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Milwaukee's Global Festival

Sep. 11, 2008
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World music formerly conjured up impressions of folklore, field recordings and fading traditions lovingly preserved on wax. Lately, it’s emerged from the archives and the museums to take its place in contemporary pop culture. Even so, world music still strikes many ears as an awkward catchall term. Aside from the music of the spheres, what on Earth isn’t world music? But for an industry, a media and a populace lost without neatly labeled categories, world music has become the file folder for almost any performer outside of the Anglo-American musical tradition.

You can call it music from anywhere but here, but even that definition gets a bit blurry. Many world music groups draw on rock or hip-hop and live in the United States, the United Kingdom or Canada.

Milwaukee becomes a mecca for world music this weekend when the third annual Global Union festival takes the stage at Humboldt Park Bandshell, nestled below a rolling green hillside in Bay View. According to the festival’s director, David Ravel, Global Union seeks to represent most every continent over the course of its two-day run.

This year’s event more or less fulfills the mission statement (Antarctica and Australia excepted). Standing for Africa are two groups, Samba Mapangala (from the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Vieux Farka Toure (Mali). From south and western Asia come Mamak Khadem (Iran) and Prasanna (India) and from Eastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean, Reelroad (Russia) and a “Gypsy surf rock” band from Chicago, Lamajamal. Maraca (Cuba) and Nation Beat (Brazil) represent Latin America.

Global Economy

Global Union was conceived in the backroom of a New York pub where a world music concert was taking place. Mike Orloff, a prominent impresario in world music circles, approached Ravel, who had already been booking some of his acts in Milwaukee as part of the Alverno Presents performing arts series. Orloff was eager for Milwaukee to host a multi-day showcase for bands he worked with as part of his plan to cultivate a network of festivals in the Midwest.

“It’s a big deal to bring artists to the U.S. from a place like Mali,” Ravel explains. “The costs are extraordinary. How do you produce enough money to pay the artists? Routing is the key. The more cities participating along the route of a tour, the better.”

Fall has become a prime season for world music bands to perform in the United States. They can easily pick up club dates in major East Coast cities such as New York, Boston, Washington and Philadelphia, thread their way through the heartland along a circuit of festivals in Bloomington, Ind., Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison, Minneapolis and Cedar Rapids, Iowa, head west to a festival in Albuquerque, N.M., and finish their tour with club dates on the West Coast. “The Midwest has become the linchpin for many of these artists,” Ravel explains.

Like most world music festivals around the country, Global Union charges no admission fee. The costs are born by sponsorships and underwriting. That Milwaukee isn’t among the longest or largest of such festivals has only added to its cache among performers.

“Global Union has become a prime date,” Ravel explains with evident satisfaction. “There are 40 artists playing Chicago and only eight of them will find their way to Milwaukee. We’ve been accused of skimming the cream.”

This Year’s Lineup

Saturday, Sept. 13

1 p.m., Lamajamal
The father of 1960s surf instrumental bands, Dick Dale, was a Lebanese- American who coupled melodies from his ancestral homeland with trebly electric guitars. Chicago’s Lamajamal rides the wave, adding a dash of ’60s go-go sensibility to the Wild East sound common to Jewish, Gypsy, Greek, Armenian and Arabic traditions.

2:30 p.m., Prasanna
India continues to nurture some of the world’s most ancient living musical traditions. Guitarist Prasanna brings electricity to those age-old sounds, plugging in for fusion projects, a Jimi Hendrix album called Electric Ganesha Land and sessions for Bollywood movies, including the Oscar-nominated Lagaan.

4 p.m., Nation Beat
Nation Beat explores links between the music of North and South America, specifically the Brazilian state of Pernambuco and the Caribbean melting pot of New Orleans. The band’s lively, funky, high-stepping rhythms show how the seeds of Africa flourished in the soil of the New World.

5:30 p.m., Vieux Farka Toure
Mali’s Ali Farka Toure became a signature world music artist. According to legend, Ali Farka Toure forbade his son Vieux from playing music, not wanting him to be exploited by the global entertainment industry. Inheriting his father’s stubbornness along with his talent, Vieux persevered, making music that uncovers the roots of the blues in African syncopation.

Sunday, Sept. 14

1 p.m., Reelroad
Although their lively repertoire originates in many far corners of the Russian Federation, Reelroad often sounds rather Celtic. Maybe they were inspired by the Irish Renaissance of recent decades? Or perhaps they have found com mon roots. After all, the Celts began their migration in the East centuries before reaching the British Isles.

2:30 p.m., Mamak Khadem
Mamak Khadem is open to many styles, but the diva grounds her singing in the rich classical heritage of her homeland, Iran. Living now in the United States, Khadem’s subtle, sophisticated repertoire recalls the minimalism of Philip Glass along with the closely related traditions of India, Persia, the Near East and Eastern Europe.

4 p.m., Maraca
Maraca is a Cuban flutist and composer who leads a lively 12-piece orchestra on tours of Europe, Africa and the Americas. His music is steeped in the ballrooms of old Havana, drawing from the elegantly funky, irresistibly dance able styles that have been his island nation’s gift to the world.

5:30 p.m., Samba Mapangala
Born in Congo, Samba Mapangala sojourned in many parts of Africa, becoming an Afrobeat hit-maker in the process. Although he now lives in Maryland, Mapangala’s recordings and concerts have lost none of the bright exuberance that characterizes much of the pop music of the African continent.

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