Last Night: Womad Festival, Charlton Park, Malmesbury

African heat warms the soul of muddy Womad squad
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The Independent Culture

The heavy rain that threatened Womad for two days fell solidly as the festival ended on Sunday. But closing act Ethiopiques made the downpour irrelevant.

The result of the albums of the same name, which revealed the soul and jazz of early 1970s Addis Ababa to be sensual treasures, it brought lost stars from Haile Selassie's last days to a Wiltshire field.

Keen young musicians stand in for old Addis's vanished bands. But it is the originals that matter, from saxophonist Gatatchew Mekurya in his Lion of Judah shawl, to Alemayehu Eshete's James Brown screams. In a weekend of great voices, deceptively venerable, robed Mahmoud Ahmed's may even be the best. Rising from an exotic, wobbling murmur to a roar, he leads this triumphant resurrection.

Senegal's Youssou N'Dour, who first played Woamd in 1986, when its idea of a global music community was new, preceded Ethiopiques with his Super Etoile De Dakar band. "Xeex Sibirru" ("Fight Malaria" in Wolof) and "New Africa" restated his fight for African social change.

Even as the mud started to pool on Sunday morning, Barcelona's Che Sudaka were inspiring defiant dances, with fiery Latin rebel rock. These Columbian and Argentine exiles share Manu Chao's inspiration in The Clash, and incendiary attitude. Their singer, stripped to Speedos, looked ready to swan-dive into the wet melee, as he welcomed us to "the house of fun". It's as good a description as any of this enduringly stimulating festival.

Womad founder and Saturday's headliner Peter Gabriel had been lured to his only European date this year to spread the word on his civil rights charity, Witness.org. Big-screen pictures of one of its contributors, recently murdered Chechen journalist Natalya Esterimova, preceded his apartheid protest song "Biko". "Games Without Frontiers" and "Solsbury Hill" wistfully recalled his hit-making days for the thousands who bought day-tickets just for him.

As usual, the festival's real strength lay in brief, startling contact with music further off the track even than Timbuktu. Acetre are from Extremadura, an autonomous, mythical-sounding border-zone between Spain and Portugal. Mournful female voices and Middle Eastern oud added to a gently intoxicating sound.

Mam er's sullen but intriguing presence was in marked contrast to the best English artists of the weekend, Rachel Unthank and the Winterset. Their arrangements of Northumbrian folk songs can be classical in approach, as with the tolling piano of "I Wish Wish" timeless tale of jealousy.

But such strictness was sugared by the bawdy earthiness of the songs, their banter, and the broad, pretty Geordie accents in which they sing. They even stop by the Taste the World tent later, to sing herring songs and help cook fish soup. Not much is more strangely, wonderfully Womad than that.

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