Diary of a Festival on Tour: WOMAD in the USA, 1993

Well, WOMAD came to the United States for the first time this past September, and I’m certain the country will never be the same. This was not the weekend-long cultural immersion party to which you may be accustomed, but nine single-day cultural dippings in cities across the country, all in the space of a mere 14 days. By the way— the U.S. is over 3,000 miles wide. It was a massive undertaking involving nine huge tractor-trailer trucks of equipment and 23 coaches for over 200 artists and crew. The idea was to convey as much of the WOMAD experience as possible in a third of the time.

Hi, I’m Paul De Gooyer. As the new label manager for Real World at Caroline Records, I’m their U.S. distributor, responsible for marketing the excellent recordings on the label to 220 million souls that inhabit this great, vast nation. For the tour, however, I was a mere cog in the WOMAD publicity machine. My mission was to secure as much publicity as possible for the seven Real World artists on the tour. This is my diary of the WOMAD Tour of the U.S. of A.

 

Monday September 6

Saratoga Performing Arts Centre

Saratoga, New York

The day of the first ever U.S. WOMAD show starts at 4:30am for the production team. A squadron of trucks miraculously becomes a colourful city of tents showcasing crafts, technology and exotic food. A brisk morning gives way to a beautiful, breezy day as the two stages are set, banners are raised, and after years of waiting and months of pre-production, WOMAD U.S.A. is up and running.

I spend the early part of the show running around the site, making sure that journalists receive their credentials, but I pause long enough to see the Drummers of Burundi perform on stage 1. I had been told they were impressive, but I was truly unprepared for what I saw. Neither was the crowd— they went wild. No words can adequately describe the sheer power of the Drummers. They require no amplification. ‘Nuff said.

By mid-afternoon, press, radio and TV are swarming. We on the publicity team are frantic, shuttling artists from interview to interview all over the site. Any concern about the tour’s reception by the media evaporates; we can tell that they are enjoying WOMAD’s unique combination of intellectual and sensual stimulation.

Things taper off around 9pm and I have the chance to catch Peter Gabriel’s set. His performance is inspired and inspiring and the set includes ‘Across The River’, a track originally from Music and Rhythm, the first WOMAD benefit album. The Drummers take the stage once again to end the show and the audience leaves smiling.

Later, Peter Gabriel, Sheila Chandra, Sinéad O’Connor, Ayub Ogada and Neil Finn from Crowded House appear on the syndicated radio show Rockin, answering questions about WOMAD, songwriting and other (sometimes trivial) matters from listeners all over the U.S. and Canada. The highlight of the show for me is an improvised performance of Ayub’s song ‘Wa Winjigo Ero’ with everyone joining in the chorus. Strange to think: there are ten million people listening to this intimate sing-along!

After Rockin Peter and Sinéad briefly drop into a fund raising party for the local chapter of Amnesty International. A great first day behind us, we board the coach for Pittsburgh at about 3am.

A poster for the San Francisco date of the WOMAD U.S.A. Tour, 1993.

Wednesday September 8

Star Lake Ampitheater

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Beautiful weather again, and an enthusiastic crowd— they keep trying to sneak backstage. Geoffrey Oryema joins the tour and I make time to see his performance. Switching from acoustic guitar to lukeme (thumb piano) and accompanied only by guitar virtuoso Jean-Pierre Alarcen, Geoffrey captivates the audience. The material from his new record, Beat The Border, sounds great, even with pared-down arrangements.

Shortly after dark, Remmy Ongala plays on stage 2. The four guitarists in the band spin harmonic webs of sound over a tight rhythm section and everyone in the audience dances. Brilliant!

FriDAY SeptEMBER 10

Buckeye Lake Music Center

Colombus, Ohio

Guess what— another beautiful day! This is the first venue that is not a manmade shed, just a stage set among gently rolling hills. WCBE radio interview Remmy live on air. The DJ asks the questions in English, Ayub translates into Swahili and Remmy answers in English. This is probably the first time many people in Ohio have heard Swahili, thanks to WOMAD.

Trísan play a riveting set on the stage. Their music is very dramatic live; even the CDs can’t capture the dynamic range of their performance. Lenny Kravitz joins the tour, adding 60s culture to the WOMAD melting pot.

A party on stage at WOMAD U.S.A. 1993. Amongst those present are Sheila Chandra, Sinéad O'Connor and members of Peter Gabriel's band.

WOMAD: Giving the world back to the world

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

 

Saturday September 11

World Music Theate

Chicago, Illinois

I break down and have a smart drink. It doesn’t seem to make me smarter, but I solve a math problem that had been troubling me since 1978. Weird stuff.

I had only seen parts of Sheila Chandra’s performance to this point, but here I make a point of seeing the whole thing. Once again, words can’t do justice to the performance. Her music is delivered acappella and to pre-recorded drones. The crowd, which might normally be milling about or talking, sits completely still. Many of them didn’t even know who Sheila was when she came on stage; when her set is over they give her a standing ovation.

The weather, co-operative to this point, treats us to a spectacular thunderstorm. James are driven off stage 2 and forced to play an acoustic set on stage one. (It turns out so well that they perform acoustically again, later on in Denver!) That night, Geoffrey and Ayub join Peter Gabriel in an extended version of ‘In Your Eyes’ at the end of Peter’s set.

