Event Review: Womad 2023 (Malmbesbury; Thursday 27th to Sunday 30th July 2023)

Words By Ursula Billington & Marco Canepari / Photos by Ursula Billington, Hello Content & Garry Jones

Another edition of Womad, another wet and muddy long weekend soaked in rain and quality music at Charlton Park. Let’s get straight to the point: the 41st Womad left us in awe. It’s not that this world-renowned music festival has ever fallen short in terms of delivering exceptional lineups, but this year, the organisers went above and beyond the already high expectations. They crafted a 4-day schedule bursting with such diversity in artistic expressions and far-reaching sounds that selecting highlights became quite the challenge. And let’s face it, we won’t be able to give each deserving act the space they deserve, because of those pesky word count limits.

Thursday evening, which had already debuted on the rainy side of the weather observations, saw us mesmerised and literally spellbound by the happenings at the Museum of the Moon. Nestled in the woody and lush settings of the Secret Forest, under the benign and awe-inspiring installation by Luke Jerram (a meticulously detailed moon-like sculpture displaying high-resolution NASA imagery of the lunar surface), Jason Singh brought life to the first night of an intense 4-day program of debates, speeches, spoken word performances, and gigs.

As the evening gradually wound down, he treated us to a multi-faceted DJ set that seamlessly transitioned between ambient dreamscapes and bass-driven dance beats. It was a fitting beginning for what would turn out to be one of the most eclectic and exciting Womad editions in recent memory.

WOMAD – under the moon, Hello Content

On the following early afternoon, the Friday program got going on the Charlie Gillet stage with Amazonic cumbia vibes courtesy of the legendary Wemblers de Iquitos. Formed in the 1970s in the Eastern Peruvian selva, this band brought their unmistakable psychedelic and lush cumbia sound to Womad. Once they hit the stage, you could hardly tell the difference between the three generations of musicians playing. They jammed, danced, and spread the Amazonic sound like eternal child cumbieros.

Speaking of incredibly gifted musicians, we can’t help but mention Balimaya Project. The big band led by Yahael Camara Onono shone a light and got people wild with their rendition of Mande traditional rhythms, blended with London-infused arrangements and tons of musical dexterity.

WOMAD – Balimaya Project on D&B stage, Hello Content

A short while later, we found ourselves in front of the Main Stage, where Ibibio Sound Machine went all-out to fill the shoes of Tank & the Bangas (who couldn’t make it due to VISA issues). Unleashing their Afro-futuristic, psychedelic, and funky sound that has earned them global recognition, they gave their all to an adoring crowd, solidifying their spot as one of Womad’s beloved acts.

Next up, the Ukrainian Dakh Daughters‘ freak-folk cabaret performance had the audience in a pin-drop silence as seven stony-faced sisters theatrically embodied the destructive darkness of life’s tragedies.

And then came the virtuosic Serbian fiddling, in turns searing and shredding, as the star of Faith i Branko‘s show; sweet singing, tin whistle, and wah pedal were surprising yet elevating additions to the sound.

WOMAD – Dakh Daughters, Ursula Billington

The evening enjoyed a very inspired and smoother than usual set by the one-and-only Emicida. The Brazilian hip-hop star, who’s becoming accustomed to delighting the UK audience with more frequent trips and gigs around the country, showcased his latest work, AmarElo. He also delighted the crowd with some bossa nova and samba classics, highlighting the fact that his transition into an out-and-out singer/songwriter fully dedicated to his country’s boundless music tradition is in full swing.

Just an hour later, Israel Fernandez sang his heart out to a late-night audience held captive under his smoldering spell. A simple flamenco clapping-and-guitar set-up allowed ample space for his open-throated voice to ring out.

WOMAD – Emicida on Siam stage, Hello Content

Despite the pouring rain, Friday’s late-night still delighted us with one of the festival’s best-(un)kept secrets.

If you’re a Womad aficionado, you already know that Friday nights and early Saturday mornings are synonymous with Racubah SoundSystem‘ strictly vinyl DJ sets. That’s when the Lizard Stage Tent comes to life, brimming with African, Latin, and Tropical vintage vibes until the wee hours, and people sustain their dance craze with “fortified” chai cups. As usual, this year, the Welsh crew and its music collection didn’t disappoint, repeating the miracle on Saturday and Sunday nights.

WOMAD – Dele Sosimi Afrobeat Orchestra on Open Air, Hello Content

Saturday arrived with a shy sunshine that emerged in glorious afrobeat swing, featuring the London-based institution Dele Sosimi and his extraordinary Afrobeat Orchestra in full formation. Dele is capable of blowing you away even with a solo performance; so, try to imagine what he can do when supported by 12 other top-notch Afro-sound dedicated musicians.

The music party kicked into even higher gears with Cha Wa‘s high-energy New Orleans-style sax, trombone, and trumpet performance.

Meanwhile, Pongo infused the atmosphere with after-hours vibes against a dark D&B soundscape, featuring heavy bass, fierce raps, and some spicy dancing. The experience was nothing short of brain-numbingly and bum-shakingly fantastic.

