Jamaica’s Clinton Fearon welcomed us to WOMAD this year. “Don't get stuck in a rut, stuck in a rut,” he crooned, sun-ripened roots-reggae flowing bright and sweet from the festival’s Open Air stage, his chorus neatly defining my return for the fifth time.
With its largely family orientated crowd, super-civilised manor and new-age, eco-ethical, mindful-hippy extremes (seriously, you can pay for ‘Gong Treatment’), WOMAD is a far cry from the festival haunts that typically top my list and yet, year on year, delivers one of the most exhilarating live music experiences I can find.
2014 proves no exception. Over a hundred artists from 42 countries performed over three days to Charlton Park’s first ever sold-out crowd. Ukrainian lullabies, live reel-to-reel tape machines, African soul, Armenian folk, a liberating feast of rare sounds that never fail to reboot my Western-centric, new music hang-ups.
Hungarian five-piece Söndörgő follow the easy-going Jamaican rhythms that eased us in with furious tamburitza, the mastery of Eastern European lute / mandolin crossovers that squeal and sing beneath hearty folk songs woven from the tales of isolated communities dotted along the Danube.
The Invisible provide a brief dose of familiarity, gliding through their WOMAD debut with all the spectral funk mastery we’ve come to adore despite the shamefully dwindling crowd – perhaps due to a lack of Noisettes singer Shingai Shoniwa, originally billed to join Dave Okumu (pictured above) for their new vocal work ‘Stars Align’, inspired by a shared African heritage.
Spoiled for choice thanks to a craft ale bar and extensive cider list (the 8.9% addition from Bristol strictly sold only by the half), The Arboretum becomes a daily haunt for a guaranteed spot in the shade – not that anyone’s complaining about the weekend-long sunshine.
True to its definition it’s WOMAD’s most picturesque stage, a hidden cove surrounded by trees with a largely acoustic line-up and attentive, respectful audience who rarely rise from their blankets on the grass.
Highlights this year came from 27-year-old Swedish cellist Linnea Olsson, who looped and layered the cello to mesmerising effect, pairing it with slow whispered cries that added intimate, glacial new tones to a cover of Kraftwerk’s dark, accusatory ‘Sex Objekt’.
The bluesy Oklahoma drawl of Samantha Crain marked her out as a young songwriter with more than a little Neil Young running through her veins, matched with enough poetry to make it her own and proof that the stripped-back approach on third album ‘Kid Face’ was the right one, ‘For The Miner’ and ‘Somewhere All The Time’ attracting the loudest cheers.
It was there too, on Saturday morning, that cross-cultural four-piece Sans almost lulled me into a fully sober hallucination. Assembled by music writer and musician Andrew Conshaw, the group combines Armenian duduk, a slow, oboe-like woodwind that soars with more mystical reverence than Link’s best Ocarina solo, with the deeply haunting tales of Finnish singer Sanna Kurki-Suonio. She delivered her croaks, cries and comforts with such strong emotional narrative the overwhelming familiarity despite my exquisite lack of native Finnish, was a surprisingly unsettling and quietly transportative sensation.
It wasn’t all myths and moods. African soul brother number one Manu Dibango defied his 80 years and drew a packed tent even closer together for some serious afternoon shape-casting. Elsewhere, Brooklyn’s Trombone Shorty (pictured above) & Orleans Avenue proved their crossover success – Hot 8 Brass Band style cool meets wild Jagger-esque frontman charm.
Newcomers Ibibio Sound Machine confirmed the disco-pouncing electro and West African roots ripe on this year’s self-titled debut are far from fully realised until you’ve seen British-Nigerian frontwoman Eno Williams bound across a stage. Mighty heeled and mighty voiced, her performance in The Big Red Tent is only just eclipsed by UK soul singer number one, Alice Russell, and her band.
The Radiophonic Workshop are an unlikely complement to the global roots cast through Charlton Park this year. Like many acts on the bill, they offered festival-goers more than just a performance, joining the rich programme of talks and workshops to discuss the decision to form a band and release an album 50 years after their pioneering steps in electronic music.
Considering they made their name manipulating unpredictable analogue synthesisers to glorious effect, their vehement dismissal of analogue synths’ many fetishists gave their rumbling electronic freak-out, performed to a one-in-one-out crowd, even more edge. A combination of old kit meets new, it was a triumphant clash of invention versus cultural identity and tradition, a feature shared by so many WOMAD acts and perhaps one of the most important components to success achieved both at home and abroad.
No clearer was this felt than with Ukraine’s Dharka Brakha. The effect of their Siam Tent set swept quickly through the crowd, reaching us with enough time to catch their acoustic follow-up on WOMAD’s famed Taste The World stage. Here, the rising stars were stripped to the three-part harmonies of their female members, an impromptu lullaby handed down through the generations a swirling highlight amidst absorbing new arrangements of traditional folk songs.
Dedicating her set to Bobby Womack, replacement headliner Sinead O’Connor (pictured above) completed the weekend with a set largely comprised of new material. Though it wasn’t quite the closing party we’d hoped for, the defiant, passionate resilience laced through every track left us more than satiated. Dark and mournful, wild and unapologetic, she drew a weekend of dizzying variety and unparalleled global sounds to an equally bold and intense conclusion.
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Words: Kim Hillyard
Photos supplied by WOMAD