Photos and Report: WOMAD 2023 – Amazing World Music, and Two Elephants in the Room


Khushee the elephant in the children’s area at WOMAD on July 28, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

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From July 27 to 30, WOMAD, the world’s biggest world music festival, once more occupied part of the 4,500 acres of land belonging to Charlton Park in Wiltshire, the ancestral home of the Earls of Suffolk since the late 16th Century, whose Grade I listed mansion stands a safe distance away from the annual invasion of around 40,000 people in search of extraordinary music from around the world.

This year, 41 years since the festival began, there were two elephants in the room. The first, designed by my wife Dot, was a delightful cartoon elephant, Khushee (meaning happiness in Hindi), a representation of a young female Indian elephant who sat in the backstage catering area, charming the artists, when she wasn’t being promenaded around the children’s area, delighting children and adults alike.

Khushee was accompanied by Oke, a cute little puppet mouse, also designed by Dot, who made his first appearance last year, when, after years of doing children’s workshops, Dot came up with the idea to, instead, create a large animal figure to draw the attention of WOMAD’s children by processing through the children’s field on a daily basis. Last year, marking WOMAD’s 40th anniversary, that creature was a lion, Zaki, based on the lion in the festival’s logo, and it was so successful that this year it was Khushee’s turn.

Oke the mouse and a young fan in the children’s area at WOMAD on July 30, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

The second elephant in the room, more ominously, was climate change. Last year, when WOMAD returned after an enforced two-year break because of COVID, the impact of climate change was readily apparent, as the country burned in an unprecedentedly hot summer. This year, however, after two weeks of heatwaves in June, July was a wash-out.

The reasons for this are alarming. While southern Europe has been burning in unprecedently savage heat, Britain’s wet July was because, as a Met Office spokesperson told the Metro newspaper, “A southern shift of the jet stream — which is a core of winds high up above the Earth’s surface — has pushed high pressure southwards across Europe, where, as I am sure you are aware, they are seeing some very warm temperature at the moment. However, this has resulted in low-pressure systems being directed towards the UK, bringing more unsettled and cooler weather that we are currently experiencing.”

In short, then, Britain’s rainy summer is part of the same disruption to the jet stream that is incinerating large parts of the Mediterranean.

The implications of this were not lost on those prepared to think deeply about the climate crisis. Whether we are being rained on in Wiltshire, or burning in Rhodes, we are living through the demise of the weather being relatively settled, predictable, and conducive to our continued survival, and these disruptions will only get worse while we continue to pump out greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

On the ground in Wiltshire, however, most WOMAD attendees were rather distracted from the bigger picture by more immediate concerns about whether the festival would become something of an ordeal rather than a celebration, but, fortunately, although rain was never far away, it wasn’t anything like as relentless as we’d feared, when we’d been looking up the weather forecasts for nearby Malmesbury in the preceding weeks.

To its credit, WOMAD has been working hard to address its own environmental impact, working since 2013 with the green energy supplier Ecotricity, and, this year, finally replacing all its horrible stinking chemical toilets with resolutely non-smelly composting toilets instead. It’s also noticeable that, unlike festivals that focus on the musical superstars of the western world, WOMAD attendees don’t have to put up with the outrageous carbon emissions of climate-wrecking prima donnas like Taylor Swift, Drake, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and countless others who own private jets and use them relentlessly. In July 2022, the PR company Yard estimated that the worst offender was Taylor Swift, who had taken 170 flights since January 2022, producing 8,293 tonnes of CO2, or 1,184 times more than the average person’s total annual emissions.

Outside of the egos and rigid hierarchies of the western worlds of pop, rock and rap (where, most recently, it seemed almost obligatory to have to describe Elton John’s headlining set at Glastonbury as the very pinnacle of musical achievement in all of human history), WOMAD, every year, reminds me that, actually, the very best music being made anywhere on the planet is probably not in the west.

Pretty much every year, out of the 20 WOMAD festivals I’ve attended (since 2002), musicians that I knew nothing about previously have left me with the impression that I’ve just seen the greatest band in the world.

