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The Reader's guide to the 2014 World Music Festival

The year's biggest feast of international music—with Seun Kuti, La Bottine Souriante, Vieux Farka Touré, the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar, and dozens more—is spread out across 20 venues and 11 days, and all 36 shows are totally free.

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It's not fair to compare the 2014 World Music Festival roster with the mind-boggling lineups of the late 90s and early 00s. Times change, and those glory days are gone—budgets are smaller at the agencies that organize and support the fest, U.S. work visas are harder than ever to obtain (at least for nonstars), and foreign artists can make more touring Europe (or even staying at home). That said, this year's event is pretty terrific. It includes the Chicago debut of dynamic Hungarian tamburitza band Söndörgő, two sets by charismatic Garifuna singer Aurelio Martinez (who's supporting an excellent new album), and three shows from party-starting Balkan brass stalwarts the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar—plus return trips by some exciting recent visitors, among them Nigerian Afrobeat heir Seun Kuti, Italian folk troupe Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino, and Brazilian singer Momo.

In Chicago, this is the only time of year when fans of international music can enjoy such an embarrassment of riches, and needless to say it's also the only time all the concerts are free. The 14 artists previewed below are the Reader's special favorites, but they're hardly the fest's only worthwhile offerings: also among the lineup's slew of local artists is Arabic-jazz-fusion band the Wanees Zarour Ensemble, and other intriguing out-of-towners include the duo of Celtic harpist Catrin Finch (Wales) and kora player Sekou Keita (Senegal), Gnawan modernist Hassan Hakmoun (Morocco), and electro-cumbia singer La Yegros (Argentina). Peter Margasak

Full schedule at worldmusicfestivalchicago.org

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Vieux Farka Touré Malian singer and guitarist Vieux Farka Touré often seems to want to distinguish himself from his famous father, Ali Farka Touré, who helped introduce West African blues to the world: he's cut all his albums with American producers, and with 2011's The Secret he made some questionable crossover attempts, collaborating with the likes of Derek Trucks, Ivan Neville, and Dave Matthews. He recorded last year's Mon Pays(Six Degrees) in Bamako, intending to focus on the traditional acoustic styles of northern and southern Mali, but as violence spread in the country (Tuareg nationalists and Islamic fundamentalists were fighting for territory) he decided to make music celebrating his homeland's history of diversity and tolerance. "Yer Gando" excoriates foreign invaders, and a pair of instrumentals titled "Future" and "Peace" makes it clear what's on Touré's mind. He also confronts his inheritance head-on, covering his father's song "Safare" and honoring his legacy (as well as Mali's musical heritage) with traditional instrumental flavors: cycling guitar licks and dry calabash percussion are accented by twangy ngoni, spindly flurries of kora, and nasal, sawing spike fiddle. Peter Margasak

Thursday, September 11 Bombino opens. 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

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The Wu-Force Evanston-born banjo master Abigail Washburn and Chinese guzheng virtuoso Wu Fei, two-thirds of the Wu-Force, are among the boldest musicians at work today—Washburn has reached past her roots in folk to incorporate rock 'n' roll and traditional Chinese music, and Fei plays her ancient plucked zither not only in traditional contexts but also in experimental and improvised settings with the likes of Fred Frith, Alvin Curran, and Carla Kihlstedt. Nashville-based Kai Welch, who rounds out this intriguing trio, makes pleasantly atmospheric -folk rock, at least on his own. Judging from a performance I saw at New York's Globalfest in January and the demos on the group's Bandcamp page, the Wu-Force has yet to add up to the sum of its members' talents—the demos collide Appalachian and ­Chinese folk, but they lack the depth and rigor I'd expect from Washburn and Fei. Given how talented these folks are, though, I'm betting that things have progressed significantly over the past nine months. Peter Margasak

Thursday, September 11 The Lawrence Peters Outfit opens. 8 PM, Schubas, 18+

Friday, September 12 Nathaniel Braddock & Steve Doyle open. 8:30 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music

