Possibly the Best Festival in the World

2 Conversations

While not wishing to give too much information about myself I must admit to being somewhat of a veteran festival goer. The first festival I ever went to was at Weeley in Essex some thirty years ago. My experiences there were not great and I did not go to another for several years. I have regretted not going to the Isle of Wight to see Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix ever since but 'C'est la Vie' as the French say. I was finally persuaded to go to another festival by friends and that Windsor Free Festival was certainly something else. I have been to lots since e.g. one day events at Knebworth, Glastonbury before it got huge, the Elephant Fayre, Lisdoonvarna, the 'Campus' festivals and lots of free events in London to name but a few. In 1985 I first attended the festival that was to become my all time favourite, WOMAD.

1. The First Visit to WOMAD

I still have the programme from that momentous weekend and it is the only festival I have been to where a programme provided a valuable resource for the next year i.e. until the next WOMAD came around. We had heard about the first WOMAD festivals but not attended for a variety of reasons and decided that this year we would give it a try because Glastonbury was getting too big (about a tenth of the attendance it is now) and the Elephant Fayre had gone down in a blaze of glory the year before.

My partner, my daughter (aged 6) and I set off on the train from Liverpool Street Station the day before the festival was due to start to get ourselves a good spot and suss out what was what and ended up sleeping in a field which was to become the car park! The next morning we woke up to overcast skies and spent about three hours packed into a car with four total strangers sheltering from the rain waiting to be allowed on to the site at midday. We boarded the first bus which came to transport people from the car park to the actual festival site and finally arrived about 18 hours after leaving home! Not an auspicious start but we set up the tents and had just started to explore the site when the heavens opened and the rain, which was to come down on and off for the next 24 hours, began. The actual site was weird for a music festival. It was a tiny Essex County Council site which was generally used for school nature trips, Boy Scout/Girl Guide camps and the like with some fixed facilities, e.g. toilets, a swimming pool, a café and several strange little huts which I presume were normally used as focal points for different groups using the site at any one time and the grass was beautiful. The most attractive feature of the site was that one boundary was the beach, which faced east, perfect for those with no children to end each night's revels by watching the sun rise.

Within about three hours three things had happened; the rain had really set in with a vengeance causing the aforementioned grass to become a quagmire, a crowd of approximately 15 of my friends from my home town had arrived and, coincidentally, set up their encampment about five tents away from us and we had bought a programme for all the good it was to us at the time! (The only names we recognised were The Fall, Peter Hamill, A Certain Ratio, The Penguin Café Orchestra, the Pogues, New Order and Toots and the Maytals.) One of my friends, the most practical woman I know, owned an old Boy Scout tent which she set up and it became our home from home for the weekend. All of us would check in to shelter from the pouring rain and see who was around in between watching the bands and what fantastic bands they were! In addition to those mentioned above, some of whom were a huge disappointment e.g. New Order who managed to make all those great, contrasting songs from Power, Corruption and Lies sound exactly the same, we were introduced to a very wide variety of music from all over the world. Before then the only 'ethnic' music I had really been aware of were Irish music e.g. the Moving Hearts, Christy Moore etc and King Sunny Ade who had just received some press coverage of his music but no radio exposure. Without really having any idea of the huge following these artist could command in their home countries I saw Somo Somo (led by Mose Fan Fan who was still living in Africa at that time), Guo Yi and his, now more famous brother, Guo Ye, Super Diamono from Senegal, the Bagamoyo Group of traditional musicians from Tanzania led by Hukwe Zawose, the absolutely fantastic Thomas Mapfumo and the Blacks Unlimited, James, Orchestre Jazira and Dade Krama. The two performances which had the greatest impact on me at the time were by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan making his debut in front of a predominantly Western audience and Tabu Ley le Seigneur Rochereau who performed with M'Bilia Bel and Afrisa International against the dramatic backdrop of a passing thunderstorm maybe ten miles away!