The Zimbabwean band Mokoomba at WOMAD on July 28, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

This year’s revelation was Mokoomba, a six-piece band from the Victoria Falls area of Zimbabwe, originally formed in 2002 when the band members were at school together. Launching professionally in 2008, they have frequently toured internationally, and were “feted as Africa’s most internationally successful young band” in 2013, when Robin Denselow praised them in the Guardian, and when, apparently, they also played WOMAD.

Describing their music as “Afro-fusion” — a mixture of their native Tonga rhythms, Congolese rumba, soukous, Afrobeat and funk — Mokoomba are seamlessly tight, visually arresting, and delightfully playful. Launching into a couple of funk numbers after a prolonged and stunning a capella harmony performance, they casually dropped in a couple of bars from Michael Jackson’s ’Thriller’ before returning to their main theme, and for their finale, the keyboardist cheekily used Apple’s ubiquitous ‘Opening’ ringtone as a melodic line accompanying the rest of band’s relentless funk onslaught.

I had the feeling that there was nothing that was beyond the reach of these six musical wizards, and yet, when I met them afterwards, to buy their latest album, ’Tusona’ on CD, and to get it signed, chatting for a while with the bassist, Abundance Mutori, they seemed so genuinely humble that I was sure that they didn’t even realize that they had just played one of the most memorable sets that many of us had ever seen.

Souad Massi at WOMAD on July 30, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

On the Sunday night, in the last set in the Siam Tent, another hugely memorable performer was Souad Massi and her band. An Algerian with a melancholic and hauntingly beautiful voice, who had played in her home country with the political rock band Atakor in the 1990s, before moving to Paris after receiving death threats, she had first come to my attention via her 2003 album ‘Deb’ (‘Heartbroken’), which successfully fused her North African roots with her love of western singer-songwriters, and had previously played WOMAD in 2015, although she seemed rather out of sorts at the time.

This year could hardly have been more of a contrast. Evidently reinvigorated through working with a new band that includes two extraordinary talented musicians — Malik Kerrouche on Spanish guitar, and Mokrane Adlani on violin, both of whom played the most transcendental solos — and also joined on several songs by Justin Adams, who produced her latest album, ‘Sequana’, her set was a masterpiece of passion and musical virtuosity, and the perfect reminder, as the festival came to a drizzly end, of why it is so invigorating to embrace music from all around the world.

Horace Andy at WOMAD on July 30, 2023, and, behind him, Dub Asante Band’s guitarist (Photo: Andy Worthington).

Elsewhere, highlights included the delightful and uniquely tremulous voice of reggae legend Horace Andy, who played the main open-air stage earlier on Sunday evening. ’Sleepy’, as he is affectionately known, apparently dislikes playing live, although you couldn’t tell from his heartfelt performance of his hits, backed by the wonderfully powerful UK-based Dub Asante Band and Matic Horns, including ‘Skylarking’, ‘Money Money’, with its anti-capitalist cry that money is “the root of all evil”, and ‘I’ve Got to Get Away’, and a spirited reggae version of ‘Hymn of the Big Wheel’, from Massive Attack’s first album, ‘Blue Lines’, when the influential Bristol band gave his career a huge boost, and have also continued to record with him on subsequent albums.

Hearing ‘Hymn of the Big Wheel’ reminded me of how prescient Massive Attack were, and it stood as the most powerful commentary of the weekend about the climate crisis, even though ‘Blue Lines’ came out in 1991, the year before the first great climate summit, at Rio de Janeiro, in 1992:

The big wheel keeps on turning
On a simple line, day by day
The earth spins on its axis
One man struggle while another relaxes

There’s a hole in my soul like a cavity
Seems the world is out to gather just by gravity
The wheel keeps turning, the sky’s rearranging
Look, my son, the weather is changing

We sang about the sun and danced among the trees
And we listened to the whisper of the city on the breeze
Will you cry in the most in a lead-free zone
Down within the shadows where the factories drone

On the surface of the wheel they build another town
And so the green comes tumbling down
Yes, close your eyes and hold me tight
And I’ll show you sunset sometime again

Michael Rosen at WOMAD on July 30, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington).

