globalFEST 2014: The Honest Blow-by-Blow
Words & Production by Minna Zhou » Videography by Sebastian Modak
New York - We schlepped through the cold into the Brooklyn home of a gnawa king. We shot a globalFEST co-producer in a public restroom. We tore through packed crowds that threatened the stability of our DIY methods of audio/visual production. And we have come out the other end alive and in high hopes of wrangling you back in with us.
Sunday January 12th was the 11th edition of globalFEST, the annual one-night festival featuring 12 artists from around the world on three different stages in New York City’s historic Webster Hall. globalFEST is by now a staple event of the collective “world music” scene of North America. It coincides each year with the APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) Conference, giving presenters a chance to come and scope out artists they might want to showcase in their own venues. Not incidentally, the event is also a part of “January is Performing Arts Month in New York City.” As a result, about two thirds of the 1,500+ attendees comprise the general public, while the other third are professionals: the Marco Wermans of the world, the Radio France Internationals, the Minister of Culture of Cabo Verde, a couple of recently-returned Sub-Saharan Africa Fulbright researchers.
The day of the event, as bands soundchecked on all three floors of Webster Hall, Bill Bragin, one-third of globalFEST’s production team—which also includes Shanta Thake of Joe’s Pub and Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds—sat down in a quiet corner of a (co-ed) restroom and explained, “We’re looking for artists who are ready to tour internationally, artists who are bringing something new to the international market place, artists who are really appealing to different kinds of presenters. Some [presenters] who come are from traditional performing arts centers, some are from summer festivals, some are from nightclubs.” Asked about the particularities of this year’s festival, Shanta added with a laugh that, “This year is more of a party year, more so maybe than some of the other years…there are a lot of bands with really high energy.”
Assuming you’ve watched the video and have a general idea of this year’s artists, here’s our honest, no-holds-barred 12-point break down of the night. From a Jamaican one-string-guitar bluesman, to a Mauritanian griotte with a voice like an oasis, to an in-your-face Curaçaoan tropical bass band, to, let’s be real, a couple of face-palmers—we’ll ease you in, but buckle up, ‘cause it’s a journey:
Brushy One String – JAMAICA
Photo: Author’s own
What makes Brushy’s music so enjoyable is its leisureliness; the sparseness of a single-string loping bass line; rhythmic knocks on the body of his guitar; the spontaneity of his cackle; the groan in the back of his throat when he sings about the girl who gives him the “grays in his blues.” It’s soulful, and it’s bluesy, and those things require taking time to feel. On Sunday, the King of the One String delivered the soul, but it felt rushed, accelerated perhaps because of nerves. He did, however, seem to hit his stride just as Sebastian and I were dashing to get footage from another artist (although when I came back towards the end of his set, he was playing a quickened Bob Marley cover…so I speculate).
As is, Brushy’s music would (and does) sound great outside on a front stoop or in places generally more intimate and less rock than The Studio at Webster Hall. So it’ll be interesting to see how he grows in the coming year in order to make an international solo career work. That said, Brushy also reminds us about what makes globalFEST special, which is that the festival tries to catch a number of its artists not necessarily while they’re at the top of their careers but rather just when they’re on the verge. It’s no easy feat being able to fill up a hall with just one string and a voice, but if anyone could, it’d be Mr. One String.
Como Mamas – MISSISSIPPI, USA
These three women from Como, Mississippi had the fastest sound check I have ever witnessed, as in maybe two minutes. With three solid voices as their sole instruments, there wasn’t much to fix. As of 2013, Esther Mae Smith, Angela Taylor, and Della Daniels have become Daptone Records’ newest gospel acquisition. Between Esther’s gritty, power engine of a voice; Angela’s lower, rolling tones; and Della’s slightly higher, more nasalized vocal qualities, the Como Mamas tap into old call-and-response spirituals and create a no-frills gospel sound designed to get folks through life’s shit. The effectiveness with which they turned the Marlin Room into a Mississippi church house startled me and frankly made my atheist self a bit uncomfortable. But if that’s not testament to the power of the Como Mamas, I don’t know what is.
