Betsayda Machado Credit: Vladimir Marcano

In its 19th year, Chicago’s World Music Festival is as sprawling as ever—it lasts 17 days, from Friday, September 8, till Sunday, September 24—but because it’s abandoned booking concerts on Mondays and Tuesdays, overall it feels more modest. The WMF has long been less grueling than a typical music festival, both because it spreads out its lineup across so many days and because most of its shows are in cozy venues where you don’t have to compete for elbow room with tens of thousands of people. But the pace of this year’s fest has slackened perhaps too much—there’s something to be said for momentum and excitement, and it’s tougher to maintain either with so many days off. Also stealing oxygen from the WMF are the excellent international musicians playing in Chicago during its run but outside its purview: great flamenco guitarist Vicente Amigo performs at City Winery on September 17 and 18, for instance, and Senegalese trio Bideew Bou Bess (proteges of Youssou N’Dour) have a show at the Old Town School on September 15.

I have a bigger complaint too, but it’s less about the festival’s organizers and more about the general state of the marketplace for international music. The booking and promotion of this kind of music, especially at big events, has become increasingly institutionalized—and the drive toward cost efficiency by those institutions has fueled a proliferation of panstylistic performers whose sound rarely suggests anything more specific than “world music.” It’s much easier to bring in U.S. groups that ply a commercialized hybrid of musical traditions than it is to organize a tour for a foreign ensemble that’s actually advancing one of the traditions in question—in the latter case, you’re likely to need expensive visas, translators, and booking agents. Unfortunately, you get what you pay for, and this year’s World Music Festival includes a bunch of groups that are proficient technically but short on personality, innovation, and grit.

World Music Festival Chicago

Full schedule at Fri 9/8 through Sun 9/24, multiple locations, age restrictions vary, all shows free

That said, there’s enough quality on the lineup for me to unreservedly recommend the nine acts below. Once again the fest has booked a bounty of terrific music from Africa, and it accounts for five of my selections—six if you count Nicole Mitchell’s collaboration with Malian kora player Ballaké Sissoko. And I’d be remiss not to mention the annual Ragamala concert at the Chicago Cultural Center, a feast of Indian classical music that provides audiences with the opportunity to hear ragas performed at the traditional hours for which they were composed—it begins the evening of Friday, September 8, and runs through the late morning of Saturday, September 9.

World Music Festival shows take place at venues all over the city, and for several years now they’ve all been free to attend.

L. Subramaniam, composer of the Bharath Symphony
L. Subramaniam, composer of the Bharath SymphonyCredit: Courtesy the City of Chicago

Bharath Symphony

Saturday, September 9

3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, all-ages

Indian classical violinist L. Subramaniam is an old hand at crossover projects: he’s reached beyond traditional sounds to score film soundtracks and collaborate with a wide range of stars, including jazz artists Herbie Hancock and Larry Coryell, Western virtuosos Yehudi Menuhin and Jean-Pierre Rampal, and George Harrison of the Beatles. But with his Bharath Symphony, which he premieres this weekend, he’s taken on a monumental task: to celebrate the 70th anniversary of India’s independence from British rule, this three-hour composition attempts nothing less than a summation of the four major eras of India’s illustrious history, from prehistory to the present day. There’s reason to be skeptical about such an undertaking, but Subramaniam has assembled an eight-piece ensemble that features some of the greatest instrumentalists in Indian classical music, among them percussionists Tanmoy Bose and Mahesh Krishnamurthy, slide-guitar great Debashish Bhattacharya, and three of his own talented children: Ambi (violin), Kavita Krishnamurti (vocals), and Bindu (vocals). They’re joined by the Elhmurst Philharmonic Orchestra and the Elmhurst Community Choir. In November, Subramaniam will travel to the UK to mount the work with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Center.

