WOMEX, its name an acronym for World Music Expo, is an itinerant annual conference, trade fair, and showcase concert event—in the manner of SXSW or CMJ—bruited by its organizer, the German record label and festival promotion firm Piranha, to be the “largest and leading international networking lounge for World, Roots, Folk, Ethnic, Traditional, Local, and Diaspora Music.” Like visitors from some benign outer-space civilization, WOMEX’s roughly 2,500 international artists, agents, promoters, packagers, D.J.’s, and record company folk, more than a few of them aging hipsters-turned-small-businessmen types, were welcomed to this year’s site—Greece’s historic second-largest city, Thessaloniki—with a combination of befuddlement and relief by a consort of local municipal and private organizations desperately hoping, against the odds, to promote some exportable notion of Greek contemporary culture.
The ironies here are thick and multi-layered; Greece and its music—victims, as it were, of globalization gone berserk—played host to a musical army comprised of what one savvy American festival promoter at a conference panel jokingly calls “Globalistas”—the sort of people who, whatever their own ethnicity or class, have a predisposition to seek out exotic restaurants, foreign films, and foreign music. More irony: The same week that the largely German-administered WOMEX arrived in Thessaloniki, Germany’s leader Angela Merkel, the hated High Priestess of Austerity, was slated to visit Athens. In response to that event and the scheduled imposition of new rounds of mandatory labor givebacks, a nationwide general strike was called by unions for what happened to be the first full day of WOMEX events.
Not to worry: The Greek hosts provided strike-proof transportation for late-arriving Womexicans, and as it turns out no services were interrupted within the fairgrounds. Schmoozing and conferencing continued, untrammeled by the demonstrations and marches taking place in the city at large, much the way the anarchist slogans and graffiti covering every wall—blending in with the ruins of Roman and Byzantine fortifications and decorating the crumbling old Turkish houses in the Upper Town—served as a surreal, postmodern set for the similarly jumbled-up music of the Globalistas.
Despite these paradoxes, and despite the potential for exploitation and condescension that is contained in the whole concept of “world music,” in the end the Womexicans, well-meaning small-fry that they are in the giant ocean of mega-corporate mass culture, still embody the alternate-world, utopian side of the globalist urge. This same urge once motivated social-democrat dreamers to conceive of a united Europe, a dream that has only recently turned into a nightmare. But no one at this event was kidding themselves into thinking that a convocation of Macedonian Gypsy rappers, Native American trance futurist-electronica producers, and Ukrainian “ethno-chaos” drum circle goth-rockers has anything close to the commercial potential that corporate international events like MIDEM aspire to. These Globalistas are true believers, not cutthroat culture-marketers, and the Greek and other borderline–third world artists seeking their approval are unembarrassed to indulge their fantasies—fantasies which, to a great extent, they share.
When I asked Greek performer Martha Mavroidi—who plays and sings original songs, based on traditional scales, on an electric version of an obscure string instrument from Constantinople called a lavta—whether there was a whiff of colonialism in the relationship between WOMEX and the hopeful Greek artists looking for gigs, she grinned in agreement but didn’t seem bothered. Like all the Greek musicians I talked to, she did seem sick and tired of the economic crisis and its relentless politicization of life. But then she mused, “I truly believe that art is revolutionary by its nature…By producing something that never existed, it hints at the possibility of something different. And it is only if you are able to imagine something different that you can begin the revolution.” Somehow this notion, expressed in the middle of a busy trade fair in an ancient city on the crossroads of Europe and the Middle East, seemed totally appropriate.
Note: WFMU’s Rob Weisberg devoted the November 17th episode of his Transpacific Sound Paradise show to this event; scan his online archives for the streaming audio: http://wfmu.org/playlists/TP
You can also find reviews of many notable WOMEX 2012 performances at these sites: