Ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté plays the World Music Festival Friday and Saturday.
Ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté plays the World Music Festival Friday and Saturday. Credit: Courtesy City of Chicago

For its 15th installment, Chicago’s World Music Festival has recovered from its nadir last year—a hastily assembled and underwhelming lineup that was just one by-product of a clumsy administrative overhaul that left the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events basically rudderless at the start of 2012. Festival founder Michael Orlove and his three-person team were laid off in December 2011, and though Orlove’s colleagues Carlos Tortolero and Jack McLarnan were eventually rehired, they had to organize the event in just a few short months.

Tortolero and McLarnan spent nearly a year putting together this year’s World Music Festival, and it shows. The schedule is 11 days long (in 2012 it was seven), and for the second time in a row all the concerts—in venues as far-flung as Beverly, Austin, and Rogers Park—are free. The two of them have obviously approached the task with a focused curatorial mind-set, which reveals itself in two impressive programs. The first, Raga­Mala, is an all-night marathon of Indian classical music that begins Fri 9/13 at 6 PM at Pritzker Pavilion with sets by sarod master Amjad Ali Khan (with his sons, Amaan and Ayaan) and slide guitarist Debashish Bhattacharya (see below); at 9 PM it moves to the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall, where it carries on until 8 AM the following morning. This is a rare opportunity for Chicagoans to hear traditional ragas as they were intended to be heard—they’re sometimes composed for specific times of day, but around these parts the music almost always gets performed in the afternoon or evening.

The second program, Festival au Desert: Caravan for Peace, runs Fri 9/13 through Sun 9/15. Festival au Desert is usually held in January in Mali, but because that country has been riven with internal conflict since early 2012, this year’s edition is happening in exile, in different cities around the world. Many festival regulars (as well as other fantastic Malian musicians) will play in Chicago, among them Bassekou Kouyaté, Sidi Touré, Leila Gobi, and Mamadou Kelly. (All four are covered below.)

The 56 performers on the 2013 schedule include plenty of locals, but artists you can see every month don’t outnumber visiting acts like they did last year. Still missing, though, are the lunchtime Cultural Center concerts that were broadcast live by WNUR. And it’s disappointing to see so many great international musicians touring the midwest in September but not playing the Chicago festival—Finnish folk band Frigg, Tunisian singer Sonia M’Barek, traditional Swedish group Vasen, and Cuban pianist Roberto Fonseca (who’s playing as part of Buena Vista Social Club at Symphony Center on Sun 9/29). I’m not complaining that the WMF has booked Kouyaté, Touré, and Dominican bachata singer Joan Soriano, but they’ve all been in Chicago much more often lately than those other acts.

Those are minor quibbles, though, especially in light of the five formidable shows at Pritzker Pavilion. They include a high-octane bill of Latin music from Eddie Palmieri and Plena Libre on Thu 9/12, the Indian classical showcase on Fri 9/13, and a fantastic Asian program featuring Indian classical violinist L. Subramaniam, Pakistani qawwali greats Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers, and Iranian/Azeri duo Pejman Hadadi & Imamyar Hasanov on Fri 9/20 (see below). As usual the WMF winds up with the mini fest One World Under One Roof at the Cultural Center, this year held on Sun 9/22—though Boston-based Ethiopian-soul outfit Debo Band will play what’s technically the last show at Martyrs’ later that night. Peter Margasak

Debashish Bhattacharya
Debashish BhattacharyaCredit: Courtesy of World Music Network

DEBASHISH BHATTACHARYA Debashish Bhattacharya isn’t the first to develop a slide-­guitar practice within the Indian classical tradition—that distinction belongs to his principal mentor, the great Brij Bhushan Kabra—but he’s certainly doing his bit to bridge musical cultures. Earlier this year he released Beyond the Raga­sphere (Riverboat), an intriguing fusion project that includes jazz guitarist John McLaughlin, country Dobro master Jerry Douglas, and flamenco guitarist Adam del Monte—and it only goes south when kit drums and noodly electric bass enter the picture. For this show Bhattacharya brings a family band with his brother, Subhasis Bhattacharjee, on tabla and his daughter, Anandi, on vocals—the same group that supports him on his terrific new traditional album, Madeira (Tridev). The stripped-down setting foregrounds the lyrical beauty of his meditative, meticulously pitched solos. Bhattacharya’s Pritzker Pavilion performance is part of the all-night program RagaMala, which moves into the Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall at 9 PM. Peter Margasak

