Me and my X-men

Peter Gabriel isn’t sure if he’s meant to be saying this– it’s the kind of thing that could get a former secretary-general of the United Nations into trouble — but he’s talking about the project that prevented him joining last year’s Genesis reunion. “Kofi Annan was saying the fact that he didn’t have the security council on his back every single move was enormously liberating.”

Annan hasn’t been in the studio with Gabriel; he’s part of the latest stage of Gabriel’s vaultingly ambitious career, serving as one of the 12 members of the Elders, a group of statesmen and women — including Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Jimmy Carter — Gabriel helped convene to deal with global problems.

Ambition has been a constant in Gabriel’s career. He co-founded Genesis while still at school, only to leave them in 1975 for a massively successful solo career. Not content with that, he helped to transform the world music scene by promoting­ international artists through the Womad festivals and Real World record label. And now the Elders.

Gabriel has found himself too busy to devote his full attention even to that — he missed this summer’s meeting because he had just become a father for the fourth time, at the age of 58. All of which has meant little time for making new music. It’s six years since Gabriel released Up, his last studio album, but he does appear on a new Real World release, for which he was co-curator.

It’s called Big Blue Ball, and consists of collaborations by artists from around the world who came together for what Gabriel called Recording Weeks, held at his studios in Wiltshire in 1991, 1992 and 1995, with extra vocals added to one song last year. But why has it taken so long to be completed? “That’s pretty quick, I’d say!” retorts Gabriel. “Normally, in a recording studio, you chop away as you go, but with this there was no time. There was a mountain that needed clearing and sorting, and every time someone looked at it, vertigo­ was the result. And I’m a perfectionist, so it took a while to satisfy me as well.”

Big Blue Ball is a perfect Gabriel project: it combines his fascination with technology, experimentation and music from around the world. The motivating idea was “creative anarchy and allowing interesting things to happen”, and the results include a glorious collaboration between Natacha Atlas, an Egyptian string section and percussionist Hossam Ramzy, and a song featuring Sinead O’Connor, Chinese flute player Guo Yue and Sevara Nazarkhan from Uzbekistan. Then there are the tracks involving Gabriel himself, including a rousing number with drummer Billy Cobham. “Most of the tracks started with a groove,” he says. I’m a big groove fan — and a failed drummer. It’s still that, and passionate singing, that brings me into a lot of music.”

The project could never have been long-running, he says, “because we never found a way to make it pay for itself — but I’d love to do it again. It was among the most exciting musical moments I have ever had. We may have dreams of women and money, but fun is still the motive for a lot of people starting in music, and there’s nothing like being with a group of musicians and generating­ something that hasn’t existed before.”

Big Blue Ball is part of Gabriel’s ongoing quest to bring new music to audiences. “It’s a bit like food,” he says. “The taste may be a little foreign at first, but after a while you get to like it. If we can absorb the world, which we need to do, that is part of a globalisation process. I have a lot of sympathy for the anti-globalisation movement, but I think it’s the wrong word. Womad has always been a globalisation festival to me.”

The Womad festival is now as much part of the British musical summer as Glastonbury — this was its 26th year — and there is now a global network of Womad events. Has it achieved what Gabriel wanted? “Like all good evangelists, we’d love it to have taken over the world, but it has opened a lot of doors for a lot of artists, and for that, everyone involved feels very proud. It’s the only festival I know of that’s been exported.”

But could it become a victim of its own success, now that artists from around the world are staples of so many other festivals? With the departure this year of Thomas Brooman, Womad’s co-founder and original artistic director, Gabriel suggests there could be changes.

“I’m looking at different ways of opening up Womad, so I hope some of the original ideas might be looked at again. Originally we were trying to do more with poetry, film and art and it would be great to find a way of getting more of that.”

There might also be more younger bands, especially after the intriguing work combining British and African musicians in the Africa Express project, started by Damon Albarn and others as an angry reaction to the lack of African musicians at Live 8. Gabriel sees what they are doing as a continuation of the Recording Weeks concept. “I’m sure they wouldn’t appreciate being told that,” he says. “But I do see a connection. At the first Womad, we had Echo and the Bunnymen playing with the Burundi drummers.”

So what next? He says there will be a new album soon, possibly next year. And he’s recorded for an album called Scratch My Back, in which artists cover each other’s songs. And then there’s his involvement with the Elders, the concept of which sprang from a conversation with Richard Branson in 1999. The aim was “getting a group of superheroes to work together — I do think that governments are in some ways the record companies of the governance world, in the sense that the old models are redundant in some areas.”

He hopes this group of veteran politicians and activists, currently chaired by Desmond Tutu, will be able to offer advice on issues such as conflict resolution: “If you have the Elders, whose phone calls will not be refused and rejected by any statesman, you have some means of influencing events.”

And did he really have to make the choice between meetings with Mandela, Tutu and co and singing The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway? It seems so. The Elders, said Gabriel “was a once-in-a lifetime opportunity and more pressing for me than a Genesis reunion, even though it could be fun to do some time. But it’s not necessarily something I would want to live in.”

Meaning? “It’s a nice place to visit but not somewhere you want to move back to necessarily.” It’s not, perhaps, the Real World. —

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