FolkWorld Live Review 10/2000:
The first thing you notice as you approach the site, even at eleven o'clock at night as we did, is the number and colour of the banners and flags ruffling in the wind. It is now six years since I've been to WOMAD UK, after coming to every one between 1987 and 1994. This will also be the first time I've camped on site, too, as in previous years I've always driven back to London and up again the next morning. As we drive around the arena to get to the camping field, it becomes obvious that although the layout hasn't changed that much, there is noticeably more decoration on the site and that the camping area is big, much bigger than it was when I last came. I subsequently discover that the camping field was enlarged three years ago in order to accommodate another 3,000 people, but my source also wryly commented that there hadn't been an equivalent increase in 'facilities'. There will be more about the facilities later.
WOMAD is about nothing if not music, so I was eager to scan the programme to find out what treats lay in store. This is where I got my second surprise, as I soon discovered that many of the names on the bill, especially on the smaller stages, were completely new to me. The headliners were Youssou N'Dour and Papa Wemba, both artists I'd seen several times, so I was looking forward to visiting the smaller stages to see if I could find some new talent lurking in the shadows.
The Friday programme kicked off at two thirty in the afternoon, but the first clash occurred one hour later when Mariachi band Chavan were due to play at the same time as Telek, the band from Papua New Guinea. Unlike some of the other clashes this was easy to resolve, as both were playing again the next day. After consulting the programme I chose Telek, and spent a very rhythmic forty minutes in the company of George Mamua and his band. The album is very pleasant but to my way of thinking a little bland, whereas the live band have an edge to them which makes the sound more vibrant and melodic. As we had also been blessed with bright sunshine, it was a good way to start the festival. The drawback of having the stages too close together was immediately brought home, though, as Telek's acapella encore was drowned out half way through by the industrial funk sound of 23 Skidoo starting up on the main stage nearby. After spending twenty minutes deciding that 'industrial funk' really wasn't my thing, I went off for a drink and made my way into the Siam Tent to await the arrival of Savina Yannatou and her band Primavera En Salonico.
I'm glad I arrived early, because the decor of the tent literally took my breath away, and I spent a good five or ten minutes just admiring the tent decoration. Much use had been made of luminosity, the inside of the black tent being festooned with luminous hangings and luminous mobiles. This was probably the most stunning interior on the site, and a work of art worthy of the name. When Savina Yannatou and her band arrived, she soon showed that the rave reviews for her recent Sephardic Songs album were more than justified. She sang like an angel, and the band proved themselves more than a match for her talent. On several numbers Ms. Yannatou left the stage for quite long periods while the band took off on long, jazzy interludes during which there were many fine solos. The percussionist, playing just a darbouka, played a solo that would have shamed Ginger Baker, full kit and all, and the Nay and violin player both showed exemplary technique coupled with hairy soloing. This was definitely my first major hit of the weekend!
The next slot provided a more serious clash, in that neither artist was due to appear again. I started with the Aboriginal singing star Jimmy Little on the outdoor stage, with his mix of 60's Country and Western and 30's crooning styles. A little bit easy listening for me, but his band had a dynamite organist complete with original Hammond B3 with Leslie cabinet. It was great to hear this combination, made famous by the likes of Brian Augur, Steve Winwood and Keith Emerson, being played so well, and I spent some time just waiting for the keyboard solo on songs which otherwise did not really grab me at all. Little, now in his seventies, earned his comeback through his 1999 album 'The Messenger', where he reinterpreted songs of great Australian songwriters like Nick Cave and Neil Finn. However, I had been strongly advised to check out the new British based Moroccan band MoMo (Music Of Moroccan Origin), so I hot-footed my way over the Rough Guide dome. When I got inside all hell was breaking loose, with a D.J. providing beats and samples over which there was percussion, sintir, rap and even the dialogue of Berber market traders! The whole mix was held together by the gigantic stage presence of Lahcen Labib, who regularly whipped the crowd up into a frenzy of clapping, dancing and even at one point singing a Moroccan chorus. Thoughts of returning to Jimmy Little and his Hammond were quickly dismissed as I stood transfixed by this display, from a band who had only played together a dozen times. After the gig I arranged to meet the band later back in London, and there will be a feature on MoMo soon. Meanwhile, if they pass your way, don't miss.
