WOMAD New Zealand staff member Cleo Wood attends WOMAD UK for the first time. Follow her journey of discovery.
In New Zealand, beloved Maori deity Maui was said to have captured the sun and tethered it to the land, forcing it to “slow” down, producing longer, warmer days. My first impression upon arriving in the United Kingdom was that Maui’s work had extended farther than little ol’ New Zealand, with clear skies and a temperature bordering on too hot. The gumboots I had pre-emptively purchased for what I imagined would be a boggy festival site and lugged on my three flights from New Zealand to England shall remain in their pristine condition, an omen of good things to follow surely?!
I’m sure everyone has their own way of navigating festivals and packing in as much or as little as possible. WOMAD, in particular, seems to have a breadth of weird, wonderful activities and places of interest like nothing I’ve experienced elsewhere, so I felt a little structure would go a long way to helping me pack in as much of the festivities as possible. The plan was relatively simple: get to know the site layout, select which artists were my ‘must sees’, block out their stage times, and fill the rest of the hours exploring the different areas, snacking and shopping along the way.
My first activity was a youthful throwback to family fair days in the form of a Ferris wheel ride, strategically chosen as a means to better acquaint myself with the layout of the festival. It did not disappoint. Not only was the breezy vista a good way to get familiar with the arena stage locations, I also spied many a food stall that was hastily added to my to-do list. Halloumi chips were the cutest, tastiest post Ferris ride food munch a girl could ask for… #yum.
The Arboretum area: green, leafy, shady goodness also looked incredibly appealing from above and a perfect place to sit and decide on my ‘must sees’. I did have the foresight to download the festival app before my travels which is one of the smartest things you can do before attending a festival. I had a rough list of who to see, but after talking to people and eavesdropping on others, I had some more artists to look up and add to my personal schedule on the app. The app’s ‘alert’ function got me excited, you can set up reminders for 10 or 15 minutes before a performance in-case you get side-tracked and lose track of time – a WOMAD given.
The Kafou Music Project on the Open Air Stage was my musical introduction to the festival and a performance of warm fuzzies that kicked off my festival buzz, propelling me to want to see, hear, do and feel more. The Senegalese performers were joined by a local school group and their cohesion was both heart-warming and chillingly powerful. The audience contained a great many parents and relatives and the energy and enthusiasm bouncing between the stage and the audience felt tactile.
With a little beeping from my pocket, I realised the WOMAD app was telling me my next must-see performance was starting in 10 minutes. The sun was getting low and Jamaican reggae legend Ken Boothe was about to take to the Open Air Stage. I knew of Ken’s music, but not enough to hold my own in a conversation with anyone of musical credibility, so off I trotted to widen my experience of reggae. Ken was a delightful and spiritual surprise who struck me as ageless. I had anticipated someone akin to my parent’s generation and while he may have matched them in age, his powerful voice and boundless energy leant itself to someone still in the throes of youth. His love for the audience was obvious as he talked to us, serenaded us and shared with us and I felt myself feeling romanticised and sure that he had performed solely for me, standing amongst hundreds of people likely feeling the same.
I had heard talk of the legendary all-night dancing sessions at Molly’s Bar but with the sun now finally sleeping and my feet bearing the weighty signs of tiredness I decided to save the all-night partying for another night. Day one was a dreamy mashup of foods, flavours, new favourites and warm fuzzies. I made for my temporary home feeling like the festival had wrapped me in a warm, heart settling hug that would spread as the days followed.
Friday had a special vibe to it. People talking in thrilling tones, a general hum of positivity and larger than life laughter, the excitement was palpable. It reminded me of the ‘TGIF’ after work drinks mood, although swap the bar setting out for the festival site and its gorgeous silk flags and ditch the suits and workwear for comfortable, tie dyed, expressive clothing. It was the feeling of freedom, and of thousands of people excited with anticipation at what they would discover.
Friday was also a day for making friends. People seemed to have left their inhibitions behind as well as the constructs of societal formalities. I even made two new friends through a coffee spilling incident. An older man, dressed in an impressive leather ensemble inadvertently ended up standing on my dress while in line. I tripped when my time came to step up, and spilled coffee down the back of the woman standing in front of me. Now, in the real world – this would undoubtedly result in a tense situation. At WOMAD, it was the perfect recipe for a friendship. The woman laughed and thanked me for being so generous with my coffee “I love the smell of coffee, don’t you” and the man decided he would apologise to us “through dance” and proceeded to wiggle and twirl until the two of us could barely stand up, consumed by belly-aching laughter. Full disclaimer: he had no rhythm.
