Graham Green provides an alternative view of this year’s WOMAD Charlton Park, in Wiltshire, July 28-31 from the perspective of the festival’s myriad workshops. Photo by Tom Askew-Miller
Everyone who comes to WOMAD wants to get closer to the music and perhaps learn some new dance moves or beat some unfamiliar rhythms on a drum, right? Well, no, not everyone. While thousands will be gathered at the Open Air Stage or filling the enormous Siam Tent, there may be a couple of hundred intrepid people in a smaller tent participating in one of the 30 or more workshops which run during the festival. The workshops seem to distil the spirit of WOMAD: uplifting for both participant and performer and generating waves of warmth between the two.
This year’s world tour in Wiltshire started for me in the desert of Rajasthan; my guide being the Grammy award-winning Vishwa Mohan Bhatt and his mohan veena, a sort of sarod-slide guitar hybrid. He and his team of singers and percussionists describe some of the Indian classical traditions that inform their music and then demonstrate individually and collectively their instrumental and vocal skills. The privilege for the audience is being able to see and hear the musicians at work from almost touching distance, and not on a remote stage.
A more participative workshop came courtesy of JP Percussion & Co and their ‘Rhythms of Rio’. Shakers, blocks and drums were distributed to a crowd eager to samba. JP’s tutoring in English was delivered in a surprising, soft Irish accent but the rhythms were complex cross-weaves of sound which seemed as authentically Brazilian as a one-hour workshop can allow. A WOMAD workshop crowd are always enthusiastic pupils and JP’s hand signals were followed to the last thunderous beat. Everyone was smiling as we shook, rattled and rolled.
Intrigued by hearing Italian band Kachupa in the Siam Tent brought me to their workshop afterwards. Their singer led us through traditional Italian folk dances, such as the tarantella, while the band played their blend of Mediterranean musics mixed with a little reggae skank here and there. The band audibly levitated when joined by an audience member playing a large tambourine with considerable dexterity.
Then, it was a short walk next door to Poland, or to be more specific, to what appeared to be a barn dance led by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. There was something rather darkly alluring, folkloric and elemental about the fiddle, hurdy-gurdy and wooden flute music of Muzykanci and the dances led by our particular piper. Lines of dancers snaked round and round, up, down and through each other in limb twisting contortions. The atmosphere resonated with something pre-Christian and mysterious.
Finally, back to Italy, or rather, Sardinia and Cuncordu e Tenore de Orosei, a five-piece a capella band. Their tradition is centuries old and speaks of an age and a place where instruments were prohibitively expensive or simply not available. The workshop started rather tentatively as the singers appeared unsure of their audience. But it coalesced beautifully when the singers moved to the centre of the floor and the audience formed concentric circles around them. We moved counter-ways around the band as they sang. Both band and audience were visibly lifted by this arrangement, which, it occurred to me, was the proper presentation of this fundamentally ‘folk’ music. A formal concert presentation, with separation of performer and audience, cannot create the atmosphere we had in this tent.