The world descends on Wiltshire

This year's Womad will have the most eclectic line-up in its history, reports Tim Cumming

Womad 2008 has a lot to live up to as it enters its second quarter-century. In 2007, it moved to its current site at Charlton Park, a 17th-century pile in 4,500 idyllic acres near Malmesbury, Wiltshire.

More than 70 acts from 40 countries will pass through its gates for the three days of the festival. Everyone involved, from Womad founder Peter Gabriel to the festival crews, must be praying to the gods of global gatherings for no repeat of last summer's quagmire. "Not so much offering a taste of the world, but providing a glimpse of the end of it," grumbled one festival-goer. Others were critical of some obvious teething problems in the new site.

So getting it right for 2008 has been a priority. On the BBC's Points West news, Gabriel said they'd had to rethink everything. "We've got a bigger chunk of Charlton Park, and that will help a lot." They're on higher ground, too. "And I think we'll get better weather. It couldn't get any worse than last year, when it became Womud. And, musically, I think it's one of the best festivals ever."

Not everyone agrees; there's been sniping at what some see as mainstream pop. "Squeeze, Chic, Eddy Grant, Boy George... You did say you were going to Womad, not TOTP2?" someone posted on Charlie Gillett's web forum.

But world music is not only a roots music encompassing the traditional and indigenous. Traditions get bent and amalgamated as they clash with change, technology, and innovation. "Fusion" is not always a bad word.

Son de la Frontera combine Cuban tres guitar with flamenco and Moorish influences, to remarkable effect. Rachid Taha exerts a strong crossover appeal. You can find the drum'n'bass of Roni Size and Reprazent on street stalls in Morocco alongside Tinariwen or Toumani Diabaté. Why shouldn't a Guyanan pop singer like Eddy Grant play on a bill alongside Diabaté? Womad is not solely about cultural purity.

In April, it was reported that Womad's artistic programmer from its inception, Thomas Brooman, had stepped down. Programming was completed by Paula Henderson with Gabriel himself sending out the invitations. It may be coincidental, but Boy George was dropped not long afterwards – though Seventies disco band Chic remain. "They're playing on Friday night," affirms Gabriel. "Many people will remember their hits, but it's also got Nile Rodgers, who I worked with as a producer, and they're just great songs and an extraordinary group of musicians."

And there's plenty of variety elsewhere. "Not all the artists will appeal to everyone," Gabriel says, "but I challenge anyone to come and not find someone or something to inspire them."

Artists he highlights include the swampish Cambodian-West Coast psychedelia of Dengue Fever. "And on Sunday, we have the legendary Orchestra Baobab"; not only the full band on the main stage, but a stripped-down acoustic version playing the Radio 3 stage later in the day. "Orchestra Baobab were really well known and then people forgot about them. Now they're back in a more mature, reformed mode," Gabriel says.

There's also Adrian Sherwood teaming up with Lee "Scratch" Perry and blues player Little Axe on Thursday night. The Malian kora player Diabaté performs at dusk in the Siam Tent, and Sharon Shannon leads a ceilidh with the aid of Shane MacGowan and Damien Dempsey on Friday. "And on Saturday we have the wonderful Martha Wainwright," Gabriel says.

And there's Sufi Night. Beginning at 10.30pm on Saturday, a trio of performers including Sheikh Taha, the Egyptian Sufi singer, will take the audience in the Siam Tent deep into the early hours.

Sunday closes with the Afrobeat grooves of Seun Kuti fronting his father Fela's Egypt 80 orchestra. Kuti is coming into his own with a forthcoming debut album to mix in with a selection of his father's classics.

One busy artist will be guitarist and producer Justin Adams, performing in his Soul Science trio with Gambian griot Juldeh Camara and English percussionist Saleh Dawson Miller. He's also heading the closing gala and tutoring at the Womad summer school. One focus of his tutorials reflects the fan debates on the programme. "I'll be looking at the debates about modernity vs tradition and authenticity vs non-authenticity and innovation. I have opinions and experiences on those questions," Adams says. Eddy Grant and the Frontline Orchestra are on his to-see list. "He's a bit of a legend in my eyes, though people might think, 'God, that's not very authentic or obscure.'"

But if you want obscure, it's there, with a range of artists playing in the UK for the first time. There's Wasis Diop, the golden-voiced Senegalese singer, and Terakaft, a kind of Tuareg band.

When the music's over, there's always the World of Wellbeing (yoga, sushi, English tea) and a spa in which to relax, rest, get a massage or get your hair done. The Global Village houses a cornucopia of food, drink, merchandise and merchants, and the Fifties fairground pumps out rock'n'roll.

Like Gabriel, Adams points to the sheer variety of musical experiences at the festival. You don't have to visit the main stage at all. "The great thing about Womad is that, even after all these years and all the things I've seen, there's always a surprise or two, and something to really knock me off my feet. So I'm sure there'll be things I know nothing about, and it'll be great."

Womad takes place at Charlton Park, Malmesbury, Wiltshire from 25 to 27 July (www.womad.org).

As the official media partner for Womad, 'The Independent' and Womad are offering 15 per cent off the standard ticket price (£125) when ordering weekend tickets, plus entry in a draw for 25 pairs of tickets to attend an exclusive Dengue Fever concert at Real World Studios and Womad in Bath, hosted by Peter Gabriel.

To book your festival tickets and to receive the 15 per cent discount, visit www.womadshop.com/independent or call 0845 146 1755 quoting 'Independent Womad 15 per cent off weekend tickets offer'

FIVE TO WATCH AT WOMAD

RACHID TAHA
The Algerian-French rai-rocker recalls young Elvis in his rebellious charisma and wild dancing. You don't need to speak Arabic to hear the earthy rebellion in his growl, whether he's singing traditional Maghreb songs or reclaiming The Clash's attack on fundamentalist Islam as "Rock El Casbah".

TOUMANI DIABATE
Mali's kora master honed his skill for two decades before the virtuoso Mande Variations confirmed the instrument's breakthrough as a major instrument. The lightning improvisation in subsequent gigs showed the album was no accident. Diabaté's work with Taj Mahal, Damon Albarn and Björk confirms his questing spirit.

CHIC
Chic's influential bassist Bernard Edwards died in 1996, but surviving founder Nile Rodgers still owns the patent on New York disco with the accent on sinuous funk and fun. "Everybody Dance", "I Want Your Love", "Good Times" and "Le Chic" will be the inevitable crowd-pleasing highlights. Studio 54 in the West Country.

SUFI NIGHT
When the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan of Pakistan sang mesmerising devotional music through until dawn in 1985, it was one of the great Womad nights. This sequel sees Pakistani, Egyptian and Uzbek musicians draw together wider strains of Sufi Islam's mystic sounds. It's the sort of mind-expanding trip only Womad supplies.

EDDY GRANT
Saturday's headliner has more 1980s reggae anthems than you remember, including "Give Me Hope Jo'anna" and "Electric Avenue". His new secret weapon is the Frontline Orchestra, band of murdered South African star Lucky Dube.

Nick Hasted

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