Thursday, November 6, 2008

Last weekend I attended the WOMEX conference in Seville, Spain. For those unfamiliar, WOMEX is a "world music expo," a conference and series of music showcases designed for "industry professionals" from around the world who work with music that seems to be somewhat arbitrarily defined as "world music." I could spend an entire entry here on the problems that defining this term inherently bring about, but in order to get to more immediate concerns, I'll save that for another time.

The Overview: this was the 14th edition of WOMEX, and the third year in a row (4 out of the last 5) that was held in Seville, Spain. It continues to be largely Euro-centric, and the vast majority of delegates and attendees are from the U.K. and "the continent." But there is a core group of North Americans, mostly presenters, but also media, agents, label folks, and even a few musicians who attend. It's fair to say that having a representative of The Cedar there is a bit of an anomaly... we're a pretty small presenter compared to the others that attend from the U.S. For me, more than anything, it was a good (albeit a bit expensive) chance to rub shoulders with the “World Music mafia.”

Some News: The Cedar's former ED and AD Bill Kubeczko was there as usual, this time announcing his brand new position as the booker of the great San Francisco restaurant/music venue Yoshi's. A primo job, and good fit for both Bill and Yoshi’s. So, while we'll be sad to see Bill move away in January, I think we should be really happy for him and Mag.

The Music: WOMEX's showcases have had a pretty spotty past, and this year unfortunately continued that reputation with a very uneven line-up. They've finally managed to get a reasonable balance of venues for Seville (a nice auditorium for four "daycases" at the conference sight, and a beautiful theater for the more acoustic, intimate showcases at night downtown, with three outdoor stages under tents). The outdoor showcases tended to be (too) loud and more rocking, and some of them were just plain bad. The all-women African band Les Amazones de Guinée, for example, were painfully out of tune. I had high hopes for the Slovenian beats band Magnifico but they just never got it going. And I'd heard good things about the singer Alex Cuba (Canada/Cuba) but the band setting he chose made his music more like bland, predictable pop. And speaking of bland and predictable, Concerts Sweden's choice of Sofia Jannok, a Sami pop/jazz singer who's music is all recycled and predictable clichés, is baffling for anyone who is at all familiar with all of the exciting and innovative music being created in that country.

Other disappointments: Kalman Balogh Gypsy Cimbalom Band just didn't have enough of Kalman's cimbalom in the mix. I was told he was not using his own instrument, but rather a borrowed and quite different Spanish version, which may explain why there was less emphasis on his talents. The salsa band LA-33 gave a solid set but really shot themselves in the foot by getting into a tussle about finishing on time and leaving the stage, scaring away a few festival presenters with whom I spoke.


So how about the highlights? The little bit I caught of the Columbian band Cimarrón was excellent… a combination of individual talents and strong presentation. Gong Myoung from South Korea did some astonishing things with bamboo tubes (and were cute enough to evoke screams from teenage girls). The Algerian/Morrocan/French band Speed Caravan were great fun (electric oud! Yeah!), and Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba (Mali) confirmed my general observation that if it’s from Mali it’s reliably good.

(Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba)

I also really enjoyed the traditional Azerbaijan trio of Zabit Nabizade. He’s a rather amazing “Mugam” singer, mixing Persian, Iranian and Turkish traditions.

(Zabit Nabizade Trio)

And while they are very familiar to me and Cedar patrons, I would be remiss in neglecting to mention brilliant sets by Väsen with Mike Marshall, and by the winners of the WOMEX 08 Award for World Music, Muzsikás.


I didn’t get to see every showcase, of course, and of those that I missed I heard the best things about Astillero (Argentina), who deconstruct tango, and the DJ set by Mo DJ from Mali. I caught part of the set by Salamat Sadikova (Kyrgyszstan), who was described as the “internationally acclaimed diva of Kyrgyz folk song,” and while she has a lovely voice (capable of some of the longest notes I've every heard), I found the music itself to be a bit uninspiring.

(Salamat Sadikova)

The Other: The real truth is that the music is probably the least compelling component of WOMEX. Its larger value lies in the opportunity to network with other world music professionals. So really, for me, the highlights were unofficial events such as a small group trip to the mineral baths, and my dinner with Maria Camillo, Mike Marshall, and Väsen, where we were seated next to a 9-person “bachelorette” party that featured a special dessert…

(the photo would undoubtedly violate the blog decency standards, but it was white chocolate, and in the words of Mike Marshall, "the best c**k I've ever tasted").

Next year WOMEX moves to Copenhagen for the next three years, and many will miss the beauty (and relative warmth) of Seville. But who knows what kind of pre-wedding rituals they have in Denmark???

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