WOMAD 2017

You heard it before you saw it, pulsing from inside the whopping great tent that – even at WOMAD, that beloved festival with its seven stages and eclectic wish-list line-up - has become the place to be.

Sound System.

Or if you like, the Bowers & Wilkins Sound System: four gleaming, seriously sexy, 3.5metre high speaker stacks developed to transform the live festival experience, gifting revellers a sound quality so rich and detailed, so clean and open, that it brings the music closer; as close, really, as music can possibly get. Last year, at the Bowers & Wilkins Stage, on the grass under that soaring canvas ceiling, we might have been listening to a high-end hi-fi in a best friend’s cosy living room. 

“The main aim here is to make better quality music so people know it is an option,” said WOMAD founder and musician, Peter Gabriel, standing onstage to announce Sound System’s (wildly successful) UK debut back in 2014. 

It was an idea all the more beautiful for its simplicity. Music might sound fine when filtered via earbuds, or coming through built-in TV or Bluetooth speakers. At concerts and festivals, most of us put up with live sets played through amps that thud, distort and rasp. But to hear – like, really hear – music as the artist intended it to be heard is nothing short of revelatory; to be in that tent with Sound System was to have the scales fall from your ears.

As Bowers & Wilkins like to say, ‘Listen, and you will see.’

One of the first family festivals, WOMAD still sells out after 35 years because it has managed to grow with its audience. Its line-up caters to all age levels, embraces all tastes and genres: hip-hop, dance and soul; rock, folk and funk; styles from here, there, everywhere. Importantly, it’s a festival where the element of discovery, the feeling that you’ve chanced upon something new and wonderful, is as vital as getting to watch those big name acts on the main stage.

So while the arrival of a new stage devoted to sound was cause for celebration, the fact that it also featured a range of singular acts made it a talking point. Now no visit to WOMAD is complete without stopping by the Bowers & Wilkins Stage, without ogling – and experiencing – Sound System. In 2017, with a program that embraced talent, innovation and leftfield thinking, there were many who came and stayed: “I’ve been hanging out at the Bowers & Wilkins Stage all weekend, enjoying the super, super low end hitting my chest,” stated one happy punter. 

“When you’ve got amazing sound like that, it makes you perform a lot better,” offered producer NK OK of London duo Blue Lab Beats, whose sultry mish mash of grime, hip hop, neo-soul and jazz pulled a young, up-for-it crowd eager to witness a pair of A-listers in the making. 

Inspired as much by J-Dilla and Herbie Hancock as they are by London’s fresh jazz scene, Blue Lab Beats – that’s NK OK and multi-instrumentalist Mr DM - delivered tracks from their two EPs and debut album Xover, which they recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios. On ‘Sam Cooke & Marvin Gaye’, a standout alongside several peaks, they were joined by a trio of special guests/influencers - poet-MC Kojey Radical, singer Tiana Major9 and teenage saxophonist Kadi Akkinibi – who took the music higher, and higher still.

“It was all about energy,” observed NK OK of an atmosphere so charged it almost had its own aurora. “What you receive, you give back.”

This principle certainly applied to Anchorsong, aka Masaaki Yoshida, whose unique live shows have won accolades from Tokyo (where he was born) to London (where he lives). This was jazzy electronica, as exhilarating as it was mellow, created live using a sampler (MPC2500) and a keyboard, right in front of a rapt audience. ‘Like watching a painter drawing on a white canvas,’ people have said of an Anchorsong performance; this one, which saw the slight, dark-haired Yoshida conjuring magic from his console, was all that and more.  

Inspired by Rimbaud’s poem, ‘Ophelie’, with its prose about sleeping stars and calm black water, Bologna-based trio Ofeliadorme brought their fusion of Italian indie rock and dreamy, floaty pop to the stage. A set featuring tracks from albums including their third full-length offering, Secret Fires (which was produced by UK legend Howie B) demonstrated precisely why this act is a big hit in their homeland. Lo-fi and stark, serene and dark, fronted by quietly dazzling singer, guitarist and synth player Francesca Bono, they were compelling.

Perhaps the biggest name to grace the Bowers & Wilkins Stage was Portico Quartet, whose special Live Surround Mix set allowed Sound System to flex its sonic might. Fully reformed, refreshed after a hiatus, the London-based ambient jazzers reworked tracks from previous albums and premiered material from their current masterpiece, Art in the Age of Automation – electro-acoustic compositions featuring sax, hang drum, unusual dynamics and textured, layered grooves, each track feeding seamlessly into the next, taking us up and away. 

Of all the discoveries to be had at WOMAD, singer-songwriter Tom Hickox, for this writer, was like striking gold. With an oeuvre that combined baroque, pop, Americana and Gothic balladry, the bearded Englishman was a magnetic performer, delivering tracks from new album Monsters In the Deep in a baritone that suggested all sorts of deep, swirling emotions. Highlights included a lament telling of the evils of addiction, and a strangely upbeat slice of electronic dance music about a woman who voiced western movies in Soviet-era Romania.

Extraordinary artists kept on coming. Enigmatic Swedish singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Loney dear, aka Emil Svanängen, enthralled with a sound that has been described as ‘soulful indie-folk with a powerful mini-orchestra’, his elfin voice laced with longing as he sang of dark nights and cold grounds over dubby bass and urgent, Morse Code beeps. Material from his new, eponymously titled album on Real World felt variously brutal, beautiful, understated and elegant; the word ‘genius’ flew around the crowd until all were in agreement.

There was Speech Debelle, the Mercury Prize-winning British rapper, mixing jazz-leaning beats, tender keys and ethereal strings with dynamic ruminations on power, politics and pleasure. Showcasing a new, self-released album, tantil before I breathe, a work that combines righteous anger with honesty and vulnerability, Debelle paced the stage, declaiming here, singing there, her husky tones captivating, her authenticity obvious. Thanks to Sound System, each lyric, each spoken word, was clear as a bell, reinforcing the message in her music.

Technology and art met regularly over the three days; a rare duet outing of the New York Theremin Society saw Austrian-born Dorit Chrysler and Englishman Charlie Draper charm and disarm with their mission to get more people excited about the theremin (that not-just-for-sci-fi electronic instrument that is controlled without physical contact). Similarly stunning was a separate performance/happening by Atau Tanaka, a London-based Japanese American composer who uses body movement and physical gestures to create live electronic music. As Tanaka moved about, shaping sounds he seemed to pluck from the ether, Sound System relayed every wave, ripple and shimmer. 

“Sound for me is a material; I’m a life force sculptor,” said Tanaka afterwards. “Having the Sound System in quad means we could make the sound tangible.”

British electronic/remix duo Addictive TV wowed with their show ‘Orchestra of Samples’, a five-years-in-the-making project that saw the pair standing at their open laptops before a large screen that flashed with video samples recorded made all over the world. Images of singers and beatboxers; sitarists, guitarists, hang players. Groups of children clapping in time. All of it spliced and woven into a digital supergroup of global artists, soundtracked by music that made you either want to leap in the air or sway gently to its undercurrent. 

Sound System took this internationally praised project to another level, breaking down sonic borders just as Addictive TV defied musical and geographical restrictions. It was yet another shining example of why the Bowers & Wilkins Stage has become such a popular hub for music lovers at WOMAD, why it’s now unofficially recognised as a meeting place for anyone passionate about sound.

It’s the live festival experience, as it should be heard. Listen and you’ll see. 

And be prepared to feel.

Jane Cornwell

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