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La Bottine Souriante Since 1976, this gigantic Quebecois band has been keeping the French musical traditions of North America alive—and keeping them up all night. Accordion, fiddle, double bass, piano, bouzouki, mandolin, and percussive dancing (similar to Irish step dancing and Appalachian flatfooting) form the core of La Bottine Souriante's sound, and for more than two decades it's had a boisterous horn section as well. Though the band has a few ballads in its repertoire, what it's famous for is nonstop dance music, frenetic and swinging and so tightly orchestrated that no cold winds can blow in through the cracks. These folks have dabbled in jazz and salsa and collaborated with Basque and Irish bands, and of course their music has a close kinship with the stuff their Cajun cousins dance to down south. Swapping instruments with abandon and dancing like drops of water on a hot skillet, the members of La Bottine Souriante have more than enough energy to fill Pritzker Pavilion. Monica Kendrick

Friday, September 12 Pablo Menendez & Mezcla open. 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

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Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 On the back cover of his new album, A Long Way to the Beginning (Knitting Factory), Seun Kuti bares his shoulders, where a tattoo reading Fela Lives spells out his devotion to the politically urgent Afrobeat forged by his father. After a pair of records where Kuti proved himself worthy of inheriting Fela's band Egypt 80, he's now establishing his own identity—he coproduced A Long Way with jazz keyboardist Robert Glasper and recruited Dead Prez rapper M-1 and Ghanaian-­American MC Blitz the Ambassador for guest appearances. The new album's ferocious opener, "IMF," brings a classic Afrobeat groove to a full boil with chattering brass and choppy, cross-cutting funk—and the lyrics don't hold back either, renaming the IMF "International Motherfuckers." The following track, "African Airways," also aims its bitter sarcasm at outside forces exploiting the continent; the song's metaphorical airline uses "Chinese engines," "World Bank radars," and "Western pilots." On "Ohun Aiye," which includes a rollicking piano solo from Glasper, Kuti and Egypt 80 tap into the percolating rhythms of Congolese kwassa kwassa (Vampire Weekend appropriated the term three decades after the fact), and on "Black Woman" they opt for a slow, soulful vamp to salute the strength, courage, and intelligence of black women. Peter Margasak

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Aurelio Since Belizean superstar Andy Palacio died in 2008, Honduran singer Aurelio Martinez has taken his place as unofficial ambassador for the music of the Garifuna, a Caribbean people descended from indigenous Arawaks and displaced Africans. Martinez shares Palacio's passion for public service—in 2005 he became the first person of African descent elected to the National Congress of Honduras—and casts a similarly wide net with his albums, making explicit the connections between Garifuna culture and some of its African sources. Many of the tracks on 2010's Laru Beya (Sub Pop) have a strong reggae vibe, while others reflect the time Martinez spent in Senegal learning from Youssou N'Dour; in comparison, the new Landini (Real World) sticks more closely to Garifuna traditions, despite the occasional embroidery of liquid pedal-steel guitar. With the help of Ivan Duran, who produced both records, Martinez achieves a sublime mix of vibrato-rich electric guitar and piquant acoustic guitar over sashaying syncopated grooves, and a hypnotically chanting chorus often answers his easy, soulful singing; the upbeat material is great, and the gorgeously meditative ballads are even better. Martinez is nearly as charismatic onstage as Palacio was, and his return to Chicago is overdue. Peter Margasak

Saturday, September 13 Seun Kuti headlines. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

Sunday, September 14 Aurelio only; no Seun Kuti set. Erkan Oğur's Telvin Trio opens. 8 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music

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Nicolae Feraru & His Gypsy Band Born, raised, and trained in Romania, where his reputation persists, cimbalom master Nicolae Feraru was granted political asylum in 1988, during the bloody last days of the Ceauşescu regime, and since the mid-90s he's lived in Chicago. Until recently he worked in a dental-equipment factory while maintaining this tight and talented ensemble, which hybridizes eastern European music with jazz; last year he was awarded a NEA National Heritage Fellowship, which the agency calls "the nation's highest honor in the folk and traditional arts." The cimbalom, similar to but more complex than a hammer dulcimer, is vastly underrated and undeservedly obscure outside eastern Europe, and I don't think I've ever heard anyone make it sing the way Feraru does (though he and his bandmates make space for other soloists as well). They're regulars at the World Music Festival, and they killed it at their Millennium Park show last year. Monica Kendrick

Sunday, September 14 Calypso Rose with Kobo Town open. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

Sunday, September 21 Part of the One World Under One Roof mini festival. 5:15 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

