“World Music” is reckoned to be the fastest growing genre in the music business, with sales booming in the High Street. If this is true then the three-day WOMAD (World of Music, Arts and Dance) Festival – now in its 11th year at Reading – has to take some of the credit. It has introduced the music to a wider audience through its promotion of everything “world” and in turn given something back to the musicians themselves – pride in their heritage.
The atmosphere at WOMAD 2000 was electric, a laid-back entrancing atmosphere of warmth, intimacy and unrivalled ambience; the site itself a blazing mixture of colours and sound across its seven stages. There was no place for feuding brothers here. Yet plenty to eat with over 150 foodstalls but disappointingly not enough bars! However, a tip for Reading Festival goers – there is an excellent supermarket and “offie” quite nearby.
On the main stage, on the first day, sixty three-year-old Jimmy Little, often dubbed the “Aboriginal Elvis”, proved that Australia has more to offer than Antipodean prankster and doggies’ friend Rolf Harris. Little sang his elegantly framed torch songs, including recognisable “interpretations” of Nick Cave and Roy Orbison, against the background of a setting sun. Little’s performance came as a joy after the disappointing WOMAD veterans 23 Skidoo, whose performance had offered a derivative mix of dance, rap and dub.
Friday’s closing act, Maceo Parker – legendary ex-James Brown sax man and a proud survivor of the “old skool”, although not necessarily “world” – was musically in tune with his audience. Maceo, cool and funky, hit the audience with classic grooves from Brown’s back catalogue. These sweet soul riffs cut across a still, warm July night.
All the performances on the opening day highlighted what WOMAD has come to symbolise. Where else would you be able to hear Arabic drum and bass (U-Cef), Czech gypsy diva (Vera Bila) or manage to see the “cutting edge” of Indian dance (Tanusree Shankar) all on the same billing?
African music appeared to take precedence on the Saturday, providing the best day of the weekend. However, it would have still been possible to catch Egschiglen from Mongolia with “legendary throat singing” that, as the programme told us, “beggars belief”.
Whatever, one of the highlights of this second day was without doubt the accomplished Congolese star Papa Wemba, the “roi de sapeurs” who showed an enthusiastic crowd why he is the godfather of “soukous”. This Zairean dance music has through his influence become the dominant force in modern African pop music. It was a performance that was both powerful and heartfelt and, although ragged at the edges, it proved him worthy of his worldwide reputation. Unfortunately, the clash in scheduling meant his audience were tempted away by the lure of the undoubted star of the weekend – Youssou N’Dour, master of the driving drum-based rhythms of “mballax”.
Youssou N’Dour’s well-received set ranged across various musical styles emphasizing his acceptance in to the mainstream “pop” world. A move clearly defined by his past collaboration with such artists as Neneh Cherry, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Peter Gabriel. He presented a unique mix of Cuban, jazz and soul sounds on various instruments and to his credit he also returned to his Senegalese roots by focusing on the songs from his last album Joko. Despite his international standing he has not forgotten his origins. The songs spoke of subjects relevant to modern Africa, performed, as someone once wrote, “with a voice so extraordinary that the history of Africa seemed locked inside it”. Youssou N’Dour is the major success story of WOMAD’s history – the one African who has progressed towards the world-pop fusion everybody else has only dreamt of.
The Sunday set list had its highlights, notably Corey Harris playing a blinding blues set in the psychedelically adorned Siam Tent. Few bettered the simplicity of his performance – a man alone on stage dusting down the blues. The Siam Tent was also the venue for that other Harris – Rolf. His audience of families seemed the only aggressors of the weekend as they chanted, “Sit down!” to those who had dared to stand at the front. Suzanne Vega from the USA ended the evening on the same stage, whilst Pato Bantan – representing the world of Birmingham – played the Main Stage.
By Sunday fatigue had set in and it was time to reflect on the weekend. Latin music had been poorly served by the billing even though it, of all “world” music, has been most influential on mainstream pop in the last few years. Maybe the organisers think it passé. However, all credit to them for at least having the Argentinian-born Paris-based Barbara Luna as “Latin music’s envoy”.
Admittedly not all the artists featured at WOMAD are easy on the Western ear, yet they should not be ignored. The weekend offered a “world of music and dance”, a global village. After all, who would have ever heard of Youssou N’Dour if not for the pioneering efforts of Peter Gabriel and his team?
© David Stockton 2 August 2000