The third annual Womad international music festival kicks off on Thursday in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain. Here's a guide to the highlights.
Womad the 3rd
Womad first arrived on the Abu Dhabi scene just two years ago with some of the biggest names in world music, ranging from Senegal's Youssou N'Dour to one of the greatest stars that north Africa has produced, the irrepressible Khaled.
The second festival, in 2010, featured the French guitarist Titi Robin, Mongolia's punk throat singers Hanggai and the mighty Sudanese-Egyptian force of super-nature that is Rango, who joined Tanzania's Zawose Family on the main stage on the closing night when Damien Marley, the headliner, had to pull out at the last minute. This was good news for Rango, who has gone on to wow Womad audiences around the world, most recently at the 2011 New Zealand festival.
This year, Rango's label-mates El Tanbura, the veteran singers and simsimiyya masters from Port Said, who played for the people in Cairo's Tahrir Square every night during the Egyptian revolution that overthrew the Mubarak regime, return to Abu Dhabi and the Womad line-up. As in previous years, the festival will also be staged in Al Ain, for two nights, and El Tanbura are on the Al Jahili Fort stage tonight, then at the Taste of the World at Abu Dhabi's Corniche tomorrow evening, and finally in a collaboration with the young French-Moroccan fusion star, Hindi Zahra, on the Corniche's north stage on Saturday.
Like a number of visiting artists this year, El Tanbura are also working with local schools, and have been teaching children the "Bamboute" dance in the week leading up to the festival. Bamboute was the mime-cum-dance language of the sea traders of Port Said, who would signal their needs, their wares, their price and sometimes their oaths via this wonderfully expressive form of communication.
Also on the fort stage in Al Ain tonight will be the UAE's own Tarab Al Emarat, with their compelling take on Emirati chaabi, with its 6/8 rhythms tied in spirit to the camel's loping gait. On Saturday, the 12-strong ensemble will also be engaged in another of the festival's eagerly awaited collaborations - with the Hungarian-born Iraqi oud player Omar Bashir, son of a 24-carat legend of the instrument, Munir Bashir, the Iraqi virtuoso who first made the oud a solo recital instrument and popularised it in the West. The younger Bashir's sparkling improvisational stream of oud playing has been compared to the guitarist John McLaughlin, and the collaboration with Tarab Al Emarat could prove to be one of this year's highlights.
The Dhol Foundation - Bhangra-bustin' British Asian drummers led by the charismatic Johnny Kalsi - have a long association with Womad, and collaborations with key British fusion acts such as Asian Dub Foundation and Transglobal Underground, as well as fellow artists on this year's stages, the Afro Celt Sound System. The Foundation, armed with their huge Dhol drums, open the festival this evening with the help of local school children, and drumming is a major theme through Womad's three days in the capital - there's a drumming and dance workshop with Baaba Maal and his Senegalese band, a Colombian Salsa Party workshop, and a Saturday night set with another Emirates act, Dubai Drums, a community ensemble established on 2002 and part of a wider Arabic drum "network" that now spans the Middle East.
One of the qualities of Womad is its inherent eclecticism. You are sure to hear musicians from the most far-flung corners of the global sound system, alongside some world-renowned musical legends and flamboyant exemplars of contemporary pop - step forward the burlesque, befeathered hit-making figure of Britain's Paloma Faith.
From the world of African music, meanwhile, legend-status acts include Baaba Maal, who will probably be performing songs from his most contemporary album to date, Television, and the Malian kora genius Toumani Diabate, whose most recent project was with World Circuit's sumptuous AfroCubism project. In Abu Dhabi, he will be in small-band mode, weaving an aural magic that plays the air, the force of his inspiration and creativity turning on a kora string.
From the Caribbean comes the only living musician to hold Jamaica's Order of Merit, the highest honour that can be granted by the island nation for achievement in the arts and sciences. Your appointment with the reggae and ska academy of Dr Jimmy Cliff will be just after Friday midnight on the Corniche north stage. The film that helped make Cliff an international star, The Harder They Come, is regarded as one of the classics of the 1970s. Its soundtrack helped turn reggae into a global force, and included two of Cliff's many signature songs, Many Rivers to Cross and You Can Get it If You Really Want. Last year, Cliff was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and released Existence, an ambitious concept album and his first new CD since 2004's Black Magic. Expect the classic hits to come thick and fast.
Among the newer artists getting valuable Womad exposure will be the London-based Cameroonian guitarist and singer-songwriter, Munto Valdo, who plays in both Al Ain and Abu Dhabi. I last saw him blowing harmonica with the intense Scottish folk troubadour, Alasdair Roberts, and Valdo's excellent follow-up album to 2005's Gods and Devils is released this month. He has performed with Ali Farke Toure and the Congolese sensation Staff Benda Bilili, as well as with British folkies such as Roberts and Kamila Thompson, daughter of Richard and Linda Thompson, and his freewheeling, harmonica-fuelled troubadour songs should win over the Corniche audience with their space-shrinking sense of intimacy.
The Pakistani Sufi singer Sain Zahoor, who has had the distinction of being nominated for a BBC world music award without any official album release, will be demonstrating his magical voice that reputedly sends attuned listeners into trance states. After years of performing at Sufi shrines accompanying himself on a single-string ektara lute, Zahoor has more recently contributed to film soundtracks, and as part of the artistic stable of Egypt's El Tanbura and Rango, made a properly recorded album, as opposed to bootleg tape cassettes. He, too, plays in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi.
Hailing from the other side of the world, St Petersburg's Terem Quartet have been Womad regulars since the early 1990s. The classically trained quartet, who began under the Gorbechev era of glasnost, are now concert veterans bringing Russian gypsy music to the world with help from an array of extraordinary instruments such as the supersize double bass balalaika. They play on the Corniche's south stage tomorrow
For gypsy music lovers, the festival highlight is probably the closing gig on Sunday night on the Corniche north stage, featuring one of the legends of Serbian music from the past 20 years, Goran Bregovic. The artist, who soundtracked some of the great films to come from the Balkans - Time Of the Gypsies and Underground - has courted controversy for his appropriation of gypsy songs without always crediting their composers, but his mighty Weddings and Funerals band is a bona fide achievement on a grand scale - comprising a brass band, male choir, string ensemble, and traditional Roma and Bulgarian singers in an ensemble that can number up to 40.
As in previous years, admission to Womad in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain is free.