Womad festival review – polyphony and politics in global soundclash

Charlton Park, Wiltshire
Septuagenarians shone at the 38th edition of the globe-trotting music festival, that also subtly railed against Brexit with quirky European talent

‘Here’s a song from the 1920s – just before Led Zeppelin were formed,” announces Robert Plant as he leads his new semi-acoustic band Saving Grace into Cindy I’ll Marry You Someday. It’s late on Sunday night – Orbital are on the main stage, while Plant and singer Suzi Dian make a modest festival debut backed by drums, guitars, mandolin and banjo for a classy set of old favourites. They include Doc Watson’s Your Long Journey, Ray Charles’ stomping Leave My Woman Alone, Donovan’s Season of the Witch and finish with I Bid You Goodnight, in which they all huddle around one microphone. Low-key, but enormous fun.

Low-key fun ... Robert Plant at Womad.
Low-key fun ... Robert Plant at Womad. Photograph: Judy Totton/Rex/Shutterstock

This was the 38th Womad, held in an increasingly crowded festival market made all the more difficult by visa restrictions. But there was still a varied global lineup – anything from Macha y El Bloque Depresivo’s tragic Chilean ballads to the emotional soul classics of Macy Gray, BaBa ZuLa’s wild and angry Turkish psychedelia, and the extraordinary voice of Ustad Saami, Pakistan’s 75-year-old master of a haunting microtonal style that predates Islam.

It was a great year for veterans such as these. Calypso Rose, now 79, was feisty on the cheerfully risque Young Boy, and Africa’s finest male singer Salif Keita is in distinctive, soaring voice on an upbeat set that includes a powerful revival of M’Bemba and just one – exquisite – acoustic song, Awa. Behind him, a sign announces he is “celebrating 50 years of music in 70 years”. If he’s on a farewell tour, it doesn’t feel like it.

The best newcomers include Jamaican soloist Brushy One String, whose song Chicken In the Corn has been viewed 24m times on YouTube, and who really does play a guitar with just one string to back his growling, soulful voice. With Brexit threatening, there was also an appropriate emphasis on Europe: San Salvador, from the French Massif Central, are a slick, rousing young six-piece whose thrilling polyphonic harmony singing is backed by pounding percussion, and Ukraine’s glorious DakhaBrakha returned, sporting tall fur hats and quirky, compelling songs.

There were reminders of the British multicultural scene too, from the adventurous soul-jazz-rap re-working of civil rights classics by A Change Is Gonna Come to the angry political songs of Nadine Shah. In our era of walls and vocal bigots, Womad is more important than ever.


Robin Denselow

The GuardianTramp

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