Very few festivals can boast the staying power of WOMAD. An inimitable presence in the UK’s independent festivals landscape for four decades, its organisers have overcome countless challenges to establish it as a burgeoning global festival brand. Access looks back at 40 years of the event.
WOMAD’s organisers have overcome their fair share of challenges in the past four decades, but one of the most considerable came last summer when they were forced to cancel the event at the eleventh hour due to a lack of Government support. Rather than choosing to back independent festivals owned by UK businesses, the Government instead used its Events Research Programme to enable festivals staged by US conglomerates to take place the same weekend.
“That was emotionally and psychologically challenging for everybody,” says WOMAD festival director Chris Smith. “I won’t pretend that financially we’re as strong as we were, but it wasn’t the disaster that it might have been because we have good long relationships with a huge number of our suppliers, and they supported us.”
On the back of May’s WOMAD festival in Cáceres, Spain, the WOMAD team is preparing for the UK event’s return to Charlton Park for the first time since 2019. The 40,000-capacity festival will see performances from a typically diverse selection of artists from far-flung corners of the world. Among the line-up is Mali’s Fatoumata Diawara, The Flaming Lips from the US, The Garifuna Collective from Belize, and Japan’s Minyo Crusaders.
Despite ticket prices having been raised for this year’s event, due to soaring supply chain-related production costs, Smith says they have been selling faster than ever: “We are two months ahead of where we were in 2019, so we are fully expecting to sell out early.
“We are lucky to have long-term relationships with many of our audience – around 80% are returners – so having those relationships, that trust and the respect on both sides, makes a real difference.”
The first World of Music Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival took place from 16-18 July 1982 at Royal Bath & West Showground, a stone’s throw from the Glastonbury festival site. Among the acts to play were Peter Gabriel, Imrat Khan, Simple Minds, The Drummers of Burundi, Echo & The Bunnymen and Prince Nico Mbarga.
In the words of WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel, “It was a simple idea, to create a festival out of all the brilliant music and art made all over the world, stuff made outside of the mainstream – music that wasn’t getting on the radio and was even harder to find in record stores.
“At the beginning, most of the music industry professionals told us that we had no chance of making this dream work.”
“At the beginning, most of the music industry professionals told us that we had no chance of making this dream work. We had all the wonderful naive misguided optimism of the young, and were convinced that we would prove all the cynics wrong.”
Joining the former Genesis frontman in getting the first WOMAD off the ground was a core team including Thomas Brooman, Bob Hooton, Steve Pritchard and longtime Glastonbury festival booker Martin Elbourne (pictured). Despite their hard work, the first WOMAD came very close to being the last.
To raise money for the first WOMAD, Gabriel had overseen the creation of a compilation album entitled Music and Rhythm, which his lawyer sold to Warner Bros for £70,000. Despite the not insubstantial funds, the festival turned out to be an artistic success but a financial disaster.
Elbourne first met Gabriel when working as a journalist for the nascent Bristol Recorder; a combined magazine and compilation vinyl package that championed local artists. Gabriel was interviewed for the magazine and contributed live tracks to the record, and the duo later became friends and fellow gig-goers in and around Bristol.
For WOMAD’s debut event, Elbourne was tasked with overseeing the finances. It’s an experience he’d rather forget. “We were extremely naïve,” he says. “We had promoted gigs before but not for more than 1,500 people. The first day of WOMAD was free to kids; it didn’t make any financial sense at all.”
With a combination of indoor and outside stages, the inaugural WOMAD was attended by around 10,000 people.
“Lots of people say they were there but they couldn’t all have been because we would have made a lot more money,” laughs Elbourne.
With the financial reality becoming ever clearer as the festival weekend went on, Elbourne found little time to watch any of the performances.
“Part of the site is a showjumping field and I was in the commentary tower hiding because at that stage I knew we were heading for a financial disaster,” he says. “It was a traumatic experience; we were all somewhat cast adrift afterwards, and Peter’s management told him never to do anything like it again. But, at the end of the day, people just remembered what an amazing event that first WOMAD was and it led to a range of WOMAD happenings around the country, including one at London’s Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA) later that year.”
After the first festival, WOMAD’s founders, not least Gabriel, faced a mountain of debt. Fortunately, he was on good terms with his former Genesis bandmates, who rallied around him and offered to perform a benefit concert to raise much-needed funds.
“We were one of the very few companies that ever went into receivership and paid off 100% of its debts,” says Elbourne.
