Music Review: Globalfest, World Musicians at Webster Hall

January 15th, 2013

Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Globalfest featured 12 artists on three stages, including the 30-piece Chicago band Mucca Pazza, at Webster Hall on Sunday night. More Photos »

Globalfest rediscovered America in its 10th annual showcase of world music, with 12 groups on Sunday night on three floors of Webster Hall. This year’s lineup included Mucca Pazza, a madcap marching band from Chicago; the Stooges, a New Orleans brass band; La Santa Cecilia, a Mexican-American band from Los Angeles; Martha Redbone, a singer born in Kentucky with American Indian roots; and A Tribe Called Red, an American Indian electronic dance music group from Canada.

But Globalfest’s clear standout, Christine Salem, traveled farther. She is from Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean, and she is a custodian and reinventor of music that was nearly assimilated into oblivion: a Réunion tradition with African roots called maloya, although Ms. Salem writes her own songs.

She has a potent, indefatigable contralto, and most of her songs are terse chantlike melodies. Maloya is music for voices and percussion; Ms. Salem was backed by three percussionists and singers, and she played a kayamb, a rectangular rattle that was in constant motion in her hands. Often she would set out a tune, the percussionists would add harmonies and take up a polyrhythmic beat, and together they would bear down on the song until it took on a trancelike power. When Ms. Salem sang a slower tune, there was a clear, deep affinity with the blues. This was music informed by the past and fiery in the here and now.

Over the last decade Globalfest has presented 21st-century world music as an accelerating fusion, a recombinant free-for-all of local traditions meeting ideas and technologies from afar. It’s a realistic view of how musicians work; very few are purists. And some hybrids have grown durable enough to feel like traditions of their own.

That’s how it was with this year’s superb African contingent at Globalfest: Oliver Mtukudzi from Zimbabwe, who has been making albums since the 1970s, and Fatoumata Diawara, born in Ivory Coast to Malian parents and now living in France.

Mr. Mtukuzdi and his band, the Black Spirits, have perfected a family of light-fingered grooves. They translate traditional thumb-piano patterns into guitar picking that becomes the mainspring of three-chord rock songs, with Mr. Mtukudzi’s hearty voice singing benign messages and prayers for better times. Ms. Diawara, who is both a singer and dancer, draws on her parents’ regional heritage — Wassoulou music — for tightly wound, triple-time modal grooves that she pushes toward funk and rock. Songs like “Kele” (“War”) took on a special urgency from the current civil war in Mali.

The festival’s other fusions were newer and more particular. Kayhan Kalhor, an Iranian kemanche (upright fiddle) player, collaborated with a Turkish musician, Erdal Erzincan, who plays baglama, a long-necked, bouzouki-like lute; they improvised a songful dialogue of melodies apparently shared by Persian and Turkish tradition, with Mr. Kalhor sometimes switching from bow to pizzicato to join with the picking of the baglama.

Ms. Redbone brought her Roots Project, an Appalachian-style string band (and drummer) that backed her in songs setting lyrics by William Blake, from her 2012 album “The Garden of Love,” getting rustic with his parables. Her voice held both the taut determination of mountain music and the bite of American Indian singing.

Lo’Jo, founded by its scratchy-voiced lead singer, Denis Péan, and its violinist, Richard Bourreau, is a French band gazing south, fusing wry cabaret chansons with rhythms from the Middle East and North Africa. Stephane Wrembel, who studied guitar with Gypsy players in France, led a trio in internationally inflected fusion tunes that showed off his speed. La Santa Cecilia, with a gutsy lead vocalist in Marisol Hernandez, made itself a Los Angeles melting pot — norteño music, R&B with a touch of Santana-like lead guitar, even a version of U2’s “One” bouncing to a button accordion.

Mucca Pazza provided Globalfest’s show-business pizazz. It’s a big surreal marching band in brightly unmatching uniforms, complete with some happily nerdy cheerleaders. Clowning constantly but playing precisely, Mucca Pazza’s compositions invoke a world of brass bands and marching bands, from American high-school style to zigzagging Balkan tunes to something akin to a Fellini soundtrack — fun in a relentless way.

The night’s last set went to A Tribe Called Red, the computer-wielding trio that meshes the pounding beats and cutting chants of powwow music with the pounding beats, bruising bass lines and sonic zingers of international dance music and does it with muscle and good timing. Its finale was its remix of Nelly Furtado’s “Big Hoops.” It was American Indian rhythms applied to a Portuguese-rooted Canadian’s R&B-flavored pop: one more 21st-century fusion.

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