On another, non-musical front, another highlight of this year’s WOMAD was seeing Michael Rosen at the Hip Yak Poetry Shack, in Charlton Park’s wonderful Arboretum, on Saturday afternoon, where a truly vast crowd gathered to cry with laughter and to cry with emotion, as the author, poet and Long Covid survivor took us on a gripping journey through his family history, full of love, tenderness, absurdity, old-school stand-up-style silliness, and profound humanity. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the Arboretum when Michael read out his poem for the NHS, ‘These are the Hands’, written for the 60th anniversary of the NHS in 2008, which I’m also posting below:

These are the hands
That touch us first
Feel your head
Find the pulse
And make your bed.

These are the hands
That tap your back
Test the skin
Hold your arm
Wheel the bin
Change the bulb
Fix the drip
Pour the jug
Replace your hip.

These are the hands
That fill the bath
Mop the floor
Flick the switch
Soothe the sore
Burn the swabs
Give us a jab
Throw out sharps
Design the lab.

And these are the hands
That stop the leaks
Empty the pan
Wipe the pipes
Carry the can
Clamp the veins
Make the cast
Log the dose
And touch us last.

I’ve no idea how much other wonderful music I missed at WOMAD, but I’ve always taken a pretty casual approach to the line-up, never looking up the performers in advance, and always willing to be surprised. It’s also an advisable position to take when you’re actually working at the festival, not only because you may have to spend several hours largely sensorily deprived as the back end of a pantomime elephant, but also because there’s other work to be done: shepherding her across the site and around the children’s area, engaging in a performance on the Saturday — written by Richard Clare, in a very loose adaptation of ‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’, which also featured my son Tyler beatboxing as Oke — and also being involved in one of the festival’s annual highlights, the children’s procession through the festival grounds on Sunday evening, accompanied by samba bands and all the glorious creations conjured up in the children’s workshops.

After the challenges posed by the weather, and the apparently inevitable effects of getting one year older every year, it’s been quite a long process this year to recover from our five days and nights in the great outdoors, but I’m sure we’ll be back next year. How else am I going to get to see the greatest live band of 2024? 

Insecurity Guards at WOMAD on July 30, 2023 (Photo: Andy Worthington). Formed in 2014, they are based in several countries, and state on their website, “The Insecurity Guards perform at large scale public and private events and festivals. We align ourselves with events that have a positive impact on the community, strive for social good and are inclusive to all.” As they also explain, “The Insecurity Guards are here to rid you of your pesky insecurities, helping you let loose without worry. Participants write down their insecurities on pieces of paper and deposit them in our high-tech Insecurity Safe. All insecurities collected are private and not read by anyone. Then, either at the event or back home, we set the entire safe ablaze.”

* * * * *

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer (of an ongoing photo-journalism project, ‘The State of London’), film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose music is available via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (see the ongoing photo campaign here) and the successful We Stand With Shaker campaign of 2014-15, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here, or you can watch it online here, via the production company Spectacle, for £2.50).

In 2017, Andy became very involved in housing issues. He is the narrator of the documentary film, ‘Concrete Soldiers UK’, about the destruction of council estates, and the inspiring resistance of residents, he wrote a song ‘Grenfell’, in the aftermath of the entirely preventable fire in June 2017 that killed over 70 people, and, in 2018, he was part of the occupation of the Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden in Deptford, to try to prevent its destruction — and that of 16 structurally sound council flats next door — by Lewisham Council and Peabody.

Since 2019, Andy has become increasingly involved in environmental activism, recognizing that climate change poses an unprecedented threat to life on earth, and that the window for change — requiring a severe reduction in the emission of all greenhouse gases, and the dismantling of our suicidal global capitalist system — is rapidly shrinking, as tipping points are reached that are occurring much quicker than even pessimistic climate scientists expected. You can read his articles about the climate crisis here.

