I am gladly taking the risk of saying that WOMAD has to be the best Music Festival in Britain. This year, a record-breaking total of around 40 thousand people got together to celebrate music and dance from around the world. This has also to be the most truly multi-cultural party in the planet. People from all ages, races, nationalities, political and religious beliefs, abilities and even readers of different newspapers could be found there under the blessing of a sunny weekend. Well, someone has pointed out that I am might be exaggerating about this last part on readers of different newspapers. But I will carry on taking this risk anyway.
In line with the festival spirit, the scorching hot weather was relieved by a quick tropical shower on Friday evening, completing the event with a full rainbow that could be seen from the camping area. The eclectic line up of musicians, together with exhibitions, workshops, poetry and just spontaneous improvisation from the public, provided plenty of excitement and inspiration.
In a rich festival, such as WOMAD, each person has the opportunity to choose any type of experience to take home. It is all a matter of mixing and matching all that is on offer. Some would choose the bubbling and energetic vibe of the Arena, with gigs from all over the world. Others would prefer the cool, calm and collected atmosphere of the Arboretum with its poetry stand ups, woodwinds and kora workshops. There are also those who would want to experience everything. I am one of those wanting the impossible. I spent the 3 days figuring out a way to split into 3. I also thought about finding a time machine that could take me back to each day over and over again until I was sure that I had not missed on anything.
I never found this time machine, as you should have guessed by now. As such, I regret missing the performances of so many unique artists. However, my experience this year was still personally enriching. Meeting Clinton Fearon for an interview was a great highlight. Clinton, who is one of the most respected reggae musicians, came across as an open, giving and humble man. He talked about the theme behind his new album “Goodness” and shared all his positive life philosophy with us. I also had the opportunity to watch the performance of “The Good Ones”, a group formed by survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda. They had never left their county until their performance in WOMAD, nevertheless their engagement with the audience was instantaneous. Their songs have a truly special quality, with a vocal narrative that is honest and direct.
Siyaya, the pan-african drum-and-dance troupe from Zimbabwe, bedazzled the audience during both their public performance and dance workshop. The same enchantment was ministered by the WOMAD’s veteran Batch Gueye. The Senagalese singer, with his warm and honeyed voice, taught a gathering of revellers some songs and dance. And boy! Believe me! Everyone worked really hard to learn the moves, despite of the sauna temperature inside the “All singing and dancing” tent.
Meanwhile, under the cooler shade of the Arboretum, people were learning the Kora, the West African harp made from a large calabash. This reminds me about the performance of the Welsh harpist Catrin Finch and the Senegalese Kora player Seckou Keita. Their cross-cultural collaboration is absolutely beautiful and almost eye-watering.
Back to the equally ethnic, hectic and eclectic Arena, I accidentally and very fortunately ended up listening to Manu Dibango, the sax-blowing godfather of African groove. I can’t believe that he is in his 80’s, but is his age relevant at all? His vitality was just contagious. With a natural charisma, he was a joy to photograph from the pit.
“This song is about Africa. But not the Africa that is shown here.
It is about a positive Africa of no poverty, no war, no aids, but a rich Africa:
an Africa that we all want to move forwards. ” (Youssou N’Dour)
On Saturday night, we had the acclaimed Youssou N’Dour. With a band of exceptional artists, N’Dour drove the crowd into a cathartic state. For the first time, I came to notice how his top of the charts song “Seven Seconds Away” is so beautiful and entrancing. His words on introducing a song about Africa were unforgettable: “This song is about Africa. But not the Africa that is shown here. It is about a positive Africa of no poverty, no war, no aids, but a rich Africa: an Africa that we all want to move forwards. ”
On Sunday, I came to discover the witty Gruff Rhys. His new album American Interior, documents the journey of a Welsh Explorer across the heart of a unmapped American continent of the late 18th century, in search for a Welsh-speaking tribe. It is a very imaginative work adorned by the well-known deep Welsh poetic style. In contrast, the Trinidadian band, Kobo Town, offered the revellers with a catching mix of calypso and Dub poetry.
After experiencing so much positivity, I decided to skip the performance of Sinead O’Connor. At first, I thought that O’Connor style was very dissonant from what I considered World Music. I was also worried about stepping over that fine line between celebrating artistic brilliance and just celebrating “Celebrity”. But I could not have been more wrong. I should have been more open-minded. After seeing the pictures that were so sensitively taken by Dylan Garcia, I realized that I had missed another great experience. Dylan had managed to capture strong and deep expressions from the singer. They are expressions that can only be produced by real emotions. Sinead O’Connor might be playing a different tune from all the other artists at WOMAD, but her ethos and passion are the same.
At the end of the Festival, I felt almost like apologizing to every artist for not having paid homage to their live performances. But I will keep searching for that time machine.