Last night the multiple stages of Global Fest played host to more strong female headliners than ever before. This was deservedly a point of pride for the event’s co-producers. Earth Mother energy was so pervasive in this year’s lineup that even most of the bands led by men had the wisdom to include women as singers or dancers. This was also the most conceptually balanced roster of talent I recall seeing at any Global Fest. Moving from room to room throughout the evening you could often sense one performer’s key qualities instructively illuminating another’s.
By 7:30 pm in the cavernous upstairs ballroom, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi and the Black Spirits had everybody moving to sweet, kora-toned guitar riffs layered against propulsive dance rhythms. Resplendent in all white, including one female singer providing backup vocals and hand percussion, Mtukudzi;s octet locked into a warm, cheerful groove which allowed each musician to play and synchronize choreography at the same time. The conga player even stepped away from his drums at one point to execute some moves I’ve only seen before in the most competitive Latin ballrooms.
Able to choose material from over 50 successful albums released between 1978 and the present, Mtukudzi delivered his signature sound, which evoked both classic highlife and vintage township jazz. Next up on the same stage came rising wassalou singer Fatoumata Diawara. Right away it sounded as if the girl from Mali and her interracial quartet wanted to provide vivid counterpoint to Mtukudzi’s laid back swing. Fatou was wailing over aggressive, psychedelic rock arrangements. It still sounded like African blues performed griot style, but somehow filtered through a ’70s time warp. Ordinarily Diawara’s voice has a reedy timbre that cuts through surrounding instrumentation like a muezzin’s chant. But several times during her show she strove for a more modern Western pitch.
Wearing a queenly red and yellow turban with a matching shawl, Diawara initially sang quiety centerstage, strumming her guitar. Suddenly she threw off her turban and shawl to reveal a cascade of beaded braids and a black leather bustier. “African women want to be free!” she exclaimed before diving back into a funky little number during which she whoops, ululates, and drops her voice into a deeper register. This impromtu display of heat and manic energy made for an intriguing contrast to Mtukudzi’s seductive cool.
Many times last night I noticed similar juxtapositions between featured acts. Stephane Wrembrel, whose artful allusions to Django Reinhardt’s sound have graced more than one Woody Allen film, opened for the LA-based Latin band La Santa Cecilia, which is fronted by a zaftig, bilingual mama equally happy singing boleros or Janis Joplin. Like Wembrel, La Santa Cecilia is also attracted to gypsy guitar, but by the passionate sincerity of flamenco improvisation, not the insouciant irony of jazz manouche. Hot vs. Cool. Cerebral vs. Soulful. Equally entertaining, just different.
I’m sorry to report that Spanish flamenco star La Shica gave a magnificent show to a less than appreciative room. She is the whole package: a skilled gestural dancer and singer of bulerias and soleares, able to recreate atmosphere of timeless flamenco cafes. Most of the tired and perhaps jaded conventioneers left before she had finished. And while I was glad to see Global Fest less crowded than during previous years, it might be prudent to get more civilian customers in the door next time. They might be less rude to the talent.
Which of the night’s showcases impressed me the most? I’d have to say it was a tie between the two Native American performers: the Canadian deejay crew A Tribe Called Red, and the Kentucky-born alt-bluegrass singer Martha Redbone. Both have found fresh ways of asserting and defending an aboriginal identity using mainstream musical forms. Redbone is a singer/songwriter with black, red, and Appalacian roots. Her core instrumentation reflects all three: drum and rattle, banjo, fiddle. She has put music to the poetry of William Blake, and some lines excerpted from the Navajo Blessing Way. She reminds me of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, only I think i like her songs better. Standout live moment? Funk-a-billy versions of “This Train” and “Drum”.
Ottawa-bred A Tribe Called Red are aboriginal children of the digital age who have serious turntable and MIDI skills. They are funny too. Check out the whitewashed Cleveland Indians sweatshirt adapted to read “Caucasians” under a Howdy Doody version of Chief Wahoo. Last night they not only proved they can rock almost every style of contemporary EDM, they made sure their original beat tracks included sonically enhanced loops of authentic Indian dance or ceremonial music. They also made wonderfully atmospheric used of an iconic Rihanna sample. And why not? The West Indian/Indian connection goes all the way back to Arawaks and Caribs and their black descendants, which today comprise the Garifuna people.
Female members of the crew provided live pow-wow vocals and ultimately performed an unexpectedly dynamic hoop dance in which the last Earth Mother figure of Global Fest juggled eight full sized hoops to form huge wings and a halo around her whirling form as the thunderous dance track faded to equally thunderous applause.