All posts by Evangeline Kim

APAP 2019 Rewind: Tell It, Sing It, Play It Like It Is – Towards Social Justice

With Observations by Catalina Maria Johnson, Neva Wartell, Brice Rosenbloom

Meshell Ndegeocello Ensemble – Photo Evangeline Kim

In these convulsive times, we affirm that the performing arts are a force, and that as a field, we can and will navigate and drive change together. – Mario Garcia Durham, APAP President & CEO

Despite the current, troubled, and uncertain times in the United States, the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) served to rally and infuse thousands of its members and attendees with measures of inspiring and positive energies during its 62nd annual conference at the Hilton in New York City (January 4-8). 

The world music and jazz conferences and showcase offerings in particular continue to be bellwethers of change and developing trends for all the performing arts in the country.  Their combined focus was social justice.

Part I: Observations, Reflections

Wavelengths Preconference

Almost 20 years ago, when I first started to attend APAP’s world music themed preconferences just before September 11th, 2001, the gathering or room of attendees held little racial or ethnic diversity.  Slowly but surely this has changed and continues to change.  Increasing numbers of “people of color” and from various ethnic origins, notably from younger generations – including agents, presenters, producers, artists, and newer world music industry thinkers and leaders – are starting to populate the by now branded Wavelengths preconference as participants or audience members.

Here’s a one-stop newsletter about Wavelengths that summarizes the whole event, including links to all the panel discussions. “What Happens at Wavelengths: Takeaways from 2019’s World Music Pre-Conference”.

In keeping with this year’s Wavelengths theme, “Acknowledgement of Land”, the Canadian-based First Nation Anishinaabe singer and activist, ShoShona Kish delivered a compelling keynote address about the Indigenous peoples of North America.  The impact of her talk resonated throughout all the APAP showcase events I attended.  Her words underscored more than the torturous, disenfranchised past and present of the Indigenous peoples of North America.  They also held hope and beauty through her call for global social activism in the coming years for future generations.  Listen to her speech here, starting at 18 minutes into the video recording.

Going Deeper…

The most challenging and painful issues of Indigenous peoples have recently dominated the media due to a horrible incident of incendiary racial confrontations in America. Anti-immigration rhetoric is getting louder.  At the same time, the first Latin American Indigenous actress has been nominated for this year’s best actress Oscar in Hollywood. This is the UN International Year of Indigenous Languages.  The United States has just left UNESCO, the world’s great and indispensable organization, promoting peace and hope through culture.   What could all this mean? Leadership in the arts is key.

Two media colleagues offer their interrelated thoughts:

Catalina Maria Johnson Moderates Wavelengths Impact and Integrity Panel – Photo Evangeline Kim

Catalina Maria Johnson: Land Acknowledgement

In this century, as we gather in countries such as Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the U.S. it is becoming more customary to open events and gatherings by acknowledging the traditional inhabitants of the land.

It is the impact of this small verbal gesture that we discussed as part of our Wavelengths “Impact and Integrity” panel, which was focused on developing best practices for our world music community. On the one hand, to say a few words that over time can become stale and perfunctory may be perceived as an insignificant effort in the light of the enormous harm done to traditional societies across hundreds of years of colonial/settler imperialism; we barely understand the depth of those wounds and are very far from comprehending what needs to be done to heal them and move forward appropriately.

Yet, to come together as communities to create and experience art is one way in which we celebrate and share our common values. In the current political climate, words of hate have vomited forth in public gatherings, rallying and emboldening dark forces. As the philosopher/linguist Wittgenstein said, “The limits of my language, are the limits of my world.” Today, more than ever, words matter. We can wield words as instruments capable of creating and shaping different ways of moving through our lives; we can advocate traditions that honor truth.

Additionally, as we reflected upon in our panel, a simple land acknowledgement is a seed of possibilities that can blossom into concrete actions. The words can serve to raise our awareness of a respectful relationship to the land, honor those that came before us, and become a an organic part of fostering a vision of protecting the earth that ties into concrete actions that can be undertaken as a world music community—-such as efforts like the Earth Muse Collective to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles at our concerts and festivals.

Yet, let us not be fooled into thinking that the acknowledgment in and of itself will be enough and lead us to reconciliation and some kind of utopia. It is important to understand the long-standing history that has brought each of us to reside on the land, and to understand what our role is within that history. Land acknowledgment should be approached as one way to consider our own place in the story of colonization and of undoing its legacy—-because as has been pointed out, there is no point in repeating words to atone for a crime that we are still committing.

And so, let me conclude by acknowledging that I live on the ancestral lands of the Peoria, Potawatomi and the Miami. And you? Take a moment to research and acknowledge the original peoples of your place of residence, then make a commitment to act and honor the vision those words represent.

Catalina Maria Johnson is a tropical being living in Polar-Vortex-loving Chicago who stays warm by listening to hot, hot music and sharing these grooves through her radio show and podcast, Beat Latino, as well as writing for NPR MusicBillboard, Downbeat and others.

Neva E. Wartell – Photo Evangeline Kim

Neva E. Wartell: Whose World Is It, Anyway?

An ethnomusicologist and cultural activist since the 1970s, by now I’m a senior member of the global music community that gathers every January at the Wavelengths: APAP World Music Pre-Conference in NYC. The two days of panels, workshops and presentations never fail to provide inspiration and food for thought, along with the opportunity to reunite with colleagues, and to encounter new musical discoveries. Having attended every year since the first, some dozen years ago, I found the 2019 edition to be the most engaging and thought-provoking yet. I also found myself infused with a powerful sense of optimism for the future of the world.

Why? Because clearly the world is in new hands.

For me, one of this year’s most important markers was the generational shift in attendance and participation – and even more significantly, what such a shift represents: a changing social landscape, which by its nature creates a changing consciousness, which in turn demands…change.

This shift was reflected in both the topics of discussion at Wavelengths and the artists chosen to perform at globalFEST 2019. It’s no surprise that conversations and performances shared themes such as respect for the land, acknowledgment of cultural roots, assertion of identities, and demand for respect as human beings on this shared and suffering planet. Addressing these subjects is necessary and overdue – a very positive indication that a new generation is preparing to take the lead.

What kind of world have we left for them? The generation before mine created a music industry built on assumptions of white supremacy and male privilege. My generation took those power dynamics to the next level, inventing genres and marketing strategies, exploitative practices, and an insider/outsider mentality that gave birth to an amorphous, culturally myopic category called “Other”, which became the convenient home of “World Music”.

The new generation stepping forward represents all things labeled “Other” – the lovechild of “World Music” mated with “No Known Genre” equals every genre in the musical universe – both the cause and the effect of our changing social landscape.

They have every right, and so many reasons, to reject our constructs. Young musicians I meet these days are urgently aware of climate issues, economic issues, race, ethnicity, gender and other identity issues. They know the power of music as a vehicle for achieving social justice. And growing up in a digital environment and an increasingly do-it-yourself music industry, more and more artists are adept at handling their own business.

Many are from families who migrated from elsewhere, wanting only to assimilate into the dominant culture. But this generation is utilizing the dominant culture to express their “otherness” – celebrating the same cultural roots their parents left behind while making it relevant to their own context, creating a whole new cultural reality in their own image.

As award-winning musician and composer Rhiannon Giddens said in a recent interview with The Root: “I’m not interested in trying to do a hip-hop track to try to ‘reach across the aisle.’ I’m like, ‘This is our aisle.’”

The next generation is here, and they are unapologetically reclaiming the world. ‘Nuff’ respect.

“DJ Neva” E. Wartell is an ethnomusicologist, producer and cultural activist. Formerly with WBAI-FM and Radio Soleil in NYC, she currently works for WGXC community radio in NY’s Hudson Valley region, where she lives with two cats, a dog, a turtle, the turtle’s pet fish, and Pepe the Pig. She was the DJ for the very first globalFEST afterparty.

Globalfest 2019 Awards

This was the second year Globalfest presented awardsthat celebrate those that excel in the small but crucial global music field in the USA, too often with little recognition…. The annual awards will be presented to artists and members of the field who have been instrumental in making significant, longstanding contributions to the performing arts landscape in the USA through risk taking, addressing cultural diversity and diplomacy, cultural activism, helping to keep, transmit, and extend the world’s ancient traditions, commitment to working with local communities and making a difference to the greater American performing arts landscape as well as other areas.”

Leigh Ann Hahn GF Impact Award – Photo Evangeline Kim

A note about the honoree Leigh Ann Hahn, programming director of Grand Performances in Los Angeles.  Marco Werman, host and producer with PRI’s The World, presented her with the Impact Award.   She used her moment in the spotlight during the awards ceremony to draw attention to the ongoing, terrible genocide of the Uighurs in China.  She urged activism on their behalf. The entire situation concerning the Uighurs is an unfolding tragic story.

The New York Times recently reported, “According to the United States State Department, between 800,000 and two million people, or up to 15 percent of Xinjiang’s Muslim population, have been incarcerated in a growing network of more than 1,000 concentration camps.” 

There has been systematic targeting over the past few years by the Chinese government to detain influential Uighur musicians, writers and critics, and cultural activists in those concentration camps.  One of the greatest Uighur artists, Sanubar Tursun, Leigh Ann presented at Grand Performances in 2016, has been detained.  It will take massive efforts by governments, human rights organizations, and all interested in the world’s Indigenous populations to mount campaigns to oppose and counter this genocide.

GF Impact Award Honoree: Leigh Ann Hahn

Leigh Ann Hahn, who started at Grand Performances in 1992, is an endlessly creative and innovative programmer.  She is a leading figure in the world music performing arts field who has done a remarkable job producing free programs that pay homage to her beloved LA and its diverse communities with global breadth, depth and power.  Her programs are uniquely multidisciplinary and frequently shine a musical light on significant historical, political and social events.

Lincoln Center’s Atrium Producer Jordana Leigh Introduces Matthew Covey/ GF Trouble Worldwide Award – Photo Evangeline Kim

GF Trouble Worldwide Award Honoree: Matthew Covey and Tamizdat

Tamizdat, founded in 1998 by Matthew Covey and a group of musicians, has become a critical organization in the performing arts and cultural exchange fields.  Tamizdat’s work facilitates cultural exchange by easing the burden of the visa process for artists entering the U.S through their programs: legal visa assistance, outreach, the Artist Mobility Forum, The White Paper Project and other activities.  Their mission is motivated by the conviction that the international mobility of culture is fundamental to a healthy and progressive global civil society and their work has enabled thousands of artists to perform on stages across the country.

GF Pioneer Award Honoree: Lee Williams

Lee Williams has worked professionally as a venue booking agent, promoter, and non-profit arts leader since 1982, playing a defining role not only in the music culture and community identity of Bloomington, Indiana, but also as a champion of world music in North America.  A co-founder of the Lotus World Music & Arts Festival and founder of the non-profit Lotus Education and Arts Foundation, Lee served as Director of Lotus from 1995 to 2013 and as Artistic Director from 2014 through his retirement in 2017.  He also co-led the creation of the Midwest Consortium, a professional block-booking network for world-music presenters that now includes peers from across the US and Canada.

GF Artist Award Honoree: Mighty Sparrow/Slinger Francisco

83 year-old Slinger Francisco, better known as Mighty Sparrow and affectionately dubbed The Birdie, is the unrivaled Calypso King of the World.  With a career that spans over 60 years and counting The Sparrow is one of the most important living exponents of one of Caribbean music’s most important traditions, known for a combination of politics, daily life, humor, innuendo and dance music. Sparrow continues to translate his witty island authenticity to the world, in a one-man demonstration ot the role that culture plays in uniting humankind.

Part II: APAP World Showcase Notes

APAP’s conference is the best occasion of the year to sample favorites of promoters and agents from all over North America and beyond.  There are so many superb acts going on simultaneously, you literally need to be in several packed venues at once on any given night. These were some of my favorites.

Zaiko Langa Langa – Photo Evangeline Kim
Bazurto All Stars – Photo Evangeline Kim

Africa Yetu & Mateo Productions presented one of the best programming feats in this new year known as “The Soukous/Champeta Project” at S.O.B.’s nightclub.   They co-billed the classic soukous group, Zaiko Langa Langa from the Democratic Republic of Congo, and one of the most popular champeta groups, the Bazurto All Stars from Colombia.  Musical cousins, Zaiko Langa Langa celebrates its 50th anniversary while the Bazurto All Stars was formed just 10 years ago.  Their generational and historically related genre contrasts – reaching as far back as the early 70s – were revelatory.  The dance energies were contagious and at maximum levels of audience enjoyment.  However, the club’s poor sound engineering marred the overall quality of their performances.

Mundial Montréal, North America’s World Music Summit, held their annual 7th edition “Mundial On the Road” APAP showcase in partnership with the DROM nightclub.  Theirs is one of the most popular and “thoughtfully curated” showcase evenings during the conference. And always cram-packed.  Drawing from Canada’s vast cultural diversities including their Indigenous First Nations, and stand out international artists, Mundial Montreal’s annual 9th edition summit will take place in Montreal, November 19-22, this year.

This year the Mundial + DROM roster featured 5 Canadian groups with Afro-Cuban, Colombian, Mexican, and Balkan roots.  Two others were from southern Italy and Haiti/New York.  I caught the last two acts: Lemon Bucket Orkestra from Canada and Malou Beauvoir from New York.

Lemon Bucket Orkestra – Photo Evangeline Kim

Lemon Bucket Orkestra is a Balkan brass band uniting Ukrainian, Russian, Macedonian, Serbian, Romanian, and English languages in performance.  Their songs covered many subjects with thrilling, high-energy paced rhythms with deep folk soul.  A walk down a village street arm in arm with a girlfriend; wishing the audience a good night; sibling rivalry; love and loss. 

The stunning musical moment was Marichka Marczyk’s solo “Zajdy, Zajdy” –  “My heart stopped as in a dream”.  She sang with such sorrowful passion, the club room seemed to fall into a swoon of silence.  A well-known Macedonian song  beloved all over the Balkans, a woman sings at twilight to a tree: “Let’s cry together, you for your falling leaves and me for my lost years.  Your leaves will grow back, but my years will never return…”  In their triumphant, rousing finale, the band trooped off the stage into the audience playing their strings, brass, and thumping percussion in gleeful unison.

Malou Beauvoir with Paul Beaubrun – Photo Evangeline Kim

The Haitian-American singer Malou Beauvoir known for her international jazz career, surprised with entirely new music from her recent album “Spiritwalker” – where she explores her Haitian roots.  Her buoyant performance celebrated and conjured the healing Vaudou spirits of her heritage.  She professed her faith in their power to awaken and bless humanity.  To protect us. To guide us all to peace and harmony.  Paul Beaubrun from Boukman Eksperyans lineage and her partner in the recording, appeared with her superb band from Haiti, New York, Japan, and Cuba.  The whole night reached an ecstatic musical moment when Paul and Malou sang their pop hit version of one of Haiti’s deep Vaudou songs by Toto Bissainthe, “Rasanblemen”, or the “rassemblement” of spirits – to honor and comfort victims of oppression and slavery.  It was also a prayer and plea for world unity.

Winter Jazzfest

Brice Rosenbloom – Photo Evangeline Kim

All in all, Winter Jazzfest continues to grow and expand phenomenally.  This year, its 15th anniversary, the festival extended well beyond APAP’s official dates over 9 days.  Within the thematic framework of social justice, the focus was gender equity with over 140 groups, 12 venues, and close to 750 participating musicians.  (Disclosure: Much as I intended to see many more showcases following APAP, I was hit by the flu.) 

I look forward to Winter Jazzfest each year for many reasons, especially the international-related performances.  Despite the feat of producing multiple differing jazz genre showcases all over lower Manhattan venues, the sound engineering is almost always perfect, as you sprint from stage to stage. I’m not forced to pull out earplugs to deaden overly aggressive or amateurish engineering. I find it impossible to review good shows when the sound levels are deafening or imbalanced. (Lighting is another issue…) Brice Rosenbloom, the founder-producer, and his team deserve highest kudos for the foremost crucial aspect of live music: excellent sound quality. 

There’s always a well-organized and invaluable program booklet that gives you all the basic festival information with venue maps, artist personnel and instrumentation, and good thematic introductory notes:  In his tough-minded essay-manifesto,“Why Have We Been So Ass Backwards?”, Brice reflects upon last year’s Winter Jazzfest conversation at The New School on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.  “Jazz and Gender: Challenging Inequality and Forging a New Legacy”.  Here are some excerpts:

Terri Lyne Carrington moderated the panel featuring activist and professor Angela Davis, bassist  Esperanza Spalding, journalist Lara Pellegrinelli, trumpet player Arnetta Johnson, and pianist Vijay Iyer.

Terri Lyne Carrington started by asking the panel, “Considering the role jazz and jazz musicians have played in social justice movements why have we been so ass backward in this one with regards to women?

Angela Davis reminded the 600-person audience that we are witnessing the beginning of the era of women; “There was the amazing women’s march, millions of women all over the world rose up against the Trump administration and the message was when women rise up, the whole world rises up with us.” Davis then reiterated Carrington’s quandary, “It’s kind of bizarre that in the jazz community that has been so responsible over the decades for major contributions to social justice for doing civil rights work before the civil rights movement was born;  it’s kind of amazing that the jazz community isn’t leading the rest of us with respect to issues of patriarchy.” 

Journalist Lara Pellegrinelli echoed these concerns when witnessing the #metoo and #timesup movements: “I was watching this movement gain momentum, women in the media, and women in Hollywood, and all these women in other spheres of labor stepping forward and outing their oppressors.  And I was watching and asking myself when it it going to happen [in jazz]?”….

Today, with individual actions and music as the spark, it still takes the whole community – including men – to bring about change. Vijay Iyer challenged that “men can have feminist thoughts but what are they doing about it?” Carrington shared a quote from Jack DeJohnette: “Artistry is artistry no matter what the gender is.  It’s time for women to take their rightful place as equals in our predominantly patriarchal society.  Now more than ever is a time for my gender to stop being part of the problem and embrace being part of the solution.” 

As many musicians echo strong messages in their music and offer a soundtrack to the movement, we have seen real ripples of change over the past year towards progress in the jazz community.  This progress is absolutely vital to countering the bitter reality of blatant sexism pervading the jazz community (and overarching music industry)….

Winter Jazzfest is proudly among the first wave of adoptees of We Have Voice; and their Code of Conduct was distributed to all 140+ performing groups and to all participating venues to be posted in artist dressing rooms.  Winter Jazzfest is also a proud member of Keychange.  Last year Vanessa Reed proposed that we become of the first U.S. based festivals to sign the Keychange pledge of gender balance in programming by 2022.  We are proud to have achieved that mark with both our 2018 and 2019 festival lineups. 

There is still much more we can do and intend to do moving forward.  While we reached Keychange’s gender representation goal, we are far from being fully gender balanced.  With nearly 750 musicians performing at this year’s Winter Jazzfest, 129 are women.  While we have taken steps towards gender equality in programming the next step is for bandleaders to also commit to more gender inclusivity in their groups.

In solidarity, we are committed to supporting progress and we hope to further inspire our colleagues, audiences, and artists to feel these ripples of change and to take the individual action necessary to forge a true movement of inclusivity in our jazz community. – Brice Rosenbloom

I am delighted that the Era of Women is happening.  I believe Brice’s gender equity activism is one of the most notable and influential developments in the entertainment industry. Mainstream media is beginning to reflect this. Women journalists and radio hosts have cause to rejoice.

Meshell Ndegeocello, this year’s Winter Jazzfest’s artist-in-residence, with her ensemble, delivered a fire and brimstone version of her tribute to James Baldwin, entitled “No More Water, The Fire Next Time, Auditory Portion”. The set began with a live recording of James Baldwin’s talk, “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity”,  given in 1963 at New York City’s Community Church. 

It seems to me that the artist’s struggle for his integrity must be considered as a kind of metaphor for the struggle, which is universal and daily, of all human beings on the face of this globe to get to become human beings. It is not your fault, it is not my fault, that I write. And I never would come before you in the position of a complainant for doing something that I must do… The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us. Soldiers don’t. Statesmen don’t. Priests don’t. Union leaders don’t. Only poets….  (partial quote).

Meshell hovered at Le Poisson Rouge’s rear stage supplying a fierce bass undertow to the band’s smooth R&B jazz grooves and choir-like gospel harmonies.  Her ensemble unleashed a celebratory testimonial to civil rights’ call to action and consciousness-raising for all the marginalized in song and spoken word.  Staceyann Chin, the performance poet, condemned white supremacy’s exploitation and hatred of black people.  Her righteous fervor intensified as she voiced the pain and anger of the black woman’s centuries-long bondage and victimization.  Redemption lay in her cathartic fury. 

The proclamation, “No More Water, The Fire Next Time!” Baldwin’s rallying cry against injustice, carries even more power today after 56 years – through Meshell Ndegeocello’s extraordinary summoning of his spirit.

Richard Bona’s “Bona De La Frontera (Bona From The Border) – Photo Evangeline Kim

Inspired by Paco de Lucia, Richard Bona, Cameroonian bass player and singer, has been performing his newer flamenco project “Bona De La Frontera” in Europe over the past few years.  Le Poisson Rouge was a Winter Jazzfest American debut.  Leaving aside his past Afro-Cuban explorations, he has plunged into flamenco’s passion.  Judging from the wild elation of the crowds, a recording seems imminent.  In unison with Antonio Rey on flamenco guitar, Mara Rey cantaora, Paco Vega on percussions, Richard Bona’s rippling bass lines were a love serenade to southern Spain’s deep soul tradition. 

Flamenco’s laments and sorrows progressed in heart-skipping, clapped and tapped rhythms by the musicians as Bona called out the untitled songs, “Rumba Uno”, Rumba Dos”… The dramatic tension built slowly and erupted in finale when the “bailaora de flamenco” Pedro Cordoba took center stage during the last two songs.  Showmanship was at a zenith, as Cordoba whirled and stomped at dizzying pace.  The whistling, cheering crowds were enthralled.  No one wanted to leave.

Alfredo Rodriguez and Pedrito Martinez – Photo Evangeline Kim

The memorable highpoint of all the APAP showcases I attended was Winter Jazzfest’s “Duologue” concert – title of the current Quincy Jones produced release– by Cuban jazz stars, pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez.  Their live performance together at SubCulture surpassed their recording in improvisational brilliance.  Most of the evening’s repertoire, drawn from the album, was a thrilling opportunity to experience superlative musicianship.

Rodriguez’s head constantly bobbed in counterpoint as his fingers sped over the piano keys, skimming spidery delicate passages or pouncing with muscular syncopation.  His ability to produce liquescent, bell-like tonalities, complex trilling ostinatos involving arpeggio-like chromatic scales, and flourished phrasings was sheer listening pleasure.

Pedrito Martinez was the perfect balance in their conversation, a unified rhythmic totality, as he switched between Cuban percussion and his drum set with precision and elan – spelling out the project’s Cuban Santeria spiritual foundations.  Rodriguez in spontaneous surprise, invited the flamenco star Antonio Lizana onstage. Lizana’s vocals wailed and implored for a few moments, recalling Spain with nostalgia.  The duologue ending riffed on a timba rhythm with echoes of an Andalusian melody.  Still can’t get over that showcase, it was so good.


Globalfest promotes outstanding examples of the world’s cultural diversities.  2019 was its 16th edition.  We don’t have a bona fide world music festival in New York City like Chicago’s city-wide World Music Festival, for example – although there are several excellent world music promoters here.  Globalfest’s attraction lies not only in its international scope, but its consistent levels of quality.  (Although there seemed to be a few new-venue sound issues this year.) 

It’s a tough job for the producers to represent and showcase “the world” so successfully each year in a compressed format – 11 or 12 acts over 5 hours. Increasingly difficult visa challenges included.  The producers are mission-driven.  Shanta Thake, one of the co-producers, also served this year as an APAP Conference Co-Chair.  During the APAP opening plenary introductions she paraphrased Martin Luther King Jr.: “We are bending the arc of history for justice.”  That could just as well be the motto of Globalfest.

This year’s showcase of 11 acts was a glorious mix of rhythms and melodies from India, Palestine, South Africa, Mozambique-Ghana-Senegal, Ukraine, Canada’s First Nation Tobique, Mexico, Cuba, Colombia, Tennessee and New Orleans.  It took place at the Copacabana nightclub over 3 floors.

Cha Wa – Photo Evangeline Kim

There were several examples of today’s “freedom voices”.  Cha Wa from New Orleans started off the evening with a rousing blast of 2nd line brass-driven Mardi-Gras parade music, a few of its band members dressed in Native American feather headdress regalia.  With their strutting, funk rhythms, they celebrate and honor the early Native Americans who took in and protected captive Africans during the days of slavery.  South African B.C.U.C. (Bantu Continua Uhuru Consciousness) seems almost beguilingly cool and hip in their recordings, drawing on South Africa’s danceable ethnic rhythms.  But their performance was an explosion of righteous protest and fierce resistance.  The room was boiling with their forceful lyrics and pounding beats.

47 Soul – Photo Evangeline Kim
Orquesta Akokan – Photo Evangeline Kim

Palestine’s 47 Soul played one of the most popular dance grooves over the evening.  The group’s Arabic techno-dabke with its syncopated, sinuous step-dance rhythms electrified the jumping crowds. Their lyrics called for unity, equality, freedom.  By contrast, in classic Latin dance mode, Cuban Orquesta Akokan held sway with signature Afro-Caribbean mambos and son cubanos harking back to the 40s and 50s and salsa dura from the 70s – while thoroughly captivating in their contemporary big band brightness.  Theirs holds a vast history of cultural pride, triumph over social struggles, and the sacred rhythms of Santeria.

Amythyst Kiah – Photo Evangeline Kim

Hailing from Johnson City, Tennessee, and steeped in the great traditions of African American spirituals and blues, Amythyst Kiah’s deep, tempered vocals with her melismatic wails cast a neo-folk spell among all present.  When she switched from her guitar to her banjo, she noted that the instrument has its roots in West Africa’s fretless ngoni lute.  A rising star, she preserves memories of the long, musical journeys from Africa to Appalachian traditions by African Americans with effortless style, grace, and conviction not heard in a long time.

Jeremy Dutcher – Photo Evangeline Kim

Tobique First Nation’s Jeremy Dutcher’s recent album “Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa” won Canada’s 2018 Polaris Music Prize.  A classically-trained tenor, composer, and musicologist, his determination to help preserve, dignify, and honor his rapidly disappearing Indigenous Wolastoq language is a worthy cause.  There are fewer than 100 speakers of the language today.  His set, sung in Wolastoq, was moving, emotional, solemn, as his operatic vocals dramatized his long research into the traditional music.  He celebrated his culture with songs about honor, a chief’s installation, a wedding dance, canoeing, and water spirits.  Bravo to Globalfest for its activism in being part of what may become an Indigenous linguistic and cultural renaissance in North America.


We are passing through a dark period.

The precise role of the artist… is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place. – From James Baldwin’s 1962 essay, “The Creative Process”


APAP 2018 Overview. Challenges, Activists, and The Good in the World’s Performing Arts

Noteworthy: APAP has changed the organization’s name to the Association of Performing Arts Professionals, while retaining the familiar acronym.  From 1988 until this most recent name change in APAP’s 60-plus year history, it was known as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters. “Our name has changed once again to reflect no only growth, but also the range of experience and expression in our field, noted Mario Garcia Durham, president and CEO of APAP.  “The new name more perfectly describes the full range of distinctive roles professionals play, from the creation to the presentation and dissemination of the performing arts.”


Mario Garcia Durham – Photo by Adam Kissick


APAP jumpstarts the new year for the performing arts industry every January in New York City.  The conference charges the city with dynamic energies through the presence of tens of thousands of arts leaders, artists, and enthusiasts from the U.S. and many countries who convene each year at this momentous event.  This year’s APAP 61st annual member conference, APAP|NYC, January 12th – 16th, was filled with special moments and milestone markers especially for the world music community.

Thought-provoking plenaries, the vital pre-conference world music event, Wavelengths, and the two great showcase festivals, Winter Jazzfest and Globalfest held abundant promise that the coming year will be standout.  Sheer quality in those APAP-incubated events bolstered the conference’s long-standing advocacy for cultural diversities and inclusiveness as key to well-being, growth, creativity, and peace, locally and globally.

This, despite the roiled politics in Washington infesting the news today, the harrowing violence in the country – against people of color, immigrants, Muslims, and women.  Ignorance, bigotry, and hatred must be fought in the arts more than ever.  For it is through the arts that human values survive and flourish.

