Womad: Humble roots of a global music occasion

Womad, which gets under way in Somerset, England, this week is a celebration of world music and culture that has branched out from summer rock jamboree to a cerebral gathering that reaches out to families.

Revellers at the 30th Womad festival in Charlton Park, Wiltshire last year. This year's event embraces a utopian flavour, where alongside live music performances there will be cookery events and activities for children. alecmoses / Demotix / Corbis
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It began with a love of music and has grown into a world-renowned organisation that puts talented musicians from diverse backgrounds centre stage.

Womad's mission is to bring world music from around the globe to new audiences without fear or favour. It is a celebration of the world's many forms of music, arts and dance.

At this summer's festival Malawi Mouse Boys - who back home make a living barbecuing mice on skewers to sell at their street stall - will play their home-made guitars on a bill shared with the hip-hop 1990s favourites Arrested Development and the Jamaican reggae legend and dub pioneer Lee "Scratch" Perry.

Musicians who can command global royalties and headline festivals of their own mix it up with the dedicated and positively down-at-heel - and that's all part of Womad's enduring formula.

Founded by Peter Gabriel, one-time frontman for the British mega rock band Genesis, the first Womad in Shepton Mallet in 1982, Somerset was eclectic from the start, with Gabriel, The Beat, Drummers of Burundi and Echo and the Bunnymen all appearing on the bill.

But just as important as the cultural impact of the event is the economic benefit the festival brings. A study by BOP Consulting suggested that Womad contributes more than £2 million (Dh11.18m) a year to Malmesbury in Wiltshire, now the home of the festival, and the surrounding area, and creates the equivalent of more than 119 full-time jobs.

"As a local company, we have always felt that we wanted Wiltshire to be our home and we have built up a fantastic relationship with local people and businesses," says the Womad director Chris Smith.

"We knew we were making a huge contribution to the cultural life of Wiltshire and putting it on an international stage, and it is great news that we can now show that Womad is also an important part of the local economy."

The event is also about a third smaller than Glastonbury. Last year about 37,000 people took part, which was the biggest ever attendance for the festival in the UK - even though it clashed with the opening weekend of the London 2012 Olympics.

At this year's price of £145 for a Womad Weekend ticket, that would equate to well over £5m in sales, although there are other cheaper ticketing options available.

But the first festival almost put Gabriel and Womad out of business until he coaxed his fellow Genesis members into a reunion concert in October 1982, and the revenues generated by the show allowed him to pay off his creditors.

Since then, however, the festival has gone from strength to strength and has now played 160 events around the world, including Abu Dhabi.

From the beginning, children were fundamental to the vision of Womad, and the children's workshops and activities designed to spur their interest in music and dance are a key part of the events.

The educational initiatives continue throughout the year though, with the Womad Foundation, which recently became a registered charity independent of the festival, carrying on this important work.

Annie Menter, the director of the Womad Foundation, has been involved in the event for more than 17 years and now works on providing community music projects in the UK and overseas, particularly bringing musicians into schools.

In the UAE, the foundation ran a project from 2009 in local schools called Womad Beyond. By the end of its run, 21 schools were involved, introducing children to 16 artists and groups and offering them the chance to immerse themselves in experiences rooted in music and the arts that were quite unfamiliar and unusual.

In the United Kingdom too, the foundation has been very active, despite having just £71,000 in annual income. Recently it has been working with traveller communities in south Gloucester in west England in a bid to develop relationships with this often isolated section of society.

Last year, it brought a group from Niger in Africa to Liverpool in north-west England. The musicians were all nomads - a word the Liverpudlian children had barely heard of - while the musicians, who spoke seven languages, had never been to school.

"It was a fantastic way for the children, and for the musicians, to learn about differences and similarities in cultures," Ms Menter says.

Another project in Malta, which ended with music and dancing on the streets of Valletta, the Maltese capital in May, is likely to be repeated next year.

Now Ms Menter turns her attention to the British festival, where she runs the Taste the World stage, where musicians cook and share recipes from their homelands.

"It's a very fun but informative event. Food, conversation and music - it's the perfect combination," says Ms Menter, herself a visual artist.

This year's Womad takes place in the grounds of the stately home Charlton Park, in Malmesbury, Wiltshire from Thursday to Sunday - the sixth event at this location.

Womad is a more laid-back, family friendly event than its more famous cousin, the huge Glastonbury Festival- which took place last month and had almost blanket media coverage.

Commentators describe Womad as more utopian than all the other British festivals and fans of the cultural event say people go not only to enjoy themselves but also to learn something. Womad audiences are said to be interested in the politics behind the music.

Whether or not discussions surrounding the politics of mouse-cooking will arise this year is open to debate.