Alive with the sound of music

For most of the year Confolens is a quiet French town, but in the blistering August heat it explodes into a riot of colour and sound.

Standing in the tyrannical August heat, waiting for the procession to begin, the children began to bicker. The narrow French streets were clogged up with families emerging from gut-busting Sunday lunches, jostling for stomach space in the thin bands of shade under eaves and in shop doorways. Piped music playing through the loud speakers was not helping and the waiting crowd looked more in the mood for an afternoon nap than a party.

Standing in the tyrannical August heat, waiting for the procession to begin, the children began to bicker. The narrow French streets were clogged up with families emerging from gut-busting Sunday lunches, jostling for stomach space in the thin bands of shade under eaves and in shop doorways. Piped music playing through the loud speakers was not helping and the waiting crowd looked more in the mood for an afternoon nap than a party.

It was an incongruous scene for Confolens, a quiet regional town in rural Charente, which every August hosts one of the world's largest folk music and dance festivals. Myriad strings of colourful flags transformed the streets and the cafes were making the most of the banished traffic and 300,000 visitors by spreading tables out onto the streets. Even the sombre brown-black depths of the river Vienne were enlivened by the parade of national flags posted across its two bridges.

Our children were moaning for drinks. But as we reached the cusp of real fractiousness, a sudden and insistent percussive thump swept through the air and every neck craned in the direction of the noise.

Seconds later, a riot of colour and sound exploded round a corner into the cobbled street. Squabbles were forgotten as Trinidad inched past, its dozen or so dancers twirling and swirling to a steel band in alarmingly skimpy costumes. Next came Portugal and a tumult of clapping and accordions. Hungary was a cavalcade of violins and dancing women and Cuba followed with a swish of skirts and bright colours.

As the dancers gyrated just inches away from us, the kids looked up at us for reassurance and were soon foot-tapping and hip-swaying with the best of them. As Israel's haunting melodies approached, one spectator abandoned all pretence of French sang-froid and broke into a frenzied routine on the pavement, the band pausing to serenade her.

It took a good half hour for the 15 or so national groups to filter past and for the sudden clapping and cheering to announce the French contingent - in the guise of Breton clogs and mini bagpipes.

As the procession broke up for the afternoon performances, we wandered over the main bridge, past stalls selling crêpes and ethnic jewellery. Everywhere were performers hurrying to the next venue in their flamboyant costumes. I was fascinated by how each country chose to project itself - a curious mix of cliché and national stereotype that gave about as true a flavour of the nations concerned as would a group of Morris dancers at an English summer fete. Still, the large crowds were appreciative, whooping and cheering in all the right places.

But between the acts, the star of the show seemed to be our daughter, a baby in a backpack. Performers swooped on her, kissing, cooing and chuckling her under the chin. More used to the relative indifference of the English, it was a close run thing, but judging from her delighted reaction, if I were under 2ft 2in tall and choosing a winner, I'd definitely opt for Cuba.

The Confolens International Folk Festival runs from 12 to 20 August. Entrance to the procession costs around £3 per adult and other performances cost from £8-£12 for adults (£4-£5 for children)

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