To be sure and lest we forget, Mario Garcia Durham remarked with heartening perspective as he introduced the conference theme:

In the short span of a year, so much has happened.  As the media and our human nature often focus on the tragic and negative, I urge you to remember much good takes place around you every day and much of it happens in the APAP community and at our conference. 

The theme for APAP|NYC 2018 is trans.ACT, which evokes a wealth of meaning which we will explore throughout the conference.  We will explore transformations taking place in our communities and society at large and our role engaging and leading the dialogue.  We will explore the increasingly transdisciplinary (and transcendent) nature of the performing arts.  We are consciously creating space for transgender artists and other transgender professionals in our field.  We will gain an understanding for how the arts can be a place for ACTivism and a force for good in these polarized and divisive times.

Plenary Power: Roberta Uno and Bassem Youssef  

To underscore the theme, the opening and closing plenaries topped conference presentations. Robert Uno, director of Arts in a Changing America, as opening keynote speaker, brilliantly addressed the subject “What is the Role and Responsibility of the Performing Arts in Our World Today?”


Roberta Uno – Photo by Adam Kissick


Ms. Uno drew upon her personal narrative, the story of her Asian-American family’s cruel internment during World War II, in parallel contrast to the continuing challenges of lack of diversity in American institutions and particularly, the arts today.  Her grandfather as an artist, was considered ‘dangerous.’  It is said that he was possibly the longest held internee during the war, despite having urged his 3 sons to join the U.S. military and defend the country.

She noted that according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s projection by 2042, people of color will eclipse white majority here.  The vision of a pluralistic America is possible, she maintained.  Early actions including the Civil Rights Era and the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act brought progress and promise.

However, there are hard realities and issues to be addressed.

While our nation is changing, our institutions are lagging far behind.  We all know that the majority of arts funding still goes to large budget institutions, which are predominantly Caucasian led and serving, while less than 10% goes to diverse institutions.  This is not just a problem in the arts but across institutions.  

Ms. Uno screened a New York Times 2016 infographic showing the results of a racial profile survey of 503 powerful leaders and decision makers in American business, culture, and government.   Entitled “The Faces of American Power, Nearly as White as the Oscar Nominees” – – the statistical imagery in 2016 showed only 44 individuals of color.  Very little has changed in those numbers over the past two years in the general demographics.

Yet she pointed out that population demographics are rapidly changing with grass roots advocacy. “From the ground up, diverse cultural organizations are anchoring communities in very innovative ways.” She screened a 1970 photo of a Russian Orthodox church in Flushing, Queens.  Today on the same street we can visit the largest Ganesha Hindu temple  in North America.  It sponsors an annual festival attended by thousands, and holds a school, an educational center, a restaurant, and the only state-of-the-art performing arts theater in the heavily populated area. It is open to the general public.  What is most impressive, she said, “is that all the capital development and programming have been sustained by the 22,000 members.”  They don’t benefit from the usual grants and ticketing model.

What do we have to do to remap ourselves?” she asked.  She brought up the necessity of re-thinking our language: the outmoded reference usage such as ‘minority’, the oxymoronic ‘majority-minority’… the inaccuracy of ‘underrepresented’ or ‘mainstream.’

What happens when ‘mainstream’ is just one of many rivers?  How do we acknowledge that there are parallel universes that are existing as a result of the de facto segregation that has occured?  And the ways that cities are re-gentrifying and resegregating?  And how can we subvert the narrative of scarcity and competition? Can we operate from values of a shared future?

“We are living in a volatile, terrifying, and I actually think one of the most exciting times – because it’s one of those times when we matter.  When my family was sent to internment camps, my mother said, “Not that many people said anything about it…. So, this is a chance for us to connect in ways we have never imagined.”

It’s an urgent time for analysis, reflection, planning, and action with purpose.  For voices of activism to be heard.


Bassem Youssef – Photo Credit: Adam Kissick


Bassem Youssef, the Egyptian political satirist, commentator, and physician, and in exile in America, closed the conference.  His story of survival from government harassment and censorship was a moving defense of satire, humor, sarcasm and art as effective means to challenge and check oppressors and dictators. Here are excerpts from his talk.

History teaches us that painters, actors, singers comedians, poets, writers have all been the targets of oppressors. It is not just satire, it is the mere act of liberating your mind through art, performance and creativity that really pisses them off. A creative mind is a liberated mind, and a liberated mind is the oppressor’s biggest enemy. It is imaginative, it is unpredictable, and it is a problem…. Art in its free, liberated form is uncomfortable, destructive and unpredictable. These are all qualities that authorities don’t like. These are traits that oppressors will fight.These are dangers that dictators will always seek to destroy.

I come from a region in the world that is going through a very tough time right now.  Many would look at this region and think of giving up.  Many think the Arab Spring was a disaster.  But if you look beyond the destruction and disappointment, you can see a silver lining.  You can see millions of young people practicing something that their parents were deprived of.   Questioning. They question everything now, the military, religion, and even society’s norms and traditions, and they do that through celebrating their creativity, their innovation, and through their own discovery of art, humor, and love for performance.  Questioning is the prequel of a revolution.

So maybe we haven’t seen the end of it yet, maybe we’re just warming up.  So I invite you all to live in discomfort, to make art that is annoying, destructive and unconventional. Celebrate art, humor and love of performance, and know that if you are making certain people angry, furious and uncomfortable, then probably you are doing something right.


Dmitri Vietze – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Wavelengths annual pre-conference sessions, January 10 and 11, is a must-attend for all interested in the world music industry.  Its importance cannot be underestimated. Rock Paper Scissors, leading world music publicity firm, under the deft leadership of Dmitri Vietze, CEO, co-presents with globalFEST the largest North American “mini-conference” for world music professionals.  The variety of topics is a mix of inspiration and practicality along with brief cameo pitches by artists eager for recognition.

Keynotes speakers this year were Emel Mathlouthi, the artist, and Michael Orlove, the NEA’s director of Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works for the National Endowment for the Arts.  Michael Orlove gave his speech time to Dessa Darling who spoke about the brain and music.

Timely topics included:

  • Maximizing Your Social Impact (with Ani Cordero, Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, Natalia Linares, Kim Chan, Xiomara Henry; moderated by Tanya Selvaratnam)
  • Part I – Money Talks: Understanding Contracts, Rights, and Business Taxes for Artists Working Globally (with Jon Bahr / VP, Publishing at CD Baby, Bob Donnelly music lawyer, and tax adviser Dunia Best Sinnreich; moderated by Tristra Newyear Yeager)
  • Part II – Money Talks: Touring and Live Events (with artist Ravish Momin, tour manager Theresa Teague, artist manager Cynthia Karaha; moderated by Juan Souki); Culturally Appropriate
  • Navigating Allyship vs. Appropriation, an Open Round Table (with Clay Ross, Falu Shah, José Corbelo, Melody Capote)
  • Around the world: Global News, Markets and Ideas (Olivier Conan, Ishmael Sayyad, Elodie Da Silva, Mickey Davis, and Hyo Han; moderated by Sam Lee)

You can find video tapes of the entire sessions here.  Well-worth reviewing, there is a wealth of invaluable information for newcomers as well as seasoned pros:


globalFEST enlarges the cosmopolitan nature and scope of the presenting arts by its flagship one-night showcase festival. The conference was a banner moment for the co-founding producers, Bill Bragin, Isabel Soffer, and Shanta Thake.  APAP awarded the global music platform trio with the prestigious William Dawson Award for Programmatic Excellence and Sustained Achievement.  This is fine validation for 15 years of dedicated work.


globalFEST Producers, Isabel Soffer, Bill Bragin, Shanta Thake – Photo by Evangeline Kim


In addition, the organization has created its self-titled first annual globalFEST Awards “for artists and members of the field who have been instrumental in making significant, longstanding contributions to the performing arts landscape in the USA through risk taking, addressing cultural diversity and diplomacy, cultural activism, helping to keep, transmit and extend the world’s ancient traditions, commitment to working with local communities and making a difference to the greater American performing arts landscape as well as other areas.”

The 2018 award recipients are:

  • Impact Award Honoree: Michael Orlove A beloved figure in the world music community, Mike has had a huge impact on the field.  A native of Chicago, Orlove spent 19 years as senior program director for the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs.  His tenure with the department led to nearly two decades of innovation, creativity, and passion for public service with the City of Chicago transforming the Chicago Cultural Center into a prime downtown performing arts venue, launching the city’s SummerDance and World Music Festival, and programming Millennium Park.  Since 2012, Mike has headed the National Endowment for the Arts’ Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works program and has responsibility over the NEA’s International programs.
  • Artist Award Honoree: Thomas Mapfumo The Lion of Zimbabwe is one of Africa’s greatest and most important composers and bandleaders and an immensely popular musician who is currently living in exile in the US. Known for merging ancient African traditions with modern styles, Mapfumo’s courageous, politically charged music called chimurenga has changed the landscape of African music forever.  By 1978, he and his band The Blacks Unlimited had morphed into a symbol for the struggle against injustice.  His music alongside a fierce and proud independence continues to inspire around the world.
  • Trouble Worldwide Honoree: Posthumously awarded to Alexandra Nova (nee Casazza), for whom the award was named. The radical Brazil-born Casazza started her career as an intern at Warner Music Brazil and worked her way up to managing PR and marketing for Sony and BMG.  After working over 10 years in the music industry in Rio de Janeiro, she moved to San Francisco in 1998.  There, she lent her talents to Six Degrees Records as a booking agent and began planting the seeds for her own independent agency.  Trouble Worldwide was launched in 2006 with a commitment to representing fearless creativity and global citizenship by bringing remarkable artists to worldwide audiences.  Most recently, following the birth of her daughter, she began her latest endeavor Future Present – an agency focused on female artists.  Her passion and spirit are missed terribly by many.

Preceding the globalFEST performances, the award ceremony was moving and emotional, especially in remembrance of Alex Nova.

The new globalFEST awards hold significance for the world music community in the U.S.  There is shared symbolic value for everyone involved with world music – the achievements, the struggles, the sacrifices, the dedication and hard work.


Catalina Maria Johnson introduces Michael Orlove – Photo by Evangeline Kim


This is Chicago-based music journalist and radio host/producer Catalina Maria Johnson’s introduction for Michael Orlove.  Her words reflect the gratitude and admiration so many in America feel towards him.

Thank you! It is an honor to present the inaugural Globalfest Impact Award which celebrates outstanding commitment to our field to Michael Orlove, director of Artist Communities and Presenting & Multidisciplinary Works for the National Endowment for the Arts.

As a fellow Chicagoan, I’d like to share some of the happy consequences of the impact of his commitment to the field.

During his tenure at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Michael founded our World Music Festival which is 20 years old this year. That festival has made Chicago a transnational cultural hub, and if many of us Chicagoans are participating here and at other international gatherings, it is in no small part thanks to the fact that he blazed trails for us to follow.

And I found out just last night that Winter Jazzfest’s creator, Brice Rosenbloom, who went to Northwestern University in Chicago, considers Michael his primary mentor.  So you can thank Chicago and Michael for Winter Jazzfest too.

This is all part of one of Michael’s great talents – We know him as the great connector, he has connected and thereby impacted countless individuals, movers and shakers, communities, organizations in too many ways to detail here … although I could speak for hours about this, but I only have two minutes.

But apart from being the great connector and a true master at cultural diplomacy, he is known to all of us as someone you can approach no matter who you are. No matter whether or not you’re high on the totem pole or hierarchy or not, Michael will always be generous with his time and knowledge. And for that alone, the kindness and respect that he affords everyone, he should be celebrated.

There is truly no one I think more deserving of being honored by this inaugural Globalfest impact award than from a Chicagoans point of view, our man in Washington, Michael Orlove.

15th Anniversary globalFEST Notes

The big news is that globalFEST has moved to larger venues on Broadway: B.B. King, Lucille’s, and just across 42nd Street, the Liberty Theater.  Apart from the excellent technical values headed up by Danny Kapilian, production director, there is greater spaciousness for moving around.  But the event is still as packed as ever with capacity crowds.

There were enough diverse acts from all over the globe bound to please, whether your taste runs to the traditional, avant-garde, or pepped-up dance floor fun.

There were musical references to American idioms, rock, blues, jazz, and hip-hop.  A festival programming attribute, the western influence on world music genres, can yield stylistic familiarity and surprising innovation at once.  Musical languages and mixes are infinite.  Then there were the semi-traditional and traditional acts.


Mohsen Namjoo – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The showcase evening of 12 acts opened with the Persian star and revolutionary, Mohsen Namjoo. Living in exile from his country, he was sentenced in absentia to prison in 2009 for setting passages of the Qur’an to music.  Above all, he is a musical icon of freedom of expression for all Iranians in exile.  His set blended traditional Persian rhythms with rock and blues. The repertoire was drawn from his new album, “Axis of Solitude.”  His searing vocals, howled, mourned, and declaimed with dramatic conviction.


Delgres Band – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The evening’s huge surprise for me was the Delgres Band. Nothing could have prepared me for this fabulous concoction of Guadalupe’s biguine folk swing, New Orleans brass band, and Mississippi Delta blues.  The concept was born from Pascal Danae’s ancestral family history, originally from Guadeloupe.

During Napoleon’s reinstatement of slavery in 1802, many from the island fled to New Orleans.  Louis Delgres, a mulatto freedom fighter led the resistance movement and died heroically and so valiantly.  As Danae summoned Delgres’ spirit in patois in the arresting tribute song, “Mo Jodi” (Die Today), the roar of incantatory rhythms filled Lucille’s.  Danae’s rock slide guitar rang with funk blues twang, the sousaphone player growled with ominous bass lines, and the drummer made sure the room was stomping.  The spell was cast.


Ava Rocha – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Brazilian singer and songwriter Ava Rocha’s showcase moved from avant garde flirtatiousness to political radicalism.  One of the evening’s highpoints was watching her sing and perform “Transeunte Coração.”  She’s fascinating to watch.  With idiosyncratic performance art movements she danced and writhed in slow motion, as her seductive, deep voice spoke the same language of dark romance in French chanson – with a samba beat.  Later, urgency gripped her voice.  She rapped classic Tropicalia protest in “Auto das Bacantes.”  “Disrupt the state, the police, the NSA, Wonder Woman, and cause a geopolitical stir,” run the jarring lyrics in translation. Trippy jazz electronica, funk samba, and distorted rock guitar lines intensified her presence.  She’s one of Brazil’s most interesting artists and increasingly part of the Latin American women’s narrative against oppression and injustice.


Thornetta Davis – Photo by Evangeline Kim


American blues had a shining moment through Detroit’s Queen of Blues, Thornetta Davis.  There was piano honky-tonk punctuating and embellishing her R&B songs.  The light-hearted cheerfulness of her band and chorus ensured that the crowds were captivated in a positive way by the “Honest Woman.” The show was in the B.B. King main room.  The ambiance was perfect for Ms. Davis’ gospel power embedded in that big blues voice.


Jupiter Okwess – Photo by Evangeline Kim


I wondered if the audience knew that behind the exhilarating Jupiter Okwess performance the song held trenchant lyrics, featuring Congolese proverbial wisdom, condemnation of corruption, or advocacy of women?  The band is dominated by heavy percussions, electric bass and guitars. The group’s Congolese various rock rumba stylings, mostly at soukous tempo speed, were relentlessly driven with carnival raucousness, pumping rhythms, and frenzied dancing.  Circular rhythmic phrasings, call and response chorals, that phalanx of musicians moving forward and back in line formation, Jupiter Okwess is a hard charging male vibe.


La Dame Blanche – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Two hip-hop spliced acts had foundations in Cuba and India.  Cuba’s La Dame Blanche proclaimed at her start, “Hip Hop Urbano Cubano!”  Her appearance was a wild combination of trilling chants in Spanish and piping on classical silver flute. While bolstered by two other musicians, one on keys, dealing out reggae dubs and reverb effects, and another on clarinet and drums.   She was a sassy presence in a white mini-skirt outfit and white and silver platform boots, flowers pasted to her calves, singing Ave Maria, strutting and undulating as she played and sang. Her style has a lot to do with Jamaican toasting and she clearly loves being a free spirit.


Grand Tapestry – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Grand Tapestry was another genre crossing collaboration bridging hip-hop and Indian classical music.  L.A. based MC Eligh has teamed up with Alam Khan, the son of the late master Ali Akbar Khan, on the 25-stringed fretless sarod and Salar Nader, disciple of Zakir Hussain, on tabla to produce a contemporary ancient sound.  The unusual combination of Indian high instrumental contemplativeness and Eligh’s introspective rapping poetry yields a mesmerizing and transcendent flow. celebrating love and life’s trials and triumphs.

There was a whole array of the traditional from Europe and Latin America, reviving and preserving some of the world’s unforgettable music.


Jarlath Henderson – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Jarlath Henderson is one of the heroes of the new Celtic folk scene, from County Tyrone, Ireland.  He was the youngest winner of the BBC Young Folk Award in 2003   During globalFEST, he sang traditional songs – even one 450 years old – with gusto and nuanced tenderness. From song to song, he accompanied himself on the uilleann pipes and guitar, while his band brought in hints of modern jazz with rock-tinges. His Irish lilt and cadence were charming, while his band took the folk beautiful to the abstract.


Eva Salina & Peter Stan – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan recreate some of the best Balkan Romani music in America.  Together they opened up the heart’s intimacies of old world charm and reminiscence.  California-raised, Eva’s soul was immersed in Balkan music from childhood.  Her musical partner’s heritage is Serbian Romanian.

Eva’s beautiful melismatic vocals, effortlessly gliding over songs of Romani despair, sorrow, and love’s yearning, immortalized songs by two of Serbia’s greats, Šaban Bajramović (1936-2008) and Vida Pavlović (1945-2005).  They are revered by the Balkan diaspora as king and queen of the Balkan Romani.  Peter Stan played melody and rhythm at once on his accordion, swooping and racing across chordal harmonies, in complex counterpoint to Eva Salina’s vocals.


Miramar – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Two American Latin groups brought refreshing dimensions to bolero and mariachi traditions.  While Puerto Rico is forever known as the land of salsa, Miramar ensured newer knowledge of her bolero history.  Chilean American Marlyse Simmons on keyboards and organ, Puerto Rican singer Rei Alvarez, and Tennessee-born singer Laura Ann Singh with a love of bossa nova, delivered a lovely tribute to the late Sylvia Rexach’s bolero repertoire.  Bolero’s languorous candle-lit passion swirled with string quartet romance and guitar serenades.


Flor de Toloache – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Flor de Toloache, the all women’s mariachi group, demolished the idea that mariachi is strictly male domain.  Dressed in identical black charro uniforms embellished with silver accents on their leggings, short jackets, and a blooming red rose on the ear, the musicians played their guitars, violins, horns and flute with rousing flair.  They’re a crowd-pleaser with jaunty cumbia and polka rhythms, grito yelps, and sweet vocal harmonies.


Iberi – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Out of all the groups, the Georgian men’s spectacular polyphonic choir from Tbilisi, Iberi, stayed closest to centuries’ old tradition without any contemporary reference.  The six singers wore the black chokha coat dating back to the ninth century and symbolic of national pride.  With bandoliers over the chest and silver daggers at the hip, the chokha carries the country’s history and recalls armed resistance against the country’s occupation.

With modulated, ringing two and three part harmonies, Iberi’s repertoire was a concert of ancient folk songs for different occasions from Georgia’s diverse regions. They sang sprightly dancing and harvest tunes, a shepherd’s ballad, and even a joking song – representative of the western and eastern regions of the country.  Instruments included the fretted long neck lutes, panduri and chongui, and duduk reed woodwinds played as a pair.


Iberi and Friends at Oda House Restaurant, Manhattan – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The evening following globalFEST, Juliana Voloz, Iberi’s European manager, held a special Iberi “supra” showcase event at the delightful Oda House restaurant in lower Manhattan,  If you’ve never tasted Georgian cuisine, this is the place to go.  Maia Acquaviva, the owner, prepared a masterful and memorable supra menu with elegant herb and ground walnut appetizers, scrumptious cheese and bean pastries, salads, a phenomenal lamb tarragon stew, chicken napped with a rich blackberry sauce, and irresistible cake desserts.

The supra is the backbone of Georgian social culture: an extravagant feast filled with delicious foods and especially – lots of wine toasting with gladdening songs.  Iberi did the musical honors.  Never turn down an invitation for a Georgian supra at Oda House.

Winter Jazzfest Notes


Michael Orlove and Brice Rosenbloom – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Coming up right alongside globalFEST’s longevity, Winter Jazzfest celebrated its14th year.  Every year during APAP I marvel over its invaluable, entrepreneurial role in expanding knowledge about and pushing the growth of jazz for larger and more diverse audiences.  Producer and founder Brice Rosenbloom with his team of publicists and tech producers pull off one of the best  annual events in New York City.

The festival showcase has taken over just about every major venue in lower Manhattan from Tribeca to Greenwich Village and the East Village.  All told, the 8 day long festival featured over 130 groups and 600+ domestic and international musicians.  Apart from typically packed showcase concerts, there were special events, and talks.

The festival programming addressed this country’s current social and political ills directly and head-on.  It exemplified APAP’s activist theme with impressive force.  The mission was clear in their social justice engagement manifesto:

The 2018 Winter Jazzfest explicitly supports social and racial justice, gender equality, and immigrant rights by presenting courageous socially engaged artists who have urgent and beautiful musical messages to share.  Directly addressing the sense of crisis confronting our nation, we stand firmly with #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and #wehaveavoice, and seek to address discrimination, sexism, immigration injustice and other issues deeply threatening our inclusive music community and beyond.

Artists have always been at the heart of movement-building and social solidarity.  Protest and resistance are central to jazz’s existence from its beginnings as the music of marginalized black Americans.  Jazz’s vitality and effectiveness in voicing truths about life in America has not changed.  As wide-ranging as music can be in style, format and message, so is the manner in which it reflects the politics and social issues of today.  We hope the message and music further inspires audiences, musicians, and fellow presenters to uphold the dignity of our culture.

Take a look at the Winter Jazzfest panel discussions content and the line-up of notable speakers.  It’s another snapshot of the critical challenges facing America with inputs by key activist voices:

Jazz on the Border: International Musicians and U.S. Visas

with Antonio Sanchez, Alexis Cuadrado, Lucia Cadotsch and moderated by Matthew Covey

This panel, featuring musicians, agents, and legal professionals, will discuss ways that U.S. immigration law impacts the U.S. jazz scene. We will discuss strategies for avoiding problems, and we’ll be doing a deep dive into some of the unique challenges jazz artists frequently encounter. Special attention will be paid to the changes under the new administration.

 Jazz and Gender: Challenging Inequality and Forging a New Legacy

with Angela Davis, Lara Pellegrinelli, Arnetta Johnson, and Vijay Iyer, moderated by Terri Lyne Carrington

Jazz has been a transformational, spiritual, and social movement on the global stage – creating an enduring legacy. Also embedded in its legacy are sexism and other forms of alienation. We are experiencing a watershed moment and the jazz community cannot deny our obligation to imagine and give shape to the future. We must critically challenge the prevailing code that has historically repressed and continues to render invisible many of the art form’s creative contributors.

The Long March: A Conversation on Jazz and Protest Through the Generations with featured guest Archie Shepp, Steve Colson, Nicole Mitchell, and Samora Pinderhughes, moderated by Ras Moshe Burnett

Jazz is inherently a music of social commentary and protest. Today we’re experiencing a true movement of contemporary jazz musicians expressing messages of justice, equality, and freedom.  We’re pleased to engage three talented artists from three generations who each naturally embody the socially conceptual aspect of jazz performance. The focus will be on the chronological history of jazz as a functional component in political consciousness and engagement.

There were several special concert events including a British showcase hosted by DJ Gilles Peterson, a Jose James debut project inspired by Bill Withers, a Buika concert, Ravi Coltrane’s tribute to his mother, Alice Coltrane, a benefit tribute for the late Geri Allen, a performance by Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble, and a collaboration between Deerhoof and Wadada Leo Smith.  This year, there were four separate performances by the artist-in-residence, Nicole Mitchell, flutist, composer, and bandleader from Chicago.

The centerpiece of Winter Jazzfest continued to be the weekend marathon nights, January 12 and 13.  It’s by now a smash hit.  There were about 9000 attendees trekking through 11 venues to take in 100 sets.


Stefon Harris & Blackout – Photo by Evangeline Kim


One of the best listening spaces in the city is the Tishman auditorium at the New School. On Friday night, I stayed for the continuum of just about 3 complete sets.  Stepping into Stefon Harris & Blackout’s set halfway through was instant pleasure.  A relatively young musician known for his mastery of the vibraphone, he also plays the marimba.

The “vibes” are not often heard as a lead instrument.  Harris’ playing embraced its luminosity with his group on guitar, piano, bass, and drums, featuring Casey Benjamin on alto sax and vocoder. His arrangements for the band and his playing were filled with constant mercurial inventiveness.  From dreamy R&B melodiousness to straight-ahead jazz with bracing funk phrasings, the group was on their toes. Before he launched into the group’s version of Horace Silver’s “The Cape Verdean Blues,” their finale, he spoke about the immigrant crisis and the vital necessity of defending them.

I want to say something about immigrants who come from this country, who made this country.  We are all immigrants here, whether voluntarily and involuntarily.  And it’s not just about the concept of diversity.  Many times people talk about diversity to pull people together of different races in the room, but they don’t really understand the concept of inclusion.  Just because you have people of color sprinkled among you doesn’t mean those people feel included…. 

You see, when we think about the immigrant populations who come to this country they come here with a hunger and a drive to better their lives, to better the lives of their children and their grandchildren.  They believe in the ideals that have established this country….  It’s to our benefit on a spiritual level to be gracious with one another….  When we’re going through changes as a nation, apathy does have an effect, it goes to the people who are winning the battle.  So if we’re going through a phase of hatred, of bigotry, and we sit around and do nothing we’re actually contributing to it.  So let’s come together as a community of artists, as a community of people who understand the power of art and compassion, to stand up and do something. Create an act of love in whatever way you need to do, so we take control of this battle.  It’s real out there.


Marc Ribot’s Songs of Resistance – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Next up, Marc Ribot’s “Songs of Resistance” project was a tough continuation of Stefon Harris’ advocacy for immigrants.  His set was a political condemnation of the current administration’s degradations and injustices.  He sang and chanted fiercely brutal songs inspired by the civil rights era and others from European and Latin American resistance movements.

After he commented on a recent ICE arrest of a “major activist,” Mr. Ribot’s lyrics wove in references to Woody Guthrie (“This Land is Your Land”) and refugee advocate Emma Lazarus’ poem (“Give me your tired, your poor”) inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.  James Brandon Lewis’s sax shrieked in dissonant outrage and Domenica Fossati added urgency with her back-up vocals.  Ribot’s renditions and English translations of the famous 40s Italian partisan resistance song against fascism, “Ciao Bella,” and Paquita la del Barrio’s diatribe against Mexican male sexism, “Rata de Dos Patas,” minced no words.


Nicole Mitchell’s Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks with Jason Moran – Photo by Evangeline Kim


NIcole Mitchell’s celebratory “Art and Anthem for Gwendolyn Brooks” with Jason Moran on piano topped off Friday night at the Tishman.  A liberation narrative performance with poetry by Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), the composition pays homage to one of Ms. Mitchell’s main influences.  Ms. Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 and the first African American woman inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1976.  Her works are historical testimonials to the social inequities and conditions of black people – with a distinct blues feel.

As Ms. Mitchell and Mr. Moran gave emotional muscle to her thoughts and ideas, Erica Hunt recited and Shana Tucker sang her poetry as if they were intimate diary entries or symbolic historical documentation. The final concert poem was “To The Diaspora,” with dancer Rashida Bumbray bobbing and shaking across the stage, adding polyrhythmic texture with her ankle rattles.  Mitchell/Moran with Shirazette Tinnin on drums and Brad Jones on bass, caught the meters and riffed on the poetic cadences with such brightness.  A wondrous moment of group triumph.


Antonio Sanchez and Migration – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Saturday night was a race around festival venues. It was frigid outside but the rooms were warm.  For me there were three more standout shows.  This was the opportunity to hear the much-touted Mexican drummer, composer, and bandleader Antonio Sánchez with his quintet Migration.  I caught about half of his electro-acoustic set.  Progressive and contemporary, the ensemble was balanced, graceful –  drums, bass, sax and electronic wood instrument, piano and keyboards, and vocals.  Mr. Sánchez’s exhilarating power of his gear combined with his polyrhythmic style (he uses both hands and feet) was the draw.  He scattered textured patterns around the other musicians or sometimes pounced suddenly with ricocheting volleys, asserting his presence and lead.


