Human Tornadoes Hit the Stage

The fifth annual World Music Festival starts this Wednesday, and as is the case with blues and jazz come festival time, the Chicago audience for international music temporarily swells, and most of the shows are packed. But important acts from around the globe continue to come to town throughout the year. The Irish folk-rock group Kila, Brazilian singer Virginia Rodrigues, Turkish Gypsy group Burhan Ocal & the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, Malian-British band Tama, Swedish folk trio Vasen, Cuban lutist Barbarito Torres, Nubian oud legend Hamza El Din, and Cape Verdean diva Cesaria Evora are just some of the major artists scheduled to perform here this fall.

One of the biggest events of the season will take place on Monday, before the WMF even begins: the Whirling Dervishes of Turkey are giving a rare performance at the Chicago Theatre as part of the Chicago Turkish Festival, which runs through Wednesday. The dervishes are Sufis, or Islamic mystics, members of an order called the Mevlevi that was founded in the city of Konya by the 13th-century Turkish poet Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. After Kemal Ataturk established the secular Turkish Republic in 1923, Sufism was driven underground. By the mid-50s the laws had been relaxed, allowing the Mevlevi to again perform their ceremonies publicly, though only in Konya and Istanbul; Konya dervishes make up the ensemble coming to Chicago. The primary Mevlevi ceremony, known as the sema, combines music, poetry, and dance in a demonstration of devotion to the divine; the motion of the dancers is meant to symbolize the movement of all things in the universe.

The ceremony opens with the naat, a chanted recitation in praise of the prophet Muhammad, followed by the taksim, an improvised passage played on the ney, a traditional Turkish cane flute. During the section called the pesrev, processional music accompanies the entrance of the dancers, who remove their black cloaks to reveal long, flowing white robes, symbolizing resurrection from the grave. The heart of the ritual is the sequence of four movements called selams, each with a distinctive rhythm, that correspond to the four stages of the human spiritual journey: birth, rapture, submission, and ascendance. The dancers, their heads tilted slightly, begin to spin slowly from right to left, building in speed until their robes flare out into wide circles; this whirling usually goes on for around 40 minutes, ending with a brief recitation from the Koran and a closing prayer. The music is performed by a small vocal group and instrumental ensemble, which includes ney, kanun (zither), tanbur (lute), kudum (a small double-headed drum), kemence (a three-stringed spike fiddle), and halile (cymbals).

Tickets are available at the Chicago Theatre box office (312-443-1130 or 312-902-1500) or through Ticketmaster (312-559-1212); for additional information, go to

World Music’s Fuzzy Borders

The new two-CD anthology World 2003 (Narada World), the fourth in a series compiled by BBC DJ Charlie Gillett, showcases the diversity of contemporary international music, from the beguiling mix of downtempo grooves and Central Asian folk melodies of Uzbeki singer Sevara Nazarkhan to the beat-driven high-velocity flamenco-pop of Spain’s Ojos de Brujo. It’s uneven, as comps tend to be: some of the fusions sound forced, like the reggae-rai mix from Larbi Dadi & U-Roy, and there are a few rock songs (like those by Calexico and Joe Strummer) that just don’t belong despite the self-consciously international flavoring. But generally this is an informative overview that demonstrates the increasing difficulty of drawing a line between ethnic music and Western pop.

Former Specials singer Terry Hall is doing his part to blur that boundary on the new album The Hour of Two Lights (Astralwerks/Honest Jon’s), a superb collaboration with Mushtaq, a percussionist, producer, and former member of the British-Asian band Fun-da-Mental. Hall meanders through pop melodies in his sad-puppy warble while the impressively agile band tours the rhythms of eastern Europe and the Middle East, superpowered by Western club beats and deep bass. “Ten Eleven” steamrolls forward on riffing Romanian Gypsy violins, and Hall’s vocal performance here is pure Kurt Weill (Blur’s Damon Albarn, who last year made an equally compelling pop record with traditional musicians from Mali, sings the bridge); “A Gathering Storm” is a collision of shaabi (Egyptian street pop) and trip-hop, with Hall’s weightless croon melting into Eva Katzler’s woozy soul vocals amid waves of oud, accordion, and strings. The tough rhythms are fleshed out by a ragtag assortment of artists from all over the world: a Mongolian throat singer, a Syrian oud player, an Algerian rapper, a Tunisian vocalist. Even as the styles change dramatically from song to song, the players’ deep understanding of the various idioms remains constant.

Interweaving East and West

Chinese classical musicians Wei Yang and Betty Xiang (performers at the 2002 World Music Fest and participants in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble project who were profiled in this space last fall) released their first American album this summer. On Song of Consonance (Traditional Crossroads) the husband-and-wife team–Yang plays the lutelike pipa, Xiang the erhu, a two-stringed violin–render traditional Chinese pieces in a series of exquisite solo and duet performances. Xiang takes the melody on “Henan Folk Tune,” employing wild glissandi and intense, high-velocity fluttering that suggests a deranged vibrato. In “Ancient People” Yang ranges from speedy single-note runs to harsh percussive thwacks to eerie microtonal string bends. The album’s centerpiece, however, is the title work, written by contemporary Chinese composer Lu Pei and performed by Xiang and Yang with the Amelia Piano Trio, an adventurous chamber group. The couple’s ongoing interest in East-West sound combinations pays off here, as the dry, twangy tones of the Chinese instruments are set off beautifully by the darker, richer sonorities of violin, cello, and piano.