WOMAD has grown into the UK's foremost celebrations of global heritage. Co-founder talks to Mark Cunningham about the trials and tribulations of getting the festival off the ground back in the '80s.
The road to a musical and artistic ‘United Nations’ began in 1980 when Thomas Brooman, Bob Hooton and Alan James were running the Bristol Recorder, a quarterly record magazine, from their Bristol base. It was while recording tracks in Bath for their second compilation LP that they chanced upon local resident Peter Gabriel who offered the trio a pair of his own live tracks for inclusion on their next Recorder release.
A friendship blossomed between the punkish entrepreneurs and the ex-Genesis rock star, and their mutual passion for exotic African rhythms dovetailed when the idea of staging a local festival, featuring a mix of mainstream and what we now refer to as world music artists, plus Gabriel as the headliner.
After many false starts, the inaugural three-day WOMAD — World Of Music, Arts & Dance — festival opened on July 16 1982 at the Bath & West Showground in Shepton Mallet, and Thomas Brooman vividly remembers the excitement and fear as if it were yesterday.
“Peter was the inspiration and the catalyst for WOMAD, and he, myself and our planning committee were very involved in this together at every level throughout 1981-2. None of the rest of us had any music business experience but I fell into the role of festival director, probably because I was articulate and enthusiastic.”
Organising the first event severely tested the partnership’s will. “Ten weeks out from the event, there were feelings of deep anxiety and bewilderment because we knew that it wasn’t going well financially but not how badly,” Brooman says.
“We didn’t have the Internet or Excel spreadsheets, and all the organisation was based on written notes — plus we were complete novices at putting on festivals! But we knew we had to make something happen and on the day either people would come or they wouldn’t. We’d sold 9,000 tickets before we opened but we needed 27,000 to have any hope of breaking even [the eventual figure was 18,000].
“Now, in 2007, we know exactly how many people are coming because all the tickets have just about been sold in advance but for the first six years or so, at least 40% would turn up on the day.”
Remember, this was an era that preceded cell phones, fax machines and e-mail, and Brooman’s team had to communicate by letter with many artists from Indonesia, China and Nigeria who didn’t even have a landline. “It was a very physical, hand-held experience and in 1982, it was some achievement to pull all this off,” explains Brooman.
“During the festival, it was clear that not enough people were coming and we had three-hourly emergency meetings to see how we would survive the next three hours, which we somehow did.
“There was tremendous guilt — having got all these people to come and perform, we realised by the Sunday that we didn’t have enough money to pay some of them. Come the Monday after the event, we were in a queue outside our bank in Bristol trying to cash cheques with no money in the bank. And yet there was still this feeling of achievement, because the festival really moved people in a profound way.
“Observing how some of these unusual artists went down so positively with the audience was truly heartwarming. I’d seen the drummers of Burundi when I was in France the previous year but they’d never visited Britain before and it was kind of hard to predict how they’d be received, unlike homegrown acts like Echo & The Bunnymen and Rip Rig & Panic, but they were astonishing.”
Soon after the 1982 event, however, everything was pointing to WOMAD merely being a one-off. “We were all pretty much washing our hands of it,” says Brooman. “It was a scathing experience and Peter was under enormous pressure afterwards with people blaming him for it not being commercially successful when it wasn’t his fault at all.”
A short-term fix came a few months away when Genesis and Peter Gabriel (who had left the band in 1975) agreed to reunite for a concert to help put WOMAD back to square one. On October 2 1982 in the driving rain at Milton Keynes Concert Bowl, the Six Of The Best show raised enough money to pay off the festival’s creditors.
Still, Brooman wasn’t convinced there was a future for WOMAD and he was surprised when it continued in 1983, ironically, at Gabriel’s suggestion. The singer had been contacted by Michael Morris at the ICA in London, who had a season of Capital Radio events lined up and wanted to slot WOMAD into the programme.
“It was great — we had films, workshops, children’s activities and a fantastic bill with Jah Wobble, Kanda Bongo Man, Misty In Roots, Test Department and Aboriginal artists. That worked very well and the money we raised from T-shirt sales funded the WOMAD Foundation, a non-profit initiative that would promote, improve and advance multi-cultural education.”
Meanwhile, it was far from a glamorous life at WOMAD HQ. “With Bob Hooton, I set up a base within a local office and we did desperate things like making a desk from a piece of old, discarded wood. We were signing on the dole and sleeping on floors but still charged on in our optimistic, penniless way. I suppose we were really determined and had a visualisation of something worthwhile, and steadily we built WOMAD from the ground up throughout the ’80s.”
The real turning point, says Brooman, came when they decided to extend the festival internationally. “We realised in the winter of 1986 that it would be tough to grow if we only relied on one annual event, drawing the size of audience that we had, and trading on the previous year’s deficit and advances from the next.
“We’d proved with the ICA that if people had the budget and the space we could move this festival in pretty much anywhere, and there was tons of money abroad. Within months we were having meetings in Denmark and Canada, and started planning our first international festivals there for 1988. With our network of hugely talented artists like Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Guo Brothers, Remmy Ongala, Ali Farka Toure and Flaco Jimenez making their mark, they really helped to establish WOMAD’s identity.”
“By that time, World Music had started to gain mainstream interest [in no small part due to the success of Paul Simon’s Graceland album] and this was reflected in the launch of WOMAD’s own record label and the growth of the festival from thereon. “The spirit with which we’d launched in 1982 suddenly had greater meaning; we had a headline that the media could make sense of,” says Brooman.
Twenty-five years on from that first nerve-wracking event, WOMAD is a unique sub-industry all of its own and continues to inspire artists and audiences alike. As I spoke to Brooman, he was working on the latest festival edition, WOMAD Singapore — just one of over 20 countries in which WOMAD has made its presence felt.
Reflecting on July’s successful UK festival, Brooman comments: “We are totally grateful to Peter for celebrating our 25th anniversary with us. Our move to Charlton Park was prompted by us running out of camping space at Rivermead in Reading. It had a good vibe there but increasingly I felt that people would prefer a more rural experience... and with acres of mud around us this weekend, we’ve certainly given them that!
“The irony is, of course, that if we hadn’t moved from Reading we wouldn’t have a festival this year because it’s flooded there. Next year at Charlton Park it will be hot, sunny and beautiful... I’m counting on it!”
To experience some of the wide variety of music performed over the last 25 years at WOMAD, treat yourself to the new triple CD collection — Music & Rhythm WOMAD Worldwide 1982-2007 — available now from www.womad.org and all good record outlets.