Review: WOMAD 2012

As much of the country settled down to watch the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July, a completely different world event had swung into action at Charlton Park in Wiltshire

As much of the country settled down to watch the Olympic opening ceremony on 27 July, a completely different world event had swung into action at Charlton Park in Wiltshire.

Like the Olympics, WOMAD festival (World of Music, Arts and Dance) wasn’t short on flags – it’s signature feature of décor – and celebrating its 30th anniversary, the mood was particularly festive among the audience of 35,000.

With names such as Robert Plant on the bill, musical highlights were in abundance, but the best were to be discovered beyond the headline acts. My attention was caught on Friday by Brazilian DJ Maga Bo’s blend of latin sounds, dubstep and jazz, and the self-proclaimed “ethnic chaos” of Finnish accordion player Kimmo Pohjonen in collaboration with percussionist Juuso Hannukainen and Ukrainian female vocal trio DakhaBrakha.

Saturday saw Portico Quartet create a hypnotic musical spectacle as the former buskers continue to defy genre. Later, the lively and political BBB (formerly Balkan Beat Box) got an eager main stage crowd dancing in the sunshine to their gypsy punk music.

An act from closer to home, Breabach were typical of what was on offer on the BBC Radio 3 stage nestled in Charlton Park’s arboretum, with their gorgeous Scottish folk music ebbing among the trees and fairy lights.

On Sunday, an inspiring collaboration marked one of the best performances of the weekend. Guinean kora player Seckou Kouyate, wearing a West African robe, and American beatboxer Joe Driscoll, sporting a crew haircut and a basketball vest, might seem an unlikely duo. More so when you learn that they don’t share a common language.

But Kouyate’s effects-laden kora playing was like nothing I’ve heard before, and found a perfect meeting point with the infectious energy of Driscoll’s vocals and acoustic guitar. As they danced, laughed and jammed their way through the set it was clear that they do “communicate through music” as Driscoll told the crowd.

Seko Kouyate’s effects-laden kora playing was like nothing I’ve heard before

Also crossing musical borders, DJ Yoda was joined by the colourful and eccentric 13-piece Trans-Siberian Marching Band, who added live horns to his super-danceable record collection. Together they mashed up everything from Dire Straits to the Inspector Gadget theme tune.

The show was stolen however, by a captivating performance from The Manganiyar Seduction. With a stage design inspired by India’s honeycomb-structured Hawa Mahal building and Amsterdam’s red light district, around 40 Indian musicians sat in cubicles stacked on top of each other four-storeys high, with the director Roysten Abel facing them below. Each box had red curtains and was framed by lightbulbs, which lit up when the performer joined in the piece of music.

As more of the boxes illuminated, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end as the devotional voices, emotive instruments, and the incredibly skilled percussionists built up to the final crescendo. The lights glowed in unison and I was well and truly seduced.

Choosing what to eat proved more difficult than which bands to see. The bazaar of shops, stalls, holistic treatments and workshops could easily tempt festival-goers away from the stages. There was also a children’s area, which was a hive of activity in preparation for the Sunday evening procession, while others chose to spend their weekend indulging in the spa, watching short films in mini-cinemas constructed in shipping containers, or tasting delicacies cooked up by musicians on the Taste the World stage.

As midnight struck on Sunday and a surge of applause rose in the arboretum for Danish folk group Habadekuk, who had just jigged and reeled and polkad their set to a close, I felt like Cinderella – more than a little bereft about heading back to ‘reality’ at the end of my first ever WOMAD.

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