Salif Keita
Salif KeitaCredit: Courtesy the City of Chicago

Salif Keita

Saturday, September 9

Grand Tapestry opens. 8 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, 21+

Salif Keita is arguably the greatest Malian singer of the past half century, and like most African stars, he’s sought a global audience by experimenting with various flavors of Western pop (not always to salutary effect). On his most recent album, Talé (Universal), Keita submits the music of his Mandinka ancestors to the ministrations of producer Philippe Cohen Solal, best known as cofounder of Parisian electro-tango outfit Gotan Project. Solal enlisted a slew of guest singers—British MC Roots Manuva, American jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding, a cappella icon Bobby McFerrin—and added a variety of electronic beats and effects, among them fat dubstep stutters (“C’est Bon, C’est Bon”), anthemic four-on-the-floor kick drums (“Natty”), and ambient washes that alternately ramp up and throttle back (“Après Demain”). It’s a testament to the power of Keita’s soaring, protean voice that it’s unhindered by such unrewarding genre exercises. The album does better when its fusions seem to be hunting for serendipitous connections: “Samfi,” for instance, collides Gnawan grooves with a prominent organ sample from the B-52s’ “Planet Claire,” and “Tassi” mixes Sade-style soul with percolating Afro-Cuban rhythms. The core band on Talé includes Mamane Diabaté on balafon and Aboussi Cissoko on n’goni, and Keita never conceals the West African heritage of his imperturbably soulful singing. His voice is the only essential part of his music, and when freed from guest singers and the trappings of a high-end Paris studio, it’s capable of carrying a concert like this all by itself.

YouTube video

Eva Salina
Eva SalinaCredit: Courtesy the City of Chicago

Eva Salina

Wednesday, September 13

Alfonso Ponticelli & Swing Gitan headline. 7:30 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway, 21+

Thursday, September 14

Tcheka headlines. 7 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 21+

Singer Eva Salina has traveled a long way from her native Santa Cruz, California, though the distance has been at least as much cultural as geographic. As a child she fell in love with a tape of Yiddish songs, and her parents gamely sought out a teacher to help her learn to sing them. When they came up empty, they hired a Balkan instructor instead, inadvertently setting their daughter on the circuitous path she’s followed since. Now a New Yorker, Salina has carried her interest in Eastern European music into all sorts of projects—including the Jalopy Chorus, which also traffics in Irish folk and bluegrass. She works in a cosmopolitan mix of styles, but her current focus is the raucous folk music of the Romani people—specifically the repertoire of outsize Serbian singer Saban Bajramovic, who died in poverty in 2008 despite a long career as one of the greatest Romani vocalists ever recorded. On last year’s self-released Lema Lema: Eva Salina Sings Saban Bajramovic, she gave his songs a variety of punchy, entertaining settings, with overheated horns and jacked-up rhythms that all but drown out the pathos in the original material. Not a bad move—Bajramovic was larger than life, but also such a tragic figure that his music needs a little help to feel fun again.

Betsayda Machado y la Parranda El Clavo
Betsayda Machado y la Parranda El ClavoCredit: Courtesy the City of Chicago

Betsayda Machado y la Parranda El Clavo

Saturday, September 16

The Luciano Antonio Quartet opens. 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park, Michigan and Randolph, all-ages

Sunday, September 17

La Tribu de Abrante headlines; Mdou Moctar (see below) and Betsayda Machado y la Parranda El Clavo open. 2 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento, all-ages

Full-throated Venezuelan singer Betsayda Machado grew up in El Clavo, a village in the Barlovento region of the country’s Caribbean coast—an area rich in the cultures of the African diaspora. She’s a descendant of the escaped slaves who formed hidden communities called cumbes in the wilderness (in the process laying the groundwork for the development of the region), and her band, La Parranda El Clavo, maintains a clearly audible link to Africa. Many Venezuelans with roots in the the cumbes have moved to the cities, Machado among them; in the country’s capital, Caracas, she’s found great success singing in relatively contemporary modes and sharing stages with the likes of salsa great Oscar D’Leon. But she’s never turned her back on the traditional sounds of her childhood.

Machado’s new album, Loé Loá: Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree (Odelia), presents those sounds in their uncut form: her soulful, titanic voice triggers passionate call-and-response chants atop a torrent of polyrhythmic percussion, including drums, scrapers, and castanets. Until recently La Parranda El Clavo has been a labor of love, but after a music-biz professional caught one of the band’s local shows and signed on as its manager, Machado and company started to consider the possibility of taking the show on the road. Though the group’s fortunes have changed, its music hasn’t—and as a result, these performances offer Chicagoans a rare chance to hear an almost completely unmediated product of Afro-Venezuelan culture.

