We arrived to the sounds of Hugh Maskela who was setting the Friday afternoon alight. As we were setting up our tents cheers wafted over the breeze as the legendary performer’s trumpet carried over the fields of tents, campervans and hordes of children though mostly across eager generations of the musically curious.
WOMAD 2012 was here!
Grupo Fantasma were the first act to start the weekend per force. Their infectious latin-inflected music had everyone grooving hot and heavy. From there it was a pretty easy jaunt to Carlou D, a musician that had me wondering whether or not I had already heard the best the weekend had to offer. Playing audience participation game to a masterful degree Carlou made sure that festival was in top gear before we were impatiently cheering for the nitrous oxide rush of the Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra.
I’ve been a fan of this band for so many years. Who can resist the sophisticated debauchery of these rising sons, there is something effortlessly cool about the Paradise Orchestra that joins people together and everyone in the so-called Big Red Tent became firm friends, skanking and flailing with that pure Ska joy that only Ska can impart. The motto? We came, we saw, we skanked.
The Manganiyar Seduction by Roysten Abel was a much feted performance with many cognoscenti nudging each other and saying with a sly wink ‘just you wait, this will knock your socks off!’. So it was that we bunched in to see this spectacle of Rajasthani music. I admit that I was quite underwhelmed by the experience, the boxes lighting up to reveal a different participant just didn’t move me.
I am by no means a stickler for pure ‘authenticism’ but this presentation did nothing to enhance the music. If anything I felt that it was a bit distracting. Watching musicians onstage interacting and interplaying with the performance is part of what marks a performance as not just live but living. I felt that this bit of theatre, with its segmentation and divided sensationalism, created deaf ears by catering to wide eyes. That said, I was in an almost absolute minority with the crowd raving about the performance for the rest of the weekend. Insh’Allah, so shall it be.
Whatever grumblings and misgivings I haboured were quickly dismissed with the first ecstatic bars of Jimmy Cliff‘s powerhouse reggae set. We all danced with abandon and threw ourselves into this seminal artists flawless set. I think many people must have sung themselves hoarse on Wild World as the band were drowned out by the ecstatic chorus. Song after song heralded priceless moment after priceless moment as this tireless Jamaican statesman allowed his stuff to strut in front of the very young and very pretty WOMAD crowd.
Exhausted and elated the crowd drifted next door for Kimmo Pohjonen & DakhaBrakha, we hoped from some quiet and relaxing music to set us dozing into the night. How wrong we were as the combination of ferocious accordion mastery and avant garde sensibilities wrung the older crowd dry. Sensational stuff that captivated regardless of generation, taste, or energy level. Undeniable to the extreme, many took this as cue to let loose whatever inhibitions they had to a to don the night’s mask with the flirtatious abandon it deserved . I, however, made my excuses and…
Not getting much sleep from the night before and nursing strong coffees we watched the healthy take part in Tai Chi the same way one watches a snail crawl along the edge of razor. Before welcoming the recuperative power of cider Raghu Dixit gave us a double shot of enthusiasm and east/west crossover power-folk. While I can’t claim to be huge fan of his music as a performer he gave everything he had and was warmly welcomed for it. By the end of his set the crowd were fully ready to take days lineup and run with it…
…But it’s doubtful that anyone fully expected the mesmerising experience of the Portico Quartet. Hailing from the hip confines of East London their mixture of indie noise and sublime melody enthralled an audience of thirty-somethings who embracing the packages of youth beyond the trappings of the NME. Sometimes the ozone and ammonia smell of hype hides the talent of a group and I can’t say that I didn’t walk away searching for less cluttered atmospheres. But then again I was in a minority (how out of step can one reviewer be?) as at the bar punter after breathless punter cornered me until I admitted the Portico Quartet were at the very least unique and fascinating.
Of course they were, the little darlings, each one a snowflake of unshaved talent and v-necked velvet. Sheesh, it’s like no-one’s ever heard of Amon Tobin or shivered in awe at a Polar Bear gig. Moving on.
Regardless of whatever personal inclinations I might have had to have a quiet drink somewhere, the females in our party were adamant that we had to watch Kimmo Pohjonen perform solo. The previous night’s performance had rendered them mute but unsatisfied.
As we watched the powerful Finn manipulate loop pedals we fell under his spell as he used his accordion to create swirling walls of symphonic noise building up into a violent and irrepressibly eruptive finale.
After such a enormous performance Femi Kuti had a lot to deliver and while energetic his confident show didn’t seem to capture the crowd as much as it might. We bopped along merrily in any case but listening to the crowd pontificate it seemed that for half the crowd he wasn’t Fela enough and for others he was too much. I guess sometimes you can’t win.
Unless of course you’re Khaled. This Rai-singing Algerian superstar makes it look so effortless. While he’s start to look a little greyed since the last time we saw him we can say that despite the snow on the roof the fire in the kitchen does the business.
