Exhibition: Food for Peace and Justice

Womad, A celebration of global culture

Womad, A celebration of global culture
An Interview with WOMAD’s Paula Henderson

WOMAD festival was born in 1982, a global success story it has since expanded its presence to 27 countries and a back catalogue of over 250 festivals. The original event, now based at Charlton Park in Wiltshire, is the birthplace of Madras Cafe and the strong ties between the two remain to this day. Although we won’t have the chance to serve MadCaf’s famous chai and thali’s on site this year, we did find time to share a cuppa with WOMAD’s festival booker Paula Henderson and ask her what food means to the festival.

Could you sum up what food means to WOMAD festival in a few words?

Music, food and conversation – they are at the heart of the event and are equal parts of creating a perfect experience. So food, and in particular sharing food, is part of what is at the heart of WOMAD. Food helps people to connect and it is this connection that fosters the warmth at the heart of the festival. Even with 30,000 people in a field WOMAD still has a relaxed atmosphere.

Our audience is always filled with such passionate and curious people who want to discover and learn – the Taste The World stage is the perfect encapsulation of that and all those strands coming together.

How did the Taste the world stage come to be?

Well the first Taste The World stage happened at our Australian festival Womadelaide back in 2005, we had a series of workshops with artists in residence at the time but this format sometimes felt a bit structured. Then we landed on this concept of having a conversation. Artists on tour will often describe the things they really miss when away from home – which are usually certain foods that remind them of home and of course their friends and family. It turns out quite a few artists are keen cooks too! So the stage kind of evolved from the idea of connecting to our artists through food.

Roger the stage host in both Austrailia and the UK is incredible, he researches every artist and dish and has a magical way of creating this very calm and relaxed atmosphere – like a chat round a kitchen table. Whilst an artistscooks he asks questions and the stories, music and laughter spontaneously come together. The relaxed atmosphere seems to help – music and food are the foundations but conversation often covers a lot of ground from personal stories and family history, to cultural traditions, religion, politics, ecology. The stage and format has a special magic.

How do you go about finding the artists for the stage?

We ask the artists! Those who feel they have something to share and would like to experience the stage let us know and we develop the programme from there, ensuring we have an interesting programme with a mix of artists and cultures.

Usually an artist will have a particular recipe they’d like to share – something meaningful to them that has a story attached. That’s the starting point. But the beauty of the stage is that you’re never quite sure what will happen on the day and where conversation will lead. And that’s what it is all about, there isn’t any pressure on the artists to be a chef, some of the meals have been terrible!

The MadrasCafe exhibition theme this year explores the connections between food, social justice and peace - are there any artists, stories and moments from the stage that come to mind on this theme?

Goodness, there are have been so many incredible moments but a few that come to mind would be….

Katy Carr, who made some delicious Polish pierogi. Katy lived in Poland until she was 5 yrs old but on growing up in the UK lost touch with her roots. She described how meeting a war veteren and escapee from Auschwitz brought the reality of her personal and family history closer to her again and prompted her to reconnect with her roots.

Food was a big part of that personal journey for her.

Then there was the amazing Nomfusi from South Africa. She cooked dishes from her homeland whilst describing the heartbreaking story of losing both her mother and aunt from AIDs. Then when asked who her favourite artist was she took Roger and the whole audience by surprise when she said Tina Turner and proceeded to belt out an incredible rendition of River Deep Mountain High. She had us all singing.

Another emotional moment was with N’Faly Kouyate from Guinea who described how his mother had taught him to cook and used to sing to him whilst cooking. He hadn’t spoken about his mother since she had passed away a couple of years before but he felt compelled to share some beautiful memories of his life with her. It was all still very raw. There was such a feeling of compassion from the audience sharing his story, for a brief moment we didn’t feel like strangers.

I guess all these moments highlight the power of food to help connection and how through this we can understand ourselves and each other better.

Sadly there is no WOMAD this year but what does the festival and TTW stage have lined up for next year?

It is all still in the planning but we will be inviting all the artists from this year back to play in 2021 and the Taste The World stage will back too – with more stories and recipes to share! Watch this space!

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