WOMAD Festival - A Beacon of Light

Updated: Aug 25, 2018

...when July comes around, there's a buzz of excitement in my chest and I can hear global rhythms carried on the breeze from a rural location deep in leafy Wiltshire.

As soon as the sun arrives (and this year it's been in abundance) then all of my other interests become channeled into one place - the festival season. For the best part of the year I create images and content from Bath and the surrounding area, celebrating events and the beautiful architecture of this stunning city. But, when July comes around, there's a buzz of excitement in my chest and I can hear global rhythms carried on the breeze from a rural location deep in leafy Wiltshire.

I'm talking about WOMAD Festival, which stands for (and champions) a World of Music, Arts and Dance. Often known as the festival with "...the best music you've never heard" a global community descending on a rural part of the UK that celebrates the incredible contemporary, diverse and relevant music heard today and more so in the current political climate. It's a beacon of light.

My camera starts to work overtime on arrival to the familiar (but slightly scorched fields) I turn to my other editorial commitments, creating content for national newspapers and website articles. It's a joy though to be able to become involved at this festival and I always try hard to think what it is that sets this festival apart from so many others across the UK - For one, it's definitely the diversity of the musical acts (from 130 countries), art installations and workshops. On the other hand, it's the incredible range of world foods available, not to mention the brilliant range of local ales and real ciders too.

Though this alone doesn't make a festival and I think the other element that rises to the top every year is that of unity. No other place feels so warm, welcoming and accepting of different cultures and as a 'knock on' affect this in turn creates warmth and appreciation amongst the crowd and festival site as a whole. It's a family-friendly experience but knows that when the sun goes down and (some of) the children have retired to bed, the party will continue in full force.

A favourite time for me, is around 11pm - when the main acts have finished and the smaller stages, of which there's plenty to choose from, come to life with an eclectic mix of performances. The Siam tent in particular is a treasure trove of delights during this, the witching hour and hats off to the organisers who have developed a knack for placing the acts perfectly in the bill.

The Siam Stage - Home to that perfect late night performance

Highlights for me this year have been far reaching - so much more than in previous years. I think overall, there has been a shift in appreciation for the smaller acts, steering away from the headliners. Though - Leftfield performing their groundbreaking debut 'Leftism' live on Friday night is a memory I will always cherish.

Where else could you see a collaboration from Cuba, Jamaica and Australia on one stage?! The band Havans Meets Kingston combines the best of reggae, dub and dancehall

The smaller groups, at grassroots level and often limited in funding or opportunity to travel abroad have been given a wonderful platform to bring their unique sound to these shores.

Two particular highlights that shone through on the Arboretums' Ecotricty Stage were:

Gasper Nali from Malawi who had a modest background but after a video featuring his performance of 'A Bale Ndikuwuzeni' surfaced online he quickly became a sensation, gaining over 20 million views. Made even more famous by the incredible, hand crafted instrument that provides the raw, energy music that canters along in the background - a 2 metre long one-stringed bass made from a drum and a stretched wire from a tyre's inner layer, played with a stick in one hand and an empty beer bottle in the other.

Abatwa (The Pygmy) from Rwanda - a tribal group from the rural lands of the country endangered by developments across the country, not least from the genocide both reported and unreported. There's pride, dignity and power in these vocal songs backed with a raw emotion from the stringed instruments. One female member of the team (name un-recalled) now aged 64 had never left her country or even been on a plane before this moment where at the festival she has conquered those challenges to give a captivating performance to thousands of people.

After each performance there's often an opportunity grab a copy of the cd signed by the band you've just watched

Perfectly nestled in the arboretum and offering a rest bite from the strong sunlight you'll find a world of relaxation and charm. The World of Wellbeing.

A myriad of artisan craftspeople have set up camp offering wares and workshops amongst the tree canopy. Try your hand at spoon making or crafting your own working bow - in only a few hours! Not to mention other holistic therapies from Shiatsu, various body massages, a bong bath (quite something to behold) Healing hands therapies and my personal favourite, Sahaja Yoga Meditation. Even in the hum and bustle of the festival I was able to experience a warm energy flow from the top of my head - I've always been sceptical about such treatments, but this was quite unlike something I've ever felt - and very satisfying at that!

