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The Changing face of Chennai Music Festival

Anuradha Krishnamurthy

 

The annual Music Festival conducted in December-January in Chennai is a unique phenomenon. It is the largest festival of its kind in the world, with close to 2000 performances of music, dance, drama, spiritual discourses, lecture-demonstrations, discussions and related events.

While the essence of the festival is entertainment through these forms of art, there is an impressive gastronomic delight built in – In the close to 60 odd sabhas or organizations that host the various activities, impromptu canteens spring up, catering mouth-watering dishes relished not only by the rasikas who attend the programmes, but also by the local residents who take full advantage of these temporary canteens. Indeed, many of the performing artistes also join the rasikas in enjoying the menu!

Started in 1927, the Madras Music Festival (the original name from days gone by when Chennai was Madras) has grown to its present gigantic form over the years, thanks to the generous patronage of the corporate world, and the discerning music fans (rasikas) who come from all over the world.

While most enthusiasts coming from abroad (USA, UK, the Middle East and Singapore for the main part) are Indians, there is a growing number of westerners with interest in Carnatic Music who attend these concerts.

In 2017, most sabhas are reported to have had between 50 and 100 people of non-Indian origin every day, especially for the music and dance events. The Season provides a platform for established artistes as well as budding ones to showcase their talent.

 

Bombay Sisters -C. Saroja and C. Lalitha

 

My wife and I attended this year’s season. While we regularly travel to Chennai during the Season from wherever we are, we would rarely get more than 3 or 4 days of quality music. We decided long back that this year would be different. And it was. We stayed put for 18 days in all, soaking in the grand art in all its glory. And we found that the Season has evolved over the years, in more ways than one. Here is how:

The first, and perhaps the most satisfying aspect was the quality of the performances. There has always been this lament of doomsday pessimists that Carnatic music is on the decline, that a few years down the line, it would be relegated to history books. Even the wackiest pessimist would have had a change of heart had they, like us, attended the festival this year.

A vast majority of performances were by talented youngsters in their 20s and thirties. And they performed like stalwarts! There was no sign of undue nervousness, no stage fear. Instead, all of them exuded supreme confidence in the way they went about displaying their understanding and even mastery of the complex art form that Carnatic music is.

The selection of kritis, the pace of delivery, an occasional remark about some significant aspect of a raga or composition – this was, for us, a pleasant change from bygone years when artistes came on stage, belted out their fare, and left. Today’s performers do not seem shy of communicating with the audience – and every time this happened, I saw the audience love it. Without exception.

 

Sandeep Narayanan

 

A few years ago, one of the magazines lamented the “death” of the Ragam Tanam Pallavi, the ultimate jewel of the Carnatic music platform. This year, the audience was treated to a veritable feast of RTPs! Indeed, a new term has emerged – the RTKRagam Tanam followed by a weighty composition (called Kriti) to underpin the beauty of the chosen raga.

 

Mannargudi Easwaran

 

The quality of accompanists: A missed or misplaced note (referred to as abhaswaram) played by the accompanist can stick out like a sore thumb, disturbing the flow of the main singer and audience satisfaction. It is a tribute to the teachers and trainers of today’s young accompanists that the cynic in me could not identify a single instance of abhaswaram  in the 40 odd concerts I heard this season. On the contrary, some of the violin accompanists were superlative, matching the main artiste note for note, unfazed by the stature of the senior they were accompanying.

 

S Varadharajan

 

Never shy of going back stage and talking to artistes, I had the pleasure of conveying my sentiments to many of these youngsters. Many of the new (to me, not the regular concert goer in Chennai) violinists I met were all students of Sangeetha Kalanidhi Smt Kanyakumari. I mention this because the Parur and Lalgudi schools are known to produce violinists who strictly adhere to sruti suddham or purity of notes. Here is another set of high level performers being trained by one of the top violinists of today – what can be more reassuring about the future of our heritage than this?

As for the percussionists, no amount of praise is enough. Every single mridangam, ghatam or kanjeera player seems to a master of mathematics, so sure is their grasp of laya.  Sure some of the less experienced ones need to mature, but they don’t lack talent, they merely need on-stage experience. Which, thankfully, is abundantly available.  Which could well be the reason for yet another significant change noticed this year – far few people walk out during the solo by the percussionists, and this in turn motivates the artistes to perform better.

Trichur V. Ramachandran

 

The ubiquitous internet and its ally, the sophistication of present day smart phones, have made a huge difference too, unlike in the preceding years. It is possible to find out details of the song being sung by looking it up instantly on the internet – knowing about the composer, the raga in which it is being sung, and especially the ability to follow the lyrics as the kriti unfolds on stage, has made a huge difference to the overall enjoyment of the concert. That’s technology aided entertainment in the truest sense!

 

Smt Kanyakumari & T. Rukmii

 

Time keeping:  An extremely satisfying aspect noticed this time around was the clockwork precision with which the major sabhas conduct their programmes. The Music Academy has always been very strict with schedules, but other sabhas are catching on quickly. My wife and I experienced only one instance of a programme not starting on time. I may be unaware of other lapses in this, but the general consensus is that most places the programmes start and end on time.

Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman

 

Themed events:  Finally, a whole new range of themed events are adding value to the festival.  Ranjani and Gayatri, arguably the top vocalists in the circuit, did an RTP in each of their concerts, paying tribute to various composers. They did this by choosing one popular kriti of each composer and doing an RTP in the raga of that composition, using the first line of the composition as the lyrics for the pallavi. I was amazed at their innovative sense, as were most others.

There were some restaurants that combined meals with music – by having artistes present in their premises. This gave the rasikas a chance to see their favorites close – up, and interact with them.  Most sabhas distributed daily leaflets – absolutely free of charge – carrying tid bits and anecdotes from around the city’s sabhas – al this by a bunch of enthusiasts giving of their time and effort voluntarily.

My wife and I came away more than satisfied after this season, convinced that the face of Madras Music Season is changing, and changing for the better. I am convinced that far from fading away, Carnatic music is poised to reach a whole new dimension in the capable hands of today’s generation of performers.

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The Joropo of the Colombian and Venezuelan Plains

Colombian group Cimarron – Photo by Noelle Polkington

Joropo is a musical genre and dance form found in the plains of Venezuela. Los Llanos, the broad plains of western Venezuela and eastern Colombia, watered by the Orinoco River and its tributaries, are home to música llanera (literally, “plains music”), the engaging musical traditions created by ranching people with a love for cattle, horses, music and dance. At the heart of this region’s music is joropo, a hard-driving music that brilliantly showcases the percussive capabilities of stringed instruments and the musician’s ability to improvise.

The main instrument of llanera music is perhaps an unexpected one – the harp. Introduced to South America in the 18th century by the Spaniards, in the hands of the llanero, or plains cowboy, the harp became a percussive dynamo that serves as the backbone of música llanera Joropo ensembles are generally comprised of the harp, the bandola llanera (a four-stringed pear-shaped guitar), the small four-stringed cuatro, contrabajo (acoustic bass), rounded out by maracas (gourd rattles) and vocals.

Joropo music features both slower, more lyrical songs called pasajes as well as faster tunes called golpes. The hallmarks of the traditional joropo singer are a powerful voice that can handle the fast, hard-edged vocal style and the ability to improvise the lyrics.
 
As rural llaneros and musicians have migrated to cities for economic opportunities, the music of the plains has gained prominence in Colombia and Venezuela and is now a part of the commercial music industry and festivals Música llanera has become an expression a regional pride.

Joro Subgenres

Joropo oriental – Joropo Oriental is a rare Venezuelan version of the genre that is characterized by an improvisational style of singing, a variety of stringed instruments such as the bandola, mandolin, guitar and cuatro plus a regionally distinct style of maracas that provides the only percussive element.

Sources: Richmond Folk Festival, Old Town School of Folk Music

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The Samba de Roda

The samba de roda is a traditional Afro-Brazilian dance from the state of Bahia (Brazil). It has been associated with capoeira for many years. The instruments used in samba de roda groups includes atabaque, berimbau, chocalho, and pandeiro, accompanied by singing and hand clapping.

UNESCO Proclamation 2005: “The Samba de Roda of Recôncavo of Bahia”

The Samba de Roda, which involves music, dance and poetry, is a popular festive event that developed in the State of Bahia, in the region of Recôncavo during the seventeenth century. It drew heavily on the dances and cultural traditions of the region’s African slaves. The performance also included elements of Portuguese culture, such as language, poetry, and certain musical instruments. At first a major component of regional popular culture among Brazilians of African descent, the Samba de Roda was eventually taken by migrants to Rio de Janeiro, where it influenced the evolution of the urban samba that became a symbol of Brazilian national identity in the twentieth century.

The dance is performed on various occasions, such as popular Catholic festivities or Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies, but is also executed in more spontaneous settings. All present, including beginners, are invited to join the dance and learn through observation and imitation.

One of the defining characteristics of the Samba of Roda is the gathering of participants in a circle, referred to as roda. It is generally performed only by women, each one taking her turn in the center of the ring surrounded by others dancing in the circle while clapping their hands and singing.

The choreography is often improvised and based on the movements of the feet, legs and hips. One of the most typical movements is the famous belly push, the umbigada, a testimony of Bantu influence, used by the dancer to invite her successor into the center of the circle. The Samba de Roda is also distinguished by specific dance steps like the miudinho, the use of the viola machete – a small lute with plucked strings from Portugal, as well as scraped instruments, and responsorial songs.

