Event Review: WOMAD UK 2018 @ Charlton Park (Malmesbury; Thursday 26th to Sunday 29th July 2018)

WOMAD 2018, Charlton Park, UK

The sun is shining as people from all corners of the globe – including artists from six continents and fifty countries – come together for this year’s eclectic celebration of world music and dance culture. Families, friends and couples of all ages erect tents, blow up mattresses and boil water for tea and coffee. Happy people are everywhere; older couples in camping chairs laughing, parents pulling make-shift cots on wheels, groups of kids playing together and young adults toasting with pints of cider. All in the blisteringly hot sunshine that beams over the WOMAD UK arenas.


As Ken Boothe performed a perfect opening set on the Open Air Stage, his message of bringing ‘people of different cultures together’ personified the WOMAD ethos and excited the crowd. Jumping from upbeat ska rhythms to low-fi roots reggae, Boothe had the audience in the palms of his hands as the sun set and he sang classics such as ‘When I Fall In Love’, ‘Everything I Own’ and an epic, extended, audience participation version of ‘Artibella’. Boothe also mixed up tunes by sandwiching A side versions, with B side dub versions of songs midway. After an appropriately ‘peace-loving’ performance, the sunset on the Open Air Stage after the classic opening evening. The crowd literally and emotionally warmed into the festival, whilst The Lizard Bar and Molly’s Bar continued to entertain the hip-shakers into the early hours of Friday.


Opening the Open Air Stage were throat singing Hanggai, a Mongolian folk band, shredding the banjo, and using their multi-tonal harmonies and throat singing to bring that world growl to their thundering, kicking drum beats. They played a variety of tunes, some soft and harmonic, others included Mongolian reggae rhythms and epic throat singing battles. Then I ripped over to the Big Red Tent as K.O.G. preached about having ‘No Money, No Troubles’, but it was Tal National in the Siam Tent that shook the sleepy haze of sunshine from everyone with their infectious Niger dance music. A fusion of many cultures from North Africa, ‘Tal’ is their home desert and ‘Nationale’, means ‘International’, just as they believe music should be.

Following this came the highly anticipated Orchestre Les Mangelepa with their unique blend of Swahili rumba hailing from the Congo and Kenya. The orange suited trio were backed by some of London’s most legendary musicians as they sang in England for the first time in an illustrious 42-year career. In their red hats they sang and danced and provided an uplifting atmosphere. I then caught Amsterdam based experimental dub, folk, trance concept group My Baby in the Big Red Tent, performing their hit ‘Make a Hundred’ in an epic extended, energy-bursting version, with lead singer Cato van Dyck’s incredible vocal range exploding around the red tent. Instrumental hip-hop masters Herbaliser then brought an atmospheric visual performance to the Big Red Tent including a brass section, bongos, and the British legend Rodney P.

Herbaliser feat. Rodney P – Photo © Victor Frankowski

Friday Highlight – Leftfield:

A highlight from Friday had to be Open Air Stage headliners Leftfield, who performed their legendary 90s dance album Leftism with perfect precision and exploding energy. With the use of the bohemian theremin (instrument), analogue vibes and a persistent concept, the band truly lit a fire under WOMAD as the whole festival raved to the timeless performance coupled with immersive visuals that flashed through the 90s videos of certain tracks. The band also suggested this would be the “last time we perform Leftism in this way”, making for a historic and monumental musical moment.

Those still willing to dance headed to the D&B Soundscape Tent to catch globetrotters Owiny Sigoma in their soundsystem outfit mixing groovy, funky afro-inspired tunes into the early morning. Once again, the Lizard Bar and Molly’s Bar provided afro-tropical trip tunes for the proceeding dancing hours.

Leftfield – Photo © Victor Frankowski


Saturday was kicked off with a colourful, upbeat African party from Seby Ntege and his unique blend of London-inspired Ugandan tunes which, he says, uses all the instruments of his hometown. Ntege played a selection of old and new tracks from his forthcoming EP 5 Notes, all while installing the dancing fever into the awakening crowd who were not put off by the slightly cloudy skies above. Next, I wandered to the well-being area, past the new bookshop, the massage area, and the yoga and relaxation tents to the World of Words arena, which hosted poet Dizraeli, who spoke of all things social and political to an adamant, applauding crowd.

The big Bollywood Brass Band played in the Siam Tent for the first time in their twenty years of playing the festival, followed by Mâalem Hamid El Kasri playing his soulful gnawa music on his guembri from Morocco. Speaking of politics, reggae rapper Macka B took a moment away from his veggie inspired rhythms that recently saw him go social media viral, to politically point out how women are the backbone of society and must be respected as the utmost symbol of fertility.

