Just on 33 years ago, in Britain’s bucolic Somerset region, when the young, energetic and progressive rock musician Peter Gabriel performed at the world’s first World of Music, Arts and Dance (WOMAD) festival, he couldn’t have known that he and the co-founders of the festival would change the music scene forever.
The world music phenomenon has done more than expand the musical tastes of the mass middle class, it has also been a spearhead for cultural engagement and understanding; using music as an envoy of peace and as a vehicle to share cultural threads and sounds that have opened minds and hearts.
Throughout the 1990s WOMAD festivals and their globally inclusive vibe took off in other places – New Zealand, Spain, Chile, the United Arab Emirates, and in Adelaide. As popular as ever, WOMADelaide is now in its 23rd year.
And Gabriel, famous not only for some all-time classic pop hits such as ‘Sledgehammer’ and ground-breaking innovation in music videos in the 1980s, is now 65 and still innovating, learning and following his passions.
In a quiet, personal ceremony in his Wiltshire recording studios last year the University of South Australia awarded Gabriel an Honorary Doctorate, honouring his contribution not just to the music industry but also to the pursuit of global understanding and human rights.
The award was presented by UniSA Vice Chancellor Professor David Lloyd and announced this month to coincide with WOMADelaide, of which UniSA is the Education Partner.
Prof Lloyd said he was thrilled to present the award to a man who has made such an important mark globally in so many fields, from music, business and the arts, to the promotion of peace, human rights and conflict resolution.
“Peter is an example of what it is to be successful on many levels,” Prof Lloyd said.
“A great collaborator, but also a musician and composer with his own distinctive style, his stellar career has been marked by ground-breaking innovations in music video production and in recording and distribution.
“Peter was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009 as a member of Genesis, the original group he co-founded in 1967 while still at school.
“But beyond his chart-topping hits, the many MTV and Grammy Awards for his group and solo music career, Peter has made an enormous commitment to the global community and applied his considerable skills to making a difference.”
Beyond WOMAD, in 1989 Gabriel took his enthusiasm for world music and established his own production company Real World Records, which continues to provide production and publishing opportunities to artists from Africa, Latin America and Central Asia who would otherwise have remained unknown to mainstream audiences.
In 1992 Gabriel was a co-founder of WITNESS, a human rights organisation designed to encourage and support people to use video recordings to fight for human rights and celebrate human triumphs. The organisation continues to grow and make a powerful impact by bringing to light issues of global concern.
Prof Lloyd said Gabriel’s efforts to create opportunities for justice and human rights to prevail have been unstinting.
“Peter worked with Richard Branson and the much beloved Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa and also a Doctor of UniSA, to establish The Elders in 2007 – a network of highly experienced international leaders able to offer peacemaking and negotiating strategies and wisdom wherever there are global conflicts,” Prof Lloyd said.
“His commitment to building peace, supporting people who are disempowered, and encouraging social justice and understanding have been recognised around the world. In 2006 the Nobel Peace Prize Laureates presented him with the Man of Peace Award and in 2008 Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
“The University is so proud to welcome him as an Honorary Doctor and we believe the example of his work and life will be an inspiration for many of our students and graduates.”
Gabriel received the award with characteristic humility. He urged all of the graduating class of 2015 to follow their passions, find what they loved and work hard at it.
“May your trails blaze,” Gabriel said.