World Party Cardiff: WOMEX Comes to Town

With eye-catching architecture, an inspired use of natural materials and intuitively designed acoustics, the Wales Millennium Centre is a world class building and this week, the core venue for 13 WOMEX, The World Music Expo. As I approach for tonight’s opening concert, I pass several pockets of conversation, each in a different tongue. Welcome to Cardiff’s genuine World Party.

Bursting with a friendliness and rampant curiosity akin to a dog in Bute Park (but with a greater sense of decorum), I look forward to meeting delegates over the next few days and exploring some fresh, new music. Before the show starts, I open a conversation with a smart suited man sat to my left. He introduces himself as Altun Alper from Istanbul and I ask what kind of business he hopes to do while he’s here. He has a label and I learn that his main musician Mercan Dede, makes ‘world fusion electronica’, a term that baffles me. Altun offers me his ornate card, smiling. ‘Dede is also an artist’.

‘World music is a wide, all-encompassing term,’ I offer, hoping to draw a little more information, while considering the prospects for a most probably, basic set up coming all the way across Europe in the hope that someone might listen. This is where I learn my first WOMEX lesson, and it’s a big one. Alper informs me that Dede is already a big star who has made nine albums, one of which won the Best World Music Album of 2008 at WOMEX that year. ‘Business?’ The label manager gives a Gallic shrug. ‘I’m not sure if there is anything else for him to achieve.’

To my right sits a young man with oriental looks who is rubbing his eyes.

Where have you just arrived from? I can see from his expression that we don’t share a common language so I make a lame plane flying mime and he says ‘Korea.’ I make to rub my eyes too and gesture ‘sleep’, at which he smiles. We leave it there.

Cerys Matthews is artistic director for tonight’s show. The BBC 6Music DJ will introduce delegates from almost ninety nations and territories to something of why Wales has been known as the Land Of Song for more than a century.

For how the concert was received, take a peek at my Big Issue review.

Post show, we file downstairs to an ice-breaker reception with, surprisingly, quite a lot of ice to break. Like the first day at school, little groups start to form as those from the same companies and country gravitate towards each other. I move to speak with one or two but meet reserve as visitors huddle inwards like penguins but unperturbed, I gently persevere but the only fruits that come forth are one-word answers. Then, noticing a fleecy bearing the name of a major record label, I hover, choosing a moment to interject. Alas, the moment never comes as both men exhibit a certain, cultured aloofness so I leave them to it. My second WOMEX lesson: Professional and embracing the mission statement for WOMEX might be, but the expo is made up of individual people.


By now, the generous availability of Celt bottled beers, accompanied by homely canapés of Welsh rarebit and roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, enjoyed to a soundtrack of Tom Jones, the guests are starting to thaw and relax. The previously isolated now start to exchange smiles with the unknown, including me, and the famous WOMEX family is starting to feel like one as the weary and much travelled start to unwind.

An independent artist promoter, manager and exporter from South Africa, Sizwe Mzolo tells me he’s come to Cardiff to spread the word about his two artists. We chat about a proposed tour and I promise to mail him a few Cardiff names of promoters who book African performers, before moving on.

Now in a tight squeeze amongst hundreds of loudly chattering delegates, a charming Indian man in his 50s, with a smiling face framed by grey ringlets, introduces himself as Jay of Sama Arts and insists I visit him on Stand 40 at the expo to receive my ‘free music’. I can tell by his easy demeanour that he’s an experienced worker of rooms. I tell him that I’ve been making my way round, asking people about their hopes for this week. He tells me he sat next to someone from a French theatre company for the show, and like me, he had started a conversation. ‘And do you know what he said to me?’ he posits. ‘No?’ I reply with interest. ‘He said to me, fuck off’.’ Onwards and upwards.


Daytime at the Motorpoint Arena.

There is more going on than can be covered by a single person and that’s the whole point. Spread over three days, upstairs in the several meeting rooms, there will be seminars, film screenings, Q&As, tutorials, think tanks and the all important performance showcases of the chosen few. The arena’s floor is where the meet and greet offensive takes place. Rows and rows of stalls of varying attractiveness have the pick’n’mix feel of a modern ‘medieval’ market and it’s where record labels, artists, government sponsored arts bodies from a range of different countries and major magazines flaunt their wares to passers by.

