So what could be easier than camping and all that music festival malarkey in a field in summer in England? Despite my limited experience in the field of living in a field, it turned out to be such a doddle. My very good friend Angela and I left my house at 11.00 a.m. and by 12.30 p.m. we were sitting outside our small but perfectly erected tents in the middle of Wiltshire’s beautiful Charlton Park (Jackie I would stress, not Bobby) knocking back bottles of cold beer by way of celebration.
Mind you, there had been a little underhandedness required on our part to achieve this joyous state which totally contradicted the peaceful karma of the WOMAD Festival. We were asked at the second or third or tenth security checkpoint entry gate if we had any drinks in glass bottles in our car. What a ridiculous question! Is the Pope a Catholic? Is Simon Cowell a twat? Angela declared her half full bottle of Pimm’s (with a street value of the best part of a tenner) and the camp commandant / hippy guy security bloke said that if she decanted it into a plastic bottle he would let her through the perimeter fence with her four bottles of beer. Now wouldn’t the world be a nicer place if the U.K. Border Agency were open to negotiation in the same way? What the camp guard didn’t find out about was the tanker load of bottles of wine and cider that I had secreted in Angela’s car boot. So that lot got through and we stuck two fingers up at the establishment. I suppose I should have felt bad about flaunting the law but if yer man the security man couldn’t be arsed giving me a strip search then that was his look out, not mine.
We camped in the disabled camp site because Angela’s toenails needed cutting so I was allowed to accompany her as her carer. So all of the organiser ladies and gentlemen were very nice, partly because of the disability thing but probably mostly because it was the WOMAD Festival where everybody and everything is nice. Unfortunately, because I was there in a caring capacity and didn’t demonstrate any sign of disability myself, they told me that they wouldn’t be prepared to wipe my bottom for me when I went to the toilet and I’d have to do it myself. But the festival was such a chilled, laid back event that I ended up not bothering anyway.
Feeling a bit guilty about taking the glass bottles into the campsite we thought it would be a good idea to empty them as quickly as possible but then, after we’d had two or three, we decided that we didn’t care anymore and wandered off into the sunshine and the throng and the bar.
Jagwa Music, a sort of Afro-Punk band from Tanzania, seemed like a good way to commence the musical proceedings at the Open Air Stage which we found quite easily because it was right next to the Fast Serve Bar and Angela has a keen sense of smell, especially for Fast Serve Bars. So big African tunes and big African smiles made me tap a toe and smile a lot despite the fact that the people at the Fast Serve Bar didn’t sell Guinness. But in a roundabout way I was quite pleased with their inadequacy because pulling a pint of Guinness is something that shouldn’t be rushed. Locally brewed cider seemed like a reasonable alternative on such a warm afternoon, so I did.
Having got my first live World Music band under my belt it seemed like a good time to have some sleep. I hadn’t really intended to as sleeping is something you can do at home but listening to ethnic beats being performed live isn’t . . . well not usually, anyway. But with a drop of strong drink inside me and a spot by the BBC Radio Three Stage, under the shade of the koolibah tree (which seemed to be shedding sheep’s wool from its fruits but Angela the Arborist put us all right by pointing out that it was a lime tree and that’s what lime trees do) together with the Isle of Man’s popular beat combo Barrule’s soothing rhythms floating around the space in my head where my brain used to live, I couldn’t help but drift off. Barrule, though not unpleasant, were a bit too drippy and United Kingdomesque for my liking.
Tamikrest from Mali, performing nomadic desert songs, were next up in the Siam Tent. Now these boys (and girl) were a bit good. I went there alone because my festival companion had had a splash too much of the cider and the event organisers made it quite clear that people singing ‘I Got a Brand New Combine Harvester’ simply weren’t welcome at recitals of the Malian muse. I had hoped that I would fit in well here as I had bought the band’s CD months beforehand and consequently knew all the words to all of their songs. In fact, I feared that they may have even mistaken me as one of their own band members but as I was wearing the attire of the middle aged English music festival goer (i.e. shorts, vest and floppy hat) and they were all wearing the attire of wandering Saharan herdsmen, my anxiety over a possible demarcation dispute was completely unfounded. I did sing along though. They were brilliant. They’re on in Leeds in October . . . might give them a whirl!
The band's on stage and it's one of those nights.
The drummer thinks that he is dynamite.
(Tamikrest from Mali)
A bit later on, reunited with a revitalised Angela, we went to see Mala in Cuba in the Big Red Tent and, in my opinion, they were a pile of old cak. Musical wallpaper, with no real highlights and just repeating itself over and over again. I heard other people saying that later on in their set they got a tiny bit better but I’m sorry to say that if a band doesn’t grab me within the first fifteen minutes then they’ve had it so after fifteen minutes we went to the Siam Bar to have a lovely drink of cool cider (they didn’t sell Guinness) in the warm evening sunshine by the open air urinals.
