Womad: Ladysmith Black Mambazo were faultless in a festival of eclectic delights

'Faultless': Ladysmith Black Mambazo
'Faultless': Ladysmith Black Mambazo Credit: C Brandon

Whatever you look for at Womad, you’ll find it. An hour of bossa-nova David Bowie covers? Yup. Tubular Bells arranged for a brass band? Naturally. A theremin version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that sounds like it’s being sung by a drunken Clanger? Of course.  

It’s a festival for young children, as proven by the free tickets for under 13s, outdoorsy activities in the vast kids’ arena (campfires! rock-climbing!) and all the quirky home-made trolley-prams that Womad parents wheel from stage to stage.

But it's also a festival for those who can’t stand young children, as proven by the wonderfully luxurious adults-only spa, with its log-fired hot tubs.

Now in its 35th year, Peter Gabriel’s festival proves that even “world music” isn’t a catch-all term: this weekend had tunes from outer space. Project Adrift’s Machine 9 is a six-foot phonograph that generates sounds from orbiting space-junk. As it swivelled its gears, the audience were treated to a melancholy short film in which Super Furry Animals’ Gruff Rhys voiced the ghost of an empty Russian spacesuit.

Self-indulgent: Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals Credit:  WireImage

Other stages featured the absurdly named (American dance-rock band !!! – it's pronounced "Chk-Chk-Chk") and the absurdly dressed (African mask-wearing Swedish “voodoo sect” Goat, all groovy psychedelia and queasy cultural appropriation). But among the gimmicks, there was also Maya Youssef. Youssef may have been told that women could never play the 76-stringed Syrian qanun, but now she uses it to share her memories of her home in Damascus, conjuring the narrow streets of a broken city to which she may never return.

Unlike other festivals this summer, Womad was spared the droning chorus of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”. Here, the best political singalong came from punchy Mexican-American son jarocho band Las Cafeteras: “I like limes, I like lemons – I don’t like all this corruption!” It sounds much better in Spanish.

With their cheeky scissor-kicks, Ladysmith Black Mambazo were pretty spry for a 57-year-old choral group. Their line-up has evolved – founder Joseph Shabalala retired in 2008, leaving his youngest son, Thamsanqa, in charge – but the South Africans’ close-knit harmonies are just as faultless as they were on Paul Simon’s Graceland, which, in 1986, brought them international fame.

Ladysmith’s rendition of Homeless from that album chimed with another Womad artist’s take on the same theme. Before she won the 2009 Mercury Prize, Speech Debelle slept rough in London. On record, her confessional jazz-rap take on those difficult years feels intimate. At Womad, sadly, it felt cold in a set lifted only by her debut single Spinnin’, and – more promisingly – a taste of her new record Tantil Before I Breathe, released in March as a trio of album, memoir and cookbook.

Yes, a cookbook. As a generous-minded foodie (she’s cooked for a Calais refugee camp, and nearly won 2013’s Celebrity MasterChef) Debelle was a better fit for the Taste the World stage, where canny programmers gave her a second slot. It has a brilliant set-up: each Taste the World gig is equal parts music, food and conversation. Between tarantellas, Neapolitan folk trio Vesevo sang improvised poetry about cannellini beans, and squabbled over every step of their “simple” pasta dish.

The act of sharing food with strangers on that stage was particularly poignant for Therese, an albino singer from Tanzania. For much of her childhood, she was kept in a locked room and fed through a hatch. Around 170 albino people were murdered over the last 10 years in Tanzania, where they are feared, ostracised and live in fear of witch-doctors who cook their body-parts, believing them to be good luck charms. The Tanzania Albinism Collective have already released an album (thanks to Grammy-winning producer Ian Brennan), but besides a small warm-up gig in London, Womad was the group’s first ever live performance. The lyrics were bleak, but the melodies were full of the joy of being heard after a life spent in silence.

'Undeniable talent': Malika Tirolien of Bokante Credit:  C Brandon

Despite having three drummers and four guitarists, Snarky Puppy founder Michael League’s new blues fusion supergroup Bokantè sounded flimsy and underpowered. The talent of their Guadeloupe-born singer Malika Tirolien is undeniable, but the rest of the band were still finding each other’s wavelength.

Now in their 20th year, Womad regulars Afro-Celt Sound System had no such problems. Their raucous party jams are even more eclectic than the name would suggest. They pulled in everything – bangra, bagpipes, drum’n’bass – whatever it took to keep the crowd dancing, despite a torrential downpour. Along with Senagal’s upbeat Orchestra Baobab and Malian powerhouse Oumou Sangaré, it was proof that the acts who return to Womad year after year can pack more of a punch than special guests.

'Bold, funny and subversive': Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band Credit:  C Brandon

Saturday headliners Toots and the Maytals should take a note from their book. After an embarrassing gaffe at Glastonbury (where they arrived late and missed their slot), the reggae legends seemed ready to redeem themselves at Womad. Despite a strong start, however, they lost the soggy crowd’s goodwill mid-set with a run of self-indulgent instrumentals. By the time they reached the 24-carat gold ska of Monkey Man, the casual fans had already squelched away.

This year’s other big-name act, ambient jazzers Portico Quartet, were as atmospheric as ever, but the weekend’s high point was Eliza Carthy and the Wayward Band. Bold, funny and subversive, Carthy is a mean fiddler with a wicked sense of humour, singing songs of highwaymen, pirates and female engineers. Those who think folk is quiet music for dull bearded blokes will have their illusions shattered by the rancid stomp of The Fitter's Song, the brassy, Kurt Weill-ish cabaret tune that’s the highlight of her new album Big Machine. If there’s any justice, this two-time Mercury nominee will be back to headline next year.