With guidance and support from Reading Jazz and Blues Festival founders Harold and Barbara Pendleton, the second outdoor WOMAD festival achieved a much-improved bottom line.
Out of it was born the not-for-profit WOMAD Foundation, the aim being to bring the spirit of the WOMAD festival into schools and communities by enabling them to engage with artists from different parts of the world.
A key figure behind the foundation since the early days has been Mandy Adams, who is the festival’s World of Children education and workshop manager. Trained as a primary school teacher and with a passion for travel, Adams enthusiastically joined the WOMAD team in 1990.
“You have these amazing performances at the festival, but the educational side provides long-lasting experience and connection, either through talks with the artist or practical workshops, so you get a real understanding of the culture, skills and traditions of the artists,” she says.
With money still tight in the early years, the WOMAD team realised one annual festival per year would not be enough to keep the project afloat. Over the coming years, WOMAD festivals were presented at sites across the country including Carlyon Bay in Cornwall, Morecambe, Reading and Mersea Island in Essex.
WOMAD was also rolled out overseas. The first international WOMAD festival took place in 1988 at Roskilde in Denmark. Over the years since, WOMAD festivals have been staged in more than 30 countries, as far and wide as New Zealand, Chile, Gran Canaria, Finland, and Mexico. Thomas Brooman oversaw the expansion of WOMAD’s global activities until 2008, when the responsibility was passed to Chris Smith (pictured).
Adams says that while the international events proved successful, having multiple events in the UK became unsustainable: “There were three or four happening a year but people began to realise we were competing against ourselves by having so many UK festivals.”
Thanks to Reading Borough Council, WOMAD was able to make Rivermead in Reading its permanent home until 2007. After 16 years of Reading shows, the event was moved to Charlton Park in Wiltshire, and Smith took over as festival director.
Before taking on the role, Smith had worked with the festival’s team while being head of culture at Reading Borough Council.
“WOMAD was one of the events that I was responsible for. I was also the licensee. It took three years before WOMAD site manager Steve Haddrell told me about all the bars that I was the licensee for because no one had told me about the hidden ones,” he laughs.
Haddrell is one of the longest-serving members of the WOMAD team, having first worked on the event in 1986.
“I met Thomas Brooman and Peter Gabriel in 1984, they were looking for someone to do the nuts and bolts of WOMAD, and I’ve been working on it ever since,” he says. “I was full-time for 20 years as a production director and now I’m freelance, but I still site-manage at Charlton Park and look after the trickier new overseas festivals.
“When I started at WOMAD I managed the traders, site management, security and production – back then the roles were not as demarcated as they are these days.”
Haddrell’s first WOMAD was at Mersea Island in 1986 with 6,000 people in attendance. It proved to be a baptism of fire.
“The site, provided by Essex County Council, was next to the sea. It had a sewage treatment works on it which we were told would be capable of handling the waste produced by 6,000 people, but within a few hours of opening the festival we had no water on site. We had these really posh flushing toilet units from the Liverpool Garden Exhibition but no water, so we had to attach water bowsers to the back of Land Rovers, drive over sand dunes into the sea and pump sea water into the bowsers.
“The tide goes out really fast there, so we had to drive for miles to catch up with the tide and get to the sea water to pump it into the bowsers, before turning around and having to get up to 50 miles an hour in order to be able to drive back over the sand banks. That was my introduction to site management.”
Nearly 30 years later, water would prove to be a key factor in making the first WOMAD at Charlton Park equally memorable. Joining the festival, alongside Smith, that year was Rupert Bassadone who is now its head of operations.
“I started as an assistant looking after a bit of procurement and the site office. It was the first time I had ever done that role and it turned out to be the wettest WOMAD on record. That year broke some people, but I was one of the fortunate ones who managed to survive it and grow with the event.” says Bassadone.
Smith says the only reason WOMAD wasn’t cancelled in 2007 was that nobody knew how to cancel it and retain the cancellation insurance: “We thought the local authority would do it, the local authority thought that we would do it and the police thought the authority would, so no one did and we had to press on because if we didn’t it would have been a financial disaster.”
Despite the hideous weather conditions and multiple issues across the site that year, Smith says it proved to be a beneficial experience: “Afterwards, we sat down and said, ‘how and why did this go so horribly wrong?’ We talked about the Reading site and what we had there, and what we didn’t have at the new site. As a result, we invested heavily in infrastructure to make sure we would never find ourselves in that situation again. It was a vital lesson that I think has put us in good shape ever since.”