Friday, September 13, 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

Saturday, September 14, 8 PM, DePaul Concert Hall

Bassekou Kouyaté with firstborn son Madu (right), wife Amy, and their son Moustapha
Bassekou Kouyaté with firstborn son Madu (right), wife Amy, and their son MoustaphaCredit: Jens Schwarz/Courtesy City of Chicago

BASSEKOU KOUYATÉ & NGONI BA In March 2012, while ngoni master Bassekou Kouyaté prepared to record his latest album, Jama Ko (Out There), in Mali’s capital of Bamako, Malian president Amadou Toumani Touré was ousted in a military coup by soldiers unhappy with his handling of the insurgency in the northern part of the country—and this turbulence tempted the Islamic radicals involved in the insurgency to step up their attacks. All this turmoil changed the direction of Kouyaté’s album: produced by Howard Bilerman, best known for his work with the Arcade Fire, Jama Ko began its life chilled-out and acoustic but ended up seething with the spirit of resistance. On a few tracks Bilerman’s Montreal cohorts reinforce the rhythms with kit drumming, electric bass, and the like, but the album’s fire and drive come from the Kouyaté family band, playing ngonis of different pitches and singing songs that celebrate Mali’s multi­cultural traditions and the music that the invading Islamists had outlawed in areas under their control. Other guests include singer Zoumana Tereta, but the group’s usual vocalist, Amy Sacko (also Kouyaté’s wife), conveys their pride and determination in no uncertain terms all by herself. With Jama Ko, Ngoni Ba have made their finest record yet. Peter Margasak

Friday, September 13, 9 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+ (with Sidi Touré, below)

Saturday, September 14, 3 PM, Pritzker Pavilion

Sidi Touré
Sidi TouréCredit: Courtesy Thrill Jockey

SIDI TOURÉ On his fourth and best album, Alafia (Thrill Jockey), Malian singer and guitarist Sidi Touré strikes the same note of defiance as many of his countrymen, rejecting the strict Sharia law that Islamic radicals imposed in the northern part of the country (until France stepped in and routed the invaders in early 2013). Much of the record was recorded in Nantes, France, because Touré’s native region of Gao was still under extremist control at the time. Touré has never sounded more confident and forceful, qualities certainly sharpened by his steady touring as well as by his strong feelings about the situation in his homeland. He’s joined by some serious guests, including celebrated Fula flutist Cheick Diallo, singer Leila Gobi (see below), and young guitarist Baba Salah, but it’s Touré himself, not the ringers, who makes Alafia such a big step up. Touré also performs Sun 9/15 at 6 PM at the Hideout, joining Creole multi-­instrumentalist Cedric Watson in the group International Blues Express; they share the bill with Mamadou Kelly (see below) and Leila Gobi (see below). Peter Margasak

Friday, September 13, 9 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+ (with Bassekou Kouyaté & Ngoni Ba, above)

Saturday, September 14, 8:30 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music (with Leila Gobi, below)

Mamadou Kelly
Mamadou KellyCredit: Courtesy City of Chicago

MAMADOU KELLY After years of playing under the leadership of Malian guitar greats Ali Farka Touré and Afel Bocoum, singer and guitarist Mamadou Kelly (from the village of Niafunke, like both of them) has stepped out on his own. His recent U.S. debut, Abidar (Clermont Music), is gentler and subtler than Touré’s or Bocoum’s music—he softly intones his lyrics, his hypnotic guitar arpeggios tickle and float, and his solos seem to whisper—but the total effect is equally powerful. Supported by electric bass, a gourd fiddle called a njarka, and sparse calabash percussion, Kelly casts his spells as if he were singing lullabies, with a soulful intensity in his restraint. Abidar is one of the most exciting new records I’ve heard come out of Mali in years. Peter Margasak