The Wu-Force –TENNESSEE/CHINA
The Wu Force are banjo queen Abigail Washburn, guzheng (Chinese zither) virtuoso Wu Fei, and multi-instrumentalist Kai Welch on keyboard, guitar, and trumpet. All three contribute vocals. Unlike most of the evening’s acts, The Wu Force dropped very few clues as to where they were going, even several songs in. Which, actually, was pretty fun to be a part of.
The first song was a guitar-strumming indie folk number, “Muckrakers,” in which Kai sang in English, and Abigail and Wu Fei channeled a semi-punk rock vibe, yelling out Chinese phrases in response to Kai’s vocals. Example: Kai: “Shooting at the clouds just to make it rain”; Abby and Fei (in Chinese): “Raining! Raining!” A little weird? Yes. Abigail and Kai then narrated us into the song “Uyghur-Gaga,” wherein Abigail mimicked the sound of Uyghurs’ galloping horses on clawhammer banjo, Wu Fei played clusters of menacing-sounding notes on guzheng, and Kai pulsed on synths. The lyrics were literally, “Uyghur-Gaga.” Two songs later, Wu Fei was dressed as Zhi Nü, the youngest daughter of the emperor of heaven who, as the story goes, loved a cow herder on earth. The resulting piece was like Peking Opera Lite (Fei singing in costume) meets C-pop (Abigail singing in Mandarin) meets American indie folk (Abby and Kai’s harmonies). Did I mention old time Appalachian clogging was involved just minutes later?
The whole thing could’ve been hokey and scattered, and while I did wonder about cultural sensitivity a few times, the way the Force presented it, it mostly felt like what it is: a genuine experimentation involving Chinese and Appalachian folk traditions in the 21st century.
Noura Mint Seymali – MAURITANIA
Photo: Author’s own
Noura could summon the entire Sahara with her voice if she wanted. It is a life force of its own. In fact, I am fairly certain that it is the future of renewable energy. Her melismas alone gave countless fatigued presenters and media people enough juice to make it through the rest of the night.
Where some voices, like Abigail Washburn’s, are lighter and tend to float above accompaniment; or where some, like the Como Mamas’, are thick and trudge forward slowly but surely; Noura’s bursts forth, falls, loop-de-loops into and out of the soundscape her bandmates weave around her. The grooves kindly provided by their drummer Tinari act as a sort of aural buoy to latch onto as we ride the swells and swoops of Noura’s impeccable musical phrasing. Jeiche, their brilliant guitarist and Noura’s husband, blazes a psychedelic trail of tightly coiled microtones that flicker and stretch out beneath Noura’s stratospheric vocals. Ousmane’s minimalist bass lines round it all out.
The band opened, as they always do, with a nod to Mauritanian iggawin, or Moorish griot, tradition. (Both Noura and Jeiche were born into iggawinfamilies, and growing up, Noura developed her own vocal prowess under the tutelage of the celebrated Mauritanian griotte Dimi Mint Abba.) She played a rippling Mauritanian song on ardine, a kora-like instrument with 10-14 strings played only by women. Male griots, like Jeiche, play the xalam-like tidinit. The transition from that opening into their psych rock/reggae/funk-inspired remake of Mauritanian roots felt so natural it made me wonder why this hadn’t ever been done before, and I’d seen them twice before. In addition to blowing our minds that night, Noura et al also revealed to us a few new tracks that the group is combining with selections from their previous two EPs for their first full studio album set to drop this summer. Aiwa, Noura. Aiwa!
KiT (Kuenta I Tambú) – CURAÇAO/NETHERLANDS
“I hope that in the future when people buy our own tickets, the ticket says, ‘Bring extra underwear,’” Diamanta, KiT’s co-MC/hypewoman told us completely straight-faced. And that is in essence the Kuenta i Tambú ethos. Their music is intense, it’s digital, it’s analog, it’s everything meant to make you sweat through your undies.
KiT, Kuenta I Tambú, have pioneered a sound they call “tambútronic,” which is also the name of their Spring 2013 album, only just released in the US two days after globalFEST. It mashes up tambú music with elements of electronic dance musics ranging from moombahton to dubstep to Dutch house.