The next slot coincided with refreshment, so having looked in on the immensely colourful Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, I made my way via food to Albert Nyathi's Imbongi on the Village Stage. Nyathi's blend of South African music styles offers nothing new in the genre, but it's a good show The band come fully costumed and with a full brass section, so it was a very pleasant way to pass the time. Next up was a choice between U-Cef, the Moroccan rapper, and Sam Zaman's live version of the State Of Bengal experience on the open-air stage. I have to confess that rap is an art form that generally leaves me cold, and after fifteen minutes of being shouted at in a language I couldn't understand I was more than happy to leave the dome to those who were clearly enjoying the experience. I made my way from The Dome over to the main stage. The crowd here was filling up, not only I suspect as a tribute to State Of Bengal but also because the evening's headliner, Maceo Parker, was up next and people were claiming their places. This was the first indication on the weekend that for some late arrivers their experience of the main stage would be two-inch high figures viewed from some distance away. For my money the State Of Bengal did not translate comfortably to the large open-air arena, and perhaps they need more opportunities like this to make their clubby tunes work in this context. The Lama Gyurme/Jean-Phillipe Rykiel set in the Village tent was a little at odds with the atmosphere at the festival, so I made my way back to the main stage to prepare for the funk experience that is Maceo Parker. Parker of course has the twin distinctions of not only being a long-time JB's member but also, along with fellow horn legends Pee Wee Ellis and Fred Wesley, being an original member of Parliaments 'Horny Horns' in the band that featured George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and all. What we got was a power-funk show complete with all the US show-business trappings with Parker acting as M.C. as much as playing. Still, everyone in the band knew their chops, and by the end of the show there was plenty of boogying going on around the grounds. This was obviously the climax of the evening, and though Eliza Carthy tried hard to make an impact in the Siam Tent following Parker's set, it was impossible to ignore the call of my bed.
As Saturday morning progressed and the sun became warmer, for those of us in the camping areas the shortage of toilets and water points was becoming a problem. It never ceases to amaze me what hardships we voluntarily put ourselves through at these events, but in the areas of sanitation and cleanliness sometimes it's just too much. Everywhere there were long queues for toilets which usually were fouled and unemptied when you finally got there, and the morning queues for water often extended for forty or fifty feet from the taps. Sad that an event so well organised in so many ways and so experienced in both the event and the venue should fall down on such basic provision.
On a musical front, the day started brightly with the Japanese percussionist and contortionist Joji Hirota banging, thumping and caressing his way through half an hour of inspired drumming before the Rizwan-Muzzam Qawwali Group took over the stage. To my mind, devotional music requires the listener to be in a particular space, as it is not designed as entertainment alone. This is very true of Qawwali, and whilst I can appreciate the beauty of it all the time, unless I'm in the right space mentally I can only take about ten minutes of watching. My overwhelming thought was that, as well as Rizwan-Muzzam did, there's no escaping the rather large hole left by the recent and untimely death of the master, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Passing through the Baka Beyond workshop in the Dome (why did they not get a performance slot?), I made my way to Papa Noel for a dash of his rumba-based guitar band Fan Fan. A veteran of the Kinshasa scene and the bandleader who oversaw the early careers of Franco and Sam Mangwana, Noel these days is exploring the links between African rumba and Cuban son, and his music was both light and airy, a perfect sunny afternoon treat.
After a short session with Argentinean diva Barbara Luna on the main stage there was time for some socialising and food before meeting up with Chavan in the intimate atmosphere of the Village tent. Dressed in the full regalia, they were dismissed by one onlooker near me as 'Mariachi for Norte Americanos', but they certainly knew how to put on a show and by the time we had the inevitable finale of Guantanamera almost the entire crowd were upon their feet and singing along. Although possibly not the genuine folkloric article, Chavan put on a great show and were cheered to the rafters (assuming a tent has rafters?) by a very appreciative crowd. Rokia Traore's late arrival meant that her open air stage slot was filled by the Japanese reggae band Dry and Heavy, but for me their 'one drop' dubby sound never got above the ordinary, and I was left wondering if it was solely the novelty of their nationality that had brought them this far. Meanwhile, in the Rough Guide dome, Bob Brozman and Takashi Hirayusu were recreating the laid back ambience of their recent Jin-Jin/Firefly album. Fine acoustic musicianship and dry humour from Brozman made for a fine set, most of which for amplification purposes was inaudible from all but the very middle of the dome. I had the luxury of being able to go backstage and listen from there, but those in the crowd had to struggle to hear over the between sets recorded music being played in the adjacent Siam Tent.
