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Huang Yi Que  This man and his puppets were simply amazing! Opposable thumbs, costume changes, sword twirling... I found myself observing the children in the audience as much as the performance. The joy Master Huang brough to them was inspiring in itself. More important than his puppets was how Master Huang interacted with the kids. Having headed the Quan Zhou Puppet Troupe for 50 years, Huang's intimacy with his craft was breathtaking.

With each puppet having several dozen strings attached, it was just as much a play watching Huang Yi Que run his puppets as it was watching his puppets perform. Everything they did, he did. It wasn't just the puppets skipping around the stage, throwing off costume after costume, pouring tea, throwing kettles, playing guitar, riding was Huang right along there with them, the bright smile on his face glowing as big as any of the smiles on the faces of the children in the audience. It takes two to dance.  -Craig Young

[ huang yi que shows us his magic ]
photo by robert zverina

Didgeridoo Workshop with Stephen Goldsmith and Mark Atkins  Native Australians Stephen Goldsmith and Mark Atkins spent a warm Friday evening introducing workshop goers to the sound and history of the didgeridoo, introduced by Stephen as "the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather of the trumpet." The didgeridoo is made from eucalyptus branches that have been hollowed out by termites. A fire is then built and hot coals are poured down the hollow branch to clear out any remaining wood. Stephen and Mark spent most of the workshop discussing the cultural heritage of the didgeridoo. Not just an instrument to compose pieces, the didgeridoo is a storyteller, imitating the sounds and animals of the bush. Mark closed the workshop by playing several original pieces, conjuring the sounds of birds, a koala, snakes, and an amazing piece showcasing a dingo hunting an emu.  -Craig Young

[ mark atkins fills our ears with his mastery of the didgeridoo ]
photo by craig young

Shotei Ibata  A master practitioner of the art of Sho (a brush art that combines calligraphy, Buddhist philosophy and formative art), Shotei Ibata hefted his six foot tall, 40 pound "big brush" and proceeded to let himself go in a moment of Zen release to produce a single character. This time, it was the character for "cloud." The 300 square foot canvas is washi (Japanese handmade paper). You only get a single chance, as the brush touches the paper only once. Locked in a fleeting moment of rhythm and fluidity, both the canvas and the artist's mind are clear and empty, with neither knowing what the final result will be until the instant ink caresses canvas. The idea is not perfect legibility but an expression of the time it was drawn, the beauty being captured as it is being written. A performance as much as a composition, the moment frozen in a dynamic stroke of muscle and concentration.  -Craig Young

[ shotei ibata in a moment of zen release ]
photo by craig young

Drum Grove Friday night I came upon the end of Mr. Arthur Hull's opening drum circle, sunset light streaming through pine braches in the forest grove. With small pronounced gestures he guided 50 or so people equipped with boomers, bundlers, shakers, crackers, gimmes, and hooplallies in perfect unison. It was his final benediction for the evening, alas, and a disciple took the reins but abused the microphone and so I wandered away.

Lucky for me I again chanced upon the closing circle Sunday night and joined front row center in the sun. It wasn't long before a carefree beauty began dancing on the low stage above which presided a richly complected man in white robe who stroked out the mother rhythm on three towering kettle drums with what looked like yard-long yellow Q-tips. When that particular wave expended its energy everyone rumbled their drums in appreciation and we were reminded that drumming is half listening and half playing: "You can play around, over, or under the mother rhythm, but always be faithful to it." The rest is innate. If you have a heartbeat, you have rhythm, and it's only a matter of opening the ear and relaxing the arms.

This is old hat to anyone who's been in a drum circle. If you've ever been afraid to join one, don't be--no one can hear you playing. There is only the mother pulse. How strong she pumps depends on how many swell her heart. Mr. Hull did not lie when he said that night we would have pleasant dreams.  -Robert Zverina

[ arthur hull enthusiastically leads the crowd on ]
photo by robert zverina

Bangarra Dance Theatre  This would have been enjoyed much better had it been indoors. Trying to get across the ambience of dance on an outdoor stage during a hot afternoon is not an easy task. The Bangarra Dance Theatre mixed traditional Australian Aboriginal dance and sounds with more contemporary dance. The result was stunning. From the opening with a smoke filled stage and a member playing a didgeridoo to announce the start, to the ending finale, the troupe was yet again another nice diversion from the musical aspects of the WOMAD festival. They cut their presentation short, most likely due to the hot Sunday afternoon sun burning down upon their backs, but it was a stellar performance nonetheless. Anytime something or someone leaves a crowd bewildered, not knowing quite what they just saw, it has to be good!  -Craig Young