Tambú itself originates in Curaçao, one of the Dutch Antillean islands where most of the five-piece band grew up. Its musical backbone is a series of 6/ and 12/8 rhythms traditionally played on barrel drums, whilechants, claps, and foot stomps fill out the body (along with ox horn, hoe, and shakere, as frontman/producer Roël Callister demonstrated during the show). The accompanying dance lives in the hips. Like many of its Caribbean cousins, tambú originated with West African slaves and has long been viewed by the ‘higher classes’ as “obnoxious” or “indecent.” Which is why KiT are working to reclaim it as a source of pride, bringing it to the international stage where the universality of a good, hard beat and a little time in da club can work wonders.
Photo: Authors’ own
The Bombay Royale – AUSTRALIA/INDIA
The Bombay Royale opened with a row of 8 band members in Zorro masks lining the perimeter of the stage. Front and center stood a white man in a sailor suit and aviators who spread his legs wide, and like a ringmaster under the beaming lights of his circus tent, announced, “Without further ado, would you welcome to the stage the stars of our show, The Mysterious Lady and…The Tiger.” The Mysterious Lady, in a sari, and The Tiger, in a sequined blazer, emerged with their palms held together before their faces, and right away, it smacked of exoticism, which only exacerbated as the minutes ticked by. At one point, the white sailor even backed his ass up onto “The Mysterious Lady” and upon righting himself, yelled out into the crowd, “There comes a moment in all our lives when we find ourselves riding bareback…across the tundra on a stallion. This is Wild Stallion Mountain, and this IS. FOR. YOU.” Or something very close to that effect. Make sense to you? Us neither. Think I’m making this up? I’m not.
As one high-profile attendee and pre-APAP World Music Conference panel member remarked when asked about his thoughts on The Bombay Royale, “Oh…you mean The Village People one.” Yeah, that one, except the hokiness wasn’t ironic, and I frankly couldn’t recall the actual music. All I could recall was feeling thoroughly embarrassed for everyone in the room.
Hassan Hakmoun – MOROCCO
Since he first settled down in New York in the 1980s, Hassan Hakmoun has established himself as one of the world’s foremost gnawa pioneers, combining gnawa with rock, pop, and various West African percussive and instrumental traditions.
When we visited Hassan at his home in Brooklyn, I asked him what he thought separated just another fusion band from a band that fuses sounds that have staying power. Part of his response is in the video above and has to do with intent—the intent to share a musical gift as opposed to the intent to just put something out and sell it. Many of the songs he played that night at globalFEST were public debuts from Unity, his forthcoming album (March 14, 2014). It will be his first full-length studio album in 12 years since The Gift (2002), not because he hasn’t had material to release but precisely because, he told us, he refuses to put something out just for the sake of putting something out.
Even if the music generally lacked the kind of intense and satisfying jangle of krakebs that characterizes gnawa, the band set fire to the new songs, at least towards the front of their set. By the time I checked back in about halfway through, the show had acquired a medium-energy jam session vibe. Fortunately, fula flute and sabar drum solos helped break up the aural landscape. Hassan’s sintir work was, as usual, solid.
DakhaBrakha - UKRAINE
The Ukrainian four-piece brought it again, as they always do. Their close vocal harmonies constrict and flex into and out of each other, creating a natural series of tensions and releases that combine like action potentials to push their sound over the edge (…hey, no one said they weren’t a sexy bunch). They may not individually be technically amazing instrumentalists—see: the cellist’s segmented bow changes and non-continuous vibrato during sustained notes, not, I feel, stylistic decisions—but their sonic drama and heart more than trump any technical blips.
Among the menagerie of instruments that accompanies them from show to show are a small knee accordion, a big accordion, darbuka drum, bass drums, jaw harp, beads, a toilet-paper-roll-shaped object with a tail that makes wind noises, cello, piano, their voices, and more. They were billed at globalFEST as “Subversive Ukrainian Punk-Folk,” which sounds questionable…but is not too terribly far from the truth. And very much in opposition to The Bombay Royale’s “Technicolor Bollywood big-band pop,” it works.
