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- Posted on Dec 16th 2008 11:00AM by Steve Hochman
So what will there be to talk about this year, now that all the problems have been solved with the election of Barack Obama to be President?
Well ... it's not quite that simple, says globalFEST co-director Bill Bragin. And it's not just that the sixth edition of the concert will take place Jan. 11, nine days before Obama is even inaugurated. "I think most people I know are not expecting a messiah," he says. "There's an understanding that it will take a long time to course-correct. Some things have to move slowly."
But at the event -- this time featuring a dozen acts ranging from Nigerian Afrobeat heir Femi Kuti to pan-Mediterranean ethno-electronic Watcha Clan to New York-based psychedelic-cumbia reinvigorators Chicha Libre -- the vibe will certainly be very different this time from the past six. Expect a good deal of the frustrations and pessimism to be replaced by, to borrow a certain campaign tag, hope. In fact, the organizers say, it's a change (to use another Obama slogan) that happened almost immediately with the Nov. 4 election.
"One of the things that's exciting about the change of administration is that for the first time in a long time there's a growing conversation about cultural diplomacy," says Bragin, who continues to oversee the festival in addition to serving as director of public programming at the famed New York cultural institution Lincoln Center. "What I'd seen in the past few years, since the beginning of the [Iraq] war was an increasing number of international artists who have said, 'I'm not interested in coming to the U.S. Not interested in going through the practical difficulties it takes to come into a country that treats artists like criminals.' And some said they didn't want to endorse the political actions of the country."
It was something Bragin and his two globalFEST partners, Isabel Soffer of the World Music Institute and Shanta Thake of Joe's Pub at the Public Theater, have had to battle daily just to try to attract artists over -- a battle also being fought be all U.S.-based world-music promoters. And outside the U.S., it's been enough concern that the Cultural Services office of the French Embassy signed on as a major international partner at the fest's inception.
"The conversation many of us doing international work has been to make the point that the administration doesn't speak for the people, and the people are much more open," he says. "What's fascinating is how quickly it's different. The election was such a vindication of that point that the international community has responded so quickly and dramatically. The ability to follow the Bush administration with the Obama administration has created the ability to get people excited to have the U.S. rejoin the family of nations. Taking to agents who have represented artists who were not interested in coming, now suddenly they are looking at offers to come this summer."
Of course, less of a globalFEST focus on politics means more of a focus on music. The dozen acts represent eight countries on five continents and cover even more musical ground. In addition to Kuti and the Watcha Clan, the international contingent features Bollywood singing star (and 'Indian Idol' judge) Kailash Kher and his group Kailasa, French chanson-swing act L&O , Spain's rumba catalana innovators La Troba Kung-Fu, Brazil's breakout-in-the-making Marcio Local, Paris-based Iranian music and dance group the Shanbehzadeh Ensemble and Inuit singer Tanya Tagaq from the Canadian Arctic.
The U.S.-based brigade, along with Chicha Libre, sports veteran calypso queen Calypso Rose (who is originally from Trinidad & Tobago), the Occidental Brothers Dance Band International (mixing Ghanaian highlife singer Kofi Cromwell with players from Chicago's underground scene) and New Orleans' raucous Hot 8 Brass Band (can someone get them to jam with Kuti?).
Several of the acts have rarely -- and in a couple cases never -- performed in the U.S. before, and some of the others might be big in their own scenes but unknown otherwise, which satisfies Bragin's goal to present acts that will create a buzz among promoters and booking agents and world music fanatics alike. (And to expand the reach to both, the fest will be webcast both live and in audio archives via New York public radio station WNYC.) Bragin demurs when asked to predict which have the best shot at future stardom, in part because he doesn't want to appear to be playing favorites, but also because those things have proved rather unpredictable, with such acts as Cambodian-pop/alt-rock hybrid Dengue Fever, African-American string band the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Balkan Beat Box among those who have been booked on their way up in the global market. He cites last year's fest as a prime example:
"Last year's biggest breakout was Lo Cor de la Plana, a French polyphonic vocal and percussion group. It was a group we all really liked when we saw them at [European world music exposition] WOMEX but never predicted they'd be a breakout success. But they got a huge reception in our room and the best reviews of the event and were booked for a huge tour out of it. The idea of putting on this professional showcase in the context of a public festival is it allows programmers to book beyond individual tastes by seeing audience responses. It might not be my taste, but I can see with 600 people going crazy how this will work in my venue."
But he does predict a spirited, vibrant day, the mood lifted by current events -- an energy that he hopes will be channeled into making the most of the climate of change and work for even more positive developments.
"People are optimistic but cautious," he says. "What this has done is that after a period where lots of people felt their small, individual steps couldn't play a role, there's a new sense of empowerment of things that can be done in small increments -- the power of collective actions getting to a larger goal. In a way, that kind of speaks to why we created globalFEST. That challenge of presenting international artist was huge, whether expense or visas, travel issues. Many people who have been daunted by the process of what it takes to present world artists, especially from overseas, the realization now is that through collective action and interest in the market there's growth of that base."
Now, don't get the wrong impression. It's not all serious by any means.
"There's that other market of local music fans who just come to see great music," he says, including himself among them. "One thing we look at is does it hold together as a great musical festival we'd want to go to."