Chicago has one of the most ethnically diverse populations in the world, but while celebrations of ethnicity go on here all the time, they tend to be isolated: Indians, Iranians, and Italians alike end up celebrating themselves by themselves. The city’s first World Music Festival brings many of the traditions represented in these enclaves together–not under a single band shell, as with the jazz and blues festivals, but under a single banner. About a quarter of the 40 some acts performing are local, like Palestinian oud player Issa Boulos or the Romanian Gypsy group Pralas Rroms; they play all year round in their given communities, but over the next week and a half they’ll get a chance to perform for all of Chicago.

The timing of the festival couldn’t be better: as more people find rock and pop stale, world music has become the real “alternative” music, as we’ve seen with the phenomenal success of Buena Vista Social Club and the renewed popularity of Brazilian music in the last few years. While the programming isn’t quite as daring as it might have been–there are more touring acts than originally promised–it’s a pretty impressive debut, and it does suggest a pleasingly broad, nonpurist definition of world music.

While the setup is not the most convenient, with 11 venues scattered throughout the city, it does ensure a level of intimacy and sound quality missing at the festivals in Grant Park. And though fine performers are sometimes scheduled simultaneously at different sites, most artists can be heard on more than one occasion. If you can’t get down to the Chicago Cultural Center for the lunchtime concerts in the Museum of Broadcast Communications studio (MBC Studio), tune in to Northwestern University’s WNUR (89.3 FM), whose world-music show, Continental Drift, will broadcast them live. All of the events listed below are free and open to fans of all ages unless otherwise noted; $10 is the maximum price on ticketed events and in most cases advance tickets are available from the venue. For those wanting a preview, Big Chicago Records has released an inexpensive ten-track sampler of festival artists that’s available at local record stores. –Peter Margasak