TALKING TO PETER GABRIEL, ONE IS struck by how he is as much into technology as music, and deeply involved in the political implications of both. You can see why Gabriel brought out the late Martyn Bennett's powerful roots-electronic album Grit on his label, Real World, and why he's excited that his connection with Bennett's "brave new music" has led to Real World's first Scottish showcase, at Celtic Connections next week.
"At its heart it's a Martyn Bennett tribute," he says of the show. "Even when Martyn was ill he had this remarkably philosophical approach to a permanent state of crisis, and, underneath it all, always this sharp mind. He was an enormously gifted, soulful, passionate, generous musician, so we are bringing up a wide variety of artists to celebrate that."
Bennett died in 2005 at just 33, after a prolonged battle against aggressive cancer. He was an acclaimed virtuoso on pipes and fiddle, a self-styled "Dreadlocked Funkster" who created hardcore dance music as well as composing for symphony orchestra and string quartet. Gabriel sees Bennett's vision of tradition and experimentation walking hand-in-hand as a Real World trademark. "In different ways Daby Tour and Sevara [Nazarkhan] share things with Martyn," he says of two of the performers appearing at the showcase (see box). "Sevara shares Martyn's bold approach. She also has Martyn's sense of mischief. Daby is stripping back, simplifying and purifying his approach, like Martyn did."
I've been lucky to meet Peter Gabriel several times over the years. Once, at an early WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in Cornwall, before his 1980s Amnesty Tour, we talked in his car about Chilean singer Vctor Jara and the exile of Inti Illimani. Another time, down at the Real World Studios for BBC Radio 4, he took me and the producer by surprise by rowing us up the millstream that runs under the studios, because, as he remembers now, "it was a glorious day!" The movement of the oars made recording the interview impossible, so we chatted until he stopped mid-river, then were slowly carried back downstream as the tape ran, before he insisted we stay for lunch.
To understand Gabriel, the Real World studios label and the "recording weeks", one has to understand their mutual link with WOMAD. In 1982 Gabriel helped found WOMAD, and he and Genesis - the band he had formed many years earlier but left in the 1970s - bailed them out with a concert benefit following huge losses. While not directly involved after the first year, he's been in the background ever since. The Real World Studios were built in 1986, while the Real World label, founded in 1989, has always been associated with WOMAD artists. The recording weeks were Gabriel's brainwave, as he saw how musicians met backstage at WOMAD but had no space or time to really explore musical ideas.
Held in 1991, '93 and '94, "the idea was like a dating service for musicians with a 24-hour caf attached," Gabriel says. He has always been preoccupied with opening things up, encouraging the possibility of musical interaction between musicians from all parts of the world, bringing them together to work out their own agenda. It's very much a musician's way of doing things, I suggest to him, "It's a way, by no means the only way or even maybe the best way," he responds. "But it's an exciting way! We were trying to encourage this cross-cultural breeding ground and it was one of the things I have enjoyed most about being involved with music. We had to make two or three records during those weeks as it was the way we got things funded, but most of the interesting stuff would happen naturally: different producers would be in different studios and invite different people in. With a 24-hour caf, people meet together with ideas, it's a bring-your-own studio party, on the lawn, in the garage, in the bedrooms, anywhere, you can make music together.
"And the Afro-Celts and quite a few collaborations happened from people who met during those sessions. Even when stuff wasn't recorded, they were fertile musical networking events."
The weeks eventually stopped, as they proved too expensive to run, but this year - after dedicated editing by producer Steve Hague - an album called Big Blue Ball, culled from many hours of recording weeks material, will finally emerge. Is Real World as much a team effort as WOMAD is, I ask him? "Definitely. We try and find artists we are all enthusiastic about, for a starting point. My personal involvement is in A&R and artwork, which I'm pretty passionate about. For many years I tried to keep text off the images but I sort of lost that battle in the end. But I managed to keep them clear for a time, partly to keep a label identity and partly just to allow the images to speak."
