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26 juillet 2006

It’s all peace and light at Womad but the slogans make you go mad

Notebook by Clive Davis

THINK OF IT as the world music lover’s answer to Glyndebourne. Womad may not be in such a picturesque setting — Reading is never going to be a modern-day Elysian Fields — but the annual gathering has an energy all its own. Naturally, there is no shortage of regulars who know all there is to know about traditional music of northern Java, yet even if you don’t know the difference between merengue and Mongolian throat-singing, it’s easy to abandon yourself to the joy of discovering an entirely new sound in the next marquee around the corner.

This year’s main acts include the Malian griot-cum-pop star Salif Keita and Gotan Project, the ultra-hip tango dub merchants. And if the decibels on the main stage are too overpowering (yes, the curse of Spinal Tap can strike here too) you can always retreat to the funfair. The presence of so many children makes a difference. I say that as someone who, years ago, once had to review the Reading Rock Festival, and spent a grim evening in the rain, whiling away the hours in the endless ranks of occult memorabilia stands, watching Iggy Pop doing his impersonation of a psychotic, and trying to avoid tripping over catatonic teenagers lying face down in the wet grass. Not one of my happiest memories.

In contrast, WomadWorld of Music, Arts and Dance — self-consciously creates a community of “progressive” spirits, dedicated to peace and love and organic falafel. No doubt there are some conservatives moving around the field in undercover guise, but this is very much a celebration of “alternative” values. Which is why I won’t be surprised to see the Palestinian campaigners out in force as usual this weekend. Strolling amid the musicians, the percussion classes and the tofu stands, you can almost convince yourself that we really do live in a world without suicide bombers and Katyusha rockets.

In this world, the only real threat to the idyll comes from those reckless imperialists from the other side of the North Atlantic. Which is why, in May 2001, the British world music magazine fRoots called for the cognoscenti to form a “resistance movement to to US cultural colonialism”. As the magazine argued: “Walk down the streets in most places on the planet and the same American corporate advertising will lure identically dressed zombies in backwards-facing American baseball caps into American chains to eat American junk food.”

I sympathise, up to a point. Global uniformity is a Bad Thing, and I too usually prefer real ale to Coke. But I couldn’t help feeling uneasy when the magazine’s website began selling badges declaring “America? No thanks . . .” as if Uncle Sam were some radioactive isotope. The US authorities certainly haven’t done themselves any favours with ill-considered visa restrictions that have made life increasingly difficult for Third World musicians. (Here, as in so many other areas, America’s public diplomacy has been shockingly inept.)

Still, it’s dangerous to confuse mass marketing with that loaded term, colonialism. But then, world music, like many of our cultural institutions, still sees life through the prism of the Sixties counterculture. Which can make for good festivals, thankfully. It’s just a shame about the politics.

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