The Real World Recording Week

A global gathering of musicians and producers

For one week in the summer of 1991, some of the world’s finest musicians and record producers came together in the Wiltshire valley which houses Real World Studios, to live, work and play in a stimulating, creative environment, quite unlike anything ever previously attempted.

“I always imagined Real World would be like it has been this week.” Peter Gabriel, tired but elated, was seated at a table in the converted barn known, for just one week in the summer of 1991, as Lulu’s Café. “It’s a meeting place where musicians and technologists can drop in and work together, without the barriers and hassles of the music business.”

Seventy-five musicians from twenty countries gathered during the third week of a blazing August. Some, like Remmy Ongala, The Terem Quartet, and The Holmes Brothers planned to record entire albums. Others, like experimental UK-based techno-dance outfit The Grid, Chinese flute virtuoso Guo Yue and stunning ex-Monsoon vocalist Sheila Chandra were content to be there simply to participate in the creation of previously unimagined collaborative musics. A Québécois acoustic folk-dance group, La Bottine Souriante (The Smiling Half-Boot), happily performed on the lawn because the organisers had run out of studio space.

Originally broadcast by the BBC, A Real World Recorded is a documentary which captures some of the events that unfolded at Real World Studios during Real World Recording Week 1991.

Internationally renowned producers Phil Ramone, Rupert Hine and Pól Brennan agreed to be involved, not because Real World offered them vast fees, but because the project itself stimulated their imaginations. Established rock artists such as Sinéad O’Connor, Van Morrison, Karl Wallinger of World Party and Jah Wobble formerly of PIL were similarly drawn by the sheer audacity and excitement of the venture. By the end of the Week there were even two published poets, Neil Sparks and Jean Binta Breeze, on hand to contribute lyric ideas to fit some of the extraordinary music which evolved.

Plans for a Recording Week had developed out of the need to book artists touring with WOMAD into Real World Studios to record albums over two or three days in the summer. Because the studio was so highly regarded, attracting artists like Tears For Fears and New Order, it was often occupied and unavailable for months at a time. One possible solution was carefully to plan artists’ touring schedules during the WOMAD summer touring season, then block in a week of studio time so that recording could take place in one concentrated period.

Continuing in the spirit of WOMAD festivals, performance would be a strong theme of the Week, with many of the artists recording what would be essentially ‘live in the studio’ albums. The Recording Week would also be a way of capturing some of the best music which often happened spontaneously backstage, or after-hours at the festivals when the musicians came together and played. These sessions had spawned some curious and wonderful combinations— it would be no surprise, for example, to find a North African oud player jamming with a South American pan piper.

Phil Ramone prepares to produce Totó la Momposina's live session in The Wood Room at Real World Recording Week. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

The timing of the Week was to be crucial. The artists would have been touring for almost two months, performing at the international WOMAD events, and would have already begun to forge musical links. The aim of Recording Week was to create the best conditions to record these dialogues in an unforced and unpretentious way.

The idea was to produce about seven albums, five by individual artists and at least two compilations of collaborative work. The entire event, culminating in a live Gala Concert for the villagers of Box, would be filmed and recorded for international television and radio.

The bulk of the individual albums were realised, at the rate of virtually one each day, in Real World’s big oak-floored Wood Room studio, given a nightclub atmosphere by draping the walls with brightly painted banners. The performers played on ground level, while an audience of other musicians, technicians, friends, babies and the occasional dog, hunkered down on cushions or perched on the catwalks above.

Ghorwane in Box, Wiltshire at Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams

On Sunday night, Colombia’s Totó la Momposina and her battery of drummers and dancers brought the studio audience to its feet with a show that combined superb control with wild abandon. Pounding on drums made from hollow tree trunks, shaking cans filled with beans and plucking bass notes from a hiant m’bira made from a packing case, the drummers laid down a poly-rhythmic bed over which Totó’s voice seemed to soar.

Monday night’s Holmes Brothers session felt like a spontaneous gospel hoedown. “We gon’ do a li’l too that hits ya right where ya live,” growled vocalist Wendell to the crowded room as the band launched into ‘I Want Jesus to Walk With Me’. Not the heat, not the cramped conditions, not even the presence of two bustling camera crews could dispel the air of joyful bonhomie.

