19 Mar 2017

WOMAD Day 2: Pink Panthers and hardcore polka

From RNZ Music, 11:33 am on 19 March 2017
WOMAD - Lord Echo

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Everyone has their own WOMAD. 

I was making my way through the dark, up the hill from the Dell Stage where I had just been listening to Welsh mood-conjurers 9Bach, when I bumped into a friend heading in the opposite direction to catch a bit of Emir Kusturica’s No Smoking Orchestra, who were just starting to play an anarchic Balkan version of the ‘Pink Panther Theme’ on the Bowl Stage. 

We traded favourites. I told him about the Warsaw Village Band, a Polish folk orchestra who played ancient modal melodies on twin fiddle, a hammer dulcimer and three keening female voices, underpinned by bass and a dark rolling drumbeat that reminded me of Mo Tucker on the first Velvet Underground album. (“Here’s some hardcore old-school polka,” percussionist Wojciech Krzak had announced in a strong Slavic accent.) 

My friend had missed them, but tipped me off to Aziza Brahim, a singer from the Western Sahara with an apparently extraordinary voice. I haven’t seen her yet, but luckily I’ve got another chance when she plays again on Sunday evening, while my friend will be able to catch the old-school polka if he’s up early enough for the Warsaw Village Band’s midday performance.

This is how WOMAD works, for a music fan at least. Even with a lot of running up and down hill as you move between the half-dozen different music sites, you might still not hear every act – and you won’t love everything you hear - but you’ll get an amazing aural smorgasbord.

What else has stood out for me so far? For years I’ve been saying to anyone who’ll listen that the perfect thing for WOMAD would be one of the irresistibly funky brass bands that are such a vital part of the musical texture of New Orleans, and this year my wish came true. Back in the early noughts, The Hot 8 were rebellious newcomers to the tradition; ‘Sexual Healing’ was still a surprising choice to find in a brass band repertoire. But they are now are standard-bearers, rolling the whole musical history of their city – from Louis Armstrong to Lil Wayne – into their jubilant, polyrhythmic sound.

Before The Hot 8, I caught most of a set at the ell by Jamaican-born Brushy One-String. You can’t get more minimal than just a voice and a single-stringed guitar, but Brushy makes a virtue of his limitations with his strong percussive basslines and a big raw emotive voice that recalls the great soul shouters – Otis Redding or (closer to Brushy’s own roots) Toots Hibbert. The one-string thing is charming, and keeps touring costs down for sure, but by the end of his hour I was hanging out for some harmony.

There was plenty of that in the East Pointers, a lively folk trio from Canada’s Prince Edward Island, whose Irish and Scottish-derived melodies came by way of French Arcadia, and they introduced these with engaging stories and expositions.

Over the years, WOMAD has hosted nearly all the biggest stars of West Africa. This year it was singer and women’s rights champion Oumou Sangare. Her voice is beautiful, her dancers spectacular (is this the ancient African art of twerking?), and her band extremely tight, though the noodling solos sometimes echoed the worst excesses of fusion jazz. 

High-energy dancing was also a feature of 9-piece Colombian nightclub band La Mambanegra. There were a lot of ingredients in their crowd-pleasing repertoire, from traditional mambos to funk-informed salsas. But oddly it all wound up with a version of Kool and the Gang’s ‘Celebration’.

Moving between stages I heard sounds from closer to home: the funk-and-skank of Wellington’s Lord Echo, and the gorgeous voice of Rob Ruha singing in te reo (later 9Bach’s Welsh language singer Lisa Jen would introduce her set in te reo as well, a gesture of solidarity between endangered languages.) 

As I was leaving for the night I could hear Serbian film-maker and bandleader Emir Kusturica trying to get a crowd singalong going to a song called ‘F*** MTV’. His stand against corporate music was laudable, yet in this environment it almost seems to go without saying.