The term “world music” has never been adequate to the task we’ve set it—even in its most benign reading, it implies a division between the listener and the rest of the world. And if that listener is in the United States, our country’s global hegemony in popular music colors the term’s meaning too.
Americans don’t have to listen outside our borders to participate in an influential, relevant, up-to-the-moment musical culture. Much of the rest of the world does—or, more accurately, much of the rest of the world is made to feel as though it does. When it comes to music, we export much more than we import.
Looked at in such a light, “world music” represents an opportunity for Americans to recognize our privilege in this area—and to level the playing field, at least between our own ears. The World Music Festival exists to encourage this sort of curiosity, empathy, and connection.
After shutting down for the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Music Festival is returning to Chicago in 2022, with 11 concerts at 11 venues between Friday, September 30, and Sunday, October 9. While the aspiring fascists in the Republican Party escalate their campaign to turn nonwhite foreigners into targets for fear, resentment, and hatred, our city welcomes artists from India, Colombia, Cuba, Mali, Mexico, Bolivia, and beyond. No other event gives so many of Chicago’s diverse populations the joy of a concert that says “home.”
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Founded in 1999, the World Music Festival is organized by David Chavez and Carlos Cuauhtémoc Tortolero of the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, with Brian Keigher of People of Rhythm partnering with Tortolero on Ragamala, the marathon of Indian classical music that’s opened every fest since 2013. Though we can be grateful the festival is happening at all, the pandemic still got its licks in—DCASE wasn’t able to begin preparations till February, when the city decided that the risk of COVID-related cancellation was low enough. Ordinarily work on the next festival starts as soon as the previous one ends.
Given the length of the visa process for overseas artists, losing four months meant losing many opportunities to book those artists. As a result, more than a third of this year’s acts are from Chicago—a huge increase from 2019, when their share was closer to one in seven. That doesn’t seem so much like a compromise with circumstances, though, when you consider that the local music on the bill includes the gritty East-West fusion of the Arab Blues, the Peruvian-flavored jazz of Juan Pastor Chinchano, the updated Mongolian and Tuvan folk of Tuvergen Band, and the rambunctious, hard-rocking ska en español of Malafacha.
The lineup of out-of-town artists is even more exciting, in part because DCASE chose to book a larger number of emerging acts instead of splashing out on a headliner big enough for Pritzker Pavilion. Millennium Park shows are great, sure, but so is the chance to see such a dazzling variety of music, all for free, in a little more than a week. La Dame Blanche (Cuba by way of France) pairs her fierce rhymes and dramatic flute with colossal beats from across the African diaspora; Paolo Angeli (Italy) turns his cleverly modified Sardinian guitar into a percussion engine; Gili Yalo (Ethiopia by way of Israel) honors the jazzy, funky grooves that his homeland made immortal in the 60s and 70s; and Kaleta & Super Yamba Band (Benin and Nigeria by way of New York City) fuse Afrobeat and juju for a driving, danceable sound that’s as cheerful as it is aggressive.
By some metrics, the festival is smaller than in 2019—there were 18 concerts then, not 11, and they were spread out over 17 days rather than ten. But the total number of artists has stayed about the same, at around three dozen—the big change is that this year 16 of those artists appear at two big events, Ragamala and the Global Peace Picnic.
For 2022 DCASE has booked a slightly larger share of the festival’s shows at conventional music venues (as opposed to city buildings or parks), which Tortolero says was intended in part to help those venues survive pandemic losses. The city covers every expense—artist fees, hotels, transportation, staff and production costs, back-line rental, rider fulfillment—so that all revenue the venue makes from bar sales and other sources stays in-house. In return, the city benefits from the venues’ established audiences and marketing operations.
The festival’s use of conventional venues presents an accessibility issue—none of them admits concertgoers of all ages, and they’re mostly on the north side. But they provide better sound than you’d get in any park setting that isn’t Pritzker Pavilion, and they’re less dependent on good weather.
More important, World Music Festival concerts don’t put up barriers of their own—neither the literal fences that surround a public park when it’s occupied by a for-profit fest nor the metaphorical hurdles created by cover charges and tickets. We’ve all paid for this programming already, and it’s for everyone.
That might be the best thing about the fest. Decades of right-wing depredations have endangered the idea of a common good, replacing the connecting threads of our society with “Fuck you, I got mine.” But the World Music Festival was created for no other reason than to make us happy and bring us closer together—and it’s expressly designed to do that for as many different people as possible. In that way, it’s a lot like music itself. Philip Montoro
World Music Festival Chicago 2022 is presented by the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events. Additional support is provided by the following partners: Chicago Park District, Consulate General of Israel to the Midwest, Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, Navy Pier, Old Town School of Folk Music, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, South Asian Classical Music Society-Chicago, and South Asia Institute.
Click on a show to jump to more information.
Friday, September 30
Saturday, October 1
Sunday, October 2
Monday, October 3
Tuesday, October 4
Wednesday, October 5
Thursday, October 6
Friday, October 7
Saturday, October 8
Sunday, October 9
Friday, September 30
Ragamala: A Celebration of Indian Classical Music
Presented in collaboration with South Asia Institute, South Asian Classical Music Society-Chicago, and People of Rhythm Productions. This event continues into the morning of Saturday, October 1. Fri 9/30, 6 PM-8 AM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, third floor, all ages
This year closes the first decade of Ragamala, the largest overnight Indian classical music concert in the country—it debuted as part of the World Music Festival in 2013. Think of it as a sophisticated and inspiring slumber party, and bring your cozy accoutrements—thermos, pillows, snacks—so you can take in as much of this experience as possible. Ragamala offers a thrilling variety of performers in the genre’s two main styles, Hindustani (northern) and Carnatic (southern). To arrive at a deeper understanding of these traditions and of what to expect at Ragamala, the Reader spoke with two of this year’s most innovative performers, Hindustani sarangi player Suhail Yusuf Khan and Carnatic vocalist Roopa Mahadevan.
