Live Review: WOMAD Charlton Park 2018

This year's WOMAD UK Festival has been dominated by a public discussion about Britain's discouraging visa process and the unwelcoming message that it sends out to overseas visitors, ignited by Festival Director Chris Smith in a Radio Times interview on Thursday. However, despite the difficulties —several billed acts were regrettably unable to make the festival— those of us on site at Charlton Park still managed to enjoy a four day multi-cultural utopia, with over 150 artists from 50 nations entertaining us with a diverse mix of outstanding music.

Amadou and Mariam. Photo credit: Garry Jones

Headliners such as Leftfield, Amadou & Mariam, Omar Souleyman and Thievery Corporation did not disappoint, performing to huge audiences on the Open Air Stage. However, it was a handful of lesser-known acts who stole the show for many of the music critics. Soweto seven-piece B.C.U.C. were singled out in The Guardian and Financial Times for their rousing Sunday evening performance of South African township music in the Siam Tent. Their set took the form of expansive percussion led songs that lasted over twenty minutes, and had the audience wholly engaged from the outset in what frontman Jovi Nkosi declared would be a concert to go down in history. It was a wildly kinetic and a spiritual experience for the huge audience, who threw themselves whole-heartedly into the band’s objective of ‘reaching the ancestors’ through the music.

BCUC. Photo credit: Guy Peterson.

A new attraction in the festival arena this year was the d&b Soundscape, offering a PA system that delivered 360° of live sound. Swedish synth-pop artist Jennie Abrahamson had the honour of opening the stage on Friday afternoon, with her clear soprano and mesmerising wash of glistening keyboard pads fully realised through the world-class speaker system. As the weekend developed, audiences were treated to a broad mix of genres through the immersive sound system, from jazz favourites Mammal Hands and Richard Spaven to the ambient folk of Erland Cooper and The Gloaming‘s Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, not excluding a healthy dose of EDM by the likes of South African DJ Muzi and Dutch producer Jameszoo. The relatively unknown Haitian singer Moonlight Benjamin was a revelation for many when she took to the d&b Soundscape on the final night for an explosive voodoo blues-rock set.

Muzi. Photo credit: Victor Frankowski

With over 35,000 attendees, there was plenty of excellent music on the smaller stages for those who wanted to avoid the crowds. On a scorching Friday afternoon, those who retreated to the shade of the arboretum were rewarded with the beautiful Estonian folk of Mari Kulkun on the Ecotricity stage, which included a love song to reindeer, as well as Malawian viral sensation Gasper Nali and his one-string bass.

Mari Kalkun. Photo credit: Victor Frankowski

WOMAD: Giving the world back to the world

Looking back on the first ten years of the WOMAD organisation.


As usual, the festival offered a number of highly colourful and visual performances, such as the theatrical Parisian singer Camille and her band, New York street jazz act Too Many Zooz and Congolese collective KOKOKO!, who dominated the Big Red Tent on Sunday evening. Energetic Scottish folk trio Talisk harnessed the early Saturday evening crowds with a wild and upbeat instrumental set on the BBC Radio 3 Charlie Gillet stage, whilst Moroccan musician Hamid El Kasri and his band captured the attention of the huge arena on the final afternoon of the festival in a wonderful gnawa performance on the Open Air Stage.

Maalem Hamid El Kasri. Photo credit: Victor Frankowski

As the festival site is deconstructed for another year, WOMAD finds itself front and centre of national headlines, with co-founder Peter Gabriel issuing a statement on the visa controversy and asking ‘Do we really want a white-breaded Brexited flatland? A country that is losing the will to welcome the world?‘ For the 35,000 happy festival-goers at least, they couldn’t imagine anything worse. The Evening Standard described WOMAD as ‘an extraordinary multi-racial festival, so open to the world‘, whilst The Independent heralded it ‘utterly unique‘.

WOMAD 2018 Highlights

Featured release

  • 30 – Real World at WOMAD

    Various Artists

    Released 29 July 2012

    The symbiotic relationship between WOMAD and Real World Records was apparent from day one. When, in 1989, the record label was born, it immediately joined its seven-year-old big sister in the vanguard of introducing the world's finest music to our ears.

By Oran Mullan

Main image: Senegalese rappers Daara J Family performing in the Siam Tent at WOMAD Charlton Park 2018. Photo credit: Victor Frankowski

Published on Tue, 31 July 18

Further reading

Djivan Gasparyan (1928 – 2021)

The Armenian duduk player collaborated with Michael Brook on the album Black Rock in 1998.

Debut EP by Montparnasse Musique out now on Real World X

Featuring collaborations with Kasai Allstars, Konono Nº1, Basokin and Mbongwana Star.

Track of the day: ‘Sorongo’ by Susana Baca

Afro-Peruvian icon Susana Baca celebrates 50 years in music with this forceful musical statement.

Track of the day: ‘Oppenheimer’ by Loney dear

Loney dear's latest single was inspired by the American theoretical physicist, J.R. Oppenheimer.