Craig Young / Kenny Younts

(additional words, pictures and thoughts courtesy
Robert Zverina, Will Halby and Ruth Oclander)

Introducing A World Of Music Arts And Dance

Real World Records uses their now-famous multi-colored glyph as its logo. The orthographic idea is to highlight the geographic locale of the artist by using a color. This link to the homeland of the artist is intended to single out the artist, but it also provides continuity to artists at large, as the colors are all represented alongside each other. The result is a connection between the transcultural origins of the works and the universal appeal of art, regardless of place of origin.

The Gou Brothers were our introduction to WOMAD USA. These Chinese musicians played traditional instruments--the younger a collection of flutes, the elder the sheng (pronounced "shoong"), the precursor of the pipe organ, also a woodwind. The tunes blended western musical theory like diatonic and pentatonic scales with melody and harmony from different Chinese traditions. The songs were at turns delicate, vigorous, forlorn, playful and dramatic. The brothers would describe the songs, their contexts, their meanings within their original cultures, then play. The audience gathered and grew as the set progressed, and the performance, while formally unfamiliar, spoke to us without need of translation or parenthetical remarks. We understood it. We appreciated it.

[ click here for some of the sights from WOMAD USA '99 ]
photo by craig young
Click here for some of the sights from WOMAD USA 1999

This is the message behind WOMAD. The beauty of artistic performance is a trans-cultural experience because talent and passion are universal qualities. The effect of a heartfelt performance has a value to open ears, regardless of the edicts of music monopolies. That we in the United States are not familiar with some of these performers says more about American tastes than global talent. Recognizing this fact, the organizers decided that a large part of their duty to the audience is to almost curate the festival, providing familiarity in enough abundance to attract attendees to allow the lesser-known acts (in the USA, that is) to perform as well. The idea is that the audience will discover the other acts as a matter of course, and appreciate what they had no knowledge of before. I can say that it worked. Of the eighty plus acts performing that weekend, we witnessed a large majority. The artists whose music aspired to art really did achieve their goals. The artists that wanted to move a crowd did so, too--well, some of us, anyway.

WOMAD has what very few festivals have anymore: diversity. Not only was the music from disparate regions, of differing styles, but of different forms. We saw puppeteers, calligraphers, dancers, collage artists and poets, too. We attended thoughtful workshops on music making and the politics surrounding music making. We played in drum circles. We danced with strangers. We loved it.

[ the guo brothers, yue and yi ]
photo by craig young

Drummers of Burundi  Near the end of Herman Hesse's book Siddhartha, the title character becomes a ferryman's apprentice. The old ferryman teaches Siddhartha to listen carefully to the river they cross daily. It is a collage of voices, he instructs, each distinct and personal, each with a history to speak to those who can listen. Combined, their voices make up the giant swell that rushes underneath the ferry.

Walking from the parking lot into the festival grounds I was overtaken by the sound of the Drummers of Burundi: a mighty river pouring itself out over the sea of WOMAD. The drums pounded, reverberating through the ground and up my feet, their deep vibrations pulsing through my chest, quickening my pulse and hastening my step to their performance. While the rush of sound is a composition of the dozen or so drummers, each drum has its own voice and each drummer has his own story to tell through drum and dance.

Made from hollowed out trees, the drums (and the act of drumming) is a privilege handed down from father to son, and is considered to be the most important representative of Burundi's rich musical tradition. The drummers form a semi-circle around the lead drum, the Inkiranya, painted green, red and white in the colors of Burundi. While the rest play on in the background, each drummer takes his turn at the huge Inkiranya, leading the group and telling their own stories by singing, dancing, laughing and playing with wild abandon. The drums manifest the vibrancy and energy of the players' spirits. As each member takes their turn on the lead drum they hit harder and jump higher, feeding off the excitement of the audience and propelling it back into them with their giant river of drums. They are amazing athletes, jumping several feet in the air to bring their legs up and their heads down between their knees.

[ the drummers of burundi ]
photo by robert zverina

Some music moves you intimately, lifting you up by small degrees. Experiencing the Drummers of Burundi is like standing at the base of a giant waterfall, senses overwhelmed by the power and rush of sound hitting you, only able to catch the briefest glimpses of the smiles and sounds each player is contributing before you're washed away by the next drummer. Their sound and vibrancy are truly to be experienced firsthand.  -Craig Young