Mdou Moctar
Mdou MoctarCredit: Christopher Kirkley

Mdou Moctar

Saturday, September 16

Ode opens. 10 PM, Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln, 21+

Sunday, September 17

La Tribu de Abrante headlines; Mdou Moctar and Betsayda Machado y la Parranda El Clavo (see above) open. 2 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1301 N. Sacramento, all-ages

The Saharan guitar music first popularized by Tuareg band Tinariwen (and further spread by like-minded artists such as Etran Finatawa, Toumast, Group Doueh, and Bambino) might seem like a recent development to Americans, but that’s only because it didn’t register here till maybe 15 years ago. In fact that bluesy sound, where flanged, arpeggiated guitars simmer and snake over clopping calabash grooves, has existed in West Africa for decades, and Mdou Moctar (born Mahamadou Souleymane) grew up with it in the Nigerien town of Tchintabaraden. Moctar represents a generation that has embraced new technology to spread its music, recording low-fi tracks and circulating them as MP3 files on the memory cards of cell phones. His work first reached a global audience on the influential 2011 compilation Music From Saharan Cellphones, which features material he’d made for the album Anar a few years earlier: it combines his guitar with primitive drum machines, piercing synthesizers, and acrobatic vocals rendered nearly robotic by torqued pitch-correction software.

Judging from Moctar’s austere new album, Sousoume Tamachek (Sahel Sounds), he arrived at that early sound either as an expedient or an experiment—in any case, it’s clearly not his ideal. On Sousoume Tamachek he revisits some of his oldest tunes, but the recording feels like the polar opposite of the scrappy electronic production he used back then: he plays and sings everything, overdubbing clean layers of guitar, percussion, and chanted vocals. The music isn’t flashy, but even when he’s deployed similar instrumentation in the past, it hasn’t hit this hard—his clenched vocals and driving, minimal guitars ring out with a new clarity. In addition to Moctar’s performances, at 6 PM on Friday, September 15, at the Storefront Theater (66 E. Randolph), Sahel Sounds owner Christopher Kirkley will screen a low-budget film he made in Niger. Rain the Color Blue With a Little Red in It, a loose remake of Prince’s Purple Rain starring Moctar, is the first-ever Tuareg-language movie.

Trio Da Kali
Trio Da KaliCredit: Youri Lenquette

Trio Da Kali

Wednesday, September 20

Hong Sung Hyun’s Chobeolbi opens. 6 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, all-ages

Thursday, September 21

Rami Gabriel opens. 7:30 PM, Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia, 21+

The three Malian musicians in Trio Da Kali—balafon player Fodé Lassana Diabaté, singer Hawa Kassé Mady Diabaté, and bass n’goni player Mamadou Kouyaté—all have excellent resumés, having collaborated on their own with the likes of Toumani Diabaté, Bassekou Kouyaté, Salif Keita (see above), Tiken Jah Fakoly, and Malian-Cuban fusion project AfroCubism. But they hadn’t worked as a group till British producer and West African music expert Lucy Duran brought them together five years ago for a project presented by the Aga Khan Music Initiative. She had a hunch they’d have great chemistry, and they proved her right on a beautifully sparse 2015 trio recording for World Circuit.

Trio Da Kali make their Chicago debut in support of a brand-new album that’s the product of yet another collaboration, this time with venerable Bay Area string ensemble Kronos Quartet. When Trio Da Kali & Kronos Quartet (World Circuit) works well, the strings support the sashaying balafon and bass n’goni and powerful singing—shading harmonies, girding rhythms, adding subtle countermelodies. Unfortunately, Kronos sometimes gets too heavy-handed, disrupting the trio’s flow by adding fussy, flashy lines that in a folkloric group might’ve been played on kora—on “Ladilikan” I half expected the quartet to launch into Santana’s “Black Magic Woman.” That sort of thing doesn’t happen often, though, and Kronos make up for their missteps with some great ideas: violinist David Harrington proposed covering the gospel song “God Shall Wipe All Tears Away,” made famous by Mahalia Jackson, and the arrangement creates a fascinating collision of traditions. For these shows, Trio Da Kali perform on their own.

