Peter Gabriel on 30 years of Womad – and mixing music with politics

From The Guardian:

Womad festival is celebrating 30 years as a champion of global music. Founder Peter Gabriel talks about its troubled beginnings – and bonding with Kofi Annan over congas

But the first Womad, in 1982, was almost the last. “Ambition got ahead of reality,” he says ruefully. “We went in there with evangelical fervour and we thought everyone else was going to be as excited as we were. It became a nightmare experience when we realised there was no way we were getting the tickets to cover our costs. The debts were way above what I could manage but people saw me as the only fat cat worth squeezing so I got a lot of nasty phone calls and a death threat.” Eventually, his ex-bandmates offered to stage a one-off Genesis reunion to bail out the festival, a gesture for which he is still grateful.

Since then, Gabriel’s labour of love has spawned several international branches and been instrumental in establishing the global profile of the likes of Youssou N’Dour, Baaba Maal and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Before becoming a father again in 2002 (he has two thirtysomething daughters by his first wife) and staying at home more, Gabriel liked to track his musical passions to the source. He visited N’Dour in Senegal and even owned a house in Dakar for a while. “It was fantastic to live in it rather than listen to it. I was trying to work but it was very hot and I didn’t have air-conditioning. I would sometimes sit at my keyboard with a bag of ice on my head, dripping down my back.”

The activism came later, when Bono recruited him to join Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope tour in 1986. On Amnesty’s 1988 tour, Human Rights Now!, Gabriel took over Bono’s role as “chief hustler”, leading N’Dour, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Tracy Chapman to places far beyond the usual gig circuit. “Ivory Coast, Delhi, Zimbabwe, which at that time was a haven of enlightenment,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “It was interesting. The black artists, Tracy and Youssou, thought we should go and play in South Africa and it would help to open things up, and the white artists tended to think, well, we’ve been asked to do a cultural boycott so we should respect that. I honestly don’t know the right way of dealing with it.”

The boycott was one of the most divisive issues of the 80s, especially when it came to Paul Simon’s 1986 album Graceland. To anti-apartheid hardliners, Simon had arrogantly breached the spirit (though not the letter) of the boycott by recording in South Africa, while to his supporters he was rightly celebrating the country’s black musicians. Gabriel, as seems to be his fate in life, was somewhere in the middle. Was it difficult not to choose sides?

“I think it’s a great album and Paul Simon is a great writer, but he did take the view that art should be free to explore whatever it’s interested in. I, personally, would have been a little more sensitive.” He clears his throat and sighs. “I still think, ultimately, that if people are suffering and they ask you to do something then you listen to them.”In 1992 he founded the human rights organisation Witness and in 2007, with Richard Branson, he convened the Elders, a coterie of statecraft eminences grises, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, devoted to advocacy and conflict resolution. “Richard and I had this childlike fantasy of a group of superheroes coming to sort things out,” he says, bringing to mind Avengers Assemble with grey hair and memo pads. “Now we sit in the room with these extraordinary people as they have conversations about what they’re going to work on. For someone who did a little politics and economics at school it’s an amazing thing.”

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