Womad Festival, Charlton Park, Malmesbury, Wiltshire
Explosive, psychedelic – and out of this world
Monday 28 July 2008
Seun Kuti closed Womad with a politically charged, rousing performance last night worthy of his late father, Fela. With French-Algerian rai-punk Rachid Taha's surly, anarchic Friday set, it added gripping musical force to a festival otherwise heavy on surprises from across the globe.
After last year's rainy marsh, baking sun meant an easy, loose mood, in which Dengue Fever, an LA band fronted by beautiful, pink-dressed, Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol, played two star-making sets. Inspired by the Khmer pop moulded by US forces radio in Vietnam, they may sound like a kitsch joke on that war. But when Cambodia's gently graceful Children of the Khmer dancers join them, and Ethiopian jazz sax spikes their psychedelic lounge-pop, I surrender.
Worries about a preponderance of Western acts were defused first by Chic, then Mavis Staples, and the priceless US Civil Rights history in her bones. Whether wading into the gospel depths of "Walk on the Water", or the funky 1970s hit "I'll Take You There", her voice's throaty attack sounds the way pretenders lacking her past think they do.
A brisk walk late Saturday defines the festival. Eddy Grant is singing "War Party" to a huge crowd on the main stage. Nearby, the Balkan-style Bucovina Club Orkestar's whirling female singer sparks the crowd's raw energy like lightning in the night. Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" mixes with English fairground music at a half-shut fun-fare. And at my destination, restless English musical alchemist Jah Wobble is proudly minting Chinese dub.
The Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan's drum-heavy masked tableaus can be sampled on the way to Cara Dillon, singing a lilting Irish immigrant's tale. Ernest Ranglin, the creator of ska guitar, is another old great working through his paces, his presence wonderful in itself.
But for anyone getting too relaxed after Taha's early explosion, there is Uzbekistan's Munadjat Yulchieva. Here, as part of a Sufi Night, her green-and-white headdress and choked Asiatic vowels are exotic and imposing, a rare sight of a truly other world. Yet she was once an opera soprano. Her voice rises from a murmur to huge notes that dwarf the dance thunder from a nearby tent. Its forceful extremes can sound primally agonised while utterly controlled: classically trained Sufi soul.
Israel's David D'Or was an opera singer too, and his reverb-drenched voice can sound bombastic, even when he is praying for peace. He is more successful when leading his multi-cultural band in Balkan-tinged, Hebrew dance-pop, making his family's cantor past chart-friendly.
Senegalese veterans Orchestra Baobab sustain a smoky, sometimes Cuban groove appropriate to a Dakar club, getting the crowd lost in dancing. Then Kuti confirms Sunday as Africa's day, fronting Fela's great old band, who still play with seething, tense energy. Kuti jerks and hunches like a mischievous demon; goose-stepping in parody of Africa's rulers, and sneering at all religions, he is certainly his father's son. Bringing Nigerian culture full force into Wiltshire, Womad's mission is still being met.
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