Stage spectacles at Womad

Most of us, if we were hosting a party in our garden, might worry about the weather, even in July. The Earl of Suffolk and Berkshire, the owner of Charlton Park, went even further: he had, he told us, rung RAF Lyneham, and been assured that the weekend would see very little rain.

And with that, the Drummers of Burundi trooped slowly on stage, beating the drums balanced on their heads, and Womad was underway. As ever, there was more than just music. The Speakeasy drew packed audiences to films and discussions. A Human Library let patrons speak to marginalised victims of prejudice: a dyslexic tree surgeon, a sufferer from bi-polar disease, a former traffic warden and a newly ennobled Labour peer. But garlic plaiting proved a popular alternative.

Roots Architecture at Womad, most ambitiously, saw four teams build their own stages over the course of the weekend from bamboo or old pallets: in spite of a hiccup when a Norwegian woodworker was arrested for carrying a knife, the stages were upright and ready to host a mini-festival of their own on Sunday night. And amid the trees, the Sudanese voodoo band Rango were literally cooking. Sheikha Zainab Mansour, wearing an improbable apron, simmered chicken in a broth of arcane spices and sang songs of healing.

A running theme this year was cover versions. The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain brought the unlikely spectacle of massed ukuleles to hits from “Pinball Wizard” to Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine”, the sound phasing in and out in true space-rock style.

France’s Nouvelle Vague, similarly, are devoted entirely to covers. They play 1980s New Wave music as airy bossa nova (Nouvelle Vague music meaning something different in France). On record, they are candyfloss; live, the arrangements carry more punch, which paradoxically blunts the central joke. A thumping version of Depêche Mode’s “Master and Servant” was if anything, more dominant and less submissive than the original. But “Ever Fallen In Love With Someone” came up suitably frothy.

Angélique Kidjo, too, was on the cover trail. The Benin diva’s set was a kind of musical autobiography, starting with the traditional song with which she made her performing debut aged six, and including nods to her heroine Miriam Makeba with “Malaika”, to Carlos Santana with “Samba Pa Ti”, to Curtis Mayfield with “Move On Up”. There was even a Bollywood number, “Dil Main Chuppa Ke Pyar Ka”, the theme from her favourite film as a child.

But there were also her own pan-African anthems, and at the end she brought a gaggle of children up from the audience to smile and clap in the manner of extras from “We Are The World”. Perhaps this piece of theatre counts as a Michael Jackson cover.

Britain was strongly represented, in all genres from dubstep to Taiko drumming. Chumbawamba bravely mocked passing police as “Maggie’s bootboys.” Eternal students Stornoway filled the Siam tent with melodic soft rock about zorbing through the streets of Cowley. “Fuel Up” was a home counties’ “Thunder Road”, and even their contempt for “Battery Humans” was meekly lapped up by an audience of weekend hippies.

Gabby Young (as local as they come, having been born in neighbouring Malmesbury) was more distinctive. Clad in a white dress, red hair teased into what looked from a distance like a giant geranium, with a tracery like Victorian gothic ironwork over her right eye, she delivered what she termed “circus swing”. Her band, Other Animals, provided the swing, pumping trombone and wheezing accordion and the blocky beats of a Balkan wedding. Young was the circus, twirling a Bridget Riley umbrella and coaxing the audience to sing along.

Equally eccentric was Imogen Heap, a darling of the internet. Her set at the Siam tent could have been too eclectic for her own good. She used tiny wrist microphones to sample sounds: the stroked rims of a couple of wine glasses, for example, she looped into a glass harmonica; another song began with the wet crackle of a bonfire. One song was prompted by a lunch guest warning her of extensive allergies and provoking her fury when he ate a chocolate biscuit; this perfidy was immortalised in Grand Guignol piano music surrounding the tale of a serial killer. When she let her band, including cello and violin, loose on enchanted melodies, however, the set came together: hands and mobile phone screens were waved for “Speeding Cars”; “Tidal” had a crocodile snap.

Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara’s rittibilly duets were augmented this time by a larger band. Martyn Barker played a minimal drum kit as if he were steering a ride-on mower, and he and the pith helmeted bassist anchored the rhythms. Mim Suleiman (“from Zanzibar via Sheffield”) swung up her skirts and shook her hair and danced like a miniature Sufi berserker. Adams and Camara whipped up trance rhythms. On “Tonio Yima”, Camara switched from his one-string fiddle to a kologo, a two-stringed banjo, and he and Adams traded riffs until Adams became the missing link between Tinariwen and Bo Diddley. An ecstatic “Deep Sahara” ended with all the musicians thumping away on talking drum, tindé and bendir. At the end, Peter Gabriel presented them with an award, well-deserved for this set alone.

With a cheery “bonjour à tous, bonjour à toutes”, David Toubab introduced the Toubab All-Stars over a ska beat; there was comedy simultaneous translation from French to English; the audience were coached in increasingly complicated dances. “Ali Boma Ye” was half-Prince Buster, half-Skatalites, with the saxophonist and trombonist shoehorned into red and blue corners and the crowd chanting a Kinshasa death cry. By their spaghetti western encore, “Hang ‘Em High”, the All-Stars achieved a total knockout.

Dobet Gnahoré’s recent album showcases the Ivorian singer’s gift for melody and her collaborator Colin Laroche de Feline’s guitar ventriloquism, effortlessly recreating styles from all over Africa, playing thumb piano as if texting on a giant BlackBerry. But her skills as a dancer came to the fore: she would casually drop into the splits, or kick her thigh to her forehead. But perhaps even more impressive were Staff Benda Bilili, whose members plunged from their wheelchairs to dance on the stage floor to the band’s high-energy soukous.

This was not a weekend solely devoted to tricks and gimmicks. Aminatou Goumar of the Niger nomad duo Toumast shook her long hair and let her guitar do the ululating. Salif Keita was regal, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali remained seated throughout, providing fireworks through their voices alone; Cerys Matthews lit up the Arboretum late at night with acoustic Welsh folk songs. And Mayra Andrade’s “Storia, Storia” proved, yet again, the impermeable value of an unforgettable chorus.

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