What to see at the 2018 World Music Festival | Music Feature | Chicago Reader

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What to see at the 2018 World Music Festival

It’s enlisted a crowd of international talents for its 21 free concerts—among them hallucinatory Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina, generation-spanning Cuban big band Orquesta Akokán, and omnivorous Congolese groove machine Jupiter & Okwess.

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London-born Gambian kora player Sona Jobarteh - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • London-born Gambian kora player Sona Jobarteh

The notion of "world music" has attracted its share of criticism. Looked at cynically, it's just a way for bougie white people to feel like culturally enlightened global citizens without actually learning anything. But I've had some of the best concert experiences of my life at Chicago's World Music Festival—and I go to a lot of concerts. The joy and vitality of the Boban Marković Orkestar at Martyrs' in 2002, or of Mahmoud Ahmed at Pritzker Pavilion in 2015, would've swept up those crowds no matter how the music was marketed.

The World Music Festival has been my favorite Chicago fest since its debut in 1999, with few exceptions. Founder Michael Orlove and his staff were laid off by the city in December 2011 (the wonderful Millennium Park series Music Without Borders went with them), and as a consequence the best thing that can be said about the 2012 WMF is that it made all the festival's shows free for the first time. The event has since recovered in quality, but for years it's been dwindling in size. Though it's as long as ever this year—17 days from start to finish, skipping Mondays and Tuesdays—it consists of just 21 concerts at 17 venues, down from 36 shows in 2014 and 52 in 2011.


World Music Festival Chicago
Full schedule at worldmusicfestivalchicago.com. Friday, September 7, through Sunday, September 23, various times and locations, all concerts free, many concerts all-ages


Many overseas performers have learned that they can do better touring Europe, where there's more state support for the arts and gigs are closer together, than they can working with stateside presenters. Thankfully, quite a few brilliant musicians have nonetheless chosen to visit Chicago for the 2018 World Music Festival. Reader staffers and freelancers have chosen 11 of their favorites to highlight here, and I can find several to recommend even among the artists who didn't make the cut—including all-star Chicago student group Mariachi Herencia de México, Sardinian polyphonic singers Actores Alidos, seven-generation-old Chinese ritual ensemble the Zhou Family Band, and the National Arab Orchestra premiering a live score for silent films by pioneering Egyptian director Mohamed Bayoumi. (Riveting and inventive Ethiopian folkloric group Fendika also plays in town during the WMF, at the Ethiopia Fest in Ravenswood.) The festival begins on Friday, September 7, with a 14-hour celebration of Indian classical music called Ragamala, and ends on Sunday, September 23, with a daylong concert on Navy Pier in conjunction with the World Dumpling Fest. Every concert is still free.

Enjoying music from other cultures and places won't make you a global citizen all by itself, of course. But I'm not about to dismiss "world music" because it can't work that kind of magic—not when the president has so thoroughly debased the national conversation surrounding immigration that it's a political act to assert that nonwhite foreigners are fully human. It's a lousy time to foreclose on any conceivable avenue for empathy, connection, and fellow feeling among people of different colors and countries. When we talk about a "universal language," we almost always mean music or love. If you need to be reminded why, the World Music Festival can help. —Philip Montoro


Debashish Bhattacharya has devised three different Indian slide guitars. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Debashish Bhattacharya has devised three different Indian slide guitars.

Debashish Bhattacharya

Friday, September 7
Part of Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music, which runs from Fri 9/7 at 6 PM till Sat 9/8 at 8 AM. Bhattacharya performs at 7:45 PM (with Anandi Bhattacharya and Subhasis Bhattacharya) and at 3 AM (with Swapan Chaudhuri). Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, free, all-ages

