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The best of the 2016 World Music Festival

The brightest gems in this year’s treasure trove include Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke, electro-rumba innovators Ìfé, and forward-looking Indian classicists Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan—and every show is free.

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Mulatu Astatke - ALEXIS MARYON/HARMONIA MUNDI
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In 2016 the World Music Festival runs longer than it has at any time in its 18-year history—it's spread out across 17 days. But in terms of total number of artists and shows, it's relatively modest, in keeping with the festival's past few iterations. That's not necessarily a bad thing. By mid-­September most music fans have endured an onslaught of overstuffed summer festivals, so the WMF's approach—giving audiences a chance to sample a rich diversity of concerts at a more civilized pace—is a smart alternative.

The festival's shows take place at venues all over the city, and has been the case in recent years, they're all free. Once again the Chicago Cultural Center hosts the annual Ragamala concert, which begins the evening of Friday, September 9, and runs through the late morning of Saturday, September 10—this feast of Indian classical music features ragas performed at the traditional hour for which they were composed. The festival has booked a bounty of terrific music from Africa again this year, though I'm disappointed that great Ghanaian singer Pat Thomas canceled his appearance (along with his entire tour). On the other hand, I'm thrilled to get a rare chance to hear genuine taarab music from Zanzibar when Rajab Suleiman & Kithara make their U.S. debut.


World Music Festival Chicago
Fri 9/9 through Sun 9/25, multiple venues and times, see worldmusic​festival​chicago​.org for more details and a complete schedule. All shows are free.


I've previewed the nine artists I'm most excited about, though there are plenty more worth taking in—among them veteran klezmer revivalists the Klezmatics, Indian sarod master Partho Sarodi, poly­stylistic New York Afro-Caribbean dance band Ola Fresca, reliable New York Afrobeat brigade Antibalas, and Reunion Island singer Maya Kamaty.

Ìfé - FACEBOOK
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Ìfé

Friday, September 9
Nano Stern headlines. 10 PM, 1st Ward, 2033 W. North, 18+

I wouldn't usually recommend a group that's released just two songs, but this new combo from Puerto Rico seem on their way to great things. Ìfé founder Mark Underwood, an African-­American DJ and producer who grew up in Texas and Indiana, moved to the island in 1999 on a lark and fell in love with its ritual music—particularly traditional rumba, which uses only voice and percussion. He explored the music's religious foundations and soon became a devotee of the Yoruban Ifá faith, which is closely related to Santeria—in fact, he immersed himself so completely that he became a priest, in which context he's known as Otura Mun. But he continues to make music, and to create Ìfé's convincing blend of rumba and electronic styles (especially house and dancehall) he enlisted a handful of skilled singers and percussionists. Sashaying, belly-rumbling polyrhythms power the band's first single, "3 Mujeres (Iború Iboya Ibosheshé)," while spooky synth stabs speckle an insinuating vocal melody delivered by power­house singer Kathy Cepeda. Ìfé's second single, "House of Love (Ogbe Yekun)," rides the crawling rhythms of Cuban yambu (the oldest form of rumba), which are surrounded with moody electronic pulses, terse organ figures, and deliciously chill, conversational group vocals. The aesthetic distance between the two tracks is great enough that I'm already excited to hear the diversity of the group's forthcoming debut album—I'm pretty sure we'll all be hearing more from Ìfé down the road. This performance is their only stop in the U.S.


Anjna Swaminathan - JAIMIE MILNER
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Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan

Saturday, September 10
Part of Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music. 1:30 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Ragamala, the World Music Festival's marathon celebration of Indian classical music, provides a rare opportunity for Chicagoans to hear traditional ragas as they were intended to be heard—such pieces are sometimes composed for specific times of day, but around these parts they're almost always performed in the afternoon or evening. This year's installment is down to 15 hours (it debuted at 24 hours in 2013), but the bigger change is how many of the performers are American-bred practitioners of Indian classical music. Some are Anglos who've devoted themselves to learning an art from another culture—among them local flutist Lyon Leifer and Los Angeles sarod player David Trasoff—while others are the children of Indian immigrants, such as stunning singer Aditya Prakash, who performs with Afghan percussionist Salar Nader (who's lived in the U.S. since childhood) and California violinist Shiva Ramamurthi.