The label has been consistent and persistent. How has it managed to survive in a difficult market? "It's been harder the last couple of years," he says. "We used to rely on putting out 20,000 but now digital record stores are closing and those that still exist have gone into mobile phones, games, DVDs and videos, so there is less shelf space for minority interest music of any sort. We're trying to secure a good future for the label at the moment. Breaking even is great and when we do better we are delighted."
GABRIEL'S AFFINITY FOR WORLD music and access for world musicians has a deeper side to it. Last year, at the Seventh World Summit of Nobel Peace Laureates in Rome, former President of the USSR and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev presented him with the prestigious Man of Peace award for his extensive contribution work on behalf of human rights. We talk about Steve Biko and the worldwide Amnesty 1988 Human Rights Now! Tour with Youssou N'Dour, Sting, Bruce Springsteen and Tracy Chapman.
That tour helped raise awareness of torture in unofficial prisons and the disappeared in Latin America. Today, with Guantanamo Bay, secret flights, "extraordinary renditions" and rumoured secret prisons, things seem bleaker. "I was talking to Amnesty people recently because there's another big anniversary of the universal declaration of human rights coming up," he says. "It's a powerful thing when people get together around a common purpose and it was life changing for all those who took part. We may try to get some of the old artists to hand over the torch to a new generation of artists, enlist them to politicise their own generation. And now we have the internet and the power of the bottom-up revolution with YouTube and Wikipedia. We haven't seen that in politics yet, but music and film will help fuel that revolution. We've been working for five years on a YouTube for human rights, allowing people to turn the cameras on those pointing at them. It's a 'little brother little sister' instead of 'big brother' attempt to bring the dark underbelly of power out into the daylight."
We finish by talking about more positive personal things. Gabriel confesses that, rather than listen to music all day, he's mostly a talk radio and film man. As a founder of the OD2 music distribution firm used by 60 online music stores he's a digital revolution visionary. He tells me about his involvement with prototype software called The Filter (www.thefilter.com). Based on the concept of music as a box of mood pills, it allows professionals and ordinary people to stream music for others. "My dad was an inventor and electrical engineer - he's still around actually - and I have his passion for technology and how it might make the world a fairer and better place," he says.
He tells me about watching a Kenyan woman on Newsnight's "Geek Week" talking about how the impact of the mobile phone in Africa - in terms of access to information and education - will be as transforming as the fire and wheel were before them. "I couldn't live without music," says Gabriel. "I go on holiday and after ten days I'm like a junkie looking for a piano. But these things excite me as much as music does."
• The Real World showcase is at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, on 31 January. For more Celtic Connections previews see Going Out, page 9.
Peter Gabriel on the performers who will be playing at his Real World Celtic Connections show
SEVARA NAZARKHAN, UZBEKISTANI SINGER
"She's very bold and her persuasive powers have got Russian electronica-techno producer Viktor Sologub on board. He's opened up her music, adding colours and textures to her grooves. We hope she'll tread the traditional and contemporary path simultaneously."
DABY TOUR, MAURITANIAN SINGER-SONGWRITER
"Daby's measured approach is to evolve, like growing his songs in his garden rather than making forays into the jungle to forage. Now he's stripping back, simplifying and purifying his approach."
JOI, BRITISH-ASIAN FUSIONISTS
"Joi's Farook had to come to terms with losing his brother, Joi's Haroon, and it's been a difficult journey. Now he's settling back, mixing in colours from their background while keeping the trance-like grooves moving forward. The joy is back in Joi."
SKIP MCDONALD AKA LITTLE AXE, 21ST-CENTURY BLUES PLAYER
"Skip's visible pedigree is more on the veteran side. He's a master of feel and groove, and he has a minimalist approach. He's exploring uncharted territory with Adrian [Sherwood] and his band, cooking up the unfamiliar."
ADRIAN SHERWOOD, JAMAICAN INFLUENCED DUB-MIXER/PRODUCER, AND PRODUCER OF LITTLE AXE'S ALBUM STONE COLD OHIO
"A self-effacing, gentle man who's happy to carve his own path, focused on what he wants and how to get it. He's not going to compromise his musical interests for a hit."