At the start of the eighties, in the early days of Womad, there were very few music agencies in the UK representing international artists from anywhere other than the USA. So in 1983 and 1984 a somewhat random but quite productive means of research and enquiry for the festival was to visit Paris on a shoestring budget and with just a hunch or two of where some artists might be found.
One starting point was to visit the record shop where we know a favourite artist’s records were being sold and to ask where to go from there…hoping that ‘back home’ would not be the reply!
In this manner, in early 1983, I travelled to Paris with my old friend and partner in crime Alan James, in pursuit of Kanda Bongo Man from Zaire, who we had been told was living in Paris. In just a few days we had tracked Kanda down to a nightclub in Montmartre and an invitation was duly made for him to come over to London that summer for a season of WOMAD concerts we were planning at the ICA. The visit went ahead and Kanda played on two consecutive nights, sharing the stage with Misty in Roots on one of the nights and Jah Wobble’s Invaders of the Heart on the second.
Flushed with this early success, I returned to Paris in the spring of 1984, together with Joanna, my wife at the time, and her two singer friends, Wendy and Sarah. They went out busking every day, honing tunes for the band they were forming. My agenda was the still-fledgling Womad Festival and one of the artists on my radar was a Bolivian band called Bolivia Manta who had made a brilliant record together with Nanda Manachi called Churay Churay. The album had been released in 1983 by a Paris-based record label called Auvidisc. As with a number of other Paris outfits at the time, the record label was closely associated with a record shop. In this case the shop was Willka Productions in Rue Leon Frot. I turned up at the shop on a bright and sunny Saturday morning in early April, clutching my Bolivia Manta album like some talisman of sincerity in order to enquire about the group.
The record store guy was very friendly and we communicated well enough despite my near-complete lack of French and his lack of English. Agreeing that this was indeed a great record, the simple and proven plan of ‘come-on-over to England this summer’ fell at the first hurdle because of the group being back in Bolivia, oddly enough. Aah, the naiveté of it all.
But on further conversation, I did get to understand that a wonderful singer and ‘beacon of culture’ from Colombia was at that point actually living in Paris and her name was Totó la Momposina. Auvidisc had released ‘Colombie – Musique de La Côte Atlantique’, Totó’s first album, the year before and I promptly bought a copy. I’m not sure whether I had actually listened to any of the music before I left the shop. But as well as the album what I did have was Toto’s address and a hand-written map of how to find my way there.
Toto’s address was within walking distance of the shop and so by late morning, with a clear blue sky and the day turning warm, I turned up at the front door of a typical Parisian apartment building, six storeys tall and pretty much identical to every other building on the street. There was no one in the small concierge office on the ground floor but there were buzzers for all of the numbered flats. I pressed the bell for the number I had been given and went back out onto the street. After what seemed like a no-hope eternity of a wait, a head suddenly appeared from a fourth-floor window and seemed to indicate that no one was home…apart from the person waving from above, I guess.
But as I was shouting “Totó?” once again, the person at the window began pointing to the left and waving generously in the direction of a small figure approaching on the opposite side of the street. Smiling broadly and carrying a shopping bag in each hand, a diminutive lady duly crossed the road and came up to the door. And this was Totó la Momposina!
Very little was communicated on this first pavement encounter, the two of us divided by my lack of Spanish and Toto’s lack of English. But the idea of a visit to England was successfully communicated and we duly swapped addresses.
In retrospect it seems impossible that things could have worked in this way. There were no fax machines, no internet, no mobile ‘phones…I’m not even sure that Totó had a telephone in her flat.
But from this unlikely beginning a visit to England did indeed take place. Totó came over in June of 1984 with three backing musicians, all of them percussionists. The group came to Bristol and played at Womad’s first outdoor event since the eminent failure of our first festival in 1982.
This was a free day of music held in Bristol’s beautiful Ashton Court. Still held to this day, now called Brisfest, the Ashton Court Free Festival was already a legend of Bristol youth culture. 1984 combined a programme of Bristol’s best bands – including a DJ set from the pre-Massive Attack Wild Bunch posse – with a Womad day on Saturday 14 June. The line-up also featured Hugh Masekela, Kanda Bongo Man, Rumillajta and some outstanding artists from Bristol itself. All for free.
