Around the World in a Week

When Paul Simon and David Byrne gave their imprimaturs to African and Brazilian music with successful pop-crossover efforts back in the 80s, the record industry predictably followed suit. Suddenly the whole of music created in the non-English-speaking world, made palatable by the single marketing term “world music,” was the latest in the endless succession of Next Big Things. Though it’s not as fashionable as it once was, world music hasn’t gone away–which is a little like saying non-Anglo-Saxons haven’t gone away. It’s just that the blindered music mainstream no longer gives a fuck about it unless it’s getting down with Eddie Vedder. Lucky for the rest of us, four–count ’em, four–concerts in town this week feature leading lights from a wide range of cultures:

Not for nothing do they call Celia Cruz the queen of salsa. Although she left her native Cuba in 1959, she remains the country’s all-time greatest female singer. And while her brassy contralto has lost some of its range over the years, even in her 70s Cruz has retained plenty of power, and her remarkable phrasing has only gained sophistication–her singing is rife with the sort of bold improvisation you’d expect from a jazz vocalist. She’s worked with a virtual who’s who of Latin music–Tito Puente, Johnny Pacheco, Willie Colon, and Papo Lucca, to name a few–but her style is all her own, and on her recent Irrepetible (RMM) she proves as adept with more contemporary, pop-inflected tunes as she is with traditional rhythm-heavy Cuban material. (Friday and Saturday at House of Blues)

Like Cruz, Senegal’s Baaba Maal is known for his dancing as well as his singing, and at his last few shows in Chicago he’s been flanked by a pair of loose-limbed men whose complementary moves ranged from subtle call-and-response gestures to all-out kicking and flailing. The true highlight of a Baaba Maal concert, however, is Maal’s soaring vocals; his praise of Islam cuts through infectious polyrhythms and a syncretic blend of traditional and modern instrumentation with a finesse that never detracts from the spirituality. Maal just finished recording a new album in London (due this summer), so expect a preview. (Wednesday at Martyrs’)

Huun-Huur-Tu is touring in support of two new albums, and while the group lacks the crossover appeal of Baaba Maal it does embrace cultural exchange. The quartet is from the Tuva Republic, a former Soviet state on the border of Mongolia, and its music revolves around khoomei, Tuvan throat singing. Much like the Gyuto Monks or Sardinian vocalists, Tuvan throat singers are trained in polyphonics–the ability to sound more than one tone simultaneously–which means one vocalist can sing both melody and accompaniment.

On last year’s Fly, Fly My Sadness, Huun-Huur-Tu’s recording with Bulgarian Voices–Angelite (the famed female choir formerly known as Le Mystere de Voix Bulgares), the group sought and found common ground with an Eastern European tradition. More recently it released If I’d Been Born an Eagle (both albums are on Shanachie), a more straightforward offering of songs reflecting the life of nomadic horsemen on the Mongolian steppe. Huun-Huur-Tu’s performances can be a little dry and folkloric, but their virtuosity and deeply felt execution more than make up for any lack of flash. (Saturday at the Old Town School of Folk Music)

Bally Sagoo draws on Indian tradition to flavor his thoroughly contemporary dance pop. Although he was born in New Delhi, Sagoo grew up as part of a large immigrant community in Birmingham, England, and as a youth rejected his native culture in favor of assimilation. But influenced by England’s pervasive bhangra scene, in his late teens he began to mix Indian sound-track music with hip-hop and dancehall rhythms. His 1991 album Star Crazy initiated the transformation of bhangra into club music; his subsequent recordings have become increasingly sophisticated.

On 1994’s brilliant Bollywood Flashback, which has sold more than 1.5 million copies worldwide, he had veteran Indian “playback” singers croon classic film melodies and then revamped the tunes with rappers and a dense arrangement of liquid bass and jeep beats. Its first single, “Chura Liya,” became the first song in Hindi to be played on England’s Radio One. The more recent Rising From the East expands his fusion by mixing qawwali- and filmi-style melodies with hip-hop, slow-jam, and house rhythms, but this time the melodies are all original; it’s also spawned a pair of top-20 hits in the UK.

In the fashion of most current dance-music producers, Sagoo will appear behind keyboards and turntables. This gig, with Chicago’s T.S. Soundz, is his local debut. (Saturday at Park West)


An exhibit of Nirvana and Pearl Jam photographs by Charles Peterson starts Friday with a 7 PM reception at Reverb Gallery, 2137 W. Belmont. Peterson (who is interviewed extensively in the movie Hype! and will be present at the opening) was the house photographer for Sub Pop at its inception and was responsible for many of the visceral shots that came to define the Seattle rock scene for the rest of the world.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Celia Cruz photo by Ricardo Betancourt/ Bally Sugoo photo/ Huun-Huur-Tu photo by Clark Quin/ Baaba Maal photo by Juergen Teller.