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On the Road with Rupert
- in Singapore
Return at the WOMAD

Close your eyes. And have someone read this to you.

Picture this - A hillside park right smack in the center of the city, curtained off from the bustle of traffic by rows of trees that block out all but the tallest buildings in the skyline. The Westin Stamford peers over the treeline and a coconut palm stands awkwardly among the other deciduous trees. Picture the gentle slopes of this park filled with a panoply of people and colors laid out cozily on the grass. Everyone is dressed for comfort and I think no one would have been surprised if someone turned up in a nightgown or pajamas.

Picture a picnic that lasted four nights, out under stars in what seemed like another world. Imagine a subtle chorus of voices, the ever present sibilating that accompanies any large crowd. Imagine the descending hush every time the stage at the bottom of the green spits out technicians who have been bustling all over it to prepare for an artiste or artistes. People who have been leaning back on their elbows sit up and crane their necks if they have to. Over eight thousand eyes stab the stage each night with a gleam of anticipation. And then the expectation is rewarded as the stars step onto the stage.

Peter Gabriel, a pop icon by his own right, had a vision of a celebration of music, arts and dance from around the world. He dreamed of a festival that transcended cultural barriers, tore them down and then built bridges of song and dance. The dream began in 1982 in the United Kingdom. Seventeen years later it has spread to more than 18 countries at more than 120 festivals. This year I lived the dream at Fort Canning Park in Singapore. There were no colors, no creeds, and no religion. There were only rhythm and melody.

I was there. I sipped a Shiraz Cabernet under the starlight. I was enveloped by a warm blanket of world music; gentle voices singing in languages I understood and in others I couldn't; the tribal rhythms of drums spoke to me in a language as old as the first time man clapped his hands together. I looked around me and saw faces rapt and filled with joy. A communion of souls. Some kept their eyes closed as their heads swayed to the music. Some stared so hard it seemed as if they didn't want to blink for the rest of the night for fear of missing something. Others looked around as I did and a look of understanding would cross their faces (and mine I suppose) as I caught their eyes and our gazes locked for a brief moment.

In my six years of living in Singapore, I don't recall ever visiting Fort Canning Park. As far as I knew, it was more of a destination for couples searching for some privacy. So my first WOMAD was also my first visit to the park itself. I am told that Fort Canning was built in 1859 as an arms store, barracks and hospital. Today it contains bits of Singaporean history and is a popular venue for the arts scene in Singapore.

As I stepped past the whitewashed entrance, bits of it peeling with age and stained by the weather, I faced the peaceful sprawl of the park before me that was already beginning to fill with festival goers. I drew in a breath of the air and wondered what was in store for me. Having had the fortune of attending other concerts before I was a little surprised by the simplicity of the stage and the general calm that seemed incompatible with an exciting event like WOMAD. I thought I'd see a battalion of uniformed personnel crawling all over the stage and zipping over the entire set-up at near-light speeds. I thought I'd hear frantic shouts and screams. Instead, a few of the stage crew were suitably tickled as one of their colleagues experienced a return to childhood under the influence of a charming little lady in yellow.

The festival format was based on a two-stage set-up, with the Main Stage nestled at the bottom of the Fort Green and the Top Stage behind Fort Canning Center at the top of the hill. There were also presentations in the Center itself in a room they called the Black Box. I spent most of my time at the Main Stage and occasionally ventured uphill to either grab a drink or to catch the intimate performances in the Black Box room. I must admit that part of the reason I didn't make it up to the Top Stage as much as I should have was that almost all the acts made it to the Main Stage at some point of the festival. One could just stay put at the Fort Green and experience almost all that WOMAD '99 had to offer.

The Oriental talents of Han Mei & Randy and the Pei Zhen Chinese Arts Training Center kept their performances to the upper stage. Perhaps it was felt that the gentle trills of the zheng played by Han Mei and Randy Raine-Reusch might have benefited from the relatively quieter surroundings at the Top Stage. Whatever the reasons may be, I know that I only managed short 5 minute sessions at each of the performances. Nonetheless I thoroughly enjoyed the East-West fusion of Han Mei and Randy's set and the ethereal notes of the Pei Zhen performers. I closed my eyes and dreamed of a country that I've only seen in pictures. I saw the landscapes in classical Chinese paintings come alive. Twiggy looking storks flew past domed shaped hills, magnificent looking horses galloped through the valleys… and I wondered about my overactive imagination.

I think that the playgrounds of my mind are fertile as a result of a latchkey childhood. I spent countless hours at home searching for dragon lairs, hunting the Oogleboodymunchy(1) Monster, and climbing Everest. I read extensively as a child, with thanks to parents who never denied me a book. I've kept to that habit and, today, keep a modest library of a few hundred books in my room. It's part of the reason why I'm always so broke. The other part of it is the perverse sums of money I spend on music. I have to admit that being able to attend the WOMAD on a press pass helped with the financial front but then again the passes were not exorbitantly priced to begin with. The single night pass was priced at S$20, which is a real bargain when you consider that watching a movie would cost about half that much. Whatever it costs the next time round, I assure you that I'll be there. Just look for the guy sipping a glass of red wine who is constantly mumbling, "Oogledy boogledy".

…to be continued…

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(1) Stands about 7 feet tall, looks suspiciously like a Giant Panda, responds if it hears the phrase, "Oogledy boogledy," and replies by saying, "Oogleboody," while munching on potato chips.



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