Womad music festival ends with a bang — review

Gilberto Gil was joined by members of his extended family © C Brandon/Redferns

There are only a few places in Britain where a band could play a French double-meaning-filled single that hit 93 on the charts for two weeks in 1989 and hear the lyrics sung to them; one of them is Womad, who returned after a two-year hiatus and marked his last day on Sunday. The band was Les Négresses Vertes.

As they marched on stage with the tunes of resting yellow vests, François Cizzko Tousch played the closing accordion arpeggios of “La Valse”. “It’s going to be very hot”, they shouted as they launched into “Voil’ l’été”, the twin trombones pumped, the accordion howled, Stéfane Mellino’s guitar beat. For that 1989 single – “Zobi the Fly” – the band teased the crowd with a never-ending warm-up before playing the infectious chorus, with its raï notes, over and over again. “I’m not so credible”, they chanted, “because people find me suspicious”. It had been over 30 years since their amalgamation of folk, punk, ska and Maghreb had been heard at Womad, but it felt like they had never left.

Gilberto Gil was accompanied on stage by 14 members of his family – daughters, sons, grandchildren, a few great-grandchildren and a daughter-in-law – to travel through six decades of his songbook. Gil is a former statesman of Brazilian music (literally – he was Minister of Culture from 2003 to 2008). Right from Bo Diddley’s opening beat of “Barato Total,” the songs he played have toured the country’s music, from tropicália to samba (the carnivalesque swagger of “Avisa Lá”) to by MBP (música popular brasileira) and reggae.

There was a version of bossa by Antônio Carlos Jobim “Garota of Ipanema”, faint voices changing from Portuguese to English. And there was a raucous run through ‘Get Back’ – while Paul McCartney snatched the song from the ether at Twickenham, Gil faced impending political arrest in Brazil but soon found himself in exile in London , where he immersed himself in psychedelia and reggae which he then infused into his own songs. A cradled “Babá Alapalá” celebrated the African communities of Brazil. Gil’s daughter, Nara, sang “Amor Até O Fim”, which he originally wrote for his mother, Belina de Aguiar.

A woman smiles as she sings into a microphone on stage, holding a fan bearing the words
British singer Hollie Cook played reggae pop © C Brandon/Redferns

Hollie Cook thrilled a sheltered audience with a brief shower with reggae pop, taking advantage of the sound system to crank out dancehall sound effects, sending echoes from imaginary corners of the circular tent. Jasdeep Singh Degun played a version of Nitin Sawhney’s “Nadia” – Sawhney had performed the song himself the day before – recast to Indian classical music.

The Minyo crusaders married vernacular Japanese folk song, full of flower-selling grandmothers, wealthy brides and chimneys so tall they smoke to the moon, with reggae and Latin flair. On “Aizu Bandaisan,” the tale of a debauched playboy westernized enough to take a morning swim, the horns played refrains from Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”; for the boogaloo of the coal anthem “Tankō Bushi”, the crusaders taught the crowd to dance.

A woman plays the keyboard and sings into a microphone;  on the side of his head are two Japanese masks
The Minyo Crusaders of Japan © Alamy Stock Photo

In the darkening arboretum, with eerie lights on the roof of the stage like a pocket-sized aurora borealis, Welsh guitarist Gwenifer Raymond played the festival with an array of instruments that evoked everything from the Civil War American folk horror, with just a hint of early Genesis; an ending to (and perhaps an ode to) the return of Womad that was the right mix of settling and disruption.


Gerald R. Schneider