The angel Gabriel

WHO says pop and politics don't mix? Certainly not Peter Gabriel, for whom the term politically correct could have been invented. But for the man who was promoting world music before it became fashionable, it seems it is attitude, not affectation.

Talking from Tokyo about his appearance at the Hong Kong Stadium on Monday - a highlight of the arena's gala opening and just one performance for Gabriel in his gruelling 14-month Secret World Tour - the conversation quickly turned to Hong Kong's favourite topic, 1997.

''What do you think of Chris Patten?'' he asked, and the rock star showed he is not only informed but deeply interested in democracy around the world.

But this should come as no surprise. As spokesman for the concerned rockers coalition - Human Rights Now! - and a leader of the Amnesty world tour, Gabriel has been at the forefront of the artists-with-a-conscience movement since the mid-1980s.

Since 1982 - when he staged the first Womad concert, now an annual event - he has promoted individuals and encouraged the incorporation of ethnic music into mainstream melodies, giving it a record-release avenue through the Real World label.

''I'm a supporter of Patten,'' Gabriel said. ''There's plenty of time to compromise before 1997, but I think it is very important to establish a way of doing things and to make a firm stand. It will be a damn sight easier to address democracy now than after 1997.


''I believe it's a gamble, but I personally think it's worth it. I am very interested in what is happening. I think it is a real turning point for China.'' His reasons for coming to this conclusion he sums up in three words - China, Tibet and Tiananmen. ''Let's just say they have an enormous amount of room for improvement on the human rights front,'' he said. ''The Chinese leaders must be at the end of their lives, I think new blood may bring new ideas.

''I have spent a lot of time talking to [student leader] Li Lu in America and he is a remarkably able man. He could be someone who could come back and have an important role.

''There are not many traditions of tolerance and openness in Chinese history, and democracy is an idea, any way we understand it, which is new to them. Yet China cannot afford, in economic terms, to kill off Hong Kong.'' The reason why he has opinions and not just a passing interest goes back to his world music concept.

It would seem that in Gabriel's eyes, you can't take the politics out of music just because it would be easier to deal with and would allow him to get on with making interesting music.


But would he play China? ''As of now, no. But I would love to. Unless there are changes in the human rights situation, it should be a country which should be avoided.'' Artists have been trying to get him to play China for years and Chinese artists were among the first performers on the Womad stage in England.

''It is a difficult thing - my instinct is to go there and be part of the process which disseminates new ideas,'' he said. ''I feel that music has a role to play in opening up the minds of young people around the world.


''I think MTV's role socially and economically is underestimated. Music television is just seen as empty emotion, but I think people can get attitudes and social conscience through the back door.'' Of course, Gabriel knows the power of the medium which has been dubbed McCulture. His works of art for the screen have been winning him awards in the MTV world since Sledgehammer and Big Time from his worldwide hit album, So.

Before that, he was never one to shy away from message music and dressing for effect since being at the forefront of British rock as a founding member of Genesis, which he left to go solo in 1976.

It seems it's hard to avoid political decisions when you make it part of your game plan. South Africa is also on his tour list, though it is in jeopardy because of sponsorship difficulties.


The chance to sing his moving tribute to the murdered black activist Steve Biko, Biko, to a South African audience is something he is looking forward to. But without sponsorship, he can't keep ticket prices to a level most people can afford.

Gabriel said the only pressure placed on him not to play South Africa was out of concern for his safety because of the violence as the nation prepared for its first multi-racial elections.

It is political correctness which, once again has jeopardised his South Africa concert and also dictated the type of show he is bringing to Hong Kong - Gabriel will not accept the backing of tobacco or alcohol companies. ''I respect the right of anyone to do what ever they want to their bodies, but I can't play a part in weaning a generation on to addictive substances,'' he said. ''I drink wine and beer myself and I have a lot of friends who smoke, so it doesn't bother me.


''But when you see a lot of young people in hospital without limbs, who are the victims of drink-driving accidents and cancer patients in their 30s and 40s who just started smoking because it was cool, it is important for some of us to say we don't want to be part of it.'' Gabriel said he would have liked to have brought the full production to Hong Kong - featuring two stages connected by a conveyor belt and mountains of hi-tech wizardry - but because he was unable to get a sponsor he approved of, he is bringing the medium-size show.

He describes his Secret World Tour as coming in three sizes, just like a pizza, small, medium and large. ''The emphasis of this show is going to be on music and we have a very good selection of musicians on stage,'' he said. ''We are really getting together as a unit, it is very exciting for me.

''There is a very relaxed feeling on stage and the audience seems to feel the same. In New Zealand people were dancing and everybody was singing, it was a great atmosphere. I love it when an audience expresses themselves emotionally.'' But the Hong Kong Stadium performance will not be without some impressive technical wizardry.

''Visually, there will be a few things which are a little different,'' he said. ''I'll be wearing a head-cam and jumping around playing camera man and a few things on the screen will be integrated. I have a lot of fun, but this particular version of the show is more about music.'' But the hi-tech world is drawing Gabriel in like a virtual-reality scene. He is releasing a CD-ROM called Xplora 1, which contains 100 minutes of video, 30 minutes of audio and 100 colour images, as well as the equivalent of a book's worth of text.

More than 50 artists from 18 countries have contributed to the disc. Gabriel acts as the guide through the computer musical maze, which allows you to remix a recent song of his, Digging in the Dirt.

''Part of it is based on the concept of trying to focus work on what we call experience design - putting people inside a work of art, rather than just experiencing it from the outside.'' He also has a dream of creating a theme park, or experience park as he sees it. With the help of fellow avant-garde musicians Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson and a team of futuristic architects, he has three years to come up with the concept and more importantly the money to create his vision in Barcelona.

Back in the real world of pop and politics, Gabriel is looking forward to his visit to Hong Kong.

''Obviously it's a big time of change at the moment,'' he said. ''I'm interested in feeling the atmosphere, walking around and getting a feel for the place.''