Where is the world?

Caribbean music has had a huge global impact. But at a world music festival in Abu Dhabi, there were no regional bands in the line-up...

Ernest Ranglin in Montreux in 2004. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian BootErnest Ranglin in Montreux in 2004. Photograph by UrbanImage.tv/Adrian Boot

As I’ve written in this space on more than one occasion, there are few things I like more than a good music festival. And I caught up with a seriously good one the other day in a somewhat unlikely location: on the main public beach in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

The festival was Womad – which stands for World of Music and Dance – and if you’re wondering why I say it’s an unlikely location, that’s largely because Abu Dhabi and its neighbour Dubai, the world capital of glitz, bling and bigger-is-best, tend to be better known for performers like George Michael, Coldplay, Shakira, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake and Fergie than for the sort of artists Womad has traditionally showcased.

Womad has been around since the early Eighties, and has put on more than 160 festivals in something like 27 different countries. The Abu Dhabi festival, Womad’s first in the Middle East, had a decidedly impressive lineup, which included Youssou N’Dour, the great Senegalese singer-songwriter, and Robert Plant, the legendary rocker, who surprised everyone by singing not one, not two, but three songs from his long-ago days as lead singer of Led Zeppelin (and no, “Stairway to Heaven” wasn’t one of them).

The location, a stretch of beach just off Abu Dhabi’s Corniche, was ideal. The two stages, set up about 300 yards apart, meant there was no downtime to kill between acts; as the last notes of one performance were drifting out over the Arabian Gulf, the next artist was starting to play on the opposite stage. Most of the music was good, some was excellent, and I was particularly excited to finally catch up with N’Dour, a performer I’ve been wanting to see for more than a decade. And, like many people in the healthy-sized crowd, I was just knocked out by the Pakistani ensemble Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, whose lead singer has a unique voice that combines power and passion and is delivered, remarkably, from a sitting position.
But while the music was fine, by the end of the third and final day it had dawned on me that something was missing, and I’m not just talking about beach bars – a no-no in the UAE, an Islamic and highly conservative nation.

Okay, I know I’m biased here, but what Womad needed to turn it into a real beach festival was Caribbean music. There was no soca. No reggae. No zouk. No calypso. No salsa. No merengue. With a couple of exceptions, few of the performers really got the crowd moving. And as anyone who’s even remotely familiar with the music of our islands can attest, if there’s one thing Caribbean performers can do seriously well it’s getting an audience to lively up themselves, to gyrate and oscillate, to jump and wave, to wine and grind, to skank, to party until the break of day.

I was so struck by the absence of Caribbean artists in the Womad lineup that I decided a little sleuthing was in order. Was this a one-time aberration, or were musicians from the islands routinely passed over for these prestigious gigs? I tracked down a few Womads past, and have to conclude that the Caribbean isn’t one of the organisers’ priorities. In recent years, the only artists from the English-speaking Caribbean I could find on Womad lineups were Jimmy Cliff, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Ernest Ranglin and Eddy Grant. They’re all great, and I’d have been overjoyed if any one of them had been playing in Abu Dhabi – but given the number of brilliant musicians we produce in the West Indies, and the almost uniform excellence of their stage performances, I can’t help concluding that Caribbean performers have been sadly unrepresented at Womad.

As for the Latin Caribbean, it didn’t fare much better. In the nine or ten Womad lineups I checked during my research, I came across something like half a dozen Cuban bands, one from the Dominican Republic and a rather startling zero from Puerto Rico. One country that has been a regular location for Womad festivals in recent years is New Zealand, and the lineups, quite properly, have had a substantial number of artists from New Zealand and its neighbour Australia. Without wanting to be in any way disrespectful to either Kiwis or Aussies, no one could rationally argue that they’ve had the same sort of impact on the world music scene as the Caribbean.
Come to think of it, Womad, in the course of all those festivals in all those global locations over more than quarter of a century, has never visited the Caribbean – and that, too, strikes me as a pity. Many of our bigger islands have ideal venues, an abundance of music lovers who would guarantee a good turnout, and scores of artists who would be ideal for a Womad-style festival.

And they’re certainly a lot less difficult – and a lot less expensive – to get to than many Womad locations for the majority of the international performers on the festival’s lineups. Not only do the islands of the Caribbean have an on-the-doorstep smorgasbord of superb musicians, but they’re easily accessible for performers from South and Central America and the United States.

I asked the Womad organisers why they didn’t feature more Caribbean artists or stage a festival in the region. “We book what is available at the time and suitable for the festival,” they replied. They also added that if I had any suggestions for Caribbean performers they should book, they’d be more than happy to consider them. I have and I will.

As for Womad being held in the Caribbean, their response was also positive: “We would obviously follow up any reasonable query if it were made to us.” Five islands sprang to mind immediately as potential Womad locations. So over to you, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, St Lucia and Barbados.