WOMAD Festival 2017 – Full Review

The crowds descended on Charlton Park for the 35th instalment of World of Music and Dance festival on the last weekend of July this year. Affectionately known by its acronym, WOMAD promises the world and delivers. From Sweden to Senegal, São Paulo to South London the annual event brought the most diverse lineup imaginable from across the globe to the stately grounds in Wiltshire for a spectacular weekend of performances.

Hailing from São Paulo, Bixiga 70 brought their eclectic mix of pop, jazz and dub for a festival-opening appearance in the Big Red Tent. Drawing from the rich Brazilian music scenes, the ten-strong outfit got the party started with energetic percussion, screeching brass and raucous guitar work channeling the atmosphere of the neighbourhood after which they’re named.

Legendary Senegalese afro-cuban group Orchestra Baobab took to the Open Air Stage shortly after, ensuring Thursday ticket holders got their money’s worth with a characteristic fusion of African and Latin American styles. The Kora playing which the band introduced on their latest record ‘Tribute to Ndiouga Dieng’ was conspicuous by its absence, and only a few choice numbers from the new album were heard at all. Preferring to invite the listener on a journey to 1980’s Senegal, the band explored a back-catalogue stretching over four decades showcasing their infectious grooves, emotional vocals, and subtle guitar and saxophone interplay.

It was very disappointing to see classic roots reggae veterans Inna De Yard struck off the bill due to Visa issues, but fortunately the self-styled “Afrobeat Ambassador” Dele Sosimi and his band were able to fill the slot and brighten up everyone’s Friday afternoon. Performing in the Siam Tent, the Nigerian who began his career with Fela Kuti’s Egypt 80 in the late seventies got the crowds moving with his rhythmical vocal delivery and jazzed-up keyboard contributions. There was even time for Dele to teach the audience a few tracks from his latest record ‘You No Fit Touch Am’ and the enthusiastic call and response made the show one of Friday’s highlights.

Mysterious Swedish group Goat brought their hypnotic blend of heavy rock and world music influences to the Siam tent later in the evening. Fuzzed out guitars met tribal rhythms and chanted vocals, with the sound sometimes treading into desert blues territory. The spectacular shamanistic robes and headgear made the performance one of the more theatrical events of the weekend, with the tambourine-wielding dance moves of the group’s two singers adding to an entrancing effect. Tunes from the band’s latest album ‘Requiem’ featured most prominently, but the distinctive rhythm and guitar riff of ‘Talk to God’ formed an epic climax to the show.

The first highlight of Saturday saw Tuareg desert rocker Bombino bring the sound of his hometown in Agadez, Niger for set on the Open Air Stage. Appearing in his traditional robes and grasping his axe with a great sense of purpose, the acclaimed guitarist and songwriter wasted no time in shredding his way through an electric set showcasing his fluid fingerwork, thoughtful vocals and flamboyant dance moves. The Saharan’s recent string of albums, which have seen him collaborate with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys and David Longstreth of The Dirty Projectors, have an acoustic side which was largely absent from a show which pelted the listener with uptempo desert beats and a crescendo of quick-fire guitar notes.

The rising star of UK hip hop Loyle Carner took to the Siam Tent shortly after. The Mercury Prize nominated artist drew in a great audience for his WOMAD debut, performing his heartfelt and confessional take on modern hip hop. The show will be remembered not just for his hits like ‘The Isle of Arran’ and ‘Florence’, but also for unlikely hype-women Louise Tingay, a sign language interpreter. Louise said: “People had actually requested that Loyle’s WOMAD performance was interpreted and it was my absolute privilege to deliver the performance. WOMAD has some amazing artists and it’s great to be able to make those accessible for more people.”

“I knew it was going to be a big crowd but as soon as it started I just remembered that I’d done my homework, I knew his lyrics and I felt really confident and able to have fun!”

WOMAD has been offering sign language interpretation for over 15 years, with a team of three experienced sign language interpreters performing roughly ten shows per day between them in response to audience requests.

“Out of this world” is probably the only fair way to describe Squarepusher’s new project Shobaleader One, who not only look as if they’ve been transported in from another dimension but also seem to possess extraterrestrial musical powers. Appearing at the Big Red Tent in robes and what looked like flashing welding masks, the full band lineup played tunes from the acclaimed bassist and producer’s back catalogue with mind-melting skill and precision. From the more laid back ‘Iambic 5 Poetry’ to hectic speed-of-light slap bass, this set was certainly the most unforgettable.

Later Seu Jorge proved that music is a universal language with his tribute to David Bowie sung entirely in his home tongue. The Brazilian singer songwriter, also known for his on-screen appearances in ‘City of God’ and Wes Anderson’sThe Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou’, serenaded the audience with his jazzy South American spin on ‘Starman’, ‘Oh, You Pretty Things’ and ‘Ziggy Stardust’. Despite one of the largest audiences the Siam Tent saw all weekend, the show was probably the most intimate with interludes for anecdotes and snatches of bossa nova guitar playing.

For those in need of a reggae fix after Inna De Yard’s cancellation there was a double dose. A brilliant headlining set from pioneering group Toots and the Maytals on Saturday night and dub-poet Benjamin Zephaniah bringing his fiercely political deejay style to The Big Red early the next day provided the musical medicine before the final Sunday WOMAD home stretch.

Gypsys of Bohemia performed a quirky soundtrack to Sunday afternoon in Molly’s bar, a smaller venue near the camping fields. Everything from The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ to Imi Kamoze’s ‘Here Comes the Hotstepper’ to Dead Or Alive’s ‘You Spin Me Right Round’ was given some Balkan rhythm, swinging double bass and Django-esque guitar fingerwork making for a surprisingly entertaining set.

Jazz-funk pioneer Roy Ayers and Afrobeat royalty Seun Kuti performing back to back sets on the open air stage was the main event of Sunday night. In the late-1970s Ayers toured Nigeria for six weeks with Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, also recording the album ‘Music of Many Colours’. As the tribute to this record Ayers appeared leading Fela’s old group The Egypt 80 from behind his vibraphone before handing the spotlight to Fela’s son Seun for a show packed with energy and original Nigerian grooves.

Stumble aimlessly in any direction at WOMAD festival and there is always amazing music to be found. There was almost too many great artists to mention over the long weekend, but other highlights included “The Songbird of Wassoulou” Oumou Sangare, the jazz ambiance of Portico Quartet and the stunning Noureddine Khourchid & the Whirling Dervishes of Damascus.

The big-name headliners from the world music scene are not the only draw for the festival, though. Everything from the open mic in Coyote Moon to the lower-key artists at the Ecotricity stage deserve a shout out among countless others. The final evening was rounded off in Molly’s Bar with ‘Bohemian Rapsody’ blasted out at full volume followed by the obligatory “ohhhh Jeremy Coooorbyn” chant making for one the essential festival experiences of 2017.

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