By Dan Talmo
The 2016 edition of WOMEX (World Music Expo) opened in Santiago de Compostela, Spain on October 19th. WOMEX is an annual international meeting of world music artists, agents, venue representatives, national cultural organizations, and press, all for the purpose of promoting live world music performances around the globe.
Although Santiago de Compostela is only a moderately-sized town (about 150,000 inhabitants), it is huge in Catholic religious history. Legend has it that St. James the Great, one of the Twelve Apostles, was brought here after his death in 44AD. In 1211, a giant granite cathedral was built on the purported spot of James’ burial. Today it serves as the terminus of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage road that annually brings over 200,000 hikers, bikers, and a few donkey riders to the town. The old town radiates out from the cathedral in a maze of vehicle-free stone streets and alleys. What better place to have a party! WOMEX has a giant tent with facing stages in the main square just outside the 13th century cathedral. For the several nights during WOMEX, you can dance yourself silly until 2am to some of the best roots (and not so roots) bands from around the world. Three other indoor stages offer a more intimate experience for acoustic performers.
In this first edition (of probably two) of my 2016 WOMEX blog, I’ll describe a little about the first two evening performances. The Wednesday opening concert for WOMEX 2016 was held at the Auditorio de Galicia in a picturesque park near the old town center. Being in the Galician region of Spain, the concert featured five ensembles from Spain including a group local to Santiago.
Cuarteto Caramuxo from Galicia opened the evening with a surprising mix of six instruments: two clarinetists, two on baritone sax, an accordionist, and a drummer. Perhaps since Galician music isn’t so familiar to these ears and their not-so-traditional instrumentation, the music was more reminiscent of other styles. Sometimes I felt I was in France – or Italy – or perhaps listening to a Klezmer clarinet – but in the end, ah yes – Celtic. Traditional Galician music is, above all, Celtic.
The show moved to the duo Maria Arnal and Marcel Bagés. Arnal is a seriously good Catalan vocalist. Bagés accompanied her with electric guitar. Together they brought Arnal’s traditional songs into a jazz and world-lounge stlye.
After short sets by Santiago’s own Talabarte and the powerful vocals of Aragon singer Carmen París, we came to the finale – a ten-piece band led by Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera. I have served on the selection committee of the Madison World Music Festival for each of its 12 years. Madison hosted Junkera for our first festival. He delivered a magical performance then and we re-booked him some seven years later – the only artist to appear at the Madison festival twice. The only problem with Wednesday evening’s performance was that it was too short! Junkera can do anything on the accordion. He played traditional Basque, morphed into jazz, skipped over to some Balkan rhythms, and then back again to Basque. He featured his latest collaboration, Sirgonak, a Basque women’s vocal and percussion group. Together with other instrumentalists (notably the clarinetist), they got the standing-o that they deserved.
Here is a good example of Junkera and Sirgonak: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmjcE1H9EXQ
The opening concert was well-paced and the musicianship was outstanding, although I note the lack of a strictly traditional ensemble. A welcoming by a Galician bagpiper would have been nice. I was glad to see the Celtic, Basque, and Catalan regions well-represented. On the other hand, it seemed strange not to include Portuguese artists for an event that was billed as an “Iberian Music Tapas Menu”.
The Thursday through Saturday evening performances at WOMEX were a feast of overabundance. Each evening featured 15 bands across four stages in concert halls throughout the old city center. It takes five minutes to walk between venues and each show is only 45 minutes long, so a careful study of the schedule is required. These are the seven bands we managed to see (either all or in part) on Thursday:
Xarnege (Basque, Gascon)
New York Gypsy Allstars (NYC, Macedonia) – a previous Madison Festival group
Faada Freddy (Senegal/France)
The East Pointers (Prince Edward Island, Canada)
Reyfado Lisboa (Portugal)
Okra Playground (Finland)
Each band was wonderful and I invite you to check out any of their on-line material to see what I mean. The highlights for me were the hurdy-gurdy playing by Xarnege, the guitar work by Reyfado Lisboa, Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet in the NY Gypsy Allstars, and the simple joy of The East Pointers’ music.
We also caught a film in the late afternoon titled “Kings of the World.” It is a one hour documentary of the Reyes family who founded The Gypsy Kings in the 1980’s. The family is from the Gypsy (or Roma, although they self-name themselves Gypsy) community in southwestern France. The story of their multi-generation family roots in music is told through current interviews and historic footage by Latvian film maker Natalia Tsarkova. The Gypsy Kings were a world phenomenon throughout the 1980’s and 90’s and still frequent the playlists at WORT. I hope to arrange a showing of the film in Madison this winter.
Two more nights of music to come, plus time to explore this wonderful city. Stay tuned.
(Photos by Paula A. White)