Behind the party atmosphere of a world coming together through a shared love of music, lies the harder reality of business needing to be done. I’ve heard it said that an artist can arrange up to two years worth of world touring from their presence at WOMEX. Not everyone will be successful though (and success is a subjective construct with many factors) but those who are, will succeed as a result of far more than just musical talent, or even fortuitously finding themselves aligned with a certain Zeitgeist in affluent responsive territories. There are great PR masterminds at work here who are presenting months, if not years of much discussed, carefully researched, considered and designed ways of making the biggest impact and leaving the longest lasting memories. There are also those few natural people’s people whose charm and ease treats everyone as a cherished and remembered individual. With one of these rare breeds on your side, you and your product are half way home already.

Alcohol helps too. At an evidently Japanese stall, I was chatting to an artist, Satoru Shimoji via an interpreter, then a shot of sake was offered and some ginger delicacy enjoyed while we discussed their hope for fresh collaborations. The hospitality encourages me to stay long enough to learn that this stall represents artists of the eight tiny Miyako islands (part of the Ryukyu chain of 72 islands far off the tail of Japan), whose distinct folk music is still to be discovered by the world. I am inspired and curious enough to explore web links when I get home.

An African man in colourful trousers bounds up to me clutching his tablet. It’s Sizwe Mzolo, who I met at the reception. ‘How’s business going?’ I ask. ‘Pretty well but it’s all talk at the moment,’ he replies sagely. ‘I won’t know properly until I get home.’ He then shows me a video of his artist, Ntombi Ngcobo, performing at a festival. She is dancing vigorously in an azonto-like tribal style, flanked by two young women co-dancers. I’m told her music style is (what sounds like) Hopra. ‘It’s like hip-hop and ragga,’ Sizwe tells me.

Continuing my tourism, I note that a Dutch stall actually has a beer barrel on its table. Naturally, such is the interest in the music of the Netherlands today that it’s hard to even squeeze past, let alone stop for a chat or anything a little extra.

Reaching the Horizons Stand, I find a central area with bales of hay and deckchairs hemmed in by four corner stands, hosted by England, Ireland/Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales respectively. A new initiative, created ahead of and because of WOMEX in Cardiff, Horizons is an ongoing cooperation platform aimed at developing and promoting home artists and linking them to international markets and opportunities. Each quarter fills my hands with CDs that are enthusiastically promoted and discussed, with the help of three of the region’s own whiskeys. There is a great and genuine enthusiasm for the artists and possibilities connected with Horizons.


After Dark

The evenings in Cardiff Bay are when the main music making takes place. From Wales alone, there were 59 submissions asking to be considered for a showcase here. One can only imagine the multiple applications from the world in her entirety, thus being the value of presenting here. As smooth as clockwork, three performance areas within the Millennium Centre, and a large tent in Roald Dahl Plass (borrowed from No Fit State Circus) containing twin stages set at right angles to each other, makes sure that dead air time is non-existent. On any given night, there are fifteen acts to catch over four hours, and that’s not including the DJ parties at the Glee Club that start late and end much, much later.

So which music rocked? If I mention Indonesian/US dub step, would you believe me? I spent an entranced forty-five minutes with a DJ programmer/visual artist called Filastine & vocalist Nova with a guest cellist that proved to me that it does. This sound sculpting that they prefer to call no-dub was new to me and very exciting. Traditional and modern Greek act Stelios Petrakis Quartet were impressive too, not least the high-leaping, sole-slapping dancing.

Brazil know that it’s a hard call not to respond to their drums, dancing and rhythmic singing and we didn’t let them down. Grupo Bongar had us partying, as did the Ghanaian father of guitar Ebo Taylor and his brass-heavy dance band.

On a gentler note, Welsh band 9Bach create intricate beauty with three harmonious female voices over strong melodies and instrumentation, a detail not lost on Peter Gabriel’s One World, who signed them to his label here and now.

So what now for the rest of Welsh music – including those whose genres don’t come under the world music banner? 13WOMEX has been a triumph for all involved in its planning and its execution. In the forthcoming weeks and months, we will hear of deals done and avenues opened in the wake of this strong opportunity. But the greatest advance is in the ongoing development of Welsh Music as a fully fledged creative industry. To be involved in music in Wales no longer demands a trip over the Severn Bridge. Growing incrementally as it has since the early 1980s, to now be a nation filled with not only music makers in two or more tongues, but with an ever increasing infrastructure of professionals, be they labels or lawyers, promoters or pop stars, Wales is more now than just the Land of Song. She is confident, increasingly so and more importantly, rightly so.