Searching for identity – The whole world inside a Big Fish


Sibelius-Academy students at WOMEX 2015 (World Music Expo) in Bálna, Budapest


Five students from the international master’s programme GLOMAS (Nordic Master of Global Music) were sent off to Budapest for five days to find inspiration and meet the industry – and to search for themselves.

”You have one mouth and two ears – use them in that proportion”

WOMEX is an international convention and networking platform for the world music industry. Every year thousands of musicians, agents, festival organizers, producers, managers, label representatives, journalists and world music enthusiasts gather together for five buzzing days to meet each other and search for partnerships. The convention consists of a massive trade fair where companies are representing their products and the industry people are finding each other. The convention offers numerous lectures, film viewings, panel discussions, mentoring sessions and meetings. In addition to this, WOMEX provides more than 60 concerts during the five days of the exhibition. It is the biggest world music showcase for up and coming artists from all around the world and each year the carefully chosen groups get to perform in the convention and present their music exclusively for the industry.

”Listen - You have one mouth and two ears, use them in that proportion.” This was one of the first advices given to us after arriving to Budapest - and turned out to be the best possible guideline for surviving the five hectic days in WOMEX. It was given by Sam Lee, an internationally acclaimed folk artist from the UK, during our first exclusive round-table meeting. He pointed out, that everyone over there is eager to share their story and you have a better chance of succeeding, if you listen more than you talk. This convention is about networking and making contacts and for us students, this trip was about getting to know the industry on a very practical level - by meeting people face to face and learning by doing.

”Who says you can’t have it all?”

GLOMAS is a program for cross-cultural musical collaboration and has students from diverse musical and cultural backgrounds, representing more than 20 different countries including alumni and faculty. We were travelling to WOMEX after spending a long day working with our Global Big Band, where all the current GLOMAS-students are playing together as a large ensemble and the musical material is provided by us, the five second-year-students. In this project, everyone is encouraged to explore and push their musical limits. For example, I am singing, beatboxing, playing kantele and percussion, conducting and dancing flamenco. This kind of approach really makes you see all the hidden potential and gives everyone an opportunity to experiment with different musical elements and roles in an inspiring and creative way. I was so excited after our wonderful rehearsal that I shared my happiness on my Facebook-wall just before going to Budapest by writing, ”Who says you can’t have it all?”

I kept that question in my mind while spending the days in WOMEX. This trip was part of our GLOMAS Music Management course and although we had been very well prepped for the trip by our teachers, it was impossible to avoid having a tiny ”Alice in Wonderland” moment while stepping inside the exhibition centre Bálna for the first time (The Big Fish, as the Hungarian taxi drivers call it). During the first day, my own question “Who says you can’t have it all?” really provoked my thoughts in many situations. I felt overwhelmed with the people and the atmosphere. I was fascinated, curious and eager to learn but at the same time, I felt confused and overloaded by the information and endless resources around me. It is very easy to find yourself constantly questioning everyone’s actions and behavior towards each other when everywhere you look there is someone eager to talk to you and more importantly, to know if you are ”selling or buying?” WOMEX has more than 4000 people participating every year and financially it is a very notable investment from each participant. Because of this, people are working hard to make the most out of the trip and connect as much as possible, personally, economically and professionally. Bookers and festival organizers are buying bands and agents and labels are selling their artists. The atmosphere is intense and if you don’t personally know what you represent or where you stand, you can easily get very lost in the WOMEX-ecosystem. As a musician, it is a matter of choice what you present. You can choose to only represent yourself and your art or you can do it all, be your own agent, promoter, booker and brand representative, all-in-one package. In this case, like in any other, I believe that you CAN have it all and be it all, but you need to know if you WANT it all. Everything has to be done for the right reasons. Whatever you choose to do, you need to question your motives, values and working methods. It also comes down to the point, ”What do I want to achieve?” We were extremely lucky to have Sibelius-Academy as our financial supporter, which released us from the pressure of ”getting our moneys worth”. We were instructed to observe, experiment, push our limits, try different approaches, get inspired and have fun. And not drink too much. Shortly, we were there to meet that world, find our place and purpose within it and to really think about our relationship with the industry.

”I don’t understand. – You will, if you try.”

