Wednesday, September 3, 2014

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival: Chapter 11

Dragon Knights' Dragon Fly                             © SKepecs 2011
by Susan Kepecs
The eleventh annual Madison World Music Festival, at the Memorial Union (Fri. / Sat., Sept. 12-13) and the Willy St. Fair (Sat. afternoon only), is, like all of its predecessors, a chance to check in with the state of the globe, take stock of the big picture, and be blown away by how people rise above conflict with joyful noise.  And this year’s fest is a joyful occasion, celebrating the reopening of the renovated Wisconsin Union Theater – vital venue and crucial community builder that it is – after two long years. 
The lineup itself is something to celebrate.  No Irish reggae cumbia hip hop flamenco bands (my pet peeve) plague the stage.  Maybe the the Millennial generation’s finally realized that its altermodern mashups, the spawn of socioeconomic globalization and aesthetic universalism, have finally gone too far. Most of the bands on this bill are young, but all are culturally explicit within the blurred parameters of the twenty-first century.
It’s also a very dancey affair.  Seven of the nine bands on the bill play grab-you-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-and-make-you-move music, and there are two dance companies to boot.  One is Bay Area-based Bandaloop (Fri., 4:30 and 6:45 PM; Sat. 4:30 PM and 7 PM, Union Terrace) – daring aerial dancers who’ll fly gracefully off the outside walls of the Union Theater.  More on them in a separate post that follows.  The other is bailaora / coreógrafa flamenca Vanesa Aibar, with her musicians – more on that below. 
And, now that construction on the Union Terrace is done, the Dragon Knights, those spectacular, towering, stiltwalker puppets, return (Fri.; 4 PM and 7:15 PM; Sat. 4 PM and 5 PM, Union Terrace)!  Founder Lily Valerie Noden, who’s French and lives in California, describes her artform as culturally blended theater with roots in Europe, Africa, Asia and the US (go to her website,, for more of the story).  Her puppets are like creatures from another planet, or your dreams. 
There’s a set of local world music and dance outfits on the Terrace, Sat. afternoon, 2-4 PM – plus a total of ten musical acts over the course of the festival’s two days.  Here’s the list:

From Honduras, singer / songwriter / guitarist / percussionist – and former congressman – Aurelio Martínez y la Garifuna Soul Band (Fri., 5 PM, Union Terrace). The Garifuna of Honduras, Belize and Guatemala are the descendants of indigenous groups from the Lesser Antilles and African slaves who were relocated from the islands to the Caribbean coast of Central America by the British in the eighteenth century.  Garifuna sounds like it should be an African tongue, but it’s not – it’s an indigenous Arawak language. 
Martinez, who looks absolutely joyful when he sings, is the primary contemporary interpreter of Garifuna paranda – guitar and drum dance music traditionally played house to house to carry news and gossip around the community.  This is his heritage – his father was a parandero – though he often softens into ballads or plays paranda’s next-generation child: rapid-fire, hip-shifting, booty-shaking punta. Garifuna music is always alegre – it’s a way to keep suffering at bay, Martinez says in a Spanish language YouTube documentary.  And Honduras is a world capital of suffering.  Thanks to centuries of colonialism and neocolonialism (Honduras was the original banana republic), plus the inevitable poverty and violence that emerge from these conditions, los Zetas and la Mara Salvatrucha – the two most brutal crime outfits in Latin America – operate in cahoots in Honduras.  This country’s by far the largest contributor of desperate migrants seeking refuge in the States.  The Honduran city of San Pedro Sula, the gateway to the Garifuna coast – it sits inland about 100 miles west of the port of La Ceiba, Martinez’ home –  is the murder capital of the world.  According to an August 24 report, some 60 Honduran Garifuna risk their lives every day riding “la bestia” – the freight train lumbering north through Mexico with migrant hordes crammed on the roof that you’ve undoubtedly seen on the news.  For them, Martinez is a culture hero.  For us he’s an ambassador from a deeply endangered cultural region.  Everyone's lucky to have him, and his jubilant tunes.  

