All the world's a stage


THE PROGRAMME might have mentioned Womad's 10th anniversary at Rivermead on every other line, but there was little, if any, evidence of self-congratulatory celebration last weekend. Not that it mattered: the sun shone, the vibes were as mellow as ever and 50 artists from 30 countries on seven stages provided the quality cultural smorgasbord expected.

From the ethnographically pure to the quirky and the cutting edge, a spirit of adventure prevailed. Dancing Tibetan monks and ululating Tuvan throat singers delighted the purists; contortionists, Ukrainian swordsmen and, er, John Otway played the Cabaret Room. Pedro, a South African-based Spanish flautist, made a garden water pipe sound like a worthy addition to the BBC Concert Orchestra's wind section.

Indeed, the debut appearance of the Beeb's finest classical musicians kept Womad's penchant for collaboration in mind, their lush concertos with Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota, Chinese bamboo flautist Guo Yue and gifted Australian guitarist Slava Grigoryan more than justifying another Womad precedent - a 90-minute soundcheck.

No one seemed unduly concerned that scheduling problems on the Friday meant Angolan singer/guitarist Waldemar Bastos was replaced on the main stage by the soft rock and traditional songs of Polynesian troupe Te Vaka. (Still, it was a pity that many missed Bastos's storming, unbilled set on a smaller platform the following day.) Womad staples The Afro Celt Sound System demonstrated some savvy self-promotion by unleashing a torrent of logo-ed frisbees that would later prove handy for sitting on; legendary sight-impaired gospel singers The Blind Boys of Alabama played on Womad's famously liberal sensibilities by exhorting all to their feet with a "Stand up! We can't see you!". One of the weekend's indisputable highlights was London's Bollywood Band who, despite reeling under the weight of tubas and Indian dhol drums, turned out to be a Jack-in-the-Box-like bundle of 11 cavorting musicians intent on blasting the genre into the 21st century. With the heat necessitating frequent retuning of brass, Bollywood member Johnny Kalsi - whose guest turns with the Afro Celts steal the show - performed a pared-down but incendiary version of his thunderous percussive group Dhol Foundation. Both are names to watch.

Other highlights included the "psycho-tropical funk meets neurotic cumbia" of Colombian eight-piece Bloque, signed - like Waldemar Bastos - to David Byrne's Luaka Bop label, and the ringing guitar sounds of 67-year-old Jamaican legend Ernest Ranglin and his African big band. In the Day-Glo run riot interior of the Siam Tent, Australia's inventive Bangarra Dance Theatre recalled the Aboriginal dreamtime; the furious energy of Asian Dub Foundation fired up a younger crowd en route to Whirl-Y-Gig's global beats and urban techno-folk.

Some of the Rizwan-Muzzaum Qawwali Group are nephews of the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahn, famed for his successful dabblings with Western musicians. Unfortunately, their under-rehearsed collaboration with noisy London-based Asian radicals FunMental, managed to be both spiritually uplifting and comical, with the latter's Aki Nawaz and Dave Watts transforming into Rick Wakeman and Bez respectively. The eventual onslaught of FunMental's hackneyed agitprop ("We're political, fanatical mad terrorists," said Nawaz, perhaps ironically) sent many scurrying off to the main stage and the safety of klezmer band Brave Old World.

Featuring Malian singer and ngoni (West African) player Tom Daikite, Londoner Sam Mills and Djanuno Dabo of Guinea Bissau, Real World signings Tama offered a pleasant take on West African/European fusion; the ever reliable if predictable Billy Bragg peppered his banter between Woody Guthrie songs with mildly amusing references to his backstage-toilet feud with the Manic Street Preachers. Femi Kuti and his band The Positive Force, combined funk-led Afrobeat with an all-singing, all-dancing stage spectacle that - in the same way he'd closed proceedings in 1990 - was a fitting round off to 10 years of Womad Reading.

There were no fireworks, no surprise megastar appearances and no speeches by Peter Gabriel. With Womad's reputation being its own best advertisement, there obviously seemed no need to make a song and dance about it.

Jane Cornwell

(Highlights from Womad will be brodcast on Radio 3, 10pm until midnight tonight)

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