The word "raga" denotes a musical framework common to both major traditions of Indian classical music, the Hindustani (northern) and the Carnatic (southern). Each raga contains a set of required notes, which the musicians can improvise upon within a formal structure. Though ragas are intended to evoke specific emotions or moods and often associated with a particular time of day, it's rare for them to be played at the appropriate hours in the West. Ragamala, the World Music Festival's annual all-night sequence of raga performances, aims to get it right. Slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya, born in 1963, is a seventh-generation Hindustani musician. He first learned music from his parents, who were singers, but soon a childhood infatuation with a Hawaiian lap steel guitar that was sitting around the house evolved into lifelong devotion. First Bhattacharya mastered the art of playing ragas on the lap steel, combining sure control with blinding speed. Then he devised three guitars of his own, the chaturangui, gandharvi, and anandi, with different body sizes and different complements of strings, sometimes including drone strings or sympathetic strings—the instruments combine sonic and design elements of the sitar, sarod, and rudra veena. Bhattacharya is unabashedly eclectic: he's collaborated successfully with jazz-fusion polymath John McLaughlin and adventuorous folkie Martin Simpson, and he adapts easily to the repetitive pop and folk styles on Joys Abound (Riverboat), the recent debut CD by his daughter Anandi Bhattacharya. He's also a repeat performer at Ragamala, though, so there's every reason to expect he'll dig deep into raga forms during his two sets. For the first he'll play with Anandi and his brother, tabla player Subhasis Bhattacharya; for the second he's joined by tabla player Swapan Chaudhuri. —Bill Meyer


Juana Molina’s beautiful, mysterious music is often unnerving too. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Juana Molina’s beautiful, mysterious music is often unnerving too.

Juana Molina

Saturday, September 8
Andreas Kapsalis opens. 7 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, free, 21+

For more than two decades, Argentine singer-songwriter Juana Molina has been manipulating layered loops of electronics, acoustic instruments, and vocals to devise new wrinkles in her ominous, often unnerving sound—and the spirit she's brought to this pursuit has been nothing short of miraculous. Though there's no shortage of experimental and ambient artists with the know-how to string together effects pedals (and endlessly diddle away at them to summon fascinating sonic textures), Molina isn't so much trying to discover something as she is infatuated with the act of exploration itself. Every one of her albums feels like a metamorphosis from its predecessor, but she never abandons the premise of her experiment—instead she's understanding it from different (and always enlightening) vantage points.

Her seventh and most recent full-length, last year's Halo, is a heady dive with lots of electronics, its subdued, minimalist attack seething and creeping in tandem with Molina's fluttering, often sinister vocals (layered and looped as usual). Its predecessor, 2013's Wed 21, uses a broader selection of instruments to achieve a dynamic that sometimes feels like a full band, albeit one that sounds the way a Kandinsky painting looks. Even further back in Molina's discography, the 2006 album Son foregrounds acoustic guitar, while ambient electronics ebb and flow in the recesses of the tracks and musical tangents abound. What remains consistent, keeping the tracks from floating out of comprehension, is Molina's whispery singing. Beautiful, mysterious, and sometimes prophetic, her voice guides you forward even as you marvel at everything swirling in the periphery. —Kevin Warwick


Sona Jobarteh and her band at the WTO’s Aid for Trade Global Review in 2017 - JAY LOUVION/WORLD TRADE ORGANIZATION
  • Jay Louvion/World Trade Organization
  • Sona Jobarteh and her band at the WTO’s Aid for Trade Global Review in 2017

Sona Jobarteh

Wednesday, September 12
Actores Alidos open. 7 PM, Sleeping VIllage, 3734 W. Belmont, free, 21+

Thursday, September 13
The Chinese Mongolia Band opens. 6 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, free, all-ages

Singer, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Sona Jobarteh was born in London to a griot family from the small West African country of the Gambia, which is mostly surrounded by Senegal. Griots (called "jali" in Mandé, the most widely spoken group of indigenous languages in the Gambia) are a traditional caste of storytellers and musicians, and Jobarteh was raised in that lineage to become a master of her instrument, the kora—the playing of which was long considered the exclusive province of men. This 21-string instrument, plucked with both hands, produces tones that sound to Western ears like a harp, a guitar, or even a piano. Jobarteh also plays guitar, cello, flute, and percussion, and before she released her debut album, Fasiya, in 2011, her music appeared on several compilations and collaborative recordings, including the soundtracks to two documentaries on Africa and the African diaspora, Owen 'Alik Shahadah's 500 Years Later (2005) and Motherland (2010). On Fasiya Jobarteh strives to preserve and expound upon traditional music using elements of jazz, blues, and contemporary and historical Afropop, and the sound she's developed to do it is shimmering, liquid, and inviting. This is her first North American tour, and she's traveling with a four-piece band: drum kit, djembe, bass, and guitar. —Monica Kendrick


Altan are one of the longest-running bands in traditional Irish music. - GEARÓID MOONEY
  • Gearóid Mooney
  • Altan are one of the longest-running bands in traditional Irish music.