From Basque country on the Bay of Biscay, northeast Spain: Korrontzi (Fri. 7:45 PM, Union Terrace; also Sat., 2 PM, Willy St. Fair) – dance music of a different stripe.  The region was home to a cluster of medieval European kingdoms that were integrated into the emerging Spanish state early in the sixteenth century.  The tenacious Basques retained their unique language and culture.  They’ve never liked being part of Spain – separatist movements have rocked the region for some 120 years.  Today Spain grants quasi autonomy to the Basque region and other culturally defined territories within its national boundaries.  And Basque music is a shining example of Spain’s cultural heterogeneity. It’s bouncy, or sometimes chewy, but always celebratory – the polar opposite of the seething passion – duende – of southern Spain’s flamenco.
Led by trikitixa (diatonic button accordion) master Agus Barandiaran, this band just smokes.  The name’s taken from from a legendary folk figure from the band’s hometown of Munguia,Vizcaya, who, astride his burro, played his trikitixa for the crowds pouring out of church after mass.  Despite this traditional image, Korrontzi – some of its members also play with Basque pop-rock band Urgabe – subtly, and without ever losing its identity, opens up folk tunes to world influences. 
Korrontzi’s sound is irresistably danceable, and the band’s often accompanied by dancers in their videos.  This is music is made to drive folk dances, like the one in this video ....    
......but its textures are insanely rich. A couple of clips of the band accompanying ballet ( knock Balanchine's concept of dance as music made visible out of the park.

From the autunomous community of Andalucia, at Spain’s southern tip: Vanesa Aibar’s EviscerArt (ViscerArte), 8:30 PM, Play Circle, Memorial Union). Viscerarte takes its name from viscera – you know, heart and guts – the physical seats of emotion and rhythm.  Flamenco, born of poverty, sex and violence in the medieval merchant ports of southern Spain, is Spanish, Jewish, Moorish, an artform churned for centuries on the rocks of politics and fashion.  Aibar’s an emerging star whose repertory ranges from the smoldering sevillanas and bulerias of classic flamenco to balletic, break dance-inspired nu flamenco.  At the MWMF she’s dancing unpartnered (I think); she’s accompanied by Eduardo Pacheco on guitar and Cristian de Moret on vocals.

From the islands of Trinidad and Tobago, in the Lesser Antilles off the Venezuelan coast: the legendary juju warrior, the lioness of the jungle, the undisputed Queen of Calypso, Calypso Rose, with nu calypso band Kobo Town (Fri., 9:45 PM, Union Terrace).  The islands, caught in the colonial tug-of-war between Spain, France and Britain, just celebrated the fifty-second anniversary of their independence from the Brits on August 31. That’s a major historic marker for Calypso Rose, whose career began during the dawn of Trinidadian autonomy.  Today 74, she’s a cancer survivor and lives in Queens, NY.  But no gritty New York borough, no disease, can diminish the diva. She’s possessed by island spirits.  Onstage she dances, struts, scats and swings like the queen she’s always been.
Kobo Town (, named for the birthplace of calypso, a hardscrabble fishing neighborhood in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, comes via Toronto, Canada. Founder Drew Gonzalves was a teen displaced from his homeland to the bitter Canadian plains who grew up with rock and then rediscovered his roots.  Today he writes songs with smart, socially conscious lyrics, and plays the cuatro – a small, four-stringed guitar common in Latin America.  Traditional calypso’s got a rolling, syncoppated 4/4 rhythm; Gonzalves’ nu calypso’s updated with reggae, zouk and other post-calypso Caribbean beats, plus occasional hip-hop inflections.

Moving Sound (Sat., 5:30 PM, Union Terrace) hails from Taiwan, that democratic, capitalist Chinese island off the southeast coast of communist China.  The two Chinas, the result of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950), don’t recognize each other’s sovereignty – and Beijing has 1500 ballistic missles pointed at Taiwan just in case a war of seperatism breaks out.  Moving Sound mixes traditional Chinese instruments, currents of music and movement from across Asia, high fashion, and a bold, forged-in-the-US avant-garde performance style that would be unthinkable under the
                                                           photo © Sheng Lin
repressive thumb of the mainland communist regime.  
The ensemble – led by singer / dancer Mia Hsieh, whose parents fled Red rule, and classically trained Pittsburgh-born composer Scott Prairie – has an intriguing aesthetic that gets its kick from Hsieh, who studied performance in New York with Meredith Monk, and whose looks are mesmerizing. 
Moving Sound can’t solve China’s communist / capitalist crisis, but it transcends cultural tensions between the bitterly opposed political-economic systems snarling at each other across the Taiwan Strait. And the band’s got enough glitz to draw in western audiences, which puts a global spotlight on divided China.

