Every January, there's a one-night music festival in New York that showcases artists from around the world. It's called globalFEST, and it's been happening for more than a decade. Over the years, it's become a place for American tastemakers to find new talent from Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond.
This year's edition, held Sunday at New York City's Webster Hall, was no exception. One of this year's most buzzed-about artists was Baloji, a Congolese-Belgian rapper and singer who mixes older styles, like Congolese rumba and soukous, with hip-hop.
If that sounds earnest and academic, it definitely isn't. This is party music. And as Baloji also said from the stage during his set, "This isn't 'world' music — this is our music." He mixes all of these sounds, but aims for the soul and swagger of a James Brown, too. Baloji works hard on stage — he started off his performance in a very sharp suit jacket and bow tie, and by the end of his set, he was in rolled-up shirtsleeves, sweating and dancing and really working the crowd. And he had them wrapped around his little finger.
But isn't "world music" supposed to be more ... traditional?
Let's get this out of the way: Even within the "world music" community, nobody likes the term "world music." It smacks of all kinds of loaded issues, from cultural colonialism to questions about what's "authentic" and what isn't (and who might get to police such inquiries), and forces an incredible array of styles that don't have anything in common under the label of "exotic Other." What's more: I believe that in many people's imaginations, "world music" means a kind of fairly awful, gloppy, hippy-ish, worldbeat fusion. It's a problematic, horrible term that satisfies absolutely no one.
Having said all that: The simplest answer is that the bookers of globalFEST — three respected curators and concert presenters in New York — look for music rooted in a specific time and place, whether that's Chinese folk music or African hip-hop. And the globalFEST organizers — Bill Bragin, director of public programming at Lincoln Center; Isabel Soffer, founder of Live Sounds, which produces concerts in New York City and collaborates with artists and organizations around the world; and Shanta Thake, director of Joe's Pub, a performance space at the Public Theater in New York — are sensitive to all that baggage attached to the term "world music." And even when they include artists who consciously mash up different genres, they choose those who do so from a particular point of view.
One such act this year is a band called The Bombay Royale, from Melbourne, Australia. Their shtick is to mix '60s surf rock with the sounds of vintage Bollywood while everyone is in costume and character, which gives off a bit of a strenuously arranged "We're going to be wacky!" aura. There's a little bit of The Village People thrown into the mix, too. It's a bit too much of a novelty act, but loads of fun nonetheless.
And while we're bending the definition of what is and isn't "world music" — globalFEST showcases American musicians. For example, this year's lineup included a really great trio of gospel singers from Mississippi called the Como Mamas, as well as Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta from Arizona. Mendoza's group does a mashup of old-fashioned mambo, regional Mexican music, that shuffling cumbia rhythm that's popular now all over Latin America and a load of other Latin styles.
But with the Internet, and being able to access nearly any musician in the world at the tips of your fingers — is a one-night event worthwhile? And do we still rely on tastemakers to get us access to musicians?
In short, yes to both. A showcase like this allows fans and industry folks to hear these artists live. (We've all had the experience of hearing bands whose recordings we love be fairly disappointing onstage.)
Also, there are some real tactical issues for bookers, agents and labels to take into consideration when it comes to booking international acts. Especially during the financial crisis, it's become extremely expensive for foreign artists to tour the U.S. And after September 11th, it was hard for a long time for many foreign artists to get visas from the State Department to tour this country. And because the U.S. is simply so big, it's tough for bands to make enough income here to cover the costs of flying here, then flying or driving between gigs spread out across the country. So after globalFEST sets, you see groups of bookers — say, a couple of people from California, a few Midwestern presenters, a few East Coast folks — huddled together in the back corners of the room. They're figuring out how to bunch up tour dates for the bands they just heard, to make American tours viable.
From globalFEST 2014, I think my personal big new find is a female artist from the northwest African nation of Mauritania. Her name is Noura Mint Seymali. It's not like we hear a lot of music from Mauritania in any case — it's a pretty remote and closed-off place. But this lady shakes the rafters with her voice, and she outsings many of the accepted tropes about "desert blues" and music from around the Sahara.
If there are any trends to emerge from such a wide-ranging festival, I think that we're seeing a tip towards big, nearly theatrical acts. Take the band DakhaBrakha, for example. They're a group from Ukraine that was founded by members of an underground theater troupe, and they've turned what they call "Ukrainian folk-punk" into an epic live show that involves a lot of fog machines, super-tall furry black hats (which they should consider selling after shows as an additional revenue stream), and fierce and wide-ranging musicianship. Audiences love it, and I think we'll be seeing more and more of that kind of visual spectacle in the months and years to come.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish.
BALOJI: Are you ready to party with us?
CORNISH: And we're going to spend the next few minutes talking about a one-night music festival in New York that showcases artists from around the world. It's called globalFEST, and it's been happening for more than a decade. Over the years, it's become a place for American tastemakers to find new talent from Europe, Africa, Asia and beyond. Anastasia Tsioulcas from NPR Music was there Sunday for this year's globalFEST and joins me now to talk about some of the hottest acts. Hey there, Anastasia.
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: This is really fun. Tell me what we're listening to.