Altan

Thursday, September 13
7 PM, Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox, free, all-ages

Formed 31 years ago, Ireland's Altan are one of the most venerable and celebrated bands in traditional Irish music. In 1994 they became the first traditional act signed to a major label, but for a while now they've been back on labels that specialize in Irish, Celtic, and other forms of roots music—this year's The Gap of Dreams is on Compass Records, an indie based in Nashville. Whoever puts out their albums, though, and wherever they play, Altan don't much vary the formula that has worked for them for three decades. Cofounder, singer, and fiddler Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is a native speaker of the Irish language and has the Platonic Irish voice—high, pure, soaked in tremolo, and pitched to sound in the wind over the green hills. The settings of her songs tend to hover on the edge of new age, poised to pick up a crossover audience without alienating purists. Mhaonaigh's fiddle isn't as fiery as that of virtuosos such as Chicago's own Liz Carroll, but the rest of the band (Ciarán Curran on bouzouki, Martin Tourish on accordion, and Dáithí Sproule and Mark Kelly on guitars) are as tight and polished as you'd expect such seasoned performers to be. Altan's live shows are reliably inspired, and the musicians never fail to work up a righteous sweat on the instrumental numbers. If anyone embodies the spirit of Irish traditional music in the 2010s, it's Mhaonaigh. —Noah Berlatsky


Forward-thinking Mexico City folk combo Chéjere - RODRIGOVAZQUEZ.NET
  • rodrigovazquez.net
  • Forward-thinking Mexico City folk combo Chéjere

Chéjere

Friday, September 14
3 PM (workshop) and 7 PM, National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th, free, all-ages

Saturday, September 15
A celebration of El Grito, a holiday commemorating the call to arms that began the Mexican war of independence in 1810. Mariachi Herencia de México headlines; Chéjere, Ceci Bastida, and Quique Escamilla open. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, free, all-ages

Mexico City five-piece Chéjere gently tweaks son jarocho by adding bits of outside traditions compatible with its DNA—Afro-Peruvian music, Andalusian flamenco, Brazilian samba. The group's elegant acoustic sound weaves these threads together so expertly you'd be hard-pressed to tease them apart. Guitarist Alonso Borja, who cofounded the band in 1996, has expounded upon the importance of improvisation in traditional folk music, and though the finished songs on Chéjere's recordings confine improvising to flourishes and solos, during the writing process the players flesh out their material in improvised sessions. The electricity of those sessions—and the easy synchronicity they've helped the band develop—comes through in the intimate-sounding details on Chéjere's fourth album, 2016's self-released Nubes de Sal. The tender, ornate "Nubes" also demonstrates the enduring draw of the folk traditions Chéjere aims to honor and sustain—with its grainy, melancholy violin, gracefully plucked requinto jarocho, and barely brushed percussion, it invites you into a cozy but unconfined space and makes you wish you could play along. After all, what good is folk music if it doesn't make room for the folks who want to keep building on it? —Leor Galil


Orquesta Akokán formed in Havana, Cuba, in 2016. - ADRIEN H. TILLMAN
  • Adrien H. Tillman
  • Orquesta Akokán formed in Havana, Cuba, in 2016.

Orquesta Akokán

Saturday, September 15
Rio Mira opens. 9 PM, Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln, free, 21+

With each bright, blasting chorus, Orquesta Akokán illuminates centuries of musical intermingling. The band, which includes veterans of venerable Cuban ensembles Irakere and Los Van Van, revels in the history of Afro-Cuban rhythms, mambo, and big-band jazz. New Jersey-based Cuban expat José "Pepito" Gómez founded Orquesta Akokán on a trip to Havana in late 2016 with help from two New Yorkers, pianist and arranger Michael Eckroth and producer and tres player Jacob Plasse; they'd wanted to set up a session for Gómez and couldn't find suitable players in New York. They recorded the group's self-titled debut, released earlier this year by Daptone, at Havana's Estudios Areito, which has hosted sessions by singer Beny Moré, bandleader Pérez Prado, and the Buena Vista Social Club—and the album mines many of the same international tropes as those well-loved predecessors. In his role as front man, Gómez leads the band through compositions such as the slinky, smoldering "Un Tabaco Para Elegua," exhorting everyone to dance; meanwhile the rhythm players churn, percolate, and sashay, drawing on conceits that can be traced back to before mambo's peak in the 1940s and '50s. The sweeping horn section has a plush, burly sonority (up to ten players punch out the charts), and it moves nimbly from supporting the melody to functioning as yet another rhythmic mechanism. This is rich, jubilant, deeply rooted music that ties together all sorts of influences—cultural, social, religious—but it's something more than that too. Even as it brings crowds together on the dance floor, Orquesta Akokán celebrates the history of cultural exchange. —Dave Cantor


The six members of Innov Gnawa were born in Morocco but started their band in New York City. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • The six members of Innov Gnawa were born in Morocco but started their band in New York City.

