Wednesday, September 22, 2010

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 7

By Susan Kepecs

Music, the universal language, can bridge all kinds of cultural divides.  So it follows that the Wisconsin Union Theater-sponsored Madison World Music Festival is a unifying force, and boy, can we use that right now.  I don’t expect any Mama Grizzlies to show up, but the Tea Party might learn to transcend its xenophobia if its goofy throngs attended this event instead of following Glenn Beck to the National Mall.  The seventh annual MWMF features a brilliant lineup of African, Afro-Caribean and Afro-Latin bands, plus a few eclectic surprises.  I’m offering a handful of relevant observations, below, but for the full schedule of events and locations – times and stages change depending on the weather – go back to the WUT website
The wingnuts could use some attitude adjustment, and Dja Rara, a  Brooklyn-based Haitian parade band (see the Green Room blog for more) just might do the trick.  Back in January, after the western end of the island of Hispaniola was devastated in a major earthquake, TV evangelist Pat Roberton told Fox Noise that Haiti’s African slaves had liberated themselves from French colonial rule in 1791 by making a pact with the devil.  Evidently Satan set up the temblor to call in his chips.  But Dja Rara’s rhythms represent the gods of the African diaspora.  Under MWMF auspices the band hits diverse spots around town before performing at the fest’s main stages – the Memorial Union on Friday and Willy St. on Saturday. 
From the Spanish-speaking end of Hispaniola – the Dominican Republic – comes Joan Soriano, the rising star of Afro-Dominican bachata who tells his story in Adam Taub’s new documentary film, “El Duque de Bachata.”  Bachata, born in the 20th century, blends rural Afro-Dominican dance music with the sinuous rhythms of Cuban bolero and son.  There’s a whole school of slicked up, watered down 21st century bachata that doesn’t appeal to me, and I’m a salsera at heart anyway, but my hips can’t resist Soriano’s percussive guitar playing and gritty, old school style.  Since Soriano’s sure to send everyone into bachata delirium, his act’s the perfect festival finale Saturday night.
But bailando bachata’s an opportunity we almost missed, thanks to our nation’s immigration paranoia.  Right before Labor Day, Union Theater marketing director / MWMF artistic selection chair Esty Dinur got a panic email from Soriano’s manager saying the American ambassador in the Dominican Republic was about to deny band members their visas, since he didn’t believe they were bona fide artists. They ended up having to perform for embassy officials to prove their legitimacy.
Another performer who was on the original bill – Pietra Montecorvino, a glamorous Italian songstress / actress with a spellbinding, urban, take no prisoners voice – was denied her visa altogether.  “Living in the European Union with its open borders and governments that support cultural exchanges, her agent didn’t appreciate how immensely complicated it is to get into the U.S.,” Dinur says.  The agent dragged his heels, and by the time the application process got started it was too late to buck the U.S. Department of Homeland Security bureaucracy.
While we don’t get a dazzling Italian diva, we do get Barbara Furtuna, an all male a capella quartet from the once-Genoese Mediterranean island of Corsica, ceded to France in the 1760 Treaty of Versailles.  Barbara Furtuna means “cruel fate” in Corsu; it’s the title of a traditional resistance anthem about 18th century Corsican freedom fighters exiled after trying to overthrow French rule.  That may sound like obscure history, and yes, Corsican polyphonic song has medieval roots.  But this quartet sounds absolutely ambrosial.  Its second album, In Santa Pace – a mix of long-loved songs plus the group’s own compositions – is as soulful as African-American gospel and calming like an offering for world peace.
When it comes to pushing peace, Kenge Kenge – musical masters from Kenya’s Luo tribe whose traditional tunes have a light Afropop edge – kill the competition.  Like Kenge Kenge, Obama’s father was Luo – a fact that led right wing megaphones Dinesh D’Souza and Newt Gingrich just last week to spew out the notion that the President rules the country “according to the anticolonialist dreams of a Luo tribesman.”  If only that were true!  Check out Kenge Kenge’s pre-2008 election video, “Obama for Change”
and imagine Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gettin’ down to this tune in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House.  If that can't change the world situation, nothing will. 
The rest of the three-day program’s like a global summit on cultural diversity.  The most exotic ensemble on this year’s bill is Ordo Sakhna – nomadic, storyteller musicians from the Silk Route crossroads of Kyrgyzstan. 
Three hot young bands – two from the U.S. and one from Romania – create 21st century global sounds from diverse perspectives.  La Santa Cecilia, from Los Angeles, a band with Mexican sensibilities and instrumentation, throws everything from Miles Davis, Klezmer and the Beatles into its mix, though Latin American influence prevails.  The Sway Machinery, out of New York, bills its hard-driving mix of klezmer, Afropop and blues as “post-cantorial.”  And from Romania comes Mahala Rai Banda, mixing traitional Gypsy tunes and Roma pop with reggae and other genres.  Their latest CD, Ghetto Blasters, is a chart buster.
And then there’s Cimarrón, from the grassy eastern plains of Colombia’s Orinoco Basin.  This has been cattle country since the Spaniards set up shop in the 16th century, but today the region also hosts paramilitary violence, narcotraffic and transnational oil extraction.  Miraculously, joropo, the joyful, percussive, harp, guitar and maracas-driven dance music born of indigenous, Spanish and African traditions in the colonial crucible of these livestock lands, survives.  Cimarrón – seven virtuosos who showcase the syncopated, foot-stomping sound around the world – is my personal bet for best of the fest.

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