Womad, Charlton Park, festival review: After incessant rain the sun came out for Souad Massi

Womad still makes space for complete newcomers

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The Independent Culture

Its Friday morning Twitter feed announced the closure of Tree Climbing due to rain. On the ground, Womad was even more challenging, the site sinking under a month’s rain – and it didn’t stop until Souad Massi took the late evening Siam stage with her exquisitely melancholic Maghrebi ballads and songs of conscience and justice. Following her, veteran singer Kasse Mady Diabate delivered an expansive, luxurious music of Malian warmth, a pulsing West African Minimalism.

Earlier that day, seasoned French musical cross-pollinators Orange Blossom fused Egyptian and Algerian forms with electronica for a set of fast-paced dance songs and pungent, atmospheric ballads, while Colombian legend Toto La Momposina – she was at the first Womad in 1982 – remains in magnificent voice at 75, and a commander of crowds, even those cowering under heavy sheets of English rain.

But this isn't cricket, and rain didn't stop play. They may be closing up shop, but Bellowhead were made at and for festivals, and their pogo-tastic big band shanties, traditional songs and murder ballads was well-suited to the rogueish conditions. Fellow festival veterans Tinariwen followed them, and remain a deeply absorbing and hypnotic concert experience, trailing a heavy rhythmic undertow that draws you inexorably in – and out of the rain. Other prime shelters included the surround-sound conditions of the Bowers & Wilkins electronica tent

Saturday brought sun and heat as a welcome, almost magical respite. The ground rapidly soaked up all that water as we soaked in Cheikh Lo’s consummate lunchtime set on the main stage, fronting his supple pan-African band with warm, multi-octave vocals. He was a busy man – appearing on Cerys Matthews’ Sunday morning BBC broadcast, and on the Charlie Gillett stage later that night. Alas, heavy rain returned for much of Sunday, the ground giving up its mud once more, but there was still great music – the voice of Mauritanian singer Noura Mint Seymali, which leaves scorch marks; and the Brooklyn Banghra beats of brass-and-Dhol drum band Red Baraat, who, like Orange Blossom, share a Spotify-era eclecticism and sampling of diverse styles; musically, a global cosmopolitanism.

However, Womad still makes space for complete newcomers flown in from remote corners, new to the outside world. Take Acholi Machon, a duo from Africa’s youngest nation, South Sudan, whose music – employing call-and-response, thumb pianos, body percussion, the children of the audience – seems as bare, spare and delicate as their young country’s almost-absent infrastructure. By way of introduction, we were told of their arduous, costly ordeal to obtain UK Visas – a modern-day Odyssey, Border Control as a raging Cyclops – which Womad helped fund. Perhaps only Womad can do this sort of thing now, with arts budgets slashed so close to the bone. In the same way, it’s the BBC’s New Talent programme that brought Ngawang Lodup here to sing songs from north-eastern Tibet. With him came the abrasive, fuzzed-up Garage sound of an electrified mandolin and dramnyen lute. An unaccompanied nomadic ballad had vocal decorations reminiscent of Irish Traveller singer Thomas McCarthy's – now that would be a potent pairing. His next concert is with the Dalai Lama at the O2. Womad festival-goers, you saw him here first.

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