Despite the rain which continued to fall until the Saturday morning and then only let up until about 8.00 pm on the Sunday evening when it set in again with increased ferocity and the disastrous shortage of toilets which caused the portable loos to overflow cutting the site in half and forcing one to either walk through the resulting mess or take a detour via the beach to reach the main stage it was just the best thing I had ever seen. Choosing which bands to try to see was a case of the deaf leading the deaf! None of us had heard of 80% of the acts let alone having any idea of what they were going to sound like. Consequently Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Tabu Ley hit me like a thunderbolt from the blue and from that day on I have been prepared to listen to anything once. It was all so hit and miss and I am sure I missed as much great music as I saw and, because I had no idea what I would like, or even what most of it would sound like, it set a pattern for my behaviour at many WOMADs since then. Every decision to go and see a band was provisional – if I heard something that sounded good I just stayed and listened without worrying too much about what I was missing. The only exception that weekend was that I missed most of A Certain Ratio's set because I had set my heart on seeing New Order who were, as I mentioned before, a huge disappointment. Luckily I got pissed off early on with their determination to make every song sound the same and left. Being at a loose end I joined the crowd waiting to see the incomparable Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan at a very early stage which meant that I had a very good place inside the tent. Not knowing anything at all about him many people, including me to my shame, sniggered when his very large frame was revealed to us as he took up his place with his musicians at about midnight on Saturday night/Sunday morning. (Fateh/Fatty - get it?) When he opened his mouth and started to sing it was spellbinding and I was not aware of anything else until I looked at my watch at about 2.30 am. The time seemed to pass both very slowly and in a flash. At about 3.00 am, conscious of the fact that my daughter would wake up in about five hours, I regretfully left and went back to my tent to crash. Hence I missed something I have never seen anywhere else but several friends reported to me when they, lucky irresponsible childless people, woke at about midday on Sunday. At about 4.00 am, after several consultations with the musicians, Nusrat's manager came to the microphone and apologised profusely for the fact that they were going to have to cut their set 'short' because the instruments were going out of tune due to the cold weather and Nusrat, having only just arrived from Pakistan, was also getting too cold to sing any more. An artist at a festival apologising for ending his set after four hours!

2. More Visits to WOMAD

From that weekend on I have been a devoted 'world' music fan and attended most WOMAD festivals in England for the next fifteen years or so. For the next couple of years WOMAD was rather nomadic. Every year we would wait eagerly to see where it would be held this time to plan our trip if 'plan' is the right word! Every year it would be held in a different place so 'planning' consisted of trying to be prepared for any eventuality especially the second time I went when the festival was held on a 'green field' site at Clevedon near Bristol for the only time in England (so far as I am aware) and I only made the decision to go two weeks before because my son was only six weeks old at the time. (The trip again started in a very inauspicious way when, while driving on the motorway in a car hired by a kind relative to enable us to go at all, my 7 year old daughter threw up all over her baby brother in his carrycot within half an hour of leaving home!) Over the following years WOMAD festivals took place at a wide range of sites, all of them with some fixed facilities, including another beach site at Carlyon Bay complete with model railway to ferry festival goers and their luggage along the site (which usually transported those who wished to go to the nudist beach at the end of the site), Bracknell which was very strange as the camping was in a small park surrounded by modern housing estates whose residents all turned out to ogle the 'hippies' (their phrase not mine) and the local shopping facilities, which were 30 seconds round the corner and included Waitrose! The first, of many, visits to Morecambe was another strange experience with events taking place in a wide variety of venues including a Big Top, a local disco, the Superdome which from the Promenade looks like a small pimple but is actually a very large dome built with the help of an EEC grant and, best of all, the free stage in the local station concourse with trains pulling in and out approximately every 20 minutes disgorging day trippers into the WOMAD audience. Some of them would get caught up in the atmosphere and stayed to enjoy the performances which ranged from the kora playing of Amadou Jobarteh to the full blown East African soukous and rhumba of Remmy Ongala's Orchestre Super Matimila. Remmy has said that the station at Morecambe had the best acoustic that he has ever played in - some praise coming from an East African Super Star who has played every venue in Tanzania, many more throughout Eastern and central Africa, Europe, America and Canada, Scandinavia, Australia, several countries which were part of the USSR and Japan passing through hundreds of smaller places along the way. I have stayed in a tent, a caravan and a guest house at Morecambe, the bay (polluted though it is) is lovely, the sunset has to be seen to be believed and the contrast between being at a WOMAD concert one minute and being out on the Prom among the day trippers wearing Kiss Me Quick hats, eating candy floss and playing Bingo (Think 'Two Fat Ladies, eighty eight' and all that ringing out loud and clear) could not be greater! Sadly, it is also the place where I have also suffered my most embarrassing WOMAD moment when I, together with most of the other people within a radius of about 25 yards, overheard one of these day trippers say, no shout is a more accurate description, to her friend 'I told you these darkies had a great sense of rhythm!' at the exact moment when the music ceased and before the applause began! If looks could have killed as they say .......

