The moment a conga line of teenage boys on the beach at Abu Dhabi, their dishdashas still snowy white at the end of the evening, danced through the crowd to the strains of Jimmy Cliff's 1980s classic Reggae Night, it was clear this year's Womad was different.
In spite of a star-studded Chillout Festival taking place in Dubai the same weekend, the Corniche Beach seemed to have attracted a genuinely open-minded, music-loving audience who, three years into the festival's UAE presence, knew exactly what to expect, and were relishing the new experiences on offer.
This might explain the apparent emptiness of the stretch of sand between the stages: for those who wanted to catch the full performances, the rush between acts on Stage North and Stage South, on the second night in particular, left little time to dally in tents. The unfortunate side effect of this, empty beach aside, was the trickle of people heading for the next act before the one they were watching was over, somewhat weakening the climax of each.
Bad news for the excellent Afro-Celt Soundsystem on Friday night, then, because their fascinating, percussive performance was followed directly by Jimmy Cliff, and there can be little doubt that this was the highlight of the whole weekend. While the Afro Celts got a stomping reception, the exodus began for the other stage well before their high-energy drumming was over.
Even so, Cliff began his performance with Wonderful World Beautiful People while the crowd was still drifting in. And it was some performance: the 63-year-old ska and reggae legend still has a powerful set of lungs and can throw some vigorous shapes when the mood takes him. He belted out all his old favourites, including a version of Many Rivers to Cross that brought a lump to the throat.
This headliner followed an enjoyable turn at the peak of the night before by the British popstrel Paloma Faith - a more populist take on the world music tag, perhaps, but Faith's cartoon-jazz voice and flamboyant posing are familiar and easy to like.
Among the other highlights of the Abu Dhabi edition of Womad were the colourful stylings of the Pakistani Sufi poet Sain Zahoor on the final night, the extraordinary performance art of The Manganiyar Seduction by Roysten Abel, the hypnotically rhythmic Orchestra National de Barbes and the beautiful kora playing of the inspirational Malian artist Toumani Diabaté, whose music will be familiar to fans of the British pop scene following his collaborations with Damon Albarn and Björk.
Womad isn't just about the headliners, though - some of the loveliest, most poignant moments came in the tents and the early-evening collaborations. The sight, for example, of the Jamaican performer Ripton Lindsay and his team teaching children to dance and sing the specially created reggae song Abu Dhabi Dub (surely deserving of some significant radio play in the city) was a reminder of the educational power of this event, both for children and adults, and the resulting film, created by the artist David Cox, with the help of the DJ Mr Benn, was enchanting.
Similarly the small row of stalls - and it was very small, well-hidden behind the tents and barely signposted - yielded not only plenty of African jewellery and frocks but an early outing of what claims to be Dubai's first fair trade shop, The Little Fair Trade Shop, an exciting discovery for those who make an effort to recycle and shop ethically. Nearby the Bedouin Night majlis offered some delicious freshly cooked Emirati food and coffee to those interested in exploring local culture. It was all very Womad, and made the otherwise fallow time between acts on the last night pass more pleasantly.
The final two performances of the event, though, were what Womad is all about. Speed Caravan saw the electric oud player Mehdi Haddab rocking out for the second year in Abu Dhabi, this time driving an enthusiastic crowd wild with a superb cover of the Chemical Brothers' hit Galvanise. There was not only a sort of multicultural mosh pit going on at one point, but also a considerable amount of air oud. All of which put the crowd in a perfect mood to dance gypsy-style to the brilliant Goran Bregovic Wedding and Funeral Band.
Bregovic, a cross between Bill Nighy and The Dude, with gravelly voice and louche white satin suit, and his brass band and backing singers turned out one instantly catchy, stomping tune after another, and by the time Abu Dhabi Womad shut up shop for the year, that corner of the beach was playing host to thousands of people taking part in a sort of mass jig. The only question, then, at Womad's close was aimed at Abu Dhabi residents who didn't make it down. With a stretch of beautiful beach, a world-class line-up and a lively, family-friendly atmosphere all available free for three nights, why on earth would you miss it?
* Gemma Champ