Slavic Soul Party!, America's greatest Balkan-style brass band

Every show at Chicago’s 14th annual World Music Festival is free—even the ones in conventional venues (Martyrs’, the Mayne Stage, Reggie’s Rock Club) rather than in city facilities, museums, or parks. That’s a first for the festival, and it’s about the only piece of good news concerning this year’s installment, unless you count the simple fact that it’s happening—the city’s excellent Music Without Borders series in Millennium Park didn’t return for summer 2012.

The World Music Festival kicks off Fri 9/21 with four evening concerts around the city and continues through Thu 9/27, when as usual it wraps up at the Cultural Center with the “One World Under One Roof” mini fest. But compared to last year, the number of venues has fallen to 15 from 22; the total number of shows is down to 41 from 52. The live radio broadcasts of weekday lunchtime Cultural Center concerts on Northwestern’s WNUR are gone (though the concerts are still happening). More troublesome is that the majority of the acts are local; last year a little more than one-fourth were. Most of the touring artists have played Chicago before, if not previous versions of this festival, meaning there are relatively few local premieres to get excited about—though to be fair, I’m very much looking forward to the Chicago debuts of Malian-born singer Fatoumata Diawara and Colombian folkloric group Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto.

Shoshona Currier, director of performing arts at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, was in charge of booking the festival, but it’d hardly be fair to blame her for the huge drop in quality: she didn’t move into the job till April. In a Tribune story from that month, DCASE deputy commissioner for arts programming Angel Ysaguirre revealed that festival booking hadn’t begun—a huge change from years past, when WMF founder Michael Orlove and his colleague Brian Keigher had started planning the next festival as soon as the current one ended. Under Orlove a consortium of midwestern world-music presenters (from Bloomington, Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids, Madison, and Milwaukee) would gather each February to discuss which international artists they wanted to block book at all their events, with Orlove and Keigher providing a list of potential acts. Chicago’s size and financial clout traditionally allowed it to provide anchor gigs, and the involvement of the other presenters made the tours feasible by spreading out the total expense.

Orlove and Keigher were laid off in December 2011, and Chicago had no presence at the meetings held by that consortium this year. Currier reached out to Lee Williams of Bloomington’s Lotus World Music & Arts Festival in late April, according to Williams, but she didn’t start booking any of the acts secured by the other consortium till late May—as a result, many of 2012’s highlights (including Diawara) ended up at the WMF as a result of Chicago piggybacking on other midwestern fests, a reversal of the usual roles.

David Chavez of Sound Culture, who’s helped out in the past, programmed the lion’s share of this year’s festival in June and July, by which point it’s historically been almost entirely booked. His stepped-up involvement can be seen as an extension of the outsourcing of DCASE’s summer music programs—Pitchfork fest organizer Mike Reed, who handles Downtown Sound, and Jazz Institute of Chicago director Lauren Deutsch, who curates World Class Jazz, are no longer collaborating closely with the city but rather doing that work very nearly on their own. Some of the acts Chavez lined up—including New York-based Balkan brass combo Slavic Soul Party! and Chinese folk-rock band Hanggai—ended up on the bill at Lotus fest too, but Williams says many of those bookings came together at the last minute. If this year’s lineup looks hastily assembled, that’s because it was.

I’m hoping the diminished 2012 festival is an aberration caused by staff shakeups and bureaucratic fumbling, and that DCASE will have the kinks worked out by next time. And at any rate I still intend to take in some music at this year’s WMF—despite all the problems, there are more than a few worthwhile artists to check out, and this time experimenting with unfamiliar names won’t cost a dime.

Below are some of the fest’s best bets, arranged according to the timing of their first set (almost every out-of-towner plays more than once). Shows are all-ages unless otherwise noted.

Maria de Barros

Like Portuguese singer Lura and many other contemporary stars of Cape Verdean music, Maria de Barros is connected to the islands not by birth but through her family: a native of Senegal, she grew up in Rhode Island. On her 2009 album, Morabeza (Sheer Sound), she draws not only on Cape Verde’s best-known traditional music, morna (made famous by Cesaria Evora), but also on its descendant coladeira, a brisk dance form, and on multinational styles such as fado and reggae. I find the production a bit slick and fussy, but it can’t spoil the easy soul in her malleable voice.

Fri 9/21, 8 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

Sat 9/22, 6 PM, Pritzker Pavilion, Millennium Park

Slavic Soul Party!

On the recent vinyl-only release New York Underground Tapes (Barbes), America’s greatest Balkan-style brass band sounds better than ever. Percussionist and Slavic Soul Party! bandleader Matt Moran is surrounded by an excellent new lineup, and a few members complement his own durable tunes—distinguished by richly contrapuntal arrangements, breakneck tempos, and excellent soloing—with compositions of their own. This group long ago shook off the “pretender” label—only the fact that they’re based in Brooklyn separates them from the best Balkan bands.