3. WOMAD Moves to Reading

Eventually WOMAD was invited to Reading's Rivermead Centre in 1990 which has since become an annual venue and seen the festival grow to huge proportions in that decade with tickets sold out weeks in advance. The site is good with two indoor stages, an open air stage, a tent which seems to have a rave going on 18 hours a day, an indoor leisure pool to entertain you if you tire of the music (and are desparate enough to brave the queues) and the Thames runs along one edge of the site. Waitrose is, again, the nearest supermarket but the traffic congestion on Friday night is horrific! The policy on vehicles varies from year to year but the sensible policy of keeping cars and tents separate seems to have become the norm but there is still the problem of motor cycles to be solved - it can be rather worrying the first time you let a small child leave your side to take her or his first steps towards independence when you know that a careless rider could knock them down so a label on your young child is vital to guard against such an accident and also against getting lost! Day tickets are also an integral part of the event at Reading so you do get a very large number of 'day trippers' but for a first taste of the delights of WOMAD they are excellent. Many of my friends have started that way and become regulars after only one visit. I seem to remember great performances by Ifang Bondi (beloved by blonde ponytailed Arsenal footballers) Femi Kuti, the National Dance of Cambodia, Mari Boine Persen, Van Morrison, Eyuphuro, the Jolly Boys and the Kafala Brothers that first year and going to Reading during the third weekend in July became the norm. There are now so many wonderful sights and sounds indelibly linked in my memory to the Rivermead Centre that I can not begin to single out any for special mention so here is my most poignant memory from Reading. The large sports hall will forever be linked in my memory with one of the last performances I saw by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. He was suffering badly with a heavy cold and his voice was not at its best but he did not want to let his audience down so the performance went ahead. Instead of taking the main parts himself he took more of a back seat while he presented the talent of his chosen successor, a nephew whose name I do not know (can anybody help me with this as I do not want to miss his first performance in his own right?), It was a new insight into the life of a Qawwali master with Nusrat cajoling and encouraging his nephew to express himself and the young man turned in a performance which obviously pleased his mentor greatly. Not long after that Nusrat's health declined further and he died not long after.

4. Other Things To Do At WOMAD

So far I have only mentioned one side of WOMAD, the live performances, but there is so much more to it than just that. The workshops give you a chance to participate in a very wide variety of activities ranging from musical instruction (drumming and singing being the most accessible) through dancing (the sight of Hukwe Zawose teaching a huge crowd of clumsy festival goers the easiest children's dances from Tanzania comes to mind as does his delight that day when a friend of mine, who had met him while teaching English in his home town, appeared unexpectedly and jumped up on the stage to demonstrate for him so that he could rove around the room and encourage any strugglers to stick with it) to costume making for the traditional Sunday festival parade, batik work, traditional carving techniques and a host of other activities as varied as there are weather conditions in a day.

