I’ve seen dozens of great shows at Chicago’s World Music Festival since it launched in 1999. The fest has more to offer than just music, though, and I can explain what I mean by describing a single set: the Mahmoud Ahmed performance I saw at Pritzker Pavilion in 2015.
The greatest living link to the golden age of Ethiopian pop from the 1960s and ’70s, Ahmed is a superstar in his homeland, but he’d never before played a Chicago concert whose venue suited his stature—as far as I know, the singer’s only other local gig was in 2010 at the Wild Hare. I don’t point this out to praise the festival’s bookers (though they deserve it) but rather to explain the sense of occasion Ahmed’s appearance created among Chicago’s Ethiopian expats. They came out en masse, so deliriously happy that they pushed aside the bulky metal crowd-control barriers and danced right up to the lip of the stage. Millennium Park security quickly abandoned their attempts to keep a lid on the party—the only time I saw a staffer intervene, it was to ask a father to remove his little daughter from the stage, where he’d hoisted her to take a photo with the band in the background.
I remember thinking that it might be impossible for someone who lives in the country where he was born—someone like me—to feel the kind of excitement those fans were feeling. But I tried as hard as I could, and I don’t think I’ve ever loved a concert more. Ahmed’s music—soulful, slinky, psychedelic, poignant, and joyful—provided a percolating heat that powered all sorts of celebratory, uninhibited dancing, including a few traditional styles I couldn’t name. One popular move looked like arms-at-the-sides pogoing, with both shoulders pumped up and down twice with every hop—Ahmed could still do it at 74, but I didn’t manage to get much closer than my customary goofy jumping around.
The thrill of a reunion with music from a culture and a place you’ve left behind, by force or by choice but never without regret, must be like meeting a long-gone loved one at the airport, except 100 times as intense. Because I have no living connection to my ancestral countries (I’m not even entirely sure what they are, despite what I assume is a Spanish-Cuban surname), I can experience this emotion only vicariously. But because the World Music Festival hosts artists from dozens of nations every year, in keeping with the dazzling diversity of the city’s population, odds are pretty good you can experience it directly. Even as a garden-variety mixed honky, I’m happy to have concerts (and audiences) like this to puncture the jadedness that decades in music journalism have built up between my exhausted ears and anything I try to listen to. If you need a reminder that our species developed music tens of thousands of years before written language, the World Music Festival is full of them. v