Darling WOMAD! How saccharine the earthen musk of your scent after so long.
How hedonistically saucy! A colossal mix of vibrational ecstasy, performer’ egotistical narcissism, droll herd mentality and the latest feminine fashions! WOMAD you are the sideways-glance of festivals, infinitely more understated yet with so much more pith. How could I so carelessly re-enter your embrace, strolling up to Siberian songstress trio Ayarkhaan as if the sound of songs from Yakutia in northeast Russia were as familiar as Aussie accents down Rundle mall? No wonder their sonic beauty nearly struck me down.
Draining movement from this restless Western body, a gentle aural garrotte. Ayerkhaan’ songs were as soft and elegant as the souls of tundra birds, and when the singing was over and the khomus were raised to their mouths (a reverberating mouthpiece similar to the Jew’ harp) how dark the drone, how bass and base, like the wending of near-frozen rivers towards the northern sea, flowing off stage and coiling around our feet and bellies, in an unforeseeable, gorgeous, startling welcome.
Neither can the performers themselves estimate the complexity of the WOMAD super-event. Could traditional Hindi singers Manjiri Kelkar and Sudha Ragunathan imagine that the demands of performing together would come not from the expectations of a foreign audience, but from the hammers of heat sledging down from a desert sun onto the afternoon stage? They remained composed as sweat pooled in the crevices of their folded limbs beneath their calmly seated forms, while the percussionists smiled as they jousted and the singers gave a light time-keeping tap to the knee. Betraying not the slightest discomfort on a 36-degree day as the audience reposed in deepest shade. Discipline overlaid another texture upon the long-serving structures and compartments of improvisation in the tunes, something of a demonstration of the players’ mastery in their field.
WOMAD is a many-armed lover, offering with one hand the sweet persimmons of antique traditions as the other scatters the dust of the human herd across the sky. Nurturing musicians, as their homelands are transformed, or destroyed. While fear reins in Mali, Vieux Farke Toure and Ngoni Ba were here to play for us. Vieux is of course already a Chosen One, path blazed by an incandescent father. What took Ali most of his life to arrive at – that is, going beyond tradition – his son has soared like a flamingo towards a salt lake newly flooded. From his self-titled 2007 release, touching on reggae and blues, Vieux continued by flirting with Israeli piano in the Toure-Raichel Collective – their album The Tel Aviv Sessions was released last year. For a man now 32 years old, the directions he could take are everything we could hope for. Live at WOMAD he served a dish of traditional Malian style guitar fortified with a rock backbone, and a rock grin on his face. Could Vieux’ next permutation take West African music into the realms of experimental music, or modern electronica? The signature skill of his guitar style and a willingness to enter new ground could give birth to new dynastic genres that even Fela Kuti would be envious of.
For Bassekou Kouyate, patriarch of Malian ensemble Ngoni Ba, the step in a new direction was gentler, a wah peddle applied to his ngoni solos. He was a picture of ease, leaning back centre stage, his wife singing beside him and his relatives surrounding him. Perhaps only a small step towards innovation, he is nevertheless indicative of where we are seeing top African musicians going. Beyond tradition into new horizons, just as we saw at WOMAD 2006 with Hendrix-esque Guinean kora outfit Ba Cissoko. Whilst watching Bassekou Kouyate, it was easy to imagine that after the joy of performing sloughed away his face might become more pensive, leaden, with the thoughts of friends and relatives left behind in Mali. Easy to imagine, and probably lacking in any true depth of understanding.
At the end of four days, crushed by the relentless heat and supine in the sweaty aftermath of WOMAD’ physical affections, I crash-landed at the Taste the World tent, only a scattering of others in attendance fanning at the sauna-ish air, over-sated and bemused. Chanters from the island of Reunion had taken the empty water cooler and began a beat. The kayamb was in accompaniament, a traditional Reunion persussion board made from joined tubes of sugar canes filled with seeds, its dry hissing sussuration like the sound of a rattlesnake. At first the venerated tune from an island so lost in the morass of the Indian Ocean was like a lullaby in a mixture of African, Madagascan, Comorean and French Creole, in fact one so old that the meanings of the words are lost, unimportant beside the melody.
As diva Christine Salem (with off-centre bouffant hair a mix of Astroboy and James Brown) pointed at a pot of chicken and claimed the flavour was good when cooked in beer (what about Aussie beer? She doesn’ drink beer, but champagne, on the other hand…) the locks to the rythym in our hearts were broken. The musicians smiled knowingly. How many times had they patiently waited, chanting up and up, until at last someone breaks free of their inhibitions and gyrates, swinging hips and arms?
As Christine scrunched up her eyes and threw a glance to her percussionists they cheered on the dancer in the audience. Christine, grinning and unable to resist, joined in the song with her deep-and-dark-as-tar voice and her exquisite, effortlessly-perfect harmonies. In the food tent they were so close – we could hear the real timbre of their voices, breaths unamplified, scuff of their feet moving in time. Have no doubt that the eyes that met our eyes were really seeing us – the individuals – like we were seeing them. Here, the musicians from Reunion were at home in a informal gathering, with the scent of music humid and heady. Without a pause, the percussionists bridged to a new tune, as Christine dumped red chillies into the chicken.
WOMAD is the lover who knows our childish self. And is tolerant, endeared by our naÃ¯ve folly. If, at 40 years of age, Souad Massi is still an Algerian pop-folk pin-up girl then no doubt WOMAD has helped her stay that way. Perhaps her popularity exceeds her talent, but is that bad? Necessarily? The crowd was certainly demanding more as she finished her set.
A WOMAD announcer emerged from the side of the stage, ready to thank the band with shallow praise and steer habituated festi-goers towards their next destination. But Souad, seeing him, put her arm around his shoulders and a good natured shove of her hip nudged him back towards the side. Everyone could see him protesting that her time was up, and Souad replied something contrary with a smile. She knew the crowd was behind her. As she won the tussle and evicted the announcer from stage Souad Massi seized the mic and declared â€œI HAVE POWER I DO WHAT I WANT!â€ Quite the spoilt brat she sounded. But who can’ like her for doing what most of us wish we could? Keep going, girl. And to the WOMAD announcers, you deserve it. We’re there to hear the musicians, not you.
More than that, seeing Souad was a fulfilment of something ten years past, when her voice came out of her album named Deb, heart-broken. Sweet, an ordinary, everyday melancholy beauty. Perhaps a fulfilment, a refilling like puddles, not of her voice but of the sunshine of those days when we heard her pretty songs. This made me happy.
Yes, WOMAD is like a lost spouse, the long-distance lover, restored in a few days of bliss, then gone – leaving nothing but silhouettes on the retina, token words on the internet, a dull ache in the heart.
Lindley McKay, with photos by Adam Skinner
1) One of the Ayerkhaan songstress trio plays the khomus
2) Indian vocal masters Sudha Ragunathan (left) and Manjiri Kelkar (right) show their resilience in the face of the Australian sun
3) Vieux Farke Toure, having a damn good time
4) Bassekou Kouyate’ band are the redeemers of the west african stringed instrument, the ngoni
5) Algerian Souad Massi hits a hard note