We left Womad a while ago. The crevices and corners of world music now replaced by building site beats, traffic tones and barking dogs. The come down has begun. We felt differently then, for a while we were explorers of social and musical frontiers…
The family Womad gather for a meal. Designer tablecloths fly from avenues of scaffold poles like gable-ended flames on the south-westerly breeze. In the gentle bustle of babies, teens, parents, pill poppers and pensioners, the crowd stands in the rain, soaked by empathy, nostalgia and the irrelevancies of difference.
The rain blows as crowds churn the mud. Everybody is dressed for the occasion. Gortex boots and hydrophobic umbrellas cover spandex and lycra party suits; pom-pom jumpers and face-paint flowers awash with muddied glitter.
Sixteen women in yellow T-shirts gather in front of the Main Stage. Lying beside them, hairy chested and speechless, is Inflatable Adam, a blow-up doll. Mojitos flow. Former Womad worker, Lucy Smith, wearing orange, is marrying Piers Versaci – this is her hen-do. They are partying through a reggae-filled Womad night. Over at the Radio 3 stage, a stag-do are dressed as wizards.
Rick, a Womad trader, has been coming here for 33 years. First as a punter then the last three years as a Womad trader selling the Rickulele, an instrument inspired by the oil-can guitars he heard on the streets as a child. He grew up in South Africa, the son of a missionary priest who came from a mining family in Yorkshire. That working-class background provided a lens for his white family to see the plight of the black population. His father raised money for political prisoners and Rick’s childhood friends were black. Rick came to England to avoid military subscription where he would have been forced to fight his friends. His experiences of systemic, violent racism inform his appreciation of Womad.
At the festival a few years ago, he saw Amampondo, a percussion group from the Eastern Cape:
“I stood there listening to these guys, tears running down my cheeks, if you are born in Africa you have the dust of Africa in your veins…Womad was the first time I saw a multicultural system where everybody got on with each other. I do not see class here. In thirty years the friendliness has not changed.”
Womad is not just a family friendly festival, it is a festival full of friendly families. After a long walk through the endless campervan fields, the family vibe comes into focus. Sarah and Diego, along with their young daughters Ayla and Freya, have hired a camper from lovecampers. They know the festival scene well, converting their old festival stall into an independent, world-clothing high street store a few years ago. WOMAD is the perfect place to enjoy a festival with under-fives, Sarah says, the kids play area is out of this world and in the campervan fields there are lots of grassy spaces and other families too. Womad adults who have been here since children. Womad children who will grow into adults here. An unexpected life-cycle in a festival that exceeds expectations.
Nigel, has run the camping supplies shop for 16 years. The stall trades at other festivals but the Womad customer is different: “They like familiarity. The same places and same routes” he says “They need to know where they are and where they are going. A home away from home” Womad is an unusual festival because it permits the sale of camping fuel. Nigel explains that this is an indication of the amount of families here cooking and eating together. “It’s a holiday as well as a festival.” As long as the weather is doing something his business does well, but if it is warm and overcast then turnover is slow. The guys on the stall spend all day watching the stream of people entering into the main festival site. They see it all. “Some people are happy, others are not so happy. There are those who have done festivals before and those who will never do one again.” Like most family gatherings, some endure what others enjoy.
Yet, like other families, most people here look and behave in similar ways – aware of the differences between each other, but to a day tripper exposed to a short encounter, Womad is a vision of white, middle-class, UK. Liberal dreamers consuming a packaged imitation of their own liberal dreams. Celebrating difference from the comfort of their own cultural sofa.
Except for performers, there is a conspicuous absence of Britain’s migrant history. Where was the Latin American camp full of Latin American families cooking and socialising (but not in English)? Where were the communities from African or Asian continents? What about the rest of the world? Despite a powerful voice of celebrating diversity, Womad has, so far, failed to attract the diverse mass audience that lives only a few miles from its doorstep.
Greg is a wonderful guy whose family run an eco-friendly bamboo clothing stall in the marketplace (the cloth is sooo smooth!). He is Black-British, a computer programmer from South London who has travelled in Iran and South-East Asia. While we are eating breakfast by a food stall, someone comes looking for a place to eat and sits down with us. They ask Greg what band he performs with. After all, he is one of the few black guys here who is not an artist. As Greg observes ‘It’s diverse here, but it’s not diverse like London.’
Drinking coffee backstage, Diego Escobar also contemplates the meaning of Womad. He is a government representative from Jalisco in Mexico. The region wants to have a Womad festival in the city of Guadalajara and Diego has been tasked with transporting the Womad experience to Mexico. He loves the family atmosphere, friendliness and ethos of diversity but is worried by the accommodation options “In Mexico we don’t do camping. It does not exist.” We did not do it here either, until recently. Camping holidays emerged as a leisure activity in the UK around the turn of the 20th century as a reaction to industrialisation. Until then, life under canvas was the hardship of missionaries, explorers and itinerant workers. Whether a Womad festival can work without tents and camper vans is just one question the Mexicans will need to answer. Vibrant politics in the region and the audience’s limited finances means that camping is probably one of the easier issues to tackle. Despite the challenges, Diego is working hard with Womad to make it happen in late 2018, not just for one event but to establish an on-going annual festival.
