Zoe Whitfield and Adam Leake recently stewarded at WOMAD and in between pointing people in different directions they managed to grab some great music!
For those of you who don’t already know, WOMAD stands for World of Music and Dance. It is an ever-growing music festival held in the unsuspecting Charlton Park, Wiltshire which celebrates cultures from all over the world and the many talents of rarely-heard-in-the-west acts and artists, from calypso to death jazz…
The festival takes place over the course of a weekend, but for those of us who are lucky enough to get there early, the Thursday night before the punters arrive en masse provides ample musical delights. I personally had high standards for the Thursday night, given that the year previous I had been fortunate enough to see the Skatalites open the festival.
However, this year I was not disappointed. Billed as The Bays & The Heritage Orchestra with Simon Hale & John Metcalfe, this ensemble took improvisation to a whole new level, incorporating the dance music of The Bays and the orchestral soundworld of The Heritage Orchestra. The process of performance is best relayed by the bio on the Womad site:
“The performance kicks off with The Bays laying down improvised electronic music while John Metcalfe (Duke Quartet / Durutti Column) and Simon Hale compose live parts on laptops for the orchestra in response to what they hear. Conductor Jules Buckley then sends these new scores, via a custom built touch screen network, to the orchestra who will pick up the newly written work and play them instantly, on the fly. Neither the Bays nor the Orchestra know what to expect – in short the whole ensemble is improvising.”
Granted, this does not necessarily tick the “world music” box, but it gets 10 out of 10 for being unconventional. Hence, I do not think adding a link to a youtube video would do them justice, not only as they choose not to record officially and let their reputation speak for itself, but because it would be impossible to recreate that atmosphere on record. I do urge you to try and catch them whenever possible, so rarely have I experienced an act so in tune with the audience and vice versa. The Bays are still touring so if you’d like to recreate at least a bit of the experience go on their website here you’ll be able to find out if they’re coming near you. Needless to say, they were adored by all who saw them, and they set the standard for the rest of the weekend.
A band Adam and I saw on the Open Air Stage a couple of days later provided a delightful antithesis to The Bays & The Heritage Orchestra, a group called Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars. This ensemble met in a refugee camp in Guinea, escaping the brutality of the civil war. They shot to fame when featured in a documentary film made in 2006, the title of which became the name of the band, and have since become the voice for refugees and others facing the same hardships. At the beginning of the first track on their debut album Living Like A Refugee one of the band says, “Living like a refugee is not easy, you see. I just took all the problems, the suffering of the people, and then make a song of it.” The music is a joyous mix of highlife and reggae, infectious in its upbeat-ness. At one point during their performance I turned to Adam to tell him to have a quick look around – every member of the crowd was dancing along. In a really cheesy way it totally summed up the message of Womad.
“Death Jazz” is not a genre I had previously encountered, but it appeared to me at Womad in the form of a Japanese 6-piece known as Soil & “Pimp” Sessions. They push the boundaries of conventional jazz like no other. This is not just your “avant-garde” twiddling, oft-applauded by the Alex Marsdens of this world, this is a breed of jazz specialisation with an appreciation of many very different genres. Clearly, each musician (except the fat guy in the middle who does nothing other than shout “DEATH JAZZZZZZ!!!!!” or “ARE YOU READY?”) is a bit of a genius on their instrument and has obviously been trained to the nth degree, yet all of them are here to shatter preconceptions and remove jazz from its elitist position. And for that, I salute them. Musical geniuses they may be, but you’ll have to excuse the hideous outfits. Live, this band are simply marvellous, which an energy they can’t keep confined to the stage (3 out of 6 of the band jumped into the crowd at various points during their set) rewarding the audience with phenomenal solos featuring incredible musical theatrics. See what you think.
At Womad there really is something for everyone. Someone pointed out to me (perhaps a bit unfairly) that a lot of the ‘world music’ was in fact just different countries’ interpretations of ska and reggae so I went off in search of some true world music and I wasn’t disappointed.
My search was led by our good friend Ed who led me straight to Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali. Heard of them? You should have! I was enthusiastically informed that these guys are the nephews of one of the greatest Qawwali singers of all time -Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan! Being the musical philistine that I am I’m having a hard time trying to describe exactly what Qawwali music is. It is music you would usually dance to, that’s for sure, and for me it’s not music I would put on at home. For me it was about that experience right there and then. I’m not the spiritual sort of guy but this music – designed to lift your mind to a higher state of consciousness – really got me took my mind in a different direction and being the rocker that I am it was quite a shock to the system – but in a good way!
The music centres around the powerful vocal of the 2 front men whose voices are so filled with passion, so intense that you cannot help but stand there in awe.
All in all, Womad is the perfect festival to go without any expectations or preconceptions, absorb yourself into new sounds and new cultures, and leave with an urge to update your iTunes. Hopefully this has given you a flavour of this particular festival. Womad 2011 anyone? I’ll bring the box of wine and a ukulele, and we can sing our way down Charlton Park.