July 28 – 31, 2022
World Of Music, Arts & Dance celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, a festival still dedicated to global sounds from many nations, and returning in full, after two years of virus-enforced hibernation. It’s an expansive outdoor camping experience, with five main stages offering simultaneous choices, as well as smaller satellites for workshops, panels, poetry declamations and cooking classes (given by musicians who share their given time between playing and stirring). As is often the case with these four days, extreme sunshine beamed benevolently and the ground turned to dust.
One of the pumpiest sets of the WOMAD weekend blew up on the main stage, at 7 p.m. on Friday night. Fantastic Negrito exemplified just how far down the path of complete individualistic artistic expression can be, entertaining via an extreme fusion of sly humor and acidic social criticism, both in word and gesture. . Negrito functions as an exaggerated display of personality, throwing every move into the show business bible, then quickly burning through all assumed expectations. He uses the techniques of a gospel preacher, subverted by lascivious soul cries. Negrito started with the blues, but evolves more and more towards psychedelic soul.
His shaved head with an upper worm, purple strides, plush paws, white shoes, yellow and purple patterned blouse, his appearance is already eccentric, as Negrito opens as the unattached lead singer, leaping around the expansive stage, posing for strategic songline endings, straight into a powerful soulful flow. He swings his arms around, beats time enthusiastically, and kicks to make a point. A falsetto “Ain’t No Sunshine” follows, on a bassified Nordic organ setting. Negrito (born as Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) staggers like James Brown, unnerved by his own intensity, falling to the stage floor. Much like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he moans “the devil has a long black fingernail,” but he also sounds like Curtis Mayfield, if that Impressions singer could have foreseen his own cruel stage accident.
Negrito’s quivering soul peaks are bolstered by bandmates on Nord/Rhodes keys, bass, drums and lead guitar, but after about twenty-five minutes his own ax emerges, strafed through a bottleneck. choke, for his modified Oakland reading of Lead Belly’s “In The Pines,” resounding with a heartfelt Rhodes solo from Professor Bob. It’s an epic version, with a kneeling slide solo from Negrito. He orders the crowd to sing in chorus, but it’s only two lines. “Church without the religion”, he concludes, making a career in “Nibbadip”, one of the exceptional songs of his last album, White Jesus Black Problems. It’s almost a doo-wop song. “Let’s Burn It Down,” Negrito sings, as “Plastic Hamburgers” comes out, with one line sounding a lot like “shake your mutha’s nipple” (although that might have been an enthusiastic aside), and another mentioning “a nine inch penis under a dress.
“I’m a recovering narcissist,” Negrito announces. It shows, and such a journey lends deep substance to his distillation of blues, rock, soul, country, gospel, and psychedelic musical history. The essence of performance art, the grain of poetic coupling.
Such was Negrito’s focused staging, so early in the festival that many acts found themselves appearing merely deadly. That didn’t deter the sweet dance vibe of WOMAD’s closing Sunday afternoon, when the godfather of the Congolese soukous broadcast scintillating rehearsals from the main stage. Kanda Bongo Man has been a style leader for about four decades, sharing something of an anniversary with this festival. Once an upstart in Zairean music, he is now 67 and has assisted two young singers with vocals, with KBM taking on a role as master of ceremonies, but still expressing many deeper lines. In this music, the sparkling co-lead guitars should dominate, but this day’s trellis held more of a mid-range, leaving the basslines wide open on the upswing. Your scribe has repeatedly listened to these twisty, funky patterns, especially highlighted by the powerful stacks of exterior speakers. Ten years ago this festival was subject to what seemed like a strict volume limitation on the main stage, but now WOMAD seems free to crank up the power.
In the nearby Siam tent, Brazilian singer, guitarist and legend Gilberto Gil arrived with a full extended musical family, spanning at least four generations. It was an exciting opportunity to catch Gil in a fully amplified state, especially if an audience member was used to his smooth acoustic performances. Several guitars, vocalists and percussionists roamed the stage, as Gil gave off positive vibes. Towards the end, the mood softened, but the first part was loaded with 1970s-style guitar riffs and solos, with a firm, propulsive rhythmic force. Even “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Get Back” were reinvigorated. Gil has the art of appearing relaxed while subtly tightening a gentle tension.
Artists ranged from the relatively pop Cuban singer Cimafunk, another performer indebted to James Brown, to the nocturnal sensibility of Malian kora player Sona Jobarteh. Osibisa, the pioneering British band, also had a long-lived anniversary to celebrate (more than five decades), cultivating a family vibe similar to Gil’s ensemble, even if their kinship is more symbolic than real. Part of Osibisa’s songbook is deliberately hit-seeking (“Sunshine Day”), but their meeting of African, Caribbean, rock and funk ingredients had a significant impact in the 1970s. their arrival at the festival was delayed, wasting time on soundchecks, or maybe they spontaneously invited a few unexpected guests. Regardless, the sound team struggled with the basic task of making sure every vocalist has a microphone.
Debuting in the UK, Aalstmen arrived from Ghana, stripped of their instrumentation and favoring a high-pitched, grating and rattling tonal range. Singer and dominant personality, Stevo Atambire vigorously plays the kologo, a two-stringed lute of the Frafra people in northern Ghana, assisted by a multi-instrumentalist and a duo of percussionists. To confuse folks who prefer their overall meltdown smoothed into a homogenized mush, Aalstmen delivers a gritty, stripped-back attack loaded with enthusiasm, hard rhythms and a surprisingly uplifting tinniness. It’s hardcore, even handing your extremist scribe sonic challenges, in its snapping squeal.