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26 juillet 2008

The whole world in his hand

Peter Gabriel founded the WOMAD festival in the early 80s. We talk to the former Genesis frontman about his love of world music, who he's looking forward to seeing at this year's event, which takes place this weekend, and how the festival is about more than just music.

The World Of Music, Arts And Dance, or WOMAD as it's known, is an annual gathering which hosts, as its title might suggest, the very best performers from all corners of the globe.

The festival was pioneered by former Genesis frontman and world music aficionado Peter Gabriel and a group of like-minded friends, who staged the first WOMAD in 1982 in Shepton Mallet, Somerset and attracted 15,000 people.

The festival found a new home in Reading, Berkshire, not long after, and 2007 saw the nomadic WOMAD up sticks once again and move to Malmesbury in Wiltshire.

The latest site, argues Gabriel, will provide the festival, already the world's largest with events in more than 20 countries around the world, even more opportunity to grow.

"It's about twice the size of the old place, particularly with the extra land we've been given this year, so we are able to do more things," explains Peter.

"There will be more workshops, more stuff happening with the food, more stalls and better camping too. This year, we've also got a bit of a spa happening too, so you can either relax or clean up," he says, smiling. "It's growing and the new site is a great place for us to be based. There are more opportunities, even though the people in Reading were great partners."

Like most other festivals last summer, WOMAD suffered from appalling weather but at Charlton Park this year, campsites will be on higher ground and a track has been built allowing access for all vehicles.

"We were renamed WOMUD last year because we were drowning in the stuff but with a few new provisions this year, we should be in good shape, even if we are hit by the weather. We're hoping very much that lightning won't strike twice and it hasn't rained as much this year in general, so the underlying land won't be as soggy," he adds. The site is such a beautiful site, with the trees and the big house there. It's going to be a great home for us."

As in past years, this year's festival has a wide and diverse mix of music on offer, from disco godfathers Chic and critics' favourite Martha Wainwright, through to Dengue Fever, who are a group of Cambodian rockers based in Los Angeles and Senegalese singer Wasis Diop.

"There are lots of people I'm looking forward to seeing but I was introduced to a band called Speed Caravan earlier this year and think they're brilliant," says Peter.

"Mehdi Haddab from Speed Caravan is a bit like the Jimi Hendrix of the (11-stringed pear-shaped Arabic instrument, similar to a lute) oud. He really is unbelievable. (an Algerian-French singer) has a similar vibe but he's less about the playing, really, and Rachid TahaSharon Shannon who has a great Irish big band featuring Shane MacGowan," he continues, enthusiastically."Chic are also playing. I've seen them before, they did a benefit concert for us a while back, and I've known Nile Rodgers a long time. He's an amazing groove player and their set will be chock full of hits. That's just Friday night! Shall I keep going?"

Other big names on the bill include dub pioneer Lee “Scratch” Perry, reggae singer Eddy Grant, reformed new-wavers Squeeze, American singer songwriter Devon Sproule and Mercury Prize-winner Roni Size And Reprazent, all of whom will be playing alongside relatively unknown artists from all over the world.

"The idea is that there's a mixture of familiar and unfamiliar," explains Peter. "We're making much more of the food element at the festival this year too. There'll be a 'food of the world' kind of thing, so you can taste all these amazing, new flavours while hearing amazing new sounds," he continues, before talking about the family-oriented nature of WOMAD - a mission statement he and the other organisers outlined from day one. Families are a big part of what we do and we're proud that parents can feel safe to let their kids play on the site, which they don't often do at a lot of festivals. People are happy with there not being so many people out of their heads as well," he says.

"One of our main goals has always been about introducing the kids to new things. If children get used to being introduced to different flavours from around the world, and different sounds and cultures, then they'll hopefully be comfortable in whatever world they find themselves in when they're older and retain that curiosity, enthusiasm and open-mindedness. I think it was a passion for the music that got us going in the first place but now more than anything else, the festival is about unity and just shows the stupidity of racism."

Now in its 26th year, WOMAD in the UK is undoubtedly a successful enterprise, with spin-off workshops and summer schools taking place in Bath, where children and adults can learn various musical styles from experts.

More than 20 countries, including the USA, Spain, New Zealand and Australia, where it's the nation's largest outdoor event, have staged their own WOMAD festivals, while the organisation was involved in their own Live8 concert - Africa Calling - and the Sri Lankan Festival Of The Drum. The WOMAD brand has now staged or been involved in more than 150 festivals since it began.

Aside from organising the festival, Peter, while maintaining his boundary-pushing solo career, has also established his own Real World Studios, which offers artists from developing countries the chance to record in a state-of-the-art studio and have their music distributed in ways otherwise impossible for them.

He also worked hard to spread the word about musicians such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who last year made Time magazine's list of all-time Asian heroes, and Grammy-winning Senegalese singer Youssou N'Dour, who shot to fame after his hit single 7 Seconds with Neneh Cherry.

"When we started WOMAD, I think we were just young people exploring our dreams and we were planning to take over the world," he says. "The fact it managed to survive through potential disaster, and that we've managed to keep going and build it in so many countries, is just wonderful."

By Andy Welch, Dudley News

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