Rolf Harris at this year's WOMAD Festival, Charlton Park, Malmesbury
PUBLISHED: 14:51 21 July 2010 | UPDATED: 17:35 20 February 2013
Katie Jarvis ties Rolf Harris down to ask him more about this year's WOMAD Festival
Rhythm, Rolf and the Roo Brothers
Artist, musician and all-round Australian entertainer Rolf Harris is one of the acts headlining at Charlton Park this month. Thats the venue for a diverse music festival offering a rare chance to see the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain billed alongside the world-famous Drummers of Burundi; therell be performances from Malian afro-pop star Salif Keita one day and from Australian superstar Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu the next. Can you tell what it is yet?
Were talking about WOMAD, of course the popular weekend featuring music and dance from around the world where Rolf is playing with his band.
Rolf, what will you be doing atWOMAD this year?
Well, Ill be working with my band - the Roo Brothers, as in kangaroo - who are just fantastic. The last time I did WOMAD Id just had a knee operation and I was wobbling about on crutches, which I had to prop at the side of the stage. It was great but Im looking forward to performing without the crutches this time!
Why is it important to promote world music in the way that WOMAD does?
Its fascinating to hear music from all parts of the world because often the stuff that we class as primitive is about our own past; all of our yesterdays. Ive been quoted as one of the first to present world music to the UK which I did with a recording called Sun Arise, purely based on Aboriginal rhythms and melodies. It was the first time anyone in this country had ever heard them.
Did it surprise you how well peopletook to it?
Thats an interesting story because George Martin, who recorded Sun Arise, told EMI: Youre going to have to plug this for a lot longer than the two or three weeks you normally promote records. He knew it was so different from anything that had been heard before that it would take people at least six weeks to get the hang of it. I can remember walking with my wife through Campden Town one Sunday and hearing Alan Freeman on the radio saying, At number 33 this week is Sun Arise by Rolf Harris. It was wonderful. The following week it was number 17; then number 11; then 3 and 2; and I thought - Next week number 1! Not a bit of it. Some pain-in-the-neck fellow called Elvis Presley beat me to it with Return to Sender. Do you know, Id never heard of him until that point!
You also introduced world instruments, such as the didgeridoo.
I love the sound of the didgeridoo. I couldnt play it when I made Sun Arise, and I didnt know anyone over here who could. So Johnnie Spence, who created the accompaniment for the record, got eight bass fiddles, all playing away on the same bottom E, to create the right sound. Everybody who heard it assumed that it was the didgeridoo, but it wasnt. After the session, one of those bass fiddle players said to me, Ive never played on a more boring record in my whole life, and walked away with a snarl on his face. I sympathised!
Is a didgeridoo hard to play?
Its a knack. Youve got to create a sound like a trombone playing a very loose bottom note, and youve got to learn a trick called cycle breathing: breathing in while youre blowing out at the same time very tricky. Every aboriginal kid can do it when theyre about three years old and they can all play the didgeridoo. Once you get to work out how to do it, its a wonderful sound.
Youve even created your own distinctive musical instrument: the famouswobble board.
Its a most amazingly primaeval sound - like water bubbling. I assumed everybody would be able to play it but its a very rare person who can make it work. They try and force their own rhythm on to it and it all goes wrong. Whereas if you bounce it in between the open palms of your hand, it has its own rhythm, like a pendulum. If its a very long board, it has a very slow bounce, wop, wop, wop, wop wop-de-wop; and if its a very short board, it goes wap-wop-wap-wop-wap.
How did you discover it?
I was painting a portrait of a dear friend of mine the magician Robert Harbin, who was part and parcel of the very first television series I did in this country; but I was doing it on a sheet of hardboard because I couldnt afford canvas. About an hour before he was due to arrive, I suddenly decided I should put a Prussian blue background down, which would be a lovely, mysterious colour for a magician. Half an hour later, it was still too tacky to paint on, so I propped it between the table and the back of a chair and stood an oil heater underneath to try and dry it off. When I tested the board to see if it was dry, I burned my finger couldnt believe how hot it was and I had visions of it bursting into flames; so I propped the edge of it between the open palms of my hand and shook it up and down to fan it and cool it and it made this amazing sound bom bom bom bom. It had an off-beat so I started emphasising every second beat and making it go blib BLIB blib BLIB blib and it was just wonderful. I had written the song Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport a couple of months before and it fitted perfectly. I was standing there making this noise when the fellow from the flat underneath came to the half-landing, called up and said, The pipes in the attic must have gone. I can hear water pumping everywhere. When he saw what I was doing, he must have thought I was mad.
What would you say to anyone whos never been to WOMAD before?
Id say its a festival that gives you every aspect of the world of music and dance. Whoever you are, youll find something to thrill you. Children love its instant appeal: primitive drumming consists of hitting something with something else. Since time immemorial, people have banged on bits of wood, or thumped on bits of metal, or bounced things off pieces of stretched skin over a framework with a resonating chamber underneath.
Above all, its a chance to see people who are absolutely top in their profession. They come along to this festival of music and dance and you feel really privileged to be there, to hear and to see them.
The WOMAD Festival takes place at Charlton Park, Malmesbury SN16 9DG from July 23-25, adult weekend tickets 125, teenagers (14-17) 60, children 13 and under free; 0845 146 1735; http://www.womadshop.com/detail/558. For more information, visit www.womad.org