WOMAD: Giving the world back to the world

As the first WOMAD Festival came to a glorious end, at the Royal Bath and West showground, Shepton Mallet, in July 1982, Peter Gabriel was asked by an NME reporter if the event had attracted enough customers to make a profit. "In a word...no," replied Gabriel. "But we've shown that there are people who want to hear other music apart from rock. Even if we can't carry it on, somebody else will."

The idea for WOMAD had hatched and grown out of discussions between Gabriel and Thomas Brooman and his colleagues at the alternative music magazine ‘The Bristol Recorder’, in 1980. “Peter rang the Recorder team,” recalls Brooman, “with an idea for a concert involving an African group, which then evolved into a much larger event with music from all over the world.” Looking at the financial realities of such an event, they began to realise that a one-off concert was uneconomic, and started considering alternatives. The staging of a festival seemed the likeliest way to go.

In July 1982 the first WOMAD Festival was produced in Shepton Mallet. Musically, it was a heady multicultural broth spiced by the Drummers of Burundi, Echo and the Bunn men, Ekome, The Beat, China’s Tian Jin dancers, Egypt’s Musiciens Du Nil, Ireland’s Chieftains, the experimental trumpeter Jon Hassell and many more. The NME hailed it as ‘a week-long musical orgasm’; The Times rather more cautiously praised it as ‘a courageous endeavour’, but The Observer came closest by describing it as ‘exciting but surreal.’

Something new was happening; something that one journalist acknowledged as 'a beacon for the future'; something that fused together the audience, the music and the philosophy behind the event in a way that no festival had done since the days of Monterey Pop and Woodstock.

The tribes that gathered together for that first WOMAD were no less cosmopolitan, no less representative of the changing world, than the music they’d come to hear. And, instead of bombarding them with a linear succession of familiar stars, WOMAD wrapped them in an environment of ever-changing musical experience. Instead of music played at them from one central stage, there was music played for them and there were pavilions, marquees, geodesic carapaces, grassy’ verges. It was an environment that was repeated and refined for later WOMADs, but it was also adopted by other outdoor gatherings from the Cambridge Folk Festival to the North London Fleadh.

Farafina at WOMAD Morecambe Bay, 1992. Photo credit: Francis Drake
"We didn't know what we were doing, but we rode all the way in, just hoping." Thomas Brooman

From the first day…

From the first day, the organisers ensured that the music was also put in context for the many younger visitors to the festival with an entertaining and educational Children’s Day. School children in the Bristol area received special invitations, joined in the work-shops enthusiastically and took home an imaginatively developed learning pack.

The 1982 festival was an unqualified success in every way except one— finance. Regrettably, in the harsh materialistic environment of the 1980’s, that one failure might have been enough to make that first WOMAD also the last WOMAD, as Gabriel himself had indicated so graphically to the NME. Faced with the prospect of seeing his dream turn into a nightmare, Peter Gabriel re-joined his old colleagues in Genesis for a one-off WOMAD benefit concert at Milton Keynes which, at a stroke, erased much of the loss incurred at Shepton Mallet.

“At that point, we simply didn’t have any cash,” recalls Thomas Brooman, “It was survival from month to month, and a lot of penny-pinching went on for years after, but we all believed in what we were doing.”

And what they were doing, according to Brooman was “providing an accessible and lively platform by which people could come without prejudice to see and listen to music and dance, contemporary and traditional. We were trying to give people a broader perspective on music in the world.”

The faith of Brooman and Gabriel kept the organisation alive in its darkest hour, in a climate where there was no guarantee that what was beginning to he called ‘world music’, could ever be financially viable. “Once the term ‘world music’ had been coined”, points out Brooman, “a lot of publicity was generated. Sections of the media, which had originally written us off as no-hopers, suddenly had a tag for us, so a lot of articles were written which helped our cause. Even so, I’m not sure what ‘world music’ is, not sure that it exists. After all, in Japan, Ian Dury is as much of a statement about ‘world music’ as Youssou N’Dour is for us.’

In 1984, WOMAD’s educational activities were rationalised and extended by the establishment of the WOMAD Foundation as an educational charity, which led to the creation of the Talking Book series of records, tapes and CDs with an associated hook of background information on the music and the culture from which it originated. The success of the Talking Books has now spawned a second series of educational resources called ‘Exploring the Music of the World’ which has been produced to meet specific GCSE requirements.

By the middle of the eighties, however, the ‘world music’ culture had begun to generate its own stars, most of whom were involved with WOMAD. The brilliant Sengalese vocalist Youssou N’Dour, Zimbabwe’s guitar-based Bhundu Boys and Tex-Mex accordion virtuoso Flaco Jiminez, thrilled the 10,000 capacity crowd that came for the fifth WOMAD, at Clevedon, near Bristol in 1986.

Until then WOMAD had staged one festival every year. In 1987, with things going well, there were four. This was also the year in which WOMAD was re-constructed into four divisions; festival productions, an artist’s agency, a record company and an educational department.

1988 saw the WOMAD organisation export its philosophy and increasing expertise back to the rest of the world with the first concerts abroad, in Denmark and Toronto. A great proportion of WOMAD’s work is now focused internationally and this expansion has been integral to the growth and stability of the organisation. This period also signalled another important development, the decision to co-promote festivals with host cities and organisations, taking a great deal of the financial pressure off WOMAD.

1989 saw the first releases from the newly formed Real World Records, a natural adjunct to the ever-widening scope of WOMAD’s activities. “Any touring project might spawn a records”, points out Brooman, “and any record might spawn a tour, so a close relationship between the companies is integral to the work of WOMAD.”

WOMAD now offers two annual festivals in the UK, at Rivermead in Reading and at Morecambe, possibly with a third date in Bath to be added and each has a unique flavour. To date WOMAD has hosted forty-four festivals in ten countries and, with a staff of twenty working in the idyllic setting of Peter Gabriel’s Old Mill complex at Box in Wiltshire, the organisation is certainly bigger and better now than it was in 1982.

As Thomas Brooman points out, however, WOMAD’s story is not entirely about impressive statistics. “We don’t want to be a bigger business. We want to be a small business doing well.” Bigger might be better for some, but for WOMAD, small is still beautiful.

By Johnny Black

Excerpt from ‘Worldwide: Ten Years of WOMAD’. Published by WOMAD Communications Ltd. And Virgin Records, 1992.

Main image: Procession with Totó la Momposina, WOMAD Morecambe 1991. Photo credit: Pete Williams.

Published on Sun, 21 June 92

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