When the three guitarists from Remmy Ongala’s Orchestre Super Matimila, Tanzania’s hottest bongo exponents, joined The Holmeses, making a total of five lead guitars, for a spirit-lifting Tanzania-meets-Nashville-via-New-Orleans rendition of ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’, the camera crews were understandably fazed, frantically trying to work out where the next blistering solo might come from.

As the Week wore on, the vibrant atmosphere in Lulu’s Café said a great deal about the Week itself. Here you could find, queuing for food behind Peter Gabriel, a limping Karl Wallinger, who despite having fallen down a flight of stairs, injuring his leg, was determined to keep on working. His specific remit was to co-produce, with Gabriel, the Week’s musical cross-pollinations. At the next table, the guitarists from Remmy Ongala’s band were laughing with The Holmes Brothers, who were taking a break from overdubbing their album. In the corner, his ear blasted by Kenyan benga music blaring from a ghetto-blaster, flamenco guitarist Juan Manuel Canizares was trading ideas with ex-Soft Cell member, Dave Ball, now part of the avante-garde electro dance outfit The Grid.

An audience for Remmy Ongala and his band in The Big Room during Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams

Outside, Sinéad O’Connor was lounging back in mid-August sunshine against a wooden trestle table, where a roving TV camera crew, hardly able to believe its luck, took the opportunity to interview her. Van Morrison strolled past, unnoticed by the camera crew, heading for Lulu’s.

Not a hundred yeards away, on the wooden patio of Gabriel’s writing room, secluded behind a high hedge at the back of the complex, Japanese percussionist Joji Hirota was playing ‘Oh Danny Boy’ on a wooden shukahachi flute, watched intently by Chinese classical flautist Guo Yue. Inside the writing room, ex-Clannad member Pól Brennan was preparing for ‘River of Life’, a collaboration by all three, each playing a flute native to their homelands.

Nearby, under a spreading chestnut tree, La Bottine Souriante fiddled and stomped for their own amusement. A few paces further on, in Artists’ Reception, the control room for the Week, the eighty-three year old Roaring Lion leaned jauntily on his walking cane and shared a glass of rum and coke with the organisers. In an environment where T-shirts and pony-tails were almost de-riguer for males, the Lion was startlingly dapper in his plum-coloured suit, broad brimmed hat and extravagant tie.

The windows and walls of Artists’ Reception were plastered with an ever-changing array of hand-crafted message-posters. “All singers please join The Holmes Brothers at 3:30 in The Wood Room.” “Anyone going crop-circling please tell Sarah first.” “The Grid invites heavy breathers to the rehearsal room at 10:30.”

The Holmes Brothers recording in The Wood Room. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

From the open door of The Wood Room opposite, the sound of The Holmes Brothers singing ‘All Day, All Night’ drifted across. Inside, producers Scott Billington and Andy Breslau were rehearsing a scratch choir of back-up vocalists including Sheila Chandra, Mairi Boine from Lapland, China’s Liu Sola, Cosmas Chidumule from Remmy Ongala’s band and Karl Wallinger, to do overdubs onto the basic track.

Up three flights of stairs in his top floor Work Room, Peter Gabriel was playing back a track to a roomful of assorted musicians. Jah Wobble watched, bemused, as Gabriel endeavoured to communicate a tricky musical idea to Mischa, bass balalaika player of The Terem Quartet. After good-humoured negotiations and abortive stabs at the proposed sequence of notes, Gabriel shrugged his shoulders. “Forget it,” he said “Let Mischa surprise us. He’s the expert.” Tape rolled. Mischa went for it, nimbly producing sub-basement notes from a balalaika so enormous that transporting it from Russia to Wiltshire in its vast box had caused endless problems. As the final swirling notes faded, the room breathed a concerted sigh of appreciation.

Arona N'Diaye Rose, Ayub Ogada, engineer Carlton Blake and Peter Gabriel during Real World Recording Week 1991.

WOMAD: Giving the world back to the world

Looking back on the first ten years of the WOMAD organisation.


