Women at Womad 2011

Last year, after my return from the WOMAD festival, I did a gender audit to see what the percentage of female artists there were on the festival programme.  I found that female artists made up just 13% of the programme, bands with both men and women 12% and the remaining 73% were male artists or all-male bands.

This year, I returned to the festival and was pleasantly surprised to find that there seemed to be more women on the bill than the year before.  I decided to use the same methods to assess whether this was just a feeling and did the same audit. I counted the gender of the number of artists named in the programme – regardless of the gender mix of their band. I also included all male or all female bands, and bands that were of mixed gender.  I was pleased to find that I was correct: there were more women than last year. This time, male artists or all male bands made up 60% of the bill, female artists or all female bands made up 20% and bands of mixed genders 20%.

Even though this was an improvement on last year, male artists still made up more than 50% of the bill. Is this good enough, I wonder? Or should we really expect a more even balance of genders at a festival as large as WOMAD?

Programming a festival like WOMAD must be a complicated affair. There needs to be a good mix of countries represented, a good mix of genres and a combination of well-known artists and emerging or lesser-known artists too. Should gender be brought into programming decisions too or is it already? Should programmers only focus on quality and popularity?

Looking at the placing of the bill, one thing does seem very striking to me. All of the headliner acts on the Open Air stage are either big name male stars (Baaba Maal, Alpha Blondy) or bands with only one or two female members (Gogol Bordello & Bellowhead). Looking at the other stages and it’s a similar story: Lau, Danyel Waro, Iarla O Lionaird, Le Trio Joubran, Bombino, Gaz Mayall,  the headliners are overwhelmingly male.

Should there have been a better gender balance with the headliners, or is it harder to find female global superstars? And how much does it matter anyway? All the headliners I saw were amazing, and Alpha Blondy’s political messages were relevant to everyone.

How important is it to have women higher on the bill? After all, WOMAD is much more than the headliners. People discover music that they wouldn’t have heard otherwise. The all-female singing trio Ayarkhaan from the Arctic Circle drew a sizeable crowd on one of the smaller stages and impressed the audience (and me!) with their unusual singing and jews harp playing. The guitar duo, Rodrigo y Gabriela packed out the Siam Tent with one of the biggest crowds there all weekend. Spanish singer Amparo Sánchez got people dancing and enthusing on Sunday afternoon while The Boxettes (all female singing and beat boxing group) packed out the Big Red tent and blew away and audience perhaps less used that style of music. Does it really matter what time they played and where in the billing they were placed just so long as they were entertaining and appreciated?

As you can see, this year’s audit has left me with more questions than anything else. But one thing is clear to me, while it’s great to see a greater percentage of female artists (and mixed gender bands) on the bill, I still feel that there’s some way to go before equality in programming is fully achieved.

About Ruth Rosselson

I am a writer, researcher and consultant with over 14 years experience of writing about ethical and environmental issues. I specialise in writing copy for NGOs, charities, social enterprises and the co-operative movement.
This entry was posted in WOMAD festival, World Music and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Women at Womad 2011

  1. sam kimmins says:

    Interesting questions! I certainly agree that a band on a small stage is not of more or less value than the headlining act – they reach different audiences and serve different artistic functions… My initial thought is that an overt focus on gender in the programming could be perceived as patronising – “You’re not really that popular, but we’ll give you a slot because we need more women on the bill” (OK, crudely put but you get the idea)
    Digging a bit deeper, my question is, what are the barriers to success that exist for female artists that don’t apply to male? Is it industry sexism? A historical thing that it’s more ‘acceptable’ for men to have a career in music? Do audiences prefer the tang of testosterone? or are men that bit more competitive? Hmm, I suspect I may have opened Pandora’s box here!

  2. sam kimmins says:

    (oops – missed out my crucial question – Is this gender bias reflected in the industry overall? I’m guessing yes)

  3. Black Shuck says:

    Candi Staton was a headliner in 2007. I actually don’t care what sex the performers are. I care about whether they are good musicians or not. But then I don’t have an agenda when I go to WOMAD.

  4. John Spiers says:

    It’s a very valid comment. And I think you’d find if you did analysis of all festivals that the gender gap would be skewed in the same direction although not by quite so much.

    In the UK I think it’s a case of an industry where the show-offs and pushy succeed (and the majority of those tend to be men) rather than a conspiracy. At Womad where a plethora of cultures are represented with (let’s call it for the sake of politeness) a more traditional attitude to equality the results are more striking.

    As a member of Bellowhead which is only 1/11th female (although some would say it’s more) I’m aware that we’re part of the problem. I’m all for redressing the balance because with a larger pool of talent, the music will be better, and that’s got to be a good thing. The question is, how?

  5. JoannaMary says:

    Its great to ask the question, it still needs asking. I was at WOMAD this year (for the first time) and saw a number of female performers. I also borrowed the confused feminist book from the Human Library so had a lively discussion about feminism in 2011 in the middle of the festival which ended up with whether Beyonce was a feminist or not. My thought over the weekend was why many of the bands have just one female performer – mostly a second soloist. A question for Bellowhead perhaps. It looks and feels tokenistic, and perhaps reflects that far fewer woman play the instruments traditionally associated with bands (guitars and drums). Your question about should there be a move by the organisers to achieve a gender balance or is it about quality and popularity at first sight seems simple to answer – festivals have to make money and punters pay for quality, and are unlikely to buy a ticket if they recognise no names on a bill (although in these days of youtube et al it is possible to sample ahead which is how we discovered The Boxettes). So the gender inbalance cannot be laid at the door of the festival organiser but rather labels and promoters who need to think about why male performers and bands get signed and female artists don’t. As Sam says, what are the barriers and how do they get dismantled? As punters (audiences, purchasers) we surely just buy music we like regardelss of gender?

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