The most interesting of these American practitioners are sisters Anjna and Rajna Swaminathan, who represent a welcome wave of female instrumentalists. Violinist Anjna and percussionist Rajna grew up in suburban Maryland and studied rigorously under the tutelage of master Carnatic musicians in India, but since that early training they've blazed their own trails. Anjna is involved with Minneapolis-­based dance company Ragamala (no relation), frequently composing and performing for its productions, and she's spent more than a decade in theater—not just as a musician but also as a dramaturge and playwright. Rajna, a virtuoso on the southern Indian double-­headed drum called the mridangam, works with Ragamala too, but she also leads a project called Rajas that brings together Indian classical musicians with open-eared jazz improvisers such as trumpeter Amir ElSaffar (who's pioneered a fusion of jazz and Iraqi maqam) and guitarist and bandleader Miles Okazaki (a key collaborator of saxophonist Steve Coleman). Tonight the sisters will stick to traditional music, but I expect to be seeing them in many different contexts in the future.


Nubatones front woman Alsarah - NOUSHA SALIMI
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  • Nubatones front woman Alsarah

Alsarah & the Nubatones

Saturday, September 10
J.A.S.S. Quartet open. 7 PM, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th, all ages

Terrific Brooklyn band Alsarah & the Nubatones incubated their forthcoming second album, Manara (due September 30 from Wonderwheel), during the period of mourning after the 2014 death of oudist and cofounder Haig Manoukian. Front woman Alsarah, a singer and ethnomusicologist born in Khartoum, Sudan, has devoted her life to preserving Nubian culture (largely wiped away to enable construction of the Aswan High Dam in the 60s), thus following in the footsteps of the likes of Hamza El Din and Ali Hassan Kuban. Her family fled their increasingly violent homeland for Yemen in the early 90s, and in 1994 she moved to the States. The music she's created in the U.S. borrows the scintillating polyrhythms and snaking melodies of Sudan, but she and her sharp band energize it with dashes of funk and hip-hop, finding clear pathways from Nubia to New York. Sudanese music has links to the irresistible pop of nearby Ethiopia, but Alsarah also reaches further south to incorporate East African styles such as taarab and benga.


Mulatu Astatke - BARBARA-N/FLICKR
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Mulatu Astatke

Saturday, September 10
Ìfé (see above) and DJ AfroQbano open. 10 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, 18+

Mulatu Astatke was the most cosmopolitan musician of Ethiopian pop's golden era. He got hooked on jazz while studying engineering in London in the 50s, and his growing obsession led him to Boston, where he became the first African to study at the Berklee College of Music. He began developing a hybrid style of his own—American jazz intertwined with Ethiopian music—but it took him decades to find collaborators fluent enough in both traditions to bring his ideas to full fruition. The fourth volume of the indispensable Ethiopiques series, released in 1998, collects some of the most important milestones in Astatke's process; he made its tracks between 1969 and 1974, a period during which he frequently returned to Ethiopia from the States. He made one trip as a special guest of Duke Ellington, and often worked as an arranger for some of his homeland's greatest artists, including brilliant singer Mahmoud Ahmed, who played last year's World Music Festival.

In 2013 Astatke released one of his strongest albums, Sketches of Ethiopia (Jazz Village), cut with some of London's best improvisers—his Step Ahead Band (no relation to Michael Brecker's fusion group Steps Ahead) includes bassist John Edwards, trumpeter Byron Wallen, and pianist Alexander Hawkins. The record opens with one of its most traditional-­sounding songs, "Azmari," written by Boston reedist Russ Gershon (of Either/Orchestra fame), a longtime colleague of Astatke's. The knotty track is graced by the bandleader's crystalline vibraphone and the brittle twang of Ethiopian stringed instruments—Messale Asmamow plays the krar and Idris Hassun the masinko. From there, the album stretches out stylistically, but it consistently employs jazz as more than just flavoring. Astatke has also achieved great artistic success in recent years collaborating with progressive British instrumental funk band the Heliocentrics. He's not only one of the greatest living links to classic Ethiopian pop, but also one of the few who has such a sure-handed, wide-ranging grasp of how that music has been embraced by artists all over the world.