Here, by the open air urinals, we bumped into Angela’s friend / cousin Gill and her chap Steve. I had only ever met them once before at the Larmer Tree Festival two years earlier which sort of made them the antithesis of the reggae band Toots & the Maytalls. This was only my second ever music festival. At both of them Gill and Steve had been present and at both of them the reggae band Toots & the Maytalls had been supposed to have been performing but at both of them they cancelled at the last minute. From what I had witnessed I formed the opinion that Gill and Steve would have made a much better reggae band than the reggae band Toots & the Maytalls.
Something else that I had only ever previously encountered at the Larmer Tree Festival was the massive queue for a Goan Fish Curry at the Goan Fish Curry tent. I wasn’t really sure if I wanted one but voices in my head were saying, “Goan. Goan. Goan. Goan. Goan” in a Mrs Doyle sort of way. In the end I got sick of waiting and salivating with so many people around me so I decided to Goan have a Caribbean Goat Curry instead, which was goat lush.
Back at the Open Air Stage Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 weren’t much kop either. Seun’s dad, Fela Kuti, may well have been brilliant in his time and Seun and his dad may well have been formidable political activists in Nigeria, and Seun’s band may well have been the very same band that his dad had played in front of before he was sadly shot dead for his political activity but I thought this band was a load of self-indulgent pants. And speaking of pants, Seun’s trousers were far too smart and snugly fitting for him to be taken seriously as a master performer in the world of World Music.
Late in the evening and all alone, I went wandering back through the woods to find the BBC Radio Three Stage again. I had worried a little that, due to their reputation as broadcasters of a most cultured nature, the BBC Radio Three people might only have Chopin or Mozart performing live on their stage. So I was delighted when the Croatian band, Zykopops, turned up to entertain me, they being another band whose work I was already familiar with and they being from the Balkans and they being purveyors of a genre of music known as thrash-folk.
Young Eva, their young lady singer, was exceptionally energetic with a huge smile and an even huger voice that accompanied the fury of the fiddle, guitar and drums orgasmically well. To enhance the performance she had to keep stopping to adjust her underwear and to pull down the short skirt that was two sizes smaller than her beautiful Balkan arse. Every bit of music that they performed was magic music to my tired old ears that had become weary in the last decade of the flogged-to-death drudgery of music from the western world. For the last three or four years I felt that I had discovered in World Music something enormous and exciting (and I don’t just mean Eva’s arse) but today I had crossed a frontier into my new world from which I would never return. The fact that Zykopops’ material was so new and exciting to me, combined with us being broadcast live on BBC Radio Three, made me feel quite emotional. I think these feelings applied even more so to the band members themselves who were obviously overwhelmed by the immensely enthusiastic and appreciative reception that they got from the crowd. When, at the end of their show and as the crowd screamed for more, I saw Eva wipe a tear away from her eye, I had to do the same myself. What an amazing gig and what an amazing experience for everybody who was there.
Zykopops from Croatia.
The cherry on the World Music cake of emotion, however, was seeing the Malawi Mouse Boys in the Siam Tent at 00.45 a.m. Now here was a band whose circumstances would humble even the most over-preening, self-absorbed rock star whose main gripe with life was that the backstage towels weren't quite soft enough. The Malawi Mouse Boys were so named because they eke out a living on the side of Malawi's highways, selling cooked mice on sticks while dangerously duelling it out with speeding traffic just inches away.
I was already the proud owner of their CD but I had only ever heard it before in my own living room at home. Seeing them perform such simple but truly wonderful songs on a big stage absolutely took my breath away. That feeling for them must have been a million times greater. The compere said that neither they, nor any of their family members, had ever left Malawi before. Their first ever performance on a proper stage with an electric public address system had only been the previous night at a small club in London. He also said that less than two hundred people lived in their village, which was far fewer than the number of people watching them in the Siam Tent tonight. They looked completely bewildered when they came on stage but they performed their very basic but very soulful and catchy tunes magnificently and the audience went absolutely mental in support of them. They each sang a fair bit and did some whistling accompaniment but they also had two acoustic guitars, held around their necks by bits of string. One of the guitars was made from something like an old saucepan battered into the shape of a Stratocaster. The percussion was merely a metal teaspoon tapped against a china drinking mug, an empty Coca-Cola can or a plastic kitchen bowl. The voices were haunting at times, always melodic and stunningly beautiful. The lyrics, with the exception of the ever-so-catchy Rejoice in the Lord were all in their native tongue but still simple enough for us all to sing along with.
The Malawi Mouse Boys from . . . errr . . . Malawi.
Ten minutes from the end of their act the Mouse Boys realised that they had cracked it and their sombre faces lit up. The audience appreciation, already fantastic, heightened to a phenomenal pitch. Every last move was cheered and clapped by every member of the crowd. The band began to relax a bit. They raised their arms in the air and their instruments and they smiled huge African smiles, the likes of which I had never seen before. Such a wonderful performance and such a wonderful experience. I felt so privileged to be there.
So thank you very, very much Joseph, Nelson, Zondikie and Alfred. I know you will remember this night for the rest of your lives . . . and so will I.