by Susan Kepecs
World music isn’t simply a melting pot of dance beats from across the cultural spectrum. If you’re smart with your senses, it’s also a window through which to witness the ever-shifting global web of political, economic, historical and cultural realities with your eyes, ears, feet, hips and hearts. For that reason in particular, attending the ninth annual Madison World Music Festival (Fri. Sept. 14 on the Union Terrace, Sat. Sept. 15 at the Willy St. Fair) oughta be required. You don’t have any excuse not to go, since thanks to the Wisconsin Union Theater, the Wisconsin Union Directorate Performing Arts Committee, the Willy Street Fair, and a host of generous sponsors, it’s free.
With the Wisconsin Union Theater closed for repairs the 2012 edition is pared down, like the rest of the 2012-13 season. There’s no warmup concert, no Thursday show, no related film screenings, no Dragon Knights puppets. Madison World Music Festival No. 9 (Fri. Sept. 14 on the Memorial Union Terrace, Sat. Sept. 15 at the Willy St. Fair) consists of seven bands plus a world beat DJ – down from ten live groups last year, plus all the extras. Still, there’s a lot packed into this two-day fest.
What leaps out about the 2012 lineup has nothing to do with size. In its previous incarnations the MWMF featured a well-balanced mix of world beat fusions and Europop with traditional performers whose music manifests deep ethnic and cultural roots. The bands in this last category are the ones I love best. It would take a whole article just to name my favorites from festivals past, but among them Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera, from the ’04 and ’09 fests; huapangueros veracruzanos Tlen Huicani, plus the classic kidumbak and taarab orchestra, Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar, from ’06; Dominican merenguero / sonero Puerto Plata in 2007; and from 2010 Cimarrón, the glorious joropo band from the Colombia / Venezuela frontier. Those groups and others like them are still going strong, but over the last couple of years (and more this year than last) the world music circuit in the US Midwest has tilted toward the proliferating global mashups of the multinational, multicultural Millennial Generation – tangled-rooted sounds, often uptempo and laid over an electronic rock, punk or hip-hop base. The way I see it, at least half of the 2012 Madison roster will appeal more to the college crowd than to boomers. But these young bands without borders are audacious, and the way their music cross-cuts older patterns of global interaction is intriguing enough to get anybody's attention.
The biggest surprise is the singer-songwriter duo Zeb and Haniya (Fri., Union Terrace, 7-8 pm; Sat., Willy St., 3:30-5 pm). These two women (they’re cousins) from Pakistan, never-before represented at the MWMF, come to us via Center Stage Tours, a cultural diplomacy initiative carried out under the auspices of the US State Department. Of course if Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari and Barack Obama would sit down and play music together the whole world would change. But Zeb and Haniya – US-educated Pashtuns whose family roots are in Peshawar, at the heart of the Af-Pak war – blow blow my preconceived perceptions of Pakistan out of the water. The two grew up on US and British rock, plus the Pashto folksongs in their family repertory. With their backup (guitar, flute, bass, drums and rabab – a type of spike fiddle that spread across the Middle East and North Africa via Islamic trade routes) Zeb and Haniya melt gentle, meditative rock with the crossroads sounds of ancient South Asia. (I’m interviewing Zeb and Haniya later this week, so tune in again before you head for the fest).
If Zeb and Haniya are the best story of MWMF 9, the band that appeals to me most is Matuto (Sat., Willy St., 1:30-3 pm). “Matuto” is the Brazilian equivalent of bumpkin, campesino, or jibaro, and this band serves up a mix of country musics – forró, maracatu and other ritmos brasileros plus North American hillbilly strains, slicked up in a young Big Apple jazz matrix. Matuto founder and guitarist Clay Ross grew up in South Carolina and spent several years on tour with the master Brazilian percussionist Cyro Baptista (who played the Union Theater with Luciana Souza in 2009), which explains how this particular fusion emerged. For Matuto, Ross teams up with accordion whiz Rob Curto of Forró for All, a band you might remember from MWMF 3 (2006) and the 2007 Marquette Waterfront Festival. There’s plenty of foot-stompin’ fiddle playing in most of Matuto’s online PR, but for this tour Ross and Curto are accompanied only by bass and percussion. That might dampen the hillbilly side of Matuto’s mix, but no matter – these are topnotch players, and however they spice their sound it’s sure to be savory.
