Flashes of inspiration or connectedness of ideas can strike in unexpected locations and unusual circumstances: moments of satori can, almost by definition (and Wikipedia has a commendable stab), strike anywhere. While Jack Kerouac had his in Paris, I had one or two in Wiltshire last weekend at the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance festival). And not, as you might expect at an event specialising in examples of global culture, sudden insights into diversity (well, certainly not among the audience, which is very largely white and wealthy – if it’s possible to be well-heeled in wellies, a WOMAD audience certainly is). WOMAD does provide some very interesting examples of aspects of leadership.
As an organisation – established in 1980 by English musician Peter Gabriel – it has, of course, been an exercise in leadership itself: without WOMAD as a shining example, ‘world music’ may not be the cultural presence in the West that it has become. Without Gabriel and WOMAD, your dinner party soundtrack in recent years might not have included Neneh Cherry, Youssou N’Dour, or the Afro-Celt Sound System. Gabriel performed himself this year: in honesty, not a vintage performance (as the critics seemed to confer), but one that proved in his use of his presence to promote witness.org (a human rights campaigning charity) that he remains a performer who rarely forgets that a public platform can be used to do more than entertain.
But there are other aspects here too: WOMAD has always embraced the power of partnerships – Riverford Organic Vegetables, for example, collaborate to present ‘Taste the World’, where artists from around the world show a small audience how to cook the food of their home regions (and, in the case of Spaniards Acetre this year, use the pots and pans as impromptu percussion to sing traditional Extramaduran songs to us while they knocked up gazpacho and a very palatable plate of bacalao).
There is pioneering work in mixing the ancient and traditional with the modern too: the TED Conferences were present this year, not just to provide an Internet café (for those whose mobiles are not of the most current vintage, or who chose not to risk bringing a laptop despite the festival-site wifi network provided by another collaboration) but also to present their work to the festival audience. And respect for the environment has always been an element of WOMAD events: when you’d finished your locally sourced cider, your plastic glass was ready for an admirable short journey to a local recycling company. And you may have paid a premium to use them – in for a penny, in for a pound, as it were – but one inevitable consequence of a festival that also provides food and drink from all corners of the globe was not forgotten: the naturally composting eco-loo is a WOMAD staple. (And not without wit either: providing company, Natural Event, have the memorable slogan “changing the world from the bottom up”.)
But two moments struck me in particular. The first was a lesson in communication from Mongolia. On your first visit to the UK, you would imagine that single-handedly winning over – or even retaining – a large tent full of people energised by an hour’s virtuouso beatboxing, armed only with a two-string fiddle and a stunning ability with throat singing, would be a tall order even in such musically diverse circumstances. Yet Enkl Jargal proved more than equal to the challenge. Engaging the crowd from the start with immense joie de vivre, wit and charm as well as virtuosity, he held several thousand people rapt at well past midnight as the evening chill descended. Humorously self-deprecating that – reflecting local life – most Mongolian music is about drinking or horses, he could readily persuaded many of us to adopt a heavy-drinking horse-riding lifestyle for far longer than the 45 minutes he was on stage.
The second was a lesson in teamwork. The very final act of this year’s festival, playing at 11pm at the end of a wet day that threatened to turn parts of the site into a swamp, A Filetta – seven men from Corsica – sang unaccompanied, presenting beautifully harmonised yet sombre and serious music in a mixture of French, Corsican and Latin. Like Enkl Jargal, they held the crowd rapt – despite their lack of English to communicate with us.
But what was remarkable was watching the degree to which they worked together. Singing standing in a semi-circle, you would notice one or two members approaching a technically challenging part of a piece and see an adjacent colleague place a hand on their shoulder – a simple human gesture of support – and hear tiny, subtle shifts in the other voices as they adjusted their overall tuning to ensure the harmonies remained intact even where one voice – singing in chill air with no instrument to provide a guiding reference pitch – might otherwise be slightly flat or sharp. The attentiveness to each other was as intense as the music itself: the gentleness of their physical embrace as subtle and surefooted as the tenderness of the audience’s musical embrace. The musicians among the friends I travelled with where stunned by the technical ability, but A Filetta moved the whole audience, not just those with a background in harmony and the technicalities of public singing. As a demonstration of how teamwork can truly make the whole greater than the sum of parts, their inaction as flawless as the sound they made.