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Swedish cellist and Tunisian violinist are among Womad highlights

I’m just back from Womad: three days of camping in a field and listening to music from all over the world. I’m sunburnt and have sore feet, and never have I been so pleased to see my bed and toilet. But it was worth it for the sheer quantity and variety of music I had a chance to listen to, even if, with seven stages to choose from, I was sometimes quite overwhelmed and had to go and lie under a bush to cool down.

Cellist Linnea Olsson performs at Womad

There weren’t many string acts to report back on, but the few were good, and all new to me. The young Swedish cellist Linnea Olsson arrived without her instrument – SAS Airlines having lost it somewhere in the change between planes at Copenhagen. Fortunately it arrived in time for her main set. Olsson is a classically trained cellist who accompanies herself in droll love songs, looping in and out of various textures and commanding the stage impressively on her own.

Olsson uses her cello imaginatively, ranging between sparse bass pizzicatos in one song, to Bach-like string-crossings in another, or Reichian repeating units and carefully crafted textures. All supporting her beautifully pure voice and sardonic lyrics. I spoke to Olsson after her set and she explained why she had moved away from classical music while she was at music college, saying, ‘I’m afraid of doing something wrong when I play classical music. I always feel a bit scared, so I don’t enjoy it as much.’

She certainly still has the classical chops, though, and makes a lovely sound. Here she is playing Ah! from her latest album:

Another great string player was Tunisian violinist Zied Zouari, who performed as part of Imed Alibi’s band, and whose soaring solos and quick-fire repartee with the keyboard player brought the gig to life. Here's a clip I found of him performing in Paris earlier this year:

The Magnolia Sisters brought some old-time Cajun fiddling to the festival:

And Orkney band The Chair helped renew my flagging energy level on Sunday with their spinning fiddles. Here they are in 2010:

Apart from that, my highlights were non-stringy. Richard Thompson’s guitar playing had me wondering if there were two other guitarists on stage in the corner I couldn’t see. Youssou N’Dour still has one of the most beautiful burnished voices and coolest stage presences, even though he’s now a minister in Senegal.

The combination of the Welsh harp of Catrin Finch and the kora of Senegalese Seckou Keita seemed the most natural idea in the world – the delicate blend resonant and full. It emphasised the fact that distances in geography and culture mean little when it comes to the laws of physics: there are only so many ways to skin a cat, or string an instrument, and completely different cultures can find exactly the same sounds in their quest to make music.

I’ve always been a big Carolina Chocolate Drops fan and was sad when Dom Flemons left, so it was great to see the old-time banjo player again. In another cross-cultural collaboration that brought up more similarities than differences, he performed with English folk guitarist Martin Simpson. They played songs from both the US and English traditions, based on research they’ve recently done together at Cecil Sharp House, and using their own encyclopedic knowledge of their respective songbooks. Flemons spoke passionately about the need for us all to understand our cultures through our musical traditions, urging us to go and discover one thing about it, which made me promise myself to go to Cecil Sharp House. Above all, the songs were brilliant stories from way back and the two artists seemed to be having a ball discovering their shared traditions.

Perhaps one of the most powerful performances was given by Ukrainian band Dakha Brakha, who aptly describe their music as ‘ethno-chaos’. It was certainly heavy stuff, with a cellist providing a deep weight to the sound at the other end of the sonic spectrum from the ethereal vocals. Along with insistent rhythms and occasional forays into musical madness, and of course the underlying political subtext, this was intense stuff and was received with gigantic applause.

It was a heady three days of discovery, verging on over-stimulation, but I’m looking forward to exploring all these new favourite bands. Once I’ve had a lie down.

Were you there? Who were your favourites?

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