[ the bangarra dance theatre - one the highlights of womad on sunday ]
photo by craig young

Rizwan-Muazam Qawwali Group  The performance that touched me the most during WOMAD was the Qawwali singers. Qawwali is most widely known in the West performed by the late, great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As he was an artist in residence at the University of Washington during one of the last years of his life, a lot of anticipation surrounded the shows: one on Saturday, one on Sunday. The inspiration for Qawwali is the song as a means of praising Allah. Songs can last over an hour, comprised of repeated elements: chants, admonitions, cheers, harmonium blasts, claps, choruses and tabla rings. Tempos change, rise, settle, then erupt suddenly, springing out fully formed. If a particular element receives greater response, the singer will repeat it, raising the fervor of the exhortation to match that of the audience. After all, this is the music of the Sufi, of Janissaries of old, warriors whose fervor was legendary on the battlefield. What did they listen to get the fear of Allah in their hearts? Qawwali.

Unfortunately, the shows were only ninety minutes long. Evidently, the shows often last four or more hours, audience and performer lost in the power of the hymn. But for Seattle, a small dose was potent enough. The closer the audience got to the performers, the higher they reached. That the songs were unabashedly religious didn't have a measure of effect on the audience; rather the passion of the singers was spiritual enough. We were gracious recipients of their musical ascension, truly thankful for the musical experience.  -Kenny Younts

[ the qawwali lift us up higher ]
photo by robert zverina

Final Thoughts: Audience vs. Performer vs. Audience

I didn't know who was getting more out of the festival: the audience or the performers. WOMAD USA assembled a fantastic collection of artists and musicians representing cultures the world over, only to be set loose on a bunch of pasty-faced, Volvo driving, co-op shopping northwesterners. What was he (Peter Gabriel) thinking? Maybe he had hoped to teach them rhythm, teach them how to dance. More importantly, teach them that it's alright to dance. But still, the audience warmly received all the acts and it was great to see so much support for WOMAD. As long as there's a Starbucks stand nearby for them to grab their double-tall, no-fat, extra-foam lattés, WOMAD thankfully has a home in the Northwest.

On the flip side, it was interesting seeing how people reacted to the performers when they weren't onstage, or "in costume" as it were. One lady was aghast to see the venerable Shotei Ibata walking in front of the Clise Mansion smoking a cigarette. Or the humorous aside of watching members of the Rizwan-Muazam Qawwali Group walking through the crowd eating Lay's potato chips. What do you expect? The world is not one-dimensional. Everyone has vices and cravings, and the right to double-tall, no-fat, extra-foam lattés, should they so desire.

This isn't the circus, we're not watching performers in a cage. They're introducing their culture to us in the hopes that we take a piece of theirs to heart as they have done with ours. Hopefully, we've gotten more sustenance from what they've given us than what they've gotten out of that bag of Lay's. Who knows...

[ one double-tall, no-fat, extra-foam latte, please ]
photo by robert zverina

One person commented a bit cynically on the crowd, wondering what they really were getting out of it. "Are they participants or are they consumers," I asked. "Consumers. They're paying to be entertained." Sadly, it's their right. There is no requirement to gain admission other than paying the gate fee. I'm sure there were many people there who experienced WOMAD at a distance, wanting nothing more than to take it all in as consumer entertainment. And that is their right. But there were also many more who became active participants, who sought out and found more from their experience at WOMAD than just the face value of their ticket. It was fantastic to be able to wander from stage to stage and stumble across someone or something you'd probably never heard or seen before. And it was a treasure to be able to attend the workshops (and the smaller non-musical performances), to hear the performers speak firsthand about their art and their culture, to come away enriched by something you might have known only a little about, and to find yourself driven by a curiosity to know more.

One of the best questions all weekend came during the Workshop on Ancient Instruments. Tabla player Vishal Nagar was discussing the complexities of how his instrument was made when a nine year old girl stood up and sheepishly asked: "Have you ever tried making one yourself?" He smiled and replied, "Only once. It didn't turn out so well." The crowd lit up in a fit of laughter, and it was at that moment that audience and perfomer became one and the magic of WOMAD was felt.

[ tabla player vishal nagar ]
photo by robert zverina

On the Web:
Real World

Afro Celt Sound System
Bangarra Dance Theatre
Boukman Eksperyans
Cui Jian
Donal Lunny
Joan Armatrading
Joan Baez
Michael Brook

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