TSIOULCAS: So this artist is Baloji, who's a Congolese-Belgian rapper and singer, and he mixes all kinds of old styles, like Congolese rumba and soukous, with hip-hop. And I bet that sounds really earnest and academic, Audie, but I can tell you it definitely isn't. This is party music just like Baloji says.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TSIOULCAS: And you know, Audie, from the stage, Baloji said this isn't world music, this is our music. And he's mixing all these great sounds, but he's also bringing in kind of the soul and the swagger of James Brown almost. And he works so hard on stage, and I think you can hear it in this music. He started off the set wearing a very sharp suit jacket and big bowtie. And by the end of that set, he was in rolled-up shirt sleeves and sweating and dancing and really working this crowd. And believe me, he had them wrapped around his little finger.
CORNISH: You know, you're talking about mostly modern sounds, you know. You're talking about hip-hop and - I don't know, world music people tend to think of it as being more about traditional forms of music.
TSIOULCAS: Well, Audie, you're hitting on a really sore point for a lot of people. Even within what we call the world music community, nobody likes or is at all satisfied with calling any of this huge variety of sounds from around the world world music. You know, it smacks of all kinds of very loaded issues. People get accused of being cultural colonialists and it brings up questions of authenticity. And I think in people's imagination, anyway, world music kind of tends to mean fairly awful and gloppy, hippy-ish, world beat fusion, too.
TSIOULCAS: So let's just say that nobody likes calling this world music. Let's just leave it at that, please.
CORNISH: So then what's the deal with globalFEST and the bookers there? I mean, what are they looking for?
TSIOULCAS: So I think the simplest answer is that the bookers of globalFEST, who are three very respected curators and concert presenters based in New York, they're really looking for music that's rooted in a very specific time and place, whether that's Chinese folk music or African hip hop and regardless of what we think is authentic or not authentic. Because they - globalFEST organizers are very sensitive to all this baggage about the term world music that we were talking about.
And even when they include artists who very consciously mash up different genres, they choose those artists who do make these connections from a very particular point of view. And let's take a listen to one of those artists right now.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: All right. Where to begin? What is this?
TSIOULCAS: So this is a band called The Bombay Royale from Melbourne, Australia. And they're a little bit shticky. They mix '60s surf rock with the sounds of Bollywood. And the whole band is kind of strenuously costumed. The three front leaders have nicknames like, there's the Skipper. He's wearing an outfit, and the Mysterious Lady and the Tiger. And it's all kind of, like, we're going to be wacky. So there's a kind of bit of even almost Village People element to their performances. And it's a little novelty-ish, but it is a load of fun.
CORNISH: All right. And while we're getting a better sense of the definition of what is and is not world music, does globalFEST include American artists?
TSIOULCAS: Actually, yes. You would not think so for a festival calling itself world music, but yeah, it definitely has come to include American artists. For example, this year's line up included a really great trio of gospel singers from Mississippi called the Como Mamas, as well as a band from Arizona called Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. And the Arizona band, they do a mash up of old-fashion mambo, like 1950s (unintelligible) stuff, and cumbia, which is that shuffling rhythm that's very popular now all over Latin America. And they bring in regional Mexican music and all sorts of things. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Anastasia, I love the energy on this one.
TSIOULCAS: Yeah. They are so hot. It's - the room was sweltering, not just heat-wise but just the sound that they are throwing off the stage.
CORNISH: Here's a thing, like, this music, cumbia, I've been hearing a lot about and, you know, I didn't hear about it through globalFEST. I mean, do we still need tastemakers to get us access to world music when we have the Internet?
TSIOULCAS: That's really a good point, Audie. But I think one really important element here is that a night like this lets everyone hear bands live. You know, it's so hard for artists to come to the U.S. in the first place, especially if they're a new act and no one's ever heard of them. And globalFEST is really their way in. You know, it's become extremely expensive for foreign artists to tour the U.S.
Like, there's been the issue of how much a dollar is worth to them, for starters. And after September 11th, it became very hard for a long time for foreign artists to get visas from the State Department to tour the U.S. And because our country is so big, it's hard for bands to even make enough money while they're here to make it worthwhile to them. They've got to fly here and then they've got to get between gigs.
So at globalFEST, after these sets, you actually see groups of bookers. Like, you'll see a couple of people from California and a couple of the Midwestern presenters and a few East Coast folks huddle together in the back corners of the room. And they're literally figuring out how to bunch up tour dates for the band they just heard and fell in love with and to make - how to make an American tour actually viable.
CORNISH: Now, Anastasia, before I let you go, I got to find out, are there any big trends on the horizons?
TSIOULCAS: I really think we're seeing a tip towards big, nearly theatrical acts. Let me take the band DakhaBrakha, for example. They're a group from Ukraine. And they're turned what they call Ukrainian folk punk into this pretty epic live show that involves a lot of fog machines and super-tall, furry black hats that, really, they should sell after the show...
TSIOULCAS: ...and some really, really fierce musicianship. And audiences just love it. And I really think we'll be seeing more and more of that kind of spectacle drawn into performances.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CORNISH: Well, Anastasia, this was a lot of fun. Thank you so much for bringing this music to us.
TSIOULCAS: So much fun, Audie. Thank you so much.
CORNISH: Anastasia Tsioulcas. You can hear a lot of the artists recorded live at globalFEST plus live concert, videos and some of those musicians at our website, npr.org.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.