Pop festivals these days all seem to have the same goal in mind -- to create a specific kind of musical environment, and then take it out on the road. Lollapalooza is the Alternative Nation's touring oasis; Festival New Orleans is a rambling slice of native Louisiana culture; the H.O.R.D.E. Festival comes on as a jam band bonanza; and so on, with each festival filling a specific niche in the concert market.
In that sense, the WOMAD tour is an exception to the rule. Where other festivals try to become a world unto themselves, WOMAD wants to open the world to others.
To that end, the WOMAD package currently on tour (and due at the Merriweather Post Pavilion this Friday) draws equally on the known and unknown, mixing rock with a wide range of international musics. So in addition to Peter Gabriel, Midnight Oil and Arrested Development, there are performers like Uganda's Geoffrey Oryema, the Guo Brothers from China, and a folk ensemble from Turkmenistan called Ashkhabad.
Eclectic? You bet. But that's the whole point, explains Gabriel, who founded WOMAD (which stands for "World of Music, Arts and Dance") in 1981.
"The way we try to work with WOMAD is have a really interesting show in rock-and-roll terms, and then this other stuff that we hope people will pick up on," he says, over the phone from a tour stop in Israel. "And then eventually, make that other stuff a little more central to the diet."
"Our motivation, sincerely, is to celebrate the notion of cultural diversity in the world by presenting as many new and diverse and excellent artists as we can manage to present," adds Thomas Brooman, WOMAD's artistic director, from his home in England. "So I guess we're proselytizers, really, saying, 'Here, what about this? What about that?' "
They're also educators of a sort, although, as Brooman stresses, it's "education with a small 'e.' " Each WOMAD show augments its musical offerings with workshops on dance, voice and crafts, as well as interactive demonstrations of virtual reality and CD-ROM technology.
"We see even the program that accompanies each event as an opportunity to put the music in context," says Brooman. "Because otherwise, one just produces these astonishing sights and sounds, and then there's just this dead stop. So we try to make the festivals the best opportunity we can to open the doors of awareness. And if a particular member of the audience wants to race through that door and go to West Africa, well, fantastic!"
Those doors swing both ways, too. "Sometimes, European pop stars go to the Third World to borrow ideas," says Geoffrey
Oryema, over the phone from Nuremburg, Germany. "A good example is Peter Gabriel. When he left Genesis, he went to the Third World to borrow ideas, and those ideas he incorporated into his own work. Which is fantastic. I think Third World artists should do the same."
Unfortunately, it isn't always easy for musicians like Oryema to get away with that kind of approach. Because his work blends traditional Acoli folk styles with elements of Western rock and pop, he has been criticized in some corners for abandoning his roots. "They say, 'No, you should stick to the ghetto, you should stick to your traditional sound,' " he complains. "Which I find unfair, because music has no boundaries whatsoever."
WOMAD not only recognizes that principal, it encourages interplay between musicians who might otherwise never have the chance to interact. Take the Guo Brothers, for example. Specializing in Chinese classical and traditional music, they have a sound that is almost antithetical to the drum-driven sound of most rock and world-beat music.
"Our music is acoustic music," says bamboo flutist Guo Yue, over the phone from a London hotel. "We don't use electronic instruments. Also, our music doesn't have the pop beat; the music is more free, more melodic. The music we play is not loud, but it can be strong in other ways. It's different from the drum sound or electric guitar."
Nonetheless, Guo says there's typically quite a lot of interplay between his group and other WOMAD acts. "We meet so many musicians, and we hear [things] all the time," he says. "African musicians, for example, they have lots of rhythms, very strong. But when they hear our type of music, they love to do something more melodic. So it's more like a compromise; you learn from each other, or get inspiration."
Brooman sees that kind of cultural interaction extending into the audience as well. "What we hope is that through a person's presence at the festival, they've got the opportunity to learn a bit more," he says. "Maybe come away with the awareness that there are nine tribal languages in Southern Ghana. Or learn even where Ghana is!