Recorded at Real World Recording Week 1991:

  1. Terem by The Terem Quartet
  2. Jubilation by The Holmes Brothers
  3. La Candela Viva* by Totó la Momposina
  4. Mambo by Remmy Ongala & Orchestre Super Matimila
  5. Trísan by Trísan
  6. Majurugenta by Ghorwane

*partially recorded in 1991, finished in 1992

Back downstairs, Remmy Ongala’s band could be seen and heard soundchecking with a lively instrumental groove in a marquee specially erected on the lawn for the live Gala concert. In another converted Nissen hut, behind Lulu’s, The Grid had hi-jacked Sheila Chandra from The Holmes Brothers session to add wordless vocalisations to a hypnotic, swaying and swelling synthesiser track. “Brilliant,” exclaimed The Grid’s Richard Norris, stunned by Chandra’s perfect pitch, which enables her to deliver half and even quarter notes exactly where she wants them. “Now, can you do some harmonies to that— backwards?”

Just before midnight on Friday, beneath an almost full moon, Van Morrison wandered into an impromptu Holmes Brothers session in The Writing Room and strapped on a guitar. To the delight of a small crowd watching through the open doors from the porch outside, Morrison led The Holmeses into the Sam Cooke classic ‘That’s Where It’s At’. Several run-throughs later, one exquisite take was in the can and Morrison declared himself satisfied. “That’s it. We can all go home now,” he joked.

Marie Boine Persen performs during the Gala concert on the lawn at Real World Recording Week 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams

In Lulu’s, as the week wound to an end, Karl Wallinger attempted to sum up the feeling of being there. “Phil Ramone says it’s a musical health farm. I don’t know. Maybe a musical Summer School. We’ve even got the end of term concert coming up this afternoon. It’s been crazy when I think back over it. My memories are like, sixty-five per cent performances and a good thirty-five per cent just communication, ways people talked about music, like the flamenco guitarist explaining his song to a Senegalese drummer then both of them wondering if they could stick a Chinese flute on top.”

On the day of the Gala concert, the sun shone, the security guards had nothing to do and the good people of Box drifted down under the bridge with their blankets and picnics. The musics of the world flowed out into the English countryside. When Peter Gabriel and Karl Wallinger took the stage as back-up vocalists for Ugandan political songwriter Geoffrey Oryema, it was a beautiful moment, to which the crowd responded warmly. Later still, when darkness had descended and the chirping of the crickets was fit to drown out Remmy Ongala’s Super Matimila, the village of Box got to its feet and danced.

“I love the quality of some of the things we’ve got,” said Peter Gabriel later, as he headed back up to his Work Room to continue recording far into the night. “Maybe next year we’ll do it for two weeks.”

  1. An oud is an Arabic lute.
  2. An m’bira is a thumb piano originating from southern Africa.
  3. Bongo is a musical style created by Remmy Ongala which literally translated means brain music, or thinking music.
  4. Benga is a musical form from western Kenya. Originated by the Luo people, it is now common throughout the country.

Featured Releases

  • Big Blue Ball

    Various Artists

    Released 26 July 2008

    Almost eighteen years in the making, Big Blue Ball grew from three extraordinary Recording Weeks at Real World Studios in the summers of 1991, 1992 and 1995. With Peter Gabriel and Karl Wallinger at the helm, the album features a huge cast of performers with a global reach.
  • A Week In The Real World – Part 1

    Various Artists

    Released 05 June 1992

    In August 1991 Real World Studios opened its doors to over 75 artists from 20 countries for a unique recording project. This album is the first of two volumes containing fascinating musical encounters between established and lesser-known artists from across the world at Real World Recording Week.

By Johnny Black

Originally published in Worldwide: Ten Years of WOMAD, 1992.

Main image, L-R: Pól Brennan, Remmy Ongala, Cosmas Chidumule, Maire Boine Persen, Sheila Chandra, and Andy Breslau recording in The Wood Room. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

Published on Mon, 02 July 18

Further reading

Mari Kalkun nominated for 3 Estonian Music Awards

The award nominations are in recognition of her album Stories of Stonia, released Summer 2023.

Jasdeep Singh Degun makes history at Royal Philharmonic Society Awards

The Leeds-based musician was the first sitar player to receive the 'Best Instrumentalist' award.

Exploring Colombian artist Savan’s music inspired by Yagé medicine ceremonies

The new Real World X release is an eight-track aural journey to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

Real World Sessions: Owen Spafford & Louis Campbell, 5 December 2023

New folk duo Owen Spafford & Louis Campbell visited the studio to record a new EP for Real World X.