Back in the festival showground, we take coffee with art teachers Ben and Nat who love Womad’s dissimilarity, contrasts, colours, textures and forms. The teenage drug kicks of the Shambala festival left them cold, but the Womad something-for-everyone paint box tickles their brushes.
Then over to the arboretum (that’s the bit with trees, books and healer types) where we run into the spectacular Jenny Butler Joseph who is reducing us to tears with her humanity and sassy political insights. Jenny is on the Help Refugees stall. A grassroots project that does what it says on the can, and does it well. The folk at Womad liked the stories told here. They liked to be reminded that refugees were not just numbers or a thorny political issue, instead they were real people. It’s obvious, right? But only when confronted with real ‘refugee’ people and their real lives do you realise how much we buy into the media presentations of humans as nothing more than daily news fodder. Womad has been wonderful in helping provide space for the stall and stages for refugee stories. Jenny recognises they are preaching to the converted at this festival but, she says, awareness raising is really important. Help Refugees needs your support – financially and as people power. After a short discussion we all signed up. Enough of clicktivism or ‘what can we dos?’ – instead, we put our money where our mouths are.
The evening comes and in Molly’s Bar Dick Cheney from Swansea is talking about his musical memories. First time he heard music ‘Oh Mein Papa’ by Eddie Calvert – the Man with a Golden Trumpet; first time music punched him in the guts and left him crying ‘Diana’ by Paul Anka (a recording with Buckey Pizzarelli on guitar and Panama Francis on drums); favourite records Smokestack Lightning by Howlin Wolf and ‘There Will Never Be Another You’ by Lester Young. A regular to Womad, he was a bit underwhelmed by the music this year but was looking forward to the End of the Road Festival in September. He’ll be back next year; Dick lives for music and music helps him live. Damn! This place is friendly. If we weren’t so busy dancing, we would have moved to deepest South Wales to live with him.
Under the high vaulted architecture of a circus tent, the freedom of youth dances, entheogenic, moving waves glistening in moonlight to an ocean’s beat. Addictive TV has matured from the ridiculous into the sublime with their latest project ‘Orchestra of Samples’. A rebirth as the embodiment of world music collectors – electronica fused with eclectic sampling from musicians around the world. The product of a five year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new sounds and rhythms, to boldly go where no orchestra has gone before. The sound is driving, creative and humorous. There is no escaping the touch of genius here.
Nevertheless, the undoubted success of the new form prickles other questions. There are unintentional parallels here with Victorian collectors showcasing what they found abroad to further their own performances of themselves. The affection for similarly eclectic samples found in the Pitt Rivers Museum cannot not be separated easily from the grander political and economic projects that drove the collection, bringing coherence and acceptability to colonial enterprise. The question concerning what we are doing when we assimilate samples of music into our own forms, apparently in order to celebrate the collection, is answered through a simple technique: Imagine how the project would look in reverse. What happens if one humble sample, from a far away place, conducts a similar exercise in mass assimilation of international others for its own people? What sounds would be created, what audiences would listen and how would the economy drive the politics of viable artistic production and exchange?
At 3 am outside the Lizard Lounge, a mobility scooter skids through the mud as Mexican flea music pumps out to the smooth frenzy jumping in the pit. Time to turn in for some chai time, to have a lucid moment; check-in with your comrades who have been arm-in-arm with you through various festival missions. Everyone is enjoying the vibe. The symbiosis of artists from around the world accentuates the human, we begin to see our similarity through the difference. The talk turns towards Brexit, Trump, and the rise of a politics of intolerance alongside economic abandonment. Reality edges closer.
The manager of one of the artists joins the conversation, bursting the bubble. It is increasingly difficult for performers to obtain travel visas. Womad, and other festivals that celebrate global artistry, are gradually being threatened by tighter immigration controls. The government can legitimately discriminate against what we celebrate at Womad. Rick, the oil can ukulele guy, said something earlier that now resonates strongly. He wished that the outside world was like Womad. We remind ourselves of the disjuncture between where we are and where we will be tomorrow. The conversation moves to the South African struggle for rights and Tony Benn’s insight that “every generation must fight the same battles again and again. There’s no final victory and there’s no final defeat”. So, over a chai, we made a decision: 1. Actively help refugee and migrant communities; 2. The campaign against political intolerance; 3. Support or facilitate the appreciation of difference wherever we can.
We are going to fight for our world to be a bit more like Womad because, if we don’t, there might not be many more chances to celebrate like this in the future. For a while, we were explorers of social and musical frontiers, what we found motivated us to defend the rights to explore.
Words by Daniel Levin, Jamal Maxey and Jonathan Newman.