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POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Brilliant, if Not Bold, Beginning : Peter Gabriel's theatrical set, with a helping hand from Sinead O'Connor, powers first U.S. WOMAD Festival. But can it sustain its momentum in the States?


The WOMAD (World of Music Arts and Dance) Festival--featuring 10 hours of strong performances by a diverse array of artists from five continents, impeccable production values and a crowd estimated at 20,000--was a resounding success on virtually every level.

And Sinead O'Connor--making her first public U.S. appearances on this 10-date tour since being booed off the stage at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York last year--joined WOMAD founder Peter Gabriel's headlining set Saturday at Cal State Dominguez Hills. She was an animated, high-stepping addition to the meticulously programmed Gabriel band, but wasn't featured on any of her own material.

But even Saturday's flying start didn't resolve questions about WOMAD's long-range ability to sustain its momentum in America. WOMAD began presenting concerts in England in 1982, and its reputation throughout Europe now is so strong that it can mount adventurous bills featuring primarily music from outside the Anglo-American pop sphere without losing much of its audience.

But a U.S. pop audience that has been fragmented by radio formats and record-industry marketing needs is still unfamiliar with both mixed bills and music from outside the English-speaking world. So the lineup for the main stage on Saturday fit within the familiar Anglo-American pop context--although it was a broadly defined umbrella encompassing rock, pop, reggae and hip-hop.


Unfortunately, that left the second, far smaller stage as almost an auxiliary showcase for performers outside the loop--like Anglo-Indian vocalist Sheila Chandra, American Indian rock poet John Trudell and Ugandan guitarist Geoffrey Oryema. Certainly the sparse crowd for Tanzanian guitarist Remmy Ongalla was composed of many more older, world-music adherents than young fans checking out a different sound.

It's easy to say that WOMAD should have exposed the audience to those different styles on the main stage--but would the audience have been receptive to musicians playing in unfamiliar styles?

Gabriel's set, which was reviewed here recently when he headlined at the Forum, didn't lose any of its theatrical impact in the outdoor setting. O'Connor's vocal interplay with Gabriel provided an added dimension to the male/female themes underlying "Blood of Eden" and "Shaking the Tree."

The "In Your Eyes" encore featured an ecumenical backing chorus of festival performers. But that paled against the finale, when the unaccompanied closing drumbeat of "Biko" segued into the Burundi Drummers' arrival onstage, playing large wooden drums balanced on their heads.

The strong response to Ziggy Marley & the Melody Makers' set indicated that reggae may indeed be the rhythmic meeting ground for any new, broader world-music audience. But the group lacked a visual focus--except during Steven Marley's dancehall raps--and the music was often powerful but frustratingly erratic.


A prime example was Steven's singing on their father Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry," followed by Ziggy's vocal on the Melody Makers' own hit "Tomorrow People." That was a brilliant stroke--passing from an original reggae anthem to one for the new reggae generation. But instead of ending the set on that high note, they did two more songs that were inevitably anticlimactic.

Crowded House's sardonic stage patter connected with the crowd, and a mid-set break when the band formed a human pyramid inspired several attempts in the audience to do the same. The New Zealanders' well-crafted guitar-pop was at its catchiest on "Don't Dream It's Over" and "Chocolate Cake," despite the irritating, ineffective use of smoke machines during a daylight performance.

The surprising variety and melodic sway of PM Dawn's gentle hip-hop was effective. With a10-piece live band augmented by percussive turntable scratching, the New York group played it soft with soothing vocal harmonies, played it hard with P-Funk style and laughed it up on a finale that included snippets from "I'm Too Sexy" and the "Addams Family" theme.

But the questions for the future remain: Can WOMAD survive in the United States without the proven crowd-pulling ability of established pop artists such as Gabriel and Ziggy Marley? Or will it become just another entry in the new mixed-bill festival sweepstakes without achieving its goal of exposing audiences to a significantly broader range of world music?

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