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Small Washington Town Prepares for Global Debut

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marymoor Park, a verdant, rural setting 15 miles east of Seattle, becomes a global village on Friday when WOMAD, the World of Music, Art & Dance, sets up its multiple stages, workshops and markets.

For three days, an eclectic array of more than 30 world music performers--among them Ravi Shankar, Marta Sebestyen, Baaba Maal, King Sunny Ade and the Klezmatics--will perform in concert and participate in workshops, artist discussions and master classes.

It promises to be the most ambitious world music gathering ever held on U.S. soil, with music from Tibet, Madagascar, Russia, Argentina and Portugal, in addition to more familiar world music locations. Between music sessions there will be opportunities to do the Brazilian martial arts dance capoeria, perform Zulu dances and participate in an accordion jam session.

“This is our idea of what a festival should be,” said Thomas Brooman, artistic director and co-founder (with musician Peter Gabriel) of WOMAD. “A kind of village experience in a rural, very appealing spot like Marymoor Park, with workshops and artist discussions to create a very personalized environment.”

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“We find,” Gabriel added, “that people feel great to be a part of something like this. And that’s one of our basic principles for WOMAD, that the event should be bigger than the performers.”

It is a concept that has been honed to near perfection for the last 18 years by the WOMAD organization, which this year will produce similar events in 11 other cities around the world, in countries that include Australia, Singapore, Spain, Holland, Italy and England.

Although WOMAD has toured the U.S. in the past, it has never before presented the kind of site-specific events it has mounted in other parts of the world.

“We’ve made the decision to come here very carefully,” Brooman said. “But it can be hard to get a start. This is a plan that has emerged over two years.”

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Does the two years of planning mean that WOMAD will be an annual event in the U.S.?

“Absolutely,” Brooman said. “Whatever happens this weekend, we’ll be back in years to come, because that’s what this game’s about. We know that before people have the chance to experience a WOMAD event it can be a difficult concept to anticipate. We find that as long as we start right, and make a good impact on people, it takes two, three or four years, and then we’re in.”

Nor do Gabriel and Brooman expect Seattle to be the only U.S. location for similar WOMAD events in the coming years.

“We feel very confident,” Gabriel said, “that it’s going to work in the long run in America.”

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Brooman agrees, adding that “the truly scary thing about the States is that there are almost too many opportunities.”

Two, at least, are in the planning stages. He declined to name specific sites, saying there are “two interesting opportunities: one in the interior of the country and one on the East Coast.” Target dates to get those events up and running are 1999 and 2000.

Does WOMAD’s decision to move into the United States reflect an expanding market for world music? That depends on the definition one uses. And there’s the rub. A random check of Billboard’s world music charts over the last few months reveals Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, Canadian harpist and singer Loreena McKennitt and the Buena Vista Social Club around the top positions.

“Do they have anything at all to do with each other?” asked David Bither, vice president of artists-and-repertoire for Nonesuch Records, a company with a long-term commitment to world music. “Of course not. Add to that the fact that we’re seeing more and more crossover recordings in which artists from Africa or Ireland or Tibet record with Western pop elements and production techniques, and the picture gets even more complicated.”

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Bither noted the vast disparity in the sales performances of some of the acts on his own roster. “There’s a Gipsy Kings at the high end,” he said, “where they had a quasi-pop hit 10 years ago and sold a million. Down a notch, there’s Buena Vista, which is a real phenomenon, tapping into the fascination with Cuba, with the added plus of Ry Cooder’s involvement. We’ve sold about a quarter million and there’s no letup in sight.

“Cesaria Evora comes from Cape Verde, which is not exactly a hotbed of anything, but she’s doing around 150,000 to 175,000 units. And the Bulgarian Voices, with their unusual sound, are around 150,000.”

But there are inexplicable examples on the Nonesuch roster as well. Caetano Veloso, arguably one of the finest artists in any discipline in the world and a huge star in his native Brazil, sells, according to Bither, no more than 25,000 or 30,000 copies.

“Other acts, and probably the vast majority of world music artists,” he said, “sell no more than 10,000 copies or so.”

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Tracking specific information about world music sales and popularity can be difficult. SoundScan, the most commonly used source of sales figures, does not specifically log world music separately other than to issue a top selling chart similar to the one published by Billboard. Both are broadly inclusive, with names like McKennitt, Bocelli, the Gipsy Kings and Harry Belafonte included.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America logs sales in a category identified as “other,” which includes ethnic, folk, Hispanic, comedy, spoken word, exercise and other small niche areas. Over the last 10 years, the “other” category shows little change, ranging from a low of 4% of the market to a high of 7% and averaging around 5%. It’s probably a fair estimate--given the items included in “other"--that world music sales in the U.S. range close to the 3% figure allocated to jazz and to classical music.

It’s worth noting, however, that according to the industry association, sales of Spanish-language product (recordings that include songs with more than 50% Spanish-language content) have been increasing by about 20% per year for the last few years.

“I think it may be fair to say,” Bither said, “that world music is getting a bigger slice of the pie, if only because there’s so much more product. But it’s probably not going to increase dramatically unless it gets a better hearing. And outside of [National Public Radio] there’s not much opportunity for it to get heard on the radio, which is where most people hear new music. So in a way, it’s already ghettoized. And that’s going to have to change.”

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Gabriel also noted the importance of finding a way for world music to receive a wider hearing.

“It’s a two-stage operation,” he said. “The first stage was to get the music into the record stores, which we seem to have done. Phase two is to get out of the world music ghetto on radio. There are some signs of format-cracking on some radio stations, but not much.

“My own belief is that when we get decent quality audio from the Internet there’s no reason why every person shouldn’t have access to every radio station. When that happens, small niche markets and niche tastes--for world music and other music forms--should be able to find their numbers around the world.”


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