Womad marks 40 years with music from west Africa to South Korea

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“How many of you were here in 1982?” asked Jane Cornwell, compèring onstage at Womad’s 40th anniversary outing. A forest of hands waved. Without doubting anyone’s probity or memory, let it be noted that had they all been paying customers, that original festival might not have lost so much money.

The ghosts of Shepton Mallet, where the first World of Music, Arts and Dance was held, were everywhere — pictured on screens, and playing as background music while stages were reset: a snatch of the Royal Drummers of Burundi, The Beat racing through “Mirror in the Bathroom”, Peter Gabriel debuting “I Have the Touch”. Despite its scorched grass, the current festival, back after a two-year Covid hiatus and despite worsening visa hassles, offered a weather utopia, enough cloud cover to keep the temperature bearable and occasional drizzle to keep down the dust.

Where 1982 had The Beat, 2022 had The Selecter, Pauline Black’s three-minute two-tone heroes. “It took us 40 years to get here,” said Black pointedly, before running through a set of sharp singles: “Missing Words”, a bouncing ska version of the James Bond theme (which also served as a tribute to its composer Monty Norman, who died earlier this month) with toasting from Arthur “Gaps” Hendrickson, and the unarguable climax of “On My Radio” and “Too Much Pressure”, with a couple of choruses of Toots and the Maytals’ “Pressure Drop”. With four decades’ hindsight, the band’s other ingredients were clear; guitar soloing straight out of pub rock, vocal geometry as angular as post-punk, the storytelling of Joni Mitchell.

The first night’s headliner was Fatoumata Diawara, last seen here with Lamomali, a west African group convened by French musician -M-. Between the sunny solo acoustic work of her debut and the desert blues of her recent soundtrack for Google Arts and Culture celebrating the heritage of Timbuktu, she has a weakness for relentless loud funk, and this was on display. But her set came to life with “Negue Negue”, Afrobeat with guitars like rasping wood; a run through Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”; and an epic recreation of her breezy early calling card “Sowa” as hard rock.

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Soweto’s BCUC, a self-proclaimed “Afro-psychedelic” mixture of South African musics, were a last-minute addition to the bill, shoehorned into too-small a tent too early in the day. Jovi Nkosi immediately took charge: an embodiment of restlessness, he scaled the lighting rig, jumped, practised boxing feints, at one point performed press-ups; he jumped out to perch on the bass bins to deliver lectures about balancing respect for parents with the need to assert one’s own independence. A new song, “Thonga’ Lami”, prompted a rap on the link between intuition and the ancestors. Swooping bass and soaring gospel vocals from Kgomotso Neo Mokone, plus thunderous drumming, caused hysteria. With a caution to watch out for “the elders at the front”, Nkosi ordered the crowd to mosh.

Angélique Kidjo’s set was billed as her reclamation of the 1980 Talking Heads album Remain in Light — David Byrne and Brian Eno’s new wave imagining of Afrobeat — as west African music. In the event, she wove six of the album’s songs in with her own. In “Crosseyed and Painless” she interpolated the refrain from Fela Kuti’s “Lady”; and more generally, the Talking Heads songs fitted seamlessly into her music, the brooding intense energy of “The Overload” answered and then picked up by her recent “Meant for Me”; or “Do Yourself”, her collaboration with Burna Boy, flowing into “The Great Curve”.

After “Houses in Motion”, Byrne’s Sprechgesang reproduced in Fon, she ran through a ringing highlife “Once in a Lifetime”, then her own millennium anthem “Afirika”, during which she pulled a watching Peter Gabriel in from the wings, and finally a swaying “Pata Pata” as a nod to the late South African singer Miriam Makeba and a dancing encore of “Batonga”.

There were delights in the margins. B. Dance, a terpsichorean troupe from Taiwan with outsize tulle tutus the length of ball gowns, twisted and stretched to a contemporary classical soundtrack like giant fungi. South Korean singer Gonne Choi played perfect folk songs. Sona Jobarteh played kora standards with a forceful band and her son Sidiki on balafon, but in too noisy a corner of the site to allow for full concentration. Out in a wood to the south of the site the trumpeter Yazz Ahmed played music as vast and lonely as space underneath Luke Jerram’s seven-metre-wide model of the Moon. Taraf de Caliu, an offshoot of Taraf de Haidouks, played cimbalom and twin violins at unstoppable speed. Alban Claudin closed out Saturday night in a hushed arboretum, under trees lit turquoise and coral, with subtle piano miniatures.

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Saturday’s surprise hit were ADG7, a South Korean nine-piece who play a mixture of shamanic and folk music from the north-west of the peninsula with a mixture of charm and formidable rock brio. The music found its drive in the interplay between Chun Gung-dal’s double-ended traditional drum and Sunwoo Barabarabarabam’s kit and hand cymbals, a funky syncopation over which Woen Meondongmaru plucked patterns on the gayageum, a long flat zither, and Choi Byung Hwal bowed a deep undertow from a similar-looking ajaeng. At the top end there were wooden flute figures from Kim Yak Dae and piping melodies from Lee Man Wol, whose saenghwang, a kind of mouth organ, looked like an Art Deco sculpture. Upfront, the three singers Hong Ok, Myeong Wol and Yoo Wol, their pink, green, red and blue clothes and headgear a bright contrast with the austere simplicity of the instrumentalists’, danced and spun, inveigled the crowd into chanting the band’s name in both English and Korean, and shook handfuls of metallic shakers the size of dragon scales.

The songs included their signature number “Yeong Jeong Geo Ri”, a stomping ritual greeting of the small household gods, the instrumental “The Dance of the Lions”, a chance for the musicians to shine, and songs to summon laughter and banish loneliness. They also played a Korean take on “Hey Hey Rise Up”, the Ukrainian folk song recently reworked by Pink Floyd. They ended with the electro-swing of “Hello, Lonely”, leaving with the crowd again chanting their name.

ADG7 were a hard act to follow. Nitin Sawhney filled the Siam Tent with a mixture of Spanish-inflected instrumentals, featuring chamber musicians, and skittering drum-and-bass-and-tabla. He closed with the delicate “Nadia”, “Immigrant”, with a yearning English folk melody, and then a final run through the slow-building frenzy of “Prophesy”, now two decades old but still utterly contemporary.

The Flaming Lips brought an arsenal of effects that would have challenged a logistics brigade: lasers so powerful they necessitated the temporary closure of Womad’s giant Ferris wheel; confetti cannons; smoke machines; Zorb balls; and a tiny mechanical bird that singer Wayne Coyne released at the start of “My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion”, which promptly flew into the roof of the stage and got stuck there, tiny wings beating. The songs, about mortality, the infinite and eternal recurrence, passed by in a slow haze. For “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, Pt. 1” a 30ft-high pink robot glowered over the stage — and that was only the set’s fourth song.

Osibisa’s “Sunshine Day”, with its infectious climbing brass riff and singalong chorus, had earlier brightened up the main stage. The Ghanaian-English band’s dancer, Angie Amra Anderson, had earlier had a special introduction from Gabriel: back in 1982, she was part of the Ekome dance company, making her the only performer from the original Womad to make it back onstage for the 40th anniversary, still “part of what we started there and the dream”.

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