Womad (World of Music and Dance), Rivermead, Reading

Lesser acts provide the big thrills as festival goes mainstream
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The Independent Culture

This year is no exception. But there are a number of valid arguments to back up the festival-goer's discontent.

Firstly Womad isn't the cosy family festival it once was. Like the Big Chill, it has become more popular each year, and punters are being asked to squeeze up and pay out. Stall owners are also being asked to fork out more cash with the result that World Music Network and world music magazine Songlines are noticeably absent this year.

And then there's the line-up. Of course most people will tell you that it's the unexpected delights that make Womad such a thrilling prospect, and there are certainly plenty of those this year, but the headliners and household names are glaringly absent this time around. Of the latter, only Robert Plant, Youssou N'Dour, and this year's hottest act Amadou & Mariam spring to mind in the crowd-pulling department. Nitin Sawhney is making an appearance in Club Womad but it is only a DJ set, and many would argue (justifiably) that the dance side of the festival lost it's appeal when Whirl-y-gig were asked to leave the building.

In fact, in like-for-like terms Eden Project's mighty fine (but woefully under-attended) Africa Calling concert far outguns this year's main attraction in terms of big name acts. But there are some intriguing lesser known acts which tantalise the senses as always. Friday's line-up includes sitar player Sheema Mukherjee, whose 70s-inspired sitar-funk fusion brought back memories of the great Anandar Shankar. Her set was the first on the newly positioned River Stage, placed conveniently between the Organic Beer Tent and a colourfully decorated Chai Tea emporium.

In keeping with the original ethos of Womad was the stunning Kala Chethena Kathakali Company from India. Their colourfully retold stories from Hindu mythology involved elaborate theatre, dance and singing.

Evening highlights included Argentina's hot tango dance collective Bajofondo Tango Club and Led Zeppelin legend Robert Plant, whose recent excursions to Mali's Festival In The Desert inspired the deep North African flavour of his new album Mighty Rearranger (with his tight new band Strange Sensation). The new tracks proliferate his blues powered WOMAD appearance. The most obvious set of the day went to reggae legends Culture, who - although inspiring The Clash in their heyday - didn't offer anything new tonight.

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