WOMAD 2017 review: rain, old friends, and magnesium-enriched feet

- August 24th, 2017

WOMAD 2017

Finally, the day that we had been looking forward to all year was upon us. We rammed the car full of food, camping equipment, and lots of wet weather gear (no one can say we weren’t prepared). It was time for WOMAD 2017.

Being the typical Cornwallians that we are, of course we stopped less than ten minutes into the journey to pick up a good old Philp’s pasty (or two, in the more thoughtful/food focused of our cases), but then we were fully on the road. The traffic was bearable, we had our Songlines CD on, and WOMAD was about to begin. As we got into Malmsbury, WOMAD FM came into tune – always the sign to get in the mood for a fab weekend.

Donna the angel

We located our usual camping spot – near the showers, not too near the portaloos –  and up went all the tents. The sun was shining, the ground was dry, and in the distance we could hear locals The Malmesbury Project, which traditionally open the festival, floating over the arboretum. It had been several hours since our pasties, and I was beginning to hunger for some of the food we had bought. “We should go straight in to see the music!” agreed the boys. We were rummaging in the tent, me eating a carrot dunked in hummus, when the angel Donna appeared.

“Hello?” came a loud voice from outside the tent. “Young people?” The door was flung to one side.

“I’ve come to ask you a favour. We were wondering– Oh, you’re not young!” she said at the sight of Gavin, Frank’s dad.

“What do you mean? Yes I am!”

“Oh sorry, yes, yes you are,” she said with a wink.

“How can we help you?” we asked.

“Well, we’ve ended up with loads and loads of food, and what we need you to do is to eat it and then give us back our tupperware.”

We were stunned. “You want us to eat all your food?”

“Yes, well we’ve bought too much of it and it’s going to go off, so if you could just eat it and then return the boxes, does that sound alright?”

“I think we can help you there,” I said.

“What kind of food are we talking about?” asked Calum.

“Ooh, we’ve got samosas, we’ve got bahjis, we’ve got homemade scampi, feta salad, chicken drumsticks, peri-peri chicken, sausages, stuffed vines, stuffed olives–”

Stuffed olives!

“–roast veg cous cous, strawberries…” The list went on. Returning the tupperware and cool bag was reinstated, and then the feast was delivered absolutely true to word. Two-pasties-Frank’s mouth hung open. It was the most decadent banquet I’d had in my life, and we ate it all sat on the floor of my four person tent with sporks and fingers. When we’d eaten till we could eat no more, all the while exclaiming about how good the food was, we sat back and realised we still had more than half left. “Only at WOMAD,” everyone uttered in turns. “Only at WOMAD.”

After breakfast the next morning, almost full still from Donna’s treat, I headed to the physics tent and caught a talk that promised “spectacular on stage explosions!” and the opportunity to learn about how on and off screen special effects are created. It was pleasant to sit in the warm tent on a chair and do some learning. Fog rolled around the tent, and at one point the host put his hand in a shower of sparkling flames, before telling us he’d had to do a half-day course just to be allowed to do all ten seconds of that trick. I would have definitely been more interested in physics at school if they’d begun it with a stunt like that; it’s something WOMAD’s always done well for me – being both intriguing and inspiring, especially with its more family-friendly vibe.

Festival of Talks, anyone?

Wandering past the World of Words on my way out, I saw a lecture going on from a human rights lawyer. Without really thinking about it, I ducked in and sat down, and ended up in the most interesting lecture I’d been to all year (and I graduated this year). Clive Stafford Smith (OBE), a name I’d never heard before, was an astoundingly compelling speaker, and talked at length on gruesome and fascinating topics, from torture, to assassination, to the death penalty, and all the political background that went on in between. He delivered facts and real life cases in a dry, scathing tone, and forced the audience to participate while leading them wherever he wanted them to go. (“Would anyone here torture this man? No? Well, I’m going to convince you of why you’d want to” – before getting the audience to slowly agree that they would, and then hitting us with cold statistics that convinced us we shouldn’t.) I bought his book as soon as I got home. After, a “how to get published” panel talk intrigued me, and had many suggestions on untraditional ways to go about it, something I’d missed in my English degree. I love sitting in on non-compulsory talks, and as someone who listens almost exclusively to Radio Four, please do let me know if you know a festival mainly based around talks – or if anyone’s up for starting one, count me in.

Saturday morning promised a treat in learning about foley sampling, a way noise is added to films. Unfortunately, although the School of Noise scored ten out of ten for trying, their equipment gave up on them, and the set was reduced to them teaching a group of five or six children how to make and record the noise of the wind, footsteps, or a gate creaking. At the end, however, they pulled through, and managed to live project a machine which showed how sand moved into patterns through the vibrations sound gives off, a very cool way of combining science and music, especially for the smaller members of the audience. From there, we went on to the highlight of the festival for me: BURD’s beatboxing workshop.

