World Music Profiles: Michael Orlove, World Music Festival Chicago

Photo: Michael Orlove (center) with with two Chicago jazz legends: Joe Vito and Vonski Freeman
Photo: Michael Orlove (center) with with two Chicago jazz legends: Joe Vito and Vonski Freeman
Michael Orlove is the person behind the Chicago World Music Festival. He works for Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and is also very active within the North American world music community. He is a board member member of the World Music Coalition. World Music Central interviewed him for our series of World Music Profiles.

When was the Chicago World Music Festival Started?

World Music Festival: Chicago 99 was the first year (1999)

How did the festival become a reality?

It grew out of a series of meetings with a couple dozen international music
presenters in Chicago. The meetings were more focused on marketing and how we could share resources and I figured this was the perfect time to introduce a concept I had been brainstorming for quite some time. I basically put together a concept proposal, shared it with my director (Lois Weisberg, Commissioner of Cultural Affairs) and the City supported it with a grant the first year. Short version of the story…

What is the philosophy behind the festival?

Philosophy had multiple goals but the underlying common denominator was to provide a medium or a voice for international music in Chicago. Of course, there is more but the emphasis has always been for the festival to be a springboard or ‘voice’ for introducing new artists or new styles of music. We also feel like while people are ‘traveling’ while listening to all these great groups they should also travel the City some as well. On average we have about 25 participating venues with over half of the 90 concerts being free to the public. All of the ticketed shows are $15 or less, making this extremely affordable and
accessible to everyone.

How has the festival evolved throughout the years?

I think the evolution of the festival has been by a simple word we all live by…collaboration. It is essential that we approach this particular festival through collaboration. And that can be our relationship with the variety of clubs we are working with or collaborating with a community/ethnic presenter or cultural consulate. We feel strongly that each of the 90 plus shows we present is made to feel like a partnership…and I think that is how the festival will continue to evolve and move forward.

How do you select the artists?

We accept submission and usually get about 700 or more per festival. I would say 30% come from the submissions and the rest are ‘curated’ through a variety of sources. Could be a group I saw at a conference or maybe a group someone from the community strongly suggests. We are always getting suggestions from a variety of sources and pretty much make all the final decisions within the office between myself and my colleagues Brian Keigher and Carlos Tortolero.

Which international showcases are essential to discover new talent?

WOMEX has been a great source not only for showcases but networking with
managers/agents as well. I can’t say I am able to attend that many other international showcases but when I have had the opportunity to attend conferences or festivals like the Sacred Music Festival in Fez, Festival in the Desert, Africolor, etc. have all been great in discovering new groups.

What are the barriers to booking some of the artists you would like to
present at the festival?

Only one really…the entire (expensive) visa process. No other barrier has been so detrimental to bringing in international artists. Sponsorship is another challenge. Never enough money or in-kind sponsorship to do exactly what you want to do.

How do you balance bringing back popular artists with providing opportunities
for new or lesser known artists?

We rarely invite an artist back to the festival…at least not for a couple years. Our hope is to introduce artists to Chicago through our festival. With success, they can come back on their own and play with other presenters and grow an audience base here. It happens with groups like Antibalas, Lila Downs, Paris Combo, Oliver Mtukudzi,
Boban Markovic Orkestar, Boubacar Traoré, Spanish Harlem Orchestra…to name just a few. Nothing makes us feel better than seeing artists, that were unknown before the festival, come back and play bigger venues to bigger audiences.

Which are your favorite discoveries?

Really a difficult question as there are always ‘discoveries’ each year. I think
there are favorite festival moments but that would take way too long to describe. I think I enjoy watching the audience react to the groups…fun to see
who their favorites are each year.

Has the festival’s audience grown?



I would say through collective marketing between all the venues but a more acute sense of awareness from the public because of all the year-round activity going on. We are presenting international music year-round, so is theOld Town School of Folk Music, HotHouse and other venues. It has become a
staple of the general music scene here. I should hope our festival has played a
role in that growth.

Have other cities approached you to learn how to start similar festivals?