From Tunisia, by way of Paris: singer / songwriter Emel Mathlouthi (Sat., 7:45 PM, Union Terrace), the voice of the Jasmine Revolution – the opening salvo of the Arab Spring.  In the dangerous haze of Islamic State terrorists and other current crises let’s not forget that bright movement, which coincided with Occupy Wall Street and our own uprising at the State Capitol in early 2011!
Mathlouthi, whose activist songs were banned on Tunisian radio, left her homeland for the freedom of Paris in 2006.  But from the French capital, with her weapons of choice – a rangy, melodic voice and a plugged-in acoustic guitar – she was a key player in the revolt that began in December, 2010, and in January 2011 ousted Tunisian strongman Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.
Three years earlier, Mathlouthi sang her song “Kelmti Horra” – in English it means “The World is Free” – at the Place de la Bastille, where the French Revolution broke out on July 14, 1789.  Here's the video of that event:
 “Kelmti Horra” spread via social media to Tunisia, where it became the anthem of the resistance.  Mathlouthi found herself at home, singing her song on the streets, as Ben Ali fled the country. Three years later Tunisia’s still shaky, but change is coming – the little country on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa, sandwiched between jihadi hotspots Algeria and Libya, has free elections and a new constitution that includes many rights for women.  Mathlouthi continues to write activist songs urging her people to stand strong and push forward.  

From Hungary, Söndörgö (Sat., Willy St. Fair, 3:45 PM).  The Source of All Knowledge – aka the Internet – says it’s pronounced “Shern-der-goe.” One band member told a Dutch interviewer (see his whole interview here: that it’s a nonsense name, but these are no-nonsense players on a mission to save what they call the lost music of the Balkans – specifically old folk tunes from minority Serb and Croat villages in Hungary.  These communities are dying out, which makes this cultural rescue vital.
Söndörgö’s rollicking folk tunes defy centuries of bad blood between the Serbs and the Croats over land, religion, and trade.  To my ear this fast, fiery music’s more like Roma accordion dances than violin-driven Hungarian csárdás, but its lead instrument is the tambura – a mandolin-like instrument brought to southeast Europe by Ottoman Turks in the fourteenth or fifteenth century and quickly adopted by Serb and Croat musicians.  Accordion, an exotic asortment of flutes, hand persuccion and sometimes saxophone round out Söndörgö’s sound, which has occasional undercurrents of Silk Routes and snake charmers – the Ottoman legacy.  
The band – three brothers, a cousin, and a lifelong friend – are following in the footsteps of the brothers’ father, whose own virtuoso tambura band, the Vujicsics Ensemble, has been preserving the musical heritage of Hungarian Serbs and Croats since the 1970s.  The Vujicsics, and before them the great Hungarian composer and ethnomusicologist Bela Bartok, collected of hundreds of old folk songs from these communities.  Söndörgö reinterprets them some, improvising on the themes, but it’s pure – no outside influence here.  The band’s touring its just-released CD, Tamburocket: Hungarian Fireworks on the Riverboad label – I think it’s the band’s fifth album, though only the previous one, Tamburising (World Village 2011) is also available in the States.

From another part of the world suffering from strife comes rising Malian guitarist Oumar Konaté (Sat., 5:45 PM, Willy St. Fair), whose hometown is the city of Gao, capital of ancient empires and still a trade crossroads on the Niger River in northern Mali.  It’s volatile territory.  Tribal tensions have divided the country’s desert north from the semi-arid, Sahelian south since the fall of French colonial rule in 1960.  In early 2012 those deep-seated antagonisms exploded, opening the door for international drug-trafficking jihadis.  In short order they captured the entire northern region and imposed Sharia law, amputating the limbs of “offenders” in city squares and trying to annihilate the country’s cultural identity by banning music.
The terrorists were driven back by the French in 2013, though recurring flareups prevent peace. But Mali’s musicians, filled with the spirit, refuse to let the bastards grind them down.  Konaté’s debut international release, Addoh (“Tears”), just out on Clermont Music, was, in fact, recorded during the jihad crisis.  He wields a wicked axe, and you’ll recognize his amped-up, Hendrix-soaked style – he’s played played backup for a handful of Malian bluesmen including Vieux Farka Toure, whose numerous Mad City gigs include a warmup concert for the 2011 MWMF.  Addoh’s got a couple of flirting songs, a shake your booty dance number, some odes to being responsible (one’s titled “Respect your parents”) – and a pair of the most fearless political songs I’ve ever heard.  His music video of “Our Country is Destroyed,” off Addoh, says it all. .

