WOMAD, or the World of Music, Arts and Dance is one of the biggest names in the festival scene, both in the UK and worldwide. Founded more than 40 years ago, it has grown into a sprawling family of events, centred on the UK edition, hosted on the grounds of Charlton Park, where, this year, more than 40,000 people descended to see some of the best music from all around the world.
At 40,000 attendees, WOMAD is remarkably large. Although it is only 20% the size of Glastonbury, it surpasses most UK festivals in scale. Despite its size, the festival grounds are well-organized, and navigating through them is manageable. However, entering the event can be initially confusing, and if you’re camped at the wrong end, reaching the arena involves a lengthy walk through the tent fields. The crowds also reflect this magnitude, with all stages consistently crowded regardless of weather conditions. To secure a good view for performances, it’s advisable to arrive early, particularly if you’re on the shorter side.
If you’re willing to navigate through the large crowds, the festival has much to offer. The food selection was exceptional, surpassing any festival I’ve attended, with enticing cuisines from various stalls. Aside from food, the wellness realm provided countless therapies and treatments such as massages, homoeopathy, gong baths, and herbal tinctures. Additionally, I’m certain I spotted a fortune-teller. It felt like I was Harry Potter strolling down Diagon Alley, encountering a wide array of magical and pseudo-magical products.
If you’re not into the hippie-dippy stuff, WOMAD has something for you too. The festival featured talks by the Institute of Physics and the University of Hertfordshire, covering various topics such as AI, the environment, and basic engineering. They also had a planetarium showcasing the marvels of the universe.
The festival’s expansive size facilitated various incredible workshops and stalls. These included a Kora class, teaching the fundamentals of the African stringed instrument, an impressive shop featuring anglerfish sculptures, and a thoughtfully curated bookshop tailored to the festival audience. Additionally, attendees were given the opportunity to showcase their abilities in the Hip Hop Ping Pong club organized by the Kings of Ping.
Children are also given great care, as the kids’ section offers circus workshops, unicycling, music, traditional crafts, a climbing wall, and even giant freaky puppets to operate. Being neither a parent nor a child myself, it seems unlikely that any child, unless exceptionally nervous, unenthusiastic, or antisocial, would be unable to have fun here.
Although the workshops and stalls were captivating, they didn’t steal the spotlight from the event’s main attraction—the incredible musicians. While I couldn’t experience everything personally, the festival’s well-planned layout and organized set times made it possible to enjoy a remarkable number of performances.
I witnessed Ana Carla Maza, a Cuban cellist, combining her instrument with her enchanting vocals as the first act I encountered. She graced the Ecotricity Stage, one of WOMAD’s smaller stages nestled within the Arboretum, surrounded by trees. Intrigued, I stealthily made my way through the foliage to gain a better vantage point and found myself captivated by her soothing reggae interpretation.
After her performance came to an end, I ventured further into the festival, passing by a pair of noisy fairground rides, before passing into a massive blue tent I later learned was called the DnB Tent. What I heard was not DnB.
The Dahk Sisters, originating from Ukraine, deliver a truly unique musical experience. At first, their sound evokes ancient Sumerian music rather than modern tunes, leaving me captivated. However, it swiftly transitions into a fusion of hip-hop and classical string quartet accompanied by a piano. Their thought-provoking lyrics, displayed on a screen, tackle a range of topics, offering a fascinating perspective on the world. They manage to support their country patriotically while also confronting its numerous social issues. If the opportunity arises, their performance is an absolute must-see.
Next up on the Charlie Gillet Stage was the Riot Jazz Brass Band, hailing from Manchester. This band skillfully blends Jazz with easily relatable genres, resulting in a spirited and entertaining performance. Their rendition of Pendulum’s Tarantula was especially well-received, igniting the crowd into an enthusiastic frenzy.
