Womad 2013, Charlton Park, Wiltshire, UK – review

The year’s curious weather had turned Charlton Park’s grass to straw, but the arboretum was glowing with health, criss-crossed by giant butterflies and dragonflies the size of sparrows. The first band on to the Radio 3 Stage, Mavrika, found themselves faced with the unenviable task of rousing a broiled audience from its languor. They filtered 1920s rembetika – the soundtrack of 1920s urban low life, brought to Greece by refugees from Anatolia – through the sensibilities of proto-punk. Chris Morphitis played what would have been bouzouki lines on echoing electric guitar, set off against prickly baglamas, and singer Katina Kangaris danced with her hands like a character from classical lyric poetry.

Amid the Moe Tucker thump of the drums, the songs throbbed with what Kangaris quaintly described as “wide boys”, cheating at cards, declaring undying love, complaining about poor-quality marijuana and smashing plates with abandon, like a Piraeus Bullingdon Club. An original composition she summarised as “although I wear red lipstick, I am not a prostitute”. The audience threw their arms round each others’ shoulders and danced the woozy steps of a lawn-full of Zorbas.

Joseph Arthur took a counterintuitive approach to self-publicity by restricting his setlist almost entirely to an album not released until September; he exacerbated this by taking intricately orchestrated songs and performing them on solo guitar, backed only by a drummer, Bill Dobrow, restricted to one drum used as a seat and slapped with a hand, and one other the size of a large tambourine. None of this mattered, because Arthur’s performance was impassioned and the songs – especially “Travel as Equals” – were instantly memorable. The queue afterwards to shake his hand and buy his previous albums was its own testament.

Tamikrest started off essentially as a Tinariwen covers band, albeit less battle-scarred. But in alliance with the Australian-American indie rockers Dirtmusic, they have picked up the pace, even adding a drumkit, which would be if not sacrilege then at least impractical for most nomadic bands, although it underlined the rhythm rather than defining it. The tempo was set by the interaction of bass and rhythm guitar, with Ousmane Ag Mossa’s lead lines distorted through pedals or shining ecstatically. A singer with Touareg jewellery the size of a breastplate cut through the guitar fug with her bright ululations.

Toots Hibbert, the safest and perhaps the dullest name in reggae, had been replaced by Max Romeo and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Romeo, in a scarlet frock coat with ash-coloured dreadlocks down to his waist, played a deeply conservative set of roots reggae, all Selassie-I and Babylon and a brassy version of “Three Blind Mice”. Introducing “Chase the Devil”, he directly addressed “Lucifer, son of the morning”: this was a pure blend of the Old Testament and the book of Revelations, locked into place by an imperturbable female bass player in a bright headdress. Perry, by contrast, was an unfocused ramble, blasting everyone from the FBI and the CIA to vampires to Princes Charles and William, like a Rasta Wyndham Lewis. Occasionally, with a regal wave of the arm, he would slow or stop or distort the band, as if turning them into a dub version of themselves, but he was a poor advertisement for the use of recreational drugs.

Seun Kuti always starts his sets with a song by his father, the celebrated Nigerian provocateur Fela Kuti. In this case, it was “International Thief Thief”, an attack on multinational corruption that served as the perfect overture for the younger Kuti’s non-party political broadcast. The chiming “Mr Big Thief” was a lengthy attack on former president Olusegun Obasanjo, Kuti satirically reeling off his honours and appointments before a scabrous denunciation.

Two new songs were in similar vein. “African Smoke”, with baritone sax honking like a snorting whale, spoke up for a continent still (at least in Kuti’s mind) lit only by fire, and “African Airways” shrank the continent’s political life by analogy to a nightmare plane journey. The song taxied through a succession of brass solos, one from Kuti himself on sax, before he started to gabble a demented cabin announcement: “There’s no exit sign, but don’t worry about that . . . ” The music stripped down to percussion and chanting. “This is Original African Music. Original African Music!”

When the rain hit, Mamouna, from Mauritania, found herself a packed Siam Tent for her desert blues, drumcracks and desert lutes, sharp and dry even as water poured down the roof, making it appear that the whole set was being performed inside a waterfall. Meanwhile on the open air stage Osibisa were playing hard Ghanaian funk. They cajoled their bedraggled audience into a chorus or two of “Let the Sunshine In”, and everyone sang along, in hope but in vain.


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