WOMAD line ups never fail to excite and this year was no different. It distinguishes itself from the rest of the festival circuit by being more inclusive and contemporary; other festivals either pride themselves on being of a certain era (Reload, etc) or tolerate a high proportion of artists now on the chicken-in-a-basket gig circuit. Any veterans playing here had better still be hitting their stride.
A well organised affair, even the rain didn’t stop play with Bellowhead on the main stage on Friday, they played their optimistic blend of folk-rock that started the umbrella dances. Attendance was down for campers as some opted to just come for the day on sunny Saturday.
Saturday was therefore a different story weather wise and the energy lifted. Hassam Ramzy from Egypt delivered smooth, soundtrack-ready grooves.
Cheikh Lo was surprisingly first up on the main stage, and having got there early, we were treated to an extended sound-check with all of the band. He came on and the clouds parted. According to the radio coverage, Cheikh brought a hair-drier with him, not to dry his now knee-length dreads, but to warm his hands. Although only five albums in, he has toured Europe extensively over the years (especially France and the UK) so he knew to come prepared for British Summer Time. I caught him at London’s Jazz Café in the mid-nineties and had a great time in the half empty venue; years later, Cheikh Lo now commands the size of audience he deserves.
A man pushed his way to the front next to me, then said, ‘Who is this guy, is he any good?’ I would have forgiven him except he stood for most of the set with a finger in one ear and his phone clamped to the other. In Dakar, where Cheikh Lo has both a street and bus stop named in his honour, there is no doubting who this humble man of the people is.
Here he treated us to a set that was neither promoting his new album particularly, nor a greatest hits package, just dancey Afro-Cuban Jazz as he refers to it. Perhaps he was rather restricted from playing much of his recent release “Balbalou”, as he didn’t have his vocal collaborators from that album with him and was short of an accordion, kora and piano on stage. Cheikh, himself a talented multi-instrumentalist, played high-hat and guitar at the front, before evicting his kit drummer to take it on himself for a couple of songs. Tracks from the album he did play included the title track, “Balbalou” and the wonderfully stop/start “Gemou Ma Ko”, a rarer love song. Live, Cheikh Lo is blessed with as many grace notes as grace-pauses to underline his rhythms. The translations of his song titles sound like a manifesto for peaceful change: “The Pacifist”, “The Truth”, “Enough of Revolutions”, “Lower The Weapons”, and so on. There is no fist in the air however, just pretty melodies and hip-swinging rhythms.
After over an hour of wonderful Senagalese music, I went to meet him to get my CD signed, I only managed a hurried, ‘Merci beaucoup’ as I shook his soft hand. He wrote on the CD “Good vibes” which summed up the whole experience.