Exotic life of the WOMAD booker

PAULA Henderson has the best job in the world. At least, some of us might think so.

She books bands for the annual WOMAD Festival at Charlton Park near Malmesbury, an occupation that entails journeying to exotic lands, listening to exotic music and luring exotic artistes to Wiltshire.

Her recent expeditions have taken her to the Solomon Islands and Cape Verde checking out potential acts for WOMAD. “I’m really lucky. I love travelling and I love music,” says Paula, whose office at Box near Bath was converted from the studio where Peter Gabriel recorded his classic 1986 album So.

“I go to festivals, conferences, gigs to find the best mix of music for our audience.”

Paula has just about completed the line-up for July’s four-day jamboree which will see around 100 groups/artistes – many from far-flung corners of the globe – converge on the Earl of Suffolk’s expansive and lush backyard.

Bringing such a vast range of music from such a vast range of countries to the planet’s biggest world music festival is challenging. For a start, how on earth does she hear all these artistes, many of whom boast outrageously tongue-twisting names?

“I have a really good group of people around the world who tell me about music they feel I should hear. “WOMAD is so well established that a lot people come to us. I receive CDs and things through the internet all the time.

“From September to March I will go through everything to find the sort of artistes that I feel we should have.”

She’s no linguist, Paula, but the internet has helped ease many a hitch that a few years earlier could have been lost in translation.

“Language can still sometimes be an issue… but music makes it all happen in the end.”

Paula was 18 when she joined WOMAD as “the office junior” in 1989. Over the years she has booked hundreds of bands from pretty much “as many countries as there in the world.”

Sometimes it takes years of emails, visits and assurances to snare acts that she is determined to bring to WOMAD.

One such were The Manganiyar Seduction, an eye-popping 50-strong theatrical ensemble from India.

“It took four to five years to persuade various bodies involved in the production to come to WOMAD. I was so pleased to get them – I knew our audience would love them.”

The Malawi Mouse Boys, so named as they sold barbequed mice-on-sticks to passing drivers, last year created another problem.

“They didn’t have passports, they had no idea to get to the UK, what do when they got here. We had to sort all that out for them.”

Her favourite WOMAD moment? A tough one, for sure, but she goes for the Pakistani devotional singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, considered one of the greatest voices ever recorded.

“It was absolutely pouring with rain but thousands of people just stood there watching, hardly a muscle moving.”

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