The influence of mass media and competition from contemporary popular music have contributed to undervaluing this Samba in the eyes of the young. The aging of practitioners and the dwindling number of artisans capable of making some of the instruments pose a further threat to the transmission of the tradition.

Samba de roda proclamation courtesy of UNESCO. © UNESCO

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The Angklung

Angklung

Angklung is an Indonesian musical instrument consisting of two to four bamboo tubes suspended in a bamboo frame, bound with rattan cords.

The tubes are carefully whittled and cut by a master crafts person to produce certain notes when the bamboo frame is shaken or tapped.

Each Angklung produces a single note or chord, so several players must collaborate in order to play melodies. Traditional Angklungs use the pentatonic scale, but in 1938 musician Daeng Soetigna introduced Angklungs using the diatonic scale; these are known as angklung padaeng.

The Angklung is closely related to traditional customs, arts and cultural identity in Indonesia, played during ceremonies such as rice planting, harvest and circumcision.

The special black bamboo for the Angklung is harvested during the two weeks a year when the cicadas sing, and is cut at least three segments above the ground, to ensure the root continues to propagate.

Angklung education is transmitted orally from generation to generation, and increasingly in educational institutions. Because of the collaborative nature of Angklung music, playing promotes cooperation and mutual respect among the players, along with discipline, responsibility, concentration, development of imagination and memory, as well as artistic and musical feelings.

The Angklung and its music are central to the cultural identity of communities in West Java and Banten, where playing the Angklung promotes the values of teamwork, mutual respect and social harmony.

The Angklung is included in a national inventory maintained by the Centre for Research and Development of Culture of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, and in several specialized inventories maintained by universities and Angklung associations.

The Angklung was inscribed in 2010 on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

(sources: UNESCO, World Music Central)

Angklung recordings

Tujang Biru by Mas village gamelan angklung

Gamelan Music of Bali by Various Artists

===== Sources =====

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Apache Music

Apache musician Andrew Vasquez

The current Apache (Nde or the people) nations include San Carlos Nation, Yavapai Nde Nation, Mescalero Nation, White Mountain Apache Tribe, Chiricahua Fort Sill, Chiricahua Apache Nde Nation, Jicarilla Apache Nation, Lipan Apache Tribe, Yavapai Prescott Indian Tribe, Yavapai Apache Nation, and Tonto Apache Nation.

Apache dances include the rain dance, the sunrise dance for young women, the harvest dance, and a spirit dance. Dancers use ankle wraps to accompany their dances.

Musical instruments include flutes like the agave courting flute and the nose flute; the Mescalero one-stringed fiddle known as tsii edo’a’tl, or “wood singing,” which is made from a hollowed vegetable agave stalk. The fiddle is held together with sinew wrappings and metal spikes.

Other instruments include drums, rattles and bells attached to a strap of leather. The leather straps are placed in the ankles and sometimes on the knees and elbows.

Apache musicians include Tony Duncan, Estun-Bah, and Andrew Vasquez.

Apache Music Albums

Togo (Makoché Music, 2004)

From Where the Sun Rises (Canyon Records, 2010)

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The Cuban Danzón

Danzón is a ballroom dance played by the Cuban charangas. It is a descendant of the popular the Spanish danza of the 1800s and the French contredanse (contradanza) brought by the French immigrants fleeing the Haitian Revolution, who settled in the Cuba’s eastern region. The danzon was preferably danced during winter, because, according to the dancers, it led to extreme overheating. Therefore, in winter Cubans danced danzón, and in summer they waltzed.

Danzón in the 19th Century

As the name in Spanish implies, the danzon is a long dance. In the mid 19th century, Miguel Faílde created the instrumental accompaniment to the dance. The first danzon was performed by a traditional wind orchestra, at the Matanzas Lyceum, January 1st, 1879. The name of the first danzón known was “Las alturas de Simpsom.” The name of the piece was a marked homage to the site in the city where popular celebrations were held.

Years later, musicians like Raimundo Valenzuela, Enrique Guerrero and Félix Cruz, added to new elements to the popular genre.

Danzon in the 20th Century

At the beginnings of the 20th century, José Urfé revolutionized danzon music completely by introducing a mountain son using the tres (three string guitar) style used by musicians in the eastern provinces of Cuba. Musicologist Helio Orovio said: “El Bombín de Barreto (a song by Urfé) defined for the rest of the century, the singular style that would distinguish the danzón forever.”

From Cuba, the danzon spread to other nations, like Mexico.

Danzon’s Offspring

The danzon generated new genres like the danzonete and the cha cha chá. Barbarito Diez became the King of the danzon. The danzón owes its ample diffusion and clearest interpretation to Diez.

The danzon is currently celebrated during the Havana Danzón Festival, that includes concerts, conferences and meetings that clarify the influence of the danzón on musical genres that came decades later, such as salsa.

Sources: Instituto Cubano de Arte e Industria