Womad, Charlton Park, UK – review

This year’s Womad was an embarrassment of riches. Everywhere one looked there was someone who could have been a headliner, from Manu Dibango and his saxophone makossa turning the Siam Tent into a Francophone nightclub from the 1970s to Mulatu Astatke’s continuation of the Ethio-Jazz of Swinging Addis.

The Sami singer Mari Boine projected a shamanic force field at the Open Air Stage on Friday evening. A tight band of drums, guitar, bass and keyboard provided a rhythmic bedrock over which her voice invoked and ululated. On “Gula Gula” and “It Šat Duolmma Mu” she was as eldritch and commanding as ever; only on a number that began with an extended drum solo and developed into what “Roadhouse Blues” would have sounded like had Jim Morrison come from north of Tromsø did she ever sound remotely ordinary.

When he spoke to the FT a few weeks ago, Mike Lindsay of Tunng was suffering from pre-Womad anxiety: despite having toured with Tinariwen and having spent the past few years in Iceland “on stage with seven drunken men” and the cream of Reykjavik’s alternative folk scene, he was wondering whether this festival would be a village in which he did not belong. In the event, of course, Tunng were right at home. There were the six members dressed as if they were from six different bands, and the huge array of percussive toys, including Martin Smith ringing a Tibetan bowl like a firehouse bell on “Embers”, Ashley Bates providing the beat on “With Whisky” by rubbing his palms together close to the microphone, and Becky Jacobs slapping a tambourine the size of a saucer.

Older, folkier songs were overhauled and returned to the set, “King” with chattering percussion and a dragging Ringo beat. The newer ones had their full complexity, “Trip Trap” starting as a murmured conversation between Lindsay and Jacobs before the separate rhythmic cogs started to mesh and slip so that the song seemed simultaneously to speed up and slow down, the singers jerking like malfunctioning marionettes, ending with a coda on which Jacobs toyed with an analogue synthesiser like a short-wave radio hunting for a signal.

“You’re all up very late this evening. This is the last resort, is it? Everything else finished?” This was Richard Thompson, clocking on for the Friday night shift in the Siam Tent. Had this not been his first Womad, he would have known that this was the place to come for intense acoustic sets, such as the one he was about to provide. He was on his own, at the confluence of six spotlights that silhouetted him when he leant forward into the microphone.

Although he was alone with his guitar, as usual Thompson contrived somehow simultaneously to be his own bassist, rhythm guitarist and lead. The old songs came to life in this set as they do not quite in his latest album of re-recordings. A supportive audience gave him the impetus for ghostly slides and bends on “Pharaoh”, an extended improvised instrumental passage on “Sunset Song” and a perfectly phrased, restrained “Beeswing”. But the biggest cheer of the night was for a version of his old bandmate Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?”, a song that acquires more freight with each passing year.

Thompson handed over to Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita, a collaboration as delightful as it is unlikely. Finch, a Welsh harpist, was lined up a few years ago to play a tour with Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté, and warmed up by rehearsing with his Senegalese counterpart Keita. Diabaté eventually showed up mere hours before the first of those concerts, and though he was there for the tour, Finch felt a closer connection with Keita. They carried on working together and last year released an album of duets, Clychau Dibon, that proved a surprise hit.

Here, the blend of Manding and Welsh material finally stilled the buzz of chatter around the edge of the tent. They listened intently to each other, nodding and smiling as the songs took shape. They duelled playfully on “Future Strings”, Finch plucking ascending chords and running 47-string-long glissandi in a way that is hard for a kora to emulate, though Keita tried; when she knocked rhythms on the frame of her harp, his echo on the gourd of the kora was resonant and strong. The centrepiece of the set, as of the album, was “Robert Ap Huw Meets Nialing Sonko”: in the second half, when Finch took up the dancing Casamance pattern with her right hand, plucking the occasional bass string with her left, the whole tent held its breath.

Saturday closed with Youssou N’Dour making a brief foray from politics back into music, his drummers providing the mbalax crackle over which his still strong tenor could command the whole field. But the surprise of the day had come earlier. There is a Womad tradition that at some point a band will start playing to an audience of about 25, and finish with a whole meadowful dancing. This year the role was played by Kobo Town, who took to the stage in blisteringly hot sun. Their leader, Drew Gonsalves, moved from Trinidad to Toronto at 13, and now recreates and updates the satirical tradition of Calypso. Gonsalves warmed up the crowd, teasing and flattering. Teaching a chorus, he warned “You have to sound like a murderous mob” (stretching the last word over several syllables). “Do you think you can manage that?” When he announced “Man in the Wardrobe” by the veteran Calypsonian Lord Kitchener he positively purred. “You, Womad, are the only place outside Trinidad where they cheer when they hear that name.”

The climax was “Tick Tock Goes the Clock”, a Calypso cousin of “Desolation Row”, which is to say a musical modernist tour through a Waste Land of literary allusions, with saxophone and trombone providing a jaunty counter-melody to Gonsalves’s scratchy cuatro. And they closed with a new song, “When Jonah Saw the Light”, a high-octane ska narrative – with a possible nod to Orwell – about Jonah wishing to go back inside the whale, that crystallised Kobo Town’s interplay between brightness and dark.

The most transporting music on Sunday came from The Gloaming, an Irish-American supergroup that combined fiddling, sean-nós singing and art music. Martin Hayes and Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh embarked on a set of violin tunes that built and built, accelerating from jigs to reels; Dennis Cahill’s guitar became percussive punctuation; Thomas Bartlett hunched over his piano, listening to Hayes and picking precisely the right note to respond, half as counterpoint, half as challenge.

After the Radiophonic Workshop recreated the sounds of 1970s Britain in a geodesic dome and Les Ambassadeurs recreated the sounds of 1970s Mali, Amadou Bagayoko’s mighty fractal guitar riffs and Cheick Tidiane Seck’s rich singing almost making Salif Keïta look redundant, the main headliner was Sinéad O’Connor.

She was a late replacement for Bobby Womack, who died a few weeks ago, and an uneasy crowd pleaser. She started with John Grant’s “Queen of Denmark”, the verses a passive-aggressive mumble, the choruses shouted abuse. Much of the set came from her as-yet-unreleased album I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss, whose title promises Sheryl Sandberg but whose centrepiece, “8 Good Reasons”, is an unsettlingly specific meditation on suicide. “If I coulda gone/ without hurting anyone/ like a child I would have found me mum/ like a bird I would have been flown . . . ,” she murmured to a mildly alarmed audience. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was received with shrieks, and was followed by O’Connor channelling Jehovah to excoriate the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

Even then, it was not over: night fell to Oliver Mtukudzi’s warm Zimbabwean chimurenga, The Chair’s Orkney ceilidh music and Public Service Broadcasting’s dance anthems about ice skating in 1950s Holland. It was as if the festival itself could not bear to acknowledge that it had finished.


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