Fatoumata DiawaraCredit: Youri Lenquette

Sat 9/22, 7 PM, Navy Pier, 600 E. Grand

Sun 9/23, 8:30 PM, Martyrs’, 21+

Fatoumata Diawara

Paris-based singer-­songwriter Fatoumata Diawara, born to Malian parents in the Ivory Coast, left her homeland to pursue an acting career, defying her family’s wish that she settle down and marry. But her musical talent soon got her noticed, and she began working as a backup vocalist for the great Wassoulou singer Oumou Sangare—as well as for Herbie Hancock, Damon Albarn, and Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou. Diawara has absorbed Sangare’s defiant, independent stance on her stunning debut, Fatou (World Circuit/Nonesuch), and extends empathy to all sorts of oppressed people—misfits, victims of war, illegal immigrants, women (who in Mali are sometimes circumcised as girls and are considered minors if they’re unmarried). She brings pop savvy to her music’s deep, cyclical grooves, and the arrangements expertly balance guitars and electric bass with kora and n’goni. This is her Chicago debut.

Sun 9/23, 7 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

Mon 9/24, 6:30 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

HanggaiCredit: Yang Feng

Hanggai

On last year’s He Who Travels Far (Four Quarters), Chinese folk-rock group Hanggai beefed up the “rock” in their sound—hardly a surprise, since bandleader Ilchi grew up in Beijing and played in a punk band called T9. He started Hanggai after becoming obsessed with the overtone singing called hoomei, an ancient tradition in Inner Mongolia, his father’s homeland—eventually he paid a visit to the region to learn more about it. The group’s music is similar to the Tuvan folk of Huun-Huur-Tu and the Tuvan-rock hybrid of Yat-Kha, but on He Who Travels Far it’s the electric guitars that really stand out.

Mon 9/24, 6:30 PM, Ping Tom Park, 300 W. 19th St.

Tue 9/25, 7 PM, Reggie’s Rock Club

Los Gaiteros de San Jacinto

This fantastic group from the Colombian town of San Jacinto has been preserving the sound of the traditional gaita band for about seven decades: with only hand percussion, chanted vocals, and a wooden flute known as a gaita, they play music that incorporates the rhythms of cumbia, porro, puya, and bullerengue, among others. On the superb 2006 album Un Fuego de Sangre Pura (Smithsonian Folkways), the group brings unstoppable zest and soul to its rustic, foot-stomping performances.

Tue 9/25, 7 PM, National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th St.

Wed 9/26, 8:30 PM, Maurer Hall, Old Town School of Folk Music, RSVP at 773-728-6000

Pedrito Martinez

Cuban-born conguero and singer Pedro Martinez made his name on the New York scene playing in pan-­Latino dance band Yerba Buena and collaborating with Latin-jazz heavies such as Yosvany Terry, but lately he’s been turning heads with his own project—Sasha Frere-Jones, for instance, devoted a glowing profile to him in the New Yorker. All I’ve heard by his band (which includes a pianist, a bassist, and another percussionist) are a couple live tracks, but that’s enough to know that it’s ferociously soulful and full-bodied despite the compactness of the ensemble.

Tue 9/25, 8 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

Wed 9/26, 6:30 PM, Humboldt Park Boathouse, 1359 N. Sacramento

Janka Nabay

Janka Nabay

Sierra Leone expat Janka Nabay, now based in Baltimore, calls himself the “king of bubu music,” and it’s hard to argue. As far as anyone knows, the ancient ritual music of the country’s Temne population—used during Ramadan processions and traditionally played by masses of people blowing on cane or metal pipes—had never been recorded until he did it. To distinguish himself from his rivals in a Freetown music contest in the mid-90s, he drew upon on bubu’s skittering, high-velocity rhythms; his performance caused a sensation, and before long he was a local star. After fleeing his war-torn homeland for the U.S., he hooked up with a crew of Brooklyn indie rockers, and the same band released its first U.S. album, En Yay Sah (Luaka Bop), in August.

Wed 9/26, 7 PM, Little Black Pearl, 1060 E. 47th St.

Thu 9/27, 9:30 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center

Rahim AlHaj

In his native Baghdad, Iraqi oud master Rahim AlHaj studied under the brilliant Munir Bashir, but in 1991 he fled his homeland after his activism attracted unwanted attention from Saddam Hussein’s government; he spent almost a decade in exile in Jordan and Syria before the U.S. granted him refugee status, and since 2000 he’s lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. On his latest album, Little Earth (UR Music), he duets with a diverse collection of musicians—jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, new-music accordionist Guy Klucevsek—and makes all the performances sound of a piece, locating and drawing out the commonalities shared by various traditions. He shares the stage with a father-and-son sarod duo from India, Amaan & Ayann Ali Khan.

Wed 9/26, 8 PM, Mayne Stage, 18+

Thu 9/27, 7 PM, Claudia Cassidy Theater, Chicago Cultural Center