There is also a 'shop till you drop' facility. The market, which numbered maybe twenty stalls on my first visit, has at Reading grown into a huge area which includes stalls large and small selling almost everything from aeolian harps to zithers via CDs of music by the artists appearing at the festival, clothes, jewellery, furniture and, most importantly, food from every major culture known to man (and maybe some from other planets for all I know). My standard WOMAD breakfast of fried egg roll and coffee is something I would never consider eating at that time of day under any other circumstances but it has seen me through many whole days when I could not bear to tear myself away from the music for longer than a visit to the toilet (there is usually at least one that most of the festival goers do not seem to discover but even so the five or ten minutes needed have often seemed far too long to spend away from the main event). Some of the prices seem very expensive but my children have souvenirs which cost them very little money and seem to mean a lot more to them than many of their more expensive possessions bought in the local computer shop and the like. There is also usually a large marquee with stands supporting causes such as ACTSA, CND, Amnesty International and Greenpeace some of which have tiny stages where a variety of speakers from around the world will raise your consciousness about matters religious, political and cultural.

While all the foregoing is wonderful there is one other aspect of WOMAD that, for me, is second only to the music and that is the care and attention paid to ensuring that children have a wonderful time even if they are not in the slightest bit interested in the music. There have always been a lot of opportunities for children at WOMAD to get involved in the cultural activities in the special children's tent where there are constant workshops in costume making, batik and other crafts as well as story tellers introducing the children to tales, traditional and modern, from all around the globe to mention but a few. At Reading the swimming pool is always popular with children of all ages (especially when it has rained and everyone is covered in mud), the adventure playground has facilities for babies to dig in the sand and teenagers to congregate on high platforms talking during the day time and doing whatever else it is that teenagers like to do after dark! Many regular festival goers with children of primary school age do not even bother to set up their tents before they have been to sign up their children for WOMAD NOMADS, for which a small charge is payable, where you can leave your children for about two hours to be entertained by professionals who have at their disposal a huge fenced area where they organise team sports, trampolining, egg and spoon races and many other activities designed to tire out even the most energetic child so that the parents and carers can continue to do their thing both when the children are at the NOMADS and in the evening when you can insert them into their sleeping bags and take them, fast asleep, with you to the event of your choice with no chance of them waking up to interrupt your chosen activity whatever that may be! Apart from my slight reservations about motor cycles, WOMAD is a very safe festival where both my children took their first faltering steps toward independence at a far younger age than I would have allowed anywhere else I can think of - letting a 3 year old go and buy an ice cream alone would be out of the question as far as I am concerned in any other setting but I have never heard of any serious problems concerning children at WOMAD (apart from my 9 year old daughter disappearing to explore while we set up the tents and not reappearing for four hours but as that is the most serious problem I have had with a child I do not feel inclined to complain). It is also advisabe to take a friend for your child so that they have someone they know to hang out with and several friends have allowed me to take their children with me for the weekend. All have returned home with increased confidence and one remarkable girl also had more money than when she left - she found out that all the glasses had a deposit of £1.00 on them so she, being a fairly worldy-wise child, would offer unsuspecting adults in various different states of mind her services as a glass returner hence earning herself £1.00 for every one! She continued to provide this service for about three years until she grew up a bit hanging around with boys; became the thing and constantly looking for abandoned glasses lost its appeal but she still got a lot of kudos from all the new friends she made when she would briefly re-visit her younger days to provide them all with freshly cooked doughnuts and hot drinks when they finally staggered out of the Whirl-y-Gig at 2.00 am! Just take the minimum that you need for them to be entertained if desparate even if that includes the ton of books my bookworm of a daughter always required! At Reading the Big Wheel and a few other fun fair attractions are fine for those who enjoy them (and why not I say?) but if allowed to get out of hand can clean you out of all your funds for such other essentials as shopping and eating in a remarkably short time! My family, most of whom do not like heights, have not made a lot of use of these facilities but my daughter has said goodbye to another year at Reading many times and she is still in touch with most of the friends who have been with her on the Big Wheel!