Roopa Mahadevan Credit: Courtesy the artist
Hindustani and Carnatic music both consist of vast, elaborate systems of melodic structures (variously called raga, rag, or raag) and rhythmic cycles (tala or taal). “These ragas are your muse,” Mahadevan explains. “What is the essence of the raga? What does it look and feel like?”
The two styles differ somewhat in their approach to interpretation. “Carnatic relies more heavily on songs as the center—any improvisation you’re doing is around a particular song,” Mahadevan says. Hindustani tradition, by contrast, encourages improvisation as the focal point of a performance. “Unlike Western classical music, the interpretation of compositions in Hindustani music has nothing to do with how the composer composed it,” Khan says, “but the way an artist’s individuality allows for expression.”
“Designation of rags according to different times of the day [is part of] the Hindustani music system,” Khan adds, so all-night concerts such as Ragamala “bring out a flavor of rag music otherwise hard to experience.”
“Concerts are getting shorter, people are marketing via social media, smaller clips,” Mahadevan says. Meanwhile, Ragamala provides a space to slow down and luxuriate in the opulence of Indian classical music. Mahadevan has performed at Ragamala before, and she describes the vibe as a “one-stop shop—people can just show up and there’s something intimate, like you’re in someone’s living room.”
Mahadevan also treasures what Ragamala offers her as a musician. “It’s a really heartwarming experience to see the number of people sitting there at [3 AM],” she says. “Like, oh yeah, art does really mean something for a lot of people!” Leslie Allison ↑
Clockwise from left: Ojas Adhiya, Rakesh Chaurasia, Purbayan Chatterjee Credit: Courtesy the artists
6–7:15 PM Purbayan Chatterjee, Rakesh Chaurasia, and Ojas Adhiya
Ragamala kicks off with an unstoppable Hindustani trio of Purbayan Chatterjee (sitar), Rakesh Chaurasia (bansuri flute), and Ojas Adhiya (tabla drums). Coming off an August performance together at Carnegie Hall, these artists are deeply attuned to one another. Themes bounce among them with kinetic spontaneity as the bansuri sculpts the air, the tabla molds the earth, and the sitar performs a metallic alchemy between them.
Chatterjee, a Mumbai-based sitarist, has performed on almost every continent, solo and with ensembles Shastriya Syndicate and Stringstruck. His exploratory, incisive playing guides you on an unfolding path through waving fields of microtones and crisply elaborated structures. In September 2022, Purbayan released the album Saath Saath in collaboration with Chaurasia, his friend of two decades.
A live performance of a piece from Purbayan Chatterjee and Rakesh Chaurasia’s new album, Saath Saath
Chaurasia’s bansuri radiates a warm cloud of melody, husky and smooth. He maneuvers the North Indian bamboo flute from a lilting, swooning dance into a meditative hum. He believes that the aesthetic beauty of Hindustani music is inseparable from its healing and spiritual powers. “While performing . . . I feel as if I am praying in a temple,” he said in a 2016 interview for the Darbar Festival. “The notes have to do something within your system so it affects your chakras and your mind frame.” Tabla player Ojas Adhiya engages with his collaborators fully, shifting like a hunter between loose, open focus and lightning-fast forward propulsion. His expressive face silently exchanges detailed musical information with his collaborators as the syncopated pitches of his paired drums ring out from under his agile hands.
This all-star trio will immerse you in the sounds and sensations of twilight, helping you sink into alignment with the present moment—and preparing your state of mind for the night ahead. Leslie Allison ↑
7:45–9 PM Roopa Mahadevan, Sruti Sarathy, and Rohan Krishnamurthy
Bay Area-based vocalist Roopa Mahadevan is a torchbearer for the evolution of Carnatic singing in the diaspora. Her performance—the only vocal set at Ragamala—is a must-see. Mahadevan presents the lyrical canon with charisma, thoughtfulness, and joy. Her lithe and nuanced melodies and her rich, grounded timbre are evocative on their own, but she adds extra dimensions by “pushing the Carnatic concert format,” as she puts it, to include “what these compositions mean to us, to bring a new lens to the music.”
Mahadevan performs in art-world and popular-music contexts, leading the crossover jazz and soul ensemble Roopa in Flux as well as a choir called the Navatman Music Collective. She also sings for Bharatanatyam and modern dancers, and this connection shapes her practice: “I love moving,” she says. “So much of Indian music is how you play around with space, how the notes glide and connect; it means a lot to me to be able to gesture and respond to that with my entire body. That’s the aliveness of it—it brings all of you to the performance.”
Mahadevan and violinist-composer Sruti Sarathy are currently creating new pieces exploring contemporary themes using Carnatic forms. “In some ways, the cultural ethos of the Carnatic music world is at odds with what we care about in the diaspora,” Mahadevan says. “But we don’t want to give up on the beauty of the tradition, the complexity it has to offer. So we asked, ‘Are there ways we can do both?’” Their original album advancing the Carnatic repertoire will be released in 2023. Mahadevan’s Ragamala set, with Sarathy and mridangam player Rohan Krishnamurthy, will draw on the three musicians’ long-standing collaboration.
For Mahadevan, “the singing of these songs is transformative.” Listeners will be transformed as well. Leslie Allison ↑