Innov Gnawa

Sunday, September 16
Part of the Global Peace Picnic. Rio Mira headlines; Innov Gnawa and Combo Chimbita (see below) open. 2 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento, free, all-ages

The six members of Innov Gnawa started the group in New York City in 2014, but they were born in Morocco and follow a tradition from their homeland. Developed centuries ago by migrants from the Sahel who settled in North Africa (many of them the descendants of soldiers or slaves), Gnawa music has roots in ancient animistic rituals, but because the Gnawa people have since adopted Islam it also bears the stamp of Arabic culture. Historically this hypnotizing music has driven all-night communal ceremonies called "lilas," which use dance, prayer, costumes, and incense to bring celebrants into contact with the abstract entities of the spirit world—the leader of the ceremony, known as a maalem, plays a resonant three-string bass lute variously called a sintir or guimbri, and the cyclical, hovering songs also rely heavily on call-and-response vocals and dense, interlocking percussion, often including many sets of metal castanet-like qarqabas. Over the past century, Gnawa music has gained a wider audience outside its native communities (it's widely thought to be one of the ancestral wellsprings of the blues), and Western musicians from 1930s jazz players to 2010s electronic producers have sought it out. Innov Gnawa are part of that crosscultural narrative: last year they appeared on a single by British producer Bonobo, and they enlisted Dave Harrington of short-lived New York electronic duo Darkside to produce their most recent release, the March EP Aicha (Pique-nique). Aside from brief flashes of synth, the EP sounds ancient and timeless—it sticks to the inexhaustible, ecstatic minimalism that makes Gnawa music so distinctively cathartic and transcendent. —Leor Galil


Three of the Colombian expats in Combo Chimbita prefer pseudonyms (and masks). - ITZEL ALEJANDRA
  • Itzel Alejandra
  • Three of the Colombian expats in Combo Chimbita prefer pseudonyms (and masks).

Combo Chimbita

Sunday, September 16
Part of the Global Peace Picnic. Rio Mira headlines; Innov Gnawa (see above) and Combo Chimbita open. 2 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento, free, all-ages

The four Colombian expats who formed Combo Chimbita in New York City didn't necessarily grow up immersed in the traditional music they play around with in their self-described "tropical futurist" group: according to a 2017 profile for Remezcla, while in college front woman Carolina Oliveros studied opera and sang for a metal band. As Combo Chimbita, these musicians draw mostly on sounds from South America, the Caribbean, and Africa (accordion-heavy funaná from Cape Verde, traditional folkloric cumbia from Colombia, jazzy post-merengue compas from Haiti), hybridizing them with jazz, reggae, prog, and funk. On their debut album, last year's Abya Yala (Figure & Ground), synth streaks, time-warping dub echoes, and the funky rhythmic scraping of a Colombian hand-percussion instrument called a guacharaca burble and jostle together—demonstrating that musical styles almost two centuries old can coexist comfortably with even the most contemporary aesthetics. I wish more musicians could pull off this sort of thing with Combo Chimbita's suave precision and energy—and soon enough they will, if Oliveros and her bandmates get the kind of future they want. —Leor Galil


Cheick Hamala Diabaté, born in Mali and based in Washington, D.C. - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Cheick Hamala Diabaté, born in Mali and based in Washington, D.C.