5. Take Care

After this extended hymn of praise you might by now be wondering what the drawbacks are? Surely nothing can be so perfect? Yes there can be some but many have been self-inflicted e.g. my partner cutting his foot very badly on a rather nasty wire spike the first year at Reading when we had only just arrived was one low-point (he spent about 6 hours shuttling between the First Aiders and the local hospital leaving me with the two children and a lot of the unpacking to do which caused tempers to fray somewhat). He just forgot one basic rule - NEVER walk around at any festival barefoot, even if there are no other dangers underfoot I would not like to calculate how many tent pegs go to WOMAD in Reading every year let alone the total that attend WOMAD festivals worldwide! (On second thoughts, it might be quite entertaining and maybe I shall do some research about the average numbers of pegs required per tent (in the UK and abroad, if different), the numbers of visitors to the festivals worldwide and the average number of people per tent.) Another vital point to bear in mind is the weather - I have never seen snow at WOMAD but almost everything else, from thunderstorms with torrential rain during which I danced to the music of Orchestre Jazira at Mersey Island to 14 hours of continuous blazing sun with not the faintest hint of a breeze resulting in stifling heat from which I have been forced to escape into the large Sports Hall at Reading. Everything is possible so adopt a Boy Scout mentality - even if it is the most perfect day of your life weatherwise when you leave home do not leave without taking basic precautions against the other extreme! Sunhats. and long sleeves for those prone, as I am, to the heat, warm clothes for clear nights when the best band in the world (whoever they might be) play on the open air stage at 10.30 pm and the temperature can go into free fall. Just never (in the UK that is) omit to make some kind of provision for water be it in the swimming pool or rain; swimming gear and water proofs highly recommended be they your skin or the latest all-over swim suit, a black bin liner or the latest successor to Gore Tex! You know it makes sense - there is nothing worse known to this festival goer than either getting ill by Saturday morning because you got wet and then cold on Friday afternoon when you had barely arrived or having to sleep in a nylon sleeping bag when you have got really bad sunburn (not that any single one of those options is actually very appealing). One of my fondest memories of Reading is dancing in my plastic mac (cheap, electric blue, bought in Morecambe when unprepared for such an emergency and a veteran of every WOMAD since) and Wellington boots one Sunday afternoon to Special Beat. Due to the rain there were only about 50 people there and for me it was fantastic to finally catch up on the originators of songs such as Stand Down Margaret, Mirror in the Bathroom, Concrete Jungle and I'm Your Flag who I had missed seeing first time round in those long lost times when Pop and Politics did mix. A bonus was to be able to sing at the top of my voice because it I could stand far enough away from every other member of the audience for none of them to hear me and, hence, be deafened by my atrocious singing voice. Do take care exactly what water you choose to immerse yourself in - the afore mentioned Morecambe Bay looks beautiful but is heavily polluted by the nearby nuclear power facility (call it Sellafield or Windscale as you please but it comes to the same thing!) and the Thames at Reading is not safe to swim in (the programme warns of strong undercurrents but the rubbish found in the river can cut your feet to shreds resulting in a visit to the local hospital and a lengthy course of heavy duty antibiotics to guard against Leptospirosis - check it out on http://www.caving.org.uk/wdic/ before you take any risks).

