Music, Ho

by wjw on September 25, 2007

This past weekend was Globalquerque, a two-day music festival on the grounds of the National Hispanic Cultural Center. They had three stages going at once, along with a little tent city featuring arts, crafts, and food. The three-stages-at-once concept is ideal in theory, but in practice it means you miss two-thirds of the performances, a sacrifice I was reluctant to make.

The music featured goes by the name of “World Music,” a vague title that usually translates to “music sung in a language other than English”— except, of course, when it’s sung in English. I suspect that “World Music” really means “music unlikely to be heard on commercial radio in the U.S.”

We packed myself and Kathy and my wretched cold and my wretched cold meds and not enough warm clothing into the Subaru, and arrived a bit late. We wandered into the Roy E. Disney Theater to see Marta Gomez, a Colombian singer, finish the last 15 minutes of her set.

I’m going to describe her as a “folk singer,” because she didn’t do dance music. Her songs were strongly melodic and had an Argentinian influence (her band is Argentinian). The subject included one tender song about child labor in Peruvian mines, with a chorus in Quechua.

On my way to the next event I caught a few minutes of Chango Spasiuk, an Argentinian accordianist of Ukranian origin. His music seemed rather moody and introverted, far more Ukranian than Argentinian, but I didn’t stay for long so it was hard to judge.

I was on my way to Anjani’s Kathak Dance of India. Kathak (rhymes with “attack”) means “storyteller,” and so Kathak dance is a dance that carries a story. (Indian dancing girls plus narrative! What’s not to like in this?) There were three dancers, a Big Boss Lady dancer and her two juniors, one of whom was her daughter (soon to be a regular on the coming season of Grey’s Anatomy, hey).

The orchestra consisted of a tabla player and a woman who played an ancient-looking harmonium of the Indian type— meaning that one hand plays and the other pumps the bellows. This is not an easily dismissible skill— the one-handed harmonium has to play in time to the complicated Southwest Asian rhythms. No wonder the woman looked like she was working out some kind of complicated mathematical formula in her head. She was. Sometimes she also sang.

The dances were lovely when they weren’t very energetic. The faster foot movements looked a lot like tap dancing, except performed with bare feet— the tapping didn’t make a noise in itself, but energized the rows of ankle-bells.

Of interest to any choreographers in the audience was the fact that the ancient Kathak masters came up with a vocabulary for describing the dance— in fact for commanding the dance, on the fly. Big Boss Lady would rap out a lengthy series of commands, and the dancers would do it, right there, on the spot, as their boss continued to give orders a split-second ahead of their furiously pounding feet.

What it sounded like was this: “tikki-tikki-tai-tai-tikki-gikki-hai-gikki-tai-dai-tikki-tikki.” Spoken, at times, with incredible speed, certainly too fast for me to follow.

Dancers from other traditions, I expect, would have stared at this with their mouths hanging open.

After the dance we checked out the last half of Yungchen Lhamo’s set. Born in a labor camp outside Lhasa, Yungchen learned forbidden Tibetan songs from her grandmother, and later walked a thousand miles to freedom in India.

She sings with no accompaniment. She mentioned that people had urged her to form a rock band, because with her voice she could earn a lot of money. “But I’m not interested in money,” she said.

She uses the entire audience as her backup singers. She teaches them a chant— “Om padme mani hum,” say— and then she weaves her song in and around it. This dissolves the wall between performer and audience, something I was of two minds about, because I found myself concentrating on my chanting instead of listening to the remarkable person I had come to hear.

She mentioned that Westerners always ask her three questions. “Where are you from?” “Where are you going?” “What is your shampoo?” (She has very long, very lovely hair.)

Her talks in between her songs were given in a very low, nearly inaudible voice. This forced us all to listen. The girl’s a pro.

And she has a lovely smile. (Why, I need to know, are Buddhists smiling all the damn time? Are they all just blissfully happy, or what? I mean, there’s no way you can convince me that Pope Benedict is a happy person, but on the other hand there’s no way you can convince me that the Dalai Lama isn’t a happy person. While there’s a lot of the Doctrine I quarrel with, I have to admit that they’ve discovered a way to make people happy.)

There followed the Big Discovery of this festival, the band Baka Beyond, “the original Afro-Celtic crossover band.” The band started with a couple Brits who traveled to Cameroon to listen to the music of the Baka Pygmies, and now it’s a band, a charity, an online shop, an online forum . . .

With all that going on, it’s a surprise that the band is really, really good. With a sort of ethnically correct mixture of three black musicians and three white musicians, composed of three Brits, two Africans, and one French fiddle player, with music inspired by Baka Pygmies and beetle-browed Caledonians, this whole brew really shouldn’t work, except that it does. It’s just great. The two CDs I bought are in more or less continuous rotation on my sound system.

The music mostly sounds West African, with the guitarist tuning his instrument to the chimey-plunkey sounds they like there (please note my extensive musical vocabulary)— but every so often the Isle of Skye shows up in the music, as the Breton fiddler wails away. The two singers— one black, one blonde— had the whole West African dance thing down: heads shaking, arms windmilling, hips and buttocks moving in ways that had all the guys staring at the stage in utter reverence . . .

I danced, though every so often I had to stop and wheeze and cough and apply more cold meds.

Lest people chant “appropriation!” or other meaningless but potent political insults, allow me to point out that the proceeds from every CD goes to aid the Baka people through the Global Music Exchange and the One Heart charity.

Please give them money. I did. Thank you.

Last up for the evening was Koko Taylor. I’m not sure how she fits into “World Music” exactly, but when someone calls Koko Taylor to the stage, I’m not about to complain.

I was interested in hearing how she sounded, because I knew she went through some major abdominal surgery a few years ago, and is now back in harness. (Hey! Just like me!)

She’s now 79, and her voice is just fine. She’s lost some weight. She seemed a little erratic when it came to the play list, and a couple times announced a song she’d already sung, but the voice was all there, and the band— Her Blues Machine— was splendid, led by guitarist Vino and driven by power drummer Ricky Nelson, who decorated the backstage area with shattered drumsticks.

Koko seemed a little put out when the festival organizers told her she had to stop— I don’t think she’s used that, exactly— but she gave us one last rocker and then shambled off to wild applause.

And dudes, that was just Friday night!

Afterwards, I wheezed off home to more cold meds, a humidifier, warm clothes, and aspirin.

But reader, it was worth it.

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