Saturday, September 14, 7 PM, Szold Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music

Sunday, September 15, 6 PM, Hideout, 21+ (with Leila Gobi, below)

LEILA GOBI Young Tuareg singer Leila Gobi went against her family’s wishes to became a musician, and while still a child she won multiple awards in the Goa region of northern Mali, where her hometown of Ménaka is located. Her willfulness has been vindicated, at least judging by the fact that she’s loaned her powerful, nasal voice to the great Khaira Arby and to the terrific new album by Sidi Touré (see above). On the forthcoming Ménaka (Clermont Music), her hypnotizing melismata snake through her band’s taut grooves, which meld bluesy electric guitar with synthesizer washes—she overwhelms the occasionally cloying production, so that it can’t spoil a single song. Throughout all the album’s sometimes unwieldy collisions between traditional music and modern pop, her voice never fails—she’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Peter Margasak

Saturday, September 14, 8:30 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music (with Sidi Touré, above)

Sunday, September 15, 6 PM, Hideout, 21+ (with Mamadou Kelly, above)

KardemimmitCredit: Courtesy the Band

KARDEMIMMIT The four young Finnish women in this terrific combo write their own songs, played largely on the kantele (a native zitherlike instrument, here in 15- and 38-string versions), and their inviting, accessible arrangements ring with sweet, precise vocal harmonies. Kardemimmit bring a modern savvy to very old Finnish traditions: not just two disparate schools of kantele playing but also runo-song (a poetry-based form that usually uses trochaic tetrameter) and reki-song (a dance-oriented style). You don’t need to know or care about any of this to love the music, of course—with the spirited, serenely beautiful performances on the self-released Autio Huvila, Kardemimmit do for Finnish folk what the Unthanks are doing for British folk. Peter Margasak

Monday, September 16, 8 PM, Schubas, 18+ (with We Banjo 3, below)

Tuesday, September 17, 6:30 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

We Banjo 3
We Banjo 3Credit: Peter Harkin

WE BANJO 3 The first thing you’ll want to know about Irish pickers We Banjo 3 is that there are four of them (two sets of brothers). The second thing is that they don’t just play banjos—they switch among fiddle, guitar, bodhran, and mandolin too. But obviously, if the brash, bright sound of the banjo as she is played in breakneck bluegrass bands irks you (the banjo evolved from a much gentler African instrument), this isn’t going to be your cup of tea—unless it makes a convert of you. The quartet’s self-released debut, Roots of the Banjo Tree, takes a flashy, pedal-to-the-metal approach to American and Irish string-band dance music, and it’s as joyous as it is un­relenting. Monica Kendrick

Monday, September 16, 8 PM, Schubas, 18+ (with Kardemimmit, above)

Tuesday, September 17, 7 PM, Mayne Stage

Noura Mint Seymali
Noura Mint SeymaliCredit: Courtesy City of Chicago

NOURA MINT SEYMALI This intense Mauritanian singer is the stepdaughter of the legendary Dimi Mint Abba, with whom she worked as a backing vocalist. But if her debut EP, the digital-only Azawan, is any indication, she’s charting her own musical path. While she employs traditional Mauritanian instruments such as the tidinit (a kind of lute) and the ardine (a harp), she also embraces smoky electronic effects, taut kit drumming, and swampy electric bass—vastly different timbres and textures tangle and intersect seductively, creating a mesmerizing tension between ancient and futuristic. None of that would sound as impressive, though, if it weren’t for Seymali’s wonderful voice, a piercing wail that alternates between clarion declamation and intense vibrato. Peter Margasak