I wouldn’t say learn from us but we have been successful in partnering with the
Lotus Festival in Bloomington (which precedes us by 3 years) along with presenters in Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Toronto in creating a September block booking for world music in the Midwest. It really has been fun collaborating with everyone and growing the popularity of these various forms of music.

What advice would you give to individuals or institutions interested in starting world music festivals?

Go for it no matter where you are…challenge your audiences. If Lee Williams (Lotus) can successfully do it year after year in a town of 40,000, than any city in the US has the potential. The world is too damn big to limit people to only what they accustomed to musically or culturally.

What new discoveries can we expect from the festival this year?

I will report back…excited for the whole festival.

Where were you born?

Chicago…never left.

What is your favorite meal?

Food…breakfast. lunch and dinner. One of my favorite pastimes is traveling through Chicago and sampling all the wonderful cuisines. Yum!

What music are you listening to now?

Right now…like this week? Natacha Atlas’ new CD Mish Maoul], Robbie Fulks, Otto, Enrique Morente (La Alambra), The Complete Africa/Brass Sessions-The John Coltrane Quartet, DJ Shantel, Fred Anderson Trio (Live at the Velvet Lounge), Motion Trio, Gilles Peterson (Back in Brazil), Nuru Kane’s Sigil, Culture Musical Club of Zanzibar, Hound Dog Taylor (Alligator recordings), Lekan Babalola, Rob Mazurek’s Sao Paulo
Underground…I’ll stop there.

What is your favorite movie?

That’s as tough of a question as favorite meal. I love film and especially love foreign films…so many great films out there. But if I had to pick one that defines my generation and spoke about so many issues when I was a teen is probably Spike Lee’s
Do The Right Thing
. It came out when I was in high school and it really dealt with so many issues that were evident in our everyday lives at that time.

What do you like to do during your free time?

Sleep…take walks along the lake with my wife, hit the museums, travel, go see theater and dance. Basically, in my limited free time I like to separate myself from my job as much as possible and enjoy the world with my wife.

What country would you like to visit?

The World…I want to visit as much of the world as possible. My wife and I love to travel and hope to reach at least one new destination each year.

What is your favorite city?

C’mon…people that know me well can answer that question. Chicago is the greatest city in the world!

What was your best moment?

Getting married to my wife, Rebeca, in her native city of Granada, Spain. I know it sounds cliché but it was the most spectacular weekend of my life. 4 days of celebrating with family and friends. We are expecting our first child in August, so that might bump the wedding weekend to # 2 on the list.

What was your most embarrassing moment?

Now that is a tough question since there have been so many embarrassing moments. It is part of the process right? You start your first job and make so many mistakes along the way. I can’t say I have one most embarrassing moment but in my first year at the Department of Cultural Affairs I was in a different part of the office near the main reception area where cubicles were our walls. I was listening to some music that was sent in to be considered for future programs and began slamming the CD that was currently playing. Something to the extent of ‘this is total shit…why would anyone send this crap in.’ Well, my phone rang
and as luck would have it that same artist happen to be in the neighborhood and was sitting in the reception area waiting to see me. He heard every last word of what I said…and words can’t describe how difficult it was for me to go out and greet him in the reception area. I think my entire body turned red.

What was the first big lesson you learned about the music industry?

Corporate waste! When I first starting working for the Department of Cultural Affairs right out of college in 1993 I did some moonlighting gigs at night and on the weekends for some corporate music presenters (which shall remain nameless). My job was simple and mostly had to deal with making sponsors happy and seeing that the events ran smooth. What shocked me was how much money was wasted on non-essential items such as laminated dressing room signs (that were sent FedEx in a box from NYC), monogrammed towels for artists on-stage, t-shirts/hats/laminates/key-chains that nobody wore and 4-color posters that were intended to be distributed city-wide but never left the box. I saw some things that really left a bad taste in my mouth about how that business is run and how little importance is put on the music. I think it pushed me in the direction I am in now which is presenting all types of music free to the public (with some exceptions) for the City of Chicago.