A-Wa - HASSAN HAJJAJ
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A-Wa

Thursday, September 15
Maya Kamaty opens. 7 PM, Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln, 21+

In the late 80s and early 90s, Israeli singer Ofra Haza achieved international success by bridging the politically impossible divide between her homeland and the Arabic world with revamped versions of the Yemenite songs she'd grown up hearing. Nearly three decades later, southern Israeli group A-Wa seem poised to follow in her footsteps. Sisters Tair, Liron, and Tagel Haim grew up in a farming village not far from the Egyptian border. Their parents filled their home with an eclectic playlist of global sounds, and a U.S.-born teacher at their local high school introduced them to vintage American pop—particularly the fizzy harmony singing of the Andrews Sisters. In 2010 they began making no-­budget YouTube clips of themselves tackling the repertoire of fellow Yemenite Shlomo Moga'a, who was popular in the 50s and 60s, and the videos soon attracted attention within Israel. On a lark they sent some to producer Tomer Yosef of Balkan Beat Box, an expert at reconfiguring traditional Israeli sounds for the current electronic-pop marketplace. He quickly signed on. Originally called the Haim Sisters, the group changed their name to A-Wa (Arabic for "yes"), and earlier this summer their debut album, Habib Galbi (Eighth Note), dropped worldwide. The catchy, Arabic-flavored melodies get a modernist lift from the production's mix of hip-hop and reggae influences—it's a kind of Israeli equivalent to the music of Manu Chao, with harmony singing that conjures the golden age of Hollywood.


Déni Shain and Samy Ben Redjeb of Analog Africa Soundsystem - FACEBOOK
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Analog Africa Soundsystem (aka DJ Samy Ben Redjeb)

Thursday, September 15
Antibalas headlines; Rocky Dawuni and Analog Africa Soundsystem open. 9 PM, Metro, 3730 N. Clark, 18+

For a decade or so now, reissue labels focusing on vintage music from Africa have been coming and going, indulging in a long crate-­digger's feast as they hunt for sounds that never left the continent—and that's a lot of music. None of these labels has eclipsed the consistent quality of the output of Analog Africa, which seems as strong and committed as ever—it recently released a fascinating album of Cape Verdean music that combines traditional rhythms with a literal boatload of synthesizers. (They were recovered from a shipwrecked cargo vessel that washed up on the island's shores in 1968, but due to a lack of electricity, it took years for musicians to fully exploit them.) And later this month, the label will put out another collection from Cape Verde, this one of rarely heard funaná music by Bitori, aka Victor Tavares.

Analog Africa remains the brainchild of Tunisian-­born Samy Ben Redjeb, who got hooked on African music while working as a diving instructor in Senegal in 1994. Since then he's become one of the reissue market's most obsessive, knowledgeable, and ethical crate diggers—he goes the extra mile to find the artists and stories behind the records he licenses. He specializes in sounds from West Africa, including Benin, Ghana, Togo, and Senegal, but he's also recovered gorgeous music from Angola, Burkina Faso, and the Congo—and his occasional forays into South America have resulted in killer reissues by Colombia's Anibal Velasquez and Brazil's Mestre Cupijó. Redjeb has keen ears and deep curiosity, and everything he does is smartly curated and presented. When he DJs, he digs into his stellar collection carefully, and even though I've only heard a few of his early mixes, I'm confident he'll shake some plaster from Metro's ceiling with a set of tunes that few of us have heard but none of us will forget.


Rajab Suleiman (far right) and his group Kithara - W.GRAEBNER
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  • Rajab Suleiman (far right) and his group Kithara

Rajab Suleiman & Kithara

Sunday, September 18
Rocky Dawuni headlines; Herencia de Timbiquí and Rajab Suleiman & Kithara open. 2 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento, all ages

Wednesday, September 21
8:30 PM, Szold Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln, all ages

Regular readers already know I love taarab music—I made a particularly impassioned case for it on the occasion of a majestic Millennium Park performance by Zanzibar's venerable Culture Musical Club during the 2006 World Music Festival. Taarab sets Swahili rhythms and poetry to elaborate orchestrations, and the music includes regional influences from as far afield as India and Cuba. As I wrote in 2006, "A strong Arabic flavor pervades all of it, and thanks to the region's role as a trade hub the music has strong Japanese influences as well." In recent years the cost of maintaining a full taarab orchestra (CMC performances have sometimes featured more than 60 musicians) has encouraged the replacement of live performers with synthesizers and drum machines, a change accelerated by demand for the music in the rest of the African and Arabic world—big groups make touring especially difficult. These processes have created interesting hybrids, but they've also made traditional taarab something of an endangered species.

