Musical Road to WOMEX: Q&A with Alex Walter (August 2021)

Welcome to a new Rhythm Passport section that will keep you company till the 27th of October when WOMEX will raise the curtains on its 2021 edition. As it’s not too hard to imagine, the section is dedicated to the Expo itself.

In the next 11 weeks, we will indeed accompany you on a musical road straight to Porto, introducing and helping you get acquainted with some of the 260 artists who will light up the showcase nights

Featuring their music selections, we will gather together, in figurative terms, musicians from all over the world who reflect the diversity in traditions and styles which has always been a strong point of the Worldwide Music Expo since its inception 27 years ago.

But before letting the music and musicians do the talking, we reached one of the “minds, hands and ears” who are making WOMEX possible. 

We have indeed stolen some precious holiday time from WOMEX Director, Alex Walter, and arranged a Q&A interview that will offer you an in-depth and first-hand look into his relationship with music, professional experience and that small, global music miracle called WOMEX…

Let’s start with a tricky question. In a few words… What does WOMEX represent to you?

WOMEX – the Worldwide Music Expo – for me is the most important annual gathering of a dedicated community that celebrates musical and cultural diversity. It features a trade fair, conferences, film programme, awards and live showcases.

Can you give us a brief history of how WOMEX came about and developed? 

WOMEX grew out of a Berlin-based conference called The Berlin Independence Days at the beginning of the 90s. Within that event, a small group of ‘World Music’ operators met and networked. Once BID stopped, the first official WOMEX took place in 1994, and since then, the event is growing and travelling throughout Europe from city to city.

What is your involvement in WOMEX and how did you become a “WOMEXican”?

Actually, I started as an intern in the conference team. It was during my studies at the university; I began to have an on-and-off relationship – half university, half WOMEX. From there, slowly and steadily, I started taking care of the showcases.

As well as its expo dimension, WOMEX is a good and proper music festival. Can you describe the process of curating artists? What works for WOMEX and what doesn’t?

Every year, we host an open call to the worldwide music community and ask for submissions for conference sessions, films and showcase proposals. Along with that, to keep our annual programme current, up-to-date and fair, each year, we appoint a new 7 member independent jury who executes the selection of the official WOMEX programme. From the 1,000+ proposals we receive, this jury has the challenging task of shaping a showcase programme rich and diverse in musical styles, countries, backgrounds. Therefore, the WOMEX programme is limited to some extent – what is not proposed or submitted by the community will not get selected – but overall, it works out very well; there is so much genuine and excellent artistry out there…

What act/s have you been eager to work with in the past and would like to see turn up in the future?

Our main aim is to support artists. WOMEX is a platform to expose artists and creative talents to new audiences. We are always thrilled if artists or bands present something different, something new and unexpected, or if they are yet undiscovered by the global audience, which is often the case with our artist selections. Furthermore, it’s also essential to include established artists who want to show a new side of their work or seek new markets. 

The musical styles are constantly changing, new musical elements are being developed all the time, and the digital hemisphere allows these artists to collaborate with musicians on the other side of the world. We are always eager to showcase these new directions and collaborations. 

What is your favourite element of the project? Is there any aspect you would like to see improved or changed in the future?

My favourite element would have to be the networking aspect and the unique personal interactions it brings along with it. During the WOMEX days, delegates are busy working, networking, and connecting. And, by evening, they enjoy live music and share special moments with the same passion and excitement with their new connections. I love that we are not a mainstream-driven event, and I hope more promoters and festival bookers take every chance to introduce the showcased upcoming artists in their future line-ups. These artists deserve bigger stages and audiences, and the audiences deserve to experience them! 

Speaking of what I would love to see developed in the future, the WOMEX Academy. It is our latest initiative which aims to support artists and other music professionals who wish to strengthen their skills to access the international circuits and markets.

Covid-19 affected and is still influencing so many industries across the board that it’s hard not to discuss it in relation to the music sector. How has it already impacted and how might it impact your event this year?

Indeed, it is very hard for all the arts that work with the enjoyable aspect of a live audience. Everyone involved in music, especially in the live music events, is currently working with a lot of uncertainty which is frustrating. Planning international tours for bands is a mammoth task, which involves detailed logistics, visa applications, travel, finances, and much more. With the current scenario of last-minute postponements and cancellations, it has become extremely challenging. I believe we will only comprehend the real impact of all this on our sector in the coming years. We hope that the small businesses – especially those in the global south – will survive this tense situation and that the bands themselves don’t split up in the need to find other sources of income. Due to COVID-19, we had to adapt and move our 2020 event to completely digital, all within a period of a month and a half. By the end, it all worked out fine, but we missed the personal interactions and live musicians on stage. For this year, our upcoming 2021 edition in Porto, Portugal, we are planning an in-person event from 27 – 31 October.

(fingers crossed) This October, we are going to enjoy the festival “in the flesh” once again. Can you point out some of the highlights of WOMEX 2021’s edition and what you are looking forward to?

One of the highlights is that WOMEX, in its history of 27 years, will travel for the first time to Portugal. Porto is a beautiful city with lots of musical and cultural heritage that offers some world-class venues historically used for music and theatre, suitable for an event of our size; all this presents a fine setting for our artists and delegates. Some of the other highlights will be that the people will be able to meet personally once again. We will have a lot of interesting Portuguese music in our programme along with films and conference sessions that will allow people to dig deeper into this year’s host country.

What’s the relation between WOMEX and the local communities? How does the festival interact with the city and country where it happens?

An interested and dedicated local partner always has to prepare the initial step of formulating a proposal to bring WOMEX to their city or country and involve other regional or national music operators. For WOMEX to take place, it is essential to have the local municipality’s support and the broader political intention behind the project. 

To encourage local communities, we dedicate one stage of the concerts to the regional artists from the host region. Whenever possible, depending on the venues’ capacities, we open our evening programme of showcases and films to the public audience.

How do you feel about spending quite a few days in Porto this autumn and what should we expect from and look for throughout a long music weekend in the Portuguese city?

We have a solid Portuguese community at WOMEX  which has been attending for a long time, but this year will be special, as we are joining the members with a dedicated Portuguese musical programme. So, our delegates will have the chance to get to know more about Portugal and its different music movements, the diversity of cultures that nourish it, and the players behind it. And of course, there will be a lot of good food and Porto wine.

Since its inception (back in 1994), WOMEX has grown and grown in popularity also outside the music industry environment, so how would you introduce WOMEX to a potential newcomer?

A lot is going on in the music sector. There are many things to hear and experience that are new or as yet under the radar or unexposed. During the five days of the event at WOMEX, a lot of knowledge and resources are exchanged. Surprise meetings happen all the time – that can be so rewarding – which only happen by happy accidents when you are together, in person. We realise WOMEX can be slightly intimidating for first-time attendees as many activities are going on over the five days. This is why, every year, we invite newcomers to attend our first conference session called ‘Orientation for New Delegates’, which presents as a kick-starter into networking, sharing knowledge, and offers a meeting point with veterans and other new delegates. 

Even though WOMEX has grown to an average of 2,500 visitors year after year, we strive to keep a welcoming, friendly and open atmosphere that allows you to approach and talk to anyone attending, and I am confident they will help in some way or another.



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