In November 2015 Peter received the Outstanding Contribution to Festivals at the Festival Awards held at the Roundhouse in London. He was presented the award by the inimitable Eddie Izzard. Peter wasn’t able to give his acceptance speech in full on the night but as it provides a fascinating insight into the birth and early years of the WOMAD festival we share it here for everyone to read…
“there is a fault line opening up between those who want, like and choose to live together and those who want like and choose to live apart. It is obvious which side of this fault line is the scarier and to which side our beloved WOMAD belongs.”
WOMAD was conceived on a fast moving train, just like my aunt Jemima. It was a simple idea, to create a festival out of all the brilliant music and art made all over the world, stuff made outside of the mainstream – music that wasn’t getting on the radio and was even harder to find in record stores.
I called up and hustled all the folks I knew that were into this stuff, all of whom were invited and many are sitting at the table tonight.
This was a time when I was being told many of my ideas were crazy, so I deliberately started incorporating synonyms for crazy into the names of the projects I was working on, so a synthesizer company was called Syco and this festival project became woMAD – the World of Music Arts and Dance.
For its first year it was run out of the rundown farmhouse I was renting as a studio just north of Bath. I remember well the moment we announced the festival to the press who came to this farmhouse; Ashcombe House; for a session with the Burundi drummers whose deep thunderous and hypnotic rhythms pounded out from the front lawn across our sleepy valley… farmers were worried about the impact on the milk yield and of over arousing their bulls.
We approached a few sponsors, unsuccessfully, and realised nothing was going to happen if we couldn’t raise some money to launch the festival, so I proposed doing a benefit album with a mix of world and indie artists along the lines of those we wanted to invite to the event. We had great feedback from many musicians who loved the idea and generously gave us tracks for the excellent Music and Rhythm record. My US lawyer Marty Machat managed to sell the project to Warner Bros and we had the first £70,000 pounds of seed money to bring the festival to life.
There was a great magazine and vinyl project run by a group of young smart folk. It was called the Bristol Recorder and they were the most keen and able to take it on of those I had originally hustled. We were having regular brainstorming meetings, and offered to take over the day to day management in their Bristol office, where it remained for the next seven years – until it came back to our Real World Studios site, where it is still based today.
Thomas Brooman, Bob Hooton, Steve Pritchard, Martin Melbourne, Jonathan Arthur and later additions Steve Haddrell and Amanda Jones were the core foundation along with additional early guidance from Mark Kidel and Rikki Stein.
“Maybe we are born racist, in that we naturally distrust anything different from, or foreign to, us. It is only curiosity, exposure and familiarity that opens us up to the much richer and more exciting world that exists beyond our own.”
Our dream was not to sprinkle world music around a rock festival, but to prove that these great artists could be headliners in their own right. We wanted to show that wherever you were born, whatever colour or language, whatever religious or sexual persuasion, powerful passionate and joyful work would have a warm welcome in WOMAD.
Over the years we have had artists from over 100 countries performing in more than 30 different host countries.
We also wanted to encourage collaborations between some of the indie artists we had invited and the world music artists that in turn became a great platform for experimentation and later the inspiration for Real World Records.
At the beginning most of the music industry professionals told us that we had no chance of making this dream work, we had all the wonderful naïve misguided optimism of the young, and were convinced that we would prove all the cynics wrong.
However at the end of the first festival, it was clear we had an artistic success – but financially it delivered us a knock-out punch.
The Drummers of Burundi, Shepton Mallett, 1982
It was the new and scary territory of bankruptcy we had entered – we had lost a lot of money, certainly more than I could sort out and we had no idea how we were going to pay off the debts. People were pursuing us very hard and as the only recognizable name amongst us, I was receiving a lot of abuse and occasional death threats at home.
We were, however, lucky to have a lot of great advice from the father and mother of British festivals: Harold and Barbara Pendleton – who had created the Reading Jazz and Blues Festival. Tony Smith and my old band Genesis very generously offered to do a benefit concert to pay off the debts, for which I’ll always be grateful.
WOMAD has been built by many amazing people who have put all their energies into bringing this festival to the world. On behalf of all fans of WOMAD, I want to thank all those who believed in the dream initially – many of whom are now sitting here.
Firstly, I want to thank Thomas Brooman our inspired and original artistic director who was at the helm for many years and first grew WOMAD into an international event, especially with the help and talents of Bob Hooton and the expanded Bristol Recorder team.
Also to Steve Haddrell and his team, who for so many years took on all the realities of bringing a festival site to life, and also put a lot of his own money in to bail us out.
In one of our rocky money moments, Ian Gibson and Chris Boon came to the rescue and Ian then became so passionate about WOMAD that he made it his main work for many years. Thanks also to you Ian.
We have also relied on the support and creative input of all our partners around the world so thanks to all of them, especially Reading Borough Council who gave us our first permanent home and Ian Scobie and his WOMADelaide team who have now had an amazing festival for over twenty years.
I must thank all the extraordinary folk who have worked their butts off all these years to make WOMAD happen. Here are some of today’s team: Chris Smith, Helen Bowrey, Mike Large, Paula Henderson, and Annie Menter and Mandy Adams from the WOMAD Foundation, the indomitable Steve Haddrell, Rupert Bassadone, Lulu, Dave T and Beckie Parsons and all their current site staff and especially to all the women and men who deliver the magic year after year. Those at the WOMAD table – please stand up.
Maybe we are born racist, in that we naturally distrust anything different from, or foreign to, us. It is only curiosity, exposure and familiarity that opens us up to the much richer and more exciting world that exists beyond our own.
After the brutal slaughter in Paris one commentator wrote “there is a fault line opening up between those who want, like and choose to live together and those who want like and choose to live apart.”
It is obvious which side of this fault line is the scarier and to which side our beloved WOMAD belongs.
Thank you so much for this award.
Peter Gabriel, November 2015.