Whether you're a global-tunes newbie or a vet of the international scene, we offer five great reasons to check out this year's World Music Festival.
FEEL THE HEAT L.A.’s Dengue Fever plays psychedelic rock by way of Cambodia.
1. It’s not just people playing yak bladders.
The name World Music Festival implies that music from Chicago and the United States is not part of the programming, and that the music you’ll hear is totally different from the music we listen to here. But have no fear: Plenty of what you’ll encounter at various participating venues around town will sound familiar. Cape Verde singer Sara Tavares began her career as a more conventional soul singer (albeit with a Portuguese flavor) before exploring her African heritage. Turkish guitarist Erkan Ogur’s Telvin Trio plays jazz, albeit based on the Arabic scale. Asheville, North Carolina’s, Toubab Krewe applies its jam-band instincts to everything from Malian desert blues to hip-hop. Slavic Soul Party! exploits the big beats in Balkan brass music. The wonderful Ghanaian dance troupe Dza Nyonmo Dance Ensemble knows how to make you move, while kora player Mamadou Diabate demonstrates the link between Mali music and Western blues. New York’s frenetic Klezmatics pair klezmer and rock, and Belgrade’s Gypsy-rock outfit KAL shares that band’s eclecticism. And while you’re grooving and dancing to these sometimes strange but not-as-foreign-as-you-thought sounds, remember: To someone from Ghana, the music you listen to on the radio is “world music,” too.
2. The music is extraordinary.
Did you ever have a friend who, when asked what kind of music he’s into, always responds with “I like everything”? Well, here’s a chance to put that claim to the test, as the festival boasts a number of acts you’re unlikely to see perform at your neighborhood bar. The Turkish Whirling Dervishes of Konya need space to contain their spiritual energy, what with the spinning sema dancers and traditional zikr vocal choir. Even more intriguing is Yat-Kha, which uses droning kargyraa throat singing to tackle songs like Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” and Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” Kala Ramnath has been playing the violin since she was barely walking, and her “singing” violin style will transport you to a place where music is the gateway to nirvana (or at least Devon Avenue). La Mar Enfortuna (a side project of members of atmospheric-rock group Elysian Fields) reinterprets lost Sephardic music from the 11th to 15th centuries, while the Alaev Family—Allo Alaev, his sons and four grandkids—plays a time-traveling mélange of music from around Central Asia. As for Orchestra Infinity, the name may as well reference its numbers: composer Kahil El’Zabar, ten French musicians, 20 Chicago jazz players and 20 Chicago students perform an Afro-Eurasian twist on big-band and symphonic music.
3. The musicians have amazing stories.
There’s more to the musicians playing the festival than the name of the country on their visa application. Sure, the music’s generally stellar, but the who, what, where, when and how behind the music are (as VH1 likes to remind us) often just as interesting as the music being played. Take the L.A.-based band Dengue Fever, for instance. The group formed after Ethan Holtzman traveled to Cambodia and his companion came down with the eponymous illness. While there, Holtzman discovered the nation’s brief ’60s flirtation with psychedelic garage rock. Upon returning to L.A., he enlisted the perfect singer to front the band—Cambodian vocalist Chhom Nimol, who sings in Khmer, the official language of Cambodia. And then there’s Extra Golden, whose disc Ok-Oyot System was released on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey. The band formed when Ian Eagleson and Alex Minoff—both members of D.C. rock band Golden—traveled to Nairobi for Eagleson’s doctoral thesis on benga, a guitar-heavy Kenyan dance music. There, Eagleson and Minoff hooked up with members of Kenya’s Orchestra Extra Solar Africa, and recorded an album mostly in a single afternoon. One of their Kenyan collaborators, Otieno Jagwasi, died soon after of liver failure before the album’s release. The Born into Brothels Ensemble—made up of composer John McDowell and a handful of Indian musicians—is more a sequel than a story, seeing as the band performs music from the documentary of the same name (which followed children raised in Calcutta’s infamous red-light district) and continues to help raise awareness of the kids’ plight.
4. You’ll see a fascinating mix of different cultures.
America didn’t invent jazz, blues, country, soul, funk, rap, and rock & roll. Well, okay, so maybe we did, but that’s not to say we didn’t actively “borrow” ideas and inspiration from other countries and cultures. That’s also not to say that artists from around the globe haven’t borrowed back many of these ideas, resulting in some unique hybrids. Brazil’s Otto has moved beyond his background as a percussionist and into the role of mix master, meshing hip-hop and dance music with folk rhythms to create a cosmopolitan sound that’s part cool street-corner samba crew and part late-night chill-out club. L.A.’s multiculti Ammoncontact mixes jazz and funky hip-hop breaks, and São Paulo’s U.K.-based Cibelle is another new-school Brazilian artist who has collaborated with not just last year’s World Music Fest star Seu Jorge but indie folkie Devendra Banhart as well on her arty The Shine of Dried Electric Leaves. The DJ team Africa Hi-Fi positions itself as caretaker of Africa’s reputation as the birthplace of popular Western music, while Brazil’s Curumin plays a brand of music dubbed samba-funk, which fuses hip-hop with bossa nova (and caught the ear of DJ Shadow, who signed him to his Quannum Projects label). Last but not least is Chicago’s own Lamajamal, a band that’s created a sound it called “Gypsy surf,” a slyly funky global gumbo of North African, Caribbean, American and European influences.
FUNK SOUL BROTHER Influenced by the likes of Run-D.M.C. and Jorge Ben, Brazil’s Curumin plays samba-funk, a blend of hip-hop and bossa nova.
5. Give peace a chance.
The whole of civilization has never been entirely at peace, but let’s face it: These are particularly combative times in which we live. If the stellar music being offered doesn’t lure you in, then please, do it for the sense of brotherly love. Less than a quarter of native-born Americans even own a passport, let alone use one, and the fact that all these acts—many from some bad-off places—have made the trek to Chicago in the first place is more than reason enough to reciprocate with some sympathetic solidarity. Teddy Afro, from perpetually put-upon Ethiopia, is gaining a reputation for making positive music in the face of adversity. With his unifying, reggae-infused songs, he’s earned comparisons to such goodwill ambassadors as Bob Marley. The aptly named Kultur Shock was founded in Seattle by Gino Yevdjevich, a pop singer–turned–political activist who was enraged and motivated by the destruction of his Bosnian homeland. Safaafir is led by brother-and-sister team Amir and Dena El Saffar, who play music inspired by the sound of coppersmiths working in the streets of Baghdad, a flashback to a time when the clink and clank of metalwork could be heard over the sound of gunfire and bombs. As for the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar—its roots stretch back to the African island’s struggle for independence in the late ’50s—its Swahili taarab music (which borrows from Indian and Egyptian sources) is meant to inspire celebration and foster a feeling of community.
The Chicago World Music Festival runs from Thursday 14 to September 21. See Music or visit www.cityofchicago.org/WorldMusic for more information.