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21 juillet 2007

Rings around the world

The Seeds of Thomas Brooman's passion for music may come from briefly living as a child in South America. There he experienced tango in Buenos Aires and samba at Brazil's Rio Carnival, when he was only ten. But his co-founding of WOMAD, the World of Music and Dance Festival which celebrates its 25th anniversary this summer, came after receiving a phone call from Peter Gabriel.

It was the early 1980s and Brooman was a drummer in a Bristol punk band. He'd bumped into Gabriel in a Bath recording studio, and as editor of the Bristol Recorder felt duty bound to interview him. The Recorder itself was proof of his entrepreneurship; a local record magazine funded from the advertising space on the gate sleeve which housed each issue's free LP. Soon afterwards, Gabriel rang him "to see if we can promote some African music", Brooman recalls. "We were so eager that we got involved immediately in everything from letter-writing to the heavy organisational side." The outcome was the first WOMAD festival in Shepton Mallet in 1982. It flopped miserably.

Why? Rain, a bad location, poor publicity and a host of other problems faced by the ingénu collective. "We owed an awful lot of money - so, prompted by Peter, Genesis had their first and only reunion concert with Peter playing," says Brooman. "It was 2 October at the Milton Keynes Bowl and 30,000 came and proverbially saved our bacon. Ironically that rock'n'roll event made solvent our very un-rock'n'roll festival."

It took another ten years for that un-rock and roll event to break even, but today the UK festival alone has a budget of £2 million. There are also WOMAD festivals in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore Spain, Canary Islands and Sicily.

Regularly attracting 20,000 people, WOMAD's appeal lies not simply in the diversity of its programme - 100 artists from five continents - nor in its 450 toilets and 100 shower heads, but, as Brooman says, in its very special public. In contrast to the male-dominated audiences of most rock festivals, 60 per cent of WOMAD regulars are women with children, and older people. Each adult ticket gets two children under 13 in free, and for many it's their annual holiday. Children can spend their days in free art and music workshops working towards a massive procession on Sunday afternoon. Teenagers can club it all night to world DJs. Last year, to my eyes, there were more buggies than ever, pushed by twenty and thirtysomethings, with babies and toddlers laid out on blankets on the grass, or inside the covered Siam Tent day and night. WOMAD's special community spirit has effectively marketed its own future.

Add to the music and family scene the home-made food, from everywhere from Mexico to Japan, and you understand why the festival is a fixture in so many diaries. You can sit on a bale of hay and eat Thai green curry while listening, this year, to Toots and The Maytals, Calexico, Maritza, Kronos Quartet, Baaba Maal, Cesaria Evora and 94 other groups.

"We cover all tastes, so that if someone can only manage 20 minutes listening, say, to the Musicians of Nile they can walk to something else," says Brooman.

WOMAD helped establish the careers of Drummers of Burundi, was the first to invite Salif Keita and Ali Farka Touré to the UK, and has been blessed for years with the genius of the late Qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. "It's all about the magic and mystery of music in performance. When an artist is great neither language or genre is important. It's always been like landing trump cards into a game bridge."

WOMAD has its politics too, with the presence of NGOs, such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Amnesty International, as well as fringe groups. A few years back, Vanessa Redgrave came to talk about the Iraq War. Yet, as Brooman stresses, "Our politics are non-aligned and deliberately implicit. Redgrave was invited by one of the local Reading campaigning groups, so we were happy about that. If we as an organisation proselytised about anything, something essential would go. At our heart is respect for our musicians who come from all over the world."

WOMAD's 25th year sees it move from its Reading location to the 280-acre site of Charlton Park. Right by the abbey town of Malmesbury in Wiltshire, it's an aristocratic pile complete with arboretum, wooded copse and meadows. It offers 50 per cent more space, allowing for seven stages as well as incidental events, such as the new "Taste the World" sessions with artists cooking their favourite dishes, and "In Conversation" sessions with artists like Trilok Gurtu, Lila Downs, Billy Bragg, and BiIly Cobham. Plus there are new innovations, including a "Don't Get Me Started" Speaker's Corner, and an Art Bar where people can print photos and exhibit their own work.

"It's been both terrifying and exciting, but we've now sold more weekend tickets than ever, so it feels as if people were ready," says Brooman. "WOMAD is all about relationship with place as well as with the music. That is what makes people come back."

Gabriel, who last played at the festival in 1993, headlines on Friday night, when he will duet with daughter Melanie. As Brooman says, "WOMAD is a hybrid born of the Woodstock era but it has always had its feet in music impossible to categorise in conventional terms. And that paradoxically is the source of our success."

• WOMAD 2007, Charlton Park, Wiltshire, 27-29 July. Weekend tickets £120. For more details visit the website,


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