Sunday, January 8
Better than: A Sunday evening spent preparing for the Monday grind.
Starting with the number of stages it commands (three) and moving up from there, globalFest 2012 is the kind of event that could lavish in its stats. In line with its mission to showcase the internationalists most likely to win favor with the thousands of curators, bookers and other biz folk who’ve come to town for the annual Association of Performing Arts Presenters trade convention (APAP), the event’s twelve bands—representing an equal number of countries and/or cultural traditions—succeeded yet again in turning Webster Hall’s three floors into a bazaar for the committed global-music connoisseur as well as the curious one. (Admittedly, at times they’re one and the same.) The event was sold out well ahead of schedule this year (its ninth), which bodes well for the idea that even unknown names could have a shot at becoming less so. The number of people racing up and down the stairs to cram themselves into Webster Hall’s increasingly crowded rooms confirmed that the club was somewhere near its 2,000-plus capacity for much of the night.
Of course, this being art, stats don’t suffice. For instance, the numbers alone wouldn’t explain why last night’s lineup seemed considerably stronger than some from previous years, to say nothing of why most of the shows I saw (about half) delivered. I arrived within an hour of globalFest’s 7 p.m. starting time, near the tail end of the set in the main ballroom by Israeli singer/MC Ravid Kahalani’s band Yemen Blues. Kahalani spun out chants to rapt silence and then the band, a punchy nine-piece amalgam that can break into percussive gallops on impulse, turned up the energy. It was the group’s second-last song, and yet at some point before the set’s end onetime New York-based bassist Omer Avital, the band’s seated co-founder, had played oud, jumped up to dance with Kahalani while twirling a white scarf and then strapped on a Hofner (read: Paul McCartney-style) bass for the danceably climactic closer. GlobalFest is run on such a tight schedule that, unfortunately, there’s no room for encores. Yemen Blues’ performance was only the first show of the evening that would beg for one.
Once upon a time the coolest thing a kid with a horn and a punkish disposition could do was join a ska band. If last night’s lineup was any indication, these days it’s all about globalism no matter what the stripe. Each of the groove bands I caught had a different horn configuration, but the arrangements were as varied as the lyrical languages and the indigenous percussion that set dancers flailing in all directions. M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, a raucous band from right here in Queens that takes its cues from Colombia, employs clarinet and trombone in ways that might say Eastern Europe if the rhythms weren’t so distinct. The Boston-based band Debo Band gives the psychedelic music heard on the Ethiopiques collections a high-spirited revamp. Perhaps fittingly for an ensemble of post-collegiates backing up an Addis Abbaba native (singer Bruck Tesfaye), its horns came off as muscular as Fela Kuti-inspired Afrobeat.
Every performer on the bill somehow fused heritage with futurism, but at least two of the headliners were furthering traditions started by their parents. Smod, a hip-hop act from Mali led by the acoustic-guitar-wielding son of blind couple duo Amadou & Mariam (his sight’s fine, in case you’re wondering), was the more forward-thinking of the two, though Brazilian singer Diogo Nogueira’s large-band sambas were no boilerplate retreads of, say, Baden Powell or Joao Gilberto, whose classics he covered. Smod’s guitar/keyboard attack worked by placing clubby pastorals opposite the staccato entreaties of its two high-strung MCs.
In hindsight, Chinese multi-instrumentalist Wang Li probably presented one of the biggest challenges on the globalFest program: How to program quiescent music for crowds that quite often show up ready to jump around. To his credit, Li didn’t seem fazed. A one-man virtuoso armed with his springy jaw harp and an indigenous reed instrument called a sheng, he came on like a minimalist who understood how to make his instrument sound evocatively electro without trafficking in overt dance beats. It was subtle music that was both meditative and dynamic, perhaps even moreso for being programmed in the room where several of globalFest’s more heated dance bands held sway.
Of all the overtly singer-driven music I caught, the highlight by a considerable margin was Cape Verdean singer Mayra Andrade’s set in the ground-floor Marlin Room. A diplomat’s daughter who was born in Cuba and raised in West Africa and Germany before settling in France, she already has the maturity and command of vocalists well beyond her 26 years. Andrade’s songs are often funkier and less melancholy than the late Cesaria Evora’s, partaking of what Cape Verde shares with it’s Lusophone sister Brazil. It probably helped that Andrade had an amen corner from Cape Verde singing along with her for much of the set, but she didn’t turn into a homecoming. Near set’s end, when she finally asked for audience participation, it was clear that she expected even the non-Portuguese speakers to sing. It says much about her charisma that she didn’t have to do much coaxing (or coaching) to make everyone feel comfortable doing so. One can only wish she’d had time for an encore.
Critical bias: I can be put off by the kind of gooey one-worldism that can easily mar events like these.
Overheard: “Let’s talk tomorrow… I think my next Ethiopian obsession is about to go on downstairs.”
Random notebook dump: It might be time for a bigger venue.