WOMAD and cultural globalisation in Australia


By This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .  Published in Music Forum magazine, Vol 18 Issue 3 (May 2012)

The WOMADelaide festival, held every March in Adelaide’s beautiful Botanic Park, is a unique event which highlights both the importance and the exciting potential of global cultural exchange. In a world of over 7 billion citizens, multiculturalism is inevitable. Events such as WOMADelaide show that it should be cherished and, indeed, celebrated.

The acronym WOMAD – World of Music, Art and Dance – refers both to a UK-based organisation, and an international series of festivals which celebrate the diversity of music, art and dance traditions from around the globe. The original WOMAD festival was held in 1982, in the English town of Shepton Mallet, and featured performers including Peter Gabriel, Don Cherry, The Drummers of Burundi, Imrat Khan and Prince Nico M'barga. The Australian WOMADelaide festival tradition began in 1992 as part of the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Although it was originally a biennial 3-day event, since 2003, the festival has been held annually, and in 2010, the celebration was extended to four days.

One of the stated aims of WOMAD is ‘to excite, to inform, and to create awareness of the worth and potential of a multicultural society’. The organisation does this not only by means of the festivals, but also through its recording label and educational programs.

Renowned musician Peter Gabriel (one of the co-founders of the company) expresses the organisation’s philosophy most eloquently: ‘Pure enthusiasm for music from around the world led us to the idea of WOMAD in 1980 and thus to the first WOMAD festival in 1982. The festivals have always been wonderful and unique occasions and have succeeded in introducing an international audience to many talented artists. Equally important, the festivals have also allowed many different audiences to gain an insight into cultures other than their own through the enjoyment of music. Music… draws people together and proves, as well as anything, the stupidity of racism.’

So, the aim of the organisation is two-fold: to support artists by creating a wider audience membership, and to educate people by exposing them to a broad range of cultural artefacts and practices different to their own.

Authenticity is a big issue with regard to world music. The concept is relevant to both the music itself, and also performance practices. Sometimes the musical artefacts are not ‘authentic’ in the sense of being contemporary adaptations of traditional styles. However this is only an issue, in my opinion, if the work is promoted as being ‘authentic’. Musical hybridisation and stylistic adaptation has occurred throughout history whenever two or more cultural traditions have come into contact. The process is simply accelerated in our globalised, multicultural world. Recent examples include groups such as America’s Beirut (who performed at the WOMADelaide festival in 2008), whose music represents a stylistic juxtaposition of diverse influences: from French chansons and Western indie-folk, to Balkan brass music and Mexican funeral marches. Such artistic fusion is also exemplified by Australian performers such as Xavier Rudd, Band of Brothers, The Cat Empire, John Butler Trio, and Bangarra Dance Theatre – all of which have performed at previous WOMADelaide festivals.

However, even if the music itself is ‘authentic,’ it is often taken out of its original context, and the artistic, social, or cultural ideas that inform the music are generally not illuminated. So, is it somehow ‘wrong’ to appreciate music just on its sensual merits?

It is clear that performance practices are also an integral part of understanding the music of cultures different to our own, and the WOMADelaide festival, while compromising somewhat on this aspect of authenticity, does so in a way that attempts to minimise the effect. Many WOMAD performers actually comment on socio-political issues that affect their country, and the festivals therefore create exposure on these issues as well.

Apart from the excellent range and quality of music and dance presented at WOMADelaide, the festival includes three other distinctive aspects which have become part of the intrinsic appeal of the event, and serve to deepen the cultural experience. ‘Taste the World’ involves cooking workshops where artists cook traditional meals from their home countries, and a ‘Global Market’ offers food and wares from around the world.

Perhaps most significant, though, are the workshops presented by the performing artists, the purpose of which is to educate the audience on those ‘extra-sensory’ aspects to which I referred earlier, such as cultural importance and stylistic characteristics. Furthermore, these workshops often involve voluntary audience participation through dance, or simple percussion and singing exercises. Each year, WOMAD also encourages transnational collaboration with an ‘all-stars’ performance involving a number of musicians from various groups participating in the festival.

The WOMAD festival, while introducing Australians to the work of international artists, also provides a platform for Australian performers who are influenced by world music. Some local acts are comprised of first- and second-generation immigrants – people who want to be integrated into Australian society while also maintaining part of their cultural heritage and identity.

While cultural preservation is important from a historical point of view, preservation at the expense of original creativity leads to stagnation. The programming of artists at WOMADelaide always involves a combination of traditional and contemporary genres, exponents of the past, present and future.

The social aspect of the event is obviously a drawcard; this is, of course, one of the defining features of live music as opposed to recorded musical experiences. However, most WOMADelaide attendees appear to have a genuine interest in the art on offer, and the growing popularity of the festival is an encouraging sign that many Australians are becoming enchanted by multiculturalism, and are seeking to understand, appreciate, and celebrate the richly layered scope of life in a global world.


Courtney Day is a graduate of the Elder Conservatorium of Music. Her research interests include aesthetics; music theory; music psychology and cognitive neuroscience; anthropological and socio-cultural approaches to music; and music as an interdisciplinary and multi-sensory art.


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