Every show at Chicago's 14th annual World Music Festival is free—even the ones in conventional venues (Martyrs', the Mayne Stage, Reggie's Rock Club) rather than in city facilities, museums, or parks. That's a first for the festival, and it's about the only piece of good news concerning this year's installment, unless you count the simple fact that it's happening—the city's excellent Music Without Borders series in Millennium Park didn't return for summer 2012.
The World Music Festival kicks off Fri 9/21 with four evening concerts around the city and continues through Thu 9/27, when as usual it wraps up at the Cultural Center with the "One World Under One Roof" mini fest. But compared to last year, the number of venues has fallen to 15 from 22; the total number of shows is down to 41 from 52. The live radio broadcasts of weekday lunchtime Cultural Center concerts on Northwestern's WNUR are gone (though the concerts are still happening). More troublesome is that the majority of the acts are local; last year a little more than one-fourth were. Most of the touring artists have played Chicago before, if not previous versions of this festival, meaning there are relatively few local premieres to get excited about—though to be fair, I'm very much looking forward to the Chicago debuts of Malian-born singer Fatoumata Diawara and Colombian folkloric group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.
Shoshona Currier, director of performing arts at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, was in charge of booking the festival, but it'd hardly be fair to blame her for the huge drop in quality: she didn't move into the job till April. In a Tribune story from that month, DCASE deputy commissioner for arts programming Angel Ysaguirre revealed that festival booking hadn't begun—a huge change from years past, when WMF founder Michael Orlove and his colleague Brian Keigher had started planning the next festival as soon as the current one ended. Under Orlove a consortium of midwestern world-music presenters (from Bloomington, Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids, Madison, and Milwaukee) would gather each February to discuss which international artists they wanted to block book at all their events, with Orlove and Keigher providing a list of potential acts. Chicago's size and financial clout traditionally allowed it to provide anchor gigs, and the involvement of the other presenters made the tours feasible by spreading out the total expense.
Orlove and Keigher were laid off in December 2011, and Chicago had no presence at the meetings held by that consortium this year. Currier reached out to Lee Williams of Bloomington's Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in late April, according to Williams, but she didn't start booking any of the acts secured by the other consortium till late May—as a result, many of 2012's highlights (including Diawara) ended up at the WMF as a result of Chicago piggybacking on other midwestern fests, a reversal of the usual roles.
David Chavez of Sound Culture, who's helped out in the past, programmed the lion's share of this year's festival in June and July, by which point it's historically been almost entirely booked. His stepped-up involvement can be seen as an extension of the outsourcing of DCASE's summer music programs—Pitchfork fest organizer Mike Reed, who handles Downtown Sound, and Jazz Institute of Chicago director Lauren Deutsch, who curates World Class Jazz, are no longer collaborating closely with the city but rather doing that work very nearly on their own. Some of the acts Chavez lined up—including New York-based Balkan brass combo Slavic Soul Party! and Chinese folk-rock band Hanggai—ended up on the bill at Lotus fest too, but Williams says many of those bookings came together at the last minute. If this year's lineup looks hastily assembled, that's because it was.
I'm hoping the diminished 2012 festival is an aberration caused by staff shakeups and bureaucratic fumbling, and that DCASE will have the kinks worked out by next time. And at any rate I still intend to take in some music at this year's WMF—despite all the problems, there are more than a few worthwhile artists to check out, and this time experimenting with unfamiliar names won't cost a dime.
Below are some of the fest's best bets, arranged according to the timing of their first set (almost every out-of-towner plays more than once). Shows are all-ages unless otherwise noted.