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Söndörgő This high-octane folk ensemble comes from a village on the outskirts of Budapest called Szentendre, but its repertoire isn't Hungarian—instead it consists of Serbian and Croatian string-band music played on tamburitza (also called tambura), a family of mandolinlike instruments widespread in central and southern Europe. Four of Söndörgő's five members are brothers—Dávid, Salamon, Áron, and Benjamin Eredics—and they play with an almost telepathically tight rapport on the group's latest album, Tamborocket: Hungarian Fireworks (Riverboat). Tamburitza are often plucked in rapid, staccato patterns, set to buoyant dance rhythms on hand percussion, clarinet, accordion, and upright bass, but using that palette Söndörgő can convey a wide variety of moods. I first heard them on a recording with powerhouse Romany saxophonist Ferus Mustafov, and though some songs here borrow the breakneck speed of that material, most of them seem to go for springy rather than propulsive—their airy tone and sweet melodicism sometimes suggest an eastern European answer to bluegrass. Peter Margasak

Sunday, September 14 Bahto Delo Delo opens. 8 PM, Schubas, 18+

Monday, September 15 Oumar Konaté headlines (see below). 7 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

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  • James Gierman

Oumar Konaté Malian singer and guitarist Oumar Konaté is the latest in an impressive line of talents (including Khaira Arby, Mamadou Kelly, and Imarhan Timbuktu) recorded and brought to the U.S. by American producer Chris Nolan. Born in Gao in the north of Mali, Konaté worked in several prominent folkloric groups before hitting the international circuit as a guitarist with Arby, Sidi Touré, and Vieux Farka Touré (see above). He cut his recent debut album, Addoh (Clermont Music), in the U.S. and in Bamako, against the backdrop of Mali's unfolding religious and ethnic civil war. Konaté is a terrific, soulfully raspy singer, and he's an even better guitarist—with his stabbing lines and pierc ing, vocalic tone, he pushes the West African "desert blues" sound (exemplified by Ali Farka Touré and Tinariwen) into rock-influenced terrain. Though Mahalmadané Abbanassané's drumming is occasionally too big for Konaté's tender ballads, and Professor Louie's keyboards sometimes sound downright chintzy, those are cosmetic issues—this seasoned band will surely have sorted them out by now. Peter Margasak

Sunday, September 14 Kinobe & the Wamu Spirit open. Noon, Willye B. White Park

Monday, September 15 Söndörgő opens (see above). 7 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

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Emel Mathlouthi Frustrated by censorship of her songs, Tunisian singer-songwriter Emel Mathlouthi emigrated in 2007 to Paris, France, where she developed a Western-flavored art-pop that drew upon her Arabic roots. She was on tour in Tunisia when the Arab Spring erupted in 2010, and her song "Kelmti Horra (My Word Is Free)," recorded in France, spread via social media and became an unofficial anthem of the uprising. She performed it during a huge rally, cementing its importance to her fellow Tunisians, and it eventually appeared on her 2012 album of the same name, released by World Village. Mathlouthi wrote all the music on the record, and "Kelmti Horra" (though she didn't write its lyrics) is representative of her graceful, folk-­flavored style—she is to Joan Baez what Algerian singer Souad Massi is to Joni Mitchell. The elegant arrangements are touched by twangy oud and north African hand percussion (daf, bendir), but Mathlouthi wouldn't have sounded out of place at Lilith Fair. Peter Margasak

Sunday, September 14 Ami Saraiya & the Outcome open. 9:30 PM, Martyrs', 21+

Monday, September 15 Hassan Hakmoun headlines. 8 PM, City Winery

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Diplomats of Drum The Diplomats of Drum's tour rider is very specific about how big and strong the stage has to be—it's got to support ten musicians who never stay still. Founded by street performers in the mid-aughts, this multi­ethnic Malaysian world-beat band will beat out a rhythm on anything they can lay hands to, and each of its members has a long resumé—the diversity of skills involved makes for an intense, complex fusion of South Asian sounds. (They also incorporate rock, funk, pop, and jazz, but those styles just end up caught in their tire treads once they really get rolling.) A recording will never capture the life force of a group like this, so don't sleep on these rare chances to catch the Diplomats' rousing, upbeat, well-paced live shows. Monica Kendrick

