A brave new world of music

Published in The Independent (May 1st, 2009)

As she waited to go on, Souad Massi looked nervous for the first time that evening. The Algerian singer, who has endured abuse, exile and even death threats from extremists in her career, admitted that she was scared because she did not think the audience would be used to seeing a woman jumping up and down on stage.

She need not have worried. She was greeted with cheers from flag-waving Algerians, and quickly relaxed as the audience sang along to her haunting songs of love and introspection. Beside me, three teenagers, one in a Moroccan football shirt, danced manically as her band kicked in. “She is such a fantastic singer,” said one, breathlessly. There were ululations from women in veils, and chants of her name between songs.

On the side of the stage, Chris Smith, the director of Womad, turned to a colleague and smiled. “I think we have got ourselves a festival,” he said.

The event in Abu Dhabi was something of a gamble for Smith and his team. Although Womad has gone around the globe in the 29 years since it was founded by Peter Gabriel, with regular events in places such as Australia, New Zealand and Spain, this was the first time that the Gulf region had hosted such a festival. It was the latest step in Abu Dhabi’s attempt to use its oil money to rebrand itself as a cultural centre, which has already seen billions of pounds pumped into an island that will host outposts of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

For all the optimistic talk, there were clearly concerns on both sides that a Western music festival might sit uncomfortably with the conservative, feudal culture of a Gulf emirate. The day before the festival began, Umm al Qaiwain, another of the United Arab Emirates, issued a decree closing down all bars and nightclubs that served alcohol, played loud music and stayed open past midnight after complaints of moral degeneracy. The police chief said they did not want “nightclub tourism”.

Smith, meanwhile, was talking at a press conference of a shared vision of cultural togetherness, of using music to bring people together. It offered an intriguing backdrop, especially combined with the idea of a festival free of dreadlocked hippies, warm lager and the waft of cannabis smoke.

Massi was the first major act to perform. Having seen her in Britain, where she is watched with reverence, she seemed transformed in front of an enthusiastic audience who understood the courage of her confessional songs. The besotted fan beside me turned out to be a banker from Syria, there with his two best friends and whooping as Massi bounced up and down during the rumba of “Yawlidi”. In front were a Palestinian couple, to the left a group of exhilarated Algerians. And behind me was Ali, another Syrian, who had previously seen her in Khartoum while training to be a doctor. “She is so good, and so brave,” he said. “Her music means so much to us.”

That the event turned into a triumph was as much due to the fantastic diversity of this audience as to the strength of the line-up, the free entry and the cleanest toilets ever seen at a music festival. Abu Dhabi, a city of skyscrapers created in 50 years, was built by migrants and is filled with migrants. And there is not much to do there, said many of those whom I spoke to. So they came down to the beach in droves to cheer on stars from their homelands.

The result was like a world cup of music, with banners, flags and cheering crowds. The Maghrebis turned out in force for Massi and Khaled, the Kurds for The Kamkars, the West Africans for Youssou N’Dour, the Westerners for Robert Plant. Each was greeted with a passion unlike anything seen at a British Womad. Plant joked that he was expecting to be booed off stage, such was the fervour building for the Egyptian star Mohamed Mounir, scheduled to follow him. It made for an intoxicating festival, despite the reliance on fruit juice rather than vodka jellies.

So who were the winners and losers? The latter included the Chinese diva Sa Dingding, who looked as sensational as ever but, for all her musical virtuosity, seems over-stylised and slightly soulless. The Saharan blues of Etran Finatawa was simply Tinariwen-lite, pleasant enough but lacking the depth or darkness of the hypnotic grunge of the Tuareg guitar heroes. Siyaya, a high-energy vocal troupe from Zimbabwe who seemed to crop up everywhere, were reminiscent of a hotel band with their grass skirts, pedestrian act and desperate exhortations for the audience to smile. And Trilok Gurtu may be one of the world’s great percussionists, switching time signatures at will, but he was playing jazz fusion. Enough said.

The Algerian superstar Khaled had presumably been booked for Thursday night to draw the crowds before the weekend, and he duly did his job. Such was the excitement that every time a rather average Brazilian group playing before him paused between songs, chanting started: “Khaled, Khaled, Khaled.” At one point, the singer looked with exasperation at his trumpeter, but they gamely ploughed on and won much of the crowd over by the end.

