Womad festival – Gilberto Gil helps celebrate 40 years of blazing trails

After two Covid-induced years away, Womad returns to mark its 40th anniversary celebrations – and it’s earned itself a little nostalgia. Festival co-founder Peter Gabriel is here, of course, introducing Ghanaian-British rock band Osibisa, praising their role in popularising African music here back in the 70s, and harking back to the first Womad in 1982, when their singer and dancer Angie Anderson was also with the dance company Ekome, who backed Gabriel on his performance of Biko. The Congolese soukous veteran Kanda Bongo Man, still as rousing a performer as ever, said that his UK debut at Womad in 1983 “took me from nowhere to the international market”. And those passionate exponents of Sufi devotional singing, the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, paid tribute to their uncle Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, whose 1985 Womad debut also received praise from Gabriel in an earlier onstage discussion of the festival’s history.

But the festival also continues to look to the future and trails still being blazed. Sona Jobarteh, the continent’s first female kora-playing star, demonstrates her exquisite playing of the West African harp alongside a band that includes her 15-year-old son Sidiki on balafon. From Europe come Taraf de Caliu, four of whom were once international stars with Romanian Gypsy band Taraf de Haïdouks. They returned to Clejani, Romania after the band split and – fronted by new singer Florin Murgoi, who said he was a farmer in the village until they signed him up – they’re clearly delighted to be back with their thrilling, virtuoso blend of rapid-fire duelling violins and cimbalom. From across the border in Ukraine, Folknery open with a song praising their country’s soldiers before reworking traditional songs with an edgy, eerie blend of female vocals, percussion and electronic effects.

Osibisa performing at Womad.
Osibisa performing at Womad. Photograph: C Brandon/Redferns

If there is one quality that unites the many lesser-known artists at Womad, it’s this sense of adventurousness. Cuba’s Cimafunk, AKA Erik Rodriguez, switches effortlessly between salsa and African American funk. He praises Prince and echoes James Brown during a high-energy set best suited to a late-night dance club. From the US, Fantastic Negrito mixes acrobatic soulful vocals with influences ranging from Bill Withers to Lead Belly; gospel, funk, blues and New Orleans jazz, while telling family histories of slavery. South Korea’s ADG7 may be little known here, but they’re an immediate success, drawing a large and quickly charmed crowd thanks to their intriguing clash of styles: they have all the flash of K-pop, with exuberant dance routines from female singers in coloured hats, but their often thunderous songs are based on Korean folk music, including songs from North Korea. They are also great musicians, pairing impressive vocal harmonies with traditional instrumentation like the gayageum zither.

Womad’s past and present comes together during the Sunday night set by Brazilian music legend Gilberto Gil, now 80 but still taking chances. When he was last here in 2013 he played forró music from the country’s north-east, but this time his band and singers consist of 14 members of his family, including sons, daughters and even a five-year-old great-grandson running around pretending to play guitar. They chose the setlist “democratically”, he says, and it ranges from the opening Barato Total (which he wrote for Gal Costa in the 70s but never recorded), through to a slightly beefed-up Girl From Ipanema, the Beatles’ Get Back and the rousing reggae of Vamos Fugir. His singing is as powerful as ever and – as expected – his family are all impressive musicians. Gil is evidently over the moon to be singing in their company, making for a glorious, emotional set that stretches its arms across Womad’s esteemed four-decade history.