Women at Womad steal the show

| 13th September 2019
Womad s
Wendyrosie Scott
Womad's programming embraces eclecticism, diversity and contemporaneity with relish.

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Music and politics often go hand in hand. Womad has dealt with annual visa challenges for large bands entering the UK determinedly and diplomatically, for over three decades.

The festival goes the extra mile to source signature new finds from across the globe, with its roots in world music, platforming performers in an appreciative, supportive environment and championing diversity.

This year, it was women performers who won the limelight. 

Sense of identity 

The two most established performers were Nadine Shah and Anna Calvi. Each brought fire and terror, musical beauty and brevity in what proved to be electrifying performances.

Shah, with her Tyneside and Muslim background, brought a sense of place and belonging, coupled with the contradiction of experiencing daily racism and bullying. She's now celebrated and treated with pride by some locals who formerly terrorised her. 

Shah's punk attitude helped her to negotiate a region where a sense of identity is strongly associated with local geography, social expectations and folklore - and often with being white.

At once demonic and possessed, Shahs on stage persona, merged seamlessly with her everyday self, is an expression of out and out 'living it'. Her songs clearly reveal that she was up against prejudice that would prove much more than a thorn in her side - it shaped her. 

It's heartening beyond measure to see Shah's defiance translated into musical brilliance. Her's was one of those performances where everyone was left ruffled and in awe. A raw power, provocative and politicised, yet with a compassionate and essentially Northern sensibility, in which empathy will out.

She spoke with a  Tyneside twang of 'being told to go back home', which brought me to tears. Shah is a mesmerising and electrifying performer. Once experienced, never forgotten.

Bold and daring

Anna Calvi strutted the stage, singing with an operatic range in which the long held notes hung in the air like lost souls. Swaying and sauntering, she almost floated, poltergeist-like.

Calvi drew in an audience who came like moths to a flame. A dramatic show and intense presence, guitar riffs surely re-purposed from the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Calvi called the shots.

She appeared to leave the stage in tears amidst rumours and an announcement that this was potentially her last performance. 

It was a bold and somewhat daring move of Womad to programme both Calvi and Shah, neither of whom are usually associated with the festival's emphasis on 'world music', a term and a genre that constantly stirring debate.

Womad is a familiar and safe space, particularly for punters who return annually on family holidays. But this year's programming was a smart move to attract a new and more varied audience. That said, they also included some old school faves, such as Orbital, resplendent with signature insect-aping headsets, contemporary 'techy' anarchy,  a magnificent lightshow, on-screen politicised text and edgy energy. 

Ethno-chaos

In sharp contrast, Robert Plant's new project 'Saving Grace', with Elaine Dian, was a melancholic affair, prompting an (rather un-WOMAD!) audience member to shout “Make the next one a f*****g happy one!”.

Nevertheless Plant's long-term eagerness to embrace diverse music, cultures and traditions remains admirable.

The high hats of Dhakhabrakah, a Ukrainian quartet, gained much audience approval, for their unique sound, termed 'ethno-chaos'.

Their strong female physicality and musicality, powered the big-top tent with forceful drumming, singing and funked-up bass-lined fused with the more traditional had the audience erupting after each song. This splendid subversion in sound is a Womad's signature offering. 

Coaxing discussion

In addition, Mr. B's Emporium of Reading Delights is a retail paradise for bookworms and a magical palace of insight and fantastical tales. Its staff informatively introduce potential reader-book-buyers, to suitable (book) matches. It is a beacon to the book and written word, in an ocean of drudgery battling a challenging market for print. 

Womad annually secures literary masters and persons of great social impact, intent on coaxing discussion and open-mindedness at the World of Words area. 

Should ever the heinous thought enter one's mind that, “Oh yes, I have life sussed”, some speaker, often unexpectedly, will answer an audience question to swiftly quash such a notion with refreshing consciousness. Hurrah and also, how very dare you!

This is Womad's calling card, to expect the unexpected, is encountered in their arts, annually. More than any festival, it generously understands the need for creative expression and modern musical 'purism'. 

In a rapidly changing global society, Womand stands like a steadfast, steel ship, anchored and proud, it has weathered all-sorts, at times looking like it would sink. Yet it buoys back and floats freely through frequently difficult waters - politically, financially, culturally, and logistically.

This Author

Wendyrosie Scott is an anthropologist, journalist & stylist focusing on design & creative communities. She looks at positive partnerships between lifestyle trends & the natural world.

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