Wednesday, September 17 Ledward Kaapana, George Kahumoku Jr., and "Uncle" Richard Ho'opi'i open. 8 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music

Saturday, September 20 Yuna opens. 7 PM, Beverly Arts Center

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Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar Serbian master trumpeter Boban Markovic has led this amazing combo for nearly 20 years, and since 2002 his son Marko has been its main arranger and soloist; they're perennial favorites at the five-day Guca Trumpet Festival in western Serbia, where the stars of Balkan brass are born. This species of traditional brass music was born in the southern Balkans in the 19th century, when military marching bands (or their remnants) grafted their style onto folk tunes, predominantly of the Romany variety. The Markovic Orkestar employs a variety of percussion and sometimes violin or vocals, but its heart is a raucous, upbeat barrage of blasting brass that's beautifully harmonized, incredibly expressive, and simultaneously danceable and anthemic. The band has expanded upon the Balkan Romany sound with forays into jazz, Latin music, and klezmer, but always brings it back to where it started. You'll never hear this overlooked tradition brought to life better. Monica Kendrick

Thursday, September 18 Orkesta Mendoza and Las Cafeteras open. 7:30 PM, Thalia Hall, 17+

Friday, September 19 No opener. 8 PM, Constellation, 18+

Saturday, September 20 La Yegros open. 9 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

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Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ Vân-Ánh Vanessa Võ began training in the traditional music of Vietnam at age four; after graduating with honors from the Vietnam National Academy of Music in Hanoi, she played folk, pop, and musical theater until she moved to San Francisco in 2001, where she continued to expand her repertoire. On last year's Three-Mountain Pass (Innova), her delicate and austerely beautiful arrangement of Erik Satie's "Gnossienne No. 3" for Vietnamese instruments (the single-string dan bau and zitherlike 16-string bass dan tranh) can make you forget the original piano version; a version of "Green River Delta," a folk song by blind Vietnamese guitarist Kim Sinh (arranged by trombonist Jacob Garchik for Võ and the Kronos Quartet), dissolves genre boundaries just as gracefully. Võ's four compositions on the album employ experimental techniques ("Mourning" draws on the dan bau's note-bending ability to mimic the human voice) and unusual instrument combinations ("Go Hunting" pairs booming Japanese taiko drums with the fragile Vietnamese bamboo xylophone called the dan t'rung) as well as traditional structures. Peter Margasak

Saturday, September 20 Catrin Finch & Seckou Keita headline. 7 PM, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago

Sunday, September 21 Part of the One World Under One Roof mini festival. 4 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theatre, Chicago Cultural Center

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Mames Babegenush This Danish sextet, like so many klezmer-revival bands, walks a fine line between tradition and modernity. They don't have the zany inventiveness of the New York downtown crowd, but they do just fine without it. Sometimes they stay close to the source, sounding elegant and melancholy and joyous by turns as they draw on the accumulated artistry of an antique genre that doesn't need "updating" (though it generally takes to it very well). At other times, they're rather less reverent: their debut is called Klezmer Killed the Radio Star, and their latest release, 2012's Full Moons & Pay Days (Laika/Gateway), includes electronica remixes from Max Pashm, Shazalakazoo, and Hess Is More. This adds up to an intensely satisfying, versatile klezmer band that can go from shul to club (and from zero to 60) in less than four seconds, but mostly chooses to play it pretty straight. Monica Kendrick

Sunday, September 21 Part of the One World Under One Roof mini festival. 5:30 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theatre, Chicago Cultural Center

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Momo Rio de Janeiro singer-songwriter Marcelo Frota, aka Momo, has made three albums of folk-rock informed by the early-70s work of Milton Nascimento (particularly the classic Clube da Esquina), the northeastern Brazilian psychedelia of Alceu Valenca, and the emotionally ripe 70s pop of Fagner & Belchior. But on his latest album, the self-released Cadafalso, Frota pares down to just voice and acoustic guitar so that his songs can step out from behind those stylistic trappings. Only his Portuguese lyrics make him sound particularly Brazilian—his hushed, lovely voice and crisp, cunningly shaped guitar lines transform his delicate melodies into a universal language. Frota played here in a nimble trio as part of the 2009 World Music Festival, but for this show he's playing solo. Peter Margasak

Sunday, September 21 No opener. 10 PM, Martyrs'

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