Last week I was at WOMAD festival for the first time in ten years. It had become a bit of an annual ritual for me to try and cajole my partner and friends to come with me, and then whine when I invariably ended up with nobody to go with and missed it yet again. But this year is the year of giving fewer fucks, so I decided to finally embrace the introvert middle-class hippy I truly am inside, and just go by myself.
Solo festivalling was … interesting. It made me feel by turns eccentric (the puzzled or pitying looks from friends asking “Did you do this on purpose?”), exhilarated (dancing around in the mud and rain to Lamomali, Bonga or Chico Trujillo without anyone there to judge), emotional (check out the amazing Leyla McCalla and the extraordinary stories behind the Tanzania Albinism Collective) and just plain old (dragging my tent across the campsite to escape the tornado of rowdy teenagers I’d accidentally pitched directly at the epicentre of).
One of the things I’ve always loved best about WOMAD is the way music can act as a window into histories you were completely ignorant of – almost invariably histories that are inextricably bound up with colonialism, neo-colonialism and its many legacies. But if my experience of this year’s festival was anything to go by, the world music scene – or at least, the white western men who too often get to mediate it for us – still have a long way to go in actually grasping and coming to terms with those histories.
That encounter with the Tanzania Albinism Collective was incredible, but I wish I’d got to hear them speak as well as sing. Instead, most of the talking was done by their white American producer, Ian Brennan – even though they had a translator present. He came across as well-meaning and not particularly prone to self-aggrandisement, at least not deliberately. But did he realise he was speaking for people who’d travelled thousands of miles to have the chance to speak for themselves?
The moment that really made me wince, though, was a live interview with Michael League and Malika Tirolien, respectively the white American man and brown Guadeloupean woman behind Bokanté (incidentally, a band well worth checking out). I was already less than impressed with the interviewer, who seemed to be directing most of his questions at League, even though Tirolien was clearly a powerhouse and seemed to have a virtual monopoly on insight. But then came the moment that literally made me want to crawl inside my own wellies and hide.
Tirolien writes all the lyrics to Bokanté’s music, lyrics that deal with issues like racism, the refugee crisis and environmental destruction. She sings in a mixture of Creole and French, and is both eclectic in her tastes and deeply influenced by her Guadeloupean heritage. There were SO MANY questions I was dying for him to ask her. The one he chose to go with was this:
“So, you know, obviously your music is very influenced by the Creole and that mix of different cultures. And I was reflecting on the fact that, in the UK, it’s really only in the past 50 years or so that we’ve had lots of different cultures beginning to be present in the same society. Would you say that we’re only now sort of catching up with you, that we’re becoming more Creolised?”
Aaaaaaargh. I mean, aaaaaargh, right? Even just thinking about it now makes me want to curl up into a small ball, or alternatively to track Tirolien down and wail “I apologise for this man!” Where to start? Let’s not even get into the inability to ask an intelligent woman a question about her art that doesn’t take the form “I have this inane opinion, what do you think about that?” Or the idea that the UK was not a place that contained a “mix of different cultures” until 50 years ago (maybe ‘different’ in this context means ‘different coloured’, who knows).
What really got me was that the way he asked this question was completely stripped of any sense of colonial history. It was as if he was blithely unaware that there might be an important difference between the cultural consequences of colonisation and the cultural consequences of colonised peoples emigrating back to colonial centres. It was as if both of these events simply occurred in a vacuum, with no deeper connection between them than the superficial analogy he’d just cleverly spotted.
Tirolien’s response only made me love her even more than I already did. She stayed totally cool and collected, gave him a devastatingly withering look and said, “No, not really. I don’t think we have the same definition of Creole.” Rather than pursue this line of questioning, the interviewer paused awkwardly, turned back to League and fled for the safer ground of asking him where his studio was. I left pretty soon after.
I’m always hesitant to bash things that are basically Good Things and are doing their best. The spirit of WOMAD this year was undeniably one of defiant togetherness, solidarity and bearing witness to oppression. There was a great programme of talks and events on the refugee crisis, including from the likes of Movement for Justice. But I just can’t stop thinking about this guy. It genuinely baffles me: how can you build a career out of talking about ‘world music’ (whatever that means) with such an obviously meagre grasp of both historical context and your own privilege? By being a white man, I guess. Next time, WOMAD, less of them and more of the voices I came to hear, ok? Thanks.