One of the highlights of WOMAD last weekend was watching a comeback performance by the Afro-Celt Sound System, who rocked the tent on Sunday evening with a tight blend of two cultures. The undoubted crowd-pleaser was a three-way drum duel between James McNally on the bodhran, Johnny Kalsi on the dhol, and Moussa Sissiokho on the tamma (‘talking drum’). Underlay a little bit of electronica and some pipes, and the result is something that cannot fail to move you, both physically and emotionally. Its great to see musicians do that to an audience – and its even better to be a part of such primeval happenings yourself. In such moments, the rising pace of the drums causes your mind to wander and wonder.
Here, I thought, we have a group of disparate musicians bringing their different traditions together to create something new. Indeed, ‘fusion’ music is one of the festival’s specialities, and the Afro-Celt Soundsystem are very musch a creature of WOMAD. But in watching the McNally/Kalsi/Sissiokho three-way, I was reminded that such music only works if the individual members have a (shall we say) traditional music upbringing. Perhaps the discipline, and the distincitiveness of their separate musical heritages, are actually pre-requisites for their fusion music to work.
If true, it is an argument for a fairly rigourous form of multiculturalism. Perhaps there is a value in encouraging not the fusion of cultures itself, but instead a promotion of the more traditional practices on which that fusion is based? Only with a mature understanding of one’s culture can you confidently engage with others, and thereby play a proper part in creating something global, transcendental.
In a diverse country like Britain, this means supporting projects which pedestalise both the minority cultures, and the deeper roots of English and Celtic cultures. This approach implies division, and the creation cultural silos, and has come in for much criticism in recent years. But watching the talents of the musicians at WOMAD, you cannot help but percieve the long, accumulated embedded within each artist. When you do, its natural to want to preserve and protect that history.