Last December, after the bank manager called in the overdraft, Womad's festival promotion company went into liquidation but was promptly rescued by its stable-mate on Gabriel's Wiltshire studio estate, the singer's Real World Group, which bought the name, trade and assets.
Thomas Brooman, Womad's founder and artistic director, is philosophical about the financial difficulties, having manoeuvred long and hard over the years to keep Womad going. 'If we'd started in this business for cash, we'd hardly still be in it,' he comments, and points out that, while it has never received grants or subsidies of any significance, Womad's activities include a substantial educational element. The group not only runs workshops and publications, it also answers a stream of requests for information from the public.
Having initially slimmed down from 18 to nine, Womad's personnel is now up to 16. The activity generated by successful festivals in Australia and Spain earlier this year is largely responsible. The rationale behind the abolition of admission charges to the annual Morecambe festival was another Darwinian financial stratagem, conceived in the hope that increased attendance would repay in business the local council investment. It did - Brooman estimates the attendance doubled this year, swelled by thousands of day trippers from the North-west.
This leaves three more UK festivals to go - at Reading this weekend, and in August at St Austell and Bath, these both headlined by Peter 'le patron chante ici' Gabriel. In addition, Womad announced a week ago its impending US debut - a series of nine one-day, 13-act touring mini-festivals, each headlined by Gabriel, and cunningly designed to fill holes in the singer's current US tour to maximise the possibility of achieving audiences of between 20,000 and 100,000. A possible US opening will be world music to the ears of artists such as the Ugandan Geoffrey Oryema and the Tanzanian domiciled band of Remmy Ongala, who have built substantial international careers out of their regular involvement with Womad.
After a brief sabbatical, Remmy Ongala's Orchestre Super Matimila returns to the Reading line-up, along with other Womad staples such as the brilliant Pakistani qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (who is apparently set to record his sixth album for Womad's associate record company, Real World). Interesting and less familiar faces include the 24 musicians of veteran Nigerian ju-ju bandleader King Sunny Ade, the 14 drummers of his countryman, the fuji star chief Doctor Sikiru Ayende 'Barrister', the equally exciting Ghanaian drum troupe of Mustapha Tettey Addy, and the UK debut of the Guinean guitarist Kante Manfila, whose playing behind Salif Keita in the Ambassadeurs du Motel made that group's sound a key reference of modern West African music.
Womad Festival, Rivermead, Reading; 16, 17 & 18 July. Box Office: 0734 591591.Reuse content