Thursday, November 4, 2010

WOMEX 2010: Finale!

Danish Radio concert hall: Scene of WOMEX showcases

We returned from WOMEX to one buzz saw of an election day and have been a tad slow to recover...  So it is a happy thing to cast one's mind back to the breathless final day of WOMEX 2010 in Copenhagen.  The evening showcases all went on in the amazing Danish Radio concert hall, the DR Koncerthuset, known to insiders as K3NC2RTHUS4T.  (And you thought Danish was hard to pronounce!)  The venue houses at least 5 concert stages, the largest of which is bigger and grander than any  showcase venue this WOMEX veteran has ever seen.  In short, it's a perfect place to present 16 concerts in a single night.  Of course, it is near impossible to sample all of them, but what a kick to try!

The WOMEX crowd is a tough audience, professionals, artists, insiders, and folks who seem to have seen and heard it all.  For any given act, it is generally possible to find at least someone who thinks it's the greatest thing that ever hit a concert stage, and someone else who thinks it's derivative trash from talentless amateurs.  All part of the fun.  But one act that seemed to thrill everyone who saw it was Samba Chula de Sao Braz from Bahia, Brazil.  This highly African proto-samba performed mostly by folks over 60 just had so much joy, spirit, and raw authenticity that noone could resist it.  Afropop recorded a special session with this group that will be featured in one of two upcoming WOMEX 2010 radio broadcasts.

Samba de Chula de Sao Braz

While the sambistas were still partying down in the Foyer, a more restrained but also joyous performance was unfolding in the large theater.  Kamel El Harrachi is an Algerian exile living in France, and the son of a legend of Algerian chaabi music, the late Dahmane El Harachi, composer of the much covered Algerian classic "Ya Rayah."  That song was a high point in Kamel's set.  Like so many North African groups, Kamel's featured a banjo, which in our interview he said goes back to the 19th century and the early roots of chaabi.  This was interesting, as the representative we spoke with from Morocco's Oudaden said that banjos only began turning up in regional groups in the mid-20th century.  Mysteries to sort out there...   Both of these groups will be featured in our WOMEX broadcasts, and in a future program we are developing on Berber (Amazight) music.

Kamel El Harrachi

If you visit the WOMEX website, you will see that there was a great deal of music on these stages that has nothing to do with our principle concern--Africa and the African diaspora.  For instance, I caught a mesmerizing set of music from Afghanistan by Zohreh Jooya & Ensemble Afghan.  But there was so much great Afropop-oriented fare this year that, for our team, it was difficult to get past it to hear much else.  No complaints, though.  WOMEX offers far more than any one person can take in and we were thrilled to find so much great African fare in the mix.   One treat was to catch up with Dobet Gnahoré of Ivory Coast and France.  Dobet has continued to develop her voice, which is more compelling than ever, and her compositions.  She was always a striking stage performer, with her distinctive makeup, hair design, costumery and dramatic moves and poses.   Seven months pregnant on this occasion, she invited her sister to dance in her place, but delivered an impressive performance generating much passionate praise and critique among the WOMEXicans.  Naturally.   For our part, we eagerly await a new album.

Dobet Gnahore

The final live set of this year's WOMEX came from a jaunty, funky Istanbul band called Baba Zula.  While the musicians strummed tars, struck drums, sang, danced and cavorted playfully about the stage, a painter created a colorful backdrop, projected on a screen behind the musicians.  This was hardly an obvious choice for a show closer.  But its quirky spirit carried the day in the end.

Baba Zula

At 2AM, we skipped out of the DR Koncerthuset, where a DJ from Macedonia was holding court. We crossed town to the Copenhagen Jazzhouse for an off-WOMEX late night party with DJ Tudo of Brazil. Tudo is one remarkable cat. He's a producer, a superb bass player, and also an ambitious field recordist with over 1300 hours of his own recordings of traditional music from all over Brazil. These recordings go into his CDs and DJ mixes and the result is quite excellent. To the sounds of berimbaus, samba drums, creaky fiddles, and glorious, melodious vocal chants, the final dance of this WOMEX went down. Tudo is one of the warmest, friendliest DJs you're apt to find, taking time to chat, debate and pose for photos with fans, all while minding his mix. This party proved a transcendent, liberated finale to an extraordinary four days of music.

DJ Tudo

Finally, it must be said the everyone's experience of WOMEX is unique. I have emphasized the showcases, which bands and artists go to great effort and expense to stage, there is much more. The day time trade floor is a maze of 200+ stands filled with musicians, record label reps, festival presenters, booking agents, and so on. We interviewed a number of musicians not on the official stages, and collected so much music on CD and DVD that it will take us weeks, if not months, to absorb and evaluate it all. Beyond this, there were films, conference sessions, colloquia, and informal parties at the stands, during which all sorts of plans were being hatched for the future. With all the challenges in the world today--and now, my mind swings back to that buzz saw election--everyone at WOMEX is feeling pressure. The turnout was a little down this year, not surprisingly considering the world's economic state. But the spirit of the occasion was undiminished. That is a testimony to the vision, commitment, and determination of these dedicated artists and professionals. Long live WOMEX! We'll be back.

Sean Barlow, Bill Bragin, DJ Tudo, Banning Eyre

Text and most photos by Banning Eyre
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