Macka B – Photo © Victor Frankowski

The main stage hosted perhaps one of the best collaborations of this decade, Havana Meets Kingston. The brainchild of Mista (Jake) Savona, it’s a seemingly obvious collaboration between Cuban and Jamaican artists, fusing two small neighbouring islands of the Caribbean and their rich musical heritage of Jamaican reggae, ska and dub with Cuban rhumba, soca and clave. The result; ten musicians on stage creating an incredible dance vibe for the jigging, jiving, skanking audience.

It must be pointed out that, regardless of the occasional showers, the mood was one of excitement and building anticipation for the Open Air Stage headliners, the Malian couple Amadou and Mariam. They came on stage at 9:45pm and launched into a back-to-back hit setlist, spanning their slower more romantic songs such as ‘Mbife (I love you)’, to their crowd-pleasing, irritably danceable ‘Boufou Safou’ and more. The crowd danced in the slight rain, lapping up every moment of the electric hour, and the crowds extended as far back as the stage could see.

Amadou & Mariam – Photo © Victor Frankowski

Saturday Highlight – Rafiki Jazz:

There came a moment after the headlining stages had closed and my friends had retired, where I searched for the last fragment of live music before only the raving dancers were left. To my pleasure, I stumbled across the Rafiki Jazz ensemble on stage in the Siam Tent. From the bespoke collection of instruments on stage emanated a beautiful sound. Then, after a few songs, I hear the familiar riffs of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s ‘Must Must’ being played on tabla, kora, violin, oud, some sort of berimbau, and a collection of other instruments! All the while stunning vocals echoed around the chamber, creating and building atmosphere. The version was long and trance-like, brilliant in musicality and transcendent in sound.


On Sunday the clouds conquered, and jumpers and raincoats were necessary. Aside from this, the final day proved to be jam-packed with versatile and vivacious world music. Among the illustrious selection, we had violinist Jiggy opening the Open Air Stage, pulling in an impressively large and active crowd. On the Ecotricity, in the well-being area, we had successful producer Ian Brennan’s latest project with Rwandan pygmies, and with him, Abatwa performed some songs from their forthcoming collaborative album, alongside a rare performance of indigenous pygmy dances.

BCUC – Photo © Guy Peterson

After Ethio-jazz Meklit in the Big Red Tent, there was internet sensation Too Many Zooz who brought raucous, stomping, self-named ‘brass-house’ to bring down the arena. ‘Warriors’ was the much-awaited highlight of this with an incredible baritone sax, trumpet and drum trio. Back to the Siam Tent for BCUC (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness), a band that brought punchy, powerful, ‘non-mainstream’ genres together to form a driving sound for a packed audience, their sound perhaps one of the most powerful, loud and testosterone driven. Each member played, sang, and performed with 100% energy and immense passion as they opened with an exploding version of ‘Yinde’. BCUC were certainly a festival highlight, and a band not to be messed with.

The BBC Three Charlie Gillet Stage played host to famous Sufi sisters Hashmat Sultana, who produced a bursting, transcendent performance of religious Sufi music mixed with contemporary Indian beats and thumping kick drums. KOKOKO! then brought the protagonists from Kinshasa’s dance scene to the Big Red Tent with their lively, expressive mixes. The Open Air Stage closed its doors after a jam-packed performance by Thievery Corporation who played an eclectic mix of bossa nova inspired electro. The Big Red Tent closed after legendary presenter and label owner Gilles Peterson had spun some impressive, and crowd-pleasing tunes.

Sunday Highlight – Meklit:

The first act I saw on Sunday was Meklit, who I’d had a sneak preview of in the backstage press area. Meklit is a performer of 21st-century Ethio-jazz, now hailing from San Francisco although being Ethiopian born. The godfather of Ethio-jazz is Mulatu Astatke, who personally told Meklit to perform her 21st-century version of Ethio-jazz, focussed on the present and the future. And what a beautiful spectacle it was: thriving, thumping, thunderous jazz, with a melodic, melismatic trill to her stunning voice. It was so unique and characteristic that there was no confusing Meklit’s jazz with others’. She was accompanied by a stunning saxophonist and davul (large double-headed drum) player, who together raised the roof with groovy rhythms, talented solos and also demanded silence from the crowd in the most intimate and precious moments. Meklit is a performer to treasure and remember.

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