Neapolitan wedding band Spaccanapoli were the next up in the Siam Tent, and their blend of boisterous good humour and dance tunes were well received. The recent Real World album is in this case a good representation of the band's live show, and I imagine this set will have shifted a few copies from the Womad shop. By an unfortunate coincidence of timing I missed the Wayward Sheikhs, but got myself across to the main stage to see the combination of the Tanusree Shankar dancers with Eat Static, the techno kings formed out of archetypal crusty band Ozric Tentacles. Having seen both the Chemical Brothers and Leftfield already this year, this was by far the best show of them all, and was given an rousing reception from the impassioned, raving crowd. I'd certainly travel many a mile to hear/see them again, and will investigate their recorded output in due course. While the main stage was prepared for the top billing Youssou N'Dour and his band, there was a heavyweight clash in prospect with the rescheduled Rokia Traore pitted against WOMAD veteran Papa Wemba. Having seen Wemba several times already, I opted for Traore and was rewarded with an astonishingly good show from a band featuring only two ngoni, percussion, balafon and backing singer. The band kicked up a storm, and Traore herself not only sang beautifully but also filled the entire tent with her presence and beauty. Wemba had no chance as I cheered enthusiastically along with hundreds of others for more and more from this brilliant ensemble. I still haven't heard the album that caused all the initial excitement, but if it is anything like as good as the live show it must be unmissable.
Having stayed right to the bitter end with Traore I was late arriving at the outdoor area, and was rewarded with a distant vision of a little man in white surrounded by other little people playing instruments. Considering how many cameras there were on site (the BBC were filming as well as a crew making live webcasts), large screens by the side of the stage would have been a welcome touch for the many thousands like me stuck at the back with a very limited view. The speakers by the stage were covered in white gauze, but for some reason it was decided just to project pretty patterns on them when I suspect most of the crowd would rather have had a chance to see close up action from the stage. I felt the lack of big screens to be a strange omission from an experienced and mature festival, especially as the technology was all there on site to do it. However, Youssou himself produced the goods as expected, and rewarded the crowd with a fine show. In the interests of journalistic diligence, about half way through Youssou's set I took myself off to the Siam Tent for the acoustic show. Half an hour each of the contrasting but equally inspired singing of Tibetan diva Youngchen Lhamo and Eire's Iarla O'Lionaird left me happily drained and ready for bed.
What had been a problem on Saturday became a full-scale rout as more hot weather saw the search for water and decent toilet facilities become paramount. It was becoming obvious both in terms of availability and cleanliness that the toilet situation was becoming critical, as news of 'decent' ones was passed along the grapevine. Most of the water taps were just standpipes, and by now the areas around them had been turned into a morass by the combination of leaking water and endless feet. However, nothing could prepare me for the sight that greeted me as I emerged into the backstage area after conducting an interview with Youngchen Lhamo for a future piece. If I thought the main arena was crowded the night before when Youssou N'Dour was on stage, from the backstage vantage all I could see was a sea of faces unbroken into the distance, and all this at twelve thirty in the afternoon.
No doubt you are wondering about the cause of this enormous crowd so early in the day? Behind me, a Mercedes estate pulled into the backstage area, and discharged its load - a huge man carrying a bag full of what looked like lengths of pipeing, and then from the back seat came this familiar figure, salt and pepper hair and beard and an Aussie accent you could cut with a knife. "Ready then, Bear?" said Rolf Harris, as he and his sidekick Shining Bear walked towards the stage (or hobbled in Rolf's case, as he had a bad fall and was on crutches). I stopped him to get an autograph for my daughter and we joked about the size of the crowd, and then he was gone, on to the stage where, wearing a head mike, he kept the capacity crowd totally entertained for the next hour or so. All the favourites were there, Sun Arise (complete with Aboriginal story about the Kuckaburra dreaming from Shining Bear, who turned out to be a digeridoo player), Jake The Peg, Two Little Boys, all accompanied by the wit and charm of a seasoned pro used to working with the crowd. Even Peter Gabriel came out from backstage to witness this impeccable display of stagecraft, so maybe look out for a cover version of Two Little Boys in the next Gabriel live set. When Rolf finally finished it was to enormous applause, and again the wisdom of not having screens was called into question, as part of the act was Rolf painting one of his famous pictures on stage during the set. If you actually managed to find a vantage point at the back of the arena the painting looked about the same size as a postage stamp, so the point of that part of the set was lost on a large proportion of the audience.
