Tucked between the great god Glastonbury and the mock-hippy island sanctuary of Bestival on this year’s British festival circuit, WOMAD’s world music experience – featuring “no clue who anyone is on this lineup” – is easy to overlook. But mainstream pop festivals and their big name listings are overrated. Where’s the fun in having to endure a set of Rascal’s overly commercialised recent output, when all you really want to hear is some Boy In Da Corner gold dust from 2003? It often seems that we festival-goers are just there for the name and not the music.
But WOMAD doesn’t try to quench your thirst for chart toppers or Mercury Prize winners – and that’s precisely its forte. Stroll around the “World of Wellbeing”, pass by the woodland BBC Radio 3 Stage, investigate the small marquees in the main arena; soon you don’t care about who’s playing, but what they’re playing. All you have to do is listen… and appreciate.
The fact that a few weeks ago not a single guitar based band featured in the UK Top 10 – a first in chart history – just goes to show the extent of the digitised music invasion. Recording (and maybe even playing) “live” is now faux pas Ga Ga. In this musical climate of digitally manufactured melodies that are squeezed through beat-mapping software and neatly packaged into mere three-minute soundbites, it comes as a relief to hear something a little rawer and unconstrained.
Thankfully, WOMAD delivers on this promise with acts such as Orchestre National de Barbès, from Paris. Cheerfully mixing ska, chanson, and north African music with a treatment of La Marseillaise, the Orchestre asserts its vision of a multicultural France. Also “representing” are the female duo Nouvelle Vague, who provide alternative cabaret adaptations of punk-rock classics, including a amusing acoustic rendition of “God Save The Queen”.
There were, however, some grand failures on the “original” music front. The Bays’ collaboration with Heritage Orchestra, John Metcalfe and Simon Hale was an attempt to fuse a classical orchestra with a band while both improvised. The gig featured two composers writing music, which was then projected on an array of music-stand-computer-screen devices by the attending orchestra. It was like a situation from Wall Street, but with the bankers bearing violins. I can’t fault the orchestra’s performance – all members seemed to be on full steam. But the accompanying band, The Bays, drowned everything out with roaring drum and bass dance rhythms, devoid of any creativity. A nice idea, but this musical stock market quickly descended into a state of liquidation.
But with every failure there was a surprise gem round the corner. The highlight of this year’s festival was far and away the Congolese group Staff Benda Bilili, a band formed by musicians who have suffered from polio. With one on crutches, and four rocking up on wheelchairs, they delivered one of the most inspiring performances of the festival. They later teamed up with a group of street kids, one of whom had fashioned his own instrument out an old milk-powder can and a strand of electrical wire. This blend of Congolese rumba, funk and R&B paired energy with sensitivity.
The size of the names on the bill is also matched by the size of the site itself. The fact that the main stage is only the modest West Holts Stage from Glasto’ gives some perspective on this. Neither does WOMAD have much to offer those late-night basshunter bandits who feast on sub woofers and paralytic light shows. Most of the tents pack up shop by midnight with only the odd hypnotic drumming workshop pounding on into the early hours. An early night every night? Yes. But at least you’re lulled to sleep by the sounds of a Mongolian throat-singing finale.