‘I think “world music” was a slightly more comfortable ghetto – but still a ghetto’ … Gabriel Jon Enoch
This October, Peter Gabriel will disappear for a year. No recording, no touring, no interviews, just travelling the world with his young family on an expedition that he calls his Year of Interesting Things. "It's the gap-year philosophy," he says with a soft chuckle. "I meant to do it when I was 50 so I'm only 12 years late."
Gabriel would make a good traveller dad. With his close-cropped hair, silvery goatee, loose-fitting clothes and big, black boots, he looks like someone who used to run a sound system on the free festival circuit before opening a beachfront bar in Ko Samui. Up close, on a hotel sofa, it's harder to imagine him doing the things he actually does, such as headlining the O2 or pow-wowing with global statesmen. He answers questions slowly and thoughtfully, as if unwinding a ball of wool, and seems to regard the world with a mixture of curiosity and quiet amusement. For a star of his stature, he is unexpectedly soothing company.
This year, his Womad festival celebrates its 30th anniversary. It began, as did his political activism, with his 1980 hit Biko. Gabriel was thinking of writing a song about Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977, when he came across a Dutch radio station playing African music. He was sufficiently entranced to explore further and work these influences into his record. "Whether anyone was ready to listen to a political song from an ex-public-school, middle-class prog-rocker was something I had doubts about," he admits (he formed Genesis in 1967 with fellow pupils from Charterhouse boarding school), but he was persuaded by his friend Tom Robinson and the graceful, haunting Biko became one of the first songs about apartheid by a major western artist.
The same year, he began dreaming up a festival that would offer a platform to some of the artists he had recently fallen in love with. At the time, non-western music was very much a minority pursuit; the term "world music" didn't even exist. "It had this museum-like veneer in our part of the world," he says. "It was an academic pursuit rather than a vibrant, sexy or spiritual thing."
But the first Womad, in 1982, was almost the last. "Ambition got ahead of reality," he says ruefully. "We went in there with evangelical fervour and we thought everyone else was going to be as excited as we were. It became a nightmare experience when we realised there was no way we were getting the tickets to cover our costs. The debts were way above what I could manage but people saw me as the only fat cat worth squeezing so I got a lot of nasty phone calls and a death threat." Eventually, his ex-bandmates offered to stage a one-off Genesis reunion to bail out the festival, a gesture for which he is still grateful.
Since then, Gabriel's labour of love has spawned several international branches and been instrumental in establishing the global profile of the likes of Youssou N'Dour, Baaba Maal and the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Before becoming a father again in 2002 (he has two thirtysomething daughters by his first wife) and staying at home more, Gabriel liked to track his musical passions to the source. He visited N'Dour in Senegal and even owned a house in Dakar for a while. "It was fantastic to live in it rather than listen to it. I was trying to work but it was very hot and I didn't have air-conditioning. I would sometimes sit at my keyboard with a bag of ice on my head, dripping down my back."
The activism came later, when Bono recruited him to join Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour in 1986. On Amnesty's 1988 tour, Human Rights Now!, Gabriel took over Bono's role as "chief hustler", leading N'Dour, Bruce Springsteen, Sting and Tracy Chapman to places far beyond the usual gig circuit. "Ivory Coast, Delhi, Zimbabwe, which at that time was a haven of enlightenment," he says, raising an eyebrow. "It was interesting. The black artists, Tracy and Youssou, thought we should go and play in South Africa and it would help to open things up, and the white artists tended to think, well, we've been asked to do a cultural boycott so we should respect that. I honestly don't know the right way of dealing with it."
The boycott was one of the most divisive issues of the 80s, especially when it came to Paul Simon's 1986 album Graceland. To anti-apartheid hardliners, Simon had arrogantly breached the spirit (though not the letter) of the boycott by recording in South Africa, while to his supporters he was rightly celebrating the country's black musicians. Gabriel, as seems to be his fate in life, was somewhere in the middle. Was it difficult not to choose sides?
"I think it's a great album and Paul Simon is a great writer, but he did take the view that art should be free to explore whatever it's interested in. I, personally, would have been a little more sensitive." He clears his throat and sighs. "I still think, ultimately, that if people are suffering and they ask you to do something then you listen to them."In 1992 he founded the human rights organisation Witness and in 2007, with Richard Branson, he convened the Elders, a coterie of statecraft eminences grises, including Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Kofi Annan, devoted to advocacy and conflict resolution. "Richard and I had this childlike fantasy of a group of superheroes coming to sort things out," he says, bringing to mind Avengers Assemble with grey hair and memo pads. "Now we sit in the room with these extraordinary people as they have conversations about what they're going to work on. For someone who did a little politics and economics at school it's an amazing thing."
I wonder if being involved in the nuts and bolts of politics has left him more or less optimistic? "Both, I think. Tutu is brilliant. He always says no one is beyond redemption and ultimately people are made for goodness and it all sounds very naive but actually, if you travel around the world, even to places which are our supposed enemies, there are always wonderful people there. I read that optimists achieve more but pessimists are more in touch with reality. So I think realistic optimism is probably the goal."
Does he feel there's any overlap between his political and musical lives? "I think it all meshes in. For Tutu, music was a key part of the anti-apartheid struggle. And Kofi Annan plays congas."
This year's Womad sadly cannot boast the Kofi Annan All-Stars but it has a typically diverse, panglobal line-up. Gabriel loves how attitudes have changed since it started and African artists such as Tinariwen and Amadou & Mariam now routinely appear on mainstream festival stages. "I think 'world music' was a slightly more comfortable ghetto but still a ghetto," he says. "As a marketing term it both helped and hindered. It drew people who were interested but it meant a lot of other people could safely ignore it. I always challenge anyone to come to Womad and not find something they can fall in love with, unless they're deaf or soulless."
It is still a somewhat precarious enterprise. Gabriel admits with a deep sigh that the UK festival has only made a profit three years out of the last 30. That's one reason why he has agreed to reissue his 1986 mega-hit album So (home of Sledgehammer and Don't Give Up) and perform it in North America this autumn. "I'm actually quite looking forward to it," he says. "But it's also a nod to reality. It allows me to do less commercial things."
The So tour will not be visiting Europe because, he explains, extra dates would encroach on his Year of Interesting Things. Fair enough, I suggest. No disappointed fan could begrudge him that.
"Well, I hope not," he says with a sly grin. "And fuck 'em if they do."
© Guardian, by Dorian Lynskey
Last modified on Monday, 06 August 2012 19:28