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17 octobre 2005

Grand multicultural music-making

AN ISRAELI IN DREADLOCKS played the organ for a Touareg artist. A male Indian dancer gave Bollywood dance lessons to Brit and Chinese girls, while a funky Singaporean group whipped the crowd into a dancing frenzy with their Brazilian samba music fused with Afro-Latin beats.

Five stages, 18 artists from 12 countries and five continents, one ultimate goal. This was the Womad arts festival in Singapore, an event that celebrated music, arts and dance drawn from a mishmash of cultures all over the world to bring the message of unity through arts.

Womad, or World of Music, Arts and Dance, kicked off in England in 1982 from English musician Peter Gabriel's vision of "introducing an international audience to many talented artists." The festival is akin to the hippie-counterculture Woodstock event and France's Fete de la Musique. Since then, 145 festivals have been presented in 22 countries and islands.

New Zealand, Spain, Sicily and the United Kingdom. Singapore hosted the eighth leg of the tour in August. Far from the stiff, high-brow image usually associated with the progressive island, Singapore has been hosting the annual gig for eight years now. It was awarded the Best Experience at the 19th Singapore Tourism Awards. This year's three-day jam at Fort Canning Park saw multicultural audiences in three outdoor stages, a gallery where artists gave bite-size workshops and a tunnel for the party crowd. There was also a bazaar-like Global Village that exhibited international crafts and foodstuff, from Sri Lankan puppets to Turkish ice cream.

Intimate gig

While about 20 percent of the crowd were tourists, and the artists themselves spoke different languages, festival director for Asia Sarah Martin said communication was hardly a problem because the artists could simply jam and play. "The beauty of Womad is to put people and culture together on one platform through a beautiful, peaceful process," she said. Around 7,000 people, mostly in their teens and 20s, popped up on the warm, bustling Saturday night of the event. Martin said they quickly ran out of tickets. "We're not here for the money, we want everyone to enjoy. We're trying to make it self-contained, intimate," she said.

Each artist was handpicked from a roster of aspirants. Martin and the UK team go through tons and tons of CDs each year to choose who would play in the event. This is a regular job for her. After the three-day gig in Singapore, she and her team will start planning for the next one.

Not just world music

American master drummer Bill Cobham topbilled this year's performers. A consummate percussionist for over 30 years now, he has worked with the likes of jazz giant Miles Davis. "We need your support. We don't play for ourselves, we play for the audience. If we have more people interested in the arts, it means we have more brains. We think," he said. Cobham awed the crowd with his ambidextrous skills as he pounded on the drums with his eyes closed.

Admitting his brand of jazz was not that popular (compared to the likes of Michael Bublè's and Norah Jones') especially among the younger pop crowd, the animated Cobham explained: "Jazz is selfish. It is a highly intellectual platform."
"Music is all about learning, it's never about being comfortable. It's the thing that you like to do. It is to be cunning," said the indie artist. "When I play the drums, I always think of what I want to do. But everything has a price. You've got to have a lot of patience."

Would he recommend working as a musician, though?

"No," he answered, laughing.
"But it's the only thing I know how to do, it's the only thing I wanna do."

Another crowd favorite was the Idan Rachiel Project, a group of eight from Israel that played ambient-like Israeli-Ethiopian folk songs with loads of percussions and chants. Each member had mastered his instrument and could be a stand-alone performer. Frontman Idan Rachiel might not look like your usual pop star in his all-black boho ensemble, turban, dreadlocks and piercing eyes, but the 28-year-old musician had a huge following in Israel.

The Idan Rachiel Project is not a band, he said, but a music company. Rachiel, an all-around musician who had been working with Israeli pop and rock stars for some time, scouted for artists and asked them to work with him. A virtual unknown, he had a pool of 70 artists for his first album, "Idan Rachiel's Project," which shot up to No. 1 on the Israeli music charts. His fame, he said, was not intentional. "It's not our job to make it commercial," he said. "I don't regard myself as an icon."
It would be easy to classify the Project's sounds under "world," but Rachiel would rather call it "Israeli music." It has raw and moving bursts of energy with fast riffs and drum loops, fusing rural and urban, traditional and modern Middle Eastern sounds. In Womad, he performed with Wogderass Avi Wassa, who did fast songs; Cabra Kasaisings, who chanted in Hebrew; and Maya Abraham, who exhibited notable Arabic influences. Rachiel said some of the songs might be dealing with politics, "but at the end of the day, it's all about being alone, and the subject is about love. It is to see the world from the outside."

Wicked lineup

Crowd favorite Wicked Aura Batucada played batucada music fused with local ethnic rhythms with intense power. Nomadic "roots rock rebels" Tinariwen from the Republic of Mali, meanwhile, rendered some African blues-influenced pieces. The Dhol Foundation of London bounced onto the stage with their large wooden drums. Algerian Akim El Sikameya played Arabic-Andalusian music. Indian artist Sheema Mukherjee strummed classical sitar pieces. Coming from Sri Lanka with their Kandyan dance and drumming was Ravibhandu Vidyapathy. The French group Les Yeux Noirs demonstrated Gypsy music. Malaysia's "jazz queen," Sheila Majid, provided smooth jazz and RnB sounds.

UK's first mainstream Asian DJ Apache Indian rocked the park with Anglo-Asian mixes. Yes, he's the same artist who performed the '90s hit "Boomshackalak." Other performers were Singaporean hip-hop artist DJ r-H, Cuban band Asere, Australian singer-songwriter Lior and vintage reggae/funk group Future World Funk. Sri Lankan puppeteer Sri Anura and Singaporean visual artist Sun Yu-Li also exhibited their works.

Martin said they would keep each year's festival fresh by mixing traditional, New Age and fusion music, by finding artists with different styles and looking for new materials and approaches.

Or, as Gabriel put it, "Music is a universal language. It draws people together and proves, as well as anything, the stupidity of racism." The nomadic music fest did just that, and proved that passion for music and the arts could bring a multicultural society swaying and headbangin' for a common cause.

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