As I reached the main stage, Mokoomba had already begun their performance. Hailed as the future of Zimbabwean pop, this talented group skillfully blended traditional and modern instruments, crafting a captivating, gothic-like ambiance. Their music swiftly transitioned into vigorous vocals, evoking the sensation of an epic clash between mythical giants. Combining acapella melodies with guitar-driven tunes, Mokoomba’s direction signifies the exciting path Zimbabwean music is taking. It’s clear: I need to secure a ticket to Harare.
On my way back to camp, I discovered Mellowmatic performing at Molly’s Bar, a venue situated at the festival entrance. As the night grew late, Molly’s became a popular spot for lively indulgence, just a short walk from the tents. Despite playing earlier in the evening, Mellowmatic perfectly embodied that vibrant atmosphere. Their music blended lounge jazz, swing, and R&B into a funky and relaxing experience. Mellowmatic truly lived up to their name, exuding mellowness and flair.
After briefly watching Bombay Bicycle Club, I realized they weren’t my style and moved on in search of something more to my liking. In the DnB tent, I stumbled upon Snapped Ankles, a band dressed in eerie masks resembling those from the cult YouTube series Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. This ghillie suit-obsessed group delivered an electrifying and genre-defying performance with a heavy emphasis on bass, best categorized as synth rock. Snapped Ankles puts on a high-energy show, so it’s advisable to mentally prepare yourself beforehand to fully enjoy the experience.
At this time of the evening, the rain started pouring, and WOMAD was quickly becoming WOMUD. I decided to call it a night, making a quick stop at Molly’s for a lively swing performance.
On Saturday morning, I woke up to a clear sky and eagerly went out to witness Dele Sosimi and his Afrobeats Orchestra. Their music, a delightful blend of mellow, funky, and soulful tunes, accompanied by enchanting vocals, mesmerizing keyboard melodies, and a vibrant brass section, provided a perfectly relaxing experience that matched the fleeting moment of sunlight.
Following Dele Sosimi, I made my way to the farthest part of the festival called The Siam Tent. It is potentially the largest tent I’ve ever encountered. On Saturday afternoon, it showcased the Orchestral Qawwali Project. This project combines Sufi poetry with Indian and Western classical elements, featuring Abi Sampa, a London-based singer. It has been hailed as a significant advancement in the Qawalli tradition in recent decades. Although I lack knowledge about the tradition, Rushil Rajan’s project provided an excellent background music while I relaxed under the sun, going through the festival program and planning my day.
Making my way to the main stage, I was captivated by the thunderous sound of Cha Wa. Originating from the renowned city of New Orleans, this Grammy-nominated band draws inspiration from diverse genres such as rock and roll, traditional Latin music, dub, and reggae. Their organ tunes bear a slight resemblance to the Doors, while their vibrant attire and unstoppable enthusiasm contribute to their funky appeal, which has earned them a special place in my heart.
The Comet is Coming stole the show on Saturday. Just like their name suggests, their performance was a powerful onslaught of sound that reverberated through the air, akin to a massive chunk of ice hurtling from space. Their intense energy resonated deeply, leaving an impact I could feel in my very core. While some parts resembled noise music, others showcased elements of exquisite art and jazz-rock. Regardless of how you label them, they defy any preconceived notions and offer a truly unique experience.
On Sunday morning, I awoke to the sound of raindrops gently tapping on the flimsy ceiling. I realized that the muddy conditions had arrived. Although the site had managed to withstand the rain decently so far, the combination of rainfall and the relentless trampling of thousands of sandaled feet had finally caused it to give way on the Sabbath.
Although the campsites remained somewhat green, the arena and pathways had transformed into swirling brown sludge. Woodchips were quickly spread out, and solid pathways were constructed. However, the ground itself was sticky and cumbersome, making movement and dancing more difficult.
Despite the rush, I embarked on my journey to experience music. The top priority was seeing The Ollam, a band from Belfast and Detroit with enchanting pipes that evoked memories of Peru. Their fusion of folk and post-rock calmed my weary mind, preparing me for the upcoming adventures.