Nicholas Payton’s Afro-Caribbean Mixtape – Photo by Evangeline Kim


SOB’s hosted the live experience of New Orleans’ exceptional trumpet player Nicholas Payton’s “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” his latest recording project.  It was as much a tribute to the multitude of cultural influences that have flowed through New Orleans as the African Diaspora throughout the Caribbean.  Laid-back introspective grooves with social commentary about forms of black spiritualism as means of survival shifted to vibrant instrumental intensities. The group included original recording members – Mr. Payton on trumpet and keys, Vicente Archer, bass, Joe Dyson, drums, and Daniel Sadownick, percussion. They delved into jazz funk and Caribbean sacred rhythms with turntable scratching by DJ Lady Fingaz.  It was a vast ocean of sounds from the Americas in one sitting.


Sun Ra Arkestra and Space is the Place – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Sun Ra Arkestra’s live performance of the score for Sun Ra’s 1972 film, “Space is the Place” tied up the final marathon night with retrospective elan.  The late composer, bandleader, futurist piano and keyboard/synthesizer player, and “cosmic philosopher’s” epic film, matched the festival’s consciousness-raising ethos.  The film’s allegorical counter narrative against oppression served to remind that racism is still rampant today.

The concert with the film screening also represented Sun Ra’s tantalizing belief that his music is the path to salvation for the human race.  His musical collective, The Arkestra, lives on.  There were 14 musicians dressed in sequined technicolor robes including early eminent Arkestra sax members, Marshall Allen, Knoel Scott, and James Spaulding. To transform and heal itself, humanity needs tunings to higher outer planetary forces.  No doubt.

Winter Jazzfest served justice so well this year.  Through the listenings, we were fortified by strength, hope, and inspiration for the months ahead.  The festival has by now gained through its programming with a cause – a leadership reputation for presenting outstanding voices in defense of human rights.

APAP inspired much this year.  #resistance


The Allegorical Romance of “Layla and Majnun”

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival Presentation

Layla and Majnun Photo Credit: Susana Millman


Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival treated New York to a spectacular performance of the 7th century classic Arabic Bedouin tale of impossible love, “Layla and Majnun,” October 26-28.  There are numerous secular and mystical versions of the legend all over the world, once described by Lord Byron as  “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.”   Over centuries, two key poets in world literature popularized the story throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.  The story has become renowned and celebrated in the history of literature, visual arts, cinema, and music in many diverse cultures.

The 12th century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, whose epic poem of close to 5000 distichs rends the heart with the immense agony and longing suffered by Layla and Majnun, the two hapless protagonist lovers in the story 1. Their union is forbidden by their parents due to the all-consuming love madness of Majnun (meaning “possessed”).  Nizami’s version eventually influenced the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Muhammad Fuzuli’s version.  In turn, the Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, borrowed Fuzuli’s work to create the Middle East’s first opera that premiered in Baku in 1908.  Considered a national treasure in Azerbaijan, the 3½ hour long opera is still performed at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater every year as the season-opener.

Through collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Silk Road Ensemble, the late British artist, Howard Hodgkin, and Azerbaijan’s famed singers Alim Qasimov in the role of Majnun, and his protege daughter, Fargana Qasimova as Layla, Lincoln Center’s presentation was a finely wrought synthesis of the theme story in music, dance, and visual art.

Intense and fast-paced, the performance is based on Hajibeyli’s opera score and the libretto on Fuzuli’s poem, Leyli and Majnun.  Lasting just over 65 minutes, the original opera has been transformed into a chamber piece as a suite arrangement in 6 parts.  It opens with a prelude medley of traditional Azerbaijani love songs, sung by Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov who play frame drums, while accompanied by players of kamancheh spike fiddle and tar lute.   As an overture, the introduction foretells the passion, despair, and unbearable pain to come.  They set the tone for the complexity of the drama to unfold, the desperate yearning by two separated souls in quest of love and union with each other.

The actual performance condenses the story’s many episodes into 5 acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise.  16 dancers stylistically fuse ballet, Azerbaijani folk dance, and Sufi dervish whirling over tiered stage levels. They enact the sequence of dramatic episodes against a screened abstract painting of vibrant green and red giant expressionist brush strokes created by the artist Howard Hodgkin.

The music is glorious and the dramatic binding force. Flashes and passages of western classical modalities enhance the foundation of Azerbaijani classical music, the mugham genre.  In Lincoln Center’s program notes, Azerbaijani ethnomusicologist Aida Huseynova, notes,

Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia.  An improvised modal music, mugham historically has been performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle).  Mugham remains a precious part of the traditional music heritage of Azerbaijan.  Since the early 20th century, mugham also has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers…. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2.

In concert with the featured star vocalists, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated on a low dais center stage,10 musicians expand the traditional mugham trio formation.  On a diverse instrumental mix of kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa, hand percussion, two violins, viola, cello, and bass – they are true to the Silk Road Ensemble vision of global cultural cross-pollination and musical dialogue.  Theirs is a grand symphonic expression of the story, illuminated by rapidly changing passages of pathos, glints of joy in hope, sorrow.  Theirs too is delicacy and elegant refinement.

To hear the opening strains by the string musicians is to be transported to a realm of contemplation of the soul.  They tug at your heart, gently.  With a shift in tempo, all musicians join in, allegretto, and with urgency.  The symphony swells, bearing the powerful melismatic wails of Majnun.  Layla begins to lament, sob, and weep. The dancers whirl, swoop, and leap in rhythmic counterpoint movement with the orchestration.  So begins the impassioned, doomed dialogue between Majnun and Layla, musically alternating with instrumental passages.

Although on one level this is a tragic secular story of unrequited love, the entire performance narrative carries mystical overtones of Sufism.  Sufis have long interpreted the love story as a reflection of love for God.  In allegory, Majnun symbolizes the Human Spirit longing for the Beloved or Layla as Divine Beauty.

Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires. Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities 3.

There is also deeper meaning in the Azerbaijani mugham itself.  The musical experience is meant to bring about a transformation of consciousness.  Aida Huseynova has commented: “Mugham is about a catharsis.  You go through suffering and you purify your soul.  You come to some new phase of your development as a human being.  And this is the main meaning, spiritual and philosophical, of mugham.  Mugham is just not music, it’s a philosophy 4.”

A universal epiphany occurs in the ending death of Layla and Majnun – their ultimate union with the Beloved Divine.  Like a jewel, the facets of the performance still shine bright in memory.  I still haven’t decided if I felt that the performance as a suite composition could have been longer or whether I wished to be caught in its spell for just a few more minutes.


The WOMAD 2017 Experience


Everyone who loves music needs to make a pilgrimage to the UK’s phenomenal annual WOMAD – World of Music Arts and Dance Festival – founded in 1980 by Peter Gabriel,  To take in a mammoth feast of the world’s greatest music with kindred souls while one with nature in the English countryside is unimaginable pleasure and fun.  In its 35th year it’s a fantastic festival experience – with superlative marks for organization, production, and programming.



Charlton Park, the WOMAD site, is situated near Malmesbury in the midst of the lush, fertile farmlands of Wiltshire County where the daytime light moves swiftly from brooding shadows to brilliant sunlight.  (Wiltshire is locus for Stonehenge and Avebury Stone Circle.) This year’s edition had rain showers and sprinkles with occasional patches of blue skies.  There is no such thing as a raincheck in England.  Wellington boots are de rigeur.  As Simon Broughton, Songlines editor in chief remarked, “WOMAD people are resilient.”  (Songlines Magazine had a huge, cheery tent spanning at least 20 meters across for artists’ cd autographs and magazine sales. It was also the best shelter from rain spells.)

We have nothing like it in the U.S.  WOMAD 2017 took place at the end of` last month from Thursday July 27th to Sunday, the 30th.  100 artists from 50 countries. Huge performance tents  loomed up over the park’s several acres.  35,000 fans including masses of children, all of whom camped out in thousands of tents. (There are also nearby charming cottages if pampering is your style.)  It’s the British spirit of adventure that beckons locals and astounds internationals.  As well as the immersion in fresh-air countryside culture.  Yoga and Tai Chi classes were the mid morning rousers.  Add children’s activities, international cooking classes, music and dance workshops, and scores of food booths with tastings from Goa to Tibet.

Programming, so keenly attuned to what’s out there on the music markets, included several of the great established acts in the world music realm: Orchestra Baobab, Oumou Sangare, Seu Jorge, Bonga, Roy Ayers with Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Toko Telo, and Savina Yannatou.  Rapidly gaining international favor, Cuba’s Dayme Arocena, Estonia’s Trad.Attack, China’s Zhou Family Band, and Sudan’s Alsarah and the Nubatones all won over new fans.

However, my goal was to catch some artists rarely if ever seen in the U.S., whom I’d never seen before, and whose recordings I admire.  Here are the standouts.


Vigüela – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Based in Castilla-La Mancha (the land of Don Quixote), Vigüela, one of the greatest folk groups from the heart of Spain caught my ear last year with their splendid CD, “Temperamento” (ARC Music).  There are wedding and harvest songs and songs to accompany daily chores – even sheep-shearing music on the recording.  Viguela’s exuberant acoustic WOMAD concert seemed to make the earth sing in joyous, celebratory unison.  The excitement in the crowds was infectious as everyone clapped along to the rhythms with shouts of “Olé!”  I was certain how thrilled the spirit of the late BBC London’s radio presenter, musicologist, and writer, Charlie Gillett, must have been to welcome Vigüela to his dedicated BBC 3 WOMAD stage.


For over 3 decades, the group of 5 has managed to preserve their village songs with all the dedicated finesse and detail that could have been lost with time.  The members played the 12-string bandurria mandolin, lute, rebec fiddle, guitar, friction drum, tambourines, and castanets with aplomb, flair, and camaraderie.  They incorporated some of their recorded percussive ranch household utensils: spoon and pan, glass bottle, mortar, stones, cowbells, sieve, and sheep-shearing scissors.  The air rang with Vigüela’s renditions of sprightly dance music – the fandango, malagueña, seguidilla, and jota.  Strong, melismatic voices enraptured with fervent passion.  Towards the end a couple swirled and whirled to a jota dance song.  The group has injected ancient folk songs with rousingly fresh, dynamic, and revitalized new energies.  Vigüela is triumphant assertion of life itself.  They’re a classic.


Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The dense mangrove rainforest swamps on the Pacific coast of Colombia are home to most of the 5 million Afro-Colombians in the country.  There, in the small Timbiqui village of 20,000, surrounded by river waters, artisanal mining, hand panning for gold flakes, is one of the main local industries.  And the home origins of Nidia Gongora’s Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí.  Canalón refers to the chute through which earth and gold bits are funneled.  Women sift through and rinse the sediment pourings in river waters in search of gold.  Born in that environment, Nidia Gongora and her early high school mates formed Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí in 2003.

Nidia Gongora now has two musical personae:  her current CD “Curao,” is her first solo album. The recording is a dazzling electronically driven collaboration with British DJ and producer Quantic with an urban Latina feel.  She is better known and recognized as the ringleader of the award-winning, folkloric Grupo Canalón de Timbiquí.  Both styles are rooted in Colombia’s Afro-Amerindian currulao music.

Nidia’s onstage vocal accompaniment featured 3 other women dressed in sombreros and bright yellow and blue ruffled dresses.  They led complex harmonies in call and response choral formation with backing polyrhythmic percussive textures by 4 men players on marimba, and hand and stick drums.  Nidia herself carried and shook the women’s emblematic guasa shaker.  The group performed their region’s syncopated, gently rolling Afro-Amerindian music, sung for generations by village women as they panned for gold, cooked, breastfed, washed clothes in the river, and praised patron saints.  Clearly, the women in Timbiqui society carry the day, bringing musical upliftment and determination, lightheartedness and faith, to what is grueling, tedious work.  Given the WOMAD showers this year, the Grupo Canalon’s repertoire, originating in Timbiqui’s environment of abundant rain and river waters, was a concert consonant and a cleansing festival blessing.


Ifriqiyya Electrique – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Utterly unorthodox musically, yet exceeding expectations of a powerful performance, Ifriqiyya Electrique delivered a thunderous concert based on modalities of Tunisian ritual trance possession.  Their source lies in the Djerid Oasis region, where marginalized Africans worship the 13th century black Sufi saint, Sidi Marzuq.  The saint was born in Timbuktu, displaced as a captive, and eventually freed due to his prodigious miracles.  Every year over a few days in mid-summer, sacred psychic healing ceremonies known as “Banga” take place, dedicated to Sidi Marzuq.  Spirits (ruwahine) are summoned.  Mesmerized by the incessant beating rhythms amidst clouds of burning benzoin incense, Banga devotees become possessed and fall into convulsive trance. Ifriqiyya Electrique’s concert was a stylized musical enactment of the actual ritual.  Their performance strikes a remarkable balance between the rational and irrational.

The group’s central force are 3 adherents of Sidi Marzuq from Tozeur (Tarek Sultan, Yahya Chouchen, Youssef Ghazala).  At maximum volume, they played clattering qaraqab metal castanets and drum, measuring out the group’s sung, declamatory praises to Allah, the Prophet Mohammed, saints, and benevolent spirits.  Serving as interpolated sonic vectors, the guitarist (Francois R. Cambuzat) and bass player (Gianna Greco) with added electronic effects amplified and elevated the Banga grooves with serious rock swagger.

Part of the performance impact lay in the screened footage of the live ritual filmed in Tozeur: the percussionists leading the saint’s followers, nodding and weaving, stumbling and falling in wild, ecstatic trance (although the truncated screen needed to have filled the stage as full backdrop).  “Brilliantly conceived,” as Simon Broughton has noted, the performance in its visual and sound totality can make one feel part of the Banga ritual experience.  Following the concert, the percussionists from Tozeur came offstage and as they continued to play their metal castanets, children surrounded them, stepping to their beats in fascination.


Parvathy Baul and Somjit Dasgupta – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Rapture, sheer rapture, was my overwhelming reaction as I watched and listened to Parvathy Baul together with Somjit Dasgupta, who played one of India’s rarest string instruments, the sursringar. I remained captivated by them until their very last notes.

A Bengali Baul spiritual singer and a “sadhak” for more than 3 decades, Parvathy Baul has one of the most beautiful voices today on the Indian subcontinent. She’s a foremost female in the Baul male-dominated tradition.  Her WOMAD repertoire was drawn from yogic Baul mysticism, tracing back 15 centuries and more.  Over time, it has absorbed elements from Sufism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Vaishnavism, and Tantra.

With exquisite phrasing and a palette of nuanced melodic tonalities, Parvathy gave soulful cry to her intense emotions. By moments imploring, by others deeply solemn or merrily elated, she reached blissful completion with each song.  She spun around as she sang, her long streaming dreadlocks splaying forth.  High on mystical divine love, she imparted infinite peace, wresting herself free of earthly attachments.  Her sense of coordination was impressive – simultaneously plucking her ektara and tapping her duggi drum strapped to her waist; ankle bells ringing, she’s a one-woman minstrel band.

Yet it was Somjit Dasgupta’s shimmering, meditative, sitar-like glissandos and bass-pitched sarod sonorities on his sursringar that added luminous dimensions to Parvathy’s presence.  They haven’t recorded together, but they must. They are delirious enchantment.

Just as I was leaving to prepare for my flight back to New York, I noticed masses of Afro Celt Sound System fans, including droves of teenagers and young children cramming the Charlie Gillett stage grounds.  Everyone was dancing in the passing rain shower. Steaming heat rose from the wet grass as those Wellington boots stomped away.  Farther along on the festival grounds, thousands covered the field facing the main Open Air Stage.  More dancing to classic reggae tunes by the inimitable Toots and the Maytals.  In the distance, the festival’s illuminated ferris wheel was glowing like a giant silvery moon. The world was happy.

Don’t miss WOMAD next year, July 26-29, 2018.  (You might get hooked.)


APAP 2017 – World Voices, We Are One

Mario Garcia Durham, APAP President and CEO – Photo by Adam Kissick/APAP


Part I APAP World

January 6-10 in New York City marked the Association of Performing Arts Presenters (APAP) 60th Anniversary celebration as the world’s leading global performing arts gathering, marketplace, and members conference.  Over 45,000 performing arts professionals and enthusiasts come together to experience and participate in the city-wide conference event. 36 countries were represented among hundreds of international registrants.

They were over 1,500 city-wide showcases and full-length performances, public programs, keynote speakers and plenaries, a giant Expo Hall at the Hilton with close to 400 exhibitors, and professional development and networking opportunities, all representative of a vast and diverse industry, nationally and internationally.  It never ceases to amaze how many vibrant APAP-related events spring to life all over the city over a few days.

On a much graver note, the APAP conference coincided with the current period of precarious political uncertainty in America.  The incumbent administration’s policies and actions in this country encourage and promote racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, isolationism and nationalism. To help counter those hatreds and fears, those proposed physical and metaphoric walls and borders, those denials of human rights, freedom of artistic expression will be a powerful, symbolic force in the coming years. Its survival is vital in the presenting communities here and abroad.  Also, at this pivotal moment and at no other time in recent history has the need for arts advocacy been more urgent, especially as proposed draconian budget cuts include the complete elimination of the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

APAP president and CEO Mario Garcia Durham is a reassuring presence in spite of all peril:

We are here to help our members navigate and ‘FLOW through” the transition of governments locally, nationally and internationally by offering support and tips for educating and briefing new officials about the importance the performing arts play in every community and in society as a whole.  We’ll do what we always do, while also looking for more opportunities to bring additional audiences and artists into the performing arts, providing a platform for performing arts professionals to engage in discussions and solutions around pressing current issues such as cultural conflict, social justice and overcoming the challenges of equity, access and inclusion.  Art organizations are leading in a time politically that requires a continual flow of thoughtfulness, planning and action to ensure creativity, relevance and sustainability.”

For the internationalist, world-oriented mind, APAP has inspired, supported, and promoted at least 3 key annual events for more than a decade.  Wavelengths – the APAP World Music Preconference session, and two showcase festivals, globalFEST and Winter Jazzfest.  The values mutually inherent in the 3 events uphold diversity, inclusiveness, and respect for global cultural ecologies.  They are the antithesis of political developments in Washington today.


For the past several years Dmitri Vietze, the founder and CEO of the public relations firm Rock Paper Scissors, has produced the APAP World Music Preconference, the largest gathering of world music professionals in the U.S.  This is the second year the firm organized this “mini-conference” together with globalFEST, under the newly branded title Wavelengths. Tristra Yeager with Rock Paper Scissors and Nicole Merritt Chari with globalFEST are the co-organizers.  Creative entrepreneurship thrives here.

All the latest developments in the music industry affecting the world music field can be heard about and delved into here through panel discussions and topical focus.  Industry leaders, thinkers, record producers, presenters, agents, managers, artists, all throng to this free 2 day public event.  Wavelengths is always populated with seasoned pros who excel in entrepreneurial knowledge and who have helped shape better understanding of the rapidly shifting forces in the music industry.  Technology and monetization of cultural expressions are given frequent focus.

The pace of the preconference was measured, the spirit upbeat.  Among this year’s topics were: Breaking Into/Navigating the U.S. Market, Global Music Trends, What Works in Live Performance Videos, Sustaining the World’s Music Traditions, Strengthening Our Global Music Ecosystem, and Global Market Spotlight on India, Mexico, and Morocco.

Meklit Hadero, Ethiopian-American singer, composer, cultural activist, and Ted Fellow delivered the rousing and timely keynote talk: “Re-thinking the We: World Music, Cultural Activism, and Global Citizenship in 2017”.  Fiercely optimistic, Hadero draws her sustenance from her rich, “hyphenated” identity.  She noted that 2042 signifies a year of predominant racial mixes in this country’s population.  “2042 is the year America becomes a majority minority,” she affirmed.

She sees the American story as a global story, an immigrant story of interdependent identity, and the theme of her new upcoming cd.  “Out of many, we are one, we are responsible for all as cultural activists.”  Meklit’s talk rings loud and clear in opposition to Washington’s current supremacist, divisive fears.

One of the most important aspects of Wavelengths is the networking opportunity for world music professionals and artists. It’s the time to catch up with colleagues from all parts of North America and beyond.  Communities come together in solidarity.  In Part II meet 5 Wavelengths attendees from different regions in the U.S. who share their APAP impressions for this year:  Tristra Yeager (Indiana), Ismael Ahmed (Michigan), Mark de Clive-Lowe (Los Angeles), Birane Sarr (New York), and Diana Ezerins (Washington): “Wavelengths Voices of Courage, Hope, Resilience.”


For its 14th season, globalFEST delivered another fascinating showcase of the world’s sounds, from celebratory traditional styles to sophisticated abstractions.  The producers’ challenge is formidable: to represent contrasts in genres and geographies, always mindful of quality.

While it’s always been a struggle to navigate official restrictions and policies concerning international artists’ visas – now with even more hurdles and challenges on the horizon in the U.S. – globalFEST manages to introduce global crowd-pleasers for diverse tastes and venues – for stadiums and festivals to more intimate performing arts spaces.  12 overlapping acts on 3 stage floors at Webster Hall over 5 hours in one evening.  It was high-spirited, exhausting fun ending on the stroke of midnight, only to be followed by the Joe’s Pub globalFEST afterparty with a live performance by Red Baraat.


Septeto Santiaguero – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Betsayda y La Parranda El Clavo – Photo by Evangeline Kim


L’Orchestra Afrisa International – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Among the many, there were two contrasts in styles bridging the traditional and the modern.  On the more traditional side, Cuba’s classic Septeto Santiaguero and the Afro-Venezuelan singer Betsayda y La Parranda El Clavo from the Americas along with the Congo’s Afrisa International were strong examples of what American audiences love.  Septeto Santiaguero, winner of the 2015 Latin Grammy for Best Traditional Tropical Album, honed its mighty “sabroso” sound at Santiago de Cuba’s famous nightclub Casa de la Trova. The Webster Hall ballroom floor was an ocean of happy, swinging dancers as this crisp, tightly rehearsed band rolled forth its son-montuno repertoire with syncopated call and response phrasings with vocals, brilliant horns, guitars, and peppery percussion.

Betsayda y La Parranda El Clavo jammed the middle Marlin Room with an opening procession of singers and drummers winding through the packed crowds.  No Western instrumentation, just voices, hand drums and percussive textures were fulsome enough musical accompaniment for this joyous group.  Led by Betsayda Machado with her commanding vocals, the group’s infectious stage presence caught up all in the wild frenzy of a Afro-Latin village celebration of dance and song.  Some of the rhythms seemed imbued with syncretic spiritual ritual.  Betsayda’s African root rhythms syncopated with Latin beats elevate her music to levels worthy of Alan Lomax.

Although there were hopes to see Mbilia Bel, the superb, beautiful Congolese singer from the 80s and 90s and “Queen of African Rumba” with one of Congo’s greatest bands, L’Orchestre Afrisa International founded by Tabu Ley Rochereau in 1970, she didn’t manage to make the gig.  However, the group went beyond expectations and held its own with gloriously seductive, sinuous soukous rhythms.  With the enduring marvel Nseka Huit-Kilos on sparkling lead guitar, Miz Blandine, singer and dancer, carried on her idol Mbilia Bel’s tradition, backing the band with veteran Afrisa singers, Dodo Munoko and Wawali Bonane. Afrisa International proved to be more than a revival with its vibrant freshness.


Maarja Nuut – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Jojo Abot – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Ssing Ssing – Photo by Evangeline Kim


There were three intriguing globalFEST 2017 standouts that I like to think of as “modernists.”  Estonia’s Maarja Nuut, Ghana’s Jojo Abot, and Korea’s Ssing Ssing, spanning three continents amazingly enough.  They create and shape unusual resonances with older form references.

Cerebral tunings and cyclical modular harmonies based on old village tunes filled Maarja Nuut’s performance.  The fiddler singer seemed to make soundscapes for suspenseful fairytales or village jigs in a far off forest land.  Pedal loops and electronica expanded, abstracted, and layered the larger haunting sound.  Hers was the intimacy of an art gallery experience with barest hints of symphonic elegance à la Philip Glass.

Jojo Abot is a sleek performance artist with Fela on her mind.  She wore a silver lavender wig and a long white minimalist gown with silver face paint.  She had the persona of a futuristic African cult goddess.  Her stage was filled with red balloon props. Electronic echoes with reggae dub vibes gave her sung and spoken word toasting style an otherworldly spacey dimension as she hopped off the Studio Room stage to mingle with the crowds. Her lyrics and feral presence hail self-empowerment.  Her band is impressive, sometimes with a slow West African highlife feel.

Ssing Ssing was a layered surprise musically and visually.  There is the immediate spoof-like look of the band.  Wearing American flag colored wigs, red, white and blue, two of the sassy lead singers were in drag while the third, a woman.  Wearing flashy costumes, they rocked old romantic Korean folk tunes with high disco energies.  The gender twist has references to traditional shamanism, where the female and male transform into genderless, healing spirit.  The Studio Room was jumping.

Winter Jazzfest

Thanks again to APAP’s abiding support, the city hosted another edition of the eagerly anticipated Winter Jazzfest (WJF). The producers literally take over the entire range of west to east village music venues, all within relative walking distance.  This year’s 12 venues were a ‘moveable feast’ over six days with over 150 acts and 600 musicians.  For the first time in 13 years, the festival took on a theme: social justice.

“The 2017 NYC Winter Jazzfest explicitly supports social and racial justice by presenting socially engaged artists who have urgent and beautiful musical messages to share.  Directly addressing the sense of crisis confronting our nation, we stand firmly with #blacklivesmatter, the American Civil Liberties Union, and seek to address issues of discrimination, police brutality, abuse of power, xenophobia, sexual and gender discrimination, that are all threatening to become more deeply institutionalized in the coming administration.

Artists have always been at the heart of movement-building and social solidarity.  Protest and resistance are central to jazz’s existence from its beginnings as the music of marginalized black Americans.  Jazz’s vitality and effectiveness in voicing truths about life in America has not changed.  As wide-ranging as music can be in style, format and message, so is the manner in which it reflects the politics and social issues of today.” – Winter Jazzfest Program Notes

Club-hopping during the WJF Marathon Friday and Saturday evenings is part of the sampling challenge, and the programming was exhaustive and… exhausting.  Straight-ahead jazz to experimental and international, there’s incredible innovation taking place now on the downtown jazz scene.  What’s consistently impressive each year is the number of younger musicians, international and local, programmed with well-established stars.

Out of many, here are some of the marathon showcases I liked.  Two emerging international artists and 4 masters.


Dayme Arocena – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Shabaka and the Ancestors – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Cuba’s Dayme Arocena is a gifted young singer with a bubbly personality and instant crowd appeal.  After seeing her happy Le Poisson Rouge showcase at WJF, I feel the same about her new recording Cubafonia.  I really enjoy her Afro-Cuban rumba and the deep spirituality in her Santeria songs where she excels.  When she dips into English lyrics with her forays into neo-soul, the rhythmic language disconnect from her natural strengths – Cuban Spanish or Yoruban rhythms – makes the music almost inaccessible.  Yet she represents all of the newer trends among younger Cuban musicians and shifts easily between jazz idioms, soul with light-hearted passion, and guaguancó dance rhythms.

Shabaka and the Ancestors is a collaboration between the Barbadian-British saxophonist, composer, and band leader, Shabaka Hutchings, and some of South Africa’s exceptional jazz musicians.  Their recent album Wisdom of the Elders gained enough praise to warrant group touring.  There were strong open-ended stylistic synergies at Le Poisson Rouge between Shabaka’s American references, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders, Coltrane, for example, along with his Afro-Caribbean identity – and Johannesburg’s younger jazz players steeped in the country’s long historical path of spiritual resistance against racial and class oppression.  “We need new hymns, we need new songs,” intoned singer Siyabonga Mthembu. The group could not have debuted in New York at a more meaningful moment.  Their music reflected past struggles for social justice, omens perhaps for the present.


Uri Caine Quartet – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Ravi Coltrane and David Virelles – Photo Evangeline Kim


Bill Frisell and Thomas Morgan – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Nik Bärtsch/ Mobile – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Winter Jazzfest is known increasingly for attracting jazz masters.  There are rare opportunities to catch their brief live performances without too much formality within a few days.

The last 25 minutes of pianist, composer, and arranger Uri Caine’s hour long set at the New School was a treat.  Known for his contemporary reimaginings of classical composers through jazz improvisations, whether Mozart, Bach, Schumann or Mahler, Uri Caine is a dazzling piano phenomenon.  With back to audience in a quartet with trumpet, bass, and drums, his music revealed a merry soul.  He’s riveting to watch play.  In the last song, Green Dolphin Street, Caine’s muscular chromaticisms and spidery keyboard dexterity rivaled a complex Czerny piece with nods to the elegance of Duke Ellington swing.

