The music began gently on the first day of WOMAD 2017.
On the Bowl Stage, Archie Roach sang stories from his life in a voice full of love and pain. An indigenous Australian, he explained how he was one of the ‘stolen generation’: Aboriginal children forcibly taken from their families under government law. Roach grew up in foster homes and later lived on the streets, before being recognised as one of the country’s most important singer-songwriters.
In the last few years he has survived a stroke and lung cancer, as well as the loss of his long-time partner Ruby Hunter. You might hear some of the toll this has taken in his voice, yet it only seems to have reinforced the soulful power of his songs.
Meanwhile on Gables Stage, punters looking for something a little less sombre found the exuberant one-woman-band Mercedes Peon, who reset traditional songs from Galicia in northern Spain amongst electronic beats and what appeared to be a set of bagpipes. Sudanese soul man Sinkane kicked off the Brooklands Stage with his danceable, meandering grooves.
Back at the Bowl, Marlon Williams – the loveliest voice ever to come out of Lyttelton, if not the entire country – took the stage after sunset, with his crack band The Yarra Benders including great multi-instrumentalist Dave Khan.
It was a confident performance that reflected Williams’ recent time spent playing overseas; strong on dynamics and leaning towards dark and gothic themes. He started out quietly in a country vein, but by mid-set had built up to the Orbisonian melodrama of Billy Fury’s ‘Lost Without You’ and the snap and twang of newer, rockier originals like ‘I’m A Vampire Again’.
On the intimate Dell Stage, Malian artist Inna Modja opened her set with what might have been a traditional West African desert blues, but swiftly moved into the 21st century, adding samples, beats and projected images, resulting in an intense electronic-blues fusion. As her last beats died away, the Bowl lit up again for the weekend’s only performance by The Specials.
Formed in Britain the late '70s against a background of racial tension, unemployment and Thatcherism, the original group made only two albums and a handful of singles, which (other than a brief detour into Bob Marley’s ‘Redemption Song’) provided the entire repertoire for tonight’s show. They just proved what a small but perfectly formed body of work that is.
There’s a paradox at the heart of The Specials’ music: though it draws heavily on the bright, energetic rhythms of ska, its message is frequently dark, bordering on paranoid. The brilliant opener ‘Ghost Town’ – which marked the end of the original group’s career – set the tone. (Pointedly, nothing was played from the group’s later incarnation as Special AKA, led by their estranged founder Jerry Dammers.)
Though just three members remain from the classic lineup, these are crucial ones: singer Terry Hall, singer-guitarist Lynval Golding, and bassist Horace Panter. Golding – in traditional two-tone hat and suit - was ebullient and upbeat. Hall was an intense, brooding presence with his mocking asides. (“Call security – there’s a duck in the water without a wristband.”)
Augmented by strings and horns, Panter and newly recruited drummer Gary Powell drove the old songs hard, while Hall and Golding proved that their ironic commentaries on class, racism and the status quo are, in an age of Brexit and Trump, as relevant as ever.