BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM talks programming world music festival WOMAD with Artistic Director Roger King.

ROGER KING has a job which would make most music fans jealous. He gets to programme WOMAD, and sift through mountains and mountains of the best music from around the globe. The festival is noted for its eclectic taste, from a former Miles Davis/Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer (Bill Cobham) to the legendary Malian musician Salif Keita, from Portuguese fado music to the French/Argentinian electronic tango mixers, The Gotan Project. This year’s line-up is similarly diverse, and there are plenty of hidden gems and key figures frolicking in the programme.

King ended up being involved with WOMAD when he was director of the Taranaki Arts Festival Trust. “We learnt Auckland had relinquished its hosting of WOMAD in New Zealand, and we sensed an opportunity to pick it up for Taranaki.” Anyone who has been to WOMAD previously (including the musicians) invariably ended up lauding the festival’s setting – gorgeous greenery, placid moats and an incredibly friendly set-up in Taranaki. King says “I think it’s fair to say that the beautiful site swung the door in our favour when WOMAD’s UK people were originally assessing us. It presents its own challenges of course; it’s actually a little too small for it to be viable without a huge amount of funding support outside of ticket sales. But where else would you find such a wonderful space within ten minutes stroll of the central city, and with a camping area right alongside. So all the pros outweighed the challenge. And of course for New Plymouth and its economy it has been huge.”

WOMAD is a global festival, set up in the early eighties by none other than Genesis’ Peter Gabriel (the band reformed so Gabriel could get some money for the venture) along with Thomas Brooman and Bob Hooton. The festival plays in over twenty countries around the world. This also suggests the rostering of performers through various festivals; down under, Adelaide hosts a WOMAD just prior to New Zealand does. I ask how much freedom King gets as a programmer to choose artists, or whether it’s dictated by what happens with Adelaide and other WOMAD festivals. “In fact we have total control. We do work very closely with both the Womadelaide team and the UK team, and in amongst all the conversations, a consensus slowly emerges. Its quite a dynamic thing, and I’m really lucky that my direct counterpart in Australia and I pretty much see ‘eye to eye’ so there aren't too many disagreements!”

The programme has shifted to being yearly (previously WOMAD was a bi-annual event). This logistically and programme-wise, must have made programming that little bit harder. “I think annualising has made it a bit harder to select the New Zealand component because we are a relatively small country. We work on the premise that we rarely programme an artist more than once, and certainly won’t programme an artist in consecutive festivals… so we do set ourselves a bit of a challenge. But there are always newer artists we want to profile, sometimes established performers are just not available over our festival dates etc. I do think that WOMAD does not often programme ‘big names’; rather it does set out to find those elusive gems, and ‘touch wood’ we hope we have again.”

King admits that “I’d never describe myself as a world music expert, so it’s been a great educational experience for me, and especially unearthing gems from obscure people and places. I think that’s been the real thrill. I've lots of (much better informed) friends and colleagues who make many suggestions (quite apart from the avalanche of promo material from artists’ managers), so it makes for a very musical office environment.”

WOMAD has come under some criticism for potentially ‘exoticising’ performers and forms of music – a patronising term like “world music” connotes ‘otherness’ and difference. It must prove a challenge for a festival like WOMAD to prevent charges like this being laid. “To be honest, there are some things one is always aware of, but ‘exoticising’ or ‘patronising’ are not amongst them. I do know what you mean though, and I think one has to be true to one’s beliefs and judgements, rather than swinging with what look to be ‘hot’ at the time. I’ve been programming arts festivals for nearly twenty years, so you do become comfortable with trusting your own judgement (takes a bit of time, that one) and taking the flak that occasionally arises. I guess ‘world music’ is as flexible a description as ‘rock’, or ‘pop’ in that it simply gives readers or listeners a vague sense of what umbrella it might fit into; I think in the context of our festival, it has its place in helping to define what it is ‘isn’t’ rather than what it ‘is’.”

Programming a festival like WOMAD also presents some unusual difficulties. The first is trying to gel a wide variety of music together into one coherent programme. “Programming any festival involves so many dynamics – size of stage, size of group, time of day/night, which artists already on the schedule – the list is a little exhaustive. Again I think the balancing act is something one learns; and I’ve been lucky enough to have had great teachers like Thomas Brooman among others.” Another problem is the lack of mainstream knowledge of many of the performers. It is much harder to sell a festival like this with obscurer artists such as Dengue Fever or Natacha Atlas, compared to one with say, Neil Young or Metallica. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that WOMAD, and festivals in general, help to raise awareness of artists. One only has to look in the record stores to find many of the artists who appeared last year, or are appearing this year. So I guess there is a correlation; a great bi-product if you like, but it’s not really the purpose. And in terms of our WOMAD marketing, we are going out to sell what we know is a very special festival which just happens to include a whole bunch of performers who most people will not have heard of. So, yes, it is a harder sell than trying to market an individual ‘name’ artist, but WOMAD has developed such a trusting audience now.”

I ask what criteria WOMAD uses to choose its artists. There are obviously commercial constraints, but it’s rare for example, to find a standard American guitar band, or a Taiwanese take on a standard American guitar band included in the festival. “At the end of the day, I have to really like/enjoy the performer and their music. That’s the bottom line. Funnily enough I don’t really think there are any specific constraints; certainly no-one is saying ‘no boy bands’ or anything like that! But one does have a sense of what ‘fits’ a WOMAD Festival, and perhaps more importantly, ‘what doesn’t’”. Of course, King might be a little biased in that he’ll probably say everybody, but I also ask what are some of his picks for the fest. He suggests “the obvious bigger names are Natacha Atlas, Seun Kuti, and Rokia Traore, but I’d urge catching the Bedouin Jerry Can Band from Egypt, China’s Sa Dingding, U Shrinivas from India, Dengue Fever, and the wonderful a capella group Lo Cor de la Plana. And don’t miss Justin Adams with Juldeh Camara, Mikidache… the list goes on!”