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Monday, 29 July, 2002, 00:35 GMT 01:35 UK
Festival basks in diversity
The Tartit Ensemble at Womad
The Tartit Ensemble are from Mali's Tuareg tribe
By the BBC's Ian Youngs and Martin Vennard in Reading

Every corner of the globe seemed to have offered up at least one star performer to take part in the 20th anniversary Womad - the music festival that makes cultures collide with eye-opening results.

At a time when the world often feels so small, it can be refreshing to be reminded how different we actually are.

The Bhundu Boys at Womad
The Bhundu Boys played for just 15 minutes
By different, I mean diverse, with distinct identities - and avoiding being consumed by one giant global culture.

It means three Bulgarian sisters singing ear-piercing folk songs at the same event as stars of American blues, Congolese pop and Indian percussion.

In fact, after being force-fed the mainstream diet of western rock and pop, it comes as a satisfying surprise to discover that there is such a hidden wealth of real talent thriving out there.

The fact that Womad has been going for two decades shows that there are enough other people who agree.

Some one million music fans have seen Womad events in 21 countries down the years, and this year's birthday bash was a celebratory affair, helped by the festival's regular scorching sunshine.

Echo and the Bunnymen at Womad
Echo and the Bunnymen first played Womad in 1982
Unlike many music festivals, the crowds do not go to Womad to see their favourite bands - because they have never heard of most artists on the bill - but for the thrill of chancing upon a hidden gem from some musical outpost.

It is the type of place where people either lie on the same piece of grass all day and wait to see what music wafts over them, or wander pasts tents and wait to be excited and enchanted by the sounds coming from within.

Starting on Friday, the event's birthday cake candles were lit by Charles Zawose and African Fire, a huge troop of Tanzanian dancers and drummers who almost literally set the Siam tent alight with their rhythms, costumes and torches.

Demonstrating the event's variety, they were followed by Algeria's Abdelkader Saadoun with two belly-dancers, and the Malian Tartit Ensemble.

From the Tuareg tribe, the ensemble's male musicians took a backseat and kept their faces covered while the women lead the singing without a veil in sight.

Ernest Ranglin at Womad
Jamaican legend Ernest Ranglin was given a warm reception
Half-US, half-Mexican singer Lila Downs impressed many and headed a long list of Mexican performers, but Terry Reid - a white, middle-aged Englishman - suffered from being too un-exotic for the liking of many in the crowd.

Friday night was brought to a joyful climax by Los Angeles feel-good groovers Ozomatli, who mix everything from salsa to hip hop and soul.

They took their instruments into the crowd and continued playing after finishing on stage, before leading a huge conga to the backstage entrance.

The celebratory theme continued on Saturday, with a special "gala" performance forming the centrepiece in the afternoon sun.

It saw performances from four big-name bands, including the Bhundu Boys and Pato Banton squeezed into just one hour.

Los de Abajo at Womad
Los de Abajo mixed traditional and modern Mexican music
Also taking part were the British-Asian Dhol Foundation, who carried huge drums around their necks but did the dance steps of a boy band.

The Bhundu Boys are legends in their own right, and could have headlined the weekend.

They certainly excited the crowd more than rockers Echo and the Bunnymen, who played at the first event in 1982 and made a return appearance as special guests.

But times must have changed because their dark and droning goth rock was exactly what the sunny, swinging atmosphere did not need.

One of the "godfathers of reggae", grey-haired guitarist Ernest Ranglin, was a big hit with his Jamaican jazz, while French-Algerian star Rachid Taha rounded off Saturday night by getting the crowd to sing a Franglais version of James Brown's Sex Machine.

Festival goers with a parasol
Sunday was the hottest day of the year so far
On Sunday, energetic African dance and drumming troupe Frititi were one of the highlights, with their star turn being an acrobat who was able to spin four giant metal tubs on poles at once - including one with its pole stuck down its trousers.

The crowd warmed to the fusion of Caribbean salsa and west African echoes that was the result of a collaboration between Congolese guitarist Papa Noel and Cuban strummer Papi Oviedo.

Another Congolese star, Kanda Bongo Man, got hands in the Siam tent waving with an almost hypnotic fervour, thanks to his infectious "soukous" style that has apparently had African pop fans dancing for two decades.

Rounding off the festival were the jumping, pumping Los de Abajo, who seemed like the Mexican Madness, along with the Ivory Coast's Alpha Blondy and Ravi Shankar's glamorous daughter and protégé Anoushka.

It was an irony that with so many performers from so many parts of the world, the vast majority of the 25,000 crowd was white, middle-class middle-Englanders who relished the chance to be terribly ethnic without leaving the comfort of their green and pleasant land.

But that was not so much a gripe as an inevitability - and the bands exchanged mutual respect with a crowd that was delighted to have the world on its doorstep.


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