The best summer night in Britain on the warmest day of the year
It’s Thursday evening and, as usual, we’ve already got too much stuff. In the hall is a minefield of suncream and two-litre lemonade bottles half-concealed beneath bags with their innards hanging out, where a last minute check that the towel made it in has turned up unfruitful. Sunglasses linger where they’re bound to be trodden on, apples roll loose towards the stairs, and five litres of various alcohols loll about the area. At the last minute, two unwieldy camping chairs join the ruckus. We must be going festivalling.
Overpacking aside, this year is the first year Frank and I will go to WOMAD alone. Where we’re normally surrounded by family, extended family and oldest friends, our spot this year will hold only a lonely two-man tent. Now graduated and wrapped in work, we can only tear ourselves free on Friday, so our usual five-day dissolution into a sun(/drenched) corner of Malmsbury becomes three. Nevertheless, onwards to WOMAD 2018 we head. With less time to survive in a field this year, we forgo the camp stove theatrics and find our load surprisingly light. A friend has lent us a luxurious object called a camping trolley, and (although I at first have a sneaking suspicion that it might be a red herring and wait until we’re as far from the car and campsite as possible before snapping off a wheel and dumping our twenty glass bottles of cider helplessly in the dust) it works! One load of not-even-heavy stuff from the car and we’re in! What will Argos bring us next.
In the World of Wellbeing, a shady arboretum, our first discovery of the festival is a huge hammock made of ten-ish smaller hammocks stitched together. It’s a riot. It’s strung between long gorgeous tree-trunk poles and has tens of bottle caps hung off each mini-hammock so it clatters and rattles as its inhabitants wiggle in its arms. There’s only two ways on and off, and it’s covered from the sun and the rain. It’s glorious, but plagued with children. We watch for a bit, but even though one child (and there’s always one, isn’t there?) does her best to rock the hammock like a galloping horse, bottle caps crackling together, no one looks set to move. The motto of the hammock, a sign tells us, is contemplation, experimentation and coexistence – a ‘tangible social network’. There’s a reason I don’t have any children on my social networks: they don’t share. And I’m too scared of them to ask. The hammock is never not teeming with children. I think some of them sleep there just to claim the space.
As we walk into the arena at 10pm, the sky dark but cloudless, we are in vest tops and loose shorts. It feels like it’s getting warmer. Frank’s mum chose WOMAD Spain this year as her WOMAD of choice: it must have been this temperature there too. It’s the best summer night in Britain on the warmest day of the year.
Never more than six feet from a… birkenstock?
On Friday morning, we approach the all singing, all dancing tent, where the backs of people waggling their hands above their heads and going ‘Ooooh!’ are visible. Inside, it is very close. It’s a harmony singing workshop by Kirsty Martin, a woman who calls herself a ‘choral activist’. People nod to each other and we’re encouraged to turn to strangers singing, in harmonies according to our vocal range, ‘You’re welcome here,’ over and over. There’s a sober, gentle, protecting atmosphere that permeates WOMAD, and it rises over us now in the sweltering tent, our voices ringing out like church bells beneath it. As we sing together ‘Rise, like lions; shake your chains,’ the WOMAD emblem, a lion, hovers metaphorically close at hand. A droplet of sweat runs down the back of my right thigh, and then my left. The sound of two hundred people singing in unison, in harmony, fills the tent, celestial, the closest I’ve ever felt to a divine experience, cheerfully Godless. I think this is going to be the best WOMAD yet.
The atmosphere this WOMAD, especially in the light of Brexit, and where some acts were turned away at the border in France, is furiously, dedicatedly welcoming. Someone is giving out luminsicent ‘BOLLOCKS TO BREXIT: IT’S NOT A DONE DEAL” stickers, and everywhere we go, people’s bags, hats, jackets and faces light up with them. The intercrossed benches that dot the site move with the other occupants, seesawing and vibrating as others hit out rhythms on the tabletops. We catch the end of Jennie Abrahamson on the d&b soundscape stage, a softly spoken Swedish singer with a gentle xylophone keyboard backing her Lana Del Ray-ish voice. It’s perfectly suited to the ‘immersive music experience’ curated by the d&b soundscape, and, a nervous sleeper but more relaxed than I’ve been all year, I fall asleep on a blanket to it, and when I wake up the crowd has cleared. There’s a girl hula-hooping near us in a group: friends of friends, who we join and end up sticking with for the rest of the festival.
Later, as Kojey Radical, creative extraordinaire, runs around the Siam tent rapping, he shouts that phrase so loved by people on stages: ‘Everyone put one hand up!’. A little whiff of armpits breezes through the tent. It’s alright for you Kojey, you’re not pressed against six unwashed strangers drinking cider in the bowels of a hot tent. It is very, very warm, but, after weeks of blazing sun, rain is forecast for tonight. I spot an old, slightly grizzled white gentleman near us in the midst of the crowd with his backpack on, sensible sandals, programme clutched under one elbow and a safari hat, pressing his opera glasses up against his eyeglasses and nodding along to Kojey. There really is something for everyone here; although WOMAD is still an almost exclusively white crowd, people of colour dominate the stages. On a possibly related note, they say in cities you’re never more than six feet away from a rat; well, at WOMAD you’re never more than six feet from a pair of birkenstocks (even if I, eh-hem, don’t count myself). Still, the crowd is friendly, no one ‘accidentally’ (come on mate, you didn’t even look!) stumbles over our bags, and when Kojey Radical takes a bow it’s jubilant – as is the crowd.
