Speaking in tongues



There are no screens at WOMAD, but the suspicion lingers that if we had seen David Byrne's hands close up, "hate" and "love" would have been inked across his knuckles. In October 1999, he penned a piece in the New York Times entitled "I Hate World Music," which argued that the tag created a ghetto and gave an irrelevancy to most of the planet's artists and music. So here he is, five years on, playing in the biggest world music ghetto in Britain, to people who might know him as the man behind the Luaka Bop label rather than the man in the big suit. If this isn't his natural realm, his opening remark - "Welcome to the food court." still hits the nail on the head; this year, consumables and consumer goods were far more interesting than the music.

Oh, of course there were gems to be found. Byrne's set was one of them, and solely bettered by Malourna, a Mauritanian Arab whose charisma was only upstaged by a backing band worthy of Atlantic-era Aretha. But, with a set that ranged from Verdi and the current Grown Backwards LP, to Dada and the best of the Heads, the weekend belonged to the only world music ghetto soul born in Dumbarton.

With a band that is three-quarters rhythm section (drums, bass and Mauro Refosco's behemoth percussion rig), it's an easy leap from "rock" to "world". And if you prefer a sense of exotic, the Tosca Strings add fills that suggest a song could morph at any moment into "Shaft" or "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." The crowd knows all the words and happily gets the chorus of "Psycho Killer" wrong every time, while "Naive Melody" or "And She Was" are received as rapturously as "Road to Nowhere" and "Once In a Lifetime." If the question "Where do old Talking Heads fans go?" ever comes up in Trivial Pursuit, you know the answer. And they still love the man with the Jarmuschian silver hair, who moves as if on roller skates and plays discordant guitar solos.

"We don't live in an ideal world, but we try and negotiate some path of least pain, compromise and least horrible smells," reflects Mr. I Hate World Music later. "It would be ideal if the best WOMAD performers played Glastonbury among the pop acts on equal billing, we aren't the yet. In an ideal world none of this would matter and the best music would be the most popular, but that world is another universe, soon to be discovered by Voyager...and they will laugh at the pathetic piece of vinyl we compiled for them." See? He doesn't hate world music, this is a love that dare not speak its name.

November Radio David Byrne Presents: One Year Later

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