One imagines that that would mark the end of the night’s serious entertainment, however the ‘fusion’ tones of Blick Bassy were almost unsurpassed. For a small trio they packed a huge musical punch and had the crowd dancing well into the night.
Once again the WOMAD day started with a superlative performance this time in form of the Alaev Family from Tajikstan (and more recently Israel). Led by the 80 year old patriarch Allo this musical dynastic gave us an expert display of polyrhythmic proto-klezmer music steeped in heady beats and intricate melodies. Intoxicating stuff and despite technical difficulties a force to be reckoned with.
I doubt they’d argue too much if I described them as one of the best party bands I’ve ever seen. How much more the pity that it was so early in the day. One imagines that with the sunset of sobriety the Alaev family would carry the crowd to heights of wild dancing, spirited singing, perhaps even strangers might be hugged. However for me the day and the festival went to Damien Dempsey.
Damien Dempsey has a great lyrical history, a rebel singer, an ex boxer with the look of local man, perhaps even an Everyman. Sometimes the lack of flash is the best costume.
Damien Dempsey‘s voice captures the loss and alienation of a people whose dreams of prosperity either never materialised or where dashed with fickle market forces. Like many people I was drawn to the early side stage show and didn’t know much about the man more than the high praise within the programme. Before his show he merely counted Morrissey and Sinead O’ Connor as his fans, afterwards I think there are a hundred people that would walk across glass to see him again.
Self deprecating in the extreme, there wasn’t much suggestion of the huge show that was to come when four almost stereotypically Irish men took the stage. But within the first bars we were transported somewhere intense, visceral and unmissable. Dempsey’s voice has a base line of an extremely emotive Colin Hay variety which he uses in an extremely controlled and almost percussive manner until he reaches up at various point to an Celtic overture that has reminiscences of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Soaring, spiritual, and druglike the listener is carried away but rather than a fantasy land, Dempsey reveals a very real vista.
It’s rare that you’re witness to a performance as strong as this. It’s without (unwarranted) hyperbole that I can say that the renditions of ‘Ghosts of Overdoses’ , ‘It’s All Good’, ‘Masaai’ cut through the crowd like an electrified knife. It wasn’t just the music but the message that came together to allow an almost religious and confronting experience. The brutal honesty and simplicity of Dempsey lyrics belie a phenomenal sense of narrative, history and action.
In particular his use of perspective to drive his political points home is incredibly effective in bridging the gap between audience and singer. His songs become yours, your pain becomes his and is released.
“Famine days, drove us here, off the land
They tried to clear, now they drive you
From the cities, to make way for all the Yuppies”
In ‘Ghosts of Overdoses’ (from Seize the Day, 2003) he sets the political scene of inner city poverty, victims of relocation are again uprooted. But against this is the second narrative of drug addiction.
“Hey little baby I want to take you from here
Hey little baby I don’t want to see you on the gear
It’s so hard to find your way back”
The perspective here is almost of an internal lament of someone talking to themselves about a loved one, perhaps themselves. This comes to a head in the simple but powerful line:
“You lie, high, crying “please don’t go”
Which suggests the leaving of people behind to their fates, people without homes leaving into drugs, or to poverty or both.
“And the ghosts overdoses
Replace the ghosts of tuberculosis”
It seems to Dempsey dislocation, deprivation and death are social symptoms caught up together in a way that accuses and includes everyone. His final message though is one of forgiveness and healing namely, love yourself, break cycles of abuse, forgive and work to make right the wrongs of the past. Something he explains with brutal honesty in between songs.
On paper these seem rather pat panaceas to larger more complex issues however this can’t be separated from Dempsey’s iron-clad delivery and at time barely controlled anger. Watching him and his phenomenal band play through the set with a steely determination seemed historic.
Overtones of Joe Cocker bringing Woodstock to a standstill came to mind as the fiercely anti-empire ‘Colony’ rang out to endless applause.
As the band left the stage to rapturous applause I scanned the audience and saw tears streaming from a number of faces. Damien Dempsey is a phenomenal performer whose emotional range and intensity is matched only by the force of his message.
There were other performers on the final day of WOMAD but for the most part I sat down and contemplated what I’d seen and what it means for an artist like Dempsey to exist. Despite the ‘small is beautiful’ ethical basis of the festival where buying a branded plastic bottle contributes to a distant solution, offering an option to feel good without getting personally involved, few artists challenge the audience to stop bullshitting themselves and confront the issues that comfort zones have concreted over. Dempsey tells us that getting personally involved has much more positive implications and outcomes for the world than tipping someone else for their world service.
That sounds negative but it isn’t. We live in an inspirational time when more than ever we’ve a chance to be world participants and to this end WOMAD is, as always, a blistering success – both musically and socially.
(WOMAD 2012 26-29th July 2012 – 30th anniversary).Damien Dempsey Live Dates