The World Music Festival goes south, or at least local, for 2012



Fatoumata Diawara: A rare bright spot in this years WMF lineup
  • Fatoumata Diawara: A rare bright spot in this year's WMF lineup
Last week I posted the unfortunate news that fascinating Congolese street band Staff Benda Bilili would be touring the U.S. in October but not making a stop in Chicago, despite the fact that a scuttled stateside tour in 2011 hinged on an anchor date in Millennium Park made possible by Mike Orlove and Brian Keigher. Both of those top-notch music programmers were laid off by the city at the end of last year, and I've had a bad feeling ever since about what their absence might mean for this year's World Music Festival. I've just looked over the freshly released schedule for this year's installment, which runs September 21-26, and my fears have been confirmed: the 2012 lineup is easily the weakest yet, even worse than the 2001 roster, which was decimated by post-9/11 cancellations. Of course that's my subjective opinion, but as a huge fan of the festival since its inception—and as someone who follows international music year-round—I think most folks are likely to agree with it.

Earlier this year the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events dumped the popular and vibrant Music Without Borders series, which consistently brought some of the planet's greatest international musicians to Pritzker Pavilion in the summer. Defending that decision to the Tribune's Howard Reich, deputy commissioner of arts programming Angel Ysaguirre explained that the city would make up for the missing Music Without Borders shows during the World Music Festival: "We're going to expand that fest [World Music], not in terms of number of days, but we'll do more programs in Millennium Park than we've done in a couple of years." While it's true that the fest didn't have any concerts in Millennium Park in 2010 and only one last year, it seems like an exaggeration to call it an "expansion" to have two concerts there in 2012—Cape Verdean singer Maria de Barros on Saturday, September 22, and Celtic Connections presents TransAtlantic Sessions, a kind of Irish and American roots project exploring shared Celtic traditions on both sides of the pond, on Wednesday, September 26. This year's fest focuses overwhelmingly on Chicago-based acts, and while it's nice to put the spotlight on such groups, having them open for national and international artists is a much more effective way to get audiences out. One big difference with this year's event is that everything is free, which probably explains why the City Winery performances by Portugal's Deolinda and Romania's Fanfare Ciocarlia aren't part of the festival despite occurring simultaneously.

There are certainly some terrific performers scheduled, including up-and-coming Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara and Tuareg band Terakaft, but most of highlights are bands that have played the fest in past years—such as Chinese group Hanggai and New York-based Balkan brass outfit Slavic Soul Party. The total number of acts, 48, is down just a bit from the 54 that played last year, but 27 are local. Last year only 16 were.

What do you think? Check out the schedule here and add your two cents below.

photo: Youri Lenquette

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