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Womad, Charlton Park (July 24-27, 2014)

Posted on 04 August 2014 by Sarah Robertson

Not only was the 32rd World of Music, Arts and Dance festival (Womad) one of the hottest, it was the first to sell out since it moved to its new site in Charlton Park in Wiltshire from Reading, attracting a whopping 40,000 revelers.

It’s popularity is with very good reason. As this iconic festival matures it continues to attract the globe’s best artists. Over four days, there were 184 performances by 106 musicians from 42 countries including Mali, Somalia, Ukraine, Iran, Malaysia, Turkey and Cuba.

20140803 Womad pic general2

But not only does the Womad brand do what its famous for, it is widening its offering, taking a more universal appeal. For example, this year saw the arrival of the Society of Sound stage, offering a dedicated area for late night disco beats with appearances from the mainstream dance world, DJs David Holmes and Beardyman. This late night offering was so popular the security struggled at times with the crowd, but remained typically Womad-polite.

This brings us to the message underpinning this most civilized of music festivals. When Peter Gabriel cemented the concept in 1980, he wanted to introduce audiences to artists for a reason that was about more than music. Providing an insight into cultures other than your own would, he hoped, bring people together. With music being a universal language, he wanted to prove the stupidity of racism. A message that appears lost in certain parts of the world today, which currently dominate our headlines.

The staple offering of Womad brings the most exotic performances to the leafy park that is normally the private and most probably tranquil home of Lord Suffolk. Womad organisers were forced to rethink who would headline this year’s festival after the sad death of the soul legend Bobby Womack in June.

Sinead O’Conner stepped up to replace him and dedicated her inspiring set to him. Other headliners included American export Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Kiwi reggae kings, Fat Freddy’s Drop and the phenomenal Malian group, Les Ambassadeurs.

Lucinda Belle

Lucinda Belle

Another highlight was Lucinda Belle, who appeared on the Siam Stage on the Saturday.  I can say with conviction that this harp-playing modern-day Ella Fitzgerald is destined to become one of the most influential female blues artists of the decade. Her voice sitting between Amy Winehouse and Madeline Peroux but with more power, she plucked her harp effortlessly with her neon-coloured nails, backed by a lively band, the whole act delivering a powerful punch.

The Siam Stage was on fine form at the event, also playing host to Trombone Shorty on the Friday. His overwhelming energy itself was spectacular, his performance the very definition of stage presence. If he wasn’t playing his trombone he was running across the stage or dancing with other members of his band. It is of course possible that I’m a sucker for an attractive man who gyrates in the direction of the
press pit. But let’s face it, everyone loves a celebrity who wants to be a little bit naughty.

Born Troy Andrews, this frontman took his nickname as bandleader at the tender age of six-years-old. Raised in New Orleans, Trombone Shorty has taken brass to the mainstream. And it seems so obvious. Why hasn’t anyone done this before? I’m told other brass crews have actually taken themselves outside their homeland New Orleans and had some success but none have done it so spectacularly as Trombone Shorty.

Trombone Shorty

Trombone Shorty

As well as the four stages in the main arena, a small intimate stage could be found in the chill-out area, the Arboretum. Named after its sponsor, the Ecotricity stage was one of the true delights of the festival. Space permitting only for a small audience in the much needed shade between the trees, listening to bands on this stage gave me, somewhat appropriately, the feeling of being somewhere extremely exclusive, as well as letting everyone get close to the performers. The most picturesque part of the festival, the Arboretum opened out into a series of pathways between the trees, stalls selling art or ideas and many massage and alternative therapies.

The BBC Radio Three stage in the main arena, thoughtfully called the Charlie Gillett stage after one of Auntie’s late but extremely influential music journalists, undoubtedly hosted some of the more unusual and interesting artists. The Beeb’s stage was bigger this year and has moved from the Arboretum to help it host its bulging audience.

Charlie’s fellow World on 3 founding presenters Lopa Kothari and Mary Ann Kennedy presented the artists and these included Monsieur Doumani from Cyprus, Su:m from South Korea (featured) and the extraordinary Iranian sisters Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat (featured).



Of these Su:m was among the standouts. South Korea is not exactly known for its exports, especially not those of a musical nature. And this is one of the many things that makes the two women who make up the band Su:m so astonishingly unique. Playing for the first time in their lives to an international audience, the poker-faced duo played the most unusual range of instruments, delivering an achingly beautiful and equally haunting sound. Swaying and often with their eyes closed, Su:m opened with an instrumental that I fell in love with. The item used most consistently all the way through the set was a large string instrument, that sat horizontally and was plucked with both hands, taking the form of something between a keyboard and a harp.

Some brief singing and many instrument changes later, I concluded Su:m’s music was similar to some of the soundtracks in modern martial arts films such as those by director Jet Lee. Meditative, peaceful and slow, the music conjured images of slow motion martial arts. One of the many instruments one of the women played deserves particular mention. Looking from a distance like a strnage creature from a science fiction film was attacking her face, the instrument looked like a mini-church organ with many metallic pipes. I could see she was activating sound not only by blowing through a mouth piece but by inhaling too, using circular breathing. Whatever this was, it certainly would not have been easy to play, never mind master.

20140803 womad pic general

It’s not just the extraordinary range of workshops and talks for children and adults that make this a family festival. Typically an older audience, the festival has a ‘safe’ feel about it. Many other larger music festivals can be such a logistical challenge but this offering feels so much easier. Everything is clean (quite a feat for the organizers). Cold beer is never far away with few queues for anything. And in temperatures in excess of 30 degrees this is a relief. I’ve never seen any problems or aggression and Womad is one of the very few festivals that retains a genuine feel to it. The audience here really cares about the music. Unsurprising really, as it features a range of the world’s very finest.

Words and pictures by Sarah Robertson


1 Comments For This Post

  1. Len Says:

    Great pictures, wish I had been there. Will definitely look out for some of these bands. This review gives a really good feel for the whole event.

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