Ben Walker and Tom Unwin
Last weekend I went to a music festival (the 2009 WOMAD festival at Charlton Park, Wiltshire, UK) for the first time in 15 years. This was mainly due to the encouragement of family and friends, whose company I enjoyed and whose musical preferences I followed. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but ended up getting into quite a lot of it. Here are a few highlights:

Malian singer/songwriter Rokia Traore played on the Open Air Stage on Friday afternoon. I was drawn, like a zombie, towards the energy, ecstasy and funkiness of the band (why should the lead singer get all the credit?). A large group of folks were jumping up and down in unison, as if they were at a media-orchestrated pop event, but in this case the music totally justified such concerted physical reaction.

Cimarron were performing shortly afterwards in another part of the site, playing dance music originating from the Colombian plains. They emitted a sense of joy, as did Rokia, but were virtuosos on different instruments, like the harp, upright bass and cuatro.

Oumou Sangare from Mali and her band performed a triumphant, well-received set. A shared characteristic of the more urban-based African music and 1970s American funk is the importance of the bass guitar, and I was always glad to be in this musical place, where the bassline drove the music and there was lots of hair, headgear and amazing dancing. I think people liked it when Oumou’s English faltered and she reverted to French when describing the songs’ themes.

Etran Finatawa, a musical fusion of the Touareg and Wodaabe tribes from central Africa’s Niger region, were dressed in desert gear, or at least the men were, with the head, neck and shoulders completely covered and just the eyes and nose visible. The women wore what looked like crowns with a tall feather coming out of the front. They played music with few chords and an interesting mood. Some acts I came across took the term ‘crossover’ too far and became sort of exotic rock bands but these folks just did their music and didn’t try and whip up enthusiasm or play to the gallery.

As the last day of the festival drew to a close, a time that people were perhaps feeling a little sad or being distracted by the thought of packing up and leaving, a couple of things I saw really grabbed the unceasingly wet day by the scruff of the neck and gave it a good shake.

Don’t ask me what Roy Ayers and company were doing at a world music event, but from the moment they came on I knew I was going to get a boost. The funky 70s party music with loads of humour and brilliant musicianship caused a lot of people to dance rather energetically.

Just as this was finishing, and some people really were bidding goodbye and making a run for it, The Ethiopiques, a trio of Ethiopian artists backed by a superb band from Brittany, finished things off very nicely. A revival of interest in a 20-volume series of albums documenting the ‘golden age’ of Ethiopian music of the 60s and early 70s has led to the formation of this project. The grooves were rhythmically based in soul, funk and disco but the harmonies and scales were unusual. And yet there was still lots of singing along, chanting and dancing.

This festival wasn’t particularly a grassroots event, and I expect aggressive marketing and management was responsible for most of these artists and bands getting on the bill. But it was inspiring to see masses of people away from their radios, TVs and computers and enjoying sounds you don’t hear every day.