Last year a big feature in the woods was Laughter Yoga - a perfect antidote to any lingering hangovers or tiredness. This year, the popular choice was Capoeira - a martial arts dance that originates from Brazil where the participants face each other off to rhythmic music whilst moving and ducking on the grass. The aim is to attack and react but without contact - it's a fluid dance of agility and acrobatic moves which is utterly compelling to witness - if you can keep your balance!

If that's too much to handle how about a different style of dance that takes you into the grooves of Afro-Cuban rhythms in the 'All Singing All Dancing Workshop' . A perfect morning wake up call and guided recovery workout making you shake down that body with Cuban percussion and chanting lead by Jose Ferrera.

If you'd rather something a little more less mobile but equally energising for your brain then head over to the Hip Yak Poetry Shack where you'll nestle with an adoring crowd beneath the trees to listen to cleverly constructed and often vulnerable performances tinged with humour.

Close to the arboretum is a world of crazy color and fun - The World of Kids. It's not somewhere I linger for too long I have to admit - there's a buzz of manic energy there which is hard to keep up with! Expect the unexpected and prepare for every fun activity under the sun (bring bags of energy too if you have children - you'll need it! Phew!)

Expect the unexpected in the World of Kids

All that grooving, playing and poetry has me itching to seek out some new live performances. This time in the form of a mighty, big sound of the Bollywood Brass Band - a perfect 'pick me up' after the relaxing arboretum environment.

Performed to a backdrop of classic Indian movies this ensemble re-imagines decades worth of soundtracks and gives vibrancy, energised versions to a roaring, grooving crowd in the Siam Tent. Joined by Jyotsna Srikanth a violin virtuoso from India this collaboration is complete with her extensive knowledge of classic scores providing a link between the two countries, which in the writing process was often established via skype and the internet - a world made smaller and connected.

A festival first-timer feels the Bollywood groove

With my feet and backside grooving it's time to step out of the relative darkness of the Siam into the bright sunshine to venture on for more music. The remainder of Saturday is given over to this pursuit of new bands and new food, where I was surprised by some incredible vegan food that was so very tasty and filling - I could eat that all weekend - Huge thumbs up for the Chic' In Fajita wrap - all meat free of course.

The Main Stage is calling and the modern sounds of an Ethiopian/French collaboration are pulling me closer to the colourful, vibrant crowd watching Selamnesh Zemene and Badume Band.

Scorpios brought a special something to the Charlie Gillet Stage

I've been going to WOMAD since it's Reading location days, where I would help install art pieces for the Sunday carnival parade. Now, at Charlton Park the future is set for at least the next 12 years and as the site is tweaked every season, the festival site really starts to feel like it's beginning to meld together fluidly. It would be incredible however, to see more art work and street theatre, as the site moves towards catering for the music and culinary tastes over actual visual tastes and global themed art installations. Other festivals, such as the Larmer Tree have nailed this particular aspect and their ever evolving street theatre acts and a touch of genius, ever changing and engaging.

Orchestre Les Mangelepa provide a 1970's tinged African big band performance on the Charlie Gillett Stage

One surprising piece of street theatre might catch the unaware out - This year the crowd was treated to a fantastic performance by the French dance company Cie Pernette which featured dancers performing synchronised movements complete with garden water sprayers to a backdrop of Strauss' Blue Danube. Absolutely hilarious and incredibly refreshing if you received a face full of water in this hot weather!

As Monday rolls around (always too fast!) and as I roll up my sleeping bag and tent there's always a tinge of sadness that it's over for another year. But, re-living the experience again through photos, social media posts, that strange ache on the lower part of my back and the strange patch of sunburn that I couldn't quite reach to cover up - I feel content and rejuvenated for the remainder of the year.

They say the best thing to do when returning home is to plan the next festival - which fortunately is just around the corner - another delight - Valley Fest on the 3rd to 5th August near Bristol.

In the meantime, re-live the magic of the global celebration through this series of images which go some way to capture the true essence of the festival experience. (I've tagged on some extra photos from previous years too, they simply can't be hidden on the hard drive!)


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