The ECM Stage underscored its reputation as a venerable label.  This was ECM’s second year as a label showcase presenter at the New School’s wonderful Tishman Auditorium.  The music listening was so good I stayed for 3 hours,  I caught just the end of the set by Ravi Coltrane – sax and David Virelles – piano, an early intro to their upcoming album as a duo.  The last two songs I heard showed the flash and fire of their combined prowess.  Cascades of sound towards end of “Leo” mirrored the restless fervor of these two artists.  They finished with “Lush Life” by Billy Strayhorn to waves of applause.  (“In Movement” with Jack DeJohnette, Ravi Coltrane, and Matthew Garrison is up for a Grammy.  The version of “Alabama” is pretty extraordinary, as is the rest of the album.)

Guitarist Bill Frisell with Thomas Morgan on electric bass will also have a new ECM release soon.  The live experience of Bill Frisell was like a meeting with an eloquent friend who offered intimate glimpses into his world.  The luminous lyricism in his tonalities, the transparency of his emotions, are incomparable.  By the time the hall was ringing with an American repertoire including Fats Domino’s “What a Party, “Mumbo Jumbo” by Paul Motian, and “Subconscious-Lee” by Lee Konitz, he settled into a long train of musical thought, Motian’s “It should have happened a long time ago.”  As I listened to the duo’s gently modulated phrasings and octaval reflections, it occurred to me that Frisell truly “makes” music, he just doesn’t play a song, such the sense of wonder he conveys.

The final showcase concert for the night seemed like one long mysterious song by the Swiss pianist, composer, and producer Nik Bärtsch. “Continuum” featured Bärtsch’s acoustic group’s most recent album Mobile.  The group is known by the same title name.  The recording and the performance are a study in contrapuntal modular pieces that allow the tightly locked quartet of players – bass and contrabass clarinet, two drummer-percussionists – to explore Bärtsch’s piano phrasings and cues.  With metronomic precision, the performance built slow, trance-like ostinatos towards explosive polyrhythmic jazz funk intensities.  The element of performance art lay in shifts of lighting sequences throughout the overlapping cycles.  Darkness and chiaroscuro light and shadow dramatized finessed subtleties and suspensefulness in the calibrated passages.  The set lasted for about an hour.  Mobile is known to perform for 36 hours straight.

There is comfort and sanctuary in music and the performing arts, the power to celebrate and uphold the planet’s diversities, the way to justice and beauty, the universal goodness of life.  It’s worth fighting for.

Part II


Wavelengths Interview Excerpts

Voices of Courage, Hope, Resilience


Wavelengths Co-Organizers Nicole Merritt Chari and Tristra Yeager – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Tristra Yeager, Wavelengths: APAP World Music Pre-conference Co-Organizer and And Head Writer with Rock Paper Scissors

Wavelengths is a great way for artists and professionals new to the field to meet kindred spirits and potential allies. We try to create a little community within the larger madcap world of APAP. The conference has so much great stuff going on, it can feel overwhelming. So I like to think we provide a harbor for people looking to connect around global music, as well as a portal to the wider performing arts

My colleagues at globalFEST and I put our heads together and try to look critically at the issues that are affecting artists and the presenters who love them. We try to think of ways to do more than have abstract conversations, but also give concrete ideas and tools for people to consider. One of my dreams is for our community and all its stakeholders to come together and see how their interests align. It would be great to build capacity and find new sustainable ways to work together, for the good of all, fans, musicians, presenters and pros alike.

We like to bring in globalFEST artists with expertise in particular areas to speak to those skills and experiences. We also try to make sure what we do works toward globalFEST’s mission of expanding and enriching international music opportunities in our market.

From the artist perspective, I see the objective is to make musicians’ professional, business lives easier. It’s hard to sort through all the possibilities or take advantage of all the platforms and ideas that *might* work. Moreover, there is so little advice that applies specifically to people making music “from elsewhere,” people who may be combining traditions or genres or practices, people who have hybrid lives and thus hybrid work. The context and deeper meaning or message in this work is so important, and I think most of us agree about that. That said, it’s not easy to figure out exactly how to harmonize message and business goals. I think it can be done, but it requires a lot of knowledge and reflection. I hope we help facilitate that.

From the presenter perspective, we want to make connections with new artists and forms, as well as hear their concerns and needs.  University performing arts centers, forward-thinking venues like Yerba Buena or the Cedar in Minneapolis, and the eclectic and world music festivals all have their own approaches, but there’s a lot that’s shared. We strive to provide a platform when those commonalities and struggles can be discussed openly and productively.

In short, we want a stronger ecosystem for global music. We want everyone to get to hear the world’s music, to open people’s minds to the world via their ears.


Ismael Ahmed and Singer Eva Salina – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Ismael Ahmed, Board Member of The Arab American National Museum and Curator of Detroit’s Concert of Colors

This is my 15th or 20th APAP conference and I even served a while back on the board.  I feel the conference continues to  become more and more diverse both in terms of the kinds of people and the ideas that people bring to the conference.  I really like the world music pre-conference and other kinds of things that go on.  Just the opportunity to meet with people I don’t see every day but share many of the same ideas.  APAP is a great conference and it’s also taking place at a pivotal time, especially given the promises of the Trump administration.  I am, like a lot of people, apprehensive as I watch the choices for cabinet ministers and advisors.   I really think the president-elect intends to do many of the things he talked about.  And many people say, “Well, why don’t you just wait and see?”  I don’t believe that’s a wise way to conduct ourselves given the severity of many of the things.

I’m an Arab and a Muslim and, you know, he talked about creating a secret police for Arabs and Muslims. He talked about registering Muslims.  Those are really scary things and I think there are a series of ideas out there that I worry about.  What will the future of the arts be?  In this kind of administration?  But more importantly than the negative is the positive.

The arts have always played a pivotal role in building consciousness in this nation and in this world, and in our history.  So I look to many of the artists and activists that are here to be a part of whatever solutions, whatever resistance, whatever ideas, to move forward into the society.  We’re probably meeting at one of the most pivotal times in American history, and it’s enjoyable to me to walk around and talk to creative, intelligent people who share those concerns and want to figure out what that means.  What does that mean for their art?  What does that mean for their communities? What does that mean for their lives?

So in addition to being here for APAP I’m also here talking to different progressive groups and trying to bring them together around the country, to try and get us out of our silence.  Again the arts plays an important role here: it brings people out of their silence, it brings people together, and so I’m just enjoying talking to people and the facilitation that’s taken place for us to be able to do that.

I’m also here as a presenter.  This is the 50th anniversary of the Detroit riots.  Or the Detroit Rebellion.  So our full festival will be about that.  The Concert of Colors in Detroit.  In addition most of the major arts organizations in the city will be collaborating with us for the festival so I’m trying to look at presentations that talk about the concerns of the day, that talk about the Civil Rights Movement, that talk about our future.  So it’s been an interesting set of visits to agents and artists, and just the meetings we’ve had with that in mind as well.  Then there’s just the beauty of being with so many creative, capable people.

On Resistance,  Artistic Expressions, Presenter’s Responsibilities

I think resistance takes many, many forms, and certainly the resistance of ideas and creation as a key part of that.  Standing up to attempts to defund the arts which I probably expect will happen.  Standing up to the attempts to censor the arts.  Also encouraging others to use their art to inform, educate, and yes, resist whatever comes forward.

I don’t underestimate the power of the arts to move people, to educate people.  And I think that it’s usually underestimated.  There’s a reason why tens of thousands of people will go to a stadium to listen to some music that may in fact have the same message as a politician.  There’s real power in culture, especially progressive culture.  While it’s certainly not a silver bullet, it’s the important element of what has to happen in this world, whether it’s this administration or any other.

Well, I think it will be varied [forthcoming artistic expressions}.  You know, it’s always been varied, but artists  have always kind of lead the way in social movements.  As things become more difficult in the world, not just politically but in terms of many of the negative outcomes that we’re looking at in the future, I thinks artists will stand up to that.  It’s normal.  And they may stand up in very different ways.  Some of them will just create their own beauty.  And others will be much more direct.  Generally in periods like this, they tend to be more direct and certainly I encourage that.  As a presenter I try and book people who have something to say.

Presenters are responsible to the communities that they present in.  To put forward not only beauty but forward ideas.  I would not be a good presenter if I just chose to ignore all that goes on around me.  We all need to be conscious, whether as artists or human beings.  I want to present conscious art.

APAP should be a broad representation of the people across the country where ideas are shared.  One of the ideas APAP is built on is working toward diversity.  I think it believes it is an organization that champions the rights of people, people of color, and others – working people.  That’s kind of at the lowest level and that’s wonderful.  We shouldn’t be asking them more than that.  They should decide what they want to do.

I’ve watched over the years, their selection of key artists, their selection of workshops, to give opportunity for all of us to grow in our relationships, our consciousness, our work together.  That’s the positive thing, something that’s needed.  Where you go from there depends on your commitment to your communities.

The one thing APAP doesn’t do well still, is assure that artists and presenters and agencies think about what their responsibility is to their communities.  And that’s a hard thing to do because you don’t want to question the freedom of all those people.  But we are responsible for each other, for our communities, and for the world.  And I think we could do better as far as education about that.  Artists too have responsibilities. I know some people think, “do what you do” and “that’s that” as long as you’re creative, but from my point of view, we’re responsible to all those around us, we live in a living world and so we have to respond to that.


Mark de Clive-Lowe (left) with Dmitri Vietze and Fabian Alsultany – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mark de Clive-Lowe, Pianist, Composer, Producer and Electronic Artist

Main website:

This year was my first time at APAP.  I attended the Wavelengths pre-conference days and globaFEST but not the full conference – but it was plenty to give me insight into the community and ideas behind the conference as well as plenty of inspiration to take away.  Wavelengths was a continuous stream of insightful conversations and panels.  Most of all though, the opportunity to meet and idea share with open minded creatives was truly special. Coming from the jazz and electronic worlds, the open mindedness and community spirit in everyone I met was enlightening – no pretense and none of the elitism that mars other more homogenous music genres.

I’ve been surrounded by world music in one form or another for a long time but often it was as a flavor added to a setting where jazz was still the main focus.  Over the Wavelengths two days though, so many ideas came to mind for me with realizations of how i can contribute my musical voice to this community and contribute to the seemingly open-ended exploration of our planet’s music and creative cultures.

As a Japanese-New Zealander and having resided at length on four different continents, I’ve sometimes been at a loss as to how to share my own story through my music – now there’s fresh ideas for that, thanks in large to the many conversations and interactions over those days. globalFEST was a great way to wrap up the weekend – seeing a lot of the ideas we talked about in action on the Webster Hall stages.  By far the most impactful for me was Betsayda Machado y La Parranda El Clavo.  With nothing more than drums and voices, the band had us all spellbound and transported us deep into their history, culture and story.  Inspiring stuff to say the least!


Patricia Sarr, Mario Garcia Durham, Birane Sarr – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Birane Sarr, President, New African Production, APAP 2017 Exhibitor New African Production

Thanks to APAP, now a lot of people are coming to know New African Production.  I’ve been in the African music business since 2000 and am based in New Jersey. Over the years we’ve done a lot of shows here in New York with Joe’s Pub, SOB’s, and others in Manhattan and Harlem.  For the past 3 years we’ve been an APAP exhibitor working to expose the African artists I work with. I feel APAP is the best way to promote and market our New Generation African Collective to world music presenters.  For the past couple of years we’ve been touring the young Senegalese New Generation Collective here in the U.S. and Europe – like Pape Diouf and Aida Samb.  Last year we brought Pape Diouf to 16 stages, including those within the Senegalese local communities.  During APAP we aim to expose the Senegalese culture and help the artists to develop their career in the world music arena.

To create your business in this country, it’s better to take things step by step and build your credibility through an APAP presence. I have learned that it is very important to start here.  Every year for the past 3 years we’ve been promoting what we have, doing the shopping and marketing, and contacting the presenters.  We know it takes time, but we’re on our way. The rest, we leave it to God.

What I see here with the presenters is a preference for the old school, not discovery of the younger generation. The new generation, unlike their elders, have studied and learned the music at the conservatory in Senegal.  They’re great musicians, but people are always asking me about Koffi Olomide, Baaba Maal, Youssou N’Dour, who have long been established in the markets here.   However, when we brought Pape Diouf last year, all the concerts were sold out.  At any festival we did from Madison, Wisconsin to Schenectady, Chicago, Atlanta, we gained thousands of new fans.

APAP is vital if you want to be in this business and you want to be part of world music.  Here meeting new presenters in person is important.  Because sometimes if you send out email they’re not going to open your email.  But when you exhibit here, people are going to know who you are.  Our goal is long-term relations.  We know we have the best young talent and we want to take it step by step to get what we want tomorrow.  It’s very important for New African Production to be present here every year, as well as at WOMEX, for example.

When I started here, I understood why other African promoters didn’t participate in APAP.  They only give focus to their own local communities as their markets, mainly because 65 % of artists they bring here are not known to the larger world music fan base.  Our market goals are much larger, diversified, and broader.  We aim to build careers for our artists.  Making money is not the priority.  We love to share our music, our culture.   When we built this company 16 years ago, our main goal was to create cultural exchange, learn a lot, expose the best of the younger generation, and this has not changed.

A lot of people don’t know what’s going on in African culture. They don’t take advantage of a Google check to see what’s out there, who’s there after Youssou N’Dour and others.  Who’s Pape Diouf?  How long has he been in the market? Who’s Wally Seck?  Aida Samb?  65% of the younger generation born in 80s studied music, they can play any instrument.  They read music, yet understand their own notations, tunings.  Many musicians before them couldn’t read music, but if you give this younger generation any score, they can play it.  Ask young Senegalese such as Alioune Wade to play with Marcus Miller, they can do it.

The investment decision to exhibit at APAP is mine, it’s my own money.  I never have any help from the Senegalese government.  As a patriot, all I wish to do is to help the careers of young musicians because I love the music.  Yes, the business is gradually coming in now.  When we bring the artists to the U.S., we always take care of their accommodation, sometimes in my own house, and their transportation.  Fortunately at the outset, artists are not focused on money.  They’re looking at their career and are willing to make the sacrifice to break through.

I haven’t totally mastered APAP, but step by step, I’ll get there.  It takes time as the only African exhibitor at APAP who exposes young talent, relatively unknown in these markets.  That’s very tough.  When you have a big name, everyone knows the artist, but when you have young talent, you have to work much harder.  Presenters have to trust your taste, your judgment. They come to love our artists, they buy, they try, and the next year they’re going to call you again.

One thing I feel APAP could do better is their orientation for new exhibitors, such as usage of their database.  When I first came no one helped me.  Based in NYC for 20 years and sixteen years focused on this business, I have come to know a lot of people. I attended APAP for 7 years as a visitor earlier on, just to check it out.  I’ve had three artists at globalFEST – Fallou Dieng, Meta and the Cornerstones, and Yoro N’Diaye, long before my exhibition booth here.  It’s been easier for me because I came to study and learn for 7 years.  Now it’s been 10 years that I’ve been coming to APAP.  After the 2nd year, I understood the process a lot more.  Set-up, logging in to APAP and downloading the list of people you want to work with and meet.

I’ve been very happy to be here for the past 3 years. It’s a learning process and it’s very tough.  I hope for next year, a lot of young African promoters will see what I’m doing and become inspired, use me as a role model.  I’m not building my name, I’m building my company, New African Production.  Our main focus is not on the money, but on what we love, to help the artists build their careers and share our culture.


Diana Ezerins – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Diana Ezerins

Programming Manager

Millennium Stage / Performing Arts for Everyone / Community Engagement

I curate the programming for the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, a daily, free performance series. We host an audience averaging 350 people a night, and serve an online audience via simulcast on our website, Facebook live, and YouTube. Twenty years ago, the series was created to make the arts as accessible as possible without financial or geographical barriers. It has evolved into a space to feature regional, national, and international talent and represent the breadth and depth of culture in society.

We strive to democratize our programming practice by identifying collaborators of varying types – artists, activists, educators, youth, embassies, organizations, other presenters, etc. – in a co-curation process that allows for wildly more input from more voices, and results in an expanding audience more representative of society as a whole.

Communities of practice are able to self select and address the needs and desires of their audience. I often think of myself as a Park Ranger with the goal of ensuring the Kennedy Center showcases all artistic styles and assists in fostering multicultural understanding in a space that allows audiences to learn, and a multitude of art forms to be celebrated on a national platform.

APAP to me

The Arts Professionals* Conference has always been an exciting and important start to the year.  Gathering with our colleagues to bond over music and discuss the challenges and successes of the previous twelve months is crucial to our collective evolution as a field, and as a nation. It is also a great joy.

I am not sure how long APAP has utilized a team to curate the panels, discussions, and presentations for the conference. I can say that this year, I noticed their efforts to embrace the vibrant community in the process, and I was grateful to the team for what they created.

The first event I attended was part of the Globalfest + Rock Paper Scissors Wavelengths sessions, a lecture by Meklit Hadero. Her presentation, Hope and Cultural Activism, set the stage for the rest of the weekend, as well as the role of our field as we advance into the future. Themes centered around global citizenship, embracing the entirety of our American identity, and the grandeur of the truly universally encompassing and dynamic “WE”. She concluded her talk with a bow of positivity highlighting wins and successes over the last year, such as the people gathering together to challenge the course of the Dakota Pipeline.

During another panel, our leaders borrowed from methods of the tech world to have the themes of the discussion informed by those in the room. We were all encouraged to write down a topic of interest on a post-it, present it to the group as a whole, and the eight conversation topics that garnered the most traction would be explored in the four corners of the room in two, thirty-minute mini-sessions.

I love group activities and participatory input to determine the collective outcome. Panels often get bogged down by having too many speakers using a big chunk of time for introductions to their backgrounds, then to the topic, resulting in a beginning level session that runs over before the conversations achieve any depth. This method was a great way to address the mixed needs in a room of music presenters and artists, and allow this group of 100+ experts in their own right the opportunity to participate. (Have you picked up on my theme, yet?)

A topic weighing heavily on my mind since the election has been how we in the arts sector can contribute to the challenges facing our country. Like wolves, humans are pack animals by nature, and we are drawn to those with shared values out of our need for survival. We leave our city for a short respite in the country, or on our way to a gig in another highly populated town, and we are reminded of the differences between ours and the world between cities (and vice versa).

As the group presented their topics, a girl before me in line announced her interest: “Breaking Out of the Bubble.” Egad, those were the very same words I wrote down on my post-it, and the same that had been shared over and over by the media in the weeks following the election. Of course, everyone is thinking about this very same thing! I approached the microphone and excitedly declared that I, too, am eager to discuss how we can break out of the bubble.

Common words do not equal a common language. My mistake was twofold – a lack of clarity coupled with my egocentric assumption. A lot of those who gathered in my circle came to explore my version of the bubble. The girl wanted to discuss networking, and how an artist can reach new people to book her band. We all ended up helping her to the best of our ability, and we did not discuss the role of the arts in society or how we can create opportunities to deepen appreciation and understanding in a country of polarized people. Mistakes made, but lesson learned – one must use a great deal of care when selecting words.

How can our sentences be crafted to optimize clarity in pursuit of our desired result? We can fight over the existence of climate change, or focus conversation on the need for environmental preservation, or the impact pollution has on our health, etc. If assumptions must be made, it is in our better interest to assume good intent and seek opportunities for teaching/learning instead of winning/losing. Don’t forget there are corporations profiting over pitting sides against each other.

While the daytime sessions and conversations are great, my favorite part of APAP is always nighttime. Ever since I was in elementary school clinging to my brown fischer price radio on weekend mornings listening to Casey Kasem, music has always been my breath and heartbeat, and my desire to hear something new and different is unquenchable. Additionally, I love an adventure.

As such, Winter Jazzfest and Globalfest are both heaven for me. With each, I get to wander, explore, and discover. It’s like traveling through a musical Wonkavator time machine – we visit the past, present, and future in all corners of the globe, and reflect on society as we experience this world of sound. Best of all, I get to share those discoveries with audiences in D.C. at the nation’s performing arts center. I am so grateful to my colleagues who organize those events.

I was also on a personal quest during this year’s APAP, and it relates to my own, individual bubble. Our field is becoming more accepting of the notion that there are many experts, and that none of us can really be the knower of all. Curation by one has been the standard approach. The approach of my department within the Kennedy Center is different. Ours is a curation by we. It can be sloppy, and take longer than an individual making all the decisions. I also tend to exist primarily within the APAP music circuit. On the train to New York, I thought this over, and told myself to focus this year on expanding my reach.

Another panel I attended was called, Disrupting the Flow: Leadership and Creativity. One of the first sentences uttered during the panel was something like, “who suffers from disruption and innovation? We/artists are rabid disruptors.” I was in the right place. This panel also included a breakout session for deeper discussion, led by some of this year’s APAP fellows. I followed the fellow who seemed to have a calmest, wisest demeanor, who turned out to be Tiffany Rea-Fisher. She led a difficult and therapeutic conversation centered around the struggles of those in the room. Funding, our collective necessary evil, was a big topic. Afterwards, Tiffany was kind enough to spare a few extra minutes for a chat about the fellowship and all she has gained through the experience.

In the final event, Taylor Mac’s closing statement to us all, he implored us to cultivate and encourage participation, embrace calamity, and delight in the possibilities. He dared us to defy vulnerability and fear, and begged the presenting world to stop suffocating the work of minorities by stuffing it into the black box.

It is no secret that our country is divided, and it didn’t start with the election. We need to participate in difficult conversations, and be brave enough to do so with people who do not agree with us. We as arts leaders need to recognize our role (and privilege) in this process.

Throughout the conference, I was happy to see dialogue that centered around active participation, explored presenting arts and culture in a pluralist yet inclusive country, and celebrating that variance is normal. I hope many walked away eager and inspired to continue these conversations in their own communities at their own organizations, or at the very least, to present artists that reflect the vibrancy of our world.


Global Musical Diversities in London, Songlines’ Cultural Activism

Numina by Zahra Hussain, Barbican Centre – Photo by Evangeline Kim


We live in confounding and perplexing times.  A relatively peaceful international order this past year has suddenly become upended by at least two recent political developments: the U.K.’s Brexit and the results of the presidential elections here in the U.S.  In both instances negative views concerning globalization and immigration threaten preservation and celebration of humanity’s rich cultural heritage and diversities.

Regressive electoral rhetoric here in the U.S. flaunted and promoted xenophobic intolerance, religious bigotry, racial hatreds, and misogyny.  Right-wing supremacist views loom on the horizon as the new normal.  In such a dangerously noxious atmosphere affecting the international, it’s critical to continue to explore and discover what’s noteworthy among the myriad global artistic, poetic and musical, expressions.  They form the world’s magnificent cultural ecosystem.  The proliferation and accessibility of world music recordings and concerts today in Europe and America, compared to, say, their “newness” 30 or 40 years ago, underscore much-needed cultural resistance against the political rants about metaphoric and physical borders and walls.

London Worldview

Across the pond, London is one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the world.  About a  third of Londoners are foreign-born where over 200 languages are spoken along with English, the official language.  This is the cultural “fabric” of the U.K.’s largest city that Simon Broughton, editor in chief of Songlines Magazine, mentioned during a visit this past fall preceding the U.S. elections, as I attended a couple of excellent Barbican Centre world music events.

Among the international stalwarts advocating world music, Songlines Magazine, launched in 1999, is one of the few remaining major print and digital music publications. Still not widely circulated in the U.S. though available on the net, the magazine covers global music, traditional and contemporary, popular and fusion, with impressive style and content. (The print edition with its handsome glossy lay-out is well-worth the subscription.)

In Simon’s view: “Rather than just being a music magazine, I have always seen Songlines as a way at looking at the world through its music. And music is a way of exposing people to other cultures in a pleasant, accessible and enlightening way. Once you’ve experienced another people’s music and culture, you understand them more and fear them less.”

Songlines, among other world music publications and sites, stands to gain a greater profile as a worldview counter-force, given emerging discriminatory, isolationist ideologies. This occurred to me as I followed Simon Broughton around London for a few days preceding the roiled U.S. presidential elections. Even the concept of Brexit seemed remote during two great concert events at the Barbican.

Transcender Sufi Night

Parissa – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Originally conceived as  “Ramadan Nights” in 2004, meant to explore the wealth of Muslim music traditions found throughout Islam’s historical geographies, the Transcender Festival evolved to include spiritual, devotional and trance-ritual sounds from all over the world.  This year there were two Sufi-related festival concert nights, programmed by Simon B.  I happily caught one.  Persia’s iconic Parissa co-billed with Turkey’s Meshk Ensemble.  It was a night reaching moments of incantatory rapture.

Parissa had not performed in London for 12 years.  The Barbican main hall was filled with Persian media and legions of fans who cherish her.  She has not been allowed, as a woman, to perform publicly in her country, due to political repression enforced since 1979.  Yet for over 40 years, she commands reverence and adulation whenever her rare appearances outside of Iran.  At home in Tehran, she manages to carry on her tradition through teaching the fine art of Persian song to young women.

Accompanied by an ensemble of musicians on tar, kamancheh, and tombak and daf percussion, her repertoire was dedicated to the great 13th century Sufi mystic poet, Mevlana Jelaluddin Rumi.   Her vocal expressive progression during the concert seemed like an epiphanic ascension towards divine mystical love over earthly pain and despair.

The SOAS American scholar of Persian music, Jane Lewisohn, who has followed her since the Shiraz-Persepolis Festival of Arts in the 70s, exclaimed following her performance, “Parissa always chooses the best poetry by Rumi.” Lacking regrettably were program notes with translations of the poems. However, I drew pleasure just from the sheer beauty of Parissa’s nuanced delivery of Rumi’s poems with instrumental interludes. Hers were elegant delectations, restrained, lit with spiritual passion.

Meshk Ensemble Video Clip by Evangeline Kim:


The real surprise of the Sufi-themed evening was the stunning opening concert by the Turkish Meshk Ensemble.  There are currently all sorts of Turkish whirling dervish groups in Turkey ranging from the new age to the nonsensical.  Most all authenticity in Turkish Sufi devotional music was lost in 1925 when Sufism was banned as “backward” in the country for various reasons.  The original 1001 days of dervish training in the Mevlevi lodge tradition were abandoned.  The rigorous training of dervishes in Sufism’s philosophy and thought, its ethical code of conduct (adab), and the related arts,  – particularly musical knowledge of the highly complex technicalities in the Turkish makam system seemed all but foregone according to the Meshk Ensemble’s spokesman and musician, Feridun Gündeş.  A deeply embedded cultural tradition of higher knowledge dissipated into forms of nostalgia and touristic exoticism.

Simon further notes, “It’s the state-supported Konya Sufi Music Ensemble that usually tours with ‘whirling dervish’ performances and performs regularly in Konya where Rumi was buried in 1273. But their performances seem routine and overblown. They have around 25 musicians and singers and it’s clear that the Mevlevi lodges employed much smaller groups of musicians. So Meshk’s style is much more authentic and more interesting as they are continually investigating new repertoire and not rotating the most common ayin pieces. You could compare Cevikoglu with artists like Roger Norrington or John Eliot Gardiner who transformed the approach to Beethoven and Bach 25 years ago.”

“Meshk’ in Turkish signifies the earlier pre-1925 Sufi musical educational training process from dervish master to student, the chain of transmission.  This tradition has been revived and is being upheld by the Meshk Ensemble’s leader, Dr. Timuçin Çevikoğlu, Mevlana scholar with the Ministry of Culture, and who also happens to be the director of the famed Konya Mystic Music Festival.

According to Feridun Gündeş, “He ​works​ diligently like a musical archeologist determined to ​discover​ ​how​ the great composers of the past ​intended​​​ their Ayin compositions to ​be performed​​.  His understanding is probably the closest we can get to the original works of the past. ​ ​Meshk Ensemble is the group he founded and created in order to give life to this critical restoration work through performance and recording activities.”

And so it was at the Barbican, we were transported to mystical Sufi realms by a brilliant, London-debut Meshk performance with players of ney, tanbur, bendir, kudum and beautiful vocals by Dr. Timuçin and Suleyman Ozen.  The first part featured “Ilahis” or devotional  hymns, sung and played during Sufi “dhikr” gatherings (remembrance of God).  The lyrics were poems written by some of Turkey’s great poets, including Yunus Emre and Pir Sultan Abdal.

The second part enacted the famed sema ritual ceremony with 5 dervishes whirling in a blur of billowing white robes across the stage to a rare ayin (music performed during sema), discovered a few years ago in official archives by Dr. Timuçin.  It’s known as the ‘Hicazkar’ makam – one of utter poise, serenity, and peace – composed by Mustafa Câzim el-Mevlevî in the late 19th century.  The lyrics were drawn from Rumi’s masterpiece, the Mathnavi, verses 292-320.

