Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 8

by Susan Kepecs

When the first hint of crispness creeps into the air, you know it’s time for the annual Madison World Music Festival.  This feast of free music (Thurs. - Sat., Sept. 15-17, with special added attractions tonight -- that's Sat., Sept. 10 -- and Weds. Sept. 14) hits its eighth incarnation this year. It's facilitated, in large part, through collaboration with other, overlapping Midwest fests, and it’s brought to you by the Wisconsin Union Theater and a generous group of local sponsors. Most events occur on our beloved Memorial Union Terrace, but on Sat., Sept. 17, everything but the wrapup show takes place at the Willy St. Fair.  That's a hike or a parking nightmare if you don't live on the Near East Side, but never fear -- this year for the first time Greyhound Bus offers free hourly shuttle service between the Memorial Union and Willy St., so there’s no excuse not to hit the near East Side for any band you want to hear.
The festival, as always, brings in rising young acts and established bearers of cultural traditions little-known outside their home countries.  But this year there’s also a warmup concert by a big star, Vieux Farka Touré, master Malian guitarist and son of the late, legendary Malian bluesman Ali Farka Touré. Vieux’s playing, rooted in his father’s flowing style but infused with fancy, Hendrix-like licks, wields his wicked axe on the Terrace this Saturday at 10 PM. 

Next up (Weds., Sept. 14, 7 PM at the Marquee, Union South) is Cultures of Resistance, an award-winning documentary by Brazilian activist Iara Lee.  Lee's traveled the globe documenting activist artists, many of them musicians. This important film speaks to the oblique powers of nonviolent artistic resistance against the global oligarchs, and reveals voices you’ll never hear in the mainstream media. Dr. Jonathan Overby, of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Higher Ground, leads a post-screening Q&A, and he’s the best person I can imagine for this role. The film screens again, without Overby, at the Play Circle in the Memorial Union at 9 PM Thurs.
For years, most of what we call “world music” was a tool of cultural, if not overtly political or economic, resistance.  But the genre’s always changing, as an historical glance at Madison's seven previous festivals shows.  For its first four years the fest was a savvy mix of very traditional sounds and the rootsy indie blends cooked up by a younger generation.  Among my many favorites in the first category I'll list sonero/merenguero Puerto Plata from the Dominican Republic in 2007, and the Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar in 2006; in the second, Chicana/Mixteca Lila Downs’ sin fronteras rancheras (2005) amd Gjallarhorn’s jazzy electronic takes on medieval Swedish folk (2006) left lasting impressions.
By the festival’s fifth year, the emphasis expanded.  Two underground Europop bands – a wacky Hungarian group called Little Cow, plus Prague rockers Plastic People of the Universe, who billed themselves as the Czech Republc’s Mothers of Invention, found questionable room in the festival’s big tent. And at this year’s fest, alongside traditional and next-generation players you’ll discover three hip-hop groups.  Global hip-hop’s been edging into the world music festival circuit since at least last year, when several acts appeared at Chicago’s event, but I admit it – I have mixed feelings about this development. After all, hip-hop, an artform born in the Bronx, blazed its way around the world via the conduits of U.S. military-economic domination. Not that all hip hop is part of the capitalist machine – far from it. At the opposite end of the spectrum from the insipid thug themes of cheap, commercial rap is the socially conscious movement around which the UW-Madison’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives has built First Wave, a brilliantly innovative program of undergraduate education. OMAI dishes up its lavish Line Breaks Festival every spring.  Given hip-hop’s already prominent presence on campus, is adding it to the world music lineup the right way to go?  You decide, and let me know – please, drop me a line in the comments box at the end of this preview.
Of the three hip-hop acts at this year’s fest, one – Blitz the Ambassador (from Brooklyn, via his native Ghana) – stands out (Fri. 9:30 PM, Memorial Union Terrace [rain, 10 PM, Union Theater).  This is top-shelf, socially conscious hip-hop with honest world music roots – super-sharp, gritty, urban rhymes set to a scorching synthesis of highlife, Afrobeat and Big Apple hip-hop.  I’d be happy to hear Blitz the Ambassador at the MWMF, the Line Breaks fest or anywhere else.  I’m less enthusiastic about Sergent Garcia (Sat., 5:30 PM, Willy St. Fair; 9:30 PM on the Terrace [rain, Rathskellar]), a Parisian ex-punk rocker with Spanish roots who’s given his sound the unfortunately silly name of “salsamuffin.”  In a nutshell it’s sin fronteras salsa-with-reggae-and-rap; it’s muy bailable, but neither the sound nor lyrics, ranging from mildly political to self-indulgent refrains on the artist’s own hipness, can hold a candle to Blitz the Ambassador.  Bomba Estereo (Sat., 7:30 PM, Willy St.), from Colombia, plays “electro-tropical,” a close cousin to reggaeton and, yes, salsamuffin.  Its lead singer, Liliana Samuet, is slick, but this band’s let’s party, quitame la ropa lyrics (in Spanish and English) leave me cold.  Still, Sergent Garcia and Bomba Estereo will rock the crowds, and there’s something to be said for that.

