After several festivals in awful weather this year… mud, gales, rain, more mud… I wasn’t sure I could face another one. But at the last minute I had been offered a ticket to WOMAD and as it’s been on my wishlist for a few years, and I wasn’t committed to anything else, it felt too good an opportunity to miss.
My husband couldn’t get time off work, so I took the girls on my own – they’re a bit older now at 9 and 7 and very comfortable in a festival environment so I figured we’d be OK. I wouldn’t baulk at taking them to a smaller festival on my own, but I did think twice about WOMAD because 20,000 people is a sizeable crowd. But I needn’t have worried – turns out the WOMAD crowd are the most chilled, friendly and relaxed bunch of people I have ever shared a festival with! Even the security staff had time for a friendly chat and smile as you went through.
First impressions – Soon after arriving we ventured out into the arena to explore our new surroundings with a welcome ice cream. The first striking thing in the arena was the flags – they were everywhere! Gorgeous silky flags in all shapes and colour schemes, all laid out in circles, and rippling in the breeze. Apart from being beautifully decorative, the flags are great for kids to pick out as landmarks and meeting points if you are allowing them a little free-ranging.
The Thursday heat was verging on the unbearable so we spent spent most of our exploring time in the Arboretum, seeking out the cooling shade of the magnificent trees. The Arboretum was home to the BBC Radio 3 stage, some interactive charity stalls, the Taste the World area and the World of Well Being healing area. No matter how busy the festival got over the course of the weekend, it was always easy to find a shady spot to relax and recharge whilst listening to some of the more intimate performances hosted in the Taste the World tent or on the R3 Stage. There are about 7 different stages/venues at WOMAD, some covered and some open, all offering a different style of line up, so there is always somewhere to find a band you like.
Day 1 – Friday starts well as we get over to Pizza Tabun (our old favourites from Larmer Tree) and join one of their Pitta Bread making workshops. My kids are on first name terms with Clare and Nick who run the workshops… they have barely missed a single pitta workshop in their 5 years of Larmer Tree Festival, so it was a lovely surprise to see them here too!
I don’t really know where the rest of Friday went… flitting around from one thing to another, yet never seeming to settle anywhere apart from a chilled hour by the Open Air Stage over lunch for Hugh Masekela. I felt as though I had seen nothing and done nothing… but the girls were happy, and so was I. We hadn’t even managed to get as far as the World of Children kid’s workshop area, but I suppose that is a good sign – we must have been too busy doing regular festival mooching!
By early evening we headed over to the Big Red Tent to see Hollie Cook and really enjoyed her fresh sound (not so much her over-excited squealing between songs as she introduced her band, but the music was great and that’s the important bit!). During Hollie’s set, Teya (my 9yr old) was spotted doing some hula hooping and was invited to go and perform on the RAW Open Mic Stage, which caused great excitement as she was allocated a slot for the next afternoon.
We also caught some of the awesomely crazy Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra, which inspired my 7 year old to do some equally awesome and crazy dancing, before heading back to the Siam Tent to see the highly acclaimed Manganiyar Seduction by Roysten Abel (and, before you ask, yes I did have to copy out the spelling of that from my programme!). It’s a musical project from Rajasthan, involving 36 curtained boxes containing musicians over 4 layers – each box is surrounded by lights and as the conductor brings in each performer the curtains open and the respective box is illuminated while they are playing. I had such high hopes for this performance as I had heard so much about its breathtaking effect on the audience, and being very visual, I thought the kids would enjoy it too. Sadly I was wrong. The performance built up rather slowly, and the big crowds meant that we couldn’t get close enough to see the whole stage, and so the kids just didn’t feel engaged with the music at all and soon got bored. I was disappointed but gave in and we moved on. The performance was scheduled to be repeated again on Sunday so I hoped the crowd would be smaller by then and we could give it another go.
Our last music fix of the night came in the form of the legend that is Jimmy Cliff. We were far back in the crowd, but his music is so accessible and familiar that it didn’t matter a bit – we danced and swayed like the best of them until poor wee Kira’s eyes were closing. She dozed on the sheepskins we had brought out with us, but eventually we bundled her up and took her to bed, with the easy grooves swirling though our heads as we sang our way back to the campervan.
