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The best of the best at the 2015 World Music Festival

How else can you see legendary Ethiopian singer Mahmoud Ahmed and riveting Inuit iconoclast Tanya Tagaq for free?

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Chicago’s annual World Music Festival seems to have settled into a new identity—more modest in size and ambition than in its early years, but generally reliable and entirely free. (In the past, some shows in conventional venues charged admission.) This may feel like a sort of surrender by the festival’s organizers, but consistency isn’t something to take for granted—and this year’s edition has an awful lot of great artists, some of whom are visiting our city for the first time. On the flip side of that, though, several acts on the 2015 lineup have played Chicago in the past couple years—in some cases at the festival itself.

The World Music Festival never has an official, overarching theme, but sometimes serendipitous concentrations of artists from a certain region arise. This year brings a slew of great bookings from Africa, especially Ethiopia—among them legendary singer Mahmoud Ahmed, influential and recently rediscovered keyboardist and bandleader Hailu Mergia, and new-breed Ethio-Israeli vocalist Ester Rada. You can also hear music from Nigeria (Orlando Julius), Niger (Tal National), Morocco (Aziz Sahmaoui), and Mali (Kassé Mady Diabaté).

I preview my 12 favorite artists below, but they’re hardly the festival’s only worthwhile offerings. Also definitely worth your time: Cyro Baptista’s arty Brazil-meets-New York throwdown Banquet of the Sprits, classical Indian violin great L. Subramaniam, jacked-up Brooklyn-based Indian brass band Red Baraat, Palestinian syncretist Simon Shaheen, Finnish traditionalists Kardemimmit, inventive LA-based Mexican pop group La Santa Cecilia, Portuguese fadista Lula Pena, Chicago cumbia specialists Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta, and the annual all-night party Ragamala, which celebrates Indian classical music.

PHILIPP JESTER
  • Philipp Jester

Hailu Mergia

Friday, September 11
Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits opens. 8 PM, Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln, 21+

Saturday, September 12
Ester Rada opens. 8 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, 21+

Ethiopian keyboardist Hailu Mergia has lived near Washington, D.C., since the early 80s, when he decided to stick around after a tour by his old group the Walias Band. For many international musicians, settling in the U.S. means the end of their international careers, and that seemed to be the case for him. In 1985 he recorded a one-man-band record called Shemonmuanay, his use of chintzy synthesizers and drum machines presaging a future when automated electronic instruments would widely supplant flesh-and-blood musicians in Africa and beyond. Though it became a hit in Ethiopia, it was released nowhere else and made no impact in the States—at least not until 2013, when Awesome Tapes From Africa reissued it. Last year that great label also reissued Tche Belew, a 1977 masterpiece that Mergia cut in Addis Ababa with a band called the Walias as the halcyon days of Ethiopian music drew to a close. It includes the funk instrumental “Musicawi Silt,” one of the most recognizable and irresistible jams the country has ever produced. These releases kicked Mergia’s career back into gear, and since then he’s toured all over Europe; he arrives in Chicago leading a trio, invoking the past while looking to a future that barely existed for him three years ago.

ADRIAN BOOT
  • Adrian Boot

Mahmoud Ahmed

Sunday, September 13
Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa open. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph, all ages

The golden age of Ethiopian music was brief, lasting from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, and no greater exponent of those classic sounds survives today than Mahmoud Ahmed. A singer of great nuance, soulfulness, and grit, he’s only previously played in Chicago at small, low-key gigs far beneath his stature. A superstar in his homeland and an attraction across Europe for decades, he’s contributed three remarkable discs of vintage material to the famous Ethiopiques series, and even on his more recent records, which are frequently marred by dodgy production, his voice retains its frayed, shimmering beauty. Like most Ethiopian music, his repertoire uses pentatonic scales (with five notes in an octave, rather than seven as in diatonic scales), and it builds its hypnotic power with microtonal variations and modal structures, largely dispatching with conventional Western patterns of chord changes. Ahmed prefers to front sleek funk bands punctuated by simmering organs and tight horn sections, and he’s a primo soul shouter, with a crystalline quaver that makes his short syllables stab and his long notes feel like they might disintegrate; he conveys joy and sorrow with equal power. Now 74 years old, he’s bona fide musical royalty, and this performance will surely draw Chicago’s Ethiopian expats in droves. You’d be foolish not to follow them.

