WOMAD Festival 2014 review

'The friendliest and most open event anyone could wish to attend'

WOMAD Festival 2014 review

Dan Davies on 29 July 2014

Since its creation by the prog-rock primate playing Peter Gabriel, it's often wrongly assumed that WOMAD Festival’s rosta follows similar narrowly defined white lines. In fact, it can be the friendliest and most open event anyone could wish to attend. This mix of goodwill, genuine enthusiasm and passion spills from the organisers down to the artists and audience.

WOMAD is unique as it brings the world to the festival goer - artists and bands from 42 different countries played at this year’s sold-out festival, the first time WOMAD has sold out since the event moved from its Reading site in 2007. Musicians are given the power to push beyond cultural and language barriers to really thrill and surprise onlookers. Often first-timers walk around this festival, discovering new, unheard of artists, leading them to say: "Why isn't this artist bigger than Beyoncé?"

One artist who could certainly out-booty Beyoncé would be Eno Williams from Ibibio Sound Machine (9). Williams gives a wonderful performance, embodying a female Fela Kuti with added dancehall attitude. Her guitarist, Alfred "Kari" Bannerman - who played many early WOMADs as part of Peter Gabriel’s band - adds extra rockstar cred and sheer dexterity to the eight-strong band. One other new discovery is Daka Brakha (10), a Ukrainian band distinguished by their tall hats, akin to Horse Guards’ Busbys. Although their dress might be traditional, their sound certainly isn’t. During their Siam Tent set there’s a rapping cellist, touches of techno and a guitarist who could stand in for Jonzi from Sigur Ros.

The BBC Radio 3 Stage moved from the Arboretum into the main arena this year, and continues to champion interesting artists. From the trip-hop folk of the Welsh singing 9Bach (9) through to Amira Kheir (8), a Sudanese-Italian artist whose opening song sounds like 'Thali'. An unfortunate reminder to rumbling stomachs, because the voluntary run Madras Cafe next door don’t start serving their unbeatable thalis until after 12:30pm.

There are headliners of course. New Zealand’s Fat Freddy’s Drop (7) swing by as part of the UK summer festival tour and work the audience with their irresistible dub tracks with sweet soulful vocals. The legendary Richard Thompson (8) at his ripe age continues to prove himself more adept than ever with one acoustic guitar - although it sounds like three. And Sinead O’ Connor’s (7) voice remains as clear as cut glass and she’s still fighting (well, boxing) fit, dedicating her set to the late Bobby Womack who had been booked to headline the festival.

On an equal billing are world music superstars such as Mulatu Astatke (7) whose Ethiopian vibraphone Jazz is continually referenced and sampled as pointed out by his version of "Yègellé Tezeta" which enters into Nas and Damian Marley’s version. The divine Mali diva Fatoumata Diawara teamed up with Havana pianist Roberto Fonseca and the combination of exquisite voice and deft Latino groove is another winner (8). And Songhoy Blues (9) the biggest thrill of Africa Express have a mournful indie quality made all the more poignant when reacting to real conflict in Timbuktu rather than the usual British bedsit blues.

Another main attraction this year is the addition of the Society of Sound Tent which uses a Bowers and Wilkins speaker system of Abbey Road studio fame. David Holmes (7) utilises the quadrophonic surround speakers to play rare Northern Soul records as crackling vinyl ricochets around the four banks on Friday. The next day, Peter Gabriel spends a morning talking about the importance of hi-fidelity but the sound is so smartly directional that from outside the tent it's virtually inaudible. Ashley Beedle (8) brings up the bottom end on Saturday with some disco and finger-pointing house. On Sunday, the real test of the system is when the stage is filled with old electronic equipment as The Radiophonic Workshop (8) bring their backroom boffin skills to the fore. The sound of many a geeky 1970's Beeb show are audibly panned to full effect and given a bit of pep by The Prodigy's former live drummer. Obviously, The Doctor Who theme wig-out finale is what everyone is waiting for.

Some of the best highlights this year were off the sun-beaten track in the Arboretum, sat appropriately under a tree by the solar-powered Ecotricity stage. Sans (8) music is mix of hypnotic Finnish mythological tales given a dramatic bite. Imed Alibi’s (9) percussive Tunisian beats make a sweltered hot audience dance with the kind of swirling arm gesturing movements that you only see at this festival. It’s here, as the smell of honeysuckle wafts from the trees and as Taste of Womad serves up another delightful dish concocted by the band playing on stage, it truly feels like you’re at the core of the festival.

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