s appearance threatened to peak the festival barely before it had started, and was a microcosmic example of the visa-related shenanigans that have affected WOMAD line-ups over the years, as the EU-based African answered the call made necessary by Sierra Leone’s Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew’s lack of timely paperwork.
This year, thanks in large part to a partnership with the French Music Office, a more Eurocentric approach was plainly in evidence, with quirky experimentalist Chapelier Fou one of a number of left-field continental artists that blessed the nearby Charlie Gillett stage over the weekend. The Frenchman mixed samples and loops around shards of classical violin, an instrument heard in a more warmly traditional setting on the same stage two days earlier as young fiddler Rua MacMillan lived up his 2009 award as Scotland young musician of the year. Another Scottish fiddler, Aberdeenshire’s Sarah Beattie, wove threads of Gaelic beauty through trio Pacific Curls’ Maori tunes and tales rich in atmosphere and verve (disclaimer: sometimes musical impressions can be accentuated by positive culinary – and musical - experiences in the flavoursome Taste the World tent).
Early evening saw the Siam Tent come into its own, as it inevitably does when the hottest part of the day is behind us, with the Ethio-dub mashup of Dub Colossus seeping dark and dirty east African jazz-tinged grunge out of which emerged a crowd-popping version of Up Town Top Ranking.
Back in that Red Tent, a vibrant Friday afternoon (a capella girl quintent The Boxettes a picture of charm and preternaturally flexible diaphragms) turned into an exuberant old school punky reggae party courtesy of the mighty national treasure the Dub Pistols (they may have been on something, who can say?) while on the Open Air Stage the various Cuban and Malian greats that make up Afrocubism fought a poor sound mix and almost insurmountable expectations to deliver a set that made up in charm and individual musicianship for what it lacked in spark and interplay. Charm aplenty from Abigail Washburn too, the claw-hammer gal from America lighting up the Radio 3 (aka The Real Charlie Gillett) Stage with her wry observations coloured by expert but unshowy banjo and mountain-dew voice, her between-song patter remaining just the sweet side of cutesy. The contrast between this cool and folksy (in a good way) sound and the rawer, more WOMtrad sound of the extraordinary Sufi soul vocal aerobics of Faiz Ali Faiz later that night could not be more extreme or indeed more apposite to this land of sensual contrasts.
Plenty of contrast too in the heavy north African (by way of Paris, natch) groove of Aziz Sahmaoui and the University of Gnawa. I’d have liked to have seen just a bit more of the guimbri bass that lends gnawa such a heady and individual style, but the crowd wasn’t complaining at this intricate blend of oud, kora and guitar so neither will I (especially as their workshop was so bright and watchable). This was Sunday afternoon, and my new favourite stage the BRT was showing worrying signs of a...crouch...towards the worst of all festy blights, the cordon sani-chair that springs up around the edge of a tent as the forty-plus (I know I am – shoot me if I ever get like this) begin to suffer from Festival-Leg. This is a bit like trenchfoot only not nearly as painful, potentially fatal or indeed worthy of such defiantly stiff-upper-lipped, head in a book/The Independent intransigence in the face of anybody actually trying to get in to witness the performance. The masterful Penguin Café were the carriers, transporting the disease from their Cambridge Folk festival appearance the previous day, and so in the absence of any possibility of ingress, attention (and tippy-toed apologies) were turned to the Open Air stage Italian all-black-clad folk-rockers Nidi D’Arac, one of the undoubted hits of Friday/Sunday, full of rhythmically propulsive Mediterranean guitar-driven gusto and bursts of shit-kicking intermingling violin.
A veritable hit on a top-notch day, but possibly matched by Amparo Sanchez’s admix of Espana, Americana, Mexicana and that keening, gravelly vocal. The pocket dynamo’s throaty vocalising is as nothing to the extraordinary Ayarkhaan, a trio from the Russian republic of Sakha whose guttural cadences (think the Trio Bulgarka transported to Mongolia) create a mesmerising pocket of space around their static, sumptuously attired figures. They stop time with those voices, but also bend it and the air around them with a remarkable aural toolset that comprises no more than the jaw’s harp (which they call khomus, which appears to be a phonetic Asian term for all manner of instruments). A veritable BBC sound department array of ambient textures and impressions are issued forth. You name it - birds, galloping horses, grasses blowing in the breeze - boy can these ladies deliver.
On the same day, old-time Ghanaian guitarist Ebo Taylor served as an interesting comparison with Brooklyn-based rapper and fellow Ghanaian Blitz the Ambassador. Both are ‘old-skool’ in their way, but whereas the former taps into the new-found zeal for Afrobeat and Highlife guitar figures to deliver a jaunty take on early 70s west African swamp-pop, the rapper references the early days of ‘consciousness’ hip-hop and jigs it all up with some loose Troublefunk go-go style brass which thankfully buries his rather average delivery in a rolling bubbling groove. Two sides of the same coin, both perfectly at home on a broiling Womad afternoon.
What else? Nathale Natiembe, chanced upon in a sparsely-attended dance workshop. Nevertheless her stark, emotive maloya suddenly made sense placed in its dark, contemporary setting; and finally, this year’s guitar discovery Bombino from Niger, a cool, intimate purveyor of singer-songwriterdom that speaks to every soul and is a perfect comedown after a weekend of sensory highs.
DISH OF THE FESTIVAL: Goan Fish Curry for the nth year running.