WOMAD 2013: Mauritanian singer-activist Malouma’s range of performances made her the absolute highlight of the  festival

Now in its 31st year – WOMADUK – The annual World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival (WOMAD), which bills itself as ‘the world’s music festival, took place from  25th – 28th July; offering live performances from big names in the global music industry, as well as a range of workshops, including the very interesting Taste the World stage, where artists and the audience interact while a traditional meal from the artist’s home country is prepared. On the line-up this year were a diverse range of African musicians and performers from across the continent including Malouma (Mauritania), Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (Nigeria), Freddy Masamba (DR Congo), Jagwa Music (Tanzania), Malawi Mouse Boys (Malawi), Dizu Plaatjies and the Ibuyambo Ensemble (South Africa), KonKoma (Ghana), Makoomba, (Zimbabwe), Osibisa (Ghana), Rachid Taha (Algeria), Rokia Traore (Mali), Spoek (South Africa) and Tamikrest (Mali). In addition to these there were a huge number of Diaspora artists from South America, the Caribbean, the US and the UK.

Jagwa Music from Dar es Salaam played a fantastic set on Friday afternoon, while the hot sun beat down they played fast, rhythmic, funky and percussive Tanzanian beats to a large and satisfied audience. The band had a good energy, and visibly enjoyed performing, with an especially enthusiastic solo from the keyboardist – who played a solo with his bald head and chin. Sadly, also on Friday,  I and many other dub enthusiasts were left bitterly disappointed by what seemed a huge, avoidable programming clash, with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry – producer of Bob Marley’s most innovative music & Max Romeo, Reggae/Dub ‘innovators’ and pioneers, playing at the same time as Mala in Cuba (one half of Digital Mystikz) the ‘innovator’ and pioneer of Dub music’s grandchild, Dubstep.

Later on the Charlie Gillet stage, Freddy performed a beautiful set singing in English, French & Lingala, accompanied by a great band with an especially talented Mbira player that smashed out an impressive solo to a happy audience as the evening sun came down. Friday night closed with Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 maintaining the legacy of Fela Kuti with a lively performance incorporating the rhythms and political convictions of the legendary musician. Seun worked the crowd well, playing his Saxophone with the woodwind/brass section of his band from time to time, and excited the crowd towards the end as removed his shirt and danced with his singers, and ended his performance culminated with the song ‘Plant Am, make e Grow’, which he described as his argument for legalizing marijuana, seguing into the performance with the best soundbite of the evening “if plutonium & uranium is ok for economic energy … marijuana is ok for mental energy”.

On Saturday, before the torrential rain poured I was lucky enough to catch the Imperial Tiger Orchestra – a Swiss band influenced by the Imperial Bodyguard Band of Haile Selassie I – but with added jazz. They played a mix of Ethiopian music from the Tigre, Amhara & Oromo regions, but also included some Sudanese songs. The entire performance was played and broadcast from the BBC Radio 3 stage, which was undoubtedly why this stage had the best sound at the whole festival.

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While it was strange seeing an all-white Swiss group play Ethiopian songs, they did manage to evoke rhythms of the Simian Mountains with their deep Ethio-jazz. Apart from the nostalgia brought on by their Nile sound the other highlight was their Oromo valley number with a fantastic dancer.

My absolute highlight of the festival was Malouma’s performance/workshop at the Taste the World stage, where she discussed amongst other things, the importance of cooking with sugar. It was an intimate performance/conversation despite the presence of a translator. The Mauritanian senator/singer discussed a range of issues with the audience, including how the instrument she was playing, made from a calabash and cow skin leather, is unique to Mauritania and only played by women.

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Malouma performed deep blues with a smile and incorporated ululation with her strong voice. She sang about ‘Love & God’, she discussed how she got into politics because she felt the faults in society, and firstly by singing about political issues including AIDS, vaccinations and literacy, and later the popular interest and support of the politics of her songs forced her into politics. “I started off being independent and involved in politics during colonialism”. Malouma the first and only woman artist in politics was very open about her criticism of government – “the words of my resistance songs were more effective than the politiciansThis led the politicians to flock to me after independence” – they are influenced by her, she said, while casually stirring the meal she was cooking for the audience. She also recounted that she was heavily censored and placed under house arrest for 15 years during the rule of Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya.

After this intimate and almost vulnerable performance, it was striking to see Malouma perform for the second time (many artists at WOMAD perform multiple sets during the festival). While her first performance was reserved, acoustic, intimate and used traditional instruments, her second performance showed her embrace of ‘modernist’ music. Complete with a full band including western guitarists and drummers Malouma put on a show that can only be described as ‘wild’. The 50 year old senator danced on stage, including at one point, head banging as well as any rock star, and the audience loved it. Never before did I think I would see a Mauritanian senator dressed in an Abaya lying on the floor of the stage floor singing and dancing provocatively – my highlight of the festival.

What should have been a highlight for the African music enthusiasts at the festival – Rokia Traore from Mali – turned out to be slightly disappointing. The rain meant only those well prepared, or willing to get soaked, braved the open air stage in the rain. However – and this is another festival criticism – the programming of the Open Air, and Siam stage (with gaps of more than an hour in-between each act) meant Rokia’s performance could have easily been moved into the Siam stage. However, this was not the case and the fantastic Malian singer had to perform to a small and probably unhappy crowd. Nevertheless, she gave a strong performance, including an improvised scatting session, in which she trilled like a bird.

Overall, for an African music enthusiast, WOMAD was enjoyable despite some scheduling disasters; the family friendly atmosphere and wide range of artists makes it worth recommending to music students and families with young children.That said, the worldliness of the festival wasn’t always reflected in the festival audience. Though the demographic of festival attendees (overwhelmingly white, middle-class though there are many mixed-race kids, and families) isn’t necessarily a problem – a few overheard remarks rather marred the impression of the festival as ‘the world’s festival. One entertainer, a juggler, ‘while performing took off  his shirt and made of joke about his slightly flabby body by describing his physical build by saying ‘’This is what a real man looks like, not like those bodybuilders…you don’t want to eat vegetables and all that healthy stuffy otherwise you’ll end upskinny like an African’ – to which the majority of the audience laughed. While telling this story to a group of people on Sunday morning one Fine Art student replied something like ‘that’s stupid, you know, all the Africans I know are really hench’ before going on to say ‘I was going to work in orphanage in Africa… but then my cat got sick’. Such off-hand remarks about Africa suggest there may be more for the festival organisers to do in getting their audience to truly engage with Africa and Africans, apart from listening to safely ‘exotic sounding’ music; that said, as a music festival, and an opportunity for people in the UK to hear from some great African musicians, WOMAD still remains beyond compare.

Fadil Elobeid

The 31st WOMAD (UK) Festival took place from the 25th-28th July at Charlton Park, Wiltshire.