Photo: Authors’ own
Fanfare Ciocarlia - ROMANIA
There is a balcony in The Ballroom that stretches across all three sides of the concert hall facing the stage, and Fanfare Ciocarlia made a veritable bounce house of it. This was in part because people were pogoing to the band’s fat, fast Romani beats. I think it was also in part because 2 baritone horns, 2 tenor horns, 4 trumpets, 2 saxophones, 1 set of drums, and 1 bass drum thumping alongside each other in rapid-fire synchrony created sound waves forceful enough to actually shake the wooden framework of the overhang. It’s a miracle none of the media folks lost any equipment trying to get shots while leaning over the balcony.
Also, FYI, the group has just released their 10th studio release as of January 17th. It’s called Devil’s Tale. Romani brass band lovers, rejoice.
Yasmine Hamdan – PARIS BY WAY OF LEBANON
Yasmine challenged us to ask ourselves: has ever an artist left a globalFEST room so empty? The Beirut-born, Paris-based artist is no newcomer to the music game; she performed for years with Lebanese electro-pop band Soapkills. She even most recently modified her 2012 self-titled album and re-released it as Ya Nass in 2013 on the venerable Crammed Discs. But on Sunday, Yasmine’s show mostly just involved her breathing some moody, vaguely melodic, word-like utterances into the mic and shifting her weight around a bit. Sebastian had difficulty getting a good shot, because people kept streaming out in droves.
Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta – ARIZONA
If before last Sunday, you didn’t know what high-voltage maraca playing looked or sounded like, you quickly learned. If you’d never witnessed a timbales player going at it with his arms like a windmill for the better part of an hour, you could now testify. If you’d forgotten how just the right kind of warble in a brass section could catapult you back to the American big band era, you remembered. If a mambo-cumbia big band leader hadn’t ever remind you of a hyped-up Western classical chamber orchestra conductor before, you were now reminded. Throughout their show, the smartly dressed Sergio Mendoza oscillated between plunking out melodies on his keyboard-turned-electric-organ, rolling out the guitar chords, singing, and conducting his band. They were (are) part 1930/40s-style brass band, part mambo mania, 100% bursting at the seams. The Studio, the smaller stage of Webster Hall where they performed, could barely contain them.
Baloji – BELGIUM BY WAY OF CONGO
Photo: Author’s own
One of the biggest names on the gF line-up this year, Baloji undoubtedly got more voice recorders shoved in his face leading up to Sunday than is couth for someone just off a plane from Belgium. When Sebastian and I sat down to interview him before soundcheck, he rubbed his forehead a few times and with a tired smile admitted he was wiped. Fast forward a few hours, and he’s strutting onto the Ballroom stage, ‘fro fluffed, black velvet croc-print blazer catching light, delivering lines about national and personal identity, the working person’s hustle, chanting his band’s name (Katuba) like it was the anthem of the night.
Baloji essentially did that night what he does best: hip hop served fresh over a bed of Congolese soukous, soul, and funk. On stage with him were his band, l’Orchestre de Katuba, comprised of brass: trombone, trumpet, and sax; keyboard; drum kit; six-string bass; and secret weapon guitarist Dizzy Mandjeku. Dizzy used to play with Congolese rumba/soukous giants the likes of Tabu Ley, Franco, and Sam Mangwana. And it shows. Notes come out of his guitar, and all of a sudden your caboose is on the loose. Notable too were the band’s backing vocals, which lent some textural and melodic contrast to Baloji’s raps. This was especially true in the context of their remake of Marvin Gaye’s “I’m Going Home,” in which the bassist sang the song’s refrain in a baritone so rich I could’ve sworn I felt my stomach growl.
While Baloji’s flow that night might not have been as nimble as what he’s capable of, he still held full command over the hall. At one point near the end of his set, Baloji gave a shout-out to one of his biggest musical influences, Tabu Ley Rochereau, who passed away in November. Seconds later, as if the mere mention of the Soukous King’s name electrified him, he went into the craze that you now see at the end of the video—the one where he’s on his knees, then on his hands, then back on his knees, with his fist in the air.
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