Monday, September 9, 2013

A Gringa's Guide to the Madison World Music Festival, Chapter 10!

Chitravina N. Ravikiran

by Susan Kepecs
The Madison World Music Festival celebrates its tenth anniversary, Sept. 19-21 on the Memorial Union Terrace and at the Willy Street Fair.  The new decade’s starting to look eerily like the last one.  The very first Fest came a year into the Iraq War, which Dick Cheney had promised would last only “weeks.”  As I go to post this year's Gringa's Guide another mad dog White House is spewing flimsy pretexts for a new shock and awe campaign, this time against Syria. Assad's as evil as any dictator or terrorist we've taken down lately, but do we really have to rule the world?  Are we about to drop bombs on yet another failed state, over the objections of “the American people” and a slew of prominent Congressional Republicans (say what??)  Will Assad retaliate?  Or will Putin's plan to put Assad's chemicals under international control kill the craziness before it hits the fan?  And are chemical weapons really the crux of this situation?  By the time you read this you may know the answers.  But while the drums of war beat belligerently in Washington, drums from sundry spots around the globe serve up dance beats for us.  At the Madison World Music Festival you can literally feel – with your body, with your feet – the rhythms of the long, shifting history of cultural and economic connections that circle the earth.  The moral of this story?  Make dance, not war. 
I really like this year’s lineup, and here’s why. World music is fusion by nature.  The term itself is a commercial umbrella for a species of alt-pop that fuses “ethnic” or “folk” sounds with modern production techniques.  Also, nations aren’t isolates; the “traditional” forms on which world music’s based are like sponges, absorbing new influences over centuries of political, economic and religious change.  A lot of world music springs from this historical logic, though the latest phenom is altermodern sounds.  Altermodernism's a hip new buzzword for the Millennial mashup of socioeconomic globalization and aesthetic universalism.  Some altermodern world music is sleek and sophisticated, though most of it's best described as spurious syntheses of roots-related sounds laid over rock or hip hop beats.  Last year's fest had a few too many Celtic-cumbia-reggaeton-flamenco-let’s-party-baby uber-fusions, which I'm happy to report are MIA on this year's bill.  Take a look.

 Thursday, Sept. 19, Memorial Union Terrace:

5 PM The Chitravina N. Ravikiran Quartet offers an opening meditation. Ravikiran – guru, teacher, composer, master musician – was born in Karnataka, southwest India, in 1967 – the same year the late Ravi Shankar was teaching Beatle George Harrison to play the sitar, which introduced the Hippie Generation to Indian music.  Shankar was a master of northern, Hindustani music, which, like its southern counterpart, Carnatic music, is a classical form that emerged from an ancient pan-Indian sound sometime in the Middle Ages.  The two sound similar to my untrained ear – I’m at a loss to describe the difference.  But Ravikiran’s instrument is the chitravina, which only loosely resembles the more guitarlike sitar.  A fretless, lute-like instrument with three layers of strings, for melody, resonance, and drone, the chitravina's played with a slide, like a Hawaiian steel guitar or a dobro.  Though Ravikiran plays a plugged-in version the sound is soft, and in Sanskrit, Carnatic means “soothing to the ears.”  It’s modal and droning, with emphasis on the subtle values between the notes of its many seven-note scales.  Big Apple-based alto sax player Rudresh Mahanthappa, whose family emigrated to the States from south India, experiments with Carnatic scales.  Mahanthappa’s music sounds a lot different than Ravikiran’s, but the latter’s approach is similarly experimental – he’s developed an East / West blend of Carnatic melody and European harmony he calls “Melharmony,” which opens up the concept of Carnatic collaborations with jazz, blues and western symphonic ensembles. 

7 PM From the land of saunas, Nokia phones, the all-cello heavy metal band Apocalyptica, and one of the best public education systems in the world – that would be Finland – comes Kardemimmit, a four-woman ensemble playing their own tunes, deeply deeply rooted in Finnish folk traditions.  Even the name of this band is folksy – an amalgam of kardemumma (cardemom, used in a recipe for atraditional Finnish bread) and mimmit, Finnish for “girls.”  They play zither-like, diatonic-tuned kanteles – modern versions of a folk instrument descended from an an ancient mythological harp made from the jawbone of a giant pike and hairs from the tail of a stallion owned by a pagan hero-chief.  Kardemimmit’s soft sound evokes snow and mist that seems worlds away from the ebullient Finnish / Norwegian “Nordgrass”  fiddle band Frigg, which played the MWMF in 2011.

