The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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SEPT 2022 Issue
Music

WOMAD Festival

Fantastic Negrito at WOMAD. Photo by Garry Jones.
Fantastic Negrito at WOMAD. Photo by Garry Jones.

Charlton Park,
WOMAD FESTIVAL
July 28 – 31, 2022
Malmesbury, England

World Of Music, Arts & Dance celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, a festival still dedicated to global sounds from numerous nations, and returning in full, following two years of virus-imposed hibernation. It’s a sprawling, outdoor camping experience, with five chief stages offering simultaneous choices, as well as smaller satellites for workshops, panels, poetry declamations and cookery masterclasses (given by musicians who divide their given hour between playing and stirring). As is mostly the case with this four-dayer, extreme sunshine beamed benevolently, and the ground turned to dust.

One of the WOMAD weekend’s undoubted, fully-engorged sets exploded on the main stage, at 7pm on the Friday evening. Fantastic Negrito illustrated how far it’s possible to head down the road of complete individualist artistic expression, entertaining via an extreme welding of sly humor and acid social critique, both in words and gesture. Negrito operates as an exaggerated displayer of personality, throwing every move in the show business bible, then promptly burning up any presumed expectations. He uses the techniques of a gospel preacher, subverted by lascivious soul screaming. Negrito began with the blues, but is increasingly shape-shifting towards psychedelic soul.

His shaved head with top-worm, loon-strides of purple, fuzz-bush sideburns, white shoes, patterned smock of yellow and purple, his appearance is already eccentric, as Negrito opens as an untethered lead vocalist, bounding around the expansive stage, posing for strategic songline denouements, straight into power-spurt stream-of-soul. He windmills arms, claps time enthusiastically, and high-kicks to emphasize a point. A falsetto “Ain’t No Sunshine” ensues, over a bassified Nord-organ setting. Negrito (born as Xavier Amin Dphrepaulezz) staggers like James Brown, unnerved by his own intensity, falling to the stage floor. Very much like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, he moans “the devil has a long black fingernail,” but he’s also tonally akin to Curtis Mayfield, if that Impressions singer could have foreseen his own cruel stage accident.

Negrito’s shiver-soul peaks are bolstered by bandmates on Nord/Rhodes keys, bass, drums and lead guitar, but after around twenty-five minutes, his own axe emerges, strafed by a bottleneck, for his Oakland-modified reading of Lead Belly’s “In The Pines,” resounding with a heartfelt Rhodes solo from Professor Bob. It’s an epic version, with kneeling slide solo from Negrito. He instructs a singalong from the crowd, but it’s only two lines long. “Church without the religion,” he concludes, careering into “Nibbadip,” one of the outstanding songs from his latest album, White Jesus Black Problems. It’s almost a doo-wop ditty. “Let’s Burn It Down,” sings Negrito, as “Plastic Hamburgers” rocks out, with one line sounding very much like “shake your mutha’s nipple” (although that could’ve been an enthusiastic aside), and another mentioning “a nine inch penis underneath a dress.”

“I’m a recovering narcissist,” announces Negrito. This we can see, and such a journey provides profound substance to his distillation of blues, rock, soul, country, gospel, and psychedelic musical history. The essence of performance art, the grist-grit of poetic coupling.

Such was the concentrated stagemanship of Negrito, so early in the festival, that many acts found themselves appearing merely mortal. This didn’t impede the mellow afternoon dancing vibration on WOMAD’s concluding Sunday, when the godfather of Congolese soukous spread scintillating repetitions from the main stage. Kanda Bongo Man has been a leader of the style for around four decades, sharing a birthday of sorts with this festival. Once an upstart of Zairean music, he’s now 67 years old, and helped out on vocals by two younger singers, KBM taking on something of an emcee role, but still voicing many of the deeper lines. In this music, the gleaming co-leading guitars should dominate, but this day’s lattice held more of a middle range, leaving the bass lines wide open for ascendancy. Your scribe repeatedly tuned into these sinuously funky patterns, particularly highlighted by the powerful outdoor speaker stacks. A decade ago, this festival was subject to what seemed like strict volume curbing on the main stage, but now WOMAD appears free to crank up the power.

In the nearby Siam Tent, the Brazilian singer, guitarist and legend Gilberto Gil arrived with a full extended musical family, spanning at least four generations. This was an exciting opportunity to catch Gil in a fully amplified state, particularly if an audience member was accustomed to his mellow acoustic performances. Multiple guitars, singers, and percussionists ranged the stage, as Gil exuded positive vibrations. Toward the close, the mood mellowed, but the opening run was loaded with 1970s-styled guitar riffs and solos, given a firm, propulsive rhythmic force. Even “The Girl From Ipanema” and “Get Back” were invigorated. Gil has the skill of seeming relaxed while subtly tightening a gentle tension.

Artists ranged from the relatively pop-fuelled Cuban singer Cimafunk, another performer indebted to James Brown, to the late night sensitivity of the Malian kora player Sona Jobarteh. Osibisa, the pioneering British band, also had an anniversary of great longevity to celebrate (over five decades), cultivating a similar family atmosphere to that of Gil’s ensemble, even if their kinship is more symbolic than actual. Some of the Osibisa songbook is deliberately hit-seeking (“Sunshine Day”), but their meeting of African, Caribbean, rock and funk ingredients made a significant impact back in the 1970s. Perhaps their arrival at the festival was delayed, losing soundcheck time, or maybe they spontaneously invited up a few unexpected guests. Either way, the sound crew had a tough time fulfilling the basic task of ensuring that each vocalist had a microphone.

Making their UK debut, Alostmen arrived from Ghana, sonically stripped in instrumentation, and favoring a trebly, scratchy, rattling tonal range. Dominant singer and personality Stevo Atambire vigorously strums the kologo, a two-stringed lute of the Frafra people in the north of Ghana, assisted by a multi-instrumentalist and a pair of percussionists. To confound the folks who prefer their global fusion to be smoothed out into a homogenized swill, Alostmen offer a gritty, stripped attack, loaded with enthusiasm, hard rhythms and surprisingly motivating tinniness. This is the hardcore, even handing your extremist scribe some sonic challenges, in its clattering scratchiness.

Contributor

Martin Longley

Martin Longley is frequently immersed in a stinking mire of dense guitar treacle, trembling across the bedsit floorboards, rifling through a curvatured stack of gleaming laptoppery, picking up a mold-speckled avant jazz platter on the way, all the while attempting to translate these worrying eardrum vibrations into semi-coherent sentences. Right now he pens for the Guardian, Jazzwise, and Songlines.

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The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2022

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