Spaccanapoli then did their thing again for the assembled masses in the Village tent, a venue more in keeping with their good-time vibe than the vastness of the Siam Tent the night before, and again they probably shifted even more of their CDs with a rousing set. Next was the blues of veteran Corey Harris, called up on the strength of his recent Alligator album 'Greens From The Gardens' and his contributions to the Woody Guthrie tribute album 'Mermaid Avenue'. His laid back down-home style was perfect for the hot Sunday afternoon crowd, and he got a very appreciative hand.
Faced with the choice of a crush to see Rolf Harris again or eat, my stomach won out as I pondered the Harris phenomenon. I was at Glastonbury earlier this year when his appearance on the Avalon Stage drew a crowd of epic proportions, so large that most of them could not hope to see and stewards had to clear a way around the area of the stage for non Rolfers to get through the crush. Now here he was, over seventy and pulling at least as large a crowd as Youssou N'Dour at WOMAD. No doubt the guy is a great entertainer, but surely it's the combined power of the T.V. and those cute animals he fusses over on Animal Hospital that leads everyone to feel like they know him so well? And who would have imagined a seasoned WOMAD crowd belting out Two Little Boys with such gusto - a few years ago, no one would have admitted to knowing the words!
After a fine meal and a laze in the sun it was down to the Rough Guide Dome (got to mention the sponsors) to see Palm Pictures new boys and Patrick Forge favourites Da Lata. I'd been led by the record company hype and the programme blurb to expect something new and revolutionary on a Latin tip, but as it turned out they were a good, competent Latin tinged band playing cool dance music. The crowd was not large, but those who made the trip mostly stayed the distance and were rewarded by a professional and catchy set of original tunes that mostly made the feet tap and occasionally brought smiles to the face and bursts of wild dancing amongst the crowd. Not great then, but welcome additions to the scene and a very competent and assured performance, which brings me nicely on to Tananas. Although they gig infrequently, as one of their members lives in San Francisco whilst the others live in South Africa, there is no escaping their heritage, which works both for and against them. Their easy listening South African pop has its roots deep in that country's soul, but the musicians primary living is in doing sessions, and their sound lacks any cutting edge. Pleasant as their music undoubtedly is, attention definitely wanders in a way that would not happen if a Mathlathini or Lucky Dube was on the stage. I left feeling the cause of South African music had not been best served in this setting, although there was no doubting the musicianship of all involved.
I then stayed on in the Siam Tent to see a specially arranged set of dancing to the music of Dreamcatcher, alias Charlie Gillett alumnus David Lowe (aka Touch and Go, as in 'Would You Like To Go To Bed With Me?'). Lowe made an ambient Enigma-style album for island offshoot Mango a couple of years ago under the Dreamcatcher name, and someone had the bright idea of arranging it for dance. Whoever decided Lowe, like his Pet Shop Boy namesake equipped with two keyboards and an interesting taste in shirts, should stand at the side of the stage very obviously playing nothing and looking faintly embarrassed about the whole thing did him and the dancers no favours, but the arrangements for dance were excellent and even I, who usually finds dance about as interesting as paint drying, was transfixed by some of the routines. If the same person also decided the show should be just half an hour, then they fully redeemed themselves, as this was just the right length to explore ideas and dance forms without anything seeming forced or repetitive. The ensemble gave a curtain call rather than an encore, again a wise choice, and faced with either a half hour wait for the usually charmless Susanne Vega or getting off home with the memory of the dancers in my brain, I opted for the latter and left for home feeling content that I had done myself and the event justice. However, the very lasting image, despite the myriad of flags still blowing across the site as we left, was the stench of the unemptied toilets. See you there next year!
(With thanks to Jules @ The Point & Steph Pegg @ WOMAD)
Further infos available at: Womad Reading homepage
Photo Credit: All Photos press photos (taken from the Womad homepage, exept the photo of Yungchen Lhamo: press photo by Andrew Catlin)
(1) Telek, (2) Savina Yannatou, (3) MoMo, (4) Rizwan Muzzam, (5) Barbara Luna, (6) Spaccanapoli, (7) Corey Harris, (8) Yungchen Lhamo
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