The festival programme gave good and informative notes about Totó and her drummers:
‘Totó la Momposina is from the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Working in close collaboration with singers and musicians from her region, she formed a musical group in 1968. Her remarkable interpretation of traditional songs and dances and ceaseless determination to make her music known have made her one of the most popular singers of traditional Colombian music. The music is linked to beliefs, myths, dreams and everyday life. A fusion of Indian, black and Spanish traditions has engendered these songs and dances.
In the course of her performance Totó interprets festive songs and dances, as well as themes drawn from ritual or religious ceremonies. These are carnival dances, songs associated with legends or funeral rites such as the Chadé, Bullerengue, Cumbia, Mapalé, and Porro. Composed by popular writers or passed down through oral tradition, these songs are accompanied by three different drums of African origin, made of wood and hide.’
As was so often the case with early Womad artist encounters, the performances themselves were outstanding. Totó was the star of the day at Ashton Court and the audience loved her vibrant and dynamic performance. But important also, these visits also created individual discoveries of an unexpected sort and a cultural encounter for everyone involved – for both artists and audiences, also for us as organisers.
The day after Totó’s Ashton Court performance we were invited round for tea to a family friend’s house in the elegant part of Georgian Bristol called Clifton. This house was in Windsor Terrace, overlooking the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge, a magnificent setting and one of the best views in the City. Totó and her musicians were knocked out with the experience. Understandably so, perhaps, for this house was a truly beautiful home and the family’s hospitality was relaxed and welcoming. Thank you very much to all of the Beedell family!
The visit was a real success and we kept in touch with Totó throughout that Autumn. Womad was compiling its first Talking Book, An Introduction to World Music, and we obtained permission to include Soledad, one of the songs on Totó’s Musique de La Côte Atlantique album. This was a notable first and the album also featured music by Penguin Café Orchestra, Amadu Jobarteh and Orchestre Super Matimila, among others. Almost certainly the first occasion when World Music formed part of the title of any record compilation.
The momentum of the Womad Festival moved forward during 1984 and in 1985 we found a new home to present the summer event, this time in Essex on the Thames-side island of Mersea. This unlikely setting had been offered to us by Essex County Council Community Education Department and we were grateful for a new location to continue the summer tradition of a Womad weekend.
The festival in 1985 featured a brilliant artist line-up including Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Pogues, New Order, Toots and the Maytals and many others. We invited Totó to return to England for another festival appearance and this time we were able to provide a small number of other performances apart from the festival. Chief among these was an performance in Trafalgar Square and Alan James road-managed for the group during this visit.
On the days immediately preceding the festival Totó and her musicians stayed at a large community residential centre owned by Essex County Council; one of those venues where youth groups would usually stay for a variety of residential courses. At this time of the year, though, in mid-July, the place was empty and so Essex County Council threw the doors open to a number of visiting artists, Totó’s group being one of them.
I remember coming up to stay on the day after Totó had arrived and the evening was planned as a cross-cultural dining experience together with a large music group from Italy called S’Bandierratori. The Italian party were there at the invitation of Essex County Council and they were also scheduled to play at Womad that weekend as part of their cultural visit.
The idea of that particular evening, though, was for Totó and her people to cook for the Italians and for the Italians to cook for Totó. I remember the somewhat surreal situation of both parties assembling in the large kitchen, Totó in supreme command of her side of the proceedings and a large contingent of Italians on the other side of the space. Not unlike an international team version of Masterchef.
Totó was preparing chicken and coconut rice and I remember watching the fascinating process of fresh coconuts being heated directly on the oven gas rings before being shelled and grated for the large rice dish that would accompany the chicken.
The Italians were also intensely interested in the whole Colombian process and towards the end of the preparation period someone on the Italian side took their eye off the pasta situation and basically the spaghetti came out undeniably overcooked. More than one of the Italians actually wept at this disaster and the meal began in a somewhat subdued atmosphere. There again, ‘our team’ were undisputed champions of the evening and things soon warmed up with red wine and some spirited songs from both parties.
Another cultural encounter that remains fresh in my memory and I wonder how many of the other people there also remember the night. I have no recall whatsoever as to how the washing up got done!
Wednesday 25 March 2015