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Joan Armatrading   To the tenured Joan Armatrading fan, I apologize if this seems obvious and shallow but to speak frankly after a first time show: Joan fucking rules! I am floored. I have been a fan not much further than "Show Some Emotion" and "Rosie," but it left me none the less content as she created a coffee shop intimacy in the 4,000-plus outdoor pavilion. I felt an unusual kinship with the largely lesbian audience as we swayed to the gentle rhythms of "Drop the Pilot," "Weakness in Me" and the tight, tight backup of her exceptional band. Two highlights: a song dedicated to a friend who died of AIDS and the story about its origin, and the encore "Willow," a sing-along which lived up to the romantic emotion of the recorded version. It was a short show, about an hour, and she did not have time to play either "Rosie" or "Show Some Emotion," but I am happy. I have a new sense of admiration for a favorite artist.  -Will Halby


[ joan armatrading played womad saturday ]
photo by ruth oclander

Afro Celt Sound System  What happens when you take house music and incorporate traditional Irish and African musicians and instruments? House music with Irish and African musicians and instruments. Or at least that's how the Afro Celt Sound System came across to me. I wanted to like this; all the rest of the crowd did, busying themselves by dancing with wild abandon. The musicians were competent and so were the songs. Blending Celctic harp, whistle and vocals with a djembe, a tabla and a Senegalese lute called the kora (among other instrumentation), the potential was there to intermix and put out some great music influenced by some cultures whose musical roots and diversity runs deep. And at times they did. When sean nos (old style) singer Iarla ” LionŠird took the stage the songs pushed away from the dance beat and opened up to the warmth in his voice and singing style. However, most of the Afro Celt Sound System's songs were mired in that four-on-the-floor House beat, and I could neither ignore nor get over it. With so much stylistic and musical potential I was disappointed most was kept in 4/4. The dance beat got my feet moving, but not my spirit.  -Craig Young

[ the afro celt sound system kept the crowd dancing friday night ]
photo by craig young

Djivan Gasparyan/Michael Brook   Djivan Gasparyan, playing the one-octave flute called the duduk, played and sung his way into our lives, directly into our consciousness, ushering a stillness around Michael Brook's arrangements. In Armenia, he's a national treasure, selling out football stadiums. The completely unaffected performer onstage, his intonation, timbre and control of his instrument erases our association of music with musician. It's like the music is the water and he's the hose, the servant to the sounds, faceless as it gushes out to the audience. He sings or plays, and it takes your breath away. I had a chance to speak with his collaborator Michael Brook before the shows, and I asked him a few questions about his career as a player and a producer. He told me that his aim is always more of a project coordinator rather than a production boss. He's been fortunate to be chosen by some amazing artists, most notably Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Youssou N'Dour and U2. That collaborative perspective serves his projects well. Knowing that the best accompaniment is in support of a song, not as the focus of the song, his efforts include assembling grooves that highlight different aspects of a tune at different times but always hold a song together, too. For these shows, this talent was put to tasteful, quietly able use. Brook and Gasparyan were joined by a drummer and bassist/keyboardist for these shows.

As the duo was playing, I was reminded that Michael Brook told of being influenced early by James Brown as well as Middle Eastern and Indian traditions. In the band's musical spirit, I felt that same African rhythm, present in Mr. J.B.'s music. A lovely swaying to the eighth notes, especially unmistakeable in the guitar playing.  -Kenny Younts

[djivan gasparyan and michael brook under the big top ]
photo by craig young

Music, Activism & Society with Cui Jian, Joan Baez, Oliver Mtukudzi, Lolo Beaubrun (of The Boukman Eksperyans)   It's the small things you find that truly make all the difference. I came to WOMAD to experience the music, but I enjoyed and learned more from the workshops than from any performance that weekend. The highlight of this was the workshop on Music, Activism and Society with Chinese rock superstar Cui Jian; well known American folk singer and activist Joan Baez; Lolo Beaubrun, Haitian musician whose band, Boukman Eksperyans, has had numerous run-ins with his government over his music; and Oliver Mtukudzi, whose songs parallel the struggles that go on in his native homeland of Zimbabwe. Hearing them speak had an enormously positive impact on me, more so than any musical act I experienced at WOMAD.

When I was younger, what turned me on to punk music was the message it contained as much as its sound. Both were equally important. For me in the '80s, punk wasn't style, it was substance. It was the dissatisfaction with the status quo, the disbelief that government was working for you, the feeling of being disenfranchised from society. The sound was important, but it was the message it carried that made the difference to me, gave me the belief that you could improve yourself and the world around you by not blindly going through life as if it were a paint-by-numbers piece. Individuality is good. Conflict is good. Dissatisfaction is good. All are good as long as you use it to better yourself and the lives of those around you.

[ sunday's workshop on music, activism and society ]
photo by craig young

It was very refreshing to hear the opinions of these musicians and the circumstances under which their music exists, to be reminded that some people make music not strictly for entertainment, but because they are compelled to bear witness against what is happening around them. Below are some of the highlights from that workshop.

On the political climate of music in China, Joan Baez to Cui Jian: "Do you have problems with the government?" Cui Jian: "The problem is part of the culture. You can't have too many expectations because of the government. The energy, the feeling, the sound is right for me. But sometimes it doesn't feel right because everyone in China can't share this feeling with me."

"Street kids are the result of something going wrong somewhere, not the cause." Oliver Mtukudzi.

"Politicians: they don't serve the spirit, they serve the money." Lolo Beaubrun.

"I'm not specifically a leftist, I'm just bright." Joan Baez.

"Do you continue to tell the truth or do you give up? You tell the truth." Lolo Beaubrun on fighting government oppression through his songs.

"You cannot recreate history. Tix were too high-priced to create a lasting experience." Joan Baez on Woodstock '99.

"We have a lot to thank Peter Gabriel for." Joan Baez on WOMAD.

Cui Jian on Tiananmen Square: "A lot of people didn't have a chance to play there; I did. It was a party until the night they started shooting." "It was a terrible thing, we all realized." "It's a part of Chinese culture: changing things without losing face." "In some ways I'm not so sure about what's going on, but I feel that things are getting better." "I'm not proud of living in China, but I feel that I have something important there to do."

"I have no clue if the human race can survive in the face of what we've built." Joan Baez.

"The songs that I hear by today's generation are not blunt like they were in the '60s." Joan Baez.

"It's self-discipline. You are the only way out." Oliver Mtukudzi.

"It's a need/need relationship." Cui Jian on the relationship between the United States and Chinese governments.

"Haiti is our battlefield. And we know that there will be change because we will not give up!" Lolo Beaubrun.

Boukman Eksperyans' Lolo Beaubrun described the Haitian government banning one of his politically charged songs from being played on the radio, trying also to prevent him and his band from playing it live. At a festival the Boukman Eksperyans went ahead and played the song while government soldiers prowled backstage. Afterward, a Haitian soldier armed with an M-16 approached Lolo and told him: "I like what you said. You said, 'It's not a matter of uniform, it's a matter of heart.'" The soldier then proceeded to give Lolo a big hug.  -Craig Young

[ boukman eksperyans' lola beaubrun performing with his band later that afternoon ]
photo by craig young

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