La Yegros – Yegros is her paternal last name – brings slick, energetic, coquettish electro-chamamé-cumbia from Argentina to the Willy St. Stage (Sat., 7:45 PM). Except for its current economic crisis – the country just defaulted on an enormous World Bank debt – Argentina’s pretty calm these days.  It’s got Pope Frances, soccer, and a sizzling electropop youth culture of which La Yegros is a shining example.  A former opera student who cites Bjork as her favorite singer, she spent 15 years married to and performing with King Coya, whose style is laid-back cumbia-reggae-hip hop Latintronica.  La Yegros – who just launched her solo debut album, Viene de Mi, on the Buenos Aires electrocumbia label ZZK – retains that approach, but her tack is less altermodern, more Latin.  Chamamé is folkloric, bandoneon-based Afro-indigenous-eastern European dance music in syncopated 2/4 time that originated in Argentina’s northeast region.  Cumbia, born on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is folkloric, accordion-based Afro-indigenous-European dance music in syncopated 4/4 time that became more or less pan-Latin in the 20th century, spreading across South America and up the Caribbean coast through Central America to the Gulf of Mexico.  La Yegros’ mix is heavily chamamé / cumbia, with lots of electronic latinapop influences.

And finally, from Cuba: Pablo Menéndez y Mezcla (Sat., 9:45 PM, Union Terrace).  I could write a book about Cuba – in fact, I have – but all I’m going to say right now is that el bloqueo – the 53-year old US embargo on Cuba – is an utterly ridiculous foreign policy.  The economic impediments, the travel ban, all those twisted covert plots – trying to kill Fidel with exploding cigars, a fake Twitter project (“el ZunZuneo”) aimed at spurring Cuban youth to rise up against the socialist government – they’re like scenes from the Marx Brothers playbook, and I’m talking about Groucho, Harpo and Chico, not Karl.
The Castros may be doddering, but they’re nobody’s fools. The iron hand of socialism has its faults, but it’s kept the narco cartels that’ve overrun the rest of the Caribbean and Latin America at bay.  And Cuba’s got free (excellent) education and health care for all.  Yes, parts of the system broke down when the Soviets pulled out – Cubans don’t have enough food or enough money.  But a trend toward market socialism, the end of travel restrictions on Cuban citizens, and slowly expanding Internet access are steps toward updating the system for the twenty-first century. It’s the US that refuses to change. Congress is still stuck in the Cold War, which is why Putin was able to waltz in this past July and forgive Cuba’s Russian debt plus propose new infrastructural investments.  Putin seems fixed on fighting with the West, but Cuba is not the enemy.  Mezcla is living proof of the close ties between the island where the palm trees grow and el Yuma (that’s us).   
Mezcla's Afro-latin bop/rock fusion is too rangy to describe in a nutshell, but think Carlos Santana meets Chucho Valdés and the Muñequitos de Matanzas.  And Menéndez has, I’m almost positive, played with all three at some point or other.  A Bay Area first-wave boomer red diaper baby, he's the son of the husky-voiced socialist folk singer Barbara Dane, the first US artist to perform in Cuba after the Revolution.  On the heels of that visit Menéndez attended high school at Havana’s Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana and decided to stay.  And as proof that Cuba adapts and changes with the times, today he’s a professor of electric guitar at the same institution – though in the ‘60s, when he was a student and the Revolution was young and fierce, Cuban youth listened to forbidden US jazz and rock broadcasts by sneaking onto the rooftops at night to pick up Miami radio stations.
See this hombre sin fronteras and his band for yourself.  Here they are at Yoshi’s Oakland in 2013, playing the Chucho Valdés tune “Mambo Influenciado”….


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