 9 PM Christine Salem, from Réunion Island, tours her new release, Salem Tradition, on the Cobalt label.  What she sings is moloya – voice-and-percussion, spirit possession music, polyrhythmic and percussive.  Réunion, a French “overseas department” that sits some 586 miles off the east coast of Madagascar, was uninhabited before the French claimed it in the seventeenth century.  In the eighteenth century the colonial overlords brutally removed Africans from Mozambique and Madagascar to work cane and coffee plantations on Réunion, which makes moloya African diaspora music.  In the mid-twentieth century the Catholic Church banned moloya, calling it “devil’s music” – ostensibly for its heathen nature, but more concretely because it was being used as a symbol of cultural identity and a rallying cry for political autonomy by the Communist Party of Réunion Island.  Separatist fervor died down, and the ban was lifted, in the 1980s – but moloya’s still mostly a male domain.  Christine Salem’s an edgy, feminist rebel, belting modern moloya – her own compositions, with lyrics that lie outside the music’s main spiritual intent – in her bluesy, powerhouse, contralto voice. 

Friday, Sept. 20, Memorial Union Terrace:

5 PM  Baladino, a quintet of talented young musicians with ethnomusicologists’ ears, cooks up spunky, rhythmic Jewish music from the melting pot that is modern Israel.  Lead singer Yael Badash, whose star potential shines bright, sings in Ladino, the mother tongue of Sephardic Jews (Sefarad is the Hebrew name for Spain).  Like its Eastern European, Ashkenazi counterpart, Yiddish, Ladino's an endangered language thanks to the Holocaust and Israel’s emphasis on Hebrew.  By some accounts only 200,000 Jews worldwide, among them just 50,000 Israelis, still speak it.  Baladino’s part of a youth-driven roots movement to revive this potpourri of a language, rooted in Medieval Spanish and Hebrew but expanded when the Sephardim were expelled from their homeland in 1492, the year Spain was united under the Catholic monarchy.  During the diaspora Ladino acquired new linguistic twists in North Africa, southeast Europe and the Middle East.  All of these influences spice Baladino’s soup, and notes of Eastern European klezmer flavor (without the accordian) simmer subtly in the mix. 


7 PM  The Krar Collective – a music and dance outfit from Ethiopia via the UK, which gained fame when it played at the London Olympics – approaches the North Africa / Middle East overlap from an entirely different cultural perspective. Ethiopia's the cradle of Christian history in Africa; Orthodox Christianity became the official religion of the Ethiopian Kingdom of Aksum in the fourth century AD.  In the seventh century, Muslims fleeing persecution in the Middle East found refuge in Aksum, where they paid tribute to Ethiopian kings until the bloody Muslim / Christian wars of the sixteenth century nearly destroyed the region.  Today a half-Christian, half-Muslim, post-colonial, post-Marxist hotbed of human rights abuses, Ethiopia – a landlocked nation on the Horn of Africa – straddles the cultural line between the Middle East and Africa, and that’s exactly what the Krar Collective sounds like.  The band’s lead instrument is the krar harp, used since Medieval times by Azmari minstrels who entertained the Christian royal court and later the secular patrons of traditional Ethiopian drinking establishments.  The Krar Collective, which usually performs as a trio featuring the eponymous harp, double-headed kebero drums, and one powerful chanteuse, rocks a plugged-in version of traditional Azmari music. 

9 PM  Nomadic Massive – an eight-member, socially conscious, international hip-hop “superfam” from Montreal, ends the night.  The tunes that wind through Nomadic Massive’s hip-hop beats reflect the origins of the French, English, Arabic, Spanish, and Haitian Creole speakers who compose the collective.  This soulful, polyglot species of altermodern rap doesn’t have a lot of “let’s party baby” in its often pointedly political lyrics, and its post-earthquake youth development hip-hop workshops in Haiti, plus similar projects in Havana and Sao Paolo, put social action behind its words.  Being a Boomer I never expect to enjoy hip-hop, but Blitz the Ambassador, from Ghana and New York, blew me away at the 2011 MWMF with his mighty hip-hop soul music, imbued with sizzling activist messages and musical influences ranging from Coltrane to James Brown. From the few YouTube videos I watched I don't know if I'll fall for Nomadic Massive or not, but if you're younger than me you probably will.  

Saturday, Sept. 21, Willy Street Fair:

1:30 PM The Prusinowski Trio, usually composed of four or five players despite the name, opens, with a set of rousing Polish folk tunes – dance music rooted in Renaissance-era peasant festivities.  These tunes – which may or may not have retained relics of more ancient, Slavic sounds – were adopted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the royal court in Krakow, and stylized into classical mazurkas, polonaises, and waltzes by Frederick Chopin in the 1800s.  The members of the Prusinowski Trio – highly accomplished, urban players who learned the music of Poland’s central villages at the side of old-time masters – return these forms to their roots, but with a very contemporary, Euro-arts edge.  Of course, Poland's got one of Europe's fastest-growing economies -- even its pastoral countryside, where farmers till the soil and grandmas patiently stuff pierogi with potatoes, is getting fracked, and the kids live for hip-hop and Krakow's hot alt-rock scene.  The Prusinowski Trio’s not just a band -- it's a cutting-edge instrument of cultural survival, updating traditional music to save it from extinction. 

