Rain fails to dampen Womad mood

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International festival delivers everything from Melbourne ska to West African blues and Siberian electronica.

Although no one doubted the need for rain ... did it have to come on the final day of Womad? And two days after a drought had been declared?

This rare occurrence - only the second in the festival's local history - hardly dampened Womad spirits although there was a small attrition of audience numbers.

Few festivals of whatever musical persuasion could claim an opening act as powerful as the Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure, who peeled off mesmerising sheets of sound where fluid melodies exploded like hot mercury. Sounding more urgent and bluesy than his albums (an impression confirmed on Saturday when he was joined by surprise guest Taj Mahal), Toure - with a bassist and drummer - redefined the power trio and at times references to Jimi Hendrix (albeit from West Africa) weren't amiss.

The Alaev Family - three generations of Jewish Tajikistan musicians now living in Israel - brought thumping cross-rhythm percussion, powerful voices, searing violin, sinuous clarinet and dramatic accordion to their traditional-goes-trance/dance music.

And they delivered one of the most exhausting and exuberant wedding songs imaginable.

Anyone looking for a snapshot of Womad's diversity needed only to walk between two quite distinctive bands, each of which pulled huge crowds. On one stage Scotland's Lau played a refined, often thoughtfully melancholic set of well-constructed folk which wouldn't have sounded out of place in a village pub in the highlands where men smoked pipes and nursed pints round the fire.

At the same time Nidi d'Arac from southern Italy were firing off post-punk, effects-heavy folked-up rock to an audience on its feet and dancing like they were in a nightclub.

These two acts, as did others, offered variants on "folk".

Or for another parallel contrast, the Savoy Family's unadorned, authentic cajun music from Louisiana was rugged but right (as they say) and had people dancing, while elsewhere the Melbourne Ska Orchestra brought a huge band of dapper players to punch out "wo-yo-yo-yo", the ska-ed up theme from Get Smart and other kicking beats.

Not everything was as successful.

Trumpeter Hugh Masekela's sole set failed to ignite as he digressed into a well-intentioned sermon about the environment and oppression, then again a shaggy dog story (well received by the large crowd however), tickled away at tunes and was weak vocally. His band, however, was superb, as was that of Salif Keita who had the massive crowd dancing to his high-energy, hi-tech Afro sound.

Nidi d'Arac took longer to fire at their second appearance on the big stage in the afternoon, and under constant drizzle the Afrobeat-inspired Antibalas from New York offered too much of a slow simmer when the crowd needed a rolling boil. However by the end of their sets both had redeemed themselves.

On Saturday night Goran Bregovic and His Weddings and Funerals Orchestra presented an excellent set but one which misjudged the audience wanting to party to some serious gypsy dance. His tuxedo-clad male choir, slow and cinematic pieces, and the stately mood was more akin to a recital than a concert until the closing overs when they finally took flight. Terrific, but wrong place and wrong time for many punters.

Excellent however were Abigail Washburn and Kai Welch with their modern take on old-time Americana (and Chinese folk), Bassekou Kouyate from Mali who turned a workshop into an intimate concert, Fly My Pretties' crowd-pleasing Kiwi guest-list (Ria Hall, LA Mitchell and more), the brilliant viola player Jordi Savall from Spain, David Kilgour with Sam Hunt, and the Soweto Gospel Choir who struggled on Saturday in the big arena but brought home the spirit on Sunday under grey skies.

Over the weekend what impressed most were the extraordinary voices of women performers: the assured melodic and tough sound of Amparo Sanchez from Spain; the astonishing power of Anna Cinzia Villani who sang just two songs with Nidi d'Arac (more please); the ethereal sound of India's Manjiri Kelkar; the Sami singer Mari Boine blending electronica rock with traditional styles; Abigail Washburn's delicacy and Creole singer Grace Barbe with the slippery rhythms of the Seychelles and Afro juju.

But the most breathtaking were Ayarkhaan from Siberia, who bridged evocative soundscapes, throat singing and what sounded like industrial strength electronica. These three women, their multicoloured diaphanous attire blowing in the breeze, were a high point in a weekend of sunshine, dancing, workshops, a great atmosphere and, yes, rain.

But frankly the rain wasn't that bad. What Kris Drever in Lau from the Shetlands might have called a wee mist. And Mari Boine from Norway had rung home and it was minus 30.

That kind of put things in perspective.

World music

What: Womad Taranaki
Where: New Plymouth, Friday to Sunday.

- NZ Herald

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