Womad is not having a mid-life crisis, but maybe it should. After two years of Covid-induced hibernation, the World of Music, Arts and Dance festival returned to the grounds of Charlton Park in Wiltshire, England in the summer of 2022 celebrating its fortieth year. Yet rather than follow the lead of the archetypal insecure suburban dad crossing the threshold into middle-age by acquiring an interest in contemporary sounds, the festival line-up was dominated by pop styles and performers decades past their commercial heyday. Of the six headliners for the festival’s three main days, three were over sixty years old – Angélique Kidjo, Wayne Coyne (frontman of The Flaming Lips), and Gilberto Gil – and none were under thirty. This can hardly be explained as Womad having a nostalgia blow-out for its big birthday year when 2019’s headliners offered a similar demographic. And noting it is not to belittle the considerable talents of such ‘heritage acts’ nor those working in genres that have fallen out of favour in a fickle music industry, especially at Womad, which specialises in traditional and neglected styles. It’s more that when you run a festival that trades in sounds from outside the hegemonic Anglo-American rock-and-pop landscape and two genres – afrobeats and K-pop – break through that hegemony spectacularly yet feature nowhere in your line-up, I’d say you’ve missed a trick to rejuvenate your ageing audience. Instead, Womad 2022 (28-31 July) stuck resolutely to a programming logic set by the parameters of the hazy and problematic ‘world music’ category of the eighties which admits, for example, afropop from that decade, but not today. The festival pulled off its return to Charlton Park with aplomb, and yet I still longed to witness it figuratively slapping the latest Blackpink or Burna Boy on the car stereo, like a suburban dad desperate for relevance, more than once during the weekend.
I’m getting this criticism out of the way early partially because such thoughts were never far from my mind at Womad 2022, and partially because I care about this annual jamboree. Womad was a personal high point of four of the previous five summers prior to the pandemic (I couldn’t make it in 2019). It’s hard to overstate, as mainstream UK culture becomes ever more homogenised, unadventurous, and conformist, just how vivifying a weekend spent engaging with culture from other lineages can be. Encounters can border on the transcendental. Arriving cold and miserable to the waterlogged main field in 2015, I sheltered from the drizzle in the first tent I saw. Within a few minutes Mahotella Queens, a South African all-female trio who trace their roots back to 1960s Johannesburg, had struck up their first song. I don’t speak Zulu, but their summery township pop, sung in sublime harmony and backed by shimmering guitar, communicated faith, fortitude and joy beyond words. For one glorious hour it was as if a ray of African sunshine had broken through the grey English skies to light the stage and warm my soul. Much of the time I was watching through tears.
This time round, I think I’m in store for another of those precious moments about half an hour after setting foot on a much warmer and sunnier main field. Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwals, led by two nephews of the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, are on the main stage. Their uncle’s performance at the festival in 1985, finally released on record in 2019, is the stuff of Womad legend, having catalysed Nusrat’s renown, and that of qawwali more widely, in the UK. Like their uncle back then, Rizwan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan opened with ‘Allah Hoo Allah Hoo’. I am sure I’m not alone in being unable to hear that song without hearing the voice of the ‘King of Kings of Qawwali’ in my head (in my case from a 1993 recording that introduced me to qawwali). No performer will come off favourably in comparison. This time the contrast was not helped by a rushed feel to the performance and Rizwan suffering a slight tightness of voice when attacking the most expressive passages. A Friday early-afternoon audience in milling-around mode was also not advantageous. Yet gradually performers and audience began to relax. Just as their uncle had in 1985, Rizwan and Muazzam followed the opening hamd (song in praise of Allah) with a manqabat (in praise of Ali or one of the Sufi saints) rather than the more usual na’at (in praise of the Prophet). Nusrat’s 1985 Womad manqabat had been ‘Haq Ali Ali’, his own composition, and the brothers similarly presented one of their own works. Perhaps keen not to lose the growing connection to the audience, Rizwan led this one with renewed vigour, and as he launched into a series of ascending scales I felt a lump growing in my throat. Closing my eyes, I let the music work its magic and… my phone rang. Ramy Essam, the Egyptian singer-songwriter and activist whose hastily composed song ‘Irhal’ became the anthem of the 2011 revolution, had agreed to a short interview. About that, more later.