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Terakaft

Sunday, September 13
Tangleweed opens. 8 PM, Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln, 21+

Among the Saharan guitar bands that emerged in the wake of Tinariwen’s success, few are as convincing as Terakaft. Front man Liya Ag Ablil was a founding member of Tinariwen, in fact, but Terakaft have been around for two decades and just released their fifth album, Ténéré (Alone), on German label OutHere. The new record is their second in a row produced by British guitarist and composer Justin Adams, and this time he jacked up the bass and the beats to match the searing intensity of the band’s live sets—and he did it without swamping the cycling guitar interplay of Ablil and cofounder Sanou Ag Ahmed or their interwoven chantlike vocals. Ténéré is Terakaft’s first release since the end of hostilities in northern Mali, where a Tuareg insurgency in 2012 turned into open warfare when Islamic fundamentalists joined the fray; as such, it has a more hopeful vibe than its predecessor.

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Maarja Nuut

Tuesday, September 15
6:30 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Wednesday, September 16
We Banjo 3 headlines. 7 PM, Szold Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln, all ages

On her 2013 debut album, Soolo, this young violinist and singer from Estonia tapped into pre-Soviet village folk traditions she discovered through the field recordings of early 20th-century Finnish song collector Armas Otto Väisänen. Nuut’s music—rich in microtonal drones, percussive pizzicato, and haunting, ethereal melodies—resuscitates sounds that Moscow tried to erase in favor of a bland, nationalist aesthetic. But she doesn’t stop there: she adds subtle loops and other electronics as well as environmental recordings and contemporary-sounding vocal harmonies, updating her style without disrupting its romantic evocation of a long-gone era. Soolo simultaneously conjures the minimalism of La Monte Young and Terry Riley, the contemporary art music of Icelandic cellist Hildur Gudnadottir, the rich overtones of Norway’s hardangar fiddle tradition, and the sui generis sound of Czech violinist Iva Bittova, but it never feels like a pastiche or an imitation. For Nuut’s Chicago debut, I expect she’ll preview material from a new record she’s finishing for British indie-rock label Fat Cat.

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Orlando Julius

Friday, September 18
Boogat opens. 9 PM, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse, 18+

Saturday, September 19
Tal National (see below) opens. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph, all ages

Nigerian saxophonist and bandleader Orlando Julius has been playing funky, driving dance music since the 60s, merging highlife with American-style R&B—an inspiration very much like the one that struck the legendary Fela Kuti (who was mentored by Julius early in his career). He established his reputation with the 1966 LP Super Afro Soul, which prefigured the Afrobeat he’d soon embrace. Before the sound blew up, though, he left Nigeria to live in the U.S. for nearly 25 years; he never released an album here, only occasionally returning home to record. Thanks to recent reissues from Strut and Soundway, Julius has benefited from renewed interest in his music—last year he teamed up with adventurous British band the Heliocentrics, who’ve previously worked with elder statesmen such as Mulatu Astatke and Lloyd Miller, to make Jaiyede Afro (Strut), a sprawling mix of limber Afrobeat, bubbly psychedelia, and heavy funk (including a cover of “In the Middle” by James Brown). For his first U.S. concerts in a decade, Julius brings his regular band, the AfroSoundz.

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Tal National

Saturday, September 19
Orlando Julius (see above) headlines. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph, all ages

Sunday, September 20
Chicago Afro-beat Project opens. 7 PM, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse, 18+

In January 2014, Chicago studio engineer Jamie Carter took his third trip to Niger’s capital city of Niamey, where he recorded another new album by high-energy guitar band Tal NationalZoy Zoy (Fat Cat), the group’s fourth and most assured LP. With each visit Carter has grown more tightly enmeshed in Tal National’s business; he’s helped them land a deal with a Western record label, and he’s served as their U.S. liaison on tours. Hard—hitting trap-set beats drive the band’s music, complemented by pulsing, frenetic spasms of talking drum, and its flesh and blood are the contrapuntal layers of liquid, skittering guitars, whose loosening—and-tightening sonic weave gives the songs lift and sparkle as it complements the polyrhythmic base beneath the soulful singing. Led by guitarist Almeida (aka Hamadal Issoufou Moumine), Tal National have always borrowed influences from nearby countries, and on Zoy Zoy the gallop of Senegalese mbalax percolates to the foreground. 