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Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

12 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article — my report about, and photos from this year’s WOMAD world music festival in Wiltshire, where, as usual, there was some excellent music from around the world, with my favourites this year being the extraordinary Zimbabwean band Mokoomba, the great Algerian singer-songwriter Souad Massi, and reggae legend Horace Andy, and, on the non-musical front, the wonderful Michael Rosen.

    As has been the case since 2002, I was working at WOMAD with my family and friends, this year promenading through the children’s area in a cute cartoon elephant designed by my wife Dot.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Rachel Taylor-Beales wrote:

    Always love Souad Masai and Michael Rosen!! Will have to check out the others you’ve mentioned!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Rachel. Souad and her band were amazing, and I’d never seen Michael Rosen, so that was an eye-opener. Imagine if he ran the country! I hope you get the chance to check out Mokoomba. They were absolutely exhilarating!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Saskia Kent wrote:

    Love that festival, haven’t been for a few years but felt a real flavour from reading your blog, thank you. And all hail the marvellous Michael Rosen.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    I’m glad to hear you got something of the flavour of it from my post, Saskia. It’s always a pleasure to spend some time with so many people interested in hearing some of the extraordinary musical talent that exists around the world!

    And as for Michael Rosen, what a revelation he was. We were crying with laughter, and crying with emotion, all in one extraordinary performance!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Regarding the intensely polluting behaviour of ‘superstar’ musicians, as discussed in the article, Forbes just published an eye-opening article focusing on Taylor Swift, looking not only at her own conspicuous greenhouse gas emissions (via her private jet use), but also the environmentally irresponsible behaviour of her fans. When she played in Australia, for example, Air New Zealand had to provide 14 additional flights for 3,000 fans in New Zealand who were desperate to see their idol.

    As the authors of the article state, “We are delighted that the younger generation is having fun. After depressing Covid-19 lockdowns, this is a welcome change. But much of the entertainment seems carbon-intensive, and we find this ‘consumption as salvation’ approach to be disturbing … Why is the younger generation gravitating toward celebrities with very high carbon footprints who flaunt their consumption-oriented lifestyle?”

  7. anna says...

    If I have time – which I doubt – I’ll check the musicians. But no need to check any further to admire Dot’s wonderful art work :-). I think it deserves to be published !
    Both animals are great. In Holland there are elephant & mouse jokes, most of which are delightful. My favourite one is about a football match between elephant & mouse teams. At some point an elephant inadvertedly steps on a mouse and pushes it into the ground. He apologises profusely but the mouse says “No problem, it could just as well have happened to me” :-).
    Second best, are elephant & mouse camping together at a lake side. Elephant is already swimming but the mouse is still rummaging in their tent as he seems to have forgotten to bring his swimming trunks … “No problem’, shouts the elephant, “I brought a spare one, you can borrow it”.
    Are they as popular in the UK ?

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Anna, for your lovely comments about Dot’s work. I’m glad to note that WOMAD sometimes uses the figures in their publicity, and sometimes they’re also picked up by the mainstream media, as, for example, in this BBC article using last year’s lion figure:

    Thanks also for the sweet elephant and mouse jokes. I don’t recall similar jokes here, but there’s definitely a lovely strand of child-friendly humour in the UK, so I imagine that similar jokes do exist.

  9. Anna says...

    Hi Andy, some reading for an overly hot Sunday afternoon, when anything else requires too much energy (provided of course, that London today also is overheated) :
    “In 2017, Breivik lost a human rights case when an appeals court overturned a lower court verdict that his near-isolation in a three-room cell [!!!] was inhumane.”

    And I highly recommend a book which I received from the ‘Guantanamo Survivors Fund’, Maha Hilal’s well documented ‘Innocent until proven Muslim’. Just like Mansoor Adayfi’s book put at times seemingly unrelated elements of information about Guantanamo into a coherent perspective, Maha’s does the same for the numerous manifestations of institutional(-ised) islamophobia. In the US, but so much of course equally applies to most – if not all – of Europe.

