When the world shrinks to the size of a field near Reading

The sun shone, Youssou N'Dour played and Rolf Harris wooed on his didgeridu. It must be Womad
Click to follow

Having built a reputation larger than most of the artists it features, Womad has become the festival for aficionados of that most unfairly maligned of genres, world music. As with previous years, the sun shone, tie-dye ruled, dancing was "creative" and five stages boasted predictably excellent, eclectic line-ups. What to see often depended on where you happened to be; "snacking" from the feast on offer being the best way to catch, variously, a display of Capoeira, veteran Congolese guitarist, Papa Noel, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group and, er, Midge Ure's songwriting workshop. All of which meant that for each packed crowd in front of the main stage, cheering on established names like Maceo Parker and Youssou N'Dour, there were smaller ones making their own discoveries.

Having built a reputation larger than most of the artists it features, Womad has become the festival for aficionados of that most unfairly maligned of genres, world music. As with previous years, the sun shone, tie-dye ruled, dancing was "creative" and five stages boasted predictably excellent, eclectic line-ups. What to see often depended on where you happened to be; "snacking" from the feast on offer being the best way to catch, variously, a display of Capoeira, veteran Congolese guitarist, Papa Noel, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group and, er, Midge Ure's songwriting workshop. All of which meant that for each packed crowd in front of the main stage, cheering on established names like Maceo Parker and Youssou N'Dour, there were smaller ones making their own discoveries.

Many of these were to be had in a strong antipodean contingent. Fruit, an all-female singer/songwriter outfit, flexed their (tattooed) muscle with dazzling vocal harmonies and a guitar-led sound that veered from Ella Fitzgerald-like jazz-phrasings to all-stops-out thrash-metal; songsmiths, Karma County delivered a refreshing, pared-down acoustic set on double bass, Hammond organ and slide guitar. Mara's restyled blend of Bulgarian, Greek, Turkish and Hungarian songs exemplified Australia's cultural melting pot: golden-voiced frontwoman, Mara Kiek, took audience participation to new heights by getting all to quack like ducks before joining in a Macedonian folk song.

The appearance of Rolf Harris indicated Womad's ever-expanding boundaries. Or, as a "family" festival, maybe he'd been programmed for the kids. Either way, his lame-but-hilarious comedy routines proved one of the biggest draws of the weekend, generating cries of "We love you, Rolf" and investing the wobble board with more kudos than it deserves. Backed by a didgeridu player, 70-year-old Harris rifled his back catalogue and sang of "mystic lands and aborigines", in marked contrast to aboriginal crooner, Jimmy Little, 63, who had "interpreted" ballads by the likes of Nick Cave, Roy Orbison and Elvis on the main stage two days before.

Also among the weekend's snacks was the redoubtable 50-year-old Czech gypsy diva, Vera Bila, who steered her distinctive Eastern European vocals between sorrowful laments and staccato knees-ups, and fiddle player and unapologetic English folkie, Eliza Carthy, who continued the genre's renaissance with superbly rendered traditional numbers. Affecting the Rasta stylee with aplomb, Japanese reggae band, Dry and Heavy, served up some commendable dub platters, while on the indoor Rivermead stage and beloved of everyone from Brian Jones to Sonic Youth, Morocco's Master Musicians of Joujouka rewarded persistent listening by layering their hypnotic drones to trance-like effect.

Spirited breakbeat fusionists and British Asians Joi got the Rivermead Centre's Whirl-Y-Gig dance party going early with tracks from their forthcoming album, We Are Three. Indeed, deterred by the queues for (and general crusty-ness of) Whirl-Y-Gig, the majority of Womad punters have consistently missed out on the dub, trance and tribal techno therein. This time around, however, London-based collective State of Bengal - powered by the live drum'n'bass pulses of Marque Gilmore - wielded their electro Asian dance beats on the main stage, where live techno duo, Eat Static, proved a Saturday night highlight.

Assisted by India's colourful Tanusree Shankar Dance Company, some audacious psychedelic mixing and a giant fibreglass brain on a stalk, Eat Static exposed a hyperactive and formerly unsuspecting crowd to clubland's urban folk. As usual, African music lovers were well-catered for, although the two legends on offer, the Congo's Papa Wemba and Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, were unfortunately scheduled to overlap. Little could be done except run back and forth between the two, snacking on Wemba's energetic, pop-fuelled soukous and Youssou's drum-driven mbalax. Ultimately, though, it was the white-suited Youssou who held attention.

Tucked away on the small Village stage was Mali's Rokia Traore, a renegade composer, guitarist and songbird intent on breaking with and combining traditions. In an assured acoustic set that cherry-picked from her albums Mouneissa and Wanita, Traore alternated strong, graceful melodies with loose-limbed dancing and even instigated a face-off between ngonis - precursors to the banjo. A legend in the making.

Fans of Latin music were served smaller portions. Barbara Luna from Argentina got hips swaying, but it was the jazz dance sensibilities and Brazilian rhythms of London-based clubsters Da Lata that enjoyed one of the weekend's more rapturous receptions.

Comments