Hopping WOMAD

A multicontinental fête jumps across musical borders.

Melting pot or no melting pot, if you asked most Americans to name a Latin musician, they’d probably say Jennifer Lopez.


Marymoor Park, Redmond, July 30-August 1

However slowly, our musical insulation is being stripped away. The connection between traditional musical forms and the Western hit parade has become more pronounced in the years since the Beatles hooked up with sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and Paul Simon employed South African vocal group Ladysmith Black Mambazo to reach Graceland. Some day, a rock and roller like Cui Jian might be as much of a superstar in Ames, Iowa, as he is in Beijing.

Until that day arrives, WOMAD USA gives us the chance to check out what’s hot in Santiago or Cape Breton or Yerevan. Begun in 1982 by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Brooman, the World of Music, Arts, and Dance brings performers in all these disciplines together for weekend-long festivals all over the globe. Not all WOMAD festivals occur at the same site each year; last year, Seattle became the fourth annual host site and the only one in North America. The other annual WOMADs are held in Reading, England; Canarias, in the Canary Islands; and in Adelaide, Australia (allowing the cutesy tag WOMADelaide). The festival has also spawned Real World Records, which releases music by many of the featured artists.

Collaboration is a major motif of WOMAD USA, down to the way the performers are selected. Local producers One Reel (the force behind Bumbershoot) are fifty-fifty partners with Gabriel’s WOMAD; each organization chooses artists, but both must sign off on them.

The producers are taking a cue from their performing counterparts. No matter how opposite some sounds may seem, musicians approaching each other from different ends of the world can find—or create—a common ground. There are few more potent and commercial examples than Afro Celt Sound System, which combines not only Celtic and West African rhythms and instrumentation, but also electronic and acoustic methods. The group’s two records (Sound Magic, Volume 1 and Volume 2: Release) are good, but it’s their passionate live performances that inspire awe. Guitarist and keyboard player Simon Emmerson formulated the ACSS idea when he was producing a record for Senegalese vocalist Baba Maal, who was singing a traditional Mbaalax song that sounded like a Celtic lament.

Traveling the other way down the same road is singer Geoffrey Oryema, a native of Uganda who spent 20 years exiled in Normandy. Writing lyrics in English and French, and displaying an international pop sensibility, Oryema thrives on the ethereal atmospherics you’d expect from someone whose debut was produced by Brian Eno. In fact, some of the songs on Oryema’s latest release, Night to Night, bear similarities to WOMAD founder Gabriel’s more ambient tracks. Oryema’s high-pitched but gentle voice, a perfect foil for epic drumbeats and electronic effects, creates an atmosphere of worldliness (in all senses of the word).

The music of fellow Ugandan Bernard Kabanda, on the other hand, is rooted in his native country. He plays kadongo kamu (“just a single guitar”), a style developed on the streets of Kampala. Using the steel from brake cables on their handmade guitars, kadongo kamu performers offer up social and political commentary with humor, occasionally accompanied by a percussionist wielding tin cans or shakers. The steel strings and sparse arrangements resemble both American country music and Irish folk music, proving just how small the world can be.

More of WOMAD’s cross-cultural bent can be heard when the 28-piece Seattle Creative Orchestra backs Chinese instrumental duo the Guo Brothers. Yi and Yue Guo both play the erhu, a two-string Chinese violin, and the sheng, a flutelike instrument made from bamboo. Their music is rare in their home country because it navigates across the strict cultural and language boundaries separating more than 50 minorities. Their sound reflects moods and styles from both the agricultural North and the lake country in the South. The avant-garde collective SCO seems perfect to offer a backdrop for this environmental diversity.

Few producers have done more to bring non-Western music to Western audiences than guitarist Michael Brook. His most recent partner is Djivan Gasparyan, a master of the Armenian duduk, an oboelike horn. As a duo, they made the 1998 record Black Rock, a soundscape inspired by the volcanic and tropical Lanzarote, the easternmost of the Canary Islands. One moment, the music lulls listeners with wavelike beats and the duduk swaying like a palm frond in the breeze; the next, the rhythm turns sharp and the duduk keens with despair. Brook never intrudes into the foreground, allowing Gasparyan’s nuanced voice and masterful playing to cast a spell.

Brook is perhaps more identified with the late Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, a legendary performer of Qawwali, the devotional music of the Sufis. An Islamic sect, the Sufis treasure music—along with meditation, dancing, and chanting—as an element of spiritual life. Ali Khan’s family passed its skill from father to son for generations, and now his teenage nephews, Rizwan Mujahid Ali Khan and Muazzam Mujahid Ali Khan, have taken up their uncle’s mantle. They lead the Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, which made its concert debut just last year at WOMAD Reading. The group, which also includes a five-member chorus, two harmonium players, and a tabla player, offers fiery and compelling versions of these ecstatic songs of love and praise.

Another musical group that passes its skill from one generation to the next is the Drummers of Burundi, who Gabriel and Brooman credit as their inspiration for starting WOMAD in the first place. One look at these spectacular percussionists—who consider dancing just as important as drumming—and the two Westerners were hooked. The collaboration had begun.*

For details of the festival schedule, see the music calendar.