* Musicians cook for viewers on Womad's Taste the World
* Stage brings flavours of Iran, Sweden, Cyprus to
* Audience take part in live Q&A on music, culture, food
By Jan Harvey
CHARLTON PARK, England, July 29 In their native
Iran, Mahsa and Marjan Vahdat are best known for their soaring
voices, flawless harmonies and dedication to the art of singing
in the face of tough restrictions on public performances by
But on a Sunday morning last weekend in the Wiltshire region
of southwestern England, Mahsa's chief preoccupation was the
correct sourcing of dried plums.
"These are from eastern Iran, from a village near the
desert," she told host Roger de Wolf and the assembled crowd at
Taste the World stage at Womad, a festival of traditional music
and dance, as she unwrapped the fruit, brought with her from the
Middle East. "They're sourer than others."
Around her, sister Marjan assembled lemon powder, turmeric
and saffron for the chicken dish they were cooking, while in the
background, the stage's sous-chef and kitchen assistants
supplied saucepans, chicken and rice.
Within a few moments, the sisters had broken off from the
recipe to demonstrate the talent that brought them from Tehran,
with a rendition of their fusion-edged Iranian song for the
assembled crowd. Shortly after that, the meal they had prepared
was distributed to the same audience, so they could taste, as
well as hear, a little of Iranian culture.
This combination of food and song is the culmination of an
idea dreamed up by one of the festival's organisers Annie
Menter, who set up the Taste the World stage at Womad (the
acronym stands for World of Music and Dance) eight years ago.
Menter, who had long been involved with the festival in its
various incarnations around the globe, had seen how the
musicians she travelled with sought out their national dishes on
tour, as a little taste of home.
"If you're away from home and family, what connects you back
to those is food," Menter said. "It's a comfort thing. If you're
feeling lonely or out on a limb, even a bowl of rice that's
traditional for you instantly raises your spirits."
She began asking musicians if they would be prepared to cook
a dish from their home country while being interviewed before
the Womad crowd, peppering the process with songs.
Given Womad's focus on bringing together music from around
the world - acts this year have hailed from as far afield as
Rwanda, Cuba, Armenia and Wales - the result has been eclectic,
to say the least.
This year New Zealand-based reggae-soul collective Fat
Freddy's Drop knocked up a seafood ceviche; Sweden's Linnea
Olsen produced dumplings with chanterelles and lingonberries;
and Cyprus's Monsieur Domani prepared a traditional meat stew
that was marinated by the Taste the World team overnight.
From a strictly culinary perspective, the experiment has not
always resulted in Michelin-standard results, Menter said, but
that was not the point. Its success has been in bringing another
dimension to the festival by broadening out its presentation of
the different cultures represented beyond just music.
It has also allowed the crowd to see a wholly different
aspect of these musicians. Host de Wolf invited questions from
the audience throughout the interview with the Iranians, and
they came thick and fast, on food and culture as well as music.
"I love the fact that it's so intimate," said Karen Chapman
from north London, who works in film finance. "You really get to
hear the story behind the artist and their culture, through
music and through food."
From the small tent it occupied on the edge of the festival
in 2006, the Taste the World event has grown considerably.
Menter says she'd be happy for it not to expand any further, but
she's clearly delighted with what's been achieved.
"The rationale for me was, what's life about?" she says.
"Music, food, conversation. This is an extension of sitting
around your kitchen table and cooking for friends.
"In that situation, you want to share your food, but you
also want to share your conversation, your opinions, your ideas,
your culture. That's what's important."
(Editing by Michael Roddy/Mark Heinrich)