Maybe it was the influence of George Clinton, founder of Parliament and Funkadelic and Saturday’s headliner, but at first listen this year’s Womad seemed to have a fatal infection of funk. The scratchy rhythm was everywhere. New Orleans’s Hot 8 Brass Band laid down a funk beat at first infectious and then wearing, although a hip-hop-styled cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” had a sousaphone-fuelled bounce.
The French-Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf, normally a purveyor of smoky late-night atmospherics to rock royalty, equipped himself with a funk guitarist and spent a lot of his own time producing retro synth sounds from a keyboard. The set only came fully to life when he taught the audience how to sing an anthemic chorus politely, then shyly recalled how when he composed the song, he had imagined hearing it sung back to him at full volume. Could we possibly . . . ? We could, and did.
Hackney Colliery Band covered the same material as the Hot 8 — brass-and-percussion versions of popular songs — but brought more variety: they had Nirvana and soul covers, and an instrumentation that could nod to everyone from Moondog to Sun Ra to 1970s television themes. They ended with Lee “Scratch” Perry’s “Chase the Devil”, flattering the audience by suggesting, accurately, that they might know the words. (Perry performed the song at Womad himself a couple of years ago, rather less tightly than this.)
Anoushka Shankar responded instrumentally to the theme of migration, as had Maalouf. Her band was itself an advertisement for the mixing of cultures, combining her sitar with the shehnai (the buzzing double-reed oboe common at Indian weddings), double bass, piano and Hang percussion. The tunes, from her new album Life of Gold, were complex mini-symphonies: the title track, about child refugees, started with a Celtic-sounding melody on the sitar, with that instrument’s characteristic flourishes, and an undercurrent of Hang; then moved into a sitar ostinato ripe as a bruise, with a snatch of television news reporting as audio vérité; then mutated into a long lament.
Lula Pena’s long-awaited third album remains . . . awaited. What could be heard of it in her performance in the Arboretum, buffeted as she was by drifting clouds of funk and snippets from a ludicrously over-amplified Hip Yak Poetry Shack, sounded superb. Pena is thought of as a fadista (in her idiolect, a phadista), but the instrumental passages she coaxed from her guitar, head bent over the soundboard, could have been John Fahey or John Martyn: country-folk meditations with flurries of bent notes that made time stand still; assonant jazz chords thrown into trippingly-beautiful melodies. When she sang, though, it was in rich, deep Portuguese, songs that waltzed in the night or spun Brazilian-sounding tales as light as air and sunshine.
Baaba Maal loves Womad. “One of the greatest festivals in the world . . . I’ve missed you so much.” Womad repaid him by scaling him back from previous years’ headline slots to second billing this year (in favour of George Clinton, who would deliver a mechanistically authoritarian set); his audience was greeted with leaflets from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement criticising his decision to play in Jerusalem.
But if playing in daylight is a rare experience for Maal, he showed no sign of it, singing the opening lines of “Yela” offstage before wandering on in glittering white robes. An as-yet-unrecorded Mauritanian ballad, “N’Baye N’Baye”, had hints of desert blues. “African Woman” prompted chants of “Senegal, Senegal, Senegal.” Later, on an extended “Cherie”, he shed his outer robe, mock threatening to throw it into the audience before a road manager deftly snatched it away into the wings.
He danced on stage, Fulani jewellery swinging wildly around his neck. Senegalese musicians from other bands playing during the weekend embarked on a mini stage invasion while Mamadou Sarr played brisk djembé tattoos and Maal himself climbed down into the crowd to dance. For a brief period, like the Higgs boson, he was invisible but his position could be inferred from the motions of the surrounding waving hands.
The later songs were from his rockier new album Traveller: both “Lampeda” and the title track were dynamically powerful, driven by muscular drumming from Raul Pineda, but musically flatter than his more characteristically Senegalese work.
At the end, donning a red cape, Maal was joined by the poet Lemn Sissay for their collaborative work “Peace”. Sissay declaimed his plea for global harmony with arena-filling histrionics, while Maal sang the responses back to him. “Let there be peace . . . so war correspondents become travel show presenters”, chanted Sissay. “Don’t play in Israel,” called a woman from the crowd, collapsing the universal to the particular.
With Maal flicking his wrist like a fly whisk, the band roared up into a finale of “Fulani Rock”, in which the Fulani just about overcame the rock. The subsequent queue for signed CDs stretched for miles. Maal could easily — and by the look of it, perfectly happily — have spent the rest of the night posing for selfies.
Ends today, womad.co.uk
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