Cheick Hamala Diabaté

Thursday, September 20
La Dame Blanche headlines. 8 PM, Martyrs', 3855 N. Lincoln, free, 21+

A lot of the roots in American roots music stem from Africa, as Malian-born D.C. musician Cheick Hamala Diabaté demonstrates whenever he goes onstage. Diabaté plays the banjo and the instrument's African ancestor, the ngoni, and performs with a sprawling group of musicians, the Griot Street Band, who play horns, guitar, mandolin, and a dizzying array of percussion. The performances don't so much join African and American sounds as they remind you that their musical traditions have been fused and re-fused for so long that for some artists, they might as well be one. In songs such as "Diamonds and Gold," off his most recent album, 2013's Anka Ben Mali Denou (Stepback Music), Diabaté embraces straightforward blues, hard-driving harmonica and all. "Boudofo," on the other hand, sounds like it comes straight off a Baaba Maal album. For concert favorite "Mali De Nou," guitarist Rob Coltun lays some stinging, fuzzed-out Muddy Waters-style lead lines on top of a boiling groove; Diabaté himself responds with a banjo solo that sounds like it's inspired by Jimmy Page (who has also been known to play the banjo on occasion). The horn arrangements draw from such varying sources as Herbie Hancock and Fela Kuti. The diaspora is everywhere, and Diabaté's music is at home wherever he happens to be. —Noah Berlatsky


Swedish nyckelharpa player Emilia Amper - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the artist
  • Swedish nyckelharpa player Emilia Amper

Emilia Amper

Friday, September 21
Lo Cor de la Plana headlines. 7 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, free, all-ages

The traditional Swedish nyckelharpa is an intimidating-looking device: something like the love child of a viol and a hurdy-gurdy, with strings bowed on one end and controlled by a bristling row of keys on the other. It's taken many forms over the centuries, and in its current one it gained renewed popularity in the 1960s, when Sweden enjoyed a folk revival (along with many other countries) that embraced its clear, complex, haunting sound. Now you'll find the instrument in all sorts of folk-influenced music, including metal (Danish one-woman band Myrkur uses one), classical, and pop. Nyckelharpist Emilia Amper, born in a small town in western Sweden, is the only folk artist on classical label BIS Records, and performs with orchestras and chamber ensembles as often as with fellow folk musicians. Her solo albums, 2012's Trollfågeln and 2016's Lux, are accessible, accomplished, and enchanting. Unfortunately, northern European folk culture has been politicized in horrible ways for ages—the literal Nazis had a field day with it. (Speaking of Myrkur, you might want to look into her comments about Muslim immigrants.) These days, the rapid rise of völkisch xenophobic nationalism can make it hard to enjoy perfectly lovely Swedish traditional music without researching first to make sure you're not supporting a racist. Never fear, though: in a Swedish newspaper, Amper recently took a public stand against the far-right, anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats. —Monica Kendrick


Jean-Pierre “Jupiter” Bokondji and the band Okwess - MICKY CLEMENT
  • Micky Clement
  • Jean-Pierre “Jupiter” Bokondji and the band Okwess

Jupiter & Okwess

Saturday, September 22
Delgres and Quantic open. 9 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, free, 21+

Sunday, September 23
Delgres, the Zhou Family Band, and East Meets Middle East open. 1 PM, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand, free, all-ages

Born in Kinshasa in 1965, just a few years after the Democratic Republic of the Congo gained its independence from Belgium, Jean-Pierre "Jupiter" Bokondji learned traditional music as a child from his grandmother, a renowned healer. But his father was a diplomat, and in the 1970s the family relocated to East Germany, where Bokondji fell in love with funk, R&B, and rock 'n' roll. He began combining Western and African styles in his songwriting, and when he returned to Kinshasa in the 1980s, he turned away from the white-collar career path his family had opened for him and instead pursued music, though it meant he was sometimes homeless. Unequivocal in his cultural pride and convinced of the universality of humankind, Bokondji set out to reinvent the sounds produced across the African diaspora (all music has African roots, as he sees it, because all people do), combining those international styles with Congolese music to give it a larger platform. Calling himself the Rebel General, he's spent decades inspiring his countrymen to embrace their heritage and transform their society. Whether he's encouraging women to stand up to men or prodding young folks to question their elders, he couldn't have picked a better vehicle to amplify his message than Okwess, a guitar-driven band full of ace Kinshasa players. Their most recent album, last year's Kin Sonic (Glitterbeat), features unstoppable ragers, slyly evocative ballads, and charming, percolating midtempo strolls—not to mention appearances by Warren Ellis of Nick Cave's Bad Seeds, Damon Albarn of Blur, and Robert Del Naja of Massive Attack. If the churning rhythms of Jupiter & Okwess don't quicken your pulse at least a little, you're probably literally dead—so put on those dancing shoes and fall in, because the Rebel General has arrived. —Jamie Ludwig  v

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