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Fareed Ayaz & Abu Muhammad

Saturday, September 19
Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa open. 7 PM, Logan Center for the Arts, 915 W. 60th, all ages

Sunday, September 20
L. Subramaniam headlines. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, 201 E. Randolph, all ages

Brothers Fareed Ayaz and Abu Muhammad hail from a long and prestigious line of qawwali singers—their father belonged to the Delhi Gharana, a music school founded in the 14th century that claims a direct connection to the father of the style, a 13th-century poet and scholar named Amir Khusrau. They bring a spirited and moving energy to qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music popularized stateside in the 1990s by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Marked by outsize emotion and soul, it’s essentially poetry about divine love, sung with soaring drama and ornate, continually varied melismata; the lead vocalist is egged on by percolating tabla, steady hand claps, an urgent call-and-response chorus, and a droning, pulsing harmonium that often shadows the melody. There are few sounds in the world as uplifting and energizing as a qawwali performance, where getting lost in the driving, infectious music is part of the ritual.

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Tanya Tagaq

Saturday, September 19
7:30 PM, Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago, all ages

Few musical traditions seem more peculiar to modern audiences than the katajjaq throat singing of the Inuit, a native population indigenous to Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland, and Alaska. It’s as much a game as a form of music: two women face each other, close enough to embrace, and unleash wild torrents of grunts, exhalations, inhalations, and guttural, rumbling low-end noises. Each singer follows the other in a high-speed exchange, so that their streams of sounds are almost fun-house reflections of each other—this is made easier, one presumes, because they hold their faces so close together that they can use each other’s mouths as resonators. A “song” ends when one of the women is reduced to laughter or simply runs out of breath. Tanya Tagaq grew up in Cambridge Bay, a town of about 1,500 people in Canada’s Nunavut territory (home to roughly 25,000 of the world’s 120,000 Inuit). She knew nothing of this tradition until she went away to art school in Halifax and got homesick; her mother sent her some cassette recordings of katajjaq, which inspired Tagaq to experiment with similar techniques. She misheard the two women as a single vocalist, though, and tried to make all the sounds herself. She began performing solo or with a DJ, and eventually a recording of her material made its way to Bjork, who enlisted Tagaq to tour with her in 2000 and appear on the 2004 album Medulla. Tagaq developed a striking sound by transplanting katajjaq into the pop realm, combining haunting melody, primal howling, overtone-saturated drones, and abstract noise. Her working trio with drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot has made some astonishing records, including last year’s Animism (Six Shooter)—a seething, wide-open platform for her vocals, which range from utterly demonic groans to sweet, soulful curlicues. I saw Tagaq perform earlier this year, and she’s an emotionally raw, powerfully sexual presence onstage—she contorts and shakes her body, and her voice covers a seemingly infinite range of human expression. In her long-overdue Chicago debut, Tagaq will provide a live soundtrack to what’s widely considered the first feature—length documentary, the 1922 silent film Nanook of the North.

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Zedashe

Saturday, September 19
Kardemimmit open. 8 PM, DePaul University Concert Hall, 804 W. Belden, all ages

Sunday, September 20
Part of One World Under One Roof. 5:45 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Traditional Georgian vocal music is one of the most striking sounds on the planet, a delirious rush of ethereal harmony and rigorous counter-point that demands great precision and energy from its performers. Zedashe, a remarkable ensemble from the ancient Georgian town of Sighnaghi, have done as much as anyone to spread this glorious art around the globe; they return to Chicago with a new album, Our Earth and Water (Living Roots), that not only showcases the dynamism of their three-part harmony singing but also displays an increasing stylistic range. “Maghlit Gardamokhed” evokes the solemn tones of liturgical music, while the harvest song “Heri Oga” (like several other pieces on the album) embodies the hard physicality of agrarian life. Zedashe complement their singing with a slew of traditional instruments, including a local accordion called the garmoni from the mountains of Tusheti, goatskin bagpipes known as chiboni, and a variety of lutes and hand percussion.

