WOMAD 2001 – Monkey Pilot Radio 3 Interview

Pete Fruin checks out the WOMAD festival and talks to DJ Monkey Pilot, the man behind the Whirl-Y-Gig…

Compared to Glastonbury, Reading and newcomer the Phoenix Festival, WOMAD has always been pretty small (which is very much part of the appeal for its regular audience). The three-day event at Reading Rivermead has consistently attracted crowds of around 9,000 in recent times, up until last year, when it was a 12,000 sell-out. This year (the festival runs from July 21-23) looks like being the same, in fact there may not be any tickets available on the door: at the time of writing, the weekend before the festival, Saturday had already sold out.

Part of this can be put down to the fact that ‘world’ music made something of a comeback in trend factor last year, more however must be due to the placing of the ‘club’ section of the festival in the hands of the Whirl-Y-Gig crew (noted exponents of global ambient dance) and allowing them to programme bands (Transglobal Underground, Loop Guru and Banco de Gaia were among the acts: all re-appear this year). I asked DJ Monkey Pilot (Richard to his friends) how the link-up came about.

“Partly as a result of doing the Phoenix Festival the year before and partly as a result of the son of Simon Jeffes of Penguin Cafe Orchestra saying to Simon Emerson (who produces Baaba Maal): ‘You ought to be going to the Whirl-Y-Gig: you ought to know about Whirl-Y-Gig.’ Emerson ended up going to the Whirl-Y-Gig, was totally blown away, loved it, went back to WOMAD and Real World, raving about it – that connected with some connections they had and the rest is history.”

Whirl-Y-Gig was massively popular at last year’s WOMAD – on the Saturday night when Transglobal played, there seemed as many trying to get into the Rivermead Centre as were already inside.

“I think it’s going to be a load better this year, because we’re actually in the big top. That was one of the big problems, with the heat of the Rivermead Centre and the restrictions on the door.”

But you’re still able to play ’til 2 a.m.?

“Yeah. We’ll have the parachute set (an integral part of the Whirl-Y-Gig, which has to be experienced rather than described -ed.) from 1 a.m., so it’ll be ambient from then. But on Saturday and Sunday we’ll be going from 12 right through to 2… 14 hours. My style is to thread a connection between the bands. At a regular Whirl-Y-Gig, we don’t have bands and I take the music through quite a wide range of styles and moods.”

This is borne out by records such as The Vision by Prophesy (on Ultimate Records, including a mix by Richard): sounding like Senser crashing into a gospel choir, it’s not what I’d immediately associate with the Whirl-Y-Gig.

“That’s true in one sense, but that’s often what makes a Whirl-Y-Gig hit, it’s one of those tracks that you just wouldn’t hear anywhere else, it’s so unique that it just seems to fit.”

So, all these bands playing, does that get in the way of your building a coherent set?

“Well, I’ve chosen all the bands, they’re bands that make the music that I normally play, so in fact they are programmed through the day to suit, in a sense, so there is a great cross-relationship between the bands and the music I’m playing. Hopefully I can take everyone from one band to the next, keeping the mood and building the mood as the day goes on.”

It almost sounds like you’re hoping people will arrive at the Whirl-Y-Gig tent at 12, leave at 2 in the morning, without going to check any acts on other stages?

“Hoping, did you say?” he laughs. “That would be nice, but maybe that isn’t the point of the festival! But if they did, they would have a wonderful day.”

So you’re not too worried if somebody comes in for a couple of hours, goes off and sees Baaba Maal, then comes back?

“Well, we’ll let them back in again!”

There have been suggestions that elements of the traditional WOMAD audience feel almost invaded by Whirl-Y-Gig and its audience.

“One fears that an established audience might not welcome what was a whole new lease of life, but the only messages I got back were very positive, everybody was just delighted: it seemed like a marriage made in heaven, maybe we should have been doing it together before.”

You’re one of the few DJs who prefers using CDs to records. Why?” For the reliability of sound quality. Particularly ambient stuff. If you’re not mixing and changing the speeds of the records and all that, it’s a lot more accurate with CDs.”

Any particular tips amongst the bands for those who’ve not been to WOMAD or Whirl-Y-Gig before?

“Absolutely. Earth Tribe and Azukx are two real exciting bands. We’ve done a few gigs outside our own promotions with those two and can vouch for the fact that they’re really special. And then we’re really proud to be presenting Mouth Music (brilliant Celtic world fusion – ed.) and Suns of Arqa.”

I’m not a big fan of Suns of Arqa, I must say. And Banco de Gaia?

“Banco’s always been top of our list. He’s headlining on Sunday, Astralasia are headlining Saturday, and Transglobal on Friday.”

Well I can’t promise to be there fourteen hours a day, but I’ll get in when I can.

“Oooh-kay,” he intones in a mock-disgruntled voice.

On to the rest of the festival…

Right, that’s the Whirl-Y-Gig side of the festival. Wonderful it may be, but you’d certainly be missing out if you didn’t investigate some of the other delights on store. The chief joy at a WOMAD bash is to wander around ’til you suddenly come face to face with a style of music that’s so fresh and invigorating, so different to what you normally listen to, that just for a moment there seems no point in listening to anything else ever again (until you wander round the next corner and it happens once more). I certainly couldn’t claim to have even heard of all the acts on the bill, but my recommendations are as follows:

Sabri Brothers – up there with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan as greats of qawwali, the Pakistani devotional music that can really engulf the listener.

Tarika – quintet from Madagascar, fronted by the sublime vocals of sisters Hanitra and Noro, and featuring a variety of instruments, many unique to their home island.

Grandmothers of Tuareg – haunting sounds from the Saharan desert – just sit there and let the atmosphere flood into you.

Baaba Maal & Daande Lenol – one of the true superstars of African music, Baaba Maal’s voice has magical qualities…

Margareth Menzes – …and you can say the same about the voice of one of the true superstars of Latin music.

Prophets of Da City – South African hip-hop crew not known for pulling their punches.

Marta Sebestyen – magnificent Hungarian vocalist, noted for her work with Deep Forest and Muzsikas.

Phew! And that’s without considering Papa Wemba, Ali Farka Toure, Master Musicians of Jajouka, Bim Sherman, Purna and Paban das Baul, Hamid Baroudi, and Chief Ayinde Wasiu Marshal, to name but a few. If you’re going down there, you’re going to have a good time.

Pete Fruin