AS the sun beats down on a lazy Sunday afternoon in the green baize of the Wiltshire countryside a troupe of Pakistani devotional singers, strikingly draped in silky orange stage costumes, marches in unison from an open-air arena where they have just performed a heartfelt set of choral, call-and-response pieces.
All ten members of the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali group, whose rootsy Asian music harks back 700 years, quickly arrive at their destination and form an orderly, good humoured queue. They are clearly relishing the prospect of something… but what?
Are they paying homage at a Sufi shrine perhaps temporarily erected in deference to the origins of their traditional qawwali music? Maybe they are about to be congratulated by a high ranking community or religious leader. Not a bit of it… they are patiently lining up for a tasty helping of traditional English fish and chips – presumably with lashings of salt and vinegar and a dollop of tomato sauce on the side.
They have travelled 4,000 miles to appear at WOMAD (World Of Music, Arts and Dance)… and what better way to celebrate a finely-honed, well received set in front of several thousand appreciative world music fans than with some exotic British grub.
Sitting outside a tented bar opposite the fish and chip trailer I can’t help grinning; in many ways this merging and mashing of cultures – Far Eastern spiritual music swiftly followed by a plastic plate of chunky chips and battered cod – nicely sums up WOMAD.
For four days every July, a global village materialises in the expansive backyard of the Earl of Suffolk’s ancestral pile – just under 20 miles from Swindon – when around 30,000 people heartily embrace a heady and colourful cocktail of international music, dance, art, culture, food, crafts and costume.
Launched by a posse of globally-minded musos and culture buffs, while headed-up over the decades by Peter Gabriel, the venture’s ethos has remained virtually unchanged since it all began at the Royal Bath and West Showground in Somerset 32 years ago.
I have a double LP released in 1982 (see panel) to raise funds for the first WOMAD festival where the liner notes outline its mission to draw “wider public attention to traditional and contemporary arts of non-western cultures as practiced in this country and throughout the world.” Performances by artists from far flung corners and varying climes would be presented alongside a programme of “cultural exhibitions, lectures, films, workshops and a large market fair of arts, crafts and foods from around the world.”
That’s right, it’s hardly changed at all.
True global heavyweights have hit WOMAD in recent years: Jimmy Cliff, Robert Plant, Booker T Jones, Arrested Development, the Afro Celt Sound System... but it’s the unusual, often tongue twistingly unpronounceable acts (Ipercussonici, Habedekuk, Schlachthofbronx anyone?*) that often catch the ear and the eye.
The more knowledgeable world music enthusiasts among us are able to plan their festival with military precision well in advance, knowing precisely what stage (there are several) to see which bands at what time on which day.
On occasions, admittedly, such crucial decisions have to be made: The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, for instance, seemed sure to secure my patronage on one occasion at the Big Red Tent. Who wouldn’t fancy an oriental take on one of the world’s dizziest musical genres? Sounds like a heap of fun.
But wait… bagpipes, whistles and fiddles… I am being summonsed, Pied Piper-like, to the Open Air Stage by a bunch of unruly, be-kilted, thoroughly untrustworthy Scots, The Peatbog Faeries.
Australia’s The Barons of Tang… a ripping amalgam of punk, gypsy, rockabilly, tango and thrash, it says in the programme. Must see them at the Charlie Gillett Stage. Dearie me, they clash with cool, sassy bluesman Keb Mo who is, you can’t possibly deny, unmissable at the Siam Tent.
There is something to be said, however, for simply traipsing around, collapsible chair and canvas bag of tinnies trailing in your wake, in the usually fulfilled hope of stumbling across music of an arresting, beguiling, occasionally mystifying nature that you had no idea even existed...
Such as The Dhols of Jaipur, 40 brash, clattering and indefatigable street drummers from India’s pink city; or the other-worldly, exquisitely-attired women of Ayarkhaan dedicated to preserving the icy, trance-like, traditional sounds of the Siberian Arctic.