I got talking with Sarah, the coffee scented goddess. She was dressed like a Viking out of a 14-year-old boy’s fantasy. Artist or dancer, I thought, trying to guess her profession. We ate our Thai together after scarily good luck; two seats opening up on one the see-saw tables next to us. Sarah, as it turned out is an HR manager in London, with a husband and two children who were “here somewhere”. While my imaginings of her as a dancer, traveling the world and attending festivals in between dancing gigs was crushed, I felt excited at the idea that even the most boring of professions (sorry HR) could be shaken off for WOMAD. We traded emails and parted ways. Usually, I would Facebook friend a new encounter, but Facebook felt like it would cheapen the friendship, I could see our special encounter being reduced to a monthly ‘thumbs up/like’ and a yearly happy birthday message and didn’t want to sap the genuineness out of the friendship.
By day three I had eaten my way around the festival… I knew where to go to get dumplings without queueing, who used the most sauce on their hot chips and what vegan stall had the best condiments. Food level: master. One of the few things yet to be crossed off my wallet: giving my wallet a little workout with some retail therapy. One of the beauties of WOMAD is the individuality on offer, which is seen in what wares are up for sale. Each stall and stall owner are a showcase of stunning individuality, from vintage shops carrying one-off goods to factory scale sari stalls and boutiques carrying region specific goods from places as far as Morocco and Afghanistan, shopping at WOMAD truly feels like being in a bazaar of the world.
I discovered and quickly snaffled up a pink, knee-length, vintage ostrich feather jacket – an entirely impractical purchase in nearly 30-degree heat for someone who has three long flights home. The woman whose stall it was had a story for almost every piece and I was quickly intoxicated with her passion for extending the life of quality used goods. The jacket’s impracticality was quickly discounted as I swore the coat would survive being handed down generations. Of what importance are mere logistics when considering an intergenerational family heirloom?!
Having perused close to half the festivals retail shops I was in need of something soulfully satisfying to appease my smoking wallet, it was time to check out WOMADs ‘World of Wellbeing’. Best described as a mini-retreat, the wellbeing area is home to a bevy of holistic offerings, from acupuncture to massage as well as yoga and meditation classes. I found a group midway through a yoga session and decided watching from the comforts of a shady tree was enough participation for me. The yoga-lites were every marketer’s, focus group dream, a true cross-section of society with all ages and ethnicities seemingly present. The retired were stretching alongside children in what could’ve been four generations of one family.
One of my festival highlights was a lucky accident that we have smoothies to thank for. Whilst hunting down a smoothie (seriously, UK, this heat?! I did not expect) I found the World of Words tent. On quick inspection the intimate seating, cool temperature and stack of books were all overwhelmingly appealing. A quick dive into the app told me I had found the literary linchpin of the festival where authors and speakers talk about anything and everything. Hello, I had found my festival home!
I was just in time for a session called ‘one track minds’… four guest speakers talking about a song and how it became significant to them. The speakers were riveting; the song a man was listening to when he learned he had a terminally ill disease, the song a woman used to sing at church in her country she can never return to because of civil war, each story was poignantly told. There was an intimacy to the session that left me wanting to park up for the rest of the weekend.
Sunday featured a welcome friend in the form of drizzle. After three days of shade hopping and gleefully fare-welling the sun each night, I felt like a kid given a sprinkler on a hot day. The festival site was still teaming with people (albeit slightly damp, smudged people) and it was evident I wasn’t the only one out to celebrate in rain dance style!
I ended up back at the Arboretum (the pull is strong!), at the Hip Yak Poetry Shak for Chris Redmond’s session. He took rhyming to a new level, my ears and mind couldn’t keep up with the mastery…. I was still absorbing his opening statement and we were twenty verses deep. I could see some of my more introspective, deep thinker friends at home here for days. Again, the crowd seemed to have a representative from every age group and ethnicity. I liked the laid-back feel of the Poetry Shak, some were completely engrossed in the performance, while others chose to use it as background noise to their picnic / down time.
The group next to me were deliberating over whether a guy was “breeding material” or not, they looked not far out of high school and exuded coolness. Their conversation seamlessly switched between the potential future father and commentary on the performance, “But look at his relationship with his own parents, dysfunctional with a capital D… joy spitting from their mouths, he totally captured the essence of youth.”
I loved that not all performances called for complete concentration, we could take as much or as little as we wanted away from each artist, and after three full on days of all-encompassing experiences it was bliss to sit under the shelter of a tree and listen, eaves drop and day dream for a while.
Leaving the festival that night it felt like WOMAD had embraced me in a hug that would warm and deepen for weeks to come as I digested and reminisced about all I’d seen and felt. The people felt authentic, shedding the disillusionment of everyday life to be themselves for a long weekend. And in a world that feels increasingly intolerant, the WOMAD inclusive attitude and celebration of multiculturalism was a much welcomed escape.
Remember back to the festival by watching the highlights video