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Manually-Encoded Xylophones and a Good Fish Soup: 20 Years of WOMEX

Fanfara_Tirana_Meets_Transglobal_Underground_WOMEX_13_Showcase_Festival_Friday_(by_Yannis_Psathas)A Q&A with WOMEX Director Alexander Walter

Marking the 20th Year of WOMEX, the world music industry gathering in Europe, we asked Mr. Walter a few questions about origins, highlights, and shifts. WOMEX takes place this year October 22-26, 2014 in Santiago de Compostela, Spain and next year in Budapest, Hungary. See you there!  

(photo of Fanfara Tirana meets Transglobal Undergound by Yannis Psathas)

1. What was the vision for WOMEX when it was launched 20 years ago? 

Twenty years ago actually it was the absence of a platform that offers a yearly possibility for a get-together of like-minded people who work in the world music field. It felt like a necessity back then, not sure if that really was a 'vision' in that sense.

2. Give us an example of an artist or two who springboarded their global careers as a direct result of WOMEX? 

Looking at WOMEX 14 one obvious example is Mariza. She had a very successful showcase in 2002 which opened the doors to international stages for her musical career. She will return to WOMEX this year and will receive our prestigious Artist Award. We are really looking forward to seeing her on stage again. And, on the other hand there will be a showcase of Cesária Évora Orchestra. Cesária did perform a showcase at the very first WOMEX in 1994.

3. How has attendance changed from the beginning through now?

It has been a steady growth from 1994, and – apart from a bit of a spike one year in Seville – we're gratified to see that the numbers have been steady for a good while – last year 2250. Considering the way that the general music industry is going, we are grateful and encouraged that the world music community maintains its presence!!

4. How has WOMEX and the world music field changed since its original vision?

We’re all living in a world of permanent change and 20 years is a long time-span. The world music field faced the same changes in the music industry as all other musical styles but at the same time it belongs to the most dynamic. We saw a lot of fruitful border-crossing projects that go into the electronic music field, for instance. DJs are became more and more relevant over the last decade in our field as well. And still there’s new music to discover in the remote places (including the remote urban places) and bring to the international platforms. WOMEX itself is very organic in that respect, too. To name a few: new formats are invented, new networking ideas are tested and special showcase focuses were added. It’s all about the input and feedback from the community. That always has been a good push for modifications.

5. Twenty years in it seems that world music is simultaneously less fringe and, as a phrase, less relevant. Is this a good or bad thing from your perspective?

Less fringe is good and less relevant not necessarily bad. Because the less relevant we can’t see at the moment. It diversified a lot and the roots elements found its ways to different popular music genres, be it underground or pop. So maybe the term World Music as we knew it just became more broad and is not that much to the point any more. The box became bigger. Is PSY and Gangnam Style world music?

'Simultaneously less fringe and less relevant' still sounds like a thing that WOMEX delegates will be discussing in the corridors, bars and online. The main thing to us is that they still discuss! It keeps us all vibrant & on our toes. Passion is a good thing.

6. Which WOMEX city got the most positive response from attendees over the years and why? 

Hard to say. We are changing locations every year at the moment so the city experiences are so multi-faced. A good fish soup can become such an important part of a delegates-experience-memory that this makes it the best WOMEX location ever. A food poisoning does the other side of the coin. It’s about the individual experiences that delegates add to their memory. The most positive response in that sense is the recurring feedback that people are excited to see the next and new destination. 

7. Which WOMEX Opening concert got the biggest response from attendees? Tell us about them. 

There’s always a lot of response to the Opening concerts. In general the attendance to this feature of the event has increased a lot over the past years. Actually that might be linked to the fact that since a few years we extended the opening times of the WOMEX trade fair on Wednesday. One Opening that created a lot of buzz was our Korean Opening in Copenhagen in 2010, 'The Chaosmos of Korean Music'. There were radical moments in this one that lead up to discussions – in all directions. When it gets controversial then it gets interesting.

8. Is there something that few people know about WOMEX that will blow their mind? 

Yes – 'WOMEX' initially stood for 'World Organisation for Manually Encoding Xylophones' – but that seemed too niche.

DubMC is produced by music PR firm rock paper scissors. rps CEO Dmitri Vietze will be attending his 16th WOMEX this month, joined by rps publicist Ryan Dawes. To schedule a meeting with either to discuss your upcoming publicity needs in the U.S./Canada, click here and pick an open time. Make sure to include a note and some links about what you want to discuss so they can confirm the meeting.