WOMAD – CHAWA, Ursula Billington

The Afro-inspired notes continued to spread around Charlton Park, thanks to one of the most unlikely interpreters. Hailing from Tokyo, Ajate became one of the most delightful and high-quality revelations of the festival. They are a group that blends traditional oyashi flute and taiko drums with Afro-groove. Their infectious sound and refreshing, bizarre performance gave Womad a very distinct Saturday afternoon.

A few minutes away, under the d&b Soundscape tent, Liraz prowled the stage like a sleek gold puma, her dark ponytail slicked back and swinging below her waist. Songs of women’s rights and peace were wrapped up in a Middle Eastern synth-pop and Farsi desert rock fusion.

WOMAD – Liraz on D&B stage, Hello Content

Speaking of Middle Eastern musicians, an honourable mention goes to Palestinian singer/songwriter Reem Keelani, who, under the Ecotricity Tent, took us on a journey of discovery through Arabic music, showcasing her inspiring talent.

Palestinian music was also on display on the Main Stage, where 47Soul’s squally synth-heavy sham-step hit the spot as always, especially for those dancing the Palestinian dabke in the crowd. Guests ShadiaMansour, the ‘First lady of Arabic hip-hop,’ and Chilean-French MC AnaTijoux appeared together again in Ana’s own Siam tent set. The two restlessly prowling MCs clearly revelled in each other’s company.

Saturday unfolded with the almost predictable downpour, but that didn’t dampen the spirits. The night got even better at Molly’s Bar with two late-night DJ sets, featuring two of the UK’s ultimate party-starters: MadameElectrifie and Hiphoppapotamus. They absolutely owned the stage, delivering sets jam-packed with energising breaks, funky disco, and irresistible tropical vibes that had everyone moving and grooving.

WOMAD – The Ollam, Ursula Billington

Even with its recurring showers, Sunday wasn’t short of musical highlights from its late morning hours. Starting with TheOlllam, who provided one of the biggest surprises of the weekend as Vulfpeck’s beaming bass aficionado, JoeDart, brought his trademark funky grooves to traditional Irish instrumentals led by whistles and uillean pipes. It was an absolute class act.

As the afternoon rolled in, folk music continued to steal the show. The “Neo-zombie-post-folk” duo Puuluup interspersed a wildly entertaining side show with songs in Estonian folk style, enhanced by electronics and catchy, driving talharpa rhythms.

Just a little while and a whole lot of rain later, right at the Main Stage, there was a wonderful sight to see. The Queen of Ciranda, Lia de Itamaracá, a true Brazilian music legend, was greeted with open arms by the crowd. With her 60 years of an incredible career and smooth tunes, she cast a spell on the audience who couldn’t help but groove along.

WOMAD – Lova Lova Siam stage, Hello Content

On a completely different note, under the Siam Tent, the Kinshasa-punk act LovaLova didn’t disappoint – from an ankle-length red kilt to wild eyes, twerking, and relentlessly pounding rhythms backed up by two bass players. It was a full-on and ferocious Congolese dance fest.

…and the dance vibes kept flowing under the D&B tent, where Raz & Afla spread plenty of Afro-house grooves, heating up Raz Olsher‘s electro wizardry and bassy beats with Afla Sackey‘s Ghanaian percussive drive.

Just a short walk away, the Charlie Gillet’s Stage showcased the set of one of the only bands from Benin to feature female musicians. Star Feminine Band‘s polished act of protest songs, synchronised dancing, interlocking percussion, and synth was met with delight by a bouncing crowd.

Womad – Horace Andy-RM-Credit Garry Jones 5630

Highlight after highlight, we can’t help but mention the flood of slick upbeats unleashed by an uptempo institution like HoraceAndy, backed by the Dub Asante Band. The crowd in front of the Main Stage shook off their wet clothes while skanking and swaying to the authentic Jamaican rootsy sound.

Staying true to the organic sound theme while embracing a bass-heavy and techno-infused vibe, Nihiloxica turned the Ecotricity Tent upside-down. Their performance delved deep into the realm of Bugandan traditional drumming, turning the tent into a frenzy.

WOMAD – Femi Kuti on Open Air, Garry Jones Photography

Closing time was approaching for the 41st edition of Womad, not that the rain noticed it… Despite falling relentlessly, the grand finale couldn’t wait; or better yet, no rain can stop FemiKuti when he storms the stage! The iconic Nigerian musician and his exuberant, thundering band were worthy guests of honor to close the Main Stage program. Femi’s set, which didn’t spare incendiary lyrics as well as relentless rhythms, dance moves, and funky arrangements, is arguably the best embodiment of the past, present, and future of afrobeat. His musical dynamism continues undiminished and unadulterated after four decades in the scene.

Wrapping up the festival with exquisite style, the spotlight shifted to the Siam Tent where SouadMassi took the stage. Joined by her talented musicians and the special guest Justin Adams, the Algerian singer/songwriter reminded us why she’s such a standout voice in African music. She brought her latest album Sequana to life, along with some beloved classics, all while proudly embracing her Berber roots. The crowd under the tent couldn’t help but sing and clap along, showing their love for her incredible performance.

Whether rain fell or not, this was another memorable Womad. In fact, we could remember this edition for quite a number of years due to the abundance of diverse and remarkable highlights it presented. Womad has always been good to us, but on this particular occasion, it was even more exceptional in its treatment.


Photos © Ursula Billington, Hello Content & Garry Jones