3:30 PM While the Prusionowski Trio plays deep roots world music, from Poland’s neighbor to the east – the Ukraine – comes a thoroughly altermodern outfit that happens to be one of the most interesting acts in this year’s lineup – DakhaBrakha, a one man, three woman quartet.  DakhaBrakha marries an avant-garde musical interpretation of the Ukraine’s pre-Soviet national heritage, which owes much to the Cossacks – the fierce horsemen of the Eurasian Steppe – with the whole wide world. Other Millennial Ukranian bands take a similar approach, though DakhaBrakha seems farther out than most.  Its members wear tall, deconstructed Cossack hats and ply a panoply of traditional and modern instruments, from zgaleyka (Ukranian bagpipes, I think – this one was hard to track down) and garmosha (Russian accordion) to didgeridoo, djembe, tabla, cello, piano, and trombone.  Their repertory includes a trancelike Euro-Motown sound, complete with falsetto lead singing (by the guy), and a female backup chorus, plus a kind of Afro-Cossack tribal chant, and songs with catchy accordion riffs and djembe drums done in straight-up call-and-response – the Ukraine meets Africa in the altermodern universe.  It’s the most unlikely blue-eyed quasi-soul music imaginable, but it’s surprisingly satisfying.  

5:30 PM  Tal National, a guitar-driven band (six musicians, one dancer) from Niger’s fast-growing capital city of Niamey, has some big hits in its homeland and is celebrating its debut international release (Kaani, just out on Fat Cat Records).  Niger’s borders are essentially those of the former French Colonie du Niger, carved from an inland chunk of West Africa where the southern edge of the Sahara meets the Sahel in first half of the twentieth century.  The French still support Nigerien politicians who protect its economic interests, and Niger’s most valuable world-market resource is, um, uranium, which the French exploit.  Niger subsumes swaths of Songhai, Fulani, Hausa and Tuareg tribal territories, and members of these groups bring their beats to Tal National.  But this is no rootsy, folksy sound. Niamey, the economic, political and cultural hub of modern Niger, is a mushrooming West African city, and and Tal National plays hard-driving, urban, pan-West African music; tribal rhythms sizzle in a high-energy matrix of Nigerian Afrobeat, Ghanain highlife and Senegalese mbalax, or melt into the plaintiveness of Mali’s Tuareg desert blues.

7:30 PM  The last act on the Willy St. stage is Cristina Pato and the Migrations Band.  Pato’s a virtuoso bagpiper, and wildly accomplished classical and world musician (she’s a member of YoYo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, and she’s collaborated with Arturo O’Farrill, Paquito D’Rivera and Chick Corea, among other luminaries).  Pato’s gallega – a native of Galicia, the partly autonomous Spanish province on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula that sits right above Portugal. Galicia shares an ancient Celtic heritage with other regions of northwest Europe, including, of course, Ireland – and in fact bagpipes may have originated in Galicia, where they’re called gaita; the earliest bagpipes known are depicted in a medieval Galician manuscrit, the Cantigas de Santa María.  Most Galician world music today sounds a lot like Gaelic Storm, cashing in on the Irish craze -- but what Pato plays with her Migrations band is wild, open-ended jazz fusion that's partly Celtic with a Spanish tinge.   

Saturday, Sept. 21, Memorial Union Terrace:

9:30 PM  Joan Soriano, El Duque de Bachata, who capped the MWMF in 2010, does so again this year. Bachata, hugely popular dance music in its native Dominican Republic and among Latin dance fantics everywhere, is sometimes called amargue – bitterness – because its lyrics tend toward love and loss.  But bachata emerged in the explosion of euphoria that accompanied the assassination of strongman Rafael Trujillo, who ruled the little country occupying the eastern end of Hispaniola from 1930 to 1961.  With Trujillo gone, boisterous backyard parties (“bachatas”) broke out all over the poor black rural communities of the Dominican Republic, with food, drink, and a few musicians – a guitarist, a bongocero, somebody on maracas – on hand.  From there, bachata, an Antillean fusion in 4/4 time that takes cues from older guitar-based, Afro-Spanish genres – Dominican merengue but also Cuban bolero and Cuban son, plus Puerto Rican plena – spread to the bars and whorehouses of Santo Domingo’s shantytowns.  When I started dancing Latin at Mad City’s own Cardinal Bar in the late 1970s bachata was music on the margins of Dominican society, with no commercial machinery – nobody here knew about it, though Dominican merengue was a big deal.  It took a white, tech and media-savvy, university-educated Dominican musician – Juan Luis Guerra – to connect bachata to the world, in 1990.  Today, Millennial bachateros play New Yorkified bachata de alto voltaje, hip-hop bachata, and of course bachatón.  That’s definitively not Joan Soriano. He’s the real deal.  He still lives in Santo Domingo. On his latest ( I think) release, La Familia Soriano (iASO Records, 2012), he’s accompanied by three of his siblings, though I don't know if they'll appear here.  He plays plugged in, and writes updated lyrics, sin machismo – but it’s pura bachata, humble, melodic, encantadora, and irresistably bailable.


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