¡Cubanismo!  How cool is it to hear a Cuban band? Seattle loves ¡Cubanismo! Featured in the film Buena Vista Social Club, we realized our good fortune immediately, being in the presence of an honest-to-goodness Afro-Cuban band, replete with vocalists, upright bassists and a full horn section. This was a special treat, and I suspect that Seattle was good to ¡Cubanismo!: they missed their earlier scheduled workshop, evidently caught up in discovering the city. Their set was comprised of various styles of traditional grooves, mostly son and rumba. As a band, they posessed what I admire most about the finest Latin music--audacity. The sound is unrelentingly rhythmic, the solos wailing, the pace frenetic. What else was cool to see was the crowd's reactions. People dancing in couples, people making out, strangers (including yours truly) dancing with other strangers. This--dancing with other people--really sets this gig apart for me. It's not a matter of formal lessons or knowing the proper dance step that distinguishes dancing with a partner, it's the partner. Connecting with someone wordlessly, bodies communicating. I wonder if a lot of folks get put off by a perception of Latin dance as being inexpressive and mechanical, formal. These folks should catch a set by ¡Cubanismo!  -Kenny Younts

Beau Jacques and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers  Zydeco's aim is for you to forget your worries, have a drink and enjoy life by enjoying the simple things. Dancing, flirting, laughing, telling a joke. The mainstay of the music is the accordion, which dictates the harmony and beat for the tune. Where the accordion player goes, the tune goes. Where Beau Jacques was going was drinkin'.

[ soaking up the sun on a beautiful summer afternoon ]
photo by craig young

Instant crowd favorite. Zydeco is summer festival music, the 2/4 beats sliding down easy, blues scales and Acadian lyrics binding the accordion, Marshall stack and funk bass. Beau Jacques buoyant personality--charming, sly, bawdy and silly--reaches out to you. His obvious affection for his audience, coupled with the skintight rhythm section, left the sunned-out dusty crowd pleased and exhausted.  -Kenny Younts

Oliver Mtukudzi  African rhythms, especially acoustic ones, had a strong place at WOMAD. Oliver Mtukudzi, a superstar in Africa, played a small acoustic set joined by two female vocalists and a percussionist. The rapport between the audience and performers was close. The songs had softness to them, that lovely African rhythm, gently swaying behind the songs. I felt it strongest in the quietest songs, as it's a breath, a skip, a heartbeat, and not a drumbeat explicitly. I found "Tuku's" set to hold that beat, to push the song along, gently. He would introduce a song, slowly building it, stretching it open, supported by his musicians. It was really remarkable to be so moved by his honest, straightforward songs. At this gig I witnessed my favorite WOMAD moment: Tuku introduces a song, it builds in tension and texture, the glissando and counterpoint of the singers balancing the timbres of the instruments. His percussionist begins his solo, slowly, reaching the right amount of notes, then gliding effortlessly back into the song. Spontaneously, we realize what he's done--played from inspiration, for the joy of it, out of happiness, for us. We feel gratitude to this fellow, and he feels it for us. Unforgettable.  -Kenny Younts

[ caught in a thougthful moment ]
photo by ruth oclander

Donal Lunny's Coolfin  An Irish band is a beautiful thing. Donal Lunny brought his fertile musical mind and band to WOMAD and even Seattle found a way to let loose. I have a theory that most people will respond to a situation with what in their mind is the most appropriate response. Typically in a crowd of people, even at a concert or gig, that's a social response, one that's tempered with a concern for appearances. In practical terms, this means that Seattlites tend to be conservative in action but passionate in conviction. Even if they like a performance, personal prohibitions will get priority over personal expression.

Watching the umpteenth Microsoftie stand stock-still, I was embarrased by my fellow citizenry, their restrained countenance, their impassioned placidity. A note to bands and visitors from out of town: We like you, but we have a hard time showing it unless we're a hippie or a kid, in which case, kudos, we don't give a damn what people think. You shake what you want, it feels right. Watching the Seattle crowd absolutely love a performance but not be able to show it except by clapping between sets gets infuriating. I felt that it's not that the audience doesn't want to move or clap hands, it's just that they can't decide if it's appropriate or not to do so. The surest indicator of this is that hippies and kids will dance whenever the music is for dancing. You get the feeling that we all want to be hippies or kids.

But this gig was different. Perhaps since Irish music--traditional and acoustic-based, that is--is not such a novelty in America these days, there was a context to put the response into. There was a lot of dancing at this show, even more than at¡Cubanismo! I don't think that's reflective of either band's ability to get an audience engaged, but a measure of the audience's familiarity with a music, what was "allowed" and what they could do to show appreciation.

Lunny, Coolfin and Sharon Shannon provided ample reason to dance. Owing to the musical talent of the performers, the set blended Portuguese fishing ballads, Gypsy tunes and County Meath jigs into one. The tunes were traditional only in the sense that that the harmonies and keys were closer to Irish music, the overall effect being multicultural. Like I said, people noticed. Plenty of tail feathers shaked, a smile on every face.  -Kenny Younts

[ there were lots for kids to do at womad ]
photo by craig young

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