"I don't know about American society," he adds, "but in Britain, connected and global as we may be, there's incredible ignorance about what people come from where, or how they feel, or what they say, or how they sing. So it is constructive, it seems to us, to be working at any level."
In particular, though, Gabriel wants to extend WOMAD's efforts into the realm of interactive technology. For instance, his CD-ROM release "Peter Gabriel's Secret World" includes a feature that not only explains some of the non-Western instruments used on Gabriel's albums, but also lets the user "play" each instrument by way of the computer's mouse.
That's just the beginning, though. "One of the reasons I get so excited about multimedia is that I think it encourages us all to become samplers and scavengers, and then become and think and create like artists, using the scavenged material," he says.
"I think works of art will be linear experiences as they always have been, but there are going to be means of overriding that, so you can take all that material, and additional material from outside, to create and remix in a personal way. So you won't invite your friends over to listen to the latest record that you bought or see the latest film, but to see how you've interpreted this collage kit or grab-bag of different artistic projects."
As time goes on, Gabriel adds, "the filters in our culture are going to become more and more important. Maybe WOMAD is a part of that process. Through WOMAD, we come across a lot of interesting people, and we try to filter -- with as open minds and ears as possible -- the stuff that we come across."
Why go to such effort? Because as Gabriel sees it, information sharing is the key to our future.
"In a sense, this information highway is a misnomer," he says. "It's more like an information ocean. And what we would like to be are the boat-builders for the information ocean. Because the ways across -- how you navigate, how you find what you want -- are going to be increasingly important.
"So whether it's the DJs deciding what to play or the critics recommending certain things to listen to or watch, that whole medium of decision-making and navigation is critical to the next evolution in our culture."
IF YOU GO . . .
When: Friday, July 15, 2 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Tickets: $40 and $25
Call: (410) 481-7328 for tickets; (410) 730-2424 for information
To hear excerpts of music by Peter Gabriel and other performers at WOMAD, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6127 after you hear the greeting.
Who's who in WOMAD tour
Here's a quick look at the artists included in the current WOMAD tour.
* Peter Gabriel. From the U.K. Best known for the hits "Sledgehammer" and "Steam," Gabriel began his career as a member of the English art rock band Genesis. He founded WOMAD in 1981.
* Midnight Oil. From Australia. Popular and politically active band whose first big U.S. hit was "Beds Are Burning," a song calling for the return of land to the Aborigines.
* Arrested Development. From the United States. Grammy-winning rap group whose latest album, "Zingalamaduni," draws on everything from gospel singing to Native American chants.
* Live. From the United States. Alternative rock band whose second album, "Throwing Copper," includes the hit "Selling the Drama."
* Caifanes. From Mexico. Enormously popular rock band whose seventh album, "El Nervio del Volcan," has just been released.
* Levellers. From the U.K. Celtic-influenced rock band loosely aligned with the "Crusties," a nomadic, post-hippy subculture in Britain.
* Lucky Dube. From South Africa. One of the continent's foremost reggae artists.
* Mustapha Tettey Addy and the Royal Obuno Drummers. From Ghana. Traditional drum ensemble.
* SongCatchers. From the United States. Drawing on Native-American music as well as rock, jazz and R&B;, this collaborative group includes members of the White Eagle Singers as well as saxophonist Charles Neville of the Neville Brothers.
* Geoffrey Oryema. From Uganda. Performing on guitar as well as nanga (a traditional Ugandan harp) and lukeme (thumb piano), his music fuses European and African influences.
* Ashkhabad. From Turkmenistan. A mixed ensemble, featuring tar (a traditional guitar), violin, clarinet, accordion and percussion.
* The Guo Brothers. From China. Duo featuring bamboo flute and sheng (a mouth organ believed to be a common ancestor of the concertina, organ and harmonica), specializing in Chinese classical and traditional music.
* Shikisha. From South Africa. Combo specializing in mbaqanga, or "Township jive."
* Stella Chiweshe. From Zimbabwe. Master of the mbira, or Shona thumb piano.