Day 2 – It was a late night for the girls so we all had a bit of a lie-in on Saturday, but I felt remarkably sprightly. I then realised I had actually had a full 8 hour’s sleep… and rather than having the usual broken festival sleep where leary voices from later-night revellers disturb your dreams every few minutes, I hadn’t woken once… and hadn’t even had a problem falling asleep. This is not normal. This is very unlike me. This festival is amazingly quiet at night!!
Saturday morning got started with the ritual of the pitta workshop again of course… it’s an easy breakfast that’s for sure! We then had to be a bit more organised rather than just drift because there were a lot more bands that I wanted to catch, plus we had the Open Mic hula thing to get to…
First act of the day was Raghu Dixit in the Siam Tent. I’ve seen him before and loved him but I wasn’t prepared for how memorable this performance was to be… Memorable for two reasons really: firstly because as soon as we settled down to watch I had an enormous nosebleed (I get them from time to time, especially in hot and dry weather)… Now picture this: I’m completely on my own with two little kids on our picnic blanket and everyone around just stares at me… not one person offered me a tissue or asked if I was OK. I was of course absolutely fine and my daughters were great about finding me the wet wipes and helping me clean up my face, but I figured that everyone must have thought I was some drug casualty or something which made me feel really bad for the kids. It also really surprised me because until that point I had been feeling quite overwhelmed with the friendliness and warmth of the crowd – suddenly I felt like an awkward reject that no one wanted to make eye contact with! If I hadn’t been so embarrassed I would probably find the situation quite funny.
Once that small ordeal was over, the real reason Raghu Dixit‘s performance was memorable was because it made me weep – me and half the audience that is. Before singing ‘No Man Will Ever Love You Like I Do’, Raghu read out an email from a ‘Dave’ who had asked him to dedicate the song to his first love Jacqueline… Apparently they had been childhood sweethearts and were deeply in love, but had drifted apart and broke up. Recently they re-met, rediscovered their love, and had found that over the last FORTY YEARS they had never been more than 10 miles apart, their lives unknowingly circling the fringes of the same social spheres… well I was welling up already just at the story… but then, half-way through the song Raghu identifies Dave (in the audience) and his blushing girlfriend, “You know what to do, Dave” he says, and Dave just drops down on one knee and proposes!! OMG, we are all whooping and clapping, all in floods of happy tears, and the couple are hugging, laughing and crying too… and the music plays on as the most beautiful soundtrack to an incredibly moving moment that I feel so privileged to have shared.
We had 20 minutes to get from the Siam Tent to the Open Mic stage for Teya’s hooping slot, but I soon noticed Teya’s pace was getting slower and slower until she stopped altogether and burst out crying saying she couldn’t do it and didn’t want to. Now I’m in a dilemma… I know how excited she was about it last night, I know what a sense of achievement she will feel, and I know she’ll be gutted if she chickens out but I also know she is absolutely terrified and I don’t want to force her to do anything she doesn’t want to. She’s also overcoming clinically diagnosed Childhood Anxiety Disorder so I desperately wanted this experience to have a positive outcome! I persuade her to keep walking just to see how she feels when she is there. We get there and she’s worse… literally clinging to me… but somehow I persuade her to sit with the other performers and organisers by the edge of the stage just so the step onto the stage doesn’t feel so big… but she’s still crying, but she also admits that deep down she would like to do it, but ‘can’t’. It’s only a diddy stage, in fact it’s not even a ‘stage’ as it’s just on grass – but this has become a BIG DEAL. Cue Norman from Centralia, a wacky character from Superbolt Theatre who are curating the stage, and he takes her under his wing with a little pep talk, and offers to hoop with her if she teaches him her moves – and it works! We get her on! And the ‘show’ goes great – the crowd love it and like a big soppy fart I’m crying again!! They love it so much she immediately gets offered a return slot in the final ‘Best Of Open Mic’ Sunday show! Here’s her ‘performance’:
Later on Saturday we watch a bit of Femi Kuti, and then go over to the Siam Tent to stake a claim at the front barrier for Ska Cubano.
