CULTURE

WOMAD smorgasbord is back

Now 20 years old, but to the credit of its organizers and their well-chosen artistic rosters, showing no signs of fatigue, the WOMAD festival, pop guru Peter Gabriel’s successful traveling multiethnic music and dance festival seems to have found itself a steady base in Athens. The festival, one of the prime instigators of the blossoming world music scene – or, more appropriately, the acquaintance of foreign sounds to consumers of major markets of the West – made its long-awaited Greek debut last summer and will return to the same venue, the Athens Equestrian Center (55 Messinias, Goudi), this Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, bringing with it a fine cast of talent. Reflecting the world music circuit’s power of bringing long-neglected talent from Third-World countries to center stage in the West, WOMAD’s three-day bill includes artists who are now enjoying belated international success after spending years performing to humble local crowds. A prime example of this, Cape Verde’s Cesaria Evora, one of the festival’s star attractions, began gaining fame a little over a decade ago, when, just shy of 50, as her country’s foremost exponent of the melancholy morna song form, a mix of West African and Portuguese styles. Another international latecomer also appearing, Peruvian singer Susana Baca released her first album last year at the age of 50 after ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – also booked to perform – was shown a video of Baca singing in her garden by a Spanish-language tutor of his in New York. Byrne quickly headed for Peru, tracked Baca down, and signed the artist to his Luaka Bop label. Like Gabriel’s WOMAD venture and ensuing Real World record label, Luaka Bop ranks as a pioneering effort begun a decade ago amid a developing world music market. Byrne, WOMAD’s headline act on opening night, has, no doubt, offered a hospitable home for abundant, detached, and often aging, exotic talent. But the scene Byrne helped instigate has also proved a good home for the innovative artist’s own work, or more recent Latin American-tinged work, signs of which had surfaced on the final Talking Heads album, 1988’s «Naked,» before Byrne explored these tendencies further on the commendable solo work that has followed. For some long-neglected artists, like Evora and Baca, the world music circuit arrived as a golden opportunity to connect with the outside world. Others, however, held back at first, sensing the circuit as derogatory for Third World musicians and their deep cultural heritage. «For years, we weren’t interested in so-called world music. We regarded it as a patronizing thing, or bunching together people from Third World countries irrespective of the music they were playing,» said Dr Das, a founding member and bass/tablas player of the exciting British act Asian Dub Foundation, in a telephone interview, and whose group is one of Saturday’s main attractions. «But we’ve seen how different the scene’s acts are becoming. Bands are using technology with tradition, which is making it all the more interesting. I think WOMAD has absorbed a greater palate of sound. That’s why we’re now happy to be associated,» he added. Typifying the eclectic fusion being blended by numerous contemporary acts, an approach assisted by loop and sampling – or cut-and-paste – techniques available through music technology, Asian Dub Foundation have proved a scintillating live act. The group has channeled influences ranging from punk, ambient and Bengali folk to bring forward a raging anti-racism message. The band’s rise was propelled by its politically fueled material amid ugly anti-Asian violence that broke out in the UK in the mid-1990s. «At that point, we had no aspirations. We were just getting on with making music and statements that lyrically needed to be said. And the stages just got bigger,» recalled Dr Das, originally known as Anirudhha Das. Another reactionary scheduled to perform on Saturday, Algerian-French rocker Rachid Taha, the son of Algerian immigrants who went from working in a factory to celebrity status in France and abroad, has made an angry sociopolitical outlook the core of his work. Success, as highlighted by the French equivalent of a Grammy Award, the Victoire de la Musique, which Taha won recently, and stadium-sized shows around the world, including the Hollywood Bowl, has not sated him. «I’m always angry. Nothing has changed in France, and I for one was not surprised with [Jean-Marie] Le Pen’s results in the elections,» remarked Taha referring to the extreme right-wing political leader’s second-place in the first round of France’s recent presidential elections. «For immigrants living in France, the reality is still the same when trying to find a job, or an apartment, for example. As for the police, they seem to be looking for opportunities to be more violent, repressive. ‘La Haine’ [Mathieu Kassovitz’s hit film] is a postcard compared to reality, which is far more dangerous,» Taha added. His commercial success, Taha asserted, carries responsibility. «It’s a privilege, of course, but, at the same time, I have to do something with it. Otherwise, if you don’t use power it means nothing. But, bear in mind, even with the minorities, they choose who gets to talk,» he said. Also on the bill – for WOMAD’s Athens leg – is some fine local talent. Thanassis Papaconstantinou, Socrates Malamas, and Melina Kana, a closely bound trio that emerged from Greece’s north early last decade, will share an hour-plus slot on Friday. For Papaconstantinou, an intriguing part-time songwriter from Larissa and electrical engineer by trade who has released several albums of compelling material, the upcoming WOMAD appearance comes as the latest bizarre, yet fully deserved, chapter in a haphazard career. The shy performer should feel comfortable with pal Malamas, an acclaimed Thessaloniki-based songsmith, by his side, and Kana, whose sensual vocal abilities have graced work by both. Fittingly, the roster includes Domna Samiou, an effervescent 73-year-old performer and musicologist who has spent decades researching, recording, and performing traditional Greek material.