Rajab Suleiman joined CMC in the mid-90s as an accordion player, but he was fascinated by the kanun, a 78-string Arabic zither. He learned the instrument on his own, then leaped into the chair vacated by the group's main kanun player, Maulidi Haji Mkadam, when he had to take a leave of absence in 1999. And as it turned out, Suleiman never relinquished the position. Because he felt Culture Musical Club couldn't accommodate changing tastes, though, he also formed the smaller, nimbler group Kithara—a sextet with a raft of vocalists—to incorporate relatively modern, dance-­oriented forms such as the popular wedding style kidumbak. Despite its contemporary spin, Kithara thankfully doesn't rely on electronic instruments—its sound remains gloriously and richly acoustic, with deft real-­time interplay and magnificent singing.


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SK Kakraba

Thursday, September 22
Solo & Indre headline. 6 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Friday, September 23
Solo & Indre headline. 10 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 21+

SK Kakraba hails from northern Ghana, and early in life he devoted himself to keeping the local traditions of the Lobi people alive by learning the gyil, a tuned percussion instrument similar to the balafon, with 14 wooden keys laid over gourd resonators. What distinguishes the gyil is the brittle buzz that hangs over every resonant note, a sort of natural distortion produced by covering a hole bored in each gourd with a sheet of silk taken from the egg sacs of spiders. SK's uncle Kakraba Lobi, widely considered the greatest practitioner of the instrument, taught at the Institute of African Studies at the University of Ghana in Accra, and SK dutifully followed in his uncle's footsteps and learned to play it. When he was 20, in 1997, he moved to Accra and began busking; eventually he joined Hewale Sounds, a group focused on preserving and popularizing traditional Ghanaian music. In 2012 he relocated to Los Angeles, and he's built a flourishing solo career—last year he put out two dazzling albums, Yonye (on the Sun Ark label, run by experimental musician Sun Araw) and Songs of Paapieye (the first new material released by Awesome Tapes From Africa, which usually sticks to reissues). Both recordings mix hypnotizing grooves and melodic explication, and Kakraba plays with fluid grace and exquisite logic. As much as I like the buzz of the gyil, I'm more taken with the blunt overtones that Kakraba builds up as he goes. He borrows most of his melodies from the traditional accompaniment to ritual or social functions (weddings, funerals, parties), but they don't require any translation.


Dona Onete - JULIA RODRIGUES
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  • Dona Onete

Dona Onete

Thursday, September 22
Bossa Tres open. 8 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, 21+

Friday, September 23
Silvia + Luciano + Neusa open. 8 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln, all ages

Brazil's Dona Onete has always loved music—she'd sing as she washed clothes as a girl on the banks of the Amazon—but she didn't record her first album until five years ago, at the ripe old age of 73. As a young woman she used her powerful voice to entertain locals in the taverns of Igaparé Miri, where she grew up, but her interest in local culture and history shaped her career—she became a professor and was eventually elected the town's Municipal Secretary of Culture. After hours, though, she wrote songs—more than 300 during her time as a civil servant—and she never stopped giving low-key performances, developing a hybrid style of her own called "carimbó chamegado" that was based on an Amazonian dance rhythm. After her retirement, she and her husband moved to Belém, the capital of the state of Pará, where a local band heard her singing in a bar and invited her to collaborate, launching an unlikely success story. Onete's debut, Feitiço Caboclo, dropped in 2012, and she rolls into Chicago in support of her brand-new second album, Banzeiro. If nothing else her work reminds us that there's much more to Brazilian music than samba and bossa nova. Onete has irresistible charisma and energy, which comes through onstage even though she performs seated. She stretches her husky voice over high-­velocity polyrhythmic grooves, her phrasing and grit complementing the agility of her sharp band. With its strong African influence, the music has a much more propulsive, muscular drive than the styles we commonly associate with her homeland. v

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