Music festivals: When two cultures clash

Why oh why, wonders Garth Cartwright, do the two main world music festivals in the UK take place at the same time?
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The Independent Culture

Come rain or heatwave this weekend, Cambridge Folk Festival and the Womad Festival in Reading are guaranteed capacity crowds. With both festivals representing the cream of what's loosely called "roots music", though, why they have to clash?But both refuse to budge. Pity the poor punter who likes British folk music and international flavours: Womad or Cambridge, the choice is yours.

"Some people are torn between the two," says Ian Anderson, editor of Roots, the UK's monthly bible of folk and world music. "I feel for them because they're both great festivals with their own special angles. But, to me, the fact both festivals sell out shows how popular roots music is. Cambridge and Womad focus on music that's rarely featured on commercial radio or on MTV. And both attract huge, enthusiastic audiences. That tells you something right there."

The Cambridge Folk Festival began in 1965 and is among the UK's longest established music festivals. Always based in the city's Cherry Hinton Hall Grounds, it maintains three stages, sells out within days of tickets going on sale and shows no desire to get bigger. Womad started in 1982, for a long time following a gypsy existence as it shifted from one south-west England site to the next. It finally took up permanent residency at Reading's Rivermead in 1990 and continues to expand (adding five acres and several new stages this year). It is also international, hosting Womads in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Singapore, Sicily, South Korea and the Canary Islands.

Differences exist: Cambridge allows a maximum of 10,000 people on site at a time while Womad hosts a 34,000 capacity. Contrast are also found between the punters - Cambridge tends to be a good deal more genteel. Audiences are older and many treat it as something of a country fête, arriving mid-morning and arranging deckchairs and picnic hampers in front of the main stage where they sit, listen, chat and fan themselves throughout the day.

Womad is more informal, attracting a multicultural audience from bemused local youth and West Country hippies to members of immigrant communities turning up for artists from "home" to well-scrubbed families keen on an ethnic "experience". Club Womad's reggae and Brazilian sound systems also act as a youth magnet. And when the right artist conjures up the required musical voodoo the whole main stage area can become, depending on climate, either a dancing dust bowl or a muddy mosh pit. Beyond cosmetic differences the festivals share a sense of the British middle class at their best: friendly, liberal, eclectic, yob free, full of good vibes, food and music.

Womad and Cambridge are also beginning to overlap musically: Mexico's Los De Abajo and Scotland's Salsa Celtica both play Womad on Friday night then head to Cambridge for Saturday. Acclaimed Malian duo Amadou & Mariam, stars of Womad 2005, are at Cambridge this weekend, while the American folk singer Nanci Griffith - long a Cambridge favourite - comes to Womad. Cambridge has opened its "folk" definition to include a great variety of world music stars, while Womad's now booking more and more British folk artists. "I don't book bands because of where they're from," says Cambridge's manager-promoter Eddie Barcan, "I book them because they fit into the Cambridge ethos.

"The fact we're seeing more and more acts from Africa and other nations at Cambridge reflects a broadening of public taste. Amadou & Mariam have a blues link, which fits with our audience's love of blues. Los De Abajo are our high energy Saturday night party band. That's expected of Cambridge. Then we've got a band from Quebec called Mauvais Sort who are really representative of the festival's spirit." So is there any real difference today between Cambridge Folk Festival and Womad? "Yes," says Barcan, "Womad aims to be global. At Cambridge we still aim to promote English, Scottish and Irish folk music first."

"We're up to seven music stages now," says Womad's managing and artistic director Thomas Brooman, "We will host 80 groups from 40 countries across the weekend. I don't want to boast but I think it's a pretty incredible achievement." It only serves to emphasise how unfortunate it is that Womad and Cambridge go up against one another. So why do they clash?

"We've always been based on this weekend," says Barcan. " Womad used to be on the preceding weekend but a few years ago they shifted to this weekend. It's unfortunate for the fans who would attend both but I don't think it causes any real problems."

"I have to confess it's our fault," says Brooman. "We changed to the last weekend in July because it was when the schools were out and we get so many families at Womad that to keep scheduling a week beforehand was suicidal. We imagine we will have around 11,000 children . I'm sorry about the clash but, to be honest, I don't think there is too much crossover. Womad and Cambridge Folk Festival survive as very distinct entities."

Veteran roots music DJ Charlie Gillett has attended both festivals and agrees with Brooman. "Womad's musical overlap with Cambridge is good for the musicians," says Gillett, "allowing them to access two quite different audiences. Cambridge's focus remains British and American acoustic music. That said, I admire the way they've broadened their remit of what is 'folk' music to include more international acts.

"Womad is the highlight of the world music year for me," he says. "It offers such a great smorgasbord of music from across the planet. I've often discovered new artists just by dropping into a tent to see who is playing."

Womad and the Cambridge folk Festival run from today to Sunday (;