Beyond borders: what makes a world music festival tick?
Music makes a habit of crossing borders and convincing nationalities to blend together, so it is only sensible that a world music festival would aim to encapsulate the whole planet. That seems to be the goal for globalFEST, an ambitious and open-eared festival now in its 13th year in New York.
Since its first edition in 2004, the annual gathering enlists performers from all over, in a celebration of all kinds of sound. This year’s festival, which takes place today (January 17), features 12 acts on three stages in a sprawling three-storey club called Webster Hall.
The site was built by a Polish cigar maker in 1886, played home to political rallies and outlandish masquerade balls, was turned into a recording studio for the likes of Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, and, for a few hours this weekend, will make way for Mexican cabaret music, Haitian roots grooves, Arab-flamenco fusion, and a wild, wily group that proudly identifies as a Russian mafia band.
The whole thing began more than a decade ago, as a modest proposal to keep America open to the rest of the world.
“There was a lot of fear, and our belief was that world music could be successful across the country and that we really, really needed it at the time,” says Isabel Soffer, one of globalFEST’s founders and directors.
The idea was conceived in part as a reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, after which the United States found itself engaged with the globe in ways it wasn’t always previously aware of.
“People were dying to find out more about Afghanistan and the Middle East, and music and culture from the Arab world,” says Soffer, reeling off a list of other intriguing distant locales.
“There was tremendous curiosity. How were we going to be able to connect that curiosity to music?”
With a few colleagues who worked as fellow world music connoisseurs on the scene, she helped to stage the first globalFEST in 2004, as part of an industry confab organised in New York by the Association of Performing Arts Presenters.
With bookers and producers in town for the occasion, the notion was to put something on with a mind to get others to do the same, in New York and elsewhere.
“It’s about helping our peers understand the way that unfamiliar artists from other traditions can connect with audiences,” says Bill Bragin, a globalFEST director who, after making his name in New York, moved to the UAE to run the Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi.
An early example of the concept’s success, Bragin says, involved Mariza, a Portuguese fado singer whose prior performance history in New York was limited to a small club with room for 180 people. During her appearance at the first globalFEST in 2004, she caught the ear of an artistic director. Her next show in the city took place at another, much bigger, venue: Carnegie Hall.
“It’s about identifying exceptional artists and putting them in front of audiences of influencers and seeing how that can help,” says Bragin.
The industry machinations involved are one thing, but for the rest of us – neither performers nor producers, just some of the bodies who listen in and dance and count as audience members the world over – the notion of a “world music festival” can be confounding to fully conceive.
The term “world music” itself is problematic, never used by anyone without acknowledgment of its historical baggage and limitations.
“We try to move away from labelling what we do as ‘world music’ because as soon as you put that label on it, people tend to move away,” says Soffer.
“It’s sort of like ‘folk music’: people love it and go to see it, but, for new audiences, it has sort of a stodgy, old-fashioned connotation. People think of not this vibrant, exciting, creative sound but something dull and boring.”
None of the acts on this year’s globalFEST programme could be accused of being dull or boring – or stuck in a traditionalist ditch where respect for musical heritage discourages moves into the future.
“We have our roots but at the same time, the music is modern and contemporary,” says Melaku Belay of Fendika, a band from Ethiopia.
“For me, it is natural to go in front and see behind cultures, to mix, exchange, and keep it lively.”
Mariana Sadovska, from Ukraine, describes her music as rooted in her native land but very open-minded. “I’m nationalistic and cosmopolitan in one person,” she says. “Through traditional music there’s a good chance to show difference.”
She has casted her ears away from home. “I’ve discovered the most interesting music is always on a border, where cultures are in touch and exchanging,” says Sadovska.
“It can be really cheesy but also very deep in a way that creates new perspectives for all of us.”
Asked how much or little she considers performing as a political act in a world music context, she says: “I wish it was, a little: I wish we could just think about love and be happy and not worry about things, but I think it’s our responsibility as artists to be a voice, especially now. In our days, people-to-people connections are crucial in a time when media and propaganda are taking over. It’s important to have hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye contact.”
For the organisers of globalFEST, that is a message to broadcast far and wide. Soffer, who has been working within the realm of world music for more than 25 years, says she sees the audience for eclectic global sounds growing.
“There’s really an interest from younger people, who tend to have more open ears,” Soffer says, citing acts from globalFEST’s past who have gone on to perform in big, hip rock and electronic music festivals such as Bonnaroo and Coachella.
To foster such growth, in fact, globalFEST launched a touring fund to offer support for international acts to perform across the United States; so far, the fund has awarded more than US $70,000 (Dh257,000) to 26 bands to play in 130 American cities.
But first is the main globalFEST stop in New York. Yegor Romantsov, leader of the “Russian mafia band” Debauche, calls the city one of the more raucous ones that he and his wildly energetic group regularly play – not bad, considering that he and his cohorts live in the musically-rich city of New Orleans.
The politics of world music aren’t so important to Debauche: “It’s not political at all – as a matter of fact, most of our songs are about criminals and funny business,” says Romantsov.
But the effects of it can be potent and effective nonetheless. “New York is kind of snobby,” says Romantsov, who claims to have ready access to an antidote. “We break the ice within the first few songs, then everybody’s dancing.”
Andy Battaglia is a writer in New York, whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, Frieze magazine, The Paris Review and more.