Womad, Rivermead, Reading

A whole world of rhythm
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The Independent Culture

Once again the gods were smiling on the biggest world music festival in the UK as the sun shone brightly over three days of scintillating music. On immediate viewing, the programme looked devoid of many big headline acts, so instead up-and-coming stars were given a chance to shine.

Once again the gods were smiling on the biggest world music festival in the UK as the sun shone brightly over three days of scintillating music. On immediate viewing, the programme looked devoid of many big headline acts, so instead up-and-coming stars were given a chance to shine.

The most obvious "name" of the three days was David Byrne who was with the Tosca Strings, and although he was here to promote the somewhat classical bent of his last album, Grown Backwards, he delivered a salvo of Talking Heads greatest hits to an appreciative audience. Only Mr Byrne would dream of attempting to play "Once In A Lifetime" and a light operatic number from Verdi back-to-back, and hope to get away with it.

Festival numbers seemed to have significantly increased this year. And the overall site has been enlarged with the addition of the diminutive River Stage and BBC Radio 3's World On Your Street Stage, meaning that this weekend held host to more than 70 artists from 40 countries. Quite why the small BBC stage was plonked right next to the revamped Village Stage is anyone's guess, but deft scheduling and low-key sound checking just about managed to avoid an unwelcome cacophony of noise.

One thing that has become synonymous with Womad (World of Music, Arts and Dance) over the years is drumming, and this year didn't fail to satisfy in that department. From the Drummers of Burundi to impromptu African drumming sessions outside cafés, rhythm was omnipresent. Only the curfew on all-night campsite bongo sessions stopped this becoming a 72-hour drumathon. The Drummers of Burundi appeared at the very first Womad in Shepton Mallett in 1982. The sound of eight large African drums being beaten in tight rhythmical precision impressed the late Joe Strummer, who described the live show as "an incredible spectacle". Their Saturday night set at the Open Air Stage preceded new Senegalese hip-hop sensations Daara J in an attempt - according to festival director Thomas Brooman - to show the sheer diversity of African rhythm.

In this case it was live percussion versus programmed DJ beats as rappers N'Dango D, Aladji Man and Faada Freddy leapt on to the stage and shouted "are you still alive?". This was asked many times over the hour-long set, and along with the Butlins' red-coat style dance routines which asked the crowd to perform a weird hybrid of Senegalese line-dancing, a few too many clichés fell into the equation. However, the band knew how to work an audience with their energised powerful Wolof-inflected Afro-reggae beats, and anyone who can get a large percentage of middle-aged hippies to "wave their hands in the air if they love hip-hop" has got to be doing something right.

This year Bhangra finally made an impact on the festival. Last year would have been an ideal time with the emergence of Panjabi MC and mainstream acceptance of Bollywood, but Womad always gets there eventually, and the Dhol Foundation were their vessel. Led by effervescent showman (and member of the Afro-Celts) Johnny Kalsi, this collective have become a staple diet for Womad audiences around the world, but this year the inclusion of Bhangra singer B2 showed an exciting new direction for the band.

Other highlights of the festival included Enzo Avitabile & Bottari from southern Italy, beautifully poised sets from Souad Massi and Rokia Traore, plus invigorating sounds from Tinariwen and Nigel Kennedy & Kroke Band in the newly redecorated Siam Tent. In the same space the Grand Orchestre Taarab De Zanzibar brought a touch of old-world Arabian big-band charm to the weekend. British-Colombian electro hip-hop was well served by Sidestepper, and Latin Afro-Funk was added to the agenda with up-and-coming New York outfit Radio Mundial on the Open Air Stage.

On Friday Algerian "Little Prince of Rai" Faudel showed his mentor Khaled how to really rock a Womad audience, and the village stage held host to two satisfying performances from Manding griot band N'Faly Kouyate & Dunyakan, and the Ivory Coast's colourful drumming collective Yelemba D'Abidjan.

All in all this was another job well done for the most eclectic, friendly, and stimulating festival this country has to offer.

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