Malmesbury students give their all on WOMAD main stage

This Is Wiltshire: Students from schools in the Malmesbury area perform on the main stage at WOMAD with the AMJ Collective. Picture by Diane Vose Students from schools in the Malmesbury area perform on the main stage at WOMAD with the AMJ Collective. Picture by Diane Vose

You could see it in their faces – elation at having their music appreciated by so many people, pride at being part of an outstanding performance at a major festival and very likely relief that it all went so well.

Some 100 young musicians, singers and dancers from in and around Malmesbury opened this year’s WOMAD Festival with a spectacular, hour-long set of high energy roots reggae that had thousands of fans dancing ecstatically in a field.

Every year since the festival moved from Reading to Charlton Park, near the town, in 2007 music students from Malmesbury School and a cluster of surrounding village schools have collaborated with a group of world class musicians to open the event.

This year they linked up with a Bristol based reggae collective AMJ - John Hollis, Mark Spence and Andy Clarke – and after just a week or so of rehearsals had the unnerving task of performing what they had learnt in front of a huge crowd at the festival’s main, open air stage.

As the early evening sun beamed onto hordes of people swarming onto the grassy arena at 7pm on Thursday the ranks of singers and musicians, all wearing colourful T-shirts, struck-up a reggae beat that immediately had everyone dancing.

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The AMJ collective provided a slick and solid reggae Afro framework within which the young musicians and singers expressed themselves while the dancers hardly stopped moving throughout.

“It was amazing, really amazing,” said breathless 11 year-old dancer Lily Gee-Smith, of Malmesbury primary school, minutes after stepping off-stage.

“I was slightly nervous at first but once we got started it was great.”

Fellow Malmesbury primary school pupil Sakura Clemo, 10, one of the singers, said: “It was really, really fun. A great experience. When you get on stage you don’t feel nervous any more – you just enjoy it.

“I could see my mum, my grandparents, and lots of people I knew in the crowd. Everyone seemed to be enjoying it. They were all dancing.”

Toby Journeaux, 17, normally plays classical and jazz saxophone but had to adapt his style to fit into a Jamaican groove for what was called The Road To Reggae project.

“I’d not experienced reggae at all until the rehearsals so it was all new to me," he said.

“But I’ve learnt a lot and it went really well. We were improvising a lot, bouncing off each other. It was great fun.”

Another Malmesbury School student Lucy Kershaw, 16, one of the singers, said: “It was a really fantastic experience. They (AMJ) were great people to work with. They were really good teachers. Was I nervous? Not at all. AMJ made us all feel really confident.”

Malmesbury School music teacher Debbie Corscadden said: “It was brilliant. It went really, really well. The students pulled out all the stops.”

Around half the students on-stage were from Malmesbury School while another 50 were recruited for the session from five local primary schools – Malmesbury, Brinkworth Earl Danby, Minety, Lea & Garsdon and Crudwell.

Their performance set the template for the following three days which saw around 30,000 world music fans converge on the Earl of Suffolk’s back garden to experience approximately 100 artists/bands from virtually every corner of the planet.

Well-known artists from the global scene, including two of Africa’s greatest living singers, Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour and Mali’s Salif Keita (performing with his first band Les Ambassadeurs,) British folk rock hero Richard Thompson and octogenarian Afro saxman Manu Dibango, drew huge crowds to the main stages.

Ireland’s Sinead O’Connor, well known for making controversial remarks on a number of subjects, had the unenviable task of filling Sunday night’s headline spot as a late replacement for soul legend Bobby Womack, who sadly died last month.

Her outstanding set of often lyrically personal songs was greeted with immense enthusiasm.

However, if any one band summed up world music it was probably Eastern European folk maestros SoNDoRGO who told the audience: “We are Hungarian, of Serbian and Croatian descent, we are going to play a Macedonian song in a Turkish style on Chinese instruments…. this could be world music.”

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