Transcender Art

On the upper level foyer at the Barbican, as accompaniment to Transcender, the visual artist Zarah Hussain’s light installation “Numina” drew mesmerized crowds.  Combining designs found in Islamic art and architecture with digital technique, Hussain’s basic hexagonal grid shifted with infinite geometric variations of dazzling color and light.  Psychedelic visual riffs leading to contemplative wonder.

Songlines Music Awards 2016

Songlines Best Artist Award 2016, Mariza with Simon B – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Launched in 2009, the Songlines annual awards has become a delightful concert event in recognition of outstanding talent on the world music scene..  A couple of nights later following Transcender, I took in another sold-out evening at the Barbican’s main hall, showcasing 4 winning acts based on current recording releases, voted in by Songlines’ contributors, its readership, and the general public: Mariza’s “Mundo”, Sam Lee’s “The Fade in Time”, Songhoy Blues’ “Music in Exile”, and Debashish Bhattacharya’s “Slide Guitar Ragas from Dusk Till Dawn”.

Simon B, as emcee, remarked, “For me this music is interesting because it brings us together.  The world is actually quite a small place with millions of diverse traditions.  Songlines is about making those better known.”


Sam Lee – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Contrasts in styles were in sharp relief.  Sam Lee opened the night with heart-tugging renditions of some the U.K.’s splendid folk traditions.  American record producer, Joe Boyd, in presenting Sam’s award stated: “The genius of Sam and his group has been to find a way to surround that music, those ballads, with really adventurous and interesting instrumentation that takes the rhythmic cue from the song rather than trying to impose something on it.”


Songhoy Blues – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Debashish Bhattacharya – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mali’s Songhoy Blues is tremendous in live performance and had the audience jumping and dancing  with its searing, rocking rhythms.  They excelled especially with the catchy “takamba” beat.  India’s Debashish Bhattacharya to me sounds better on the album compared to his performance that night.  He is not a strong, convincing vocalist, but surprisingly, sang one song.  His edgy twang on the slide guitar was remarkable technically, but the shimmering delicate power of sitar tonalities was the quality I missed.

Mariza, the Portuguese fado star, is forever glamorous and beguiling.  I hadn’t seen her live in several years, but her confidence and charm topped off the evening with immense celebratory joy.  The Songlines Awards concert is a fun-filled and exciting world music happening, not to be missed if you happen to be in London.  Every world music artist might aspire to be a winning Songlines act, appearing at the Barbican.

Malick Sidibe Solo Exhibition, Somerset House

Before I left London, Simon clued me in on the superb exhibition of works by the late Malian photographer, Malick Sidibe.  Ensconced within the larger Contemporary African Art Fair that ran for a few days in October at the Somerset House, the solo photography show is still up until January 15th.

While Mali’s roster of stars from the 60s to the present began to hit the world music markets – such as Ali Farka Toure, Boubacar Traore, Salif Keita, Toumani Diabate, Oumou Sangare, and Rokia Traore – in Mali’s capital, Bamako, Malick Sidibe was quietly documenting Mali’s popular life and people.  To view this exhibition is an astounding view into the lives of ordinary folk who became immortal stars reflected through the lens of this photographer.


Nuit de Noël (Happy Club), 1963 (c) Malick Sidibé


Simon Broughton Portrait, 2004, by Malick Sidibe


His major work began at the moment of Independence and post-colonial exuberance in the country and throughout Africa, the 60s. Over the years, until Sidibe’s passing this past April, visiting world music fans, record producers, and journalists had their photos taken in Malick Sidibe’s studio.

In Simon’s experience, “It was the thing to do, to have your photograph taken by Sidibe. When I was in Bamako in 2004 a friend of mine took me to Malick’s studio. He was a man of few words and was fast and practical in taking my portrait. He asked me how I wanted to pose and not having a moped to straddle – although I’m sure he could have provided one – I just decided to sit crossed legged. He took a few pictures, but he chose the one that was kept. I went back a day or two later to collect the print. Nick Gold, of World Circuit Records, was also a fan of Malick’s work and took Oumou Sangare, amongst others, to have her photo taken there.”

The exhibit holds 3 themes: Nightlife in Bamako, Beachgoers by the River Niger, and Studio Portraits.  Wafting through the exhibition rooms is a fantastic soundscape of African music from the 60s and 70s by DJ Rita Ray.  The exhibition catalogue is a keepsake.

Despite the sad turn of political events in Mali since 2012, the photographs are a testament to the vibrant, resilient, and creative spirit of Mali’s people. The art of living lives on through Malick Sidibe’s eyes.  And Songlines will continue to add value to Mali’s and the world’s musical legacies.  There is hope for better days to come.

Headline photo: Meshk Ensemble – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Tunisia’s Rising Star and Its Post-Revolutionary Creative Economy – 2015 Retrospective Kudos: The Jaou Tunis Conference

2015 represents a cherished first trip to Tunisia and what was a most enjoyable, brief yet direct experience with the country’s cultural scene in Tunis, the country’s capital.

Given the past year’s horrible terrorist attacks in the MENA region, sub-Saharan Africa, Europe, and North America, support for local cultural initiatives as a bulwark against Daesh and other Wahhabi/Salafist -related ideologies has become vitally urgent worldwide.

Tunisia was attacked brutally over the past year, for it represents a rare jewel as a moderate, secular democracy in North Africa and the Near East. I publish this dispatch from my personal notes in support of the newer cultural horizons in Tunisia I witnessed this past year, such a vital part of the country’s democratic path of development — or re-development. Tunisia shall continue to strengthen and thrive, I am convinced, for the past year was but a moment in time in its long epic history of emerging from ten civilizations of would-be conquerors.

Ever since the memorable 2013 World Nomads Tunisia Festival presented by the French Institute Alliance Francaise (FIAF) in New York that I covered for, and FIAF’s subsequent World Nomads Tunisia Weekend this past year, where we in New York and America were introduced to several aspects of Tunisia’s culture (music, dance, cinema, visual arts, handicrafts, and literature) my interest to know more about the country has been at a high level.

Those FIAF introductions to Tunisia made me welcome the recent opportunity to make an actual visit to Tunis. My trip was a joy in this cosmopolitan, progressive city. The occasion was the third edition of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation’s Jaou Tunis Conference, May 28-31, 2015.

I sensed occasionally during my visit that while Jaou Tunis seemed to some odd few, a provocative upstart cultural event in a society whose complicated status quo values are in need of urgent and immediate reform in order to jumpstart the economy, Jaou Tunis fulfills a clear, major and key catalytic role on many fronts for the country’s current and future development path.


Kamel Lazaar, Chairman of the Board - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Kamel Lazaar, Chairman of the Board – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Kamel Lazaar Foundation

It’s a real phenomenon in the Maghreb to discover visionary leadership and patronage coming from the private sector in contemporary arts, and even less so throughout the continent of Africa. It’s all the more striking that in Tunisia today, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation is spearheading a new era of contemporary arts appreciation in the MENA region,

The Foundation is building the first contemporary arts center and museum in the country with beautiful galleries, a state of the art library, and — exciting to envision — two performing arts spaces, all of which are sure to become a main international attraction in Carthage-Tunis.

Active plans are underway by the Foundation to assist the government in the cataloguing, documentation, and conservation of its accumulated collections of art since the turn of the century. It’s noteworthy that Tunisia has had a long history of visual arts: the famed School of Tunis and the earlier European Orientalist movement, for example.


Marie-Anne Nivoulies de Pierrefort (1879-1968), “Gathering at the Cafe in a Tunisian Village”, Oil on Canvas, 162 x 130 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery
Marie-Anne Nivoulies de Pierrefort (1879-1968), “Gathering at the Cafe in a Tunisian Village”, Oil on Canvas, 162 x 130 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery


Jellal Ben Abdallah, “Femme Assise Aux Colombes” (Seated Woman with Doves), Acrylic on Panel, 60 x 54 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery
Jellal Ben Abdallah, “Femme Assise Aux Colombes” (Seated Woman with Doves), Acrylic on Panel, 60 x 54 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery


Those are just two among many other vital projects that are breathtaking in scope. Take a long look at their intellectually stimulating online publication, — a window to the world of the MENA region’s contemporary visual arts, under the editorial direction of Dr. Anthony Downey with the Sotheby’s Institute in London.

Founded in 2005 by the Chairman, Kamel Lazaar, an investment banker and philanthropist, to promote art and Arab artists around the world, the Foundation fulfills a much-needed activist role in the cultural and artistic scenes of North Africa and the Middle East.

The goals of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation include:

— The promotion of visual arts and support for platforms for dialogue about cultural production across the Maghreb and Middle East.
— Support for cultural and artistic projects and activities (including patronage, fellowships, events, and conferences)
— The production of cultural knowledge through responding to the imminent need for the creation and dissemination of visuals arts in the Maghreb and the Arab world
— Support for research and publishing initiatives, exhibitions, and educational seminars
— Support for the visual arts by developing a rich collection of modern and contemporary works covering the MENA region, by creating cultural and artistic spaces and by raising awareness and democratizing art and culture.

Having worked in the development field for decades throughout Africa, with increasingly greater emphasis on the culture sector in the MENA region and sub-Saharan Africa, I have observed and continue to support and applaud the huge impact of creative economies on cultural tourism, job creation, and local innovative entrepreneurship in business. The supply and demand for local and regional traditional artisanal handicrafts industries are part of economic growth and foster pride in national identities. While attending Jaou Tunis, I often recalled a line from the poem “The Will To Live” by Tunisia’s cherished poet from the 30s, Abou Kacem Chebbi: “I bless among men, the ambitious.”


Significance of the Jaou Event

Following the indiscriminate and chilling attacks on March 18 past at the Bardo National Museum, one of the most important museums in the Mediterranean Basin region tracing the ancient history of the country, the Kamel Lazaar Foundation re-doubled and intensified its determination to present its annual Jaou conference at the museum itself. (Jaou, loosely translated from Arabic, means ‘ambiance’.) The aptly titled 2015 theme was “Visual Culture in an Age of Global Conflict”.

Some of the conference speakers’ videos can be viewed here:

The beautifully designed Jaou catalogue preface stated its 2015 objectives:

How to showcase contemporary Arab culture and encourage interest around the art industry? How to successfully create links between the artists of the region and to communicate them in a major event? How to create balance between the Arab capitals, rich in history and cultural productions, and the financial centers of buyers of culture? Finally, how to pull the cultural sector out of inertia, indifference and even defeatism by establishing a meeting ground of quality that may become the catalyst for a new cultural dynamic, but also the basis for a valid project of inter-Arab dialogue? And especially how to highlight local creativity?

In response to all these questions Jaou was born. Launched in Jeddah in 2012, the event aims to be a moving platform, much like a cultural caravan that meets annually to bring together artists, intellectuals, sponsors and patrons, gallery owners, curators, art specialists.

To create the opportunity to discuss conflicts that trouble the world. To pose hard questions. To ensure that the cultural scene resists obscurantist attempts. These are the axes that drive the third edition of Jaou-Tunis, particularly through an international symposium on culture in response to terrorism, and an exhibition entitled “The Whole World’s A Mosque”, which takes up the challenge to make the arts and culture scene a lever for peace and to deliver a message of tolerance unique to Islam, as with the other religions of the Book. (Translated from the original French)

Far from a dry academic gathering, though earnest and serious, the entire Jaou event was vibrantly optimist. Visits to local galleries and special exhibitions, luncheons and dinner parties filled the agenda. Cultural expressions are richly layered and myriad in Tunisia after 10 civilizations of history. Archeological sites are famed and wondrous.   Threading through the conference visual culture theme, we were afforded glimpses and tastes of the diversities in the country’s music, dance, literature and poetry, artisanal handicrafts, superb cuisine, and even Sufi spiritual philosophy.

It seems foreseeable that Jaou Tunis could evolve over time into a major regional cultural festival, embracing all or many of the forms of expressions mentioned above.

Jaou Highlights

Hundreds of attendees included international media representatives, local artists, filmmakers, gallery owners, lawyers, economists, diplomats, scholars,authors, business entrepreneurs, MENA region cultural practitioners, and even two esteemed Sufi sheikhs. The event was above all a fantastic opportunity to meet with and engage in dialogue with some of the leading advocates in the Tunisian culture sector.

The conference had as its moderator the admirable and congenial Dr. Anthony Downey. Round table discussions were lively and informative about the MENA region’s art world and its concerns. Subjects ranged from “Culture in the Era of Conflicts”, “The Body in Question in Tunisian Choreography”, “What is the Place of Archives in the Contemporary Arab Art World”, “The Maghreb of Culture: The State of Places”, and “The Uncertain Future of Cultural Institutions in the Arab World”.

Distinguished panelists included one of the country’s best constitutional jurists, Ghazi Gherairi, former Minister of Culture Mourad Sakli, the Lebanese president of the Arab Center for Architecture, George Arbid, the poet and author Mohamed Aziza, a Persian French political scientist concerned with cultural developments in the Middle East, Alexandre Kazerouni, and founder of Sharjah’s Art Barjeel Foundation, Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi,




Among the many local and international artists and cultural activists who participated as panelists, there were notable presentations by choreographer Hela Fattoumi, artist Hela Ammar, architect and co-founder of La Maison de l’Image Olfa Feki, artist Hiwa K, artist Nadia Kaabi-Linke, artist Tania El Khoury, and activist collective from Berlin, Slavs and Tatars. Their combined presentations clearly signaled that revolutionary consciousness and the drive for socio-cultural change is of utmost concern.


Lina Lazaar, Founder of Jaou Tunis
Lina Lazaar, Founder of Jaou Tunis


Choreographer Hela Fattoumi
Choreographer Hela Fattoumi






Dr. Anthony Downey, IBRAAZ Editor in Chief
Dr. Anthony Downey, IBRAAZ Editor in Chief


Music and Dance

I hope that future Jaou editions will include more music and dance performances or list places where conference attendees might be able to sample more performing arts concerts. This would help give a fuller picture of Tunisia’s cultural environment.

During the opening night dinner party at the Fonduk el Attarine in the Tunis Medina, the beautiful Tunisian singer, Ghalia Benali, delivered a surprise concert. Accompanied by her Egyptian musicians on violin and daf percussion, she delivered a soulful set with a Sufi theme. One of her songs was homage to Ibn Arabi’s lyrics, “I believe in the religion of love…”

Kamel Lazaar praised her artistry to the hundreds of guests. He mentioned that her FIAF World Nomads Tunisia 2013 performance was selected as one of the 10 best concerts of the year in New York by New York Times Chief Music Critic Jon Pareles. I am often amazed that the immensely rich world of Tunisia’s traditional, folk, and contemporary music is so relatively unknown outside of the country, but I suspect this is about to change.


Ghalia Benali Sings Sufi Poetry of Love
Ghalia Benali Sings Sufi Poetry of Love


One of the most popular Tunisian radio stations played in every Tunis taxi is Radio Mosaique FM where I heard great popular and traditional music from the country, the MENA region, and even American favorites. The station is also the ‘soundtrack’ in the famed Cafe des Nattes in Sidi Bou Said and perfect accompaniment to the cafe’s steaming glasses of mint tea with pignoli nuts. It streams live on the internet.


Rochdi Belgasmi, Iconoclast Dancer-Choreographer
Rochdi Belgasmi, Iconoclast Dancer-Choreographer


During the opening exhibit of paintings by Egyptian artist Ahmed Farid at Dar el Marsa, just outside the entrance, the dancer choreographer Rochdi Belgasmi pulled off a stunning street dance piece entitled ZOUFRI Moi. In line with the country’s explosion of post-revolutionary creativity and freedom of expression, Belgasmi showcased the ‘rboukh’ style of dance popular among workers in the phosphate mining region in the south. Disdained by the conservative bourgeois in Tunisian society, the movements are considered vulgar with sexual innuendo. But this perception is changing for the better. The music was a blend of popular music for celebrations and parties with Stambali music, a trance music of exorcism played by the Gnawa musicians in the southern region. Several in the crowds happily joined the performance with its catchy dance beats.

Tunisia is a land known for its long history of strong women achievers, foremost in all disciplines throughout all MENA countries. I met with Sonia Mbarek briefly to introduce her to a couple of journalists. Whenever I interview Ms. Mbarek, I come away more and more inspired not only by her artistry as a Malouf and Sufi singer (unusual in the Maghreb as these are the traditional domains of male singers) but also as a brilliant professor of ethnomusicology, a jurist, and the director of the International Carthage Festival,


Sonia Mbarek
Sonia Mbarek


The Carthage Festival celebrated its 50th Anniversary last year, and what incredible artists they’ve presented over the years, from Miriam Makeba and Fairouz to Youssou N’Dour and the latest heartthrob Stromae, who Ms. Mbarek believes is the “next Jacques Brel”. Taking place July-August the festival also presents cinema, theater, and dance in the gigantic Carthage Roman amphitheater holding 6,000 attendees. Their policy aims to be inclusive of all Tunisian society by presenting free to the public events outside of the main ticketed arena. And planning this year included live streaming of all the shows over the internet to reach fans all over the country.

Tunis Art Spaces

The Tunis visual arts scene is a sophisticated one, praiseworthy of high local and international quality, to be seen in the exhibitions of painting, sculpture, photography, digital and conceptual art. The avant-garde is part of the characterism, quite clearly. Excellent local art catalogue production rivals that of any international art capital. I enjoyed catching some openings that gave me a good picture of Tunisia as a burgeoning contemporary arts center in the Maghreb. Jaou organized visits to some of the most popular galleries in Tunis.



Climbing the forever lovely Sidi Bou Said promontory hillsides overlooking the breathtaking vistas of the Mediterranean Sea, it’s easy to sense why Klee, Macke, and Moilliet became entranced by Tunisia and whose painterly paths were transformed by their 1914 visit. To be found there today are the Galerie Ghaya, Galerie Atika, Galerie Aicha Gorgi, Galerie Selma Feriani, and Le Violon Bleu.

Reminiscences was the title of a show curated by Aicha Gorgi, held in the Talan exhibition space. Twenty-six Tunisian artists formed an eclectic collective. Among those I liked were works by: Douraid Souissi, Haythem Zakaria, Hela Ammar, Insaf Saada, Omar Bey, Oussema Troudi, Slimen El Kamel, and Ymen Berhouma. The vernissage was topped off by a dynamic performance piece in the darkened gallery space by Rochdi Belgasmi and electronic music by DJ Ahmed Benjemy, both members of the Design Lab collective.   Belgasmi’s dance movement was circumscribed and seemingly caged by a transparent black circular enclosure; its surface dramatically lit by flashing written phrases, alluding to the title theme, “Memorium, quand le corps se fait amnesique”.

The French Institute held one of the best exhibitions during Jaou: a retrospective of the major School of Tunis painter Jellal Ben Abdallah. Born in Tunis in 1921, Ben Abdallah definitively turned to the painting metier in 1938 and moved to Sidi Bou Said in 1939. Having produced over 7000 works, he has had a spectacular career passing through experimental periods early in his career.


Jellal Ben Abdallah, “Les Tisserands” (The Weavers), French Institute Ben Abdallah Retrospective
Jellal Ben Abdallah, “Les Tisserands” (The Weavers), French Institute Ben Abdallah Retrospective


The scope of the show was grand. It included some exquisite miniatures from the 50s to 90s, depictions of Tunis life and women in the hammam; the 1939 painting of “The Martyr”, tribute to the 22 murdered victims, gunned down by the repressive colonial authority during a protest demonstration; and his later period starting around 1990, where the canvases sing with fresh clarity of style and neo-classical harmony. Ben Abdallah is a master of color and light in this period. The works glow with the limpid beauty of reflected sea light on a calm day. The art historian Ridha Moumni led the gallery tour with scholarly commentary and aplomb, enriching the viewing experience.

I had a good visit to El Marsa Gallery and informative chats with the owner Moncef Msakni and his partner Lilia Ben Salah. Mr. Msakni, as his father before him, is a known connoisseur of the School of Tunis and the gallery features a broad range of art from the early Orientalist movement, the School of Tunis, and contemporary expressions.

Peering into El Marsa Gallery office whose walls are covered with art, a few pieces caught and held my eye, among which a small cobalt blue and gold-flecked wooden sculpture by Khaled Ben Slimane. Lilia Ben Salah gave me a copy of his catalogue from the gallery’s 2010 exhibition and I find his work utterly sublime, especially his Sufi-inspired paintings.


Khaled Ben Slimane, “Ascension II”, 2007, Acrylic on Panel, 125 x 50 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery
Khaled Ben Slimane, “Ascension II”, 2007, Acrylic on Panel, 125 x 50 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery


Khaled Ben Slimane, “Ascension X”, 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 260 x 150 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery
Khaled Ben Slimane, “Ascension X”, 2009, Acrylic on Canvas, 260 x 150 cm, Courtesy La Marsa Gallery


In general, Mr. Msakni is convinced that many new reforms need to take place in the Tunisian art world as the country emerges from decades of oppressive dictatorship: the creation and implementation of university level courses in the history of Tunisian art; conservation of the state collections; less state control over ‘official taste’ in contemporary Tunisian art; and the creation of a contemporary art museum.


In a separate discussion with the former minister of culture and ethnomusicologist, Dr. Mourad Sakli, he mentioned that the laws that instituted the Ministry of Culture in the 20s reflected the French model, and that over time, the ministry’s entire raison d’etre and modus operandi will have to be reevaluated.

Medina Souks, Revolution Books,

One wonderful afternoon I went on a 3 hour walk through the Tunis Medina in search of artisanal handicrafts. I was accompanied by two friends: Fathia Meddeb, a traditional and modern fashion consultant and owner of the elegant boutique ‘Comme Toi’ in the Marsa district; and Rim Temimi, the critically-acclaimed photographer Rim Temimi, editor of, and author of a major forthcoming book of photos, documenting all the Sufi brotherhoods of Tunisia.

I came away wishing I had another few days to fully explore the labyrinthine pathways filled with souks and historical architectural wonders including the Zitouna Mosque. Built in the 7th century by Arabs, the Medina is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Under renovation in areas, there is so much to discover here, and chats with local merchants and knowledgeable craftsmen are part of the experience.


Azyz Amami, Rim Temimi, Fathia Meddeb — Avenue Bourguiba
Azyz Amami, Rim Temimi, Fathia Meddeb — Avenue Bourguiba


Later, we walked along the Avenue Bourguiba, by now known as the main revolutionary site where thousands upon thousands of protesters gathered en masse to oust the Ben Ali regime on January 14, 2011. Rim Temimi is a local heroine and young men sitting in cafes came up to greet her.   These are the intellectuals and friends who know her critically-acclaimed documentary work and of her relentless activism against ‘obscurantism’.

Her photography documenting the 2011 revolution has been exhibited internationally and many of her unforgettable images are in the historic and stirring collection of photographs: DEGAGE! Une Revolution — published by Phebus Press, France. There are also moving essays, impassioned tributes to the revolution, its activists, and its photographers, by author Colette Fellous, the late author and scholar, Abdelwahab Meddeb, and the political cartoonist Georges Wolinski who was murdered in the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris earlier this year.




Just as we were passing in front of the Librairie al Kitab on the avenue, who should suddenly appear? None other than the amazing activist, philosopher, and writer, Azyz Amami, Rim’s friend. He gave me a copy of the just released book, TUNISIE, DESSINE-MOI UNE RÉVOLUTION —Témoignages sur la transition démocratique (2011-2014) (Tunisia, Sketch for Me A Revolution, Testimonials on the democratic transition 2011-2014), edited by Hatem Nafti and published by L’Harmattan Press. This book is an excellent and gripping read and needs to be published in English for wider distribution and greater in-depth analysis of the causes of the revolution.




The editor Hatem Nafti conducted a series of interviews with key figures associated with the 2011 revolution. The interviewees come from different universes: historic militants, young activists — among whom Azyz Amami is a prominent member and his personal testimony is a powerful one — media, families of the martyred, and the young unemployed. It’s an important historical read and provides a nuanced portrait of Tunisian society and her people. One of its intentions is to dismiss the meaningless, empty slogans coined by French editorialists: ‘Arab Spring’, ‘Islamist Winter’ or ‘Jasmine Revolution’.   The revolution was an explosive, pent-up national demand for democracy, human rights, and dignity.


Tunis Expeditions with Photographer Rim Temimi


Foreground: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antonine Thermal Baths, Proximity Presidential Palace, Carthage-Tunis, Photo by Rim Temimi
Foreground: UNESCO World Heritage Site, Antonine Thermal Baths, Proximity Presidential Palace, Carthage-Tunis, Photo by Rim Temimi


Time was fleeting at the end of my brief visit to Tunis and although I wished very much to visit the world-renowned Carthage archeology sites it would have taken up at least a few days of research focus. Following a quick visit to the Carthage Cathedral, Rim and I opted to explore the French musicologist and painter Baron Rodolfe d’Erlanger’s magnificent Andalusian-styled palace, known as Ennejma Ezzahra, in Sidi Bou Said built between 1909 and 1921. It’s now a landmark museum and houses the Centre des Musiques Arabes et Mediterraneennes. And finally, we topped off my last day in Tunis by a visit to Lina Lazaar’s brilliant Jaou art show in Carthage — All The World’s A Mosque.


Ennejma Ezzahra
Ennejma Ezzahra


Ennejma Ezzahra
Ennejma Ezzahra


Ennejma Ezzahra
Ennejma Ezzahra


Ennejma Ezzahra
Ennejma Ezzahra


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music
Centre for Arabic and Mediterranean Music


Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger (1872-1932)
Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger (1872-1932)


Jaou Piece de Resistance: All The World’s A Mosque Exhibition by Lina Lazaar

Lina Lazaar, the Founder of JAOU and Associate Editor of Ibraaz, is recognized as one of the “10 Most Influential Women in Middle Eastern Art” —   As a specialist at Sotheby’s London in Post War and Contemporary Art, her passion for Arab and Iranian Contemporary Art led Sotheby’s to hold their first European auctions in this category in 2007. Since then she has curated these sales annually and significantly increased the international exposure and discussion of Middle Eastern contemporary art. Lina is a member of the Middle East North Africa Acquisitions Committee of Tate Modern, London. In 2011, she curated a collateral event of the 54th Venice biennial The Future of a Promise, the largest Pan-Arab contemporary art show in Venice.

As tempted as I am to record in detail my admiration for Lina Lazaar’s curatorial triumph during Jaou Tunis, her absolutely spectacular All The World’s A Mosque exhibition, far better to publish here her own statement about the mammoth show. I was astounded by the conceptual brilliance and deeply contemplative values, as well as the sheer aesthetic power. A great historical visual arts exhibition event like this one, just as a great musical concert, leaves one in silent awe.

If “all the world’s a stage” and “all the men and women merely players” then the modern day certainly represents a challenging act for those in search of the miraculous. No longer ‘en-vogue’ to profess a passion for pure theism, this particular human longing – temporarily and rather acceptably redefined as a spiritual pursuit – is now confronted with a far greater challenge than that put forward by the stewards of science. How, where, what, with whom…the world over, people in search of the miraculous are increasingly forced towards a bureaucracy of beliefs, and ultimately presented with a seemingly exclusive set of choices; to ‘pray,’ or not to ‘pray,’ that is the question!

‘All the World’s a Mosque’ explores the interplay between sacred space, religious ritual, cultural convention, and everyday life. Framed within the heart of Carthage, amidst the magnificent archeological remnants of the Roman Empire, and fittingly, on the heels of an antique 2nd century theatre, ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ is housed in a bespoke construction of 22 sea containers, assembled piece by piece, to form a travelling exhibition space which doubles as a place for worship. The deliberate contrast between the angular, metallic, industrial construction, and the antiquity of surrounding Carthage, is outdone only by the conflict between the physical container, and THAT which is omnipresent, and cannot be contained.

With bright textures, kitsch compilations, vibrant colors, and interactive installations, ‘All the World’s a Mosque’ showcases thought provoking contributions by leading artists from across the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. Collectively, the rich artistic collateral, presents itself more in the form of a dynamic pop theatre-set, than the traditional solemnity associated with sacred space. Attendees are forced to reconcile themselves to the deliberate challenge presented to all five senses; the only pillars which one follows without any personal consent. Through their works, the artists lend their voices to a journey which inspires a renewed enquiry into not ‘where’ we pray, but perhaps, more importantly, ‘why’ we do so!

