Womad Festival, Rivermead, Reading <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

A global sonic smorgasbord
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The Independent Culture

This year's Womad started off hot and dusty, got wet and muddy, and ended up windswept and sunburnt. Along with the elements, you had to dodge determined parents pushing tank-like buggies, overflowing toilets, and 30,000-plus friendly people. All are welcome at Womad, and, across the weekend, a wide spectrum of British society strutted their stuff, but Hells Angels, surly ravers, drunken students and other festival regulars were conspicuous by their absence. As endurance tests go, this world-music festival is a fairly pleasant one.

And this was the biggest Womad yet. The addition of a skateboard ramp, an outdoor cinema and a spectacular funfair reflected this, as, unfortunately, did longer queues and more reports of theft. With five stages offering almost continual music from midday to midnight, Womad served up a sonic smorgasbord made up of many of the world's tastiest musical flavours. Just add precise timekeeping, a crisp sound and general bonhomie.

Womad 2006 leaned heavily towards African artists: the weekend's three main-stage headliners came from Mali, Nigeria and Benin. Friday night found Salif Keita singing dispassionately to the heat-drained masses. Saturday saw Femi Kuti raising the spirits of the audience with his high-energy Afrobeat, sculpted torso and three dancers who moved in a manner that even MTV might find too provocative. And Sunday evening was chilly, so Angélique Kidjo's frosty Afro-flavoured rock and soul wasn't the perfect festival closer.

But at least Kidjo made it to the stage. The self-styled "Lion of Zimbabwe", Thomas Mapfumo, was refused a UK visa; four members of the Mauritanian singer Dimi Mint Abba's group suffered a similar fate; and the Mozambique group Djaaka were deported from Gatwick airport last Wednesday en route to an Italian festival pre-Womad - while they had UK work permits they lacked transit visas. Such are the risks of putting on an international music festival.

High points of this Womad included France's Titi Robin playing a blend of Arabic and European stringed instruments; Spain's Enrique Morente's flamenco singing; the Franco-Argentine Gotan Project creating a pulsing tango-electronica spectacle; Niger's Etran Finatawa conjuring up dense desert trance music; Dennis Rollins and his trombone; and Portugal's Dona Rosa, the tiny, blind woman from Lisbon who started Sunday's events with a graceful set of fado ballads that proved the perfect way to embrace the day.

There were plenty of veteran performers - indeed, some people criticise Womad for not being more adventurous in its booking policy. Still, seeing Bulgaria's Ivo Papasov, back after more than a decade's absence, was a treat. Balkan beats may be this season's world-music flavour but Papasov, a huge man who weaves dense Oriental melodies with his clarinet, was that region's only other representative.

Rap came to Womad via two African refugee artists - Emmanuel Jal, once of Sudan, now of the UK, and K'Naan, a Canadian-based Somali. They both went down well with Womaders. Where Jal is earnest and his music a mess of rock and R&B, K'Naan has a stripped-down sound (acoustic guitar, hand-held drum) and a witty rhyme style. Pop success may well come his way.

The veteran roots-music DJ Charlie Gillett has done more than most to open British ears to new and unfamiliar international sounds, and on Saturday night he delivered his final BBC London broadcast. Joined on the BBC Radio 3 stage by an array of international artists, Gillett played Little Richard, "who turned my 14-year-old self on", and then gracefully bowed out.

One day, Womad will have a Hall of Fame, and Gillett's portrait will surely hang there.

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