Continuing with the topic of adventures, I had many more to experience. One of the first was Pullup, an Estonian Duo known for their exceptional musical talents and delightful sense of humor. With their Talharpa bowed lyre, these two brilliant artists captivated the audience, getting everyone to link arms and move in snake-like lines. This hilarious and captivating spectacle turned into a fast-paced, inviting, and amusing tangle when the lines converged at the end.
Following Pullup, I heeded a bystander’s suggestion and promptly made my way to Lova Lova. Hailing from Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lova Lova combines elements of dancehall and punk with an undeniable thunderous energy. Their captivating performance, characterized by a mesmerizing bassline and a powerful metal vibe, would seamlessly fit into the lineup at Download.
After a brief pause from the music, I diverted my attention to getting ready for the parade. Surprisingly, I found myself recruited as part of the Insecurity Guards and participated in their pre-march arrangements. The parade was immense, stretching far and wide, showcasing numerous diverse groups. Among them were children proudly displaying their artistic creations, theater and charitable organizations, two independent marching bands, and even a fearsome dragon. This vibrant spectacle captivated everyone it encountered, unifying the entire event into a cohesive whole.
After the parade chaos, I eagerly headed to the main stage to catch the iconic reggae artist Horace Andy. Although he began a bit sluggish, it didn’t take long for him to find his groove. Considering his age of 70s, any initial slowness was understandable. He delivered a string of his well-known hits flawlessly, creating an enjoyable performance with no dull moments. While I missed hearing “Riding for a Fall,” overall, I was thoroughly entertained by the show.
In a hurry, I made my way to the Charlie Gillett Stage and caught Kuunatic, a Japanese trio with an unconventional style. They defined their music as “tribal tale dreamy folk,” encompassing elements of progressive, psychedelic, and dark tones. Their united singing, accompanied by drones and chimes, had an eerie and captivating effect on the listener’s mind.
Femi Kuti, the son of Nigerian Afrobeats pioneer Fela Kuti, headlined Sunday’s event and surpassed his father in many ways. As a highly energetic frontman, Femi showcased his exceptional musical skills by taking on lead vocals, keys, and saxophone. With the support of a talented big band, including diverse percussion and a powerful horn section, Femi delivered an awe-inspiring Afrobeat performance that truly captured the essence of the genre.
Although WOMAD is an enjoyable festival with diverse music and activities, it falls short of perfection. The starting ticket price of over £200 and a crowd of 40,000 attendees make it feel like a poor value. Additionally, the festival often had only two acts playing simultaneously, which may not be a bad thing since choosing between two exceptional acts is preferable to selecting from five mediocre ones. Nonetheless, considering the high standard of the performers, the overall number of acts was limited. In comparison, many festivals offer a comparable level of entertainment for smaller crowds who pay significantly less for their tickets.
I noticed a general commercial vibe during the festival, which was somewhat off-putting. There seemed to be more stands selling bottled water than accessible taps, and although the drink prices at the bars were reasonably priced at £6 per pint, I was surprised to see disposable cups being used. Furthermore, it felt peculiar to have a high street store like Lush present at a festival, considering its strong ethical values. Additionally, the significant presence of police officers roaming the site also struck me as unusual.
Overall, I had a great time at WOMAD. Despite a few minor drawbacks, it’s a well-organized event with an unmatched lineup in the UK. Although it can feel overwhelming due to its size, the festival has a wonderful atmosphere and offers a plethora of engaging side activities. As an introverted individual, I was pleasantly surprised by how easily I made friends—proof that the crowd is friendly. Another major advantage of WOMAD is the opportunity to discover new music. With its focus on diverse global music, you’re likely to encounter brilliant acts you’ve never heard before and leave with an exciting playlist. I highly recommend WOMAD to fans of unique and eclectic music worldwide, and I’m glad I attended.
WOMAD clarified that there were 84 water supply points available throughout the site, ensuring festivalgoers did not need to pay for water. Additionally, the lineup featured 260 performances by 150 artists representing over 40 countries.