‘All the World’s a Mosque’ endeavours to highlight that every life step is part of a pilgrimage, every breath a means to connect, and that the only rule worth observing is that we search, amongst our many daily pursuits, for the miraculous. The exhibition space will follow a pilgrimage of its own, and will be disassembled, container by container, only to be resurrected in different international cities. The exhibition will showcase the natural interaction between life and ‘sacred’ space, all the while presenting a magnificent collection of regional art and culture. Taking inspiration from its Carthaginian origin, the exhibit will endeavor to catalyse a new Spring, awakening the consciousness of all those seeking a balance between this world, and the next.

— Lina Lazaar, Tunis, 1st of May 2015


All The World’s A Mosque exhibition - Photo Courtesy of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation
All The World’s A Mosque exhibition – Photo Courtesy of the Kamel Lazaar Foundation


Lina Lazaar (right) with Ghalia Benali, Opening Night
Lina Lazaar (right) with Ghalia Benali, Opening Night


Exhibition Performance Art: “Ablutions”
Exhibition Performance Art: “Ablutions”


















Recorded Call To Prayer Sung by Ghalia Benali
Recorded Call To Prayer Sung by Ghalia Benali


Lina Lazaar - Photo by Rim Temimi
Lina Lazaar – Photo by Rim Temimi


Culture and Development: Views by Souhaib Meddeb, Tunisian Economist

Discussions with Tunisian conference speakers and attendees revealed their fervent hopes for the birthing process of their new democracy, following the Tunisian Revolution of 2011 and the January 2014 passage of the very first democratic constitution in the entire MENA region. The aftermath of decades of despotic dictatorship and economic mismanagement needs to be closely analyzed and redressed. The need for democratic reform in all sectors to bring about a strong development economy is of utmost, critical importance. And the culture sector is key.

In my Ibraaz review two years ago I wrote about Sami Tlili’s documentary film that gives focus to one of the key triggers of the 2011 revolution: “Cursed Be The Phosphate (2012) is an elegy to the protesters in the Gafsa mining basin in the south of Tunisia. Many were murdered or imprisoned as part of brutal state oppression in 2008 following labour disputes concerning unsafe working conditions and worker exploitation by the Ben Ali regime. Four years later, following this ‘revolt for dignity’ – a historical juncture and actual inspiration for the 2011 Tunisian Revolution – the director returned to the basin to uncover and honour the truth, while paying respect to those victims (or heroes and martyrs) of the revolution.”


Dr. Souhaib Meddeb, Sidi Bou Said
Dr. Souhaib Meddeb, Sidi Bou Said


Therefore, it was pure serendipity that during Jaou I learned some bright, positive news about the mining region from the Tunisian economist, Dr. Souhaib Meddeb. He is planning advisor to the construction of a new cement plant there. I marvelled over his thoughts about culture and his sensitivities to the well-being of the local people whose lives will be impacted by this project. Here is his brief, impressive outline of the project program:

Culture and development go hand in hand. Culture is the guarantor of the values ​​of integrity, fairness, equity, responsibility, transparency. It’s the common denominator for building trust between citizens and investors. It’s the factor closely linked to good governance and democracy. Culture is the matrix of creativity, imagination and innovation.

The 2011 revolution was the result of unemployment among youths in the most economically and culturally deprived areas. There is nothing worse than the feeling of exclusion.

To successfully achieve an industrial project, in the case of building a cement plant at a cost of US $220 million in the region of El Guettar, Governorate of Gafsa, poses major challenges. The concept of a ‘greenfield project’ is more than just a title. To succeed in this project, we must absolutely take into consideration the socio-cultural dimension. In this regard, we are setting up a program in partnership with local civil society, in the amount of US $1 million:

  • Realization of the project includes immediate accessibility to the first emergency health care center open to local citizens
  • Realization of a multipurpose sports field, lit at night by a system of renewable energy
  • Partnership with technology institutes in the region for appropriate training in relation to the cement plant
  • Commitment to recruiting the physically disabled
  • Establishment of a support structure for the mentally disabled
  • We have taken into consideration the growing place occupied by “digital culture” and all that it brings in terms of new cultural content, the ‘public’, virtual identities, and new social networks. For this we are implementing the following :

** Installation of a digital library for the primary classes,

** Installation of equipment at key access points to enable documentary screenings and videoconferencing

** Organisation of prize competitions open to classes of secondaries for the best historical research on the Roman history of El Guettar and assist in the establishment of local cultural tourism

It is through culture that we give meaning to our lives and develop our identity and, as the driving force of values, culture guarantees a more satisfying intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual life. It’s the opening to more and newer horizons, creating conditions for self-reflection, conviviality, and creative integration.

— Dr. Souhaib Meddeb

Until the next time in Tunisia,

What struck me the most during my days in Tunis is the extraordinary, intensely epiphanic quality of light — there is a Sufi term that approximates the beauty I felt in this light. You will feel it too when you visit and visit soon, you must… It’s known as Tajalli in Arabic.

(Photos by author unless otherwise credited)


Along the Original Silk Road, Konya’s Mystic Music Festival

Dedicated to the memory and the spirit of the great Tunisian Sufi poet and scholar, Si Abdelwahab Meddeb, who cherished and admired the works of ‘Hadharat Mawlânâ Jalâl ad-Dîn Rûmî’

There has perhaps never been a greater historical route that has captivated the imagination as much as the Silk Road.  Konya, once the capital of the Anatolian Seljuk Sultanate between 1071 and 1308, was a major commerce center along the ancient original road or system of camel-borne caravan trails through Turkey, Persia, India and China.  It was also a meeting place for many cultures to interact over centuries and has by now become Turkey’s foremost holy city.  The city is renowned for historical encounters and sojourns by some of the greatest Sufi mystics, poets, and philosophers: Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1274) and his companion Shams of Tabriz, Ibn Arabi and his disciple Sadreddin Konevi.


Seljuk Double-Headed Eagle
Seljuk Double-Headed Eagle


Even much earlier, Konya was host to numerous civilizations including the Hittites, Phrygians, Lydians, Persians, Macedonians, Seleukos, the Kingdom of Pergamon, Romans, Sassenites, and Byzantines.  The Seljuk and Ottoman empires arose from this city of arts, science, and commerce.  The province is an archeological trove of intangible and tangible heritages and its Silk Road leads eastward to superb discoveries.


Ottoman Era Manuscript, Rumi Meeting Shams of Tabriz
Ottoman Era Manuscript, Rumi Meeting Shams of Tabriz


The single most powerful force that draws 2 ½ million visitors and pilgrims each year to the city is the stunningly beautiful mausoleum of Rumi, who migrated there with his family from Balkh in present day Afghanistan when he was about 5 years old.  His mausoleum shrine with its gleaming turquoise green conical tower, once a Sufi lodge for dervishes, is now known as the Mevlana Museum.  It draws 5000 visitors and pilgrims daily.  Upon arrival in Konya, one is struck immediately by the distinctly peaceful, relaxed atmosphere.  Locals attribute this to Rumi’s ‘Baraka’ or blessing.  The periodic muezzin’s musical calls to prayer, the wind’s rustle of leaves, and birdsong intensify the silence and tranquility.  Even the whirring traffic seems muted.

The Festival

How befitting it is that today the city hosts the annual Konya Mystic Music Festival, featuring many of the finest sacred music traditions from the world’s vast cultural diversities.  The festival is a free-to-the-public nine-day evening concert event, held at the Mevlana Cultural Center, a 15 minute walk from the Mevlana Museum and the city’s central marketplace.  Its 11th edition opened this year on September 22nd and culminated on Rumi’s birthday, September 30th.

The festival’s Artistic Director, Dr. Timucin Cevikoglu, a Rumi scholar and ethnomusicologist with the Ministry of Culture, and Programming Director, Feridun Gundes, produced formidable concert evenings to joyous, packed to capacity audiences, of hundreds of locals and many international world music fans.  There were several standing ovations.  This is a growing festival with tremendous potential to deliver occasional scholarly talks, film screenings, and importantly, ancillary concerts by as of yet unknown great folk, traditional, and classical Turkish musicians.  On the other hand, the structural simplicity or direct impact of the nightly concert presentations without programming overload was entirely refreshing.

What impressed me during the festival were two aspects reminiscent of Silk Road glory.  First, many of the musicians arrived early or stayed longer following their performances and were eager to attend concerts by other groups.  Newer friendships were forged. There was a strong sense of congenial cultural exchange as festival motif.  The second relates to the setting of Konya itself, wherein the Central Asian and South Asian musicians in particular were very much at ease and instinctively familiar with a musically sophisticated and knowledgeable audience.



The festival musical palette was filled with terrific contrasts in scales, harmonies, tonalities, rhythms, and instrumentation.  The invited groups traveled long distances  to share knowledge of mystical traditions to be found in the Comoros, Spain, Tajikistan, Bolivia, India, Iran, Pakistan and Indonesia.  Their repertoires embraced folk, traditional, and classical modes, and so often with sublime moments of spiritual ecstasy.


Kayhan Kalhor and Hossein Alishapour — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Kayhan Kalhor and Hossein Alishapour — Photo by Evangeline Kim



One of festival’s great high points was the appearance of Persia’s classical music master and virtuoso kamancheh musician, Kayhan Kalhor with his ensemble: Hossein Alishapour, vocalist, Ali Bahrami Fard on santur, Hadi Azarpira on tar, Alireza Molla Hosseini on tombak, and Nava Soleymani on barbat (oud).  Many of his ardent fans flew in from Tehran, other parts of Turkey and the Central Asia region just for the occasion.

Mr. Kalhor created a special homage to Rumi with original compositions that he plans to record and they are brilliant.  Throughout the performance there was an even balance of Mr. Kalhor’s rapturous cantabile solo kamancheh passages, heterophonic instrumental interludes, and Rumi’s sung poetry by Mr. Alishapour.

Kayhan Kalhor graciously sent me his thoughts about Rumi and his poetry, Sufism in Iran, and his visit to Konya:

    Rumi, ‘Mohammad Jalaluddin Balkhi’ as we know him in Iran, is one of the greatest masters and introducers of Persian Sufism and philosophy to the world. I, like others, grew up listening to Rumi, Hafez, Sa’adi and other mystic poets of Iran, recited by our parents at every occasion and in family gatherings.  Sufism is woven into the lifestyle, attitude, and visions of Iranian people.

    I’m always more than glad to be a humble presenter of Rumi’s philosophy by giving focus to his poems and playing the related music in my concerts, especially considering the negative political propaganda widely taking place in Western media based on Iran’s politics.  I strongly believe that the true Iranian culture and attitude in every aspect are very different from what is being demonstrated in today’s world.  I have been on a mission to prove and present those aspects as one of the cultural ambassadors of my country.

    Poetry is one of the very important cultural components of Iran and people in Iran have greatest regards for their poets and their mystic teachings.  Sufism is still very strong and active in today’s Iran and Rumi’s teachings, especially through his poems, have a great importance in this area.  I chose most of the concert poems as the ones that I really love.  Some were used earlier on or never before by other composers or singers.  I tried to choose pieces of poems that are in contrast to each other and reflect the different faces of his philosophy. However, Divine love is always there as one of the strongest components.

    This was my second time in Konya. The first time was in 2004 when I traveled there just to visit his Shrine, which was an absolutely unforgettable experience.  I could actually go there every day for the remaining days of my life and enjoy his presence there more each day.  I can’t really explain what it means to breathe that air and feel so close to his home and where he spent most of his life. Just unbelievable!  I hope there are more opportunities to visit Konya and the Shrine and of course, to play again in Konya’s festival and present more of Rumi’s words in the original language in which he wrote them. — Kayhan Kalhor

According to Persian Sufi scholars, many compilations of English translations of Rumi’s poetry ignore his spiritual dimension.  Many readers only understand the poet to be an ‘earthly love’ poet, nothing of his divine yearnings, contemplation, and passion — and his freedom of thought.  To read Rumi in Persian would be ideal.  Hence, few really know very much about Sufism or Rumi at all.  Mr. Kalhor concurs:  “I do agree with you about the translations.  Unfortunately not many of them are meaningful and most of them do not relay the spiritual essence of the original words.  Rumi is intoxicating in Persian and the words are so powerful that they take you out of yourself.  Like a powerful film that stays with you for weeks.  I too, think that Rumi should only be read in Persian.”

Here, nonetheless, is one of the Rumi poems from his concert in translation that inspires Mr. Kalhor:


    Love is the One who masters all things;

    I am mastered totally by Love.

    By my passion of love for Love

    I have ground sweet as sugar.

    O furious Wind, I am only a straw before you;

    How could I know where I will be blown next?

    Whoever claims to have made a pact with Destiny

    Reveals himself a liar and a fool;

    What is any of us but a straw in a storm?

    How could anyone make a pact with a hurricane?

    God is working everywhere his massive Resurrection;

    How can we pretend to act on our own?

    In the hand of Love I am like a cat in a sack;

    Sometimes Love hoists me into the air,

    Sometimes Love flings me into the air,

    Love swings me round and round His head;

    I have no peace, in this world or any other.

    The lovers of God have fallen in a furious river;

    They have surrendered themselves to Love’s commands.

    Like mill wheels they turn, day and night, day and night,

    Constantly turning and turning, and crying out.


Deba — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Deba — Photo by Evangeline Kim



The festival opening night was elegant and spectacular.  The Sultan Veled Hall stage filled with a long procession of the women Sufi singers known as Deba.  This is a famed Muslim cultural ‘zikr’ music and dance practice exclusively for women and girls, comprising different groups from various villages in the Comoros island of Mayotte.  The Konya performance featured the women from the Boueni Village and they are fascinating to experience.  Dressed in white, silver-sequined robes and glittering regalia, the Deba women of 2 generations, gracefully swayed in choreographic unison as they sang extended praise songs to Allah and the Prophet Mohammed in Arabic dialect.  Seated at their feet, percussion members accompanied the singers with steady trance-like 4/4 beats on hand drums and tambourines.  There was a high sense of shared euphoria rippling through the concert hall as the group left the stage.   This is the Sufi spirit of oneness.


Resonet — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Resonet — Photo by Evangeline Kim



From the city of Santiago de Compostela in Spain’s Galicia, one of Christianity’s most important pilgrimage cities during the 12th century, we experienced the luminous beatitude of the extraordinary Resonet group.  Critically-acclaimed for their mastery of medieval, renaissance, and baroque music, Resonet’s concert celebrated the medieval Feast of the Consecration of the Cathedral of St. James by the King of Leon and Galicia, Alfonso IX, April 21, 1211.  The evening’s felicitous songs drew from the group’s deep research into the 12th century illuminated manuscript known as the Codex Calixtinus:

    The source that gives us the clearest idea of the liturgy, music and celebration of the feasts in the cathedral in the era of the consecration of the Codex Calixtinus or Liber Sancti Iacobi, which draws together the liturgy and much of the music which at the end of the 12th century were performed in honour of the patron St. James the Greater on the feast days of 25th July and 30th December…. The Codex Calixtinus is enormously rich both in pieces and styles: the nascent polyphony, in different forms, and monody, also the basis for improvised polyphonies, with its varied rhythmic indications, with pieces that are suited to dancing and others that are more narrative…. The direct transcription of the originals opens up for us a rich variety of musical pieces, far removed from the austerity which is sometimes associated with the musical styles of this period and context. — Mercedes Hernández, Fernando Reyes, Resonet CD Liner Notes, ‘Festa Dies’

Sheer delight and marvel were palpable among the rapt audience as we took in medieval instrumental virtuosities by Resonet leader Fernando Reyes as he plucked his ancient citola lute with an ostrich plume, Jordi Argelaga on chalemie (shawm) and flutes, Paulo González on hurdy-gurdy and gaita, Carlos Castro on percussions et psalterion, and Noemí Martínez second citole.  They accompanied the trio of utterly beguiling vocalists who sang in shimmering polyphonic chordal harmonies: high praises are due to soprano Mercedes Hernández, baritone Tomás Maxé, and countertenor David Sagastume.

As they accompanied the singers’ impassioned fervency, the musicians plucked, spun, and wove sinuous strands of contrapuntal melodies, punctuated by dramatic drum rolls.  Resonet carried the magnificent sense of pageantry heard centuries ago in the cathedral with rare finesse.  As we left the concert that night, the starlight high in the skies over Konya seemed to burn with brilliant intensity.


Badakshan Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Badakshan Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim



Tajikistan’s Badakshan Ensemble traveled all the way from the Pamir Mountains, the mountainous region located on the eastern half of the country and northeast Afghanistan, known poetically as ‘The Roof of the World’.  Their concert presented a variety of musical genres, some for festive occasions as well as devotional songs that are part of the region’s ritualized events.  Those are, for example, wedding festivities, New Year’s Nowruz celebration, weekly prayer meetings, and Ramadan.  An important genre in their repertory is the ‘falak’, a lament-like philosophical music that Badakshanis believe to possess healing properties.

During the festival I had the great pleasure of meeting the scholar and ethnomusicologist, Professor Mirwaiss Sidiqi, The Aga Khan Music Initiative’s Country Coordinator for Afghanistan.  He has been kind enough to send me further details about the music of Pamir:

    Pamiri music has its roots on both sides of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border which, although divided for more than a century, still retains its intrinsic artistic identity and can be heard to this day on both sides of the border.  Pamiri music is part of the moqam tradition, which can be traced hundreds years back and has been passed on by traditional oral instruction through generations. Of the various forms of Pamiri music and the most common is the falak. There are variations of falak, with different rhythms, beginning with the slow (5/8) and medium (7/8) and the fast (2/4). This form is culturally very deep in the Wakhan, Sheghnan and Pamir with everyone from shepherds to housewives singing falak to express sorrow to joy. Another form of Pamiri music is the dafbazm, songs played with two or three notes, often with multiple beat on the daf (drum) accompanying a wooden flute. There are also a range of religious songs, or qasida, which are only played by Madah and Sayed’s (descendant of Prophet), specially sanctioned performers who often inherit the privilege to recite these qasida, accompanied by the daf and Pamiri rubab. Many of the qasida are recite, performed and set to poetry by Nasir Khusraw, Hazrat-e Shams and other Sufi poets.

The group was founded by the lovely singer and dancer, Soheba Davlatshoeva, whose mission is to  preserve and make known the Pamiri music that dates back thousands of years.  It’s a multi-layered, complex music: there are traces of its animistic pre-Islamic past; the preeminent influence of the Persian philosopher, poet, and traveler, Nasir Khusraw who brought Ismaili teachings to Central Asia from Fatimid Egypt in the mid-11th century; and ghazals inspired by the Sufi master poets, Rumi and Hafiz.  There is a shamanistic trance-inducing feel to the rhythmic music.  The musicians accompanied their song and dance with the resonant thump of sacred daf frame drums, flutes, ghijak (spike fiddle), tanbur, and setar.  A high-point was the charm of Ms. Davlatshoeva’s dancing and whirling with exquisite, airborne grace.


 Luzmila Carpio — Photo by Evangeline Kim

Luzmila Carpio — Photo by Evangeline Kim



The following evening, the festival producers transported us to the Andean mountains of Bolivia through the presence of the grandly wonderful star Luzmila Carpio and her musicians.  As they entered the stage in solemn procession with measured drumbeats and whistling panpipes, Ms. Carpio’s hauntingly sweet voice pitched to the high ether of birdsong riveted the ear.  The song was ‘Arawi’: ‘Come let us sing, and we will find a better life/ We will fly like the Lord Condor,/  And like the flowers we will bloom/ With our knowledge and wisdom….’

Ms. Carpio is among the few truly authentic indigenous voices of Latin America, unadulterated by western musical forms, whether pop, jazz, or Latin fusion.  Over the years she has diligently avoided singing in Spanish, for the language symbolizes many forms of colonial oppression among Bolivia’s native Indians.  She has struggled fiercely since childhood for her Quechua-Aymara cultural pride and identity.  Her story is one of great epic adventure for her resilience, courage, and determination.  Arising from the fate of impoverished Andean village beginnings and years of education to her major breakthrough in 1971, she was crowned ‘Ñusta Nacional’ (National Royal Princess) at the Festival Nacional de la Canción Boliviana en Oruro, Capital del Folklore de Bolivia.

    I use the language and music of my people, that of the Indian land, of our mountains, of our lakes, of the air we breathe. I sing my love for the land which witnessed my birth, the land of my ancestors. I speak of Pachamama, Mother Earth, of harmony and love, of the role of women in our civilization, of coexistence between man and nature within a cosmic order, of our traditions, which must not be lost. — Luzmila Carpio

She has honed to aesthetic purity an astounding beauty in Andean music.  As a child, Luzmila’s culture held strong mystical connections with birds, harbingers of rain and the promise of harvest, or, emissaries of the divine force of Pachamama.  Accompanied by her ensemble of players of panpipes, flutes, wanqara drums, and charango, we were spellbound by her singing and uncanny ability to whistle and trill the ethereal language of birds.  All were stylishly dressed in Bolivia’s finest traditional array.  Yet what splendor lay in Luzmila Carpio’s deep red capelet embroidered with flowers as she flourished it in dance and spread it in wing-like ascent at an epiphanic moment.


Ustad Aashish Khan — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Ustad Aashish Khan — Photo by Evangeline Kim



Ustad Aashish Khan, the sarode player of tremendous power, is one of North India’s most cherished musicians.  The scion of the sarode lineage established by his grandfather, Acharya Baba Allauddin Khan Sahib, his concert epitomized the serenity and poetic poise inherent in classical Hindustani music.  However, watching and listening to him play made me realize just what a ‘male’ instrument the sarode is.  Although his concert began with gentle thoughtfulness, Ustad Aashish soon dominated it with a leonine presence.  He was accompanied by his dynamic brother Ustad Pranesh Khan, the master tabla player, and by his nephew Shiraz Ali Khan who played his great grandfather Baba Allauddin Khan’s sarode.  Ustad Aashish Khan’s gifted sarode disciple Atish Mukhopadhyay held intense focus on the tanpura.

In the interest of some of the finer points of the concert and traditions associated with Ustad Aashish Khan, here are excerpts of a discussion held with his disciple Atish Mukhopadhyay:

    In our Gharana (traditional school of music), we play in the Dhrupad style. There are two to three main styles in Indian classical music: Dhrupad, Khayal and Thumri.  Dhrupad is the oldest form among these and the most orthodox.  Our Gharana is known as the Maihar Seniya Gharana of Baba Allauddin Khan. Please read the “Gharana” page on my website at for more information.

    The traditional Indian music study is known as Guru-Mukhi Vidya.  You cannot learn the music without a guru.  This is not a matter of playing some notes from  notations but involves a deep realization of notes and Rags within you.  It comes over time after several years of studying, practicing in the presence of your guru, and listening to him playing or practicing while teaching.  At a certain level of maturity as you start to feel a Rag as a student, it’s always important to listen to your guru’s live performance.  It helps you to enhance your musical depth and advances your level of playing.  Since it is an improvised music, you always remain alert while your guru is playing.  Each time you hear and learn something new.  This is the traditional system.

    Guruji’s father played tanpura many times during his father’s performance and  Guruji himself played tanpura several times with his grandfather and father.  When you are playing tanpura, you are very much into the music with your ears open.  Tanpura is a drone instrument that holds the tonic and serves as the underlying constant pitch for all the instruments on the stage.  Naturally you’ve got to be very attentive while playing tanpura.  You become one with the music, learning and listening at once.  It is an honor for the advanced student to play tanpura with his guru.

    Guruji is known as the ‘replica’ of his grandfather, the legendary Baba Allauddin Khan.  He carries the life blood and music of his grandfather as I personally see him.  His temperament, playing style, teaching style, the way he sees music and his capacity to maintain the totality of the sarode (exploring all the technical possibilities of sarode playing) without any gimmick — these are very very significant in his character, instilled in him by his grandfather.

    First Guruji played Alap, Jodh and Jhala in Rag “Hem Bihag”, one of the creations of his grandfather.  Alap, Jodh and Jhala are the most powerful characteristic parts in the Dhrupad style. The philosophical here is of meditation and peace.  Slow progression of notes with slide movements gradually unfolds the Rag, as it explores all its possibilities and emotions.  Following, he played Vilambit Gat (composition) in Rag Kirwani.  Originally a South Indian Rag, it became popular in the North Indian style over the last century.  Vilambit Gat in Dhrupad style shows the true musicianship of an artist and his grip over the rhythm.   All possible patterns and combinations of both the left and right hand are seen here.

    Then, he played Dadra in Rag Mishra Bharavi.  Bharavi is one of the most powerful Rags in North Indian music, usually played during the morning hours, but it can be played anytime of  the day.  Guruji played Mishra Bhairavi.  Mishra means ‘mixed’.  There, he used his imaginative artistry and brought in some contrasting notes from other Rags without changing the mood of Bhairavi.  Finally he played Drut Gat in Mishra Bhairavi, shifting to different Gats as he increased the tempo.  All of those Drut Gats were the original creations of his grandfather and father as far I know.  Then the Drut Gat reached the high climax (we call it Jhala) as culminative ending.  The whole Drut Gat in Dhrupad style requires consummate mastery and skill in rhythm and reflex.


Sain Zahoor — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Sain Zahoor — Photo by Evangeline Kim



If ‘charm’ could ever be associated with a Sufi musician, the descriptive would have to go to Pakistan’s Sindh star, Sain Zahoor.  Born in 1937, at age 13, he began a 9 year journey as a wandering itinerant singer, living in shrines and seeking the meaning  in a recurrent mystical dream, of a beckoning hand from a grave and a shrine.  He finally found his answer in the 18th century Sufi Punjabi poet and philosopher Bulleh Shah’s shrine and sings his poetry to this day.  He had never recorded his music until word of his phenomenal appeal reached the UK.  He captured almost immediately the 2006 BBC World Music Award without a recording.

An aura of solitude and humble quietness emanates from him offstage, and yet while he adorns his embroidered kurtas with opulent necklaces and jewels fit for a royal, topped off by a black turban, he is a sight to behold.  But once onstage, the diminutive figure transforms into a riveting, fiery presence with the command of a regent.  He is featured in Simon Broughton’s BBC moving documentary film Sufi Soul.

Seated silently in front of his group of musicians on harmonium, flute, and percussion who set up an instrumental introduction, he  slowly rose and brandished his sacred ektara (a kind of 3 string lute) festooned with garlands of tassels.  The moment he began to sing his Sufi songs with such emotional nuance, electricity shot through the hall.  Wearing ankle bells, gracefully stamping his feet, he swung round and round, whirling with his ektara, tassels flying.  He has the presence of a Sufi rock star and sure enough, cheering crowds gathered in front of the stage bobbing up and down Punjabi style, dancing in joyful adulation.


Seni Budaya Nusantara — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Seni Budaya Nusantara — Photo by Evangeline Kim



The Seni Budaya Nusantara group of women dancers and instrumentalists were of greater ethnomusicology interest to me than the spiritual aesthetic quality of performance.  They hail from Indonesia’s heart of Islamic culture, the island of Sumatra and its northern province of Aceh.  There were layers of the archipelago’s cultural eras embedded in the performance sound, rhythm, costuming and movement: the prehistoric, the Hindu-Buddhist, and the Islamic.  It would take a detailed thesis to delve into all of those aspects.

There was a curious disjointedness between Aceh’s somber, pentatonic-scale Islamic praise music, sung, chanted, and played with serious mien by the ensemble of traditional musicians — in contrast with the energetic razzle dazzle of the Acehnese Tari Saman dance routines by the cheerful, smiling women.  Admirable enough the rigorous training that must have gone into the perfectly calibrated, highly stylized unison movements by the dancers, although that element came across as more of a ‘show’ type display including several costume changes from song to song.  What was the story?  Program notes could have been useful.

As the tempo quickened two thirds through the performance, there were echoes of the indigenous Ramayana kecak chant rhythmics (whose origins lie in a trance-inducing exorcism dance) mixed with the recent mimetic Arabicization in Islamic music currently taking place in the region.  In Sufi traditions of dance, unified group movement often symbolizes the ‘ocean of love’, of oneness with the divine, and therein ecstatic delight as we saw in the opening Deba performance.  Seni Budaya Nusantara represents another form.


 Konya Turkish Sufi Music Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim

Konya Turkish Sufi Music Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim



The festival concluded with a ‘sama’ performance by the Konya Turkish Sufi Music Ensemble in the Mevlana Cultural Center’s sleek, main amphitheater.  It was designed for public sama ceremonials and it’s usually filled to capacity (2000 people) on the date of the annual celebration of Rumi’s ‘wedding night’ (reunion with the Beloved Divine or earthly death), December 17th.

The Sufi-inspired dervish sama ritual presentation included a good number of musicians, singers and whirling dancers.  I felt something seemed to be missing: the elevated emotional wonder, the focused and unified intensity one experiences in a true intimate sama. (It’s possible that the amphitheater acoustics could have been improved or better engineered.)