As well as more robust infrastructure, the problems encountered in 2007 led to a redesign of the festival layout and the arena area being relocated.
“We took over a whole new field and expanded the site by around 20 acres, and we started using the Arboretum,” says Bassadone.
Charlton Park may have resembled a swamp in 2007, but Haddrell soon learned that the ground could be unfriendly in more favourable weather conditions: “It is hard as a rock, which means that when we are putting up marquees and other structures we have to use hydraulic breakers to get the stakes in. The benefit of that is we have some of the most well-anchored structures on any festival site in the county, but it is a real challenge and we have broken many machines over the years doing it.”
Aside from site planning and infrastructure, the move to Charlton Park created other issues. Says Smith, “At a stroke we lost 30% of our audience because they were Reading locals who were not prepared to travel and camp. We had to find a new audience while keeping as many as possible of the existing attendees.”
“The fact that our festival has had 15 years in Charlton Park alone, and 40 years in total, is because we have managed to evolve and regenerate,” says Smith. “I’m very proud of that – it is a huge achievement. Many festivals, your Big Chills and Bestivals, have a life span because of the type of music they have, but WOMAD is much broader than that; it makes a really important cultural contribution to the UK. I regard it as the Southbank Centre of festivals, we just do it all in a field in Wiltshire.”
“Right from the word go, there was an emphasis on great facilities, food and drink. WOMAD was one of the first boutique festivals.”
Elbourne says that among the other reasons for WOMAD’s longevity is the focus on creating a pleasant environment, with good food and drink, as well as the diverse line-up of acts: “Right from the word go, there was an emphasis on great facilities, food and drink. Dressing the site with flags and things like that has long since been copied by other festivals but WOMAD was pretty much the first to do it. WOMAD was one of the first boutique festivals.”
Lulu Cowley has overseen the traders at WOMAD since 2008. The boss of Beau Nosh Catering, she first started selling food at the festival back in the Carlyon Bay days.
“The WOMAD audience is willing to try new and unusual food from around the world. We look for traders who reflect the values of the festival,” she says.
Among the WOMAD traders that Cowley has a particular fondness for is Madras Café, which started as a chai stall at the festival in 1992 and these days typically serves around 4,000 people with vegetarian Indian meals. Affectionately known as MadCaf, its profits support Action Village India’s work to redress deprivation and social injustice in India.
“The Madras Café make Thali in metal dishes that are reused,” says Cowley. “WOMAD has always been greener than many festivals but we just haven’t shouted about it. Madras Café is fantastic, they have about 60 people working on the stall and it’s always so, so, busy. It is very unique.”
Smith says a focus on sustainability is embedded in the WOMAD organisation: “It’s been part of WOMAD right from the beginning because the event started out as a way to challenge and look at the world differently. It is the same with accessibility, it is at the core of the organisation.”
Key initiatives include working with renewable power supply partner Ecotricity to switch from diesel generators to green power directly from the grid.
“We have a 15-year lease at Charlton Park and that enables us to make the investment into some real energy infrastructure that will enable us to power key pieces of infrastructure, including stages, from sustainable energy sources that are hard wired in,” says Smith.
It is not just WOMAD’s staff and attendees who have proven loyal to the festival, among the many suppliers to play a key role in the production of WOMAD for years have been Autotrak, Field & Lawn, SES Bristol and Powerline (see box on the right for full list).
“Some event operators go out to tender every year to get the best price, but I think there is so much value in loyalty, and that will come when things don’t go your way,” says Bassadone.
The core festival team of less than a dozen work on the event all year, but once WOMAD is up and running the numbers ramp up to around 3,500, including crew, volunteer stewards and bar staff.
Says Bassadone, “The build is as manic as it is for any festival team, but it goes smoothly because the site crew have been working with WOMAD forever and they do it because they love it. That’s the same with the stewards and the core festival team.”
WOMAD has come a long way since it nearly came unstuck in Shepton Mallet 40 years ago, but the enthusiasm of the festival team shows no sign of dimming.
Reflecting on WOMAD Cáceres, Mandy Adams says, “It was the first WOMAD since the pandemic struck and to see that square full with 140,000 people again was so inspiring. The thrill of doing the last WOMAD and my first one are just the same – it never wanes – and I really feel that this year is going to be phenomenal.”
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN THE LATEST EDITION OF ACCESS ALL AREAS MAGAZINE – SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE HERE.
WOMAD SUPPLIERS LIST
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Backline – John Henry’s
Lights – GLS
Video – Video Wall Technologies
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