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Amir ElSaffar

Saturday, September 19
8:30 PM, Constellation, 3111 N. Western, 18+

Sunday, September 20
Part of One World Under One Roof. 1:30 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

This summer Oak Park native Amir ElSaffar released Crisis (Pi), the third album he’s made with his Two Rivers Ensemble, and he continues to mine new riches from his marriage of Iraqi maqam and free jazz. The title addresses the turmoil wracking the Middle East, and much of the serenity of earlier Two Rivers recordings has been replaced by turbulence and tension. ElSaffar’s compositions retain their meticulous plotting, structural ingenuity, and lyrical beauty, but his top-notch band digs into the new material with a sense of purpose informed by fury, insecurity, and devotion. ElSaffar moves as usual between trumpet and santur (a hammer dulcimer), and he sings ancient Iraqi poetry with greater authority and gravity than ever. He’s joined on the front line by saxophonist Ole Mathisen, who precisely shadows the trumpeter’s fastest-moving lines; the rhythm section, which consists of bassist Carlo De Rosa and drummer Nasheet Waits, seems to ramp up the intensity with every passing bar line. Oudist Zafer Tawil and buzuq player Tareq Abboushi add a strong Middle Eastern flavor, shifting deftly from extended solo passages to chugging chordal support to rapid-fire patterns more aggressive than anything on the group’s previous records. Two Rivers have found fresh inspiration, and they tear into a new bounty of ideas with each performance.

NANNI ANGELI
  • Nanni Angeli

Paolo Angeli

Sunday, September 20
Part of One World Under One Roof. 5:15 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Monday, September 21
Lula Pena headlines. 8 PM, City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph, all ages

Italian guitarist Paolo Angeli has devoted his career to finding new ways of playing Sardinian guitar—an acoustic instrument with one or two fewer strings than an ordinary guitar and a lower tuning. Angeli sometimes bows his instrument, holding it like a cello, and he’s outfitted it with mechanical hammers controlled by foot pedals, electric propellers nestled inside the sound hole, a set of eight short sympathetic drone strings, and four jury-rigged sitar strings that run above the standard fretboard. Electronics and amplification further increase the dizzying array of sounds he can produce. Likewise Angeli has sought out a wide variety of contexts in which to deploy this extraordinary guitar: he’s made an album of free improvisation with Chicago drummer Hamid Drake, inventively interpreted songs by Bjork and Fred Frith, and recorded songlike duos with Japanese violinist and singer Takumi Fukushima (of After Dinner fame). The novelty factor in his work might remind you of Stanley Jordan, Michael Hedges, or, uh, Nigel Tufnel, but his musicality, intuition, and listening skills have transcended those sensational qualities. It doesn’t take too long to get used to watching the weird shit he’s doing so that you can just let yourself listen to it.

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Kassé Mady Diabaté

Monday, September 21
Seneke West African Percussion Ensemble opens. 7 PM, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse, 18+

Tuesday, September 22
Lula Pena opens. 6:30 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all ages

Since the early 70s, Kassé Mady Diabaté has been one of Mali’s greatest griots, meaning he belongs to a hereditary caste of musicians whose traditional purposes have included the sharing of stories, the singing of praise, the recording of history, and the recitation of poetry. (Until the past few decades, it was seen as improper for someone not born into a griot caste to sing.) He’s spent much of his career working in bands and orchestras (including the flamenco-fusion project Songhai and Toumani Diabate’s Symmetric Orchestra), and began making records under his own name only in the late 80s. They’re all terrific, but none has had the delicate power of his latest, Kiriké (Six Degrees/No Format!), a sparse, all-acoustic effort produced by French cellist Vincent Segal. Segal excelled in similar collaborations with Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko, and he and Sissoko both appear on this record. The format allows Diabaté’s airy, refined voice—which balances sweetness against soul and gentleness against force—to shine amid the delicate interplay of kora, cello, balafon, and n’goni.

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