On the other hand, the whirling dervishes were lovely to watch.  After shedding their dark cloaks, they slowly began to whirl faster and faster, turning right to left in the direction of the heart, their trance-like dance as prayer form in motion.  The skirts of their white robes bloomed in Mevlana’s ‘mystical garden of love’ across the colorfully lit circular floor below.  There was no audience participation during the sung Ilahis (sacred hymns of devotional love), but we all watched the event with hope and keen interest.  And above all, with gladness to be in Konya.

Special Festival Moments

The festival organizers made sure that musicians, media, and guests were treated to Konya’s delectable cuisine over leisurely lunches in some of the city’s renowned restaurants.  Baby okra soup, wedding rice, plumpest buttery green olives, tender kebabs, fragrant herbs of dill and arugula, the incredible ‘Tirit’ concoction, delicate halvas, fresh honeycombs, dark, unctuous grape molasses, the ruby-red tart cherry juice and salty Ayran yoghurt drink all still linger on the taste buds.  They added unspoken enjoyment to shared moments of cultural exchange and convivial opportunities for interviews with the artists.


Mevlana Museum, Dr. Faouzi Skali — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mevlana Museum, Dr. Faouzi Skali — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mevlana Museum, Simon Broughton — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mevlana Museum, Simon Broughton — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mevlana Museum, Shams of Tabriz’ Hat and His Al-Fatiha Banner — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mevlana Museum, Shams of Tabriz’ Hat and His Al-Fatiha Banner — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Shams of Tabriz Shrine — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Shams of Tabriz Shrine — Photo by Evangeline Kim


 Karatay Madrasa Dome Ceiling — Photo by Evangeline Kim

Karatay Madrasa Dome Ceiling — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Alaeddin Mosque — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Alaeddin Mosque — Photo by Evangeline Kim


During the daytime, several of us made visits to a few of Konya’s major historical heritage sites including the inspirational and spectacular Mevlana Museum with the tombs of Rumi and his father; the quietly powerful shrine of Shams of Tabriz; the shrine of Ibn Arabi’s disciple, Sadreddin Konevi; the breath-taking Karatay Madrasa where Rumi reputedly taught; and the great Alaeddin Mosque, the second oldest in Turkey.


Late Night Tea Garden Poets, Atish Mukhopadhyay, Mirwaiss Sidiqi, Feridun Gundes — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Late Night Tea Garden Poets, Atish Mukhopadhyay, Mirwaiss Sidiqi, Feridun Gundes — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Following the evening concerts, late at night in the Hilton’s garden over several glasses of Turkey’s famed Black Sea region tea with the scent of cloves in the air, there were late night poetry sessions in Turkish and Persian with Dr. Timucin Cevikoglu, Feridun Gundes, a few special guests and musicians, and festival staff.  One evening, Kabul’s ethnomusicologist with The Aga Khan Music Initiative, Professor Mirwaiss Sidiqi, read Rumi’s poetry in the poet’s original Balkh dialect in mesmerizing chant-like cadence.


 The Meshk Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim

The Meshk Ensemble — Photo by Evangeline Kim


It was sheer surprise to sit in on a late night impromptu, informal musical performance by the Meshk Ensemble, led by Dr. Timucin Cevikoglu.  The group played only a few songs.  Those who were present were thrilled to be there, rapt in the peaceful beauty of their artistry.  Certainly one of Turkey’s finest groups, Meshk plays the rare and authentic music with sung poetry attributable to the ‘Spirit of Mevlana’ as well the work of the 13th century Turkish Sufi mystic poet, Yunus Emre.  Their gentle music burns with Sufi-inspired fervor and passion, unforgettable and haunting.  In performance the group and their whirling dervishes are dressed in formal Sufi attire.

The Silk Road to Cappadocia

Along with Simon Broughton, Editor in Chief of the UK’s Songlines Magazine, and a member of Luzmila Carpio’s ensemble, Ivan Ignacio, we made a day trip north eastward from Konya to Cappadocia whose volcanic tufa fairy chimneys formed thousands of years ago rank among the world’s geographic wonders.  The rock sites are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  Huge tufa formations in Goreme towering up to 100 metres high are filled with carved homes, churches, and monasteries.  Burrowed caves and rooms hold small Christian chapel sanctuaries with startlingly well-preserved Byzantine religious frescoes.  Those were only part of the intensive experience in Cappadocia.  In retrospect I’d like to spend much more time in the region for in-depth research.


Cappadocia ‘The Three Beauties’ — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Cappadocia ‘The Three Beauties’ — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Cappadocia — Photo by Evangeline Kim


It’s an exhilarating 238 kilometer drive starting at daybreak along the Silk Road, now a modern highway, with vast vistas of rolling hills, fertile valleys, distant mountains, and ancient caravanserai lodgings spotted every 30 kilometers.  Our knowledgeable and affable guide, Mehmet Donmez, recounted local architectural histories, legend and lore, over stops for glasses of hot Turkish tea, a superb lunch in Goreme, and visits to tempting local artisanal crafts workshops.


Hacibektas Shrine Courtyard — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Courtyard — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Hacibektas Shrine Lion Fountain — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Lion Fountain — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Hacibektas Shrine Ceiling — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Ceiling — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Hacibektas Shrine Museum, Sufi Artifacts — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Museum, Sufi Artifacts — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Hacibektas Shrine Museum, Calligraphy Fragment — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Museum, Calligraphy Fragment — Photo by Evangeline Kim


Hacibektas Shrine Ataturk Sculpture, Ivan Ignacio, Simon Broughton, Mehmet Donmez — Photo by Evangeline Kim
Hacibektas Shrine Ataturk Sculpture, Ivan Ignacio, Simon Broughton, Mehmet Donmez — Photo by Evangeline Kim


We had detoured during the early morning hours to the small Central Anatolian town in northern Cappadocia, to visit the sacred center for Alevi Sufis, the Haci Bektas Shrine Museum.  Haci Bektas-i Veli, the 13th century Turkish mystic philosopher has had and continues to have a profound influence upon Turkish Islam and far beyond today.  We joined the steady stream of devout visitors, exploring the Sufi complex of courtyards.  There are exceptionally beautiful Sufi artifacts and artworks in the mausoleum in the third courtyard.   At these sites, you will find good historical background about the man worshipped as a saint in the Alevi order: and

These are some of Haci Bektas-i Veli’s well-known sayings:

  • Seek and find. Do not hurt even if you are hurt yourself.
  • Educate your women.
  • Control your deeds, tongue, and desires.
  • Whatever you seek, look for it in yourself. The adept are both pure and purifying.
  • The first step of a talent is modesty. A person’s perfection lies in the beauty of what he says.
  • Condemn no nation or person. Do not impose on someone that which is too burdensome for him to bear.
  • The end of the road that does not pass through knowledge is darkness. How glad for those who shed light into the darkness of thought.
  • Prophets and saints are God’s gift to humanity.


To visit Konya’s annual Mystic Music Festival is to experience musical connoisseurship of the highest order.  High kudos and praises to the Directorate of Culture and Tourism of Konya, the festival Artistic Director Dr. Timucin Cevikoglu, and Programming Director Feridun Gundes.  Do make the ‘pilgrimage’ to their annual event,, and take the time to explore the rich historical cultural wealth of the city, its province, and the Anatolian region.  Konya is a revelation.


Portals to Illumination and Transformation, Part I: The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music


      Attar’s hoopoe calls upon the soul-birds to seek in mastery of their passions for the Pearl that never dies, the precious jewel of spiritual fulfillment within. – Michael Barry, The Canticle of the Birds

In the Maghreb today, the beautiful holy city of Fez, Morocco’s capital of spiritual knowledge and culture, is a contemporary beacon of peace, tolerance, and openness to the world’s cultural diversities in what is continuously a politically roiled MENA region. This distinction owes much to the vision and focused work over the past twenty years by Dr. Faouzi Skali, the country’s leading Sufi scholar, and well-known anthropologist and ethnologist. In a recent interview where he pays homage to the leadership of Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, he cites His Majesty’s dedication to ‘the vital combat for the harmonious coexistence of cultures’. He observes:

    The aspiration of the Kingdom over centuries has been to seek to reinvent Andalusia, beyond geographies, as a state of culture, a state of mind…. It’s a question of restoring Fez to its original place, as a pole of culture, a world capital of the spirit…. It’s [also] a question of establishing a new notion of development, that one could call ‘civilizational’ and in which patrimonial development comprises both cultural development and socio-economic development. (Translated from the original French.) – ‘Faouzi Skali, président du Festival de Fès des musiques sacrées: «La culture est une priorité pour le Roi»’, Aujourd’hui Le Maroc, August 2, 2014

Through Dr. Skali’s founding and annual production of two major international music festivals, the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music and the Fes Festival of Sufi Culture, a newer framework for Islamic society is developing based on the ancient spiritual values in Sufism that developed during the interrelated histories of al-Andalus (present day southern Spain and the Maghreb) and the territories encompassing today’s Near East and South Asia between the 9th and 13th centuries. The two festivals have come to represent symbolic bulwarks against Salafist or Wahhabi extremism. Indeed, in recognition of Dr. Skali’s ongoing achievements, France recently granted him its highest award, Chevalier (Knight) de la Legion d’Honneur.

It’s important to note that Sufism’s ethos and esthetic permeate the two Fez festivals through Dr. Skali’s deep knowledge of Sufism’s historical, literary, and philosophical thought. This year’s festival themes gave focus to two personalities from the period known as ‘The Zenith of Islamic Mysticism’ during the 12th and 13th centuries: one, a tribute to the sublime Persian Sufi mystic poet Attar (c. 1145 – c. 1220), and another to the great Andalusian Sufi mystic poet and philosopher, Ibn Arabi (1165-1240).

The Fes Festival of World Sacred Music:

The June 13-21, 2014 edition of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music represented its 20th anniversary celebration. The scope of the entire programming was dazzling. The festivities centered in and around the Medina and ran from 9 am to midnight. Thousands of international and local world music fans, renowned scholars and authors, activists, artists, and even the Fassi children were the participants in what has become a most magnificent interfaith, intercultural festival. The annual event has by now become the touchstone for all sacred music festivals worldwide. Its ethos as a meeting of cultures and religions continues to generate a progressive and cosmopolitan profile for Morocco, so tenuously present in the MENA region except for parts of the Maghreb.

The opening night concert in the grand Bab Makina venue carried the theme of the entire festival: ‘Conference of the Birds: Journey of Cultures’, in allusion to and inspired by the masterpiece of Persian medieval poetry, ‘Manteq ot-Teyr ‘ (Language or Speech of the Birds) by the 12th-13th century Sufi poet Farid Ud-Din Attar. In the mystical allegory of the human soul’s yearning for union with the divine, the hoopoe bird invites all birds to set forth on a most difficult journey in search of their king or queen of birds, the Simorgh. They must survive arduous passage through seven valleys as their path of spiritual initiation: Quest (or Desire), Love, Mystery, Detachment (and Serenity), Unity, Bewilderment (or Awe), Annihilation (or Denouement).

The 2 ½ hour long, spectacular and completely original production was conceived of by the artistic directors, Layla Skali-Benmoussa and Dr. Faouzi Skali. In the program notes, they state:

    This ancient tale inspired us to present this as the adventure of our own age: the journey of different cultures from all corners of the world as they seek meaning and transformation through their encounters. Here, the birds are symbols of different cultures, each with a common bond in their spirit. They undertake with joy, and sometimes with pain, that changes and utterly transforms them. The journey forces them to let go of ghosts that haunt them, doubts and mysteries, and to follow a path that involves ordeals, some exhausting and painful. Only thus can they find and feel the highest ideal of what it means to be human.

Through seven tableaux representing Africa, Amerind, India, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and China and featuring 60 performers from 20 different countries, the production was a richly finessed tapestry of seven cultures. Splendid literary references were woven in throughout: Amadou Hampate Ba; Jorge Luis Borges; extracts from the Garuda Upanishad, the Ramayana, and the Gita Govinda; the Old Testament’s ‘Song of Songs’; St. Francis of Assisi; and Lao Tsu. In the festival’s fascinating and innovative re-creation of Attar’s tale, those modern and ancient classic references adroitly reflect and expand upon the medieval Persian ‘frame story-within-a-story’ structure of the actual poem.


Fes Festival 2014
Fes Festival Conference of the Birds opening night finale – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Animated by traditional music, song and dance, acrobatics, narration and theater staging, there were outstanding performances by Lebanon’s Abeer Nehme as the hoopoe, Senegal’s Musa Dieng Kala, Bolivia’s Luzmila Carpio, India’s Manochhaya Barata Natyam dancers, Seville-based Ladino singer Mor Kabasi, Hungary’s St. Ephraim Choir, Fes’ own Sufi singer Marouane Hajji with a fine chorus and two whirling dervishes from Turkey, and finally, China’s Wang Li.

Thus, in one breath-taking evening the festival revisited and celebrated the myriad of cultures it has explored and presented over the past 20 years, while giving specific focus to Morocco’s creativity and imagination.



A week later on Friday morning, the magic of Attar’s work also inspired the children from the Fes La Fontaine primary school to create their own version of a ‘conference of birds’, a delightful ‘theater of sacred music’, with costuming, world music, choreography, and spoken word. What a joy, to know that Fes introduces world cultures with such imagination and sophistication to seven, eight, and nine year-old children.

Over the course of the festival, the afternoons and evenings in the Medina venues were filled with an abundance of the world’s traditions of spiritually-related performances. There were a plethora of styles and collaborations: from Morocco, Mali, France, Spain, Ireland, Pakistan, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, the U.S., Senegal and South Africa, Mauritania and India, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Year after year, the festival serves as a haven for some of the artists who, due to political complications or crises, are unable to perform in their countries.

The Bab Makina in all its splendor was the formal concert setting for some of the world’s greatest and favorite stars including Senegal’s Youssou N’Dour in a collaborative tribute to Nelson Mandela with South Africa’s Johnny Clegg; Iraq’s swoon-worthy tarab master Kadem Saher; France’s opera tenor Roberto Alagno in special performance with Mediterranean musicians; and the American guitar legend Buddy Guy whose stunning show was opened by the New Orleans Hot 8 Brass Band.

Most impressive each year is the evening of Sufi sacred music, and this year’s Bab Makina presentation was filled with the glory of Judeo-Arab Andalusian music with the renowned Fes Arab-Andalusian Orchestra led by Mohamed Briouel. They accompanied some of the finest Fes Sufi ‘sama’ singers including the favored, young Marouane Hajji. And were joined by Morocco’s Sephardic singer Francoise Atlan and Israel’s Lior El Maleh who is known for his lead vocals with the Israeli Andalusian Orchestra.


Mohamed Briouel and The Voices of Samaa - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mohamed Briouel and The Voices of Samaa – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Kadem Saher - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Kadem Saher – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Youssou N'Dour - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Youssou N’Dour – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Buddy Guy - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Buddy Guy – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Some of the festival’s international stars including Kadem Saher, Musa Dieng Kala, Luzmila Carpio, and the Hot 8 Brass Band delivered free-to-the-public concerts in the grand open-air Bab Boujloud plaza. They were joined by many of Morocco’s popular groups. These concerts are filled annually by thousands of locals in an atmosphere of ecstatic joy and communion.

But it was within the Medina’s smaller venues where performances were often as moving and powerful as the bigger concerts. At the Batha Museum, the afternoons and evenings were packed with crowds, either in exuberance or meditative wonder. Mali’s beloved Rokia Traore delivered one of the best concerts there. Her program notes recalled an African proverb: ‘The human body is so small in relationship to the spirit that dwells within it.’ Her recent album ‘Beautiful Africa’ was the theme of her performance, where she beguiled with her lilting music, and charmed with her dancing. One of her songs embellished the festival’s theme, ‘Tuit Tuit’, as she evoked the migratory bird with trilling harmonies.



The Irish Altan ensemble had groups up on their feet dancing one evening in the museum garden in festive joviality to Celtic melodies that embrace a sacredness at its heart. Delhi’s Ustad F. Wassifudin Dagar from a long lineage of North India’s most ancient Drupad musical tradition, filled a warm afternoon with his contemplative music with droning tanpura accompaniment and pakhawaj accents, once sung in temples with its Vedic hymn origins. On yet another pleasurable afternoon, Spain’s Jordi Savall gathered a group of musicians who created a dialogue between the orient-occident, Morocco and Spain. They explored most successfully ancient Spanish Christian music and the great traditions of North Africa. Instrumentation included Jordi Savall on bowed lyre and rebab, Driss El Maloumi on oud, Hakan Gungor on kanun, and Houcin Baqir on percussion.


Altan - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Altan – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Ustad F. Wassifudin Dagar - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Ustad F. Wassifudin Dagar – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Jordi Savall, Orient-Occident Ensemble - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Jordi Savall, Orient-Occident Ensemble – Photo by Evangeline Kim


From the fabled Silk Route, a trio of the Bardic Divas mesmerized the air with their dark, burnished music from Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Wearing plumed hats and finely adorned robes, they sang and accompanied themselves with sacred instrumentation, lutes (dombra and dutar) and a two-stringed fiddle (kut). We were transported from Fez to faraway steppes and plains in Central Asia.



During the Medina Nights there were two sunset performances that I was thrilled to see, both in the Dar Adiyel, hidden deep in the Medina. The author and professor of Persian literature in Paris, Leili Anvar, presented a musical reading, ‘The Canticle of the Birds, Tales of Wisdom and Love’ based upon the work of Farid Ud-Din Attar. (See below book discussion.) With the participation of Frederic Ferney as her reading partner and accompaniment by 3 musicians on sarangi, double ney, tanbur, and daf, we experienced a riveting and entertaining enactment of some of Attar’s parables. Exceptionally knowledgeable in Persian literature, Leili Anvar wove in two stories from Rumi’s ‘Masnavi’: the controversy between Chinese and Byzantines on the art of painting and the snares of Satan. One day soon I hope to see this theater-musical piece in other festivals.


Leili Anvar, The Canticle of the Birds, Tales of Wisdom and Love - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Leili Anvar, The Canticle of the Birds, Tales of Wisdom and Love – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Fez has a very young, startlingly good Malhun star, all of 13 years old: Nouhaila Al Kalai. Backed by a traditional orchestra of violins and ouds and chorus, she held the her audience captive with this traditional form of Moroccan music that over time borrowed its modes from Andalusian music. Malhun was originally unsung poetry or ‘qasida’ developed by male artisans in the medinas of Fez, Meknes, and Marrakesh, as far back as the 16th century. It’s now a sung poetic art of long narratives bewitching the listener with elements of mysticism, storytelling, and love poetry.


Nouhaila Al Kalai - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Nouhaila Al Kalai – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Here are some verses Nouhaila sang by Ahmed Lel Grabli, a 19th century weaver from Fez. (The gentle cadence and mellifluous rhyming is sacrificed in the English, alas.) ‘And if the strings of the lute were then vibrating/ I will sing my song with resonant voice/ Airs filled with symbols and metaphors/ You watering me with the divine wine of your amphora/ The candles flare, throwing their light/ In an atmosphere so sweet and sylvan.’



Newest Festival Highlight, A ‘Living Itinerary’ in the Fez Medina:

The entire history of Fez began with its ancient Medina, still relatively intact and the largest in the Arab world. Thanks to the cultural activism of the architect Layla Skali Benmoussa known for her valiant rehabilitation and renovation work in the Medina, and also a key director with the festival, she has created a remarkable and long overdue historical itinerary through the Medina. She worked in collaboration with Frédéric Calmès, the journalist and Sufi Hamadcha musician, a specialist in culture and the traditional arts of Morocco. There were several itinerary dates during the festival and the Medina visits suddenly became a very popular, most impressive, new integral event.


Jnan Sbil Arab-Andalusian Gardens - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Jnan Sbil Arab-Andalusian Gardens – Photo by Evangeline Kim


It was a 6 hour long trek starting early one sunny morning inside the utterly lovely Jnan Sbil Arabo-Andalusian Garden (on the northwestern edge of the Medina and west of the Place Boujloud) with Frédéric Calmès as lead guide in our descent through the labyrinthine maze. The Oued Fez River and the Oued Jawahir (river of pearls) flowed through the garden. A broken down water wheel remains as reminder of how the medieval city was once powered by water wheels that provided craftsmen and their workshops with power. His affable presentation was phenomenal, filled with scientific data and archeological research concerning the engineering and architectural history about the origins of the city, as well as pertinent discussions on the Fez religious environment and its spiritual traditions.

The rich, fertile Saiss plain and its abundant river waters were first discovered by Moulay Idriss I and and his son, Moulay Idriss II, 12 centuries ago. Subsequently, the ingenious 11th century Almoravid Dynasty engineers developed a water management and distribution system that flowed down through one of Morocco’s most fertile valleys, the Sebou River basin, the actual location of the City of Fez today. The narrow winding streets in the Medina were once actual flowing waterways, fulfilling the Fes Andalusian period needs for water in riad households, hammams, artisanal craftings (tannery), mosques, schools, and gardens.

Our itinerary revealed the ‘hidden’ secrets in the Medina’s authentic interior, and what wonders and hospitalities we experienced along with refreshment stops for mint tea, fresh fruits and pastries in a renovated riad and in the home of a traditional leather master craftsman; we went inside the original ‘repartiteur’ or water distribution depot, a vaulting, cavernous structure where the Fez River water began to be meticulously directed into the Medina through tunnels and tiny furrows; the medieval Bouanania clock with its mystery of 13 hours, whose complex chiming mechanism depended on timed water flows and weights; the glorious Bouanania madrasa (school) dating from the 14th century under a Marinid Dynasty sultan; a visit to the Ouazzaniya Zaouia with Sufi singers and a talk about Fez Sufi spirituality; the ancient mosque (Mosquee de la source du cheval) where the great 13th century Sufi mystic author and poet, Ibn Arabi, received spiritual illumination. At each turn, we learned and viewed more information about the vital importance of the Medina waterways and storage systems under mosques and schools, and where fountains graced our path.


Medina 'Repartiteur', Medieval water management system - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Medina ‘Repartiteur’, Medieval water management system – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Medieval Medina Bouanania clock - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Medieval Medina Bouanania clock – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Interior walls, Bouanania Madrasa - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Interior walls, Bouanania Madrasa – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Sufi singers, Ouazzaniya Zaouia - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Sufi singers, Ouazzaniya Zaouia – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Octagonal tower, 'Mosquee de la source du cheval' - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Octagonal tower, ‘Mosquee de la source du cheval’ – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Proceeding into the Henna Souk we visited one of the last Fassi pottery artisans still hand-making containers and cups with a special clay and cedar resin that permeate drinking water with cooling, healing properties. In the same souk we were introduced to the amazing discovery of a ‘maristan’ or psychiatry hospital dating from the 14th century where until 1946, patients would come to be cured of mental imbalances based on the 4 humors of the personality of the individual along with other arcane calculations. Here, we listened to an old oud player of precisely the Andalusian music known since antiquity to restore harmony to the soul.


Andalusian Maristan oud player, Henna souk - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Andalusian Maristan oud player, Henna souk – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Nejjarine Museum of Wood Crafts - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Nejjarine Museum of Wood Crafts – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Berber rug - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Berber rug – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Fez Medina is known and famed worldwide as the best artisanal crafts production center in all of Morocco. Its finest weavings, embroideries, and leather crafts are in massive demand all over the country. The medieval Sidi Moussa tannery was a de rigueur visit along with an enticing babouche shop. We wound our way to the spiritual and historic center of the Medina where the founder of Fez, Moulay Idriss II, is buried. It’s a doubly sacred site as he was also the son of the founder of the Kingdom of Morocco itself, Moulay Idriss I. Finally, on the open-air top floor of a fabulous carpet showroom, we surveyed the vast green rooftops of the grand Fez
Karaouine Mosque and University, the oldest university in the world, built in 859 by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri. The interior, according to Frédéric Calmès, has a capacity for 20,000 worshipers.


Fez Karaouine Mosque and University (rooftop partial view) - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Fez Karaouine Mosque and University (rooftop partial view) – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The hours spent over the course of the ‘Itineraire Vivant’ during the festival were among the most intriguing and spellbinding I’ve ever spent in Fez. I would gladly revisit the ‘real’ Medina again through the vision of Layla Skali Benmoussa and Frédéric Calmès, for there is so much to savor, so much to absorb, and so much to marvel over.

Favorite New Book Publications Discovered in Fez:

It is with awe and enthusiasm that I recommend you acquire these books to read and treasure. The authors will illuminate your life as they have mine.

‘Esprit de Fes’ by Faouzi Skali (French):


Esprit de Fes book cover
Esprit de Fes book cover


There is finessed refinement in Dr. Skali’s prose poetry French text in his newest book, ‘Esprit de Fes’ (Spirit of Fes), Editions Langages du Sud, with contemplative quotations by many other historical poets, writers, philosophers, intellectuals, and thinkers, and so beautifully reflective of the Andalusian Sufi heart. This is a joyous spiritual journey in Fez whose photographs and visual arts images capture great festival musical moments by musicians from all over the world. But the book also holds several images of the city of Fez itself, its detailed architectural wonders throughout the mosques and shrines, madrasas, palace gates, and gardens. It is one of the finer poetic introductions to Fez and her history that I’ve seen in a long time. One hopes for an English edition for wider appreciation. The opening text reads:

    Fez is the inheritor of the astonishing medieval Andalusia where Muslims, Jews, and Christians enriched themselves through their [shared] experience and their differences. The city of Moulay Idriss is a sanctuary. The Sufis, initiates of Islam, have always called it the ‘Zaouia’. Pope Sylvester II (10th century) and the Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides lived there. Ibn Arabi the mystic and metaphysician, Ibn Battuta the traveler, Ibn Khaldun the sociologist, Ibn Al Banna the mathematician… all these great figures have sojourned in Fez. (Translated from the original French)

Bearing their witness, the University of Karaouine safeguards the extraordinary manuscript collection of religious, philosophical, natural and cosmological sciences. The religious and spiritual dimension of the city is its foundation, its ‘culture’ of holiness, undeniable. The numerous shrines or ‘zaouias’ in Fez have constituted the secret soul of this city for centuries.



The book’s photography, iconography and design are embellished by the calligraphy art of Fez artist Mohammed Charkaoui. There was an informal exhibition at the Musee Batha of his wooden tablet paintings whose black pigment ground made with almond shells and gum arabic are graced by his Kufic calligraphy images in gold oil paint. (These tablets are the original sacred ‘lawh’ slates employed by students of the Quran.) Each tablet painting featured a word or words transformed into iconic Kufic design, including Spirit of Fez, Beauty, Knowledge, Sacred, Dialogue, Happiness, Liberty, Culture, Love, Wisdom, and Creation. The artist traces his calligraphic ancestry to a great grandfather from the 17th century who studied calligraphy at the Fes University of Karaouine. Mohammed Charkaoui is among a small vanguard of Moroccan master calligrapher teachers who have been reviving the tradition over the past 10 years. His art is in demand throughout Fez where he paints large murals in refined settings.


'Sacred' by Fez calligrapher artist Mohammed Charkaoui - Photo by Evangeline Kim
‘Sacred’ by Fez calligrapher artist Mohammed Charkaoui – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Canticle of the Birds’ by Farid Ud-Din Attar (English and French):

Lest we forget, during and following the al-Andalus period so closely linked with development of Maghrebian Sufi history, thought and inquiry, Central Asian and South Asian territories were also the heartlands for inspiration by many great Sufi mystic poets, philosophers, and artists. In particular, one recent publication symbolizes in so many ways the epitome of that geographical and artistic historicity. (And whose original poem served as creative theme for the Fez Festival as discussed above.)


The Canticle of the Birds
The Canticle of the Birds


From the publishing house Editions Diane de Selliers in Paris, we now have a true contemporary magnum opus, 12th century Persian poet’s Attar’s ‘The Canticle of the Birds’. In the forward, Diane de Selliers writes, ‘The poem’s countless Koranic and Biblical allusions and mystical profundity, the musicality of its verse, and finally the sheer assonance with the poem’s original name led us quite naturally to translate its title Manteq ot-Teyr as ‘The Canticle of the Birds.’ (Usually known as ‘The Conference of the Birds’.)

The Canticle of the Birds’ first appeared in the French edition 2 years ago and the ultra-elegant 4000 cloth-bound, slipcased copies sold-out immediately in 6 months. (It’s a massive tome, weighing several pounds.) Dr. Leili Anvar, esteemed professor of Persian literature with INALCO in Paris had undertaken the monumental responsibility of rendering the classical Persian text into exquisite French. The English version with translation by Dick Davis just appeared a few months ago. It has received two major awards: Iran’s 2014 World Book Prize of the Year on Persian Civilization by the National Academy of Iran and France’s 2013 Montherlant Prize for Writing on Art by the National Academy of Fine Arts.