We were a little early, but the wait was worth it: the kids had a perfect view, no one pushed and shoved, and Ska Cubano got everyone dancing from the word go. Teya soon decided it was the best thing ever and we HAD to get the CD, and then we HAD to get it signed… but disaster struck when her favourite musician of the night, guitarist Jesus Cutino, was called away before he signed her jumper and new CD. More floods of tears – this time from utter devastation that her new idol had gone before she met him. Their Manager said he’d try to get him back, but eventually the rest of the band disappeared too and after waiting for a while we gave up. Realising our wristbands got us access to the crew area, we rushed round to see if we could catch him, and eventually a message got to him and he came out to meet us by the Artist’s Area security point… Teya was jumping with joy and got her big hug from Jesus, a very special autograph and got to see his photo of his own 9yr old son too. She is loving telling everyone that she’s met Jesus (although really he pronounces it Hey-zoose).
Day 3 – On Sunday, the girls finally commented that we had not done any workshops, nor spent any time in the kid’s area yet. So I quickly shelved any dreams of seeing bands and we toddled off to the World of Children. Now it quickly became apparent that if you are going to join in the activities here, you have to be organised and focused about it! Most workshops have limited capacity and require signing up half an hour in advance, and those that are more drop-in tend to be quite congested and I don’t do crowds well. And if you are trying to do arts and crafts but know there are 20 children hovering and waiting for your seat, it’s a bit hard to get into it.
Sunday is also the wrong day to start participating. A lot of the ‘making’ workshops were closing down early for the carnival procession, and those that were open were only for finishing off the carnival projects. The girls had desperately wanted to do Trapeze workshops but the only remaining sessions now were rehearsals for their ‘final show’ to demonstrate the skills they had learnt all weekend… thankfully they let us join in, but Kira was too intimidated by the prospect of rehearsing something she hadn’t yet learnt so we just watched Teya instead (and again pep-talked her through her shyness and nerves because the words ‘show and performance’ were mentioned, even though the ‘performance’ was only to the parents of the 10 kids in the ‘show’!) and then hung out in the circus skills area for the afternoon.
The Carnival Procession was spectacular – with the fruits of everyone’s creative labours proudly on display, Samba bands play and the procession dances its way through the arena. Eventually I stop beating myself up for not reading up on the kid’s workshops and being more organised about getting involved earlier in the weekend… the girls hadn’t complained, and had been happy enough drifting around the stages with their hoops, but I felt they might have liked the chance to make something and take part in the procession. Ah well, there’s always next time…
After a pizza dinner we watch some great open mic performances in the Roots Architecture Open Mic Highlights show, and Teya does her hooping show again with far fewer nerves. She also becomes the willing subject of a Child Baptism in an impromptu sketch devised by Superbolt Theatre during the show, but that’s a whole new story! I can’t thank Superbolt Theatre enough for the encouragement and support they’ve given Teya in helping her not only get the confidence to perform but to believe in herself too – they probably have no idea what a huge and profound impact they will have on Teya as she grows up. Her experiences with them at WOMAD are undoubtedly going to be a significant turning point for her.
In all the excitement of the open mic show we completely forget to try watching the Manganiyar Seduction again, and though I’m a bit gutted, a dance to Toddla T sorts me out just fine. There’s just time for quick ride on the fairground before we head off to bed. The girls drop off instantly but I lie contemplating the weekend to the distant sounds of Robert Plant with a resigned smile on my face – for the great times I’ve had with the kids this weekend, I guess I can live without seeing one of my all-time favourite artists.
A warm welcoming atmosphere, an easy manageable pace, a very attractive well laid out site, and the very best in world music from all genres.
It’s always a compromise when you take kids to festivals because you can’t expect them to have the same attention span for music that you do. I think in a bizarre way it was almost easier to manage without another adult though – perhaps it was because put my needs aside more willingly as there was only one of me? Perhaps we were just very good at following a natural relaxed pace this time? Or perhaps it was just the easy-going nature of this festival. I didn’t see every artist I had circled in my programme, but I saw way more than I expected to, had too many laughs to mention, and we all made made some new music discoveries. Kira’s joy in finding out that her quirky dancing style was perfectly suited to Eastern European Gypsy Folk music was a particularly unexpected one!
And apart from the great music everywhere we went, I just couldn’t help cherish the happy times and special moments I shared with my children in such a lovely place.
The girl’s minds are broadened, my heart is warm and nurtured, and WOMAD might just have made it onto our annual festival must-do list.
For more information read our WOMAD festival factsheet!