Keeping an open-mind and leaving your comfort zone is inevitable while expanding your artistic limits. This demands a great deal of courage and forces you to let go of perfectionism but will also lead you towards a better understanding of your core knowledge. This all applies to other areas of artistic identity as well and helps you shape the image you want people to see. In a globalized music world, treasuring your roots is essential, if you want to keep a tradition alive. The same goes for marketing and networking, you need to know where you stand and build from there. But it is equally important to let your branches grow and leaves fly and search for inspiration from other cultures and people. And if you water the plant, the roots will grow as well. Scratching the surface is not a bad thing – it’s worse to wear gloves and refuse to reach for the unknown. After all, we all seek for connection. We want to feel connected to each other and in order to create those connections we need a mutual will, a will to understand. Disconnection creates anxiety and frustration and this applies to music as well.

”Can music save the world?” asks Simon Broughton, the editor-in-chief of Songlines-magazine, in his talk at the first international TEDx event in Iran. He refers to an old saying, ”An enemy is simply someone whose story you haven’t yet heard” but respectfully adds ”or someone whose music you haven’t yet heard.” Music does play an important role in cultural identities and very often it’s the music that speaks more than words or pictures. One of the WOMEX showcase performers this year was Blick Bassy, a musician from Cameroon. He gave a beautiful, heartfelt performance and was, in my opinion, by far the most exciting and powerful performer of the convention. His music was representing the perfect fusion, a combination of tradition and innovation, performed with passion, integrity and honesty. He said during his concert, ”language is a link to our roots” and with language he meant both, the spoken language and the musical language. We do not need to speak the same language to understand each other but as Sam Lee pointed out, we need to listen with two ears.  

“Gone fishing!”

WOMEX is the place where passion meets business and money meets art. As a contemporary artist living in 2015, it is only a clever thing to learn about the business. Observing people, myself included, at WOMEX made me really aware of all the dos and don’ts within the context of marketing. Most importantly, it’s work. Get all the possible knowledge you can find, learn the industry, talk to people who know more than you and then go home and question everything you have just learned. Doubt grows with knowledge. Filtering all the information you’ve collected from outside and finding your way to channel the energy towards your essential resources will not only result in a better business plan, but will also make your artistic work more focused. But marketing takes work. As a musician, I strongly believe that you don’t need to be a passionate sales person in order to be successful in selling your product, but you need to be a passionate musician and a hard worker. It all comes down to the word “Passion” which is what we all are drawn to. Bookers and organizers want to see passion in the musicians they hire and musicians want to see passion in the agents representing them. In every seminar or mentoring session I attended, the same point was mentioned: “We want to create emotions”. We all work for the same cause; we want to provide experiences and help people feel connected. It doesn’t really matter where you stand in the hierarchy, because at the end of the day we all want the same thing. It’s just people meeting people.

The five WOMEX –days offered an exciting emotional rollercoaster-ride. I came home with a suitcase filled with business cards and cd’s from all the meetings I had attended. My head is still full of information as well as inspiration from hearing and seeing a ton of new music. My heart is filled with gratitude for meeting so many interesting and beautiful people as well as realizing that not all people are meant to be part of your story. Professionally the trip was very successful and I it became very clear to me that in terms of finding your place in the world music industry, the most important thing is to be proud of where you come from. This industry is about embracing cultural diversity and respecting tradition. As a Finnish musician representing a multicultural study program, I am representing tradition as well as cross-cultural collaboration and my passion for both is what makes it meaningful.

There, in Budapest, inside the Big Fish, the whole world was represented. You would spend your days at the trade fair, hearing hundreds of different languages, having dozens of conversations and listening to hours of music. If you got lost, you could always go and spend time with the other Finns at the Music Finland stand. Sometimes you need to travel really far to find new and exciting connections with your own culture as well. At times it was necessary to just leave the Fish and watch the river Danube stream in front of you, to realize that you need to dismantle your nets every now and then and start fresh.

And every time you became anxious or tired, you could always visit the Brazilian section - those guys know how to party. Köszönöm!


Venla Ilona Blom (b.1985) is a Finnish singer, beatboxer and a composer. Venla has her BA in rhythmic music performance and vocal pedagogy and she has studied both in Finland and in Denmark. Her musical background is mainly in jazz and Scandinavian folk music but she is also trained as a classical singer. Venla Ilona is currently doing her Master’s studies in GLOMAS (Nordic Master in Global Music) in Sibelius-Academy where she is researching different tradition-based voice techniques and specializing in vocal percussions.