CHRIS who? He may not be a headliner but Chris Smith definitely steals the show. MARION SAUVEBOIS meets WOMAD's global festival director for a sneak peek behind the scenes at one of the world’s biggest international festivals

HE shies away from the limelight and won’t be sharing the bill with groovy acts, shimmying with African dancers or strumming the ukulele anytime soon - yet global festival director Chris Smith is without a doubt WOMAD’s star performer.

A benevolent leader, dab negotiator, occasional diplomat, and all around master multi-tasker, every year – with the help of a coterie of dogged organisers – he navigates red tape, herds construction crews, heeds big boss Peter Gabriel’s instructions and conjures a music and arts bonanza virtually out of thin air.

“I am the person that stands in the middle and has to put it all together,” he chuckles warmly. “I have the overall responsibility for gelling it all into one magnificent event. It’s not without its stresses. The risks are huge. If something is going well you think you must have forgotten something. There’s always challenges. But we know in the end it’s going to work because we know what we’re doing.”

Turning a muddy Wiltshire field into a veritable cultural hub where Voodoo-tinged funk bands rub shoulders with wordsmiths, chefs and up-and-comers from far-flung corners of the globe is no mean feat.

First of all, like every good second in command, he took his cue from founder Peter Gabriel. This year Mr Gabriel himself set his heart on a change of scene, in a manner of speaking, by opting to reconfigure the layout of the WOMAD village. His wish was Chris’s command and off he went team in tow to remodel the arena.

This readiness to shake the mould, keep things fresh and surprise the crowds is the secret to WOMAD’s longevity, when many a festival has floundered, Chris believes.

“You have to freshen it up and make sure you don’t repeat the same thing or it will slowly die,” adds Chris, who has been at the helm for 15 years - initially as part of his role as Reading’s head of culture back when the festival was held in the town and later as its full-time global director when WOMAD moved to a roomier field at Charlton Park a decade ago.

“It all came from a debrief with the big boss, the governor. He has very good ideas. This year all the stages have moved, the crossover of the arboretum and the old arena has gone, so it’s much more relaxed. It will look very different. We’ve introduced a new physics pavilion, with cloud chambers, Doctor Who writers. We want people to say, ‘Blimey it was different this year’. Other festivals come and go but we’ve managed to keep going for 34 years.”

The new blueprint agreed in theory came the minor issue of securing the all-important planning permission– an unavoidable step, with or without a remodel, each year - slogging through mounds of paperwork and ticking licencing boxes. And that’s even before the ink had dried on the definitive line-up rollcall.

Then the real bulk of the work started: promotion, press announcements, construction, the whole shebang.

Like every linchpin worthy of the name, Chris is fully aware of his own strengths and woeful limitations; and when it comes to cobbling together an eclectic assortment of world performers, every year he is more than happy to defer to the experts.

“You have to put yourself out of the equation,” he adds with a hint of self-deprecation. “A good programme knows the audience. If I programmed this festival it was be a very boring experience for everybody but I’d be having a great time. It’d be my Spotify playlist that’d be it.”

Showing Britons a good time rain or shine is only a fraction of his job. We might claim the quirky festival as Wiltshire’s own but WOMAD is an international event at heart which has found a loyal public in Spain, Chile and New Zealand among others nations. For Chris this means flying to the four corners of the earth, dealing with planning headaches, construction schedules and looming deadlines all year round.

“Interestingly WOMAD is a much bigger brand internationally than it is in the UK. Although we’re abroad, you would know you were at a WOMAD Festival but you also need variation, it has to be a mix of what we do here and adding local flavour. You have to get that balance.”

While the UK incarnation is all in all a rather well-oiled machine, rebranding the festival for foreign audiences has proved a steep learning curve for Chris – not least in Russia. There is far more to organising a major event than first-rate time-keeping, flawless logistics and top-notch managerial skills. Indeed, to cut it overseas you need to dig out the diplomacy rulebook and forget about deadlines altogether.

“The Spanish have a far more relaxed approach to safety than the UK,” he laughs. “And in Chile you have to adapt to things happening at the last minute. You know it’s going to happen but you’re never sure exactly when. You’re working in a different culture so you have to adapt to their way of doing things. You have to be respectful.

“Some countries like Russia do things very differently. It’s quite rigid, there’s lots of politics, lots of boxes to tick. A lot of my jobs is politics and diplomacy. You can’t have any preconceptions, you just learn to work within their system.”

His most surreal experience by far was in Abu Dhabi. While the rest of the world follows the same frugal (as much as throwing a high-flying festival will allow) approach to budgeting, no expense was spared in the United Arab Emirates.

“It definitely wasn’t a festival on a muddy field,” he says. “There was so much wealth and excess. It was on a beach but the sand was the wrong colour for what they wanted to achieve so they imported sand from another country. It was quite an extraordinary experience.”

But back to the UK. It’s all hands on deck as the kick off for WOMAD 2016 looms large. With more than 80 acts, scores of traders, 40,000 festival-goers and no fewer than 5,000 volunteers ready to descend on Charlton Park, Chris has more than he can gobble up on his proverbial plate.

“There is a tipping point around the Tuesday/Wednesday when the traders arrive, the bands are coming in, you have to feed thousands of people, crew and artists and staff, - and we’re responsible for all these people. And there’s the public. You are managing an army literally – it’s an interesting dynamic.”

It has been hailed as a beacon of tolerance, a celebration of diversity, cultures, and unity beyond borders. And at a time of political turmoil and growing divide, WOMAD’s ethos and transnational values are more relevant and crucial than ever, he adds.

“It’s a celebration of global culture whether it’s through music, or word, art or food,” he concludes. “It’s about sharing which, Lord knows, we need these days.”

WOMAD runs from July 28 to 31. For more details and the full line-up go to