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Le Patron Chant Ici. Since Peter Gabriel helped to set up the first World Of Music, Arts and Dance festival in 1982, he has been a constant benevolent presence but a rare performer. This year, however, having moved from Reading to a new venue, Charlton Park in North Wiltshire, Womad pulled out its biggest guns, from Baaba Maal to Tinariwen to Isaac Hayes, to persuade punters to brave previously uncharted stretches of the westbound M4 motorway.
Biggest gun of all was Gabriel, looking back over the 25 years of the festival and beyond: “Family Snapshot”, “On The Air” and “No Self Control”, with hammered marimbas, predated Womad’s birth.
This summer, Gabriel’s old bandmates in Genesis are delighting the corporate sporting venues of the world. Gabriel briefly toyed with joining them, before the tour’s expanding ambitions exceeded his appetite. But the prospect might have been in his mind as he delivered the line in “Solsbury Hill” about his delight at walking “right out of the machinery” to a cheer that could be heard in the next county. He had a lightshow to outshine Genesis: vast floodlights, barometers of LEDs pulsing red and blue during “Blood Of Eden”, diamond-white pointillist strobes for “Secret World”. During “Sledgehammer”, three flaming paper lanterns flew overhead and drifted off towards Cirencester.
Two decades ago, Gabriel would end “Lay Your Hands On Me” by throwing himself backwards into the crowd, to be born aloft by willing hands, and Womad’s front rows wondered nervously whether he would repeat this stunt. In the event, just as he reached the crucial instrumental break, the stage was instead invaded by Daara J, an amiable hip-hop crew from Dakar, who pogoed through a scattershot Wolof rap and invited us to put our hands together for “Peter Gabrielle”.
For the encore, “In Your Eyes”, Gabriel put together a mini-Womad of his own, welcoming on to the stage the Zawose family from Tanzania, Ouch Savy from Cambodia, Johnny Kalsi of the Dhol Foundation and Daby Touré. The performance may not have been as polished as his old comrades’, but it was far more spirited.
Gabriel thanked his band, his guests and the audience for braving the “shitty weather”. He did not exaggerate. (Tactfully, he had skipped “Here Comes The Flood” and “Red Rain”.) Months of rain, including a downpour the day before the festival started, had turned the sylvan Charlton Park into 200 acres of shin-deep chocolate mousse. The wellington boot sellers offered a quick lesson in demand elasticity, their asking price leaping ever upward between transactions in a wet-weather gear tribute to Weimar hyperinflation. Inside the main arena the mud was thick as glue.
Festival-goers became involuntary clowns, pitching forward and struggling back to their feet as brown silhouettes. Grim-faced parents hauled three-wheeler buggies like artillerymen trudging through a Paul Nash painting of the Western Front.
Backstage, Gabriel had been plugging his new venture, The Filter, a software application that flicks through a computerised music collection like a knowledgeable friend, making connections between obscure tracks and suggesting more music that users might enjoy. The secret, Gabriel insisted, was freedom from choice: “You get more of what you want, what excites, entertains and surprises you.”
The festival randomised in the same way. The printed schedule was little help: half the acts were stuck on the motorway, and once audiences had discovered dry ground, the prospect of squelching off to a different tent lacked appeal. The arboretum at the top of the site was relatively firm underfoot, and the BBC Radio 3 stage, which was situated there, became a popular venue as performer after performer rose to the occasion. Kris Drever, from Orkney, offered a set of rainy folk songs and some heartfelt finger picking. “I came to the wrong entrance’” he noted, “and…I’ve seen a lot of mud.”
Daby Touré, an ever-reliable Mauritanian singer now based in Paris, played a solo set accompanying himself on electric guitar, strumming with the choppy bounce of Andy Summers in the heyday of The Police. Reem Kelani responded to shouted requests for Sayyid Darwish covers from El Tanbura, a Port Said ensemble ensconced in the front row. Marzoug, an Algerian troupe, wore white robes of an unearthly and improbable spotlessness, and delivered a barrage of giant metal castanets and the chekwa, a buzzing gazelle-horned bagpipe. Such serendipitous discovery is Womad’s genius.
Further downhill, Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba were playing at the Siam tent. The four ngoni players stood front stage and produced tight volleys of interlocking lute lines; Kouyate’s wife, Amy Sacko, sang passionately over the top: “Bassekou, Bassekou, I love you…” Further along, Mari Boine’s Sami shamanic invocations combined with deep African drumming. At the bottom of the field, Toumast, a Touareg band from Niger, were bereft of one lead singer, Aminatou Goumar (the predictable visa problems) but made up for her absence with a thrashed drumkit and gritty electric guitar lines.
On the main stage, Toots and the Maytals gave an incongruous reggae reading of “Take Me Home Country Roads”. Lila Downs brushed aside the melancholy of her best recorded work for a set of good-time Mexican drinking songs, backed by virtuosic clarinet and accordion. The Arizona border band Calexico were the perfect soundtrack for Saturday evening as the skies darkened and the air sharpened with an approaching thunderstorm: their widescreen twanging guitars were sauced up with a mariachi brass section, and when Amparo Sanchez from the Barcelona band Amparanoia sashayed on stage to sing with them, it was a crystallised glimpse of Hispanic desert-noir.
A fresh downpour on Saturday night left cars being towed into the fields by tractors, and tempers began to fray. Clube do Balanço had the ideal Sunday lunchtime remedy: Brazilian samba-rock as retro as a gatefold album of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, but with a psychedelic tinge and a hard-rocking brass section. They ended with a mass singalong on the old Jorge Ben warhorse “Mas Que Nada”, the audience’s arms waving aloft in a good-natured, defiant aerobic work-out.