Womad 2014 review: spectacular, sundrenched and sold-out

With a standout performance from Fat Freddy’s Drop, it was the sounds of ska, reggae, brass and blues that, despite the heat, had the crowds dancing relentlessly

As a heatwave hit Charlton Park in Wiltshire, with a record full-capacity audience of 40,000, Womad festival was busy and hot. But in the end this only added to what was a spectacular and memorable celebration of world music.

Some acts were so well suited to the sunshine in fact, that it was like they’d ordered it. Catalan ska band Muyayo Rif gave a furiously fun performance on Saturday. Their charismatic lead singer confessed he was terrible at speaking English but he had no problem convincing everyone – from tiny children right up to the borderline elderly – to skank along. Afrobeat collective Yaaba Funk then drew such a large crowd to the small BBC 3 Charlie Gillet stage for their sweltering, energetic, early evening set that the audience was spilling into the food and stall areas.

The crowd-pleasing crown was stolen however, by the reggae soul seven piece Fat Freddy’s Drop, whose reputation proceeded them as thousands packed into the Siam tent. The crowd, itching to go, were excruciatingly teased as the band played an incredibly long intro to their first song. By the time it kicked in, the audience was eating out of their hands. The star of the show was the band’s trombonist, Joe Lindsay, whose neon leggings became almost transparent in the glare of the lights and left the back half of the tent wondering if the guy with perhaps the best dance moves of the whole festival was in fact naked.

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Friday night had shown no exception to the quality uptempo music either as one of the highlights, Goran Bregovic and his Wedding and Funeral Orchestra – a Balkan brass band led by a former punk – took to the main stage shouting “If you don’t go crazy, you’re not normal!”

Sunday however, started more peacefully with famed valiha player, Justin Vali and Ny Malagasy Orkestra from Madagascar. The relaxed atmosphere was boosted by promising talent Maz O’Connor’s beautiful folk set, before being punctured by an uncomfortable moment when she introduced Barcelona, a song based on the story of a friend who, when travelling in Spain, got lost and ended up stealing the bike of the passerby who stopped to help him. Unperturbed by the awkward silence that followed, O’Connor soon won the audience with her gorgeous vocals. Having been awarded a creative fellowship with the English Folk Dance and Song Society at London’s Cecil Sharp House, she mixed in some captivating versions of traditional songs among her own originals and proved why folk award nominations are flowing her way.

“Sawhney’s ensemble showed such skill and precision that I was spellbound and left wanting more as they walked off stage”

The pace picked up once again in the form of eight-piece Scottish jig masters The Chair, and the display of musical talent was only set to increase as Sunday’s line-up reached its climax. Nitin Sawhney OneZero was the manifestation of a recent live album of the same name that was cut straight to vinyl and saw a full live band explore Sawhney’s back catalogue of jazz, pop, soul and Indian-influenced tracks. But they took a while to win me over. It wasn’t until the percussionist Aref Durvesh broke one of his tabla drums in a storming rendition of The Conference that the polished act loosened up. Then I really began to understand the hype, and in fact, the whole latter half of the set was pure magic. From the goose bump-inducing vocals of Nicki Wells, to the graceful flute of Ashwin Srinivasan, Sawhney’s ensemble showed such skill and precision that I was spellbound and left wanting more as they walked off stage.

But any feeling of being shortchanged was soon forgotten as the smiliest act of the weekend, Songhoy Blues, took to the Ecotricity in the Arboretum stage. Their grins and rhythmic desert blues were so catching that when they finished their set – even as the their equipment was fully removed from the stage and the stage compare pleaded for the audience’s attention – the cheers for more were relentless.

Far too soon, headliner Sinead O’Connor had sung her last note, and Public Service Broadcasting were closing the festival triumphantly with their sample-ridden post-rock. The words of singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams, who had played beautifully on Saturday evening among the trees of the arboretum, came back to me: “At the end of the festival you really start to think that this could be your life and that this is where you can really be your true self. Then your alarm goes off on Monday morning and it’s all over.” I knew exactly what she meant.

Editor’s pick: Cathrin Finch & Seckou Keita

Wiltshire became the meeting point for Welsh folk and West African tradition on Friday as Cathrin Finch & Seckou Keita closed the evening in the Siam tent. Watching Keita pluck at the galloping strings of his kora as Finch’s hands cascaded across her harp was mesmerising. They connected with an ease that defied the geography between their homelands – but it turns out that traditional Welsh music has similar structures as the Mandinka music of Senegal.

Like a gentle but vibrant cross-cultural conversation between long lost relatives, their set beautifully encapsulated the Womad spirit. And it all got quite dreamy as I saw a large moth fly into the beam of the spotlight around the crest of Finch’s harp before landing for a moment on Keita’s knee. A lush, intricate and hypnotic soundscape of folk, world and classical music, it was like a celtic fairy tale merging with an African proverb. The pair completely absorbed the audience in their soothing Womad lullaby. Seán Dagan Wood