WORLD MUSIC / Desert orchid: Philip Sweeney goes on a spiritual quest to the Womad Festival

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The Independent Culture
Well-behaved crowds wandered from African craft tent to Thai luncheonette, signed petitions on Tibet or Haiti, and applauded warmly anything that moved. Womad's Reading Festival was a sell-out.

Womad audiences - or at least Womad brochure-writers - like their performers to have politico-cultural significance. An artiste who embodies some spiritual quest on behalf of his people scores more Brownie points than one who simply plays dance-halls, but not as many as one who suffers government persecution in so doing. The Touareg Ensemble, from Algeria, was billed as female and vocal- based, the women being the organisers during the absence of the nomadic menfolk. But they were led by one Othmane Baly, the son of a poet and singer, who had, says the brochure, 'given the Touareg people a sense of their own identity through his passionate re-working of traditions'.

The ensemble - seven sedentary, voluminously robed figures - was terrific, one of the festival's most impressive and distinctive combinations of authenticity and modernisation. The authenticity was derived from the two male percussionists seated left, and the three cross-legged gold- adorned women chanting high-pitched choruses, in Tamashek, stage right. The modernity was injected by a bass guitar and by the leader and singer Othmane Baly's brilliantly played Arabian lute, a mixture of guttural Moroccan-sounding strumming and innovative single- string work with the technical virtuosity, but not the alien harmony structure, of jazz.

Probed on the origins of his profession, Baly replied: 'My profession? Well, I'm a plastic surgeon . . . the music is a sort of hobby.' He then recounted a CV far more interesting than the brochure-speak. Born of a high-caste father and low-caste mother from the Touareg Imanan sub- tribe, Baly was only 10 when he started adapting his mother's traditional songs for the 'guitars' he had made from wire and oil cans - 'Shell, Esso, BP, anything'.

At university in Algiers and Constantine, he changed to lute and wrote the first of 167 songs in praise of the redoubtable desert. Moving back to the hospital of his home town, the oasis of Djanet (1,200 kilometres south in the Sahara, population 1,500, eight specialist surgeons), he set up his modernised 'groupe folklorique' with mum and two sisters on backing vocals, and began to play at festivals and celebrations.

French and German tourists brought back news of his ensemble, leading to his recent schedule of three European visits per year. These have, of course, further enhanced his prestige at home, where numerous young Touareg groups have sprung up in the Baly style.

If the Touareg Ensemble came out of the blue, as it were, Cesaria Evora, another Womad debut performer, arrived belatedly in the UK after 18 months of tremendous success on the European 'World Music' circuit.

Evora, a shy, squat, chain- smoking woman with a physique reflecting five decades of tough, poor pre-stardom, comes from Sao Vicente, one of the islands composing the obscure mid-Atlantic nation of Cape Verde. At home, she sang for the price of a few drinks in bars, or for visiting ships' crews, until she was discovered by a French record company.

I last saw her charming an audience of young Portuguese in Oporto (Cape Verde was a Portuguese colony) and she had the same effect on the Womaders. 'Charmed', though, is a misstatement: Evora's blunt, simple stage presence contains no hint of intention to ingratiate, just as her clear, melodious rendering of her sad Cape Verdean mornas is utterly devoid of artifice and melodrama, which is why she is so moving. Evora merits a season at Ronnie Scott's; in the meantime, her presence has enriched yet another enjoyable Womad.