The UAE combo dazzled the crowd at the UK music festival this week. Its members tell Tim Cumming why their sound is unique, even at home.
Takht al Emarat at Womad: Oud and new
Charlton Park's 4,500 acre estate is what the Earl and Countess of Suffolk and Berkshire call home. You can see their 17th-century manor house with its castellated rooftops and Cotswold stone from the Womad site, shimmering in the summer heat as the sounds of the world play out across nine stages in the heart of the English countryside. The festival had a rocky start when it moved here from Reading four years ago. The worst country-wide flooding in decades turned the grounds into a mud bath. This year, the weather held good and a strong line-up ranged from acoustic source music to eclectic fusion and more familiar names such as Gil Scott-Heron and Imogen Heap.
Womad ages well, and its audience and musical range have grown along with it. As you walk through the festival site, trying to choose which of three intriguing-sounding performances you'll check on first, you'll see plenty of white-haired festival folk and their teenage children, while battalions of under-10s flit about, collecting biodegradable glasses for a 10p-a-glass fee. Some made £25. Recycling and entrepreneurial drive - it's all part of the Womad spirit.
Africa featured prominently in the main-stage line-ups, with the likes of Salif Keita and Angelique Kidjo joined by the mighty funk of Orchestra Polyrythmo from Benin. The warmth and sheer élan of their Womad set made for one of the most pleasurable experiences of the festival. Two relatively new African acts made big impacts. Rango, the Sudanese-Egyptian trance masters who have performed twice at Womad Abu Dhabi, kept themselves busy by delivering midday Saturday and midnight Sunday sets to enthusiastic crowds, while their feathered frontman TuTu stepped up to his lead role with almost demented relish.
The unveiling of the Rango instruments was pure theatre, a kind of oriental music hall, and Hassan Bergamon's plugged-in simsimiyyah tore the air like hot metal. One of the sure-fire hits of 2010, the Congolese band Staff Benda Bilili proved that the journey of triumph over adversity is not reserved for romantic fiction. This group of paraplegic street musicians from Kinshasa - four of them came onstage in wheelchairs, another on crutches - make a music of riotous energy, community and joy, stiffened by lifetimes of negotiation with survival.
They came, they prospered, and they also have a young prodigy, Roger Landu, stirring up a furore of sound with his monochord satonge instrument, fashioned from a tin can, a strip of wood and a taut piece of wire. The high, urgent sound darts and runs and flies about the joyous Congolese rumba of the seven-strong band, trading rich vocal harmonies and scintillating guitar work. A film telling the story of the band's incredible journey from the streets of Kinshasa is on general release later this autumn, and we are going to hear and see a lot more of them.
Rumba of a different kind featured in the UAE's Takht al Emarat's set on the newly named Charlie Gillette stage, in honour of the veteran world and roots broadcaster who died earlier this year. This is what Womad excels at - pure, undiluted musical wonders you'd be hard-pressed to hear anywhere but at the festival or in its country of origin. And even there, as the band revealed, you'd be pushed to find it.
"We play heritage music of the UAE," says the band's founder and oud player Ali Obeid, a native of Fujairah, who formed Tahkt al Emarat after graduating from the Bayt Al Oud music school. Originally a trio, with two other graduates, the group has since expanded its palette to the richly nuanced ensemble brought to Womad. Tahkt specialise in Emirati chaabi, with its loping 6/8 rhythms tied, in spirit at least, to the camel's loping gait. There are also khaleej rhythms, which hold tangible echoes of Indian and African music - as clearly evinced in the khaleeji-style rumba that featured in the second song of their set.
The rhythm feels familiar, but is played on a hand drum native to the Emirates, augmented by sweeping Arabic violin and sharp, quicksilver arpeggios of oud from Obeid and his fellow player Hamad al Mansoori. Seven of the band's 12 (and counting) members made it to Charlton Park, with Ali Acherbi on quanun, the ancestor of the European zither, stage centre, with percussion one side and oud and violin the other. It is a beautiful and transporting instrumental music, purely acoustic, and rooted in tradition while aiming at innovation.
"There is no other band like Takht in the Emirates," confirms Obeid. "Before us, there was no band doing what we have set out to do, with this combination of instruments and drums. It's very distinct to the music you might hear in Yemen or other Gulf states. And in our culture it is usually only drums and sword dance. No one has ever played these rhythms from the Emirates on oud and quanun and violin before. We started to do that with instruments, to make something new and different."
They're keen, too, on fusing their music with sounds from beyond the Gulf. "Not with rap or rock - with something completely different but that is sympathetic to what we do." With that in mind they took part in a Womad workshop with Justin Adams, the guitarist and producer who had his own big-stage Womad moment with the Gambian riti player Juldeh Camara on Saturday night, when Peter Gabriel himself - the originating force behind the festival - presented them with Songlines magazine's Best Cross-Cultural Collaboration award.
"He is great," says Obeid of Adams. "He is such a great musician. We worked together and played something with local drums and guitar, and it was very nice. With oud and quanun and Emirates percussion." He claps his hands as if considering the memory of a delectable feast. "And last night, the people really liked it, too. I can imagine it with the full group? We already have clarinet and guitar as well as quanun, oud, violin and percussion, and we would like to include cello and flute."
Their Womad set reached its peak with a bravura performance of duelling ouds, pointillist quanun and sweeping, cinematic violin - a show-stopping moment. They followed that with a dizzyingly syncopated Gulf rhythm, "one that you will also hear in Yemen, Kuwait, and elsewhere in the Gulf. We call it sot". They even got the Womad crowd mastering the basics of syncopated clapping against a loping labyrinth of a rhythm that could tie a camel's legs in knots.
Womad is a truly global enterprise with festival dates in the diary for Sicily, the Canary Islands, New Zealand, Australia, and Abu Dhabi coming up in 2011. It's an experience that remains packed with discovery - be it Cedric Watson's country Cajun, the multifaceted African-American singer Krystle Warren, the young Iraqi oud master Khyam Allami or Adach's newly formed folk-dance group, Abu Dhabi for Traditional and Performing Arts, which also made its international debut at Womad.
This year also brought in the Speakeasy, a nightly feast of artist interviews, author readings and film screenings, including Tony Gatlif's classic 1993 film following the never-ending Romany journey, Latcho Drom. To travel, musically, from the world of Cape Verde's Myra Andrade to the passionate, awe-inspiring qawwali of Rizwan-Muazzam, via the intensity and focus of Alim Qasimov's Azerbaijani repertoire, psychedelic Peruvian Latin chicha music of Los Chinches, and the ancient harp music of Geata Krar Collective from Ethiopa, is your tailor-made round-the-world trip with no passport, visa or injections necessary.
When the sun is out at Womad, it's hard to think of a better way to hear or see the world.