Seun Kuti at WOMAD
Neil McKim enjoys a performance by saxophonist Seun Kuti at this year’s WOMAD festival
‘This is not African Jazz! This is not African Soul! This is original African music!’ – this was the defiant proclamation of 30-year-old Nigerian musician Seun Kuti (pictured above and below) on the main stage at this year’s WOMAD festival. Kuti has an incredible legacy, performing since childhood with his late father Fela Kuti’s legendary band – Egypt 80. And this 12-piece band belts out ‘Afrobeat’ grooves (a genre that Kuti senior invented), which is a fusion of African styles. Seun continues his late father’s biting political comment. In this (slightly incongruous) rural Wiltshire setting, he rants against ‘imperialists’ and sends up Nigeria’s political corruption.
Afrobeat may not be ‘African Jazz’ but it’s certainly an inspiration to any aspiring jazz musicians, as its origins undoubtedly draw from, among other things, jazz styles. As the grinding conga-driven grooves propel the music on, the band blasts out tight brass flourishes and members take stunning solo turns, never losing the audience’s attention, in songs such as ‘International Thief Thief’ and ‘African Airways’. And aside from Kuti’s own charismatic sax playing, the trumpet work is up there with top jazz performers. But what is so impressive about this band is the level of expertise and heritage that the musicians share. Egypt 80’s keyboardist, Lekan Animashaun (now in his 70s), goes right back to the roots of Afrobeat, having played with Kuti’s father since the 1960s.
And it’s this sense of musical exploration that is tightly woven into the history of WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance), since it was founded by rock musician Peter Gabriel in the early 1980s. The festival’s programming of artists from all areas of the world gives a refreshing insight for anyone interested in discovering new music. And, as always, this year was awash with music from around the globe. From the headline acts, such as Brazilian guitarist (and former minister of culture) Gilberto Gil, to the countless small workshops that take place through the day around the festival site, this is an inclusive musical experience.
It was sad that one of the headliners, UK jazz singer Alice Russell, had to pull out because of illness but there are always myriad other discoveries. On the Charlie Gillett Stage (dedicated to the late BBC radio world music enthusiast), the (Scottish) Hidden Quartet performed with two drum kits, mixing in electronic effects on their hauntingly jazzy anthem ‘Antiphon’ while, in contrast, an earlier stage highlight came from Congolese singer Fredy Massamba.
WOMAD is full of contrasts. Its daytime lines of vast colourful flagpoles give way, at night, to the magical lighting of the arboretum where giant flowers illuminate the woods. And it’s fair to say that this year had equal contrasts of weather, with Friday’s summer heat giving way to Saturday downpours.
Radio 3 has had a connection with the festival since the 1990s and annually hosts its own stage near the magical arboretum, combining the broadcast talents of World on 3, World Routes and Late Junction. And in sharp contrast to the vaguely hippyish attire of the crowd, the fast-paced Croatian band Zykopops took to the Radio 3 stage with a set of volatile folk music while wearing ties, and the Red Hot Chilli Pipers (doing bagpipe versions of rock classics) arrived with kilts and sporrans.