A Bluffer's Guide to globalFEST 2011

Featuring Afro-Peruvian fusion, Punjabi brass bands, and 11 other sounds you've likely never heard before

Internationally themed music festivals have it tough. Like any fest, they're tasked with providing not so much a concert as an experience, but they also have to appease connoisseurs of a dizzying range of geographically and musically disparate traditions, while also wooing a general public that's often apathetic about or, worse, alienated by such a dizzying range. Perhaps most arduous, however, is the job of sketching a picture of the sprawling, nebulous, and frustratingly titled "world music" genre that still manages to feel cohesive and coherent.

The annual one-night, three-level Webster Hall spectacular known as globalFEST usually responds to this conundrum by focusing on cutting-edge innovators. But this year, the fest has tempered its quest for the new with passionate traditionalism: The lineup veers from the song-and-dance heritage of Cuba's Haitian community (the Creole Choir of Cuba) to the rock 'n' roll Vodoun chants of RAM (which sounds like an Afro-pop glee choir). At first, this diversity feels hodgepodge, a cursory nod to several corners of the world. Upon deeper listening, there's a delicate common thread, a mutable lineage that lives, breathes, and grows. Tradition and innovation, in other words, are not mutually exclusive, but engaged in a rich partnership that hinges on productive tension.

Several globalFEST 2011 acts portray this relationship with particular vibrancy. Here are a few highlights.

Novalima, masters of the donkey jaw
Guillermo Figueroa
Novalima, masters of the donkey jaw

Novalima Tension between the past and the future reigns here, as explored by ex-pat Peruvians who came together around one of their nation's lesser-known, most localized traditions, a heady storm of African, Andean, and Spanish musical elements; intricate poly-rhythms; and attention-demanding percussion like the cajita (a little box played with a stick) and the quijada or donkey jaw (an actual donkey's jaw played by rattling and scraping its teeth). Starting there, Novalima refracts Afro-Peruvian music through the prism of club grooves. "Most people still think Peru is only panpipes," says guitarist/keyboardist Rafael Morales. "This is our interpretation of traditional Afro-Peruvian music, forward-thinking but without losing the soul and tribal rhythms of its roots." Musically, it sounds like a chic yet welcoming party, pulsating with warm rhythms and cool beats, the donkey jaw adding a surprising, slinky clatter.

Chamber Music: Ballaké Sissoko & Vincent Segal
This new collaborative effort, making its U.S. debut at globalFEST, pairs a griot master of the West African kora with a French dub-hop cellist. Ballaké Sissoko and Vincent Segal find a good deal of common ground in their "Chamber Music": trilling rivulets of elegant sound, gorgeous hopscotch plucking, and moments of exquisite hush.

Rhythm of Rajasthan
This song-and-dance collective unearths a dense network of "roots" music, a swirling mix of strings, drums, and the twanging morchang jaw harp, here joined by spiraling dancers, vibrant costumes, and sometimes even puppetry, showcasing not only India's culturally rich Thar desert region, but also the musical birthplace of the Rom (a/k/a Gypsy) people.

Red Baraat
Bhangra is beloved for its funky folk beats, often appropriated by hip-hop, drum 'n' bass, and Asian dub artists. So why not kick that funk-folk connection up a notch and reinterpret those dance-oriented Punjabi grooves through the ears of a New Orleans (by way of P-Funk) brass band? That's the concept behind New York's Red Baraat, and it will convert you. The syncopated trot of the dhol sticks surprisingly well to the swinging ribs of a funk brass section, marking time for an epic global street dance.

The 2011 edition of globalFEST takes place at Webster Hall January 9

 
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