The King of Rai may now be a bit portly, but his voice remains stunning, his smile charming and his band drilled to perfection. It was midnight by the time he came on stage, and thousands of mobile phones lit up the night recording the moment. Khaled opened with “Yamina” from his new album, underlining his enduring ability to create dramatic pop music that marries his birthplace in north Africa with his current home in Europe.

Soon, he was drenched in sweat and draped in flags flung on the stage. The cheesy synth chords that open “Sahra” were met with near-hysteria from the woman draped in a black abaya beside me, who sang along tunelessly throughout the set. The reggae-rai of “Ouelli El Darek” was wonderful, the perfect showcase for those dextrous vocals. It was just a shame the set had to close with his massive global hit “Aicha”, an awful soft-rock dirge. But his fans adored it.

Youssou N’Dour was as engaging as ever, although the subdued sound diminished the impact of his astonishing voice. His band were on fire as they flitted from traditional Senegalese mbalax with talking drums to swirling funk with bass lines lifted from the Chic songbook; even the gymnastics of his somersaulting dancer were spectacular.

Equally mesmerising was the Sufi trance music of Rizwan-Muazzam Qawwali, formed by two nephews of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. As the intense, improvised vocals merged with handclaps and harmonium, Pakistanis whirled in devotional dances amid intrigued Westerners. Hussain Ali, a driver, said he had piled friends into a van and driven from Dubai just for this performance. Another family said they travelled nearly 100 miles from Sharjah to see the group. “I brought my children to educate them about the Indian rhythms that they are not familiar with,” said the patriarch.

The last night belonged to two men. First up was Robert Plant, playing as special guest of his friend and guitarist Justin Adams and the Gambian griot Juldeh Camara. Plant was in imperious form, with three Led Zeppelin songs in a nine-song set : “Four Sticks”, “Rock and Roll” and a rapid-fire “Whole Lotta Love”. The single-string of Camara’s ritti was weirdly discordant, adding an intriguing new element to the songs. Best of all was the makeshift band’s cover of Leadbelly’s “Black Girl”, slowed down to the point whereby it teetered on the edge of disintegration, bringing out the full malevolence with spine-tingling passion.

Watching Plant perform, it seemed rather admirable that he turned down vast sums to retread old footsteps in favour of continuing to explore the music that has inspired him throughout his life in all its myriad forms. He was rewarded with screams from the audience – a sound not often heard at Womad festivals, let alone in the Gulf – and women holding banners saying that if he wanted a whole lotta love, invite the holders on stage. It proved old rockers can remain revolutionaries.

And then, after a burst of brass and ska from Mexican party animals Los de Abajo, it was time for the closing act. All day, I had come across Egyptians in the city asking me if I was there to see “The King”. By the time Mohamed Mounir came on stage, there were 30,000 people in the crowd, waving red, white and black flags and chanting his name. The atmosphere was electric.

This king turned out to look a little like Lionel Blair, but he knew how to work a crowd. His music, more accessible than much Egyptian pop, had hints of reggae, funk and blues over classical Arabic music and Nubian melodies. Pulsating stuff, especially when fired up by the excitement of the audience.

Leaving, I realised that the one group I had not spoken to over the past three days were the Emiratis themselves. Amid the crowds from Africa, Arabia, Asia and the West there had inevitably been a handful of men in long white dishdashas, often standing stock-still amid the bedlam – although I did come across one man enjoying a conga conducted by Korean drummers, and teenage girls giggling at the spectacle of bare-chested African dancers. Seeing a gang of five young men larking around, I went over to ask how they had enjoyed Womad. They said they could not comment. I tried again. They suggested that I ask the nearby police for a comment.

It was indeed a world of music and dance on the beach at Abu Dhabi and the organisers professed themselves delighted. “We couldn’t have asked for a more successful event,” said Abdulla Salim Al Amri, the director of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage. “Every evening exceeded our expectations with cultures and people from around the globe joining together to celebrate world music.”

True enough. But I was left with the niggling feeling that the one group that didn’t join in the party quite so much were the hosts themselves.

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