Victor Tavares, aka Bitori
Victor Tavares, aka BitoriCredit: Joao Barbosa


Friday, September 22

Beats y Bateria open. 7 PM, the Promontory, 5311 S. Lake Park, all-ages

Saturday, September 23

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80 (see below) headline; Bitori and Africa Hi-Fi open. 8 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, 21+

Cesaria Evora, Cape Verde’s “Barefoot Diva,” put the West African islands’ music on the map more than two decades ago with her gorgeously sorrowful take on morna, a tender song form that grafts the saudade of Portuguese fado to the seductive rhythms of Brazil. In the years since, other artists from Cape Verde—among them vocalist Lura and singer-guitarist Tcheka, who returns to Chicago for this year’s festival—have helped popularize less familiar sounds from the islands, but America has yet to hear anyone quite like Bitori, aka Victor Tavares. This wild accordionist and singer delivers a go-for-broke take on funaná, Cape Verde’s most upbeat style; its rapid-fire shuffling rhythms feel a little like zydeco, with scraped percussion providing the same sort of buoyant drive as a zydeco washboard. Last year Analog Africa reissued Bitori’s 1997 debut album, Bitori Nha Bibinha (made when he was 59), under the title Legend of Funaná: The Forbidden Music of the Cape Verde Islands—the recording’s first international release.

By the late 90s, Bitori had been playing funaná for decades—ever since saving up enough money as a teenager to buy his first accordion in 1956. For much of his early career he had to be careful about where and when he performed, because Cape Verde’s Portuguese colonial rulers associated funaná with working-­class uprisings and punished musicians with jail or torture. Not until the islands achieved independence in 1975 did the music enjoy broad popularity, and even then it was rarely recorded—at least until Bitori opened the floodgates with his debut, now considered the best album the genre has ever produced. By touring with young singer Chando Graciosa, Bitori spread the music to Europe in the 90s, and to support the Analog Africa reissue he returned to the continent as a bona fide world-music star. His Chicago performances are part of his first U.S. tour.

Nicole Mitchell and Ballaké Sissoko
Nicole Mitchell and Ballaké SissokoCredit: Photos by Kristi Sutton Elais and Gilbert GalÈron

Nicole Mitchell & Ballaké Sissoko: Bamako*Chicago Sound System

Saturday, September 23

Part of the Hyde Park Jazz Festival. 3 and 5:45 PM, Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago, all-ages

Malian kora virtuoso Ballaké Sissoko roots his playing in traditional Mande modes—his 2013 solo album At Peace (Six Degrees) is a beautiful case in point—but he’s also distinguished himself by bridging cultural divides through thoughtful collaboration. He’s worked with American bluesman Taj Mahal, Chinese pipa master Liu Fang, French cellist Vincent Segal, Italian contemporary classical pianist Ludovico Einaudi, and Moroccan oud player Driss El Maloumi. That roll call is evidence of his curiosity and versatility—he can draw upon improvisational creativity to make new situations work. This new project promises to be as exciting and rewarding as any he’s undertaken, because he’s joining forces with one of the most dynamic composers, improvisers, and bandleaders in the world: former Chicagoan Nicole Mitchell.

This coproduction of the World Music Festival and the Hyde Park Jazz Festival was born three years ago, when Mitchell and Sissoko performed together in Paris. Today they’ll present the world premiere of a new batch of music, to be rehearsed in Chicago during a residency preceding the concert. In Bamako*Chicago Sound System, the principals are joined by two Malian musicians (balafon player Fassery Diabaté on balafon and singer Fatima Kouyaté) and by four members of Mitchell’s long-running Black Earth Ensemble: guitarist Jeff Parker, bassist Joshua Abrams, vocalist Mankwe Ndosi, and percussionist Jovia Armstrong.

YouTube video

Seun Kuti
Seun KutiCredit: Romain Rigal

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80

Saturday, September 23

Bitori (see above) and Africa Hi-Fi open. 8 PM, Concord Music Hall, 2047 N. Milwaukee, 21+

Last September, Nigerian Afrobeat scion Seun Kuti and his band Egypt 80 dropped the first release of their new deal with Sony Masterworks, a three-track EP called Struggle Sounds. Its 25 minutes cleave tightly to the classic agitprop-funk formula pioneered by Seun’s legendary father, Fela Anikulapo Kuti, and coproducer Robert Glasper was smart enough not to fuck with success. Considering the shortsighted, selfish decisions happening in voting booths and statehouses around the globe—do I even need to mention Trump?—the EP’s blast of righteousness is plenty welcome. Kuti probably didn’t write his lyrics with the U.S. in mind, but on the seething “Gimme My Vote Back (C.P.C.D.)”—the parenthetical stands for “Corporate Public Control Department”—he sure seems to be talking about what the supporters of our allegedly populist alleged president are likely to get for their trouble: “You promise jobs / And you close the factory / But there’s always work in the penitentiary.” When it comes to politics, listening to music is no substitute for direct action, but songs this combustible—and a front man this electric—can definitely help motivate people to fight back against their oppressors.  v