As world music moves steadily into the mainstream, the pioneering Womad Festival in the UK leads the way.
Womad: International music in the flesh
Greetings from Charlton Park, where Britain's annual Womad festival is in the full swing of its closing day. Nestled in a picture-postcard corner of Middle England approximately 130km west of London, this idyllic country estate has hosted the mother of all world-music events for the last three years. But the World of Music, Arts and Dance organisation, set up to champion artists from all over the globe, has roots in this area, stretching right back to its formation in 1980. Womad's founder and figurehead, the rock star Peter Gabriel, lives about 30km away. His Real World recording studio and record label are also based nearby.
Gabriel is one of this weekend's star attractions, alongside his fellow world-music legends Youssou N'Dour and Ethiopiques. But one of the key strengths of Womad's multicultural musical banquet has always been its egalitarian ethos, with a pick-and-mix menu that relies less on famous headliners than any other major festival. Only here can open-minded music lovers hear Algerian rai singers, Indian gypsy orchestras, Mongolian gurglers, Hungarian wedding bands, Colombian flamenco, Cuban jazz, African hip-hop and human beatboxers from London - all on the same stage. Sometimes all at the same time.
The only real disappointment of the weekend so far has been the last-minute cancellation of a performance by the Dubai-based Arabic jazz guitar maestro Kamal Musallam, together with his UAE collaborators Sokoor and Abri. Even so, the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage has one of the most prominent and inviting display stands here at Charlton Park. From beneath the camel-hair canopy of a Bedouin tent, the Adach team offers warm hospitality and glossy brochures on Emirati food, dress and handicrafts. As Womad's director Chris Smith told me on Friday, this is the first stage in a projected long-term partnership.
"There are very localised artists in the Gulf states who sell huge numbers of CDs but actually aren't performing significantly outside the region," Smith says. "Part of the relationship we are developing with Adach and Abu Dhabi is about unearthing that talent and sharing it with the wider world." Also on display at the Adach tent is promotional material for next year's Womad Abu Dhabi. The festival's Gulf debut, he says, was an "amazing experience" which even surprised some of the organisation's old hands. "Everybody was overwhelmed by the response to Womad in Abu Dhabi," Smith says. "It was probably the most cross-cultural event we've done anywhere."
Aside from its unrivalled mix of music, one of Womad's main attractions has always been its laid-back utopian atmosphere. The most family-friendly British festival of the summer season, it attracts a large number of parents with young children. Dotted with clusters of rainbow-coloured flags, Charlton Park feels like a bustling global bazaar where you can find drumming workshops, healing massages, bric-a-brac boutiques and food from every corner of the globe. Indian, North African and Middle Eastern seem to be the favourites this year with countless stalls offering falafel, baklava, harees and more.
Musically, the festival got off to a mellow start on Friday with a typically diverse roster of artists from all across the musical and geographical map. The female face of Africa was strongly represented by Dub Colossus, an Anglo-Ethiopian group who play a laid-back fusion of reggae and jazz, as well as by Mariem Hassan from Western Sahara and Rokia Traore from Mali. A diplomat's daughter, Traore spent some of her childhood in Algeria and Saudi Arabia, which helps explain the richly woven tapestry of Afrofunk, Arabic and Middle Eastern influences in her smoky-voiced set.
The Australian collective Black Arm Band also made a big splash with its Womad debut, a compelling blend of songs, archive film and history lesson. A multiracial collective fronted by the Aboriginal singer Archie Read, the show dramatised the long and bitter struggles of indigenous Australians, from colonisation by the British two centuries ago to last year's historic public apology by the country's prime minister, Kevin Rudd. The background story was moving, and sometimes painful, but the music was mostly warm and celebratory.
Defying its reputation among more blinkered rock critics as a purist folk festival, Womad is also a great breeding ground for sounds without borders, bizarre hybrid genres and soundclash experiments - oddball artists such as the lively French troubadours Caravan Palace, who played a frenetic fusion of syncopated swing jazz and modern club beats, or the rising star of Chinese bluegrass guitar, Mamer, who strummed and hummed his alluringly rootless ballads like a Mongolian Ry Cooder.
Friday night climaxed with a magisterial set by Solomon Burke, the gigantic American soul man who performed from his usual stage perch, a velvet-lined throne. This 69-year-old man-mountain is a former undertaker, sometime preacher, father of 21 children and grandfather to 90 more - indeed, his youngest daughter Candy sang with him at Womad. But most of all, Burke is a world-class showman of the old school, wrapping his surprisingly supple voice around songs by Tom Waits and Eric Clapton before hushing the crowd with Sam Cooke's A Change Is Gonna Come, the stirring civil-rights classic that recently earned new currency as President Obama's unofficial election anthem.
As the weekend progresses, the Womad organisers are expecting 30,000 visitors at Charlton Park. The beauty of this new location is that it never feels crowded, unlike the festival's previous site - an urban leisure park in the Thames Valley town of Reading, 64km east, which became steadily overloaded until relocation became essential two years ago. Now the longest-running festival of its kind in the world, WOMAD has branched out around the globe in recent years, birthing sister events from Australia to Spain and Abu Dhabi. It has also become a model for younger British festivals like The Big Chill and Latitude. Both take place in similarly secluded country-house settings, and increasingly field the same kind of multicultural musical menu.
"One of the things I find interesting," Chris Smith says, "is if you look at a lot of festivals this year and last, and see the artists that historically would only ever have been on a Womad stage are now performing all over the country. This is obviously a good thing, but it also means that the concept of what is world music probably needs to be rethought - and possibly that phrase needs to be consigned to history."
With profits from CD sales in freefall and live music currently booming, competition for festival audiences has never been so fierce. And yet, even during the current economic downturn, the Womad brand appears to be maintaining its unique appeal. From the leafy paradise of Charlton Park, at least, the future looks bright. "We obviously started the year with all sorts of anxieties about what the future would hold," Smith admits. "Ticket sales have actually gone up this year, not massively, but I hold the view that we probably have the most loyal audience in the world. If we were very brave, we would never do any marketing at all and see how many people turn up. My guess is it would be the same sorts of figures that we have now, because our audience is a word-of-mouth audience. Like Glastonbury, people are coming to Womad for the event. They trust the programme. They trust that we are going to give them new experiences."