Bellatrix has been a musician I’ve been interested in for a while now, and seeing her live alongside Grace Savage was something else. They were both charming, and so talented, and got all the audience to love what they were doing and join in, big and small.

They pulled people from the audience and gave them their own short sets of improvised beatboxing that went stunningly well. The tasks they gave us were simple, but made for impressive progress – I can’t imagine many people coming away from the performance without wanting to try it again. They were inspiring, and fantastic teachers, and I kicked myself later in the festival when I realised I’d missed another chance to see them.

Magnesium-enriched feet, and a new, more accurate, Ironic

With BURD over and Bellatrix and Grace Savage out of CD’s to sell, we headed back into the sunshine. At the Khmer Rouge Survivors Workshop, I learnt about some of the atrocities of Cambodia, and the difficulties that still continue today, the group having struggled to even obtain permission from their government to come to WOMAD. Later, as we wandered along the rows of shops, Calum and I came to a stop in front of a shell-shaped children’s paddling pool filled with seaweed. The young man in charge of it explained that they were selling pampering products, and that the seaweed was full of minerals, especially magnesium, that were terribly good for your feet. “I’ve got towels if you want to go in,” he said. We slipped off our boots.

The water was cold, and the seaweed especially slimy. It turned out to have been harvested near the Lizard, very near to my house, the jokes about having come so far just to get in a murky, seaweedy pool from home inevitable. A pair of girls dressed in full body leotards approached, and we encouraged them to join us, the four of us chest to chest in the small slimy pool: “So, everyone been having a good WOMAD, then?”. A crowd was beginning around us, stopping to look at the four strangers falling about laughing in a seashell pool meant as a toddler’s sandpit with water that was looking distinctly more and more unclean. It was time to take our magnesium-enriched feet onwards.

At the poetry shack we caught Anna Freeman performing her own version of Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, drawing out each section of the song until having “rain on your wedding day” really was ironic (“it’s like rain on your wedding day – if you’re a farmer and there’s been seven months of drought and you say to your partner, well at least we can get married in the fields and have a beautiful wedding, and your partner says ‘I always love how relentlessly positive you are’, and then it – raaaains, on your wedding day – and” etc.), before heading on to Toko Telo at Taste the World. They were charming, both softly spoken, and handed out sachets of Madagascan coffee and dishes of sunshine chicken for the audience to try. After three years of never quite getting round to watching a Taste the World set, it was a pleasure to watch Toko Telo as our first. As the rain began to tip down, we made our way to Seu Jorge’s set – playing undercover, the huge Siam tent was packed. It was a wonderful environment, Seu Jorge playing his Life Aquatic soundtrack, a tribute to David Bowie in Portuguese. Sat on a vast stage with only his guitar and the lights streaming down on him, the crowd singing the chorus’ in English slightly disconcerting, the heavy rain on the roof of the tent and running off the edges, the huge tent seem warm, homely, at once a memorial to Bowie and a beautiful performance by a talented musician.

Soggy limbo Queen is separated at birth

Toots and the Maytals were Saturday night’s headline act, and everyone was there to see them – despite being on the open air stage on one of the wettest evenings. Frank had brought full length macs designed for visiting Niagara Falls for the both of us and still I got wet. Later, we joined a group on the piano, everyone taking it in turns to play, sing and drink. A lady stood at the back was eventually was persuaded to take up the piano stool; Linda Joy played sadly but powerfully, stunning her audience. As we wandered on to Lunched Out Lizards, drunk and wet but in high spirits, we caught a group limboing outside, holding a thick orange glow stick on a string as the limbo bar between them. At their calls we took up the challenge, and I limboed lower and lower, my scarf dangling in the mud until Frank nabbed it and fished it out. The next morning I found the crotch of my low-slung harems crunchy with dried mud, but I didn’t care – for I was the limbo Queen! My crown was the glow stick, which they slung around my neck, recognising me later with it and cheering for the limbo Queen. Of course, I was very flattered, and drunkenly told many people exactly where my new necklace had come from, sometimes with successful demonstrations and sometimes with an extra helping of mud. In Lunched Out Lizards I proved to myself how drunk I was by making a friend, Jack, who I intensely discussed the current job market with until it was almost time for bed.

As I wandered tent-wards through the World of Wellbeing, a security guard wished me “good morning” with a smile. I shuddered at the realisation that it was hastily becoming light. Alone, I called for Frank by whistling two notes, and a woman popped out of the bushes.

“Lucy? Lucy, is that you?”

I smiled at her, uncertain whether it was me she was talking to.

“Was that you that whistled?” she asked.

“Yeah, it’s something my family does.”

“Well you and Lucy must have been separated at birth, because that’s the exact same whistle she has,” she said, and disappeared back into the bushes. At the campsite, people were beginning to queue for their morning showers. It was definitely time for bed.