SunDAY SeptEMBER 12

Marcus Amphitheater

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

The sun is back for the show. The amphitheatre is set right on Lake Michigan— very nice. I grab a smart drink and head for the Tower Records tent, passing through the workshop tent where a Chinese dance class is in full swing.

In the Tower tent, a customer is enquiring about Ayub Ogada’s record En Mana Kuoyo which the sound men play between sets (Ayub is MC’ing stage one for the whole tour).

The conversation goes like this:

Customer: “What’s that thing he plays?”
Tower guy: “It’s a kind of harp.”
Me: “It’s called a nyatiti.”
Customer: “What did you call me?”
Me: “No, the instrument.”
Tower guy: “He’s from the record company.”
Customer: “You probably think you’re pretty cool, then, huh?”
Me: “Uhh…” (thinking: smart drinks don’t work.)
Tower guy: “It’s a kind of harp.”
Customer: “Sounds like a banjo.”
Me & Tower guy: “Yep.”

The Terem Quartet play an astonishing set. Somehow they blend absolute technique with a wicked sense of humor. And you can’t underestimate the appeal of a bass balalaika. Later, Sheila joins Peter, Ayub and Geoffrey for the wildest version yet of ‘In Your Eyes.’ Only at WOMAD.

Monday September 13

Deer Creek Music Center

Indianapolis, Indiana

We’re starting to feel the effects of three shows without a day off. I dream I am a Drummer of Burundi, except I have a large stuffed duck instead of a drum. At breakfast, I accidentally eat a plastic fork. The smart drink girl smiles knowingly as she fills my glass.

It’s Ayub and Deb Heithersay’s (WOMAD’s marketing co-ordinator) birthday. WOMAD Music’s Annie Reed MCs stage 2 like a pro. I met a journalist who was so earnest and well meaning that he over pronounced the names of the Real World artists (example: Ayub Ogada became Eye-oo-bay Oh-gha-da-bay). He turned out to be very knowledgeable and was very gracious when I gently corrected him. I spend the rest of the day with a video crew filing the Real World performances. Another great show.

Neil Finn of Crowded House performing at WOMAD U.S.A. 1993. Photo credit: Ken Friedman.

ThursDAY SeptEMBER 16

Fiddler’s Green Amphitheatre

Denver Colorado

Denver is a strange place. Geoffrey and I are accosted by a man with a didgeridoo who insists that we listen to him play. He was clearly not qualified to operate the thing (a licence should probably be required). Another man has to get a message through to Peter about the ‘spacecraft’. A radio station asked the Drummers of Burundi their opinion of Monkees drummer Mickey Dolenz.

On the other hand, Sheila played her set with the sun setting behind the stage. Guo Yue of Trísan joined Crowded House onstage for another only at WOMAD collaboration, and Remmy delivered a really hot set on the improvised stage 3. On to L.A.

FriDAY SeptEMBER 17

Las Vegas, Nevada

Our coach stops at a casino for lunch. Lo and behold, the Drummers of Burundi are there, looking somewhat taken aback. I hope someone takes the time to explain the Las Vegas phenomenon to them, lest they think that all Americans are insane.

Remmy Ongala signing copies of his albums at the Tower Records tent, WOMAD U.S.A. 1993. Photo credit: Amanda Jones.

Saturday September 18

USC San Dominguez

Los Angeles, California

I hear the new Real World release, Ghorwane’s Majurugenta, on the radio on my way to the venue. The TV crews apparently all live in L.A. and they are all at the show. Sheila performs vocal percussion countless times for the cameras. Ziggy Marley joins the tour here. The backstage scenes are wild, movie stars, television actors and other personalities mingle with the musicians and tour personnel. For the first time, I am able to look back on the tour and realize what a massive success it has been.

An aerial shot of Golden Gate Park during WOMAD U.S.A. 1993. 100,000 attendees made this the largest ticketed single event in the world that year.

SunDay September 19

Golden Gate Park

San Francisco, California

The last show of the first ever WOMAD U.S. tour takes place at the largest-capacity venue yet, the Polo Fields in beautiful Golden Gate Park. It turns out to be a very fitting end for this very special tour. Drawn to the park by very positive advance press and another perfect day, people stream into the park in droves. Over 50,000 are in attendance when Sheila Chandra takes the stage to commence the last WOMAD U.S.A. festival of 1993. Inspired by the incredible crowd, she performs brilliantly and receives an overwhelming response. Not to be outdone, the other artists follow suit and deliver an absolutely electrifying series of performances.

The event is huge: a crowd of over 100,000 people is there by mid-afternoon and the gates are closed. The show’s statistics correspond well with WOMAD’s global perspective: we find out later that it was the largest paid concert of 1993 for the whole world!

When Peter Gabriel takes the stage in the early evening, a roar goes up from the crowd that I can feel in my chest, even backstage. It gets louder as ‘Come Talk To Me’ gathers speed and takes off. Ten songs and several encores later (100,000 Gabriel-crazed people can be so demanding!) and WOMAD’s first foray into the U.S. is over.

It’s difficult to say goodbye. On several levels, WOMAD is about community and even in the space of two weeks, a strong bond has developed among the artists, crew and production team. I have a feeling that we’ll all be seeing each other next year, when WOMAD returns to the States.

Originally published in The Box Magazine, December 1993.

Recommended Listening

  • A Week In The Real World – Part 1

    Various Artists

    Released 06 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 Paul de Gooyer

Originally published in The Box Magazine, December 1993.

Published on Thu, 02 December 93

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