CIRCUS FOR THE SOUL; from Funk Diva Solange to Gothic God Nick Cave, Food, Art and Debates, It's All at Body & Soul Festival This Weekend (and They'd Love You to Bring the Kids Along)

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Byline: by Therese McKenna

BODY & SOUL might just be the most eclectic festival Ireland has to offer -- and its fourth edition is more magical, imaginative and kooky than ever.

It gets underway today in the exquisite grounds of the grand Ballinlough Castle, Co. Westmeath.

So what should you expect? How about summer cocktails served by burlesque dames, a giant cockroach rolling through the fields (propelled by the magnificent Macnas), the gorgeous Solange Knowles knocking out some top-class soul, gamelan music from Bali, Moroccan mint teas, a mass meditation and an ancient forest quest for kids -- and that's just for starters...

FOR MUSIC-LOVERS

THE main stage -- lovingly crafted from fallen trees and found wood collected in the local Athboy/Clonmellan area -- will be host to some incredible acts over the weekend, with some big names appearing.

Unmissable acts include Beyonce's demure and soulful sister, Solange; gothic gods Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds; and the seething post-punk of John Lydon's PiL. It's a cosy, personal setting in which to see some world-class acts -- the natural ampitheatre covers an area a small fraction of the size of the mainstage at Electric Picnic. Other acts to see there include American-Chilean musician Nicolas Jaar, US singer-songwriter Willy Mason and indie favourites Kurt Vile & The Violators.

Over on the Midnight Circus stage, highlights include dance-punk impressario James Murphy (of LCD Soundsystem) and minimal techno wunderkind, mal techno wunderkind, Pantha Du Prince. Top Irish acts include RSAG at 8pm on Saturday at Midnight Circus -- the one-man percussive powerhouse, Jeremy Hickey promises a 'pacey set; nice and stomping, a mix of electronic and organic sounds with some nice new samples'.

Then there's hypnotic electronics from Kildare's Mmoths (also on the Midnight Circus amy sunny melodies of stage); the dreamy, sunny melodies of Richie Egan (better known as electronic rocker Jape) on the Wonderlust stage; and the brilliant music of Cavan woman Lisa O'Neill at the same venue.

A large part of the appeal of Body & Soul is the spontaneity of the music programme -- you're as likely to be bowled over by a band that pops up from behind a tree or that you find sitting on a garden bench, as by the superstars you came expecting to see.

FOR FAMILIES THE Soul Kids' Garden is a paradise for the paisti -- they have their own special realm created within a formal walled enclosure that leads off into wilder woods, just like The Secret Garden.

The gardens are bursting with blooms, and right in the middle of them is a brightly coloured activity tent -- one of many spots where 0-to-12-year-olds can get creative, relax, or be entertained over the weekend. There's a full Soul Kids programme on Saturday and Sunday from 10am to 7pm -- including nature trails with ECO-UNESCO (bug safaris are bound to be a hit); Funky Feet dance workshops (a pretty solid guarantee of a good night's sleep) and Bucky's Circus Club (everyone will want a go on the unicycle).

Even outside the garden, the whole festival has been programmed with families in mind -- the daytime music is laid-back, so that younger ones can join mum and dad at the main stage for some reggae, indie or world music.

Many of the workshops in the Greencrafts area are suitable for all ages -- from baby yoga, to craft activities such as whittling wood. There are plenty of performers aimed at young imaginations, too -- The Cockroach And The Inventor, a production by Galwaybased Macnas who are Body & Soul first-timers, will be one to keep both eyes out for -- although you'll probably find it hard to miss some of the cast, including a smiling cockroach who's as tall as a house. Festivals don't come more family-friendly than Body & Soul -- even the ticketing system speaks volumes of the organisers' attitude: two children can be registered to go free on each adult ticket. …