Getting the coach to the Womad site in Charlton Park, Malmesbury, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the weekend was going to be a rather muddy affair. And so it was. Luckily there was enough warm music and food to keep spirits high, even in times of poncho-related disaster.
Our first stop was the All Singing, All Dancing tent to see the Mahotella Queens workshop. Having been unable to make their set earlier in the day (which was described to us as simply “exuberant”), we set up tents quick-sharp to get down there for what really was all singing and all dancing. Undeniably impressive, with two of the original Queens, they’ve still got it.
Next stop was our first culinary experience of the weekend, starting as we meant to go on with a Thali and falafel platter from The Chai Shop Organic. This set us in good stead to endure the rain and see the French-Cuban twins Ibeyi on the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillett stage. Undoubtedly a highlight of the weekend, the twin sisters truly complement each other; Lisa-Kaindé the timeless voice and Naomi the edgy percussionist. They put in a stellar performance that had the whole crowd providing backing vocals for ‘River’.
Headliners of the night De La Soul did not disappoint, with a ten-strong band and a dancing sign-language interpreter. Many a classic hit was played, with special mention deserved for ‘Me, Myself and I‘. Most surreal act of the festival goes to The Cambodian Space Project, who brought their brand of 60’s Cambodian pop and ran away with it. Frontwoman Srey Thy shone (quite literally, in a very gold dress) with as much charisma as individuality in her voice, backed by a strong band that can’t help but make you wonder, “how the hell did these guys meet?”.
The night continued in the Siam Tent for Kassé Mady Diabaté’s midnight set; a thing of wonder. Smooth vocals that left us chilled to the core, and a xylophone player with some masterful polyrhythms up his sleeve. From there all that was left to do was head to Lunched Out Lizards, the site of the best out-of-hours dancing tunes, accompanied by the sweet smells of chai.
Saturday arrived with two great morning gifts: sunshine and kedgeree. We then ventured to the Open Air Stage for Senegalese legend Cheikh Lo’s first of several weekend performances. Doing it as only a master can, Cheikh and his band set us up perfectly for the sunny day ahead with soulful mellow vibes.
Unable to resist, we headed to the Taste The World stage to watch The Cambodian Space Project’s Srey Thy cooking up some fresh spring rolls and ginger chicken (aka ‘Angry Bird’). Explaining to the audience what she was doing, whilst being interviewed about her career and music, and intermittently singing, the whole thing was equal parts bizarre and wonderful. Her voice was perhaps done the most justice when tackling the slower, more powerful songs.
The day’s excitement was never lost, with a truly energetic set taking place in the Siam Tent, courtesy of Mbongwana Star. Congolese guitars and distortion aplenty, they are fronted by two members of Staff Benda Bilili in customized tricycle wheelchairs, who don’t stop dancing for a single moment. Hypnotic and enthralling, you can’t doubt the quality of showmanship, although it could perhaps be said that their sound has more direction on record.
Wandering around the site looking for the next treat to eat, we could not move past the Somerset Hog Roll stand. And so we didn’t. Suitably filled we headed back to the Siam tent for Wisconsin via Watford trio The Staves. Individually beautiful voices from the sisters produced typically captivating harmonies silencing the onlooking crowd. Backed by a full band, the trademark folk-rock sounds left all present in a state of awe and serenity as they played out the last of the glorious weather for the weekend.
We were almost caught off guard by a change of pace as a high energy performance by Atomic Bomb! lit up the evening with colour and flare. Front-man Sinkane lead by example as the band championing William Onyeabor’s music got the crowd jumping to classics including ‘Body and Soul’ and ‘Good Name’. Special cameos on vocals were made by UK vocalists Andrew Ashong and Jamie Lidell. There was also a second appearance of the day from Cheikh Lô, although the performance seemed a little rough around the edges with the Senegalese veteran looking a little lost.
After short walk over to the Charlie Gillett stage (with a short detour for some gourmet cheesy chips on the way) we were met by some truly inspiring music from the Egyptian Project. Playing some seriously funky music, the French-Egyptian band smoothly fused traditional Arab sounds with hip-hop and electro styles. There was also a real treat from the band as lead percussionist Ragab Sadek stunned the audience with a drum solo on the darbouka; we were all wondering if he was actually human such was the speed of his hands.
Tigran finished off the night with a performance perfectly capping off a special day of music. Super talented Armenian-American jazz pianist Tigran, supported by drummer and bassist are not your typical jazz trio. Their sound varied from rock to dubstep to pure jazz, time signatures and keys constantly changing. It really was a spectacle all three musicians showing off their individual talents speeding through highly technical solos. Tigran especially stole the show, who’s face matched the intensity of his virtuosic playing.
After hiding out in our tents for the early morning rain on day three; we gave into our cravings of the raclette cheese from the night before and we marched straight to the stand to enjoy some tasty poutine. Smiles fixed firmly on our faces we headed over to a samba drumming workshop. Despite missing out on what seemed to be about 100 drums handed out to the crowd, we enjoyed watching on as the leader in a charming fashion managed to get a cohesive sound from many twitchy hands. On a bit of a high, we took a short stroll next door for some reggaeton dancing. The extremely charismatic host had the tent in hysterics as we struggled to keep up with hip thrusts and shoulder bops.
Banoffee pie topped with a mountain of cream kept us buzzing as we went to jump in the mud to the joyful sounds of Mahmoud Ahmed. The smooth voice from the Ethiopiques-featuring vocalist on top of jazz and funk from Badume’s Band keep our spirits suitably high. Next on the list was the soul-folk fusionist Eska. Her endearing personality and stage presence shone through as she powerfully mastered a large vocal range helping the crowd momentarily forget the returning rain. Stand out songs included ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Shades Of Blue’ which really pulled at the emotive strings. Not forgetting a masterful harmonica solo from band member Phillip Angelo culminating in an entertaining melodic battle with Eska.
Laura Mvula‘s performance was met with great cheer, the obvious chemistry with her band including two siblings showing why she was a crowd favourite. Her solo ballads including a cover of ‘Human Nature‘ were expertly executed and ‘Diamond’ a song dedicated to a lost friend was especially moving. Lee Fields and his band encouraged ‘whoops’ and ‘yeahs’ with their set of thowback soul. James Brown is clearly an idol for Lee, but he had the voice and stage presence that saw him own another of the special performances of the festival.
Finally it was up to Christophe Chassol to round up the weekend, and this was another highlight difficult to do justice in words. Playing a combination of piano, rhodes and synths, the maestro’s performance backed only by a drum kit was mesmeric. Musical styles spanned contemporary modern classical piano, soul, samba and hip hop, each expertly weaved in and out of the beautifully shot Big Sun film. We can’t say it enough times but if you ever get a chance to see this guy, don’t give it a second thought.
That saw the end to three days of high quality music and atmosphere to match, we’ll definitely be seeing you again Womad Festival.