Sunday interview Chris Smith is festival director of Womad, the world music event which is soon to arrive in Abu Dhabi.
A world of music
The unmistakable sound of Peter Gabriel's Steinway grand piano reverberated through the floors of the studios of Real World Records, in the English village of Box, Wiltshire. Staff returning from lunch were intrigued and followed the music to the "big room", as they call it. There, sitting at the piano, totally absorbed, was a young musician from a reggae group comprised of the British producer Nick Page and a troupe of musicians from the Ethiopian city of Addis Ababa.
"He was in awe of the sound and oblivious to everyone else. About five or six people stood there in amazement, listening to him playing. Luckily, an engineer had the presence of mind to flick the switch and it was all recorded," says Chris Smith, the 46-year-old festival director of Womad, the world music event co-founded by Real World's boss, Peter Gabriel. As he relates the story of Samuel Yirga from Dub Colossus, Smith's joy is clear to see. This is exactly the kind of moment for which Womad and Real World exist. Already holding annual festivals in various locations around the globe - including the UK, Spain, New Zealand and Australia - Womad has set its sights on the UAE. In fact, Smith is here in connection with the organisation's plans to hold an event in the capital in conjunction with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach).
"So many people have remarkable talents and we are able to give them a platform. That's what makes Womad unique," he says. "If you go to see George Michael in a football stadium you kind of know what you're going to get, but if you come to a Womad festival you may be familiar with some of the artists, but most of them you will not have heard of before. You get the chance to learn something about music."
Scheduled for the end of April, headline acts for the Abu Dhabi Womad have not yet been named, but Smith reveals that he is already in talks with major international artists and a list of regional favourites for what promises to be a "magical" first concert at the Jahili Fort in Al Ain. From the way he talks, it is obvious that Smith is taken with the region. "The first time we walked in to the Jahili Fort, the call to prayer started and it was incredible," he recalls. "When you hear that in a place like Al Ain it's just amazing."
He then moves on to talk of the music that drives Womad events. "We are a multi-stage festival but we will open in Abu Dhabi with a single stage and a big-name headline performer. That is what we always do because we need names that people are familiar with to draw audiences in. Then we programme those well-known artists with people that nobody has heard of before. The plan is that we draw people in with the main acts but that they will leave talking about the others."
Previous Womads have included artists as diverse as the Touareg guitar group Tinariwen, Egypt's Bedouin Jerrycan Band, Konono No1 from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Algerian-born rai artist Rachid Taha and the acclaimed Jamaican reggae producer Lee "Scratch" Perry. However, says Smith: "It is important that we also get other artists from the Middle East, especially the Emirates." Unfortunately, thanks to touring commitments, Peter Gabriel, the former Genesis singer and solo artist, is unlikely to perform in Abu Dhabi. However, his initial vision for the festival will remain an inspiration.
"Womad came about through a shared passion for music from other cultures," Smith says. "There is still an international obsession with western music, but Womad's founders knew that there were thousands of artists around the world who were performing work of enormously high quality but who weren't getting the audiences and recognition they deserved. The idea was to give them a platform and, following on from that, to provide an opportunity for them to collaborate with western artists. Real World Records was set up to record this music and its primary catalogue is of world artists. Very often an artist who plays at Womad will go on to record for Real World," says Smith.
For instance, the label's output includes Soul Science, a CD by Justin Adams and Juldeh Camara. Adams is a UK-based guitarist, while Camara is a ritti (African fiddle) player and vocalist from the Gambia. Both artists met while performing for Womad and now record and tour together. Gabriel's idea for Womad - along with co-founders Thomas Brooman and Bob Hooton - was to give audiences an insight into different cultures through the enjoyment of music. Since the first festival in the UK in 1982, the organisation has held more than 160 events in 27 countries.
Over the years Womad line-ups have featured a wealth of global artists, many of whom have gone on to achieve significant international success. Among its most famous performers are the Senegalese vocalist Youssou N'Dour and the late Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Talks between Adach and Womad started just over a year ago. By way of research Abdulla Salim al Amri, the director of arts and culture at Adach, attended Womad's concert in the Spanish city of Cáceres in May, where he met Smith.
"What I tuned into in my conversations with Abdulla was that Abu Dhabi wanted to celebrate culture," says Smith. "That's what developments such as the Guggenheim and Louvre museums are all about. It's not about entertainment for its own sake, but the depth and richness of world culture. That's a very good fit for what we do. "We discussed the role of world music in Abu Dhabi and its ambitions, as a cultural centre, to celebrate Arabic music. We also talked about another important aspect: the role of the festival in developing indigenous culture as opposed to the commercial aspect of some of the events that have happened in the Gulf in the past. Now we have a date in the diary and a great deal of excitement for the project."
Following the Jahili Fort concert will come two free beach shows on the Abu Dhabi Corniche. Two massive stages will be built, interlinked by a structure containing areas where children's workshops will be held. Both sites will be decorated with more than 1,000 distinctive Womad flags and animated projections will be beamed onto the surrounding buildings. The next few weeks will be a frenetic round of activity as organisers begin to source fencing, Portakabins, lighting and sound equipment, air-conditioning units, generators and plan the festival's logistics.
"One of my staff will be based here for the next month, identifying what needs to be done and getting the infrastructure in place," Smith explains. "It's a bit like the proverbial swan that glides along the river, but under the water its feet are paddling like mad. This visit has been very reassuring as there is much more here than we thought. The events industry is growing and we will source as much as we can here."
In between shuttling between Abu Dhabi and the UK, Smith is also masterminding Womad's other events: Australia and New Zealand in March, Spain in May, Sicily in June and the organisation's biggest date, held in Wiltshire's Charlton Park in July. "We're also doing the Tower of London in September and Las Palmas in the Canary Islands in November. I may well be divorced by then," he jokes. Organisers are expecting the Abu Dhabi Womad to bring a number of visitors to the city, many of whom will be drawn by the music on offer. However, Smith emphasises that Womad is about much more than just sound.
"Womad stands for World of Music and Dance and the focus is very much on the music, but we are keen to reclaim the art and dance elements in the future. Because of the time scale, it is unlikely that a massive amount of dance or art will be commissioned for Abu Dhabi this year, but next year we will be in a position where we can do something truly unique. "We would look to work with artists from the region. Events are only successful when you have strong partners in the place where you are working. You can't just land from the UK and produce a festival of the type that we do. We want access to schools and the community and to make sure that the audience is representative of the population - not just the population that can afford to buy tickets. We also expect our featured artists to get involved with projects and workshops involving local children."
The issue of involving children is of key importance to Smith. Indeed, his own family - daughters Olivia, 13, Imogen, nine, Tara, seven, and their mother Arleen - are all looking forward to visiting Abu Dhabi. "They don't come to every Womad festival but they are definitely coming to this one," he says. A novel aspect of recent festivals has been the introduction of onstage cooking by the musicians performing at the festivals. Billed as Taste the World, in this Womad event artists talk the audience through the process of cooking a dish from their native country. In Cáceres, Miriam Hassan, a Sahrawi singer from western Sahara prepared a meal that required camel meat.
"She cooked the sort of dish you would have at desert camp. The ingredients gave us a few problems in Spain. We hope to bring her here, where it won't be an issue at all," says Smith. "It's a great part of the festival. We get the artists on stage and they talk and share aspects of their own cultures. Food, like all other parts of a culture, is central to what society is about. We like to think that this is representative of what we do as well."