Here’s a look at the rest of the fest.  My personal pick this year is Nawal (Thurs., 8:30 PM, Union Theater), chanteuse extraordinaire from Paris via the Comoros Islands. It’s the first time this volcanic chain in the Indian Ocean off the southeast coast of Africa has been represented at the MWMF. The Comoros, a crossroads for medieval trade, was colonized by France at the start of the 20th century and cut out of contemporary commercial routes.  The islands are among the poorest regions in today’s world, but the historical legacy of their rich exchange with South and East Africa, Arabia, Asia and Madascar lives in Nawal’s music; she plies her powerhouse alto voice on a jazz-like Sufi / Bantu mix – sometimes pulsingly polyrhythmic, sometimes a meditative flow – and accompanies herself on the gambusi, a sort of oud with a banjolike sound.
Another country represented for the first time this year is Nepal.  Kutumba (Fri., 8 PM, Union Theater), a six-piece instrumental folk ensemble from Kathmandu, is dedicated to preserving the traditional folk music and instruments of this tiny, landlocked sliver of the Himalayas, while updating the sound for the 21st century. On its website, Kutumba makes it clear – this band is all about cultural resistance in the face of globalization. I like Kutumba’s rich aural Buddhist/Hindu tapestry, which, at least for this gringa boomer, conjures up incense and hippies. This is Katumba’s first U.S. tour, but the expat Nepalese community is already in tune with this troupe. A comment under a YouTube video says it all: “Kutumba, the pride of Nepal. Saving our culture, thanx, man.” 

From Taiwan, in celebration of the island's centennial as a sovereign state this year, comes the Chai Found Music Workshop (Thurs., 6:30 PM, Union Theater; Fri., 7:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 7 PM, Union Theater]). This remarkable group works in two veins. The first is traditional Sizhu (“silk and bamboo”) music, which essentially consists of improvisational dialogue between wind (bamboo) and strings (silk). In the second, compositions created in collaboration with other musicians from around the world, while clearly Chinese in instrumentation, fuse east and west in contemporary ways.  At Thursday’s indoor concert you’ll hear a quiet, traditional, very Chinese sound; the group’s Terrace performance on Friday shows off its more upbeat, international side.
For a closer-to-home sound, Brazilian sambista/popster Luisa Maita, the latest young phenom to climb the Latin charts, is a good pick.  Her sound’s not unique, but it’s satisfyingly silky.

Two really hot Italian bands take the stage this year. I’m especially looking forward to Canzionere Grecianico Salentino (Fri., 5:30 PM, Terrace [rain, 5:30 PM, Union Theater]), from the Puglia region of southern Italy – the heel of the boot, jutting into the Adriatic toward Greece.  This bright seven-piece band-plus-dancer plays 21st century arrangements of pizzica salentina, a regional form of tarentella dance music rooted in medieval belief that spirit-possessed dancing was the cure for tarantula bites.  In Italy right now there’s a big revival of this lively music, featuring tambourines, accordion and Italian bagpipes, and Canzionere – the band’s been around since the 1970s – is the reigning king of this scene.
At the opposite end of the spaghetti spectrum is singer / songwriter / guitarist Marco Calliari (Sat. Willy St., 3:30 PM). Born in Montreal to Italian immigrant parents, Calliari started out playing thrash metal with a group called Anonymus.  On trip to Italy he discovered his roots; today he writes his own tunes and casts traditional Italian songs like “Bella Ciao” in his own style, mixing traditional Italian rhythms with rock, hints of flamenco and more.
Calliari's on my to-do list, and so is Frigg (Thurs., 9 PM, Union Terrace [rain, Union Theater]), a band of Finnish fiddle players and Norwegian folksters that serves up “Nordgrass,” a high energy, contemporary takes on traditional Scandanivian tunes. Frigg is the name of the Norse goddess of happiness, and Frigg the Nordgrass band puts out an ebullient violin and accordion (concertina, actually) sound.  The echoes of Celtic and Cajun music you won’t fail to notice weave whole musical cloth from the Viking invasions of Ireland, then Canada, and the later flight of the Acadians from the Canadian maritime provinces to Lousiana. 

                           SKepecs photo © 2008
And last but not least, there’s the festival ambience – sunset on the Union Terrace, rowdy Willy St., beer, brats, ice cream – and, returning for the fifth year in a row, the amazing Dragon Knights (they tend to amble sporadically through the crowd, but they’re slated specifically for 7:20 PM Fri. on the Terrace [rain, 8 PM, Union Theater] and Sat., 3 and 5 PM at the Willy St. Fair).  These spectacular, otherworldly puppets on stilts by Lily Valerie Noden, who trained at the Ecole International de Theatre in Paris, are worth the parking hassle all by themselves.  
I can't wait. See you there!

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