Sign language interpreters – unbounded energy and wildly inappropriate look
I don’t know what’s changed this year, but after tens of festivals, my shoulders have finally loosened up into unselfconsciously allowing both arms to proudly be put ‘in the air’ when requested. After too many years of half-arsed, half-bent, one-arming this request, I can’t tell if it’s because I didn’t bring a backpack this year or because of the glorious sunshine. As I wave my arms, in the crowd ahead of us children wear regulation earphones and sip calippos in front of wild flute-beatboxing. Beneath them, shoulders tucked under tiny legs, dads drink Thatchers from cans and boogie. A tiny alien, attached to an even tinier boy, floats among the crowd on parental shoulders and the sign language interpreter rocks out on stage. I know I’ve said this before, but really, if the sign language interpreter isn’t one of your favourite members of the onstage team, you haven’t been watching them close enough. Unbounded energy, the impetus to allow everyone to be able to feel the music, and a dedication to wearing a wildly inappropriate look for whatever music they’re signing (the school-teacher lookalike from Asian Dub Foundation last year leaps to mind), they’re a riot, that lot.
At Leftism Live, everyone is either nodding or screaming along. Everyone’s moving; the crowd is writhing on this particular Friday night in Malmsbury. I find myself immersed in music I never expected to hear. For the first time in a long time, I’m not thinking about whether anyone else is enjoying it. Eventually, of course, it comes to an end, and we lose our prime Leftism Live position to the group simultaneously needing a wee. We make a speculative stop by the crumble shack and make a pact to come back the next day after demanding to hear all of the employee’s favourite crumble combos. About one am we start to head towards Coyote Moon. ‘No!’ I protest, a little worse for wear, ‘Coyote Moon means bed!’. The group continues, we sit, and I immediately fall asleep. There’s something in the water here, I swear.
In the middle of the night, I wake up in a puddle, my sleeping matt soaking up the water, after leaving a towel to dry on the top of the tent in a fuzzy late night moment. I realise the roaring sound boring through my earplugs is the rain finally arriving all around our small tent. I think: at least my legs are cool now, and fall back asleep.
Camille: like a chorus of owls in the dark
In the morning, my towel on the top of the tent is dry in the sun and Frank’s towel, as well as most of my clothes, left in the outer part of the tent, are sopping wet after soaking up the rain that got in. I ring out my shorts to great effect. The weeks of sun have made me light and calm, and I lob them back into the tent over the camping trolley and we head in to catch the ever-powerful performance of Dizraeli at the Hip Yak Poetry Stage. On the Open Air stage afterwards, Camille, a french songstress with an under the sea theme going on, is playing. She’s mesmerising. We catch the end, where she plays alternately with a band and acappella, using her in-breaths as percussion. It’s like a breathing exercise, but four minutes long and with cooing like water droplets in surround sound in between. It’s like a waterfall when she lets the slightly longer lyrics tumble out: like a chorus of owls in the dark.
Later, at the Well Oiled Sister – a ‘lesbian cowpunk’ band with some very dirty lyrics – I discover I have worn the least portaloo-friendly outfit of all time. It’s raining, and my shin-length yellow fisherman’s mac with very tight buttonholes covers a jumper, a cardigan, and a bumbag – over a jumpsuit. ‘You’re not wearing a JUMPSUIT,’ says one of our friends, as I begin unpeeling layers and handing them to others to hold, ‘We’ll meet you back here in half an hour’. We get late night tea and nachos and hang around the piano waiting for someone to play something we all know the words to. By the time we tumble into our tents it’s 3am, and we miss half the fun of Sunday.
The perfect end to WOMAD 2018
Frank and I have to go in the evening the next day, so while it’s dry we pack up the tent and cart it to the car. The camping trolley doesn’t trick us (incredible!) and we manage a one-trip wonder once again. In the arena, we stumble across Hashmat Sultana, dueting Sufi sisters with powerful voices, driven and working together to create a huge sound in tandem. There’s an unbelievable amount of energy coming from the stage, but they look in their element. They’re on at a different time from specified in the programme – later I learn that they’d been held at the border until they’d missed their slot, allowed through 24 hours later. They appear completely unfazed, burning off the energy gathered in customs, pushing it into their show. After, we see a windswept Pixvae on the Open Air, the one and only ‘latincore’ band, followed by Melissa Laveaux in the Siam tent. She has a striking, smoky voice that contrasts beautifully with her bass player’s clear tones, while the drummer builds the beat of the next song in the applause of the first, the audience automatically clapping along. Later, at the Taste the World stage, she makes vegan fritters and hands round Haitian rum that makes everyone smile. It’s the perfect end to WOMAD 2018: gloriously hot; ringing with energy; and dedicatedly, furiously, welcoming.