    A shimmer of hope on these two topics, although a plea deal for Assange would be too cynical for words. As any form of blackmail of course is.
    A positive UN initiative, even if obviously headed for more obstacles than those which sank the Titanic.
    Nevertheless, at least some hope.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the links, Anna. It was indeed very hot in London yesterday. All interesting articles that I hadn’t come across – a reminder of the US’s shameful use of mercenaries, a reminder of the evil of Anders Breivik, plus that tantalising suggestion that there could be a plea deal in Julian Assange’s case. That would, as you note, be cynical, but it might be the best way forward for the US and the UK – not dropping the charges, but avoiding the trial that, presumably, no one actually wants, and also removing him to Australia from the UK, where, presumably, the government would be glad not to have to deal with him anymore.

    As for the corporate tax abuse story, I found that very interesting, even if Jon Schwarz reckons that it’s such a boring topic that only 14 people will read the article. The solution – a unitary tax system – definitely sounds both logical, and helpful for all the economies starved of much-needed money by corporate tax avoidance, but of course the odds will be stacked against the UN actually achieving anything by that recurring problem, which we’re seeing so starkly with the climate crisis: governments who, while maintaining an illusion of democracy, are actually drearily corrupt, in this case always supporting big business and tax havens because, somewhere down the line, they’ll be rewarded for their subservience.

    We need political revolutions, but the fear now, of course, is that, even if a steadiy uninhabitable world and an ever-increasing ‘cost of living’ crisis provokes people into mobilising, they’re more likely to support a far-right ‘saviour’ than the kind of novel, visionary eco-socialists that we need.

  11. Anna says...

    Yes, the climate disaster overshadows everything else and news in this field unfortunately mostly is about deadlines & pledges not being met. And your political analysis unfortunately seems correct. Within the US it seems Hobson’s choice between more of an openly right-wing moron or a crypto-right-wing zombie !

    What to do with bankrupt Lebanon which wants to start drilling in the Med ? They provide power only a few hours a day, rampant inflation & poverty and in principle desperately need the gas. But with a corrupt government, will it change anything for the better ?
    The UN at least managed to empty an abandoned rusty oil tanker off the coast of Yemen, whose contents could have spilled at any moment. Small mercies.

    The few positives usually are from native communities, who are getting increasing credit for their optimal use of natural resources, although that typically is too little too late. They just blocked oil drilling in an Amazonian natural reserve in Ecuador :-).

    As for corporate tax, I read somewhere that Meloni – of all people – has imposed a one-off very hefty one (something like 30 % ?). Only this year, but maybe other countries will follow ?

    If hope fades, we at least can keep dreaming and dream up some positive changes.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    The US is becoming a kind of dark surreal farce, isn’t it, Anna? I read today that well over 100 million Americans are under severe heat warnings because of the heat dome enveloping most of the country, and yet the media still generally forgets to mention that it’s because of climate change, and people have spent so long being lied to that they can’t apparently join the dots for themselves.

    I hadn’t heard about Lebanon’s oil rig, so thanks for that info. Obviously it’s not easy to just turn off the fossil fuel taps immediately, and especially so in poorer countries (while wealthy countries can and must use their money – or their access to money – to swiftly move to renewables), but it was additionally dispiriting to see that the main beneficiaries will be the rig’s operators – a consortium of France’s TotalEnergies, the Italian oil giant ENI and QatarEnergy.

    I’m glad to hear that the UN has been able to start siphoning off the million barrels of oil on the abandoned tanker off the shore of Yemen. Someone flagged that up a while back, and it sounded like a horrendous environmental disaster in the making.

    I also heard about the victory for the Amazon and its indigenous people in Ecuador, which was really quite inspiring. There’s a Democracy Now! report here:

    As for Meloni, I’d missed that story too – and apparently it’s a 40% windfall tax! Quite remarkable from someone who, to date, I had heard nothing even remotely positive about. I see that similar efforts to restrict bank profiteering have also been implemented recently in the Czech Republic, Lithuania and Spain, so perhaps it will be contagious.

    And as for dreaming, that’s very much needed, but at least we can be assured that some of this beleaguered planet’s most intelligent and compassionate people are constantly trying to come up with ideas.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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