Womad; that allegedly difficult follow-up

My previous blog was mid-stumble around the essences and indeed challenges of a Womad Festival experience. In it, I have tried to say something about both the fascination and the concern I have regarding how the music was – and is – performed and received.

For example I personally found Baaba Maal’s Saturday night headlining gig relatively dull. But I freely accept that this was in part due to choosing to waft around the perimeter of the crowd where the degree of engagement from all parties was decidedly lower than say ten yards from centrestage. Also, Baaba Maal chose to play what I imagine he hoped was a thought-provoking, dignified, suitably atmospheric set. There was a fair lump of acoustic strumming and relatively little dancing action from his generally flamboyant cohorts. I absolutely respect the choices he made but feel that relatively few punters really connected.

Earlier I had wandered into the leafy space that was and always is the location for the BBC 3 Stage. It’s intimate in the sense that it’s pretty much wrapped in trees and therefore the natural capacity is maybe 300. Most folks are sitting down in the balmy heat. In truth I had found myself there slightly against my instincts, being sure that some middle-aged Moroccan geezer with tricksier young’uns called the MoRoccan Rollers was likely to be a let-down, given the dodgy name and all. But Hassan Erraji was delightful; the band playing in a decidedly joyous groove that insinuated its way through the gathering. We all found ourselves smiling: some danced. It was consistently, appropriately, effortlessly gorgeous and understood: one of the quiet gems that Womad, year on year, does place quietly in your palm with a knowing wink and perhaps a “ssshh”.

Did Hassan know something special or expertly/knowingly deliver something special? Does he keep on doing that? What was really the making of that experience?

I ask these obtuse questions

  1. As a music lover (honest)
  2. As one, therefore, who actively wants to like that which presents itself
  3. As one who believes in goodness and heart shining through
  4. As one who will not tolerate indulgences.

AnDa Union – a Mongolian/Chinese troupe of singers, dancers and players had just started as I approached left of stage about 1-ish Saturday pm. From the first moment there was something extraordinary and yes moving about what held me/I hope us. It was majestic without the ostentation, it was swirling warmly like an exotic spice. Principally it was the sound of what I am prepared in my ignorance to describe as Chinese cello’s, beautifully milked by hands – apparently softly cupped hands – drawing bows easily across horsehair strings. In a truly memorable minute or ten, an immaculate female vocalist, arms outstretched expressively, absolutely nailed some unknown classic. I like to use and enjoy using the word sensational. These moments were sensational.

Donso I found by accident, during one of many wanders around the circuit of 5 principal stages. They had something, something understandably associated in the programme with Malian techno-traditionalists(!) They brought us an old/new, fluid, unforced French/African groove. They were maybe under-supported I felt – or rather their gently shimmering colours were fit for and worthy of a higher, dancier billing. (But nobody knows them).

The events I have singled out were truly diverse in nature; I did not go seeking a particular niche or for re-affirmation of some musical loyalty. I just went with faculties generally switched on, prepared to do enough de-construction of my discoveries to more fully appreciate those I chose (somehow) to believe in, and dance to. And maybe, as a friend said in another, loftier intellectual context, to ask questions – always to ask questions. I hope to have a relaxed view of any need for conclusions.

Come the Sunday night it felt like what the festival had slightly lacked for me was some good old-fashioned NRG. Dub Pistols were an honourable exception to this, so I guess I’m referring to bill-toppers; and I confess to being unhelpful in the generality of this assertion. The phrase this is how it felt – which I now intend to apply – suggesting a fair degree of bias/insight/unreliable but well-meaning judgement that I do not expect to fully vindicate nor intend to, is maybe not as loose as it may sound. This is how it felt.

It felt amazing and exciting, perhaps for the first time exciting, when Gogol Bordello launched into the first twenty minutes of their set. They were on it bigtime. Spunky, brassy, cool, noisy, raw and even from some distance – I checked – awesome and affecting. As soon as that magnificent tide turned in their set, I drove the family home to Wales.

But a last rider. Many things were great, as always, with Womad. However, apart from those briefly noted above, and in the previous blog, it may be that the real jewel (for me!) was being intimately exposed to the film animations of David Shrigley and William Kentridge. That these were shown in shipping containers by-passed unawares by many may, on reflection, be a matter of regret. I for one will be following up on this discovery.

Womaddening or… or gladdening?

