I’ve just come back from the wonderful WOMAD festival in Wiltshire. It was one of the best festivals I’ve been to in many years. WOMAD, for those who don’t know, stands for World of Music and Dance. The festival has an eclectic line-up, mainly because ‘world music’ isn’t really a genre, but a collective term for multiple genres. I danced along to reggae, rockabilly, salsa, cumbia, soukous, high-life and brass band hip hop and saw bands from over 20 different countries.
Yet, there’s one very striking thing about this supposedly eclectic and world-reaching line-up. It might be very varied in terms of race, colour, age, creed, and country-of-origin, but the line-up is predominantly male – as it seems to have been every year I’ve been.
Following, UK Feminista’s research into women’s representation in British cultural life, which showed women heavily under-represented across the arts, I decided to do a quick gender audit of this weekend’s festival. UK Feminista found that 71% of performances at this year’s Glastonbury were by all-male acts. A quick glance at WOMAD’s line up shows that approximately 73% of performances were by all-male or predominantly male acts. Women were billed in 13% of the acts – just 11 out of the 80 I collated from the website (clearly I could not see them all over the weekend). In fact, there were more acts with members from multiple countries, than there were male/female collaborations. I don’t think there were ANY all-female acts, whereas there were many (over 50) all male acts.
It’s not just that men vastly outnumber women as performers at these events that interests me. It’s also the fact that women tend to be very narrowly represented. Where they are not fronting their own band (Imelda May, Angelique Kidjo, Cerys Matthews and the avant garde experimental Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq for example) they’re backing singers (for Salif Keita, for example) or dancers. They rarely play instruments, but when they do, it’s most often the guitar. There are exceptions to this – I’m not saying it’s an absolute – but these exceptions are few and far between.
From a technical point of view, I did not spot one female sound engineer all weekend. And then it occurred to me – I don’t think I’ve EVER spotted a female sound engineer at a festival, or gig. Not in over 25 years of attending them.
When it comes to ‘world’ music, there are may be historic and cultural reasons behind why women aren’t represented instrumentally. It might not be acceptable in certain cultures for women to play certain instruments. I’m not a musicologist, so I’d need to do some further research, but I do know, for example, that Stella Chiweshe, the mbira player from Zimbabwe faced prejudice from her own community because it was taboo for women for to play the mbira (thumb piano). I don’t recall seeing any female kora or djembe players (stringed instrument and drum both from west africa) over the years – could it be for the same reason? When it comes to Indian musicians, I can recall two prominent musicians over the years I’ve been to WOMAD; The sitarist Anoushka Shankar and the tabla player Anuradha Pal who I had the pleasure of interviewing years ago, and who fronts the all female percussion group, Stree Shakti.
Could the abundance of female singers, and low numbers of female musicians really be down to cultural taboos or could it be institutional sexism from the music industry ?
One of the things that makes WOMAD special is the high quality of the music, and the effort that the organisers make to source musicians from all ends of the musical spectrum and from all corners of the world. Perhaps they could go even further and make a greater effort to find us some more high quality female artists to even out the balance and to entertain us?