CERN-sick

When I awoke, reliant on the hot sun to expel me from the tent without thinking it might be grey, I’d missed both BURD’s performance and a BBC 3/6 simulcast which was apparently fantastic, according to our next-tent neighbour. Outside the Physics Pavilion was the great camera obscura, a box with a thick lens on one side that throws the subject into sharp focus while blurring the background, creating very beautiful images. Inside the box was a photographer, who captured the image as it fell upside down on a blank canvas, and a gaggle of interested people who he was explaining how it worked to. Every so often he would stick his hand out of the lens hole with a thumbs up. As I wandered to find Frank in the Physics lab, his sister called out to me from a tent. Inside, they were wearing VR headsets, on a virtual tour of the CERN lab. They encouraged me to give it a go. The headset was set up and popped over my eyes and ears. Was I still drunk? The images in each eye seemed to go in different directions, and where my feet should have been all the images came to a sharp point. There was writing, but I couldn’t read it, and when I turned my head the whole room span. Everyone else seemed to be enjoying it so I kept at it, trying to understand, trying not to… nope, I was gonna be sick if I kept it on, so I whipped it off, the room stopping spinning and my eyes focusing again. “Is it meant to be like that?” I asked, feeling a little worse for wear. The instructor tried it on. “Ooh… no. Looks like that one’s run out of battery”. I was handed a new headset, and had the more interesting (although arguably less of a full body experience) tour of CERN that I was expecting.

Eliza McCarthy that afternoon was hilarious. Dressed from head to toe in white with a blue stripe across her face and a crushingly tight corset that held her boobs around her chin, she played her violin manically, bending over backwards as she furiously sawed out songs about Victorian lady engineers. My favourite part was when two of her band put down their instruments and began to jig either side of her – on her right, a large man threw himself into the air with high knees, while to her left a small woman tried to keep up, looking to him all the time for the next moves. At the end, with Eliza on her knees in rapture over her violin, the dancers bent down and chucked handfuls of gold glitter over her as she played. It was exactly the kind of comical performance I needed to get me back on track after our long night.

Frank and the Rickuleles get a compliment

As most people headed towards Ladysmith Black Mamboza in the mud, Frank and I decided to head back to the tent for some food. As we wandered down the shops towards the exit, a ukulele tent stocked with ukes made from metal cans caught Frank’s ear, and he stopped to have a look. Unperturbed and lazy, I pulled out my camping chair and took a seat. One of the shopkeepers was playing, and Frank joined him on one of the “Rickuleles”. The other owner pulled up a chair next to mine. I asked him about the name, wondering if it had some connection to the charity the proceeds help support.

“My name’s Rick,” he said, “it didn’t take me long to come up with it…”

As Frank and the shopkeeper played, the sun finally out and Rick grilling me about Frank, I thinking hoping to nab him for his band forever, a tall man approached. He stood for a while listening, the name on his artist’s pass flashing in the sun: “Toots and the Maytals”.

“Do you play?” asked Rick, seemingly oblivious.

“Er, yeah I do, I do,” said the man. He listened a little longer, gave his compliments and wandered on.

Alex and Bernie

Two years ago at WOMAD, Frank and I had met a couple in their thirties or forties at the piano. We’d spent the evening jamming in the wash-out mud, drawing a huge crowd. In the photo I took to remember it, the woman is turned away, laughing. The man sits with his back to the camera, playing the piano. Afterwards, we’d been dancing, wandered around and made friends, and stayed up till the morning with the pair. We never saw them again, although both they and us are WOMAD fanatics and we’d shared a lot of secrets and laughs. I barely even remembered their faces.

That is until Frank turned and said he saw them. They were in a massage tent near the World of Wellbeing, and he appeared to be waving, so we approached. They said hello cautiously, and then suddenly realised who we were – “You’re Cornish boy!” Bernie shouted, and they both leapt up to hug us. “Have some wine, have some gin!” Alex said, and they pulled us up chairs and handed us glasses. “How’ve you been?” It was fantastic to catch up with these otherwise near-strangers who we knew so much about. We talked about how our jobs had changed, how we’d finished uni and they’d been house swapping, catching up two years with eagerness, old friends we’d spent one night before with. We drank wine with them for an hour – I look forward to seeing them again, same time, same place, next year.

So long WOMUD

After Roy Ayers, Seun Kuti and Egypt 80, we of course rounded off the evening by heading to the piano. With Frank moving to start a new job the next day and a long drive home, an early night was upon us. At the piano were two men, playing passionately and in beautiful harmony together, at great speed in many places, obviously talented musicians and presumably long-acquainted. As they got up they shook hands, and one said: “Good show. What’s your name?”. WOMAD is a place of creativity, and especially a place of learning. As we packed down the next morning, as ever it was a shame to leave, despite the nickname “WOMUD” I’ve heard it given, and the slightly soggy atmosphere. Better luck for the weather next year, Malmesbury – I look forward to seeing you there already.

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