And what is this rousing, compelling yet utterly unfamiliar Eastern noise I happen upon at 30 minutes past the midnight hour one Saturday morning?
It is Hanggai, a surly crew of punky, Chinese throat-singers who are laying waste to the Siam Tent with their galloping metallic versions of traditional Mongolian folk songs.
Surprises like this abound at WOMAD. A fool for a spot of Cajun, I make my way to the Charlie Gillett Stage where my ears tell me some gnarled and no doubt moss covered Louisiana veterans – all the way from the Bayou – are in full swing.
Mama Rosin know their musical gumbo alright – but they turn out to be clean cut Swiss kids from the land of chocolate and cuckoo clocks. Probably never seen a ‘gator in their lives.
*Trance and electronica from Sicily, high energy Danish folk and bass-heavy Bavarian rhythm merchants, in case you were wondering.
Lager aficionado Ben Szulc prepares for some ‘naughty genres’ at WOMAD
- SOFTWARE engineer Ben Szulc, 52, is one of many Swindon world music enthusiasts who regularly attend WOMAD, relishing the prospect of that mustn’t miss, multi-faceted music that emerges every year from a swathe of tree-infested countryside 35 minutes or so down the road.
Says Ben: “I’ve been going to WOMAD for well over a decade. I have found that its musical genres have surreptitiously charmed themselves into my psyche. Oh you naughty genres!
“To have this quality and quantity of fine music virtually on your doorstep for three and-a-bit days each year is a blessing. Other festivals tend to get very samey but WOMAD never fails to pack surprises with its eclectic line-ups.
“I’ve yet to see a performer at WOMAD who isn’t technically at the top of his/her game. Even if you don’t connect with the particular style, you have to admit that they are proficient, and if it isn’t to your liking, well, there’s another tent with another line-up just around the corner.
“In fact there’s several to choose from, which sometimes is a pain because you want it all, and you have to make some tough choices about which you are going to sacrifice.
“While the title World Music might conjure images of Patagonian nose flautists (please not another pan pipe), don’t think ethnic, think non-Stock, Aitken and Waterman.
“If you’re looking for the predictable, commercial and formulaic, WOMAD is not for you… go to Radio (please patronise me, I don’t know what to think) One.
Ben’s favourite WOMAD moment?
“There was a band I once saw, when Eddie Grant (I Don’t Wanna Dance) was on the main stage. I saw this Balkan band instead. Literally, I could not stop dancing.”
Ben temporarily mislaid the name of the said Balkan beatmeisters… which turned out to be a rowdy crew led by German DJ/producer Shantel, whose gypsy brass-driven Disko Partizani – “My baby came down from Romania/She was the Queen of Transylvania/But now we live in suburbia” – can be enjoyed on YouTube.
- SWINDON made its own contribution – via XTC – to the success of WOMAD when the nascent venture was making its tentative steps towards becoming an event of stature.
To help fund the first festival at the Royal Bath and West Showground, Shepton Mallett in July, 1982, a double album of ethnic-related or inclined music was issued.
A track by the Swindon quartet entitled It’s Nearly Africa – ironically from their album English Settlement – was chosen for the Music and Rhythm LP to whet a few appetites and raise a few quids.
Of XTC’s offering, the liner notes say: “Here the marimba and African percussion instruments create an eerie and assured rhythmic mood, with a typically amused lyric from Andy Partridge.”
Also present to represent the “countless musical traditions which thrive everywhere over the populated world” is music from Talking Head’s David Byrne, Jamaican trombonist Rico, Pakistan’s masterly Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Burundi’s Drums of Makebuko, calypso king Mighty Sparrow and “acoustic landscape painter” Holger Czukay of German experimentalists Can.
- RICHARD Thompson, Kathryn Williams, Youssou N’Dour, Sinead O’Connor and Salif Keita (performing with Les Ambassadeurs) are among nearly 100 acts at the four-day 2014 festival which starts at Charlton Park near Malmesbury tomorrow night. Further information and ticket prices are available at 0118-960-6060 or online at: www.womad.co.uk.