Tuesday, September 17, 9 PM, Reggie’s Rock Club, 17+

Thursday, September 19, 8 PM, Mayne Stage

Tal National
Tal NationalCredit: Courtesy PMAPR Online

TAL NATIONAL Tal National has canceled due to visa problems. The band will be replaced at both these performances by Sierra Leone expat Janka Nabay and his band the Bubu Gang. Few records this year have made me as happy as the new Kanni (Fat Cat), the first internationally available release from Niger’s Tal National. This crafty, hard-hitting album feels like a hybrid of styles assimilated from all around the continent, especially Congolese soukous and Ghanaian highlife—and at times the clipped, spiraling, fast-moving guitar reminds me of the chimurenga sound Thomas Mapfumo pioneered in Zimbabwe. The group formed in 2000, and on the one earlier record I’ve heard—2008’s A-Na Waya—the basic template was already in place. Alas, poor production choices, including some irritating Auto-Tuned vocals, prevented Tal National from reaching the heights they achieve on the new album, cut in Niamey with Chicago engineer Jamie Carter. He got a clean but aggressive sound from the guitar-­driven sextet, and its matrix of frenetic rhythms—trap set, some kind of talking drum, and sparkling, stinging contrapuntal licks—is totally infectious. Just as impressive are the sturdy vocal melodies, delivered in a soulful rasp or in declamatory call-and-response style—they ride the music like rafts rushing down white-water rapids. This is the band’s first U.S. tour. Peter Margasak

Wednesday, September 18, 7 PM, Mayne Stage

Thursday, September 19, 8 PM, Martyrs’, 21+

Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin & Brothers
Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin & BrothersCredit: Courtesy City of Chicago

QAWAL NAJMUDDIN SAIFUDDIN & BROTHERS It’s been more than a decade since the World Music Festival booked a qawwali group—not that surprising, considering the crippling tensions between the U.S. and Pakistan, where qawwali arose and maintains a dominant cultural position. So it’s encouraging to see Qawal Najmuddin Saifuddin bringing this form of Sufi devotional music to Chicago. This group of powerfully voiced brothers from Karachi—Ehtishamuddin Hussain, Zafeeruddin Ahmed, Muhammad Najmuddin, and Saifuddin Mehmood—claim to be blood relations of 13th-century poet and composer Amir Khusrau, widely considered the man who first played qawwali. On the one album I’ve heard, called Rumi after the famous mystic, they bring an electric intensity to the tradition with percolating hand percussion, hypnotizing hand claps, snaking harmonium melodies, raucous call-and-response singing, and some of the most soaring and impassioned vocal poetry imaginable. Peter Margasak

Friday, September 20, 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion (with Pejman Hadadi & Imamyar Hasanov, below, and L. Subramaniam, below)

Sunday, September 22, 7:15 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

Pejman Hadadi & Imamyar Hasanov
Pejman Hadadi & Imamyar HasanovCredit: Courtesy City of Chicago

PEJMAN HADADI & IMAMYAR HASANOV If any part of the world has more beautiful native music than central Asia, someone please tell me about it. Based on their self-released 2011 duo CD, Sounds of My Soul, much-decorated virtuosos Pejman Hadadi of Iran and Imamyar Hasanov of Azerbaijan keep this tradition richly alive in all their compositions. Their primary instruments—the versatile, expressive tonbak, a sort of goblet-shaped drum, and the kamancha, a vertical fiddlelike instrument with a pining, poignant, voicelike sound—are equally at home in classical and folk settings, much like Western drums and violins, and the duo’s music combines the best of both worlds. Monica Kendrick

Friday, September 20, 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion (with Qawal Namuddin Saifuddin & Brothers, above, and L. Subramaniam, below)

Saturday, September 21, 7 PM, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts

L. Subramaniam
L. SubramaniamCredit: Courtesy City of Chicago

L. SUBRAMANIAM Three generations of Indian classical music are represented by this set, at least in spirit—violin master Dr. L. Subramaniam is the son of the late V. Lakshminarayana, who’s often credited with introducing the Western violin to the Indian tradition, and he’ll be accompanied by his son and student, Ambi Subramaniam. Indian classical music is always breathtaking, but Subramaniam’s mastery really has to be experienced in person to be believed. (You’ve heard him if you’ve seen Salaam Bombay, Mississippi Masala, or Bertolucci’s Little Buddha.) He’s a widely traveled and extremely adaptable collaborator who’s played with a long list of major symphony orchestras and familiar stars in pop, soul, jazz, and world music—but there’s nothing quite like hearing him entirely in his own element. Monica Kendrick

Friday, September 20, 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion (with Qawal Namuddin Saifuddin & Brothers, above, and Pejman Hadadi & Imamyar Hasanov, above)

BROCK MCGUIRE BAND There is no Brock McGuire—this ­­award-­winning Irish traditional band, founded in the early aughts, is led by accordionist Paul Brock and fiddler Manus McGuire. (The rest of the quartet consists of banjoist and mandolinist Garry O’Meara and composer and pianist Denis Carey.) For their latest record, Green Grass Blue Grass (Compass), they reversed the path that many Irish-Americans have followed to find their roots, seeking out threads of Celtic music woven into American forms—including bluegrass, obviously. Mandolin legend Ricky Skaggs guests, and the Brock McGuire Band recorded much the album at his Nashville home studio. (They also debuted their partnership with Skaggs onstage at the Grand Ole Opry.) In most fusions, a little bit of each component’s depth is lost, and this melange of Irish instrumentals, old-timey music, bluegrass, French-Canadian reels, and polka is no different—but the musicians are spirited and skilled enough to make each song and medley into a delightful new beast that exists for its own sake. In addition to the performances below, the band hosts a workshop at the Old Town School at 11 AM on Sat 9/21. Monica Kendrick

Friday, September 20, 9 PM, Szold Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music

Saturday, September 21, 8 PM, Beverly Arts Center

Sunday, September 22, 5:15 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

Andreas Kapsalis & Goran Ivanovic
Andreas Kapsalis & Goran IvanovicCredit: Courtesy of the Artist

ANDREAS KAPSALIS & GORAN IVANOVIC Every time I’ve heard this local duo live, it’s been entrancing—the pairing of finger-­tapped steel-string guitar (Kapsalis) and classical nylon-string guitar (Ivanovic) creates a delightful dialectic of tones, and the two men have been working together long enough to develop intuitive, instinctive responses to each other. They’ve just self-released their second full-length, Blackmail, which is their imagined score for the 1929 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. Tension and drama run through all of its compositions, and the travelogue effect of the multinational influences on their jazz/classical blend—Balkan, Mediterranean, Iberian, Latin American—takes you far beyond the world of the movie. As good as the album is, though, don’t just stay at home listening to it and pass up a chance to hear these two in person. Monica Kendrick

Sunday, September 22, 3:15 PM, Randolph Cafe, Chicago Cultural Center

Debo Band
Debo BandCredit: Shawn Brackbill

DEBO BAND When I first heard this Boston combo, I was impressed that they’d perfected the sound of the soulful, funky pentatonic pop of Ethiopia’s golden era, which lasted from the late 60s until 1974, when Haile Selassie was deposed (you can hear a lot of it on the essential Ethiopiques series), but I wrote them off as basically an exotic tribute band. Something happened between Debo Band’s 2010 debut and last year’s self-titled record for Sub Pop, though. They began focusing on original material and playing up their instrumental peculiarities—with low brass, accordion, and a pair of violins, they deliver a different palette than the state-financed bands grooving behind the likes of Mahmoud Ahmed and Tilahun Gessesse in the early 70s. Singer Bruck Tesfaye and saxophonist Danny Mekonnen, both sons of Ethiopian refugees, lead Debo Band with sure-handed style, and now they’ve found their own take on the tradition they love. Peter Margasak

Sunday, September 22, 8:30 PM, Martyrs’, 21+