Reggae artist Taj Weekes (Sat., Willy St., 5:30 – 7 pm) doesn’t fall into the fusion family that prevails at this year’s fest. Weekes hails from the island of Santa Lucia, like Jamaica an English-speaking, politically independent island formerly under British rule. There are differences – sizeable Jamaica’s in the Greater Antilles, while Santa Lucia’s a speck in the Lesser Antilles chain near the Grenadines, Barbados and Trinidad. Given this location you’d expect some soca in Weekes' sound, but by what I can tell from his online presence, his classic riddims and socially conscious lyrics come straight from the roots reggae tradition Bob Marley started. In keeping with Marley’s Rastafarian mission, Weekes’ backup band, Adowa, takes its name from the 1896 Battle of Adowa, in which Ethiopan warriors routed an army of invading Italians – the opening salvo in a struggle against European colonialism that finally was won in 1941 under Haile Selassie’s leadership. Weekes doesn’t sound like Marley – his voice is softer, higher-pitched – but the Willy St. crowd will go nuts for his familiar, dance-driving sound.
The rest of the fest is devoted to young bands forging their fusions on the frontlines of the twenty-first century. The kickoff act (Fri., Union Terrace, 5–6:30 pm) is Movits! from Sweden. Three retro-stylish guys in sneakers, suit jackets, Buddy Holly glasses and bowties, with one saxophone and a bunch of DJ gear, play what they call hip hop swing. And yes, there’s some underlying swing in their Youtube videos, but it’s almost entirely buried beneath relentless hip hop beats. It’s not my taste, though I’m only going by what I’ve seen online. But the Movits are energetic, they dance, they were a huge hit at the 2011 Lotus Festival – and they appeared on the Colbert Report (in 2009), accruing the incontrovertible Colbert bump.
Delhi 2 Dublin (Fri., Union Terrace, 8:30-10 pm), a multiculti band from Canada’s Pacific coast, mashes up bhangara, Celtic and dub / hip hop beats. Think Bollywood meets Riverdance in the land of global dance grooves. Like Irish steps, bhangara – born of the Punjabi diaspora in Britain – is a whole dance culture, with its own universe of joyful and rhythmic moves. Not surprisingly, the two styles sync – it’s a wild fling that works.
MC Rai (Fri., Terrace, 10:30-midnight), from Tunisia by way of California, brings an older, more established fusion – rai – to the table. Rai is rooted in the nineteenth century, multi-ethnic Algerian seaport of Oran, where Bedouin poetry aimed against French colonial rule was fused with Spanish, French and Jewish sounds. Swing entered the mix with American troops in World War II. After Algerian independence in 1962 the Islamic regime cracked down on this freewheeling, multicultural protest music, driving it underground -- but in the ‘70s and ‘80s, rai emerged in the expanding Algerian community in France, where it was inevitably infused with the dance beats and instrumentation of western pop. MC Rai brews his own gritty, urban, hip hoppy brand in California, where he’s lived since the start of the new millinneum.
From the far end of the fusion scale comes Canteca de Macao (Sat., Willy St., 7:30-9 pm), a nine-piece outfit from the melting pot of twenty-first century Madrid. The name must come from the fact that the Chinese island of Macao, a Portugese-controlled port of trade and a hotspot in the world system from the sixteenth century through the end of the twentieth. Canteca de Macao creates its own cultural crossroads, mixing flamenco, salsa, cumbia, reggae, reggaeton, jazz, rock, punky Madrileño style and a deep rebellious streak. Besides breaking musical boundaries, Canteca de Macao cuts loose from capitalist orthodoxy. You can download all their tunes for free [http://cantecademacao.net/es/] as long as you tweet about it or share on Facebook, and after putting out three albums on Warner, their 2012 release, Nunca Es Tarde, was fueled entirely by crowdfunding.
Madison World Music Festival Number Nine wraps as always with an outdoor finale. Chicago’s DJ Warp, a staple of Windy City nightlife since at least 2003 (his day gig is organizing events for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs), spins world beat on the Union Terrace (10-11:30 pm). It’s your best opportunity to take one last unencumbered, ice-cream licking turn around that sanctified outdoor spot, since it’s just about two weeks till the first fall freeze.And oh yes, there’s an encore. If you missed Canteca de Macao, or want to catch them again, or you just couldn’t boogie like you wanted on the concrete at the Terrace and your feet still want to move, head down to the Cardinal Bar, 418 E. Wilson, where the dance floor is beautiful, on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 9 pm.