What makes this edition so exceptionally ‘collect-worthy’ and a reader’s supreme delight are the pictorial research, introduction and commentaries by Dr. Michael Barry, the art historian and professor in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University and eminent specialist in the civilisations of the East. The publication features 207 superb Persian, Turkish, Afghan and Indo-Pakistani miniatures from the fourteenth to the eighteenth centuries, from public and private collections from around the world. This must be one of the most beautiful books ever created.

There are not enough superlatives for Dr. Michael Barry’s erudition and eclectic knowledge of cultural, political and religious histories, the fine arts, literature, and philosophical inquiry. Through the manuscript illuminations and detailed commentaries, newer light is cast upon historical encounters between civilizations, their artistic iconographies and knowledge crucibles, and the intercultural impacts from the 7th century onwards. Most admirable among the reproductions are the figurative illuminations from the manuscript of Attar’s poem, commissioned by a sultan in Herat in 1487, and located today in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The Canticle contains invaluable and useful historical information, including a glossary, a timeline and map, and background on the schools of painting and major painters in the Eastern Islamic world.

In visual counterpoint musicality, Dr. Barry’s juxtaposition of illustrations with his commentaries illuminate, give pause to reflect upon, the beauty and significance of Attar’s text. He subtly transforms and enlarges upon the entire text presentation by his own ‘stories-within-stories’, so emblematic of classical Persian literary structure and of the poem itself. One experiences rapture in the reading of what unveils itself to be a profound introduction to the dimensions of a spiritual, mystical initiation: Sufism. Dr. Barry neatly sums up the Canticle’s meditative experience in his great introduction:

    But to leaf at leisure through the pages of this book, with reproduced paintings by Behzad and the greatest artists of the Persianate world, opening, one after another, magic windows on the deciphered symbolism of one of the culture’s greatest literary masterpieces, is to enjoy today a luxury once allowed only to princes in the ancient Persian lands.


‘Malak Jan Nemati’ by Leili Anvar (English, French, Farsi, German, Italian):

Apart from Dr. Leili Anvar’s own poetic introduction and as translator of the new French edition of ‘The Canticle of the Birds’, she is a cherished Rumi scholar and has published two books about the tremendously popular Sufi poet. A woman with the soul of a poetess, she often appears during the Fez Festival onstage to recite and read Persian Sufi texts with graceful intensity, Dr. Anvar has also published a tribute book about the Persian Kurdish mystic saint, Malak Jan Nemati (1906-1993), the sister of Ostad Elahi, the well-known master sacred tanbur musician, spiritual philosopher and jurist. ‘Malak Jan Nemati, Life Isn’t Short, But Time is Limited’ originally appeared in French with Editions Diane de Selliers and is now available in English through Arpeggio Press.

Her research into universal spiritual traditions led her to meet the blind Sheikh Malak Jan Nemati in person before her passing in 1993. Dr. Anvar in an interview in Fez made clear that the Sheikh, affectionately known as ‘Saint Jani’, had totally ‘transformed’ her own life. Her book carefully documents and traces Malak Jan’s early life as student and later on as guardian of her brother’s mystical path and teachings, along with compilations of her poetry and sayings in this rare and moving book. Both Malak Jan Nemati and Ostad Elahi, according to Dr. Anvar, represented ‘modern extensions of Persian Sufism’.

Although Malak Jan became physically frail in her advancing years, this study pays endearing homage to an inspirational heroine and woman of enormous resilience, discipline, courage, charity, and enlightenment in the remote Western Iran Kurdish village, Jeyhounabad. Through the affirmative and passionate biographical text by Dr. Anvar, one senses a testament of her own personal path that became imbued by the radiance of Malak Jan’s life and work and whose central preoccupation was spiritual knowledge that she considered ultimately, self-knowledge.

And, what a thoroughly modern, independent woman in Malak Jan one perceives in this passage about the spiritual leader:

    Malak Jan, for whom the ‘Quintessence of Religions’ was the cornerstone of her reflection and teaching, lived far removed from the outside world, yet she was not only well informed about the news but also acutely aware of the pulse of the world: social issues, shifting mindsets, psychological and spiritual upheavals, etc. She was worried about the increasing sectarianism pervading and disrupting the region, and considered the ensemble of divine religions to be one unique Religion, which is why spiritual students from such diverse backgrounds and origins would come to see her. Above all however, she always made a distinction, both in her practice and in her teachings, between universal spiritual principles and secondary dogmas that concerned rituals and social issues. Here again, the modernity of her thought with respect to religious and spiritual matters should be measured against the backdrop of her time and place, which was doubly limited by the mindset of the Ahl-e Haqq on the one hand, and the dogmatic inflexibility of Islam’s orthodoxy on the others. She constantly reevaluated prevailing norms to fine-tune them to what she considered essential to spiritual action: self-knowledge, serving others, and the perfection of the soul.

‘Malak Jan Nemati, Life Isn’t Short, But Time is Limited
Malak Jan Nemati, Life Isn’t Short, But Time is Limited

Preview, Abdelwahab Meddeb’s ‘Portrait of the Poet as a Sufi’ (French and eventual English editions)

By far, one of the strongest, iconoclastic and brilliant among all contemporary Maghreb writers is the Tunisian French poet and philosopher, novelist and artist, the cultural critic, Abdelwahab Meddeb, who is about to release his most recent poetry entitled ‘Portrait of the Poet as a Sufi’, Editions Belin, Collection “Extrême Contemporain”, Paris. An unusually imaginative polymath whose numerous books, articles, and weekly radio broadcasts on France Culture (Cultures d’Islam) and Medi1 (Chronicles) I consistently admire, Abdelwahab Meddeb’s new book promises to be yet another wondrous voyage through space and time. Prepare to accompany this contemporary Sufi poet as he shares his myriad insights, perceptions, sensations, mirrored in his poetic musings. The back cover of the book reads:

    Neo-nomad, the poet walks along the horizon of the world. He is alert to what the body senses during border crossings. The gift received shifts towards Aya, the subject of love, between whose presence and absence lies the poem’s dedication. It is built around epiphanies that provoke contemplation of what is to come, at the intersections of women, words, wines, nourishment, of trees and celestial bodies, and of the truth that brings forth painting and architecture. Reading the world as a book, the poet deciphers what is offered to him in order to interpret the enigmatic. Meaning streams from the physiology of feeling, sensation, emotion. The poet nibbles at tiny plots of the cosmos, to which he adapts as gregarious traveler. His escapades lead him afar, from Korea to the Caribbean, Bengal to the west coast of America. And at a closer range, his sojourns link Tunis to Berlin, Tangier to Paris, Madrid or Lisbon to Cairo, Alexandria to Siwa or Jerusalem to Istanbul. Always drawn to passion for the Truth, the wanderer never renounces focus. Beyond dogma, he dreams about the “complete verb”. He restores the gleaming brightness of a broken mirror through these poetic fragments, transcribing the detail his seismographic body captures as he traverses the territory of Eastern and Western languages​​. Such is the Sufi of a new genre, in quest of the global poetry of our time, its material to be found wherever the poet reinvents his country with each step on his journey. — Abdelwahab Meddeb, writer, poet, academic, radio broadcaster. (Translated from the original French)

During this festival visit to Fez, I remarked to friends that I felt as if I were in the center of the world, wherein there exists the real possibility of peace among so many cultural diversities. Many centuries and places of spiritual inspiration and yearning were celebrated through this edition’s confluence of music, dance, theater, itineraries, forum dialogues, art and literature, not to mention the vibrant encounters with truly great friends in Fez and from all the corners of the earth. It is an experience that blesses and uplifts every festival visitor and participant every year. Do make plans to attend the 21st edition, May 22-30, 2015.

Forthcoming Part II: The Fes Festival of Sufi Culture


Against All Odds, Pride of Segou, Pride of Mali: The Festival on the Niger River

FestivalonNiger-2014The Festival on the Niger River, 10th Anniversary Edition Celebration

Each evening, high in the sky, a thin silver cup-shaped new moon seemed to smile down upon the festivities.


There are many reasons why the Festival on the Niger River’s 10th Anniversary Edition, February 5–9, 2014, was such a symbolic and real success. Due to its many-faceted cultural initiatives over the past ten years, the Festival on the Niger River in Segou, Mali has had a most unusual impact. The region’s socioeconomic growth and development is one major reason. The prospect of national and inter-regional social cohesion is another. Two years ago during the 8th edition, one of the headlining stars, Rokia Traore, marveled in amazement, “Eight years ago, there was nothing here in Segou!” The magnitude of the annual event is dazzling.

Before the festival’s creation, Segou, a southern zone town with a current population close to 150,000 was but a quiet, beautiful spot. Within the larger local Segou region (over 2 million inhabitants), its economic profile includes artisanal crafts, markets, fishing, cattle herding, and small scale farming. It was known, however above all, as the first road stop en route to Timbuktu. Its 17th–18th century history as the small but powerful capital of the Bambara (or Bamana) Kingdom, whose fascinating intrigues and military feats, written about in Maryse Conde’s gripping novel, Segu, seemed all but forgotten.


Mamou Daffe - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mamou Daffe – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Yet through the innovative cultural entrepreneurship by the festival’s founder and president, Mamou Daffe, Segou has now become known as the venue for a superb West African festival. Known as ‘the man who put Segou on the map’, Mr. Daffe’s vibrant festival attracted an estimated ten thousand daily, of international, regional, and local world music fans, officials, scholars, visual artists, media, and arts and crafts buyers this past February.

The 235 kilometer dusty road, lined with distant cliffs, ancient baobab trees and small villages, between Mali’s capital Bamako and Segou is now being reconstructed to an asphalt two-lane highway that will speed up driving time considerably to about 2 ½ hours in daylight. (That is, if you don’t wish to stop along the way for a delicious luncheon snack of freshly grilled kebabs.) The local economic planning council, CPEL Segou, presided over by Mr. Daffe, promotes well-documented and ample reasons to invest in regional projects in agribusiness and cultural tourism. Jobs are being created.

And perhaps most remarkable of all, the festival has assumed stewardship of the Niger River’s environmental health. The festival educates local communities about the vital necessity of keeping the waters clean and shore reforestation. Special days are designated where everyone including the children joins forces to sweep up debris along the shores.

Political Backdrop:

Mali’s recent history underwent a dramatic political coup crisis in March 2012 that triggered invasion of the north by Islamic extremists (AQMI, MUJAO) and was compounded by a rebel secessionist movement (MNLA), causing complete disruption of traditional values and life. Music was banned under twisted interpretation of the Koran by the extremists; musicians were threatened and fled to the south; musical instruments were crushed and broken. Human Rights were non-existent. The inhumanity of the extremists traumatized the entire country and shocked the international community. Hundreds of thousands living in the upper wing region on the butterfly-shaped national map from Timbuktu, Kidal, and Gao fled to the south or refugee camps in neighboring countries. One needs to be aware of the fact that Mali is an immense country (about twice the size of Texas), where the northern desert landscapes are distinctly far removed from the more verdant southern region.

With the ongoing French Serval, Malian, and regional military operations to clean out extremists, some order is slowly beginning to return to the north. But this will take time. The northern zone is still not securitized. Much infrastructure and the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Timbuktu
(tombs of Sufi saints) were destroyed by the extremists and will have to be reconstructed.

However, areas of the southern region remain within the country’s safe zone. One needs spend just a few days in the bustle and lively, upbeat atmosphere of Bamako. Or, stay several days in the restful environs of Segou itself to get a real sense of Mali’s potential. Of imminent interest, last fall, the country elected Ibrahim Boubacar Keita as their new president, known to be ‘a man of culture’.

It was against this political backdrop, in the spirit of current peace and reconciliation initiatives being forged in the north by Mali’s government, that Mamou Daffe and his team undertook the challenge to bring on the festival’s 10th edition. Their achievements noted below deserve all possible accolades and certainly, increased donor and sponsorship support, for they are true cultural heroes for Mali and the West African region. Throughout the festival, because of their dedicated work, the country sang and danced with renewed faith in the country with moving fervor.

Festival Programming:

What distinguished the complexity of the festival programming were the brilliant contrasts between the traditional and contemporary, reflected throughout the music and dance concerts over multiple stages, traditional performances and events, art exhibitions, and threading through the symposium dialogues. It was an intensive experience, a heady swirl of events pulsating from 9 a.m. to late in the night, sometimes until 3 a.m., over multiple venues and stages. The 2014 theme, Cultural Diversity and National Unity, underscored the vision among the festival organizers towards a strong, unified country at peace.


Nafi Diabate- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Nafi Diabate- Photo by Evangeline Kim


And although there seems to be a rupture with traditional values in parts of Africa in favor of Western cultural trappings, Mali’s Festival on the Niger River excels by its selective emphasis on preservation of what is of philosophical cultural value from the past.

For anyone wishing to learn more about the culture of West Africa’s original Mali Empire (c. 1230 to c. 1600), its inherited customs, values, and traditions, shared still today among several countries in the region, the festival serves as an advanced field course study: in West African history, ethnology, anthropology, ethnomusicology, the oral tradition and literature. Mali’s local diligent scientific expertise backing the festival’s celebratory and creative programming aspects defines and shapes its authenticity and power.

Concerts for Peace:

The Cultural Caravan for Peace concert during the first evening was a specially conceived event. Bursting with talent, the partnered traveling concert program was initiated by the Festival in the Desert (still in exile from Timbuktu), the Festival on the Niger River, and Morocco’s Taragalte Festival. A trans-Saharan Sahel project to promote peace, solidarity, and tolerance, its historical basis can be traced to early caravan routes between southern Morocco and Timbuktu.


Mariam Kone Band- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mariam Kone Band- Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Caravan for Peace fulfills a splendid role by reviving the caravan concept: the older tradition wherein different cultures became aware of each other through music, poetry, and lifestyles. Such intercultural exchanges could very well be a key to reconciliation between Mali’s north and south and stimuli to discover solutions to conflicts. The aptly titled evening, Night of Peace, presented a good mix of diverse music from the three regions: Khaira Arby, Mariam Kone, Amanar, Mali Kan, Generation Taragalte, Nafi Diabate, and Amy Wassidje. Judging from the elation, joy, and enthusiasm among the festival leaders from M’Hamid El Ghizlane, Timbuktu, and Segou, the representative musicians, and cheering, dancing international crowds, prospects for peace seem most promising.


Khaira Arby- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Khaira Arby- Photo by Evangeline Kim


Tuareg Dance
Tuareg Dance


Evening Concerts on the Niger River:

During the following evenings by the spectacular, main high-tech Da Monzon Stage on the river, thousands filled the stadium seating and the banks of the river. The official ceremonial opening of the festival featured the premiere of the remarkable opera ballet, Mawula written by Dr. Fode Moussa Sidibe.


Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mawula- Photo by Evangeline Kim


With costumed choreography, accompanied by ancient hunters’ music, and screened background images of actual desert military operations in the north, the dance-theater piece is an allegorical history of the people’s recent resistance to the extremist invasion in the north. The re-imagined contemporary story re-cast from ancient mythology revolves around the symbolism of the sacred vulture, Mawula, and the power and valor of its first-born sons, the fierce donso-hunters. The latter, those who hold ‘the secrets of life and regeneration’, manage to lead the way and the will of the people to vanquish the degenerate forces of the Islamist extremists and reconciliation ensues.


Jacob Desvarieux - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Jacob Desvarieux – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Sekouba Bambino - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Sekouba Bambino – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Mylmo - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Mylmo – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Stelbee - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Stelbee – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Salif Keita - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Salif Keita – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Many of Mali’s most popular stars and groups, some rarely seen on international stages, appeared on the Da Monzon stage: Salif Keita, Super Biton, Neba Solo, Abdoulaye Diabate and Mylmo were major crowd-pleasers. Younger emerging talent such as the Kaladjoula Band and Madou & Safi Diabate were impressive. In the spirit of international exchange, Sekouba Bambino, Guinea’s Mande super star’s appearance was sheer wonder and joy. Bambino is a regional star I’d never seen live until this performance and it was well worth the wait.

Reggae-oriented Stelbee from Burkina Faso holds great promise with her style and sophistication. Upper Tunes from the Netherlands, a light jazz group in collaboration Mali’s acoustic traditional instrumentalists, Sahel Blues, added to the festival’s international appeal. Kassav’s Jacob Desvarieux, a star adulated in Mali, made a cameo appearance. All in all, one left the banks of the Niger River each evening inspired, uplifted, and full of hope for the country.

Quai des Arts:

Overlooking the Niger River and the main Da Monzon stage, the Quai des Arts is the venue area for a multiplicity of activities. Above all, the annual fair of arts and crafts draws vendors from many parts of Mali and neighboring countries, and adjoins a permanent crafts marketplace. There were excellent quality textiles in bogolon and indigo and fashionable designs from the local ‘Boutique Smart’. Classic hand-woven white cotton Peul embroidered coverlets from Mopti, and the ubiquitous long swaths of colorful scarves that are de rigueur protection against dusty roads or desert sand were to be discovered among the several market stalls, mixed with leather goods, musical instruments, wood carvings, and ethnic jewelry.

On the Quai itself traditional and contemporary performances were held during the daytime. Traditional troupes from Segou’s local villages of Markala, Kirango, Banakoro, and Pelengana appeared with their sogow, the masks and giant puppet characters, often in the shapes and forms of animals. They are usually presented in the villages during ceremonial occasions and harvest seasons. Richly didactic in symbolic detail, they are part of the ritual celebration of life that form the lore and the mythology of Malian children through adulthood.

Visual Arts Exhibitions:

There were two contemporary art exhibitions of art that I managed to view. The first themed as Amour was a show of internationally recognized contemporary artists from Mali, Sweden, Ghana, Burkina Faso, and Senegal, at the Galerie Kore on the Quai. There were finessed textile ‘paintings’ by Mali’s Abdoulaye Konate, whose gradations of color over expanses of dyed, clipped fringes of bazin (damask) cloth were surprisingly innovative. His large ‘canvas’, Mujao (pieces de conviction – parts of belief), was an artistic commentary on the inhumanity of Islamist extremists. Within the composition, exquisitely embroidered women’s dress material frames the harsh contrast of a black Salafist flag, and below, a string of bullets dangles over the blood-red lettering ‘MUJAO’.


Abdoulaye Konate, MUJAO - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Abdoulaye Konate, MUJAO – Photo by Evangeline Kim


In counterpoint dialogue with Konate, the Swedish sculptor, Katrine Helmersson, who usually works in bronze, explored volume, space, and mass with some of the black and red bazin textiles employed by Konate in two of his ‘canvases’. With suspended cordal formations demarcating space, her large damask pompoms floated above the floor or were gathered in composed, elegant profusion.


Katerine Helmersson Sculpture - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Katrine Helmersson Sculpture – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Malian sculptor, Amahiguere Dolo, who has a profound understanding of organic, natural materials, and especially the ‘spirit’ forces in wood, took gnarled found pieces of wood and coaxed forth hidden expressive movement and feeling. Burkina’s Siriki Ky, exhibited a small, charming, yet iconic sculpture in bronze finely wrought with a verdigris surface texture, Le roi et sa femme (The King and his Wife). Kofi Setordji, the Ghanaian painter and sculptor, showed perhaps one of the most enigmatic and mysterious painting structures, Je refuse d’être mis dans une boîte (I refuse to be put in a box). A natural earth pigment dyed into his canvas, created a subtle, glowing surface texture; the picture plane holds several pockets sewn onto the canvas ground, and within each, a tree twig.


Amahigeure Dolo with Ritual Mask – Collection National Museum of Mali - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Amahigeure Dolo with Ritual Mask – Collection National Museum of Mali – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Siriki Ky Sculpture - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Siriki Ky Sculpture – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Kofi Setordji and Painting - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Kofi Setordji and Painting – Photo by Evangeline Kim


In a strong one-woman exhibition in two large spaces, Pulsions, the Ivorian artist, Valerie Oka, explored many symbolic concepts that preoccupy her through mixed media paintings and installations. Meanings and implications, feelings and tensions, memory and immediacy, were in constant interplay, alluding to love and communication, desire and destructiveness, tenderness and violence. Her show was a study in the power of African women and the challenges they face today.


Valerie Oka and Painting - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Valerie Oka and Painting – Photo by Evangeline Kim

Kore Cultural Center, The Koredugaw Exhibit:

The Kore Cultural Center, built in 2011 by Mamou Daffe, is a multi-functional complex of buildings constructed in the Sudano-Sahelian architectural style. The Center houses a large conference hall, a state-of-the-art recording studio, an outdoor performance stage, the Kore Institut des Arts et Metiers – dedicated to arts and entrepreneurial training, and a museum exhibition space.

This year the center’s traditional arts exhibition gave focus to The Koredugaw – Insiders, Symbols of a Philosophy of Life in Mali. It was curated by the ethnologist, Dr. Salia Male, Director of Research and Deputy Managing Director with the National Museum of Mali in Bamako. At each festival one is bound to come across this ritual cult of colorfully and clownishly dressed group of men and women usually dancing in circle formation around the festival grounds or tumbling about on the river banks. They are unmistakable in appearance and energy. Sporting caps, sometimes regal, sometimes outlandish, and adorned with long necklaces of large red ‘rosary’ beans, their tunics are covered with all-manner of symbolic gris-gris shells, feathers, bird beaks, plastic bottles, and gourds.


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Koredugaw - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The Koredugaw – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The Kore Center’s museum exhibit was filled with photo portraits of several of the Koredugaw and examples of their ritual carved wood masks that represent various animals, signifiers of initiation classes – the latter, sourced from the National Museum of Mali’s collection. The exhibition implemented the center’s policy of enhancing the heritage of music, dance, masks and puppets through preservation of traditional values and and education.

In the excellent small exhibition catalogue, Dr. Male writes:

Restraint, dignity and decency are well linked values in Malian society but that the ritual clowns are allowed to break into the most sensitive areas such as gluttony, health, sexuality and childishness. The Koreduga doesn’t know shame (malo), a concept that can be translated into correction, decency, modesty. The apparently aberrant behavior of the Koredugaw has a cathartic virtue: they allow people to collect criticism and mockery, which, if made by another person, would be considered serious offenses. This form of humor is much deeper than it seems at first glance. This is not just a frivolous occupation: it is a vital form of creativity, which involves not only the game, but a powerful vision of the world at the source of the purity of human nature, which seems at times corrupted by culture; hence the opposition of Koredugaw’s practice to social norms.

The Symposium of Segou:

Some of the most illuminating and informative moments during the festival occurred during the morning symposium sessions. Impassioned observations and commentary from the audience participants animated the intercultural exchange between historians, anthropologists, sociologists, architects, philosophers, and novelists.

What I appreciated the most was the fact that each participant had prepared a clear thesis presentation, whether viable or not. There was no forum type ‘off-the-cuff’ superficial commentary. Nor were there any ‘famous’ personalities, for substance and content are critical to what is a truly effective symposium.

The concept theme, African Renaissance: Challenges and Perspectives during Mali’s post-crisis period gave focus to the interrelationships between culture and development throughout the continent as a principal consideration: a vast perspective, in view of the multitude of cultural identities in Mali and on the continent.


African Renaissance Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
African Renaissance Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


African Renaissance Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
African Renaissance Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The very notion of development became a bracing inquiry that the symposia explored and debated. Should development be defined merely by a country’s GDP – as interpreted by multilateral institutional statistical measures? Or by a country’s historical and cultural influence and strengths? How does one define ‘quality of life’? How do culture and development intersect today in Africa? Isn’t ‘success’, in the final analysis, a matter of opinion?

Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium

Ivorian professor of philosophy and well-known art critic, Yacouba Konate, moderated an ancillary discussion among artists, scholars, and professionals under the rubric RAP (Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles). Its theme: Creation, Factor of Development.


Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium - Photo by Evangeline Kim
Rencontres Artistiques Professionnelles Symposium – Photo by Evangeline Kim


Among the symposium’s roster of notable speakers, Lazare Eloundou, architect and urban planner, the former head of UNESCO’s Africa Unit and the organization’s current representative in Mali, delivered a timely presentation. Entitled Cultures and Conflicts: Visions and Roles of UNESCO, Mr. Eloundou summarized the UNESCO culture sector’s ongoing activities throughout Mali, especially towards the safeguarding and reconstruction necessary in war-ravaged Timbuktu. Throughout Africa, he observed, a newer form of war threatens national stability, most recently in Mali, Libya, Egypt, and Central Africa. They are today victims of attacks on their respective cultural identities and heritages.

Christiane Kayser from Luxembourg, an independent consultant working in West and Central Africa and member of the private sector think tank, Mapinduzi Unit, offered pertinent perspectives in her presentation Identities and Governance: A Challenge for the African Renaissance. The substance of her talk is available at the following link to Mapinduzi Journal 3 in the introduction. This journal is an excellent collection of analytical essays by some of the leading thinkers in Africa, including Mamou Daffe himself, and Dr. Celestin Tagou, professor of political science and international relations.

The National Museum of Mali in Bamako:

After leaving Segou, one is well-advised to spend several hours in the National Museum of Mali in Bamako. It ranks among the world’s greatest cultural museums from an art critical standpoint. One gains invaluable insights into the country’s early history in the archaeology hall; a greater sense of the ritual cults in the magnificent Masterpieces of Ritual Arts exhibit; and finally, in the textile arts hall, there is breathtaking visual splendor with superb examples of ingenious dying techniques, fine weavings, and intricate embroideries. Glimpses of the latter two may be seen in Segou, but contemplative appreciation of them is fully afforded through a museum visit.


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


The National Museum of Mali in Bamako - Photo by Evangeline Kim
The National Museum of Mali in Bamako – Photo by Evangeline Kim


After a gracious welcome by Dr. Salia Male, I was delighted to view the museum exhibit halls with Dramane Diarra, Research Attaché with the museum. His gallery commentaries included illustrative Malian proverbs and reflected the depth and sophistication of the museum’s scholarship and its highly refined sense of aesthetics.

The festival’s bonds with the museum are becoming more and more strategic. The cultural tourism that the festival fulfills so well, clearly stimulates interest in deeper understandings of Mali’s history and culture for international scholars and students as part of its mission objectives. A visit to the the museum is a fitting way to celebrate the festival experience and highlights the rich research and vast knowledge base in the country’s culture sector.

Mamou Daffe’s ‘Maaya’ Vision:

As praiseworthy example, the Festival on the Niger River is featured as a role model In UNESCO’s 2013 Creative Economy Report, Widening Local Development Pathways under the Africa section, The introduction states:

UNESCO’s work over the years has demonstrated that when the creative sector becomes part of an overall development and growth strategy, it can contribute to the revitalization of the national economy where hybrid and dynamic economic and cultural exchanges occur and innovation is nurtured. But that is not all. Investing in culture and the creative sector as a driver of social development can also lead to results that contribute to the overall well-being of communities, individual self-esteem and quality of life, dialogue and cohesion. These results generated from fostering the cultural and creative industries may be harder to quantify, but are no less important.

The 10th edition of the Festival on the Niger River encompassed all the qualities of a great festival as a showcase for the diversity of arts in Mali; a local and regional meeting place for artistic and scientific dialogue, debate, and education; a force for regional socioeconomic development and national reconciliation; and a cultural gateway to the past, the present, and the future of the continent.

Mamou Daffe’s achievements as a cultural entrepreneur are founded upon his synthesis of traditional humanistic values with entrepreneurial goals and modern management principles. The underlying Malian principles are known as Maaya. He has written two recent groundbreaking books on the subject: Maaya Entrepreneurship (2012) and Maaya Entrepreneurship: A Management Tool for Cultural Event and Local Development (2013).

Maaya is an integral humanist concept concerning the relationship between the individual and the community. It is the core quality of being human, what makes us human. Through Maaya, people understand the importance of that relationship and learn how to act accordingly. The principles of Maaya are applicable to every aspect of life: work, leadership, politics, education, festivities, day-to-day life, art, science and anything else you can think of. Maaya emphasizes the unbreakable bond between individual and community and gives people a framework to hold on to, provides them with a ‘design for life.’ – Mamou Daffe, Maaya Entrepreneurship

This is far beyond theory or idealism. The evidence of its practicability lies in the festival’s success. The festival’s underlying founding concepts of Maaya and community-based entrepreneurship as management guidelines are pulling Segou out of a formerly languishing state towards a dynamic profile of socioeconomic growth and well-being. It may very well portend the future of the African Renaissance itself.