Sense and sensuality

Martin Longley previews this month's Womad festival, which continues to fuse hedonism and thoughtful global awareness
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Despite an overwhelming artistic success, the festival went into immediate financial collapse, only to be rescued by Gabriel's benefit concert reunion with Genesis. Womad then re-grouped and swiftly went on to establish itself as a regular summer fixture, continuing its tactic of topping the bill with acts such as The Fall, Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Pogues. The global music message started to spread, and diverse sounds from far-flung continents developed drawing power.

Womad has grown into a guaranteed party of the highest quality, relaxed and potent. At its core is a multicultural manifesto that posits the democratisation of music. The festival marries escapist hedonism and thoughtful global awareness.

Twenty-three years after the sweet and sour experiences of Shepton Mallet, Gabriel's less visible Womad co-founder Thomas Brooman is at Bristol Airport. He's just returned from the third Womad to be held in Taormina, Sicily, and is about to fly to Madrid to lay plans for November's festival in the Canary Islands. This year has already seen weekenders in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, and an Afrocentric contribution to Live 8. Next month, it's Singapore, and in September there's the rescheduled Sri Lanka debut.

Brooman's global domination plan began 16 years ago, the same year that Womad's UK event, at the end of this month, settled at Reading's Rivermead Centre. "It was synchronicity," he says. "We'd got to a confident place at the end of the Eighties, and knowing no fear, as it were, thought, yeah, we can do this stuff abroad...."

An important aspect of Womad has always been the many artists performing outside their homelands for the first time. After the festival, many are set to become established on the world music scene, often as a direct result of their Womad exposure. This has been magnified in recent years by the support of BBC 4 and Radio 3.

Geographical emphasis in programming might begin as an accident but is then capitalised upon. "We take as many risks as we can," says Brooman. "We might have five artists out of 70 who've appeared in one previous event, and the audience is incredibly quick to say, 'ahh, we've seen it all before!' How new does new have to get?" he laughs.

Some unfamiliar acts set for Reading have already appeared at other Womad festivals. The Korean percussion group Dulsori performed in Australia, and from Singapore there's the Wicked Aura Batucada, playing Brazilian samba with drummers from Malaysia, Australia, China and Singapore.

"They're really enthusiastic, very fresh and engaging. What's nice is that the energy now in the group came from Womad in Singapore three years ago. Ben Badoo, the UK-based Ghanaian percussionist, was teaching and their leader was at that point just about to give up, was jaded, and got re-inspired by Ben's classes."

Womad's festival in Sri Lanka is unusual because it has been given a theme - the sound of drumming. "We feel very privileged to be able to work there this year. I was there just a few days before the tsunami."

The Reading Womad will feature the Ravibandhu Vidyapathy Ensemble, and a special Sri Lankan focus in the craft tent, showcasing traditional weaving, mask-making and silversmithing.

Brooman agrees that Womad is organically political. "I don't think it's a platform for us, it's a platform for artists, so in that sense it's absolutely organic. It's not our soapbox. At Live 8, television executives could have cut to our offering more frequently than they did. Celebrity obsession overtook that whole event. I feel very proud of what we did, creating a context in which African voices could be heard.

"We've been trying to develop a festival in the Middle East for a long time, and at this time it feels like even more of a good aim." This year, there is a strong Iraqi contingent, with two of that country's most visible artists performing. The singer Farida leads a maqam ensemble, devoted to this ancient and dignified form, whilst Ilham Al Madfai is more populist, and not averse to a remix.

Abdullah Chhadeh will represent Syria, playing the zither-like qanun, while the Palestinian Adel Salameh plucks his silvery oud. Akim El Sikameya lives in France, but fuses Algeria music with the folk sounds of Andalucia. Also, from Israel, Yasmin Levy sings in the Judaeo-Spanish Ladino tradition and Idan Raichel's Project brings traditional Jewish sounds into a high-tech environment.

Among the more familiar names at this year's Womad are Robert Plant (with his North African-influenced Strange Sensation band), the veteran Jamaican reggae trio Culture and Birmingham's Apache Indian (making something of a comeback). The jazz drummer Billy Cobham introduces his Culture Mix band, drawing members from Germany, Denmark and Sweden, and showcasing the sound of Wilbert Junior Gill's steel pan.

The Fatback Band may or may not have their Seventies Afros in full bloom. Louis Vega is one half of the Masters At Work production team, and he's been overtaken by Latino fusion projects in the past. His Elements Of Life collective immerses itself in a swirl of Afro-Brazilian rhythms.

Richie Havens is still primarily known for his Woodstock appearance, and needs to convince the audience of his continuing relevance. Youssou N'Dour tops the bill on the Saturday night, perhaps the best example of a "world musician" who has become a genuine star. Sadly, he won't be reproducing the recent Egyptian project, but will deliver a straight set of Super Etoile de Dakar greatest hits. Yet this remains an exciting prospect.

The outstanding moments are just as likely to come from newcomers to the UK stage. Among the strong contenders will be Bajofondo Tango Club (Argentina), who have elaborated on groundwork laid down by Gotan Project, and Modou Diouf (Senegal), who heads a family band of griots who will be working (and drumming) with schoolchildren in the Reading area.

Matthaios Tsahourides (Greece) will satisfy my urge to drink in the rare sound of the mournful, bowed lyra. Neguinho da Beija-Flor (Brazil) have been monstrous in Rio for the last five years of carnival, and will doubtless dominate the famed Womad procession on its final afternoon. The Oki Dub Ainu Band (Japan) will probably offer an unusual time, specialising in that emergent genre of deep Tokyo reggae experimentation, welding traditional Ainu folk tunes to special-effects laden detonations.

There is no shortage of established artists in the line-up, with Amadou & Mariam (Mali), quickly asserting themselves as prime Afro-pop purveyors and Chango Spasiuk (Argentina), capitalising on his recent triumph at the BBC World Music Awards.

Huun-Huur-Tu (Tuva) vibrate their gullets with beautiful twin-toned khoomei singing, Jaojoby (Madagascar) remind everyone that their country's music might regain popularity on the global scene and the hauntingly evocative Mahmoud Ahmed (Ethiopia) makes a very rare, and much anticipated, appearance in this country.

The Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali Group (Pakistan) will work up to a criss-crossing vocal peak, the Terem Quartet (Russia) will cavort in their peculiarly slapstick-virtuoso manner and Toto La Momposina's crew (Colombia) will whirl around in their brightly hued, multilayered dresses.

Many of these artists are surely set to shiver the collective spines.

Womad, Rivermead Centre, Reading, 29 to 31 July (