Look I’m decidedly post Womad. By that I mean that my head is kindof woolly, my feet ache and there’s that run-down bad-breathy feeling going on in me throat. Not good. So lock oneself away, maybe find a piece of Kendal’s Mint Cake – yup, sorted! – and unwind those tired (pre)tensions and racy uncertainties. About individual bands/the nature of performing to largish bundles of folk. Mm. Because I’m medium vexed or maybe just fascinated by certain notions this whole festival thing has cast; shadows over the undoubted sunshine.

But lest you worry, sagacious reader, that I may be veering in blissful ignorance towards Grumpy Ole Gitsville, like some ancient vicar at the helm of a Morris Traveller, let’s start with the joys, the highlights I personally encountered. And there were several, which I will recount in a meaningless but instinctive order reflecting either something very profound, or something like partial memory loss.

  1. El Tanbura (Egypt)
  2. Dub Pistols (UK)
  3. Hassan Erraji’s MoRocan Rollers (Morocco/UK)
  4. Anda union (Mongolia/China)
  5. some of Donso (Mali/France)
  6. Anda Union (cooking and playing)
  7. Gogol Bordello (USA)
  8. Giving Soul – film animation.

All these offered something special… and there is no doubt I missed plenty of unmissable stuff too. Like your favourites?

I cannot, however, proceed any further without briefly alluding to the context of my Womad experience, as the presence of my own nuclear family – kids aged 12 and 8 – plus former longish term Tanzania resident (known out of earshot as The Wife) inevitably enriched/compromised said experience both qualitatively and in terms of consumption.

I watched a fair bit of stuff with an 8 year old girl bopping either enthusiastically or limply upon my shoulders. I watched some stuff drifting stealthily through the comatose flanks, from beneath cooling trees, or ideally placed by the sound men – whom I may have pretended to oversee, authoritatively. I could not, in other words, smash down tequila pops and then MASH IT UP with either Dub Pistols or Gogol Bordello – both of whom I saw and enjoyed in a regrettably rather mature fashion. But this is, I contend, the nature of the festival scene, often its strength; being exposed to the colours of the thing as a group.

Which brings me to El Tanbura. Friday, 3pm, on the open air stage. Classic Womad, being billed as the “Musical elders with the soundtrack of a revolution”; being welcomed with well-earned R.E.S.P.E.C.T. from us Guardian/Indie and crucially, Womad Festival Programme reading masses. Being a quietly acquired joy, engaging and truly worth our attention. Being probably absolutely what a festival of this nature is all about – music as conscience as well as toe-tapping opiate. Respect and even that pinko-tinged but genuine feeling of brotherhood was unmistakeably in the air for the soundtrackers of Tahrir Square. What have they seen, compared to us, in their recent past! If I could I would bless them.

The programme then drew a lump of us over to watch Taraf de Haidouks – “the true Gypsy kings”. But they were apparently playing at the wrong speed and their trebly, virtuouso shrillness was not, alas, for me. Similar but different were The Boxettes, an “all-female beatboxing quartet”, who were intermittently striking but I felt not well served by indifferent sound. Their extraordinary vocal bass notwithstanding, it felt like a gig that wasn’t working. I needed a break and food.

Dub Pistols brought the street-wise energy and mosh-pit testosterone levels right up, being the “renegade furistic skank” artists the label described. Those of us influenced and indebted to Two Tone and punk enthusiastically re-stepped the skankified ground of the Specials with these spiky geezers, these lads. It was a show fit to headline and close the night… and when we walked out of the darkening Big Red Tent it seemed frankly weird that having seen all this, it was only 8.20 pm.

So I prob’ly didn’t need or much want anymore. Not that same Friday night. Consequently either I failed to engage with Alpha Blondy, or he failed to engage with me.

There was, by this time, already the feeling that too many “How you doin’ Womad’s?”/elongated introductions to band members/laboured calls for audience ‘participation’ etc. etc might be undermining the truth of things. I’m not looking for a particularly purist entertainment folks, don’t get me wrong. But is it just me or is there something of an issue with global musical awareness – amongst artists(?) – inevitably leading to fusionization of individual musics? So nearly every major African headlining act gets a western-sounding Les Paul wielding axeman for those suddenly necessary breaks. And you have to have appropriate stagecraft. And get the audience to sing something back at you. Are these the inevitable consequence of time/familiarity/knowledge/the need to entertain large numbers of folks all at the same time?

I’m afraid I’ve gotten a tad distracted with this one… but is festival fever (surely an interesting social phenomenan in its own right?) complicit in the bastardization or undermining of real world music whilst at the same time bringing it, wonderfully, to a wider, newer audience?

Can I leave you to think about that one whilst I put on the metaphorical kettle, returning later with hopefully a stress-freer review of some of my own real highlights. Of which there were several.