6. Shared Memories

The final point about WOMAD concerns friendships. Over the years my most long-standing friendships have been greatly enhanced and strengthened by so many shared memories of great performances by artists from around the world many of whom have not found their way into this article yet e.g. Youssou N'dour (in particular the time when all the power failed at Bracknell plunging the tent into complete darkness but the drums continued without missing a beat), Baaba Maal, Toto la Momposina, Flaco Jimenez, The Sabri Brothers, Fun-da-Mental, the Ruthless Rap Assassins, Khaled, the four Brothers, the Real Sounds, Benjamin Zephaniah, Aster Aweke, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, the Super Rail Band of Bamako, Tarika Sammy, the Wagogo Women's Drum & Dance Ensemble, Samul Nori, Ali Farka Toure, Stella Chiweshe, Jah Wobble, Les Quatre Etoiles, Salif Keita, Rai music (as a general catogory), Eyuphuro, Kanda Bongo Man, Les Negresses Vertes, Blurt, Michelle Shocked, Kathryn Tickell, the late S. E. Rogie, Richard Thompson, the Bhundu Boys, Toumani Diabate, Hassan Erraji, Ayub Ogada, Papa Wemba, Taraf of Haidoux, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, La Bottine Souriante, African Headcharge, Ivor Cutler, Carriacou Big Drum, Olodum, Hugh Masekela, the Rizwan-Muazam Qawwali Group, the Musicians of the Nile ....... the list is endless. I have also made so many new friends - this list includes several people who approached for the first time at another event uttering the phrase 'Do I actually know you or have I just seen you at WOMAD?' as well as many of the musicians who are always approachable at WOMAD. This has led me directly to one of my current sidelines as the 'Manager' of a band of musicians who are now all resident in the UK and play the best soukous music I have heard for a long time (check them out on http://www.btinternet.com/~notshunatsha/nttweb)

7. Current Feelings About WOMAD

My current feelings about WOMAD are ambiguous - I still love the music but a feature that was central to my enjoyment of the whole experience has now gone. The sense of anticipation that accompanied those very early visits to a different part of England for the first time (without wishing to be rude, why else would I have ever gone to Morecambe? Or Mersea Island!) has now gone and I have replaced that part of my life following football with the Arsenal and the EURO tournaments to places like Paris, Copenhagen, Arnhem, and Amsterdam where I have seen some sights to rival those offered by WOMAD (check out 'At EURO 2000 did you see'). Portugal in 2004 is my next definite port of call (not yet booked but I am on the case!). I knew that my days of going to WOMAD every summer, without question, for the third weekend in July were over when I came out of the Sports Hall at about 6.30 pm one Sunday and found myself thinking that I had just seen the best thing of that weekend who was an American wearing a suit and looked like a bank manager, the incomparable David Thomas who had everyone in fits of laughter - it just didn't seem right. The very last time I went to WOMAD was in 1998; I went for one day only to see a musician who I have long admired, for his actions in refusing to comply with the regulations of Apartheid as much as his music, Johnny Clegg. The weather was beautiful, I heard a new group of Qawwali musicians who inspired me to buy their CD and Johnny Clegg lived up to all my expectations and more but somehow the whole day was too predictable. It would take another musician of the calibre of Johnny Clegg to persuade me to go to Reading again but .......

If I should ever get lucky on the Lottery, or acquire the money by any other legal means, my first priority in life would be to recapture that magical feeling by following WOMAD overseas to every festival they put together from Australia to Europe to America etc. taking in as many major sporting events as possible e.g. the Olympics, the World Cup, the US Masters, the tour de France and the Grand Prix series to name but a few.

8. Thanks

My heartfelt thanks go out to Peter Gabriel for starting the whole thing off nearly 20 years ago, taking a major financial bath in the process, and Thomas Brooman who caught the ball and has kept on running with it ever since. He deserves major public recognition, on an international stage, for all that he has done to further the cause of human tolerance and understanding through his unstinting work with WOMAD. What a lucky man to have been in the right time at the right place!

If this has inspired you check out the web site (http://www.womad.org/) for WOMAD events taking place somewhere in your part of the world and, if you are from another part of the galaxy, get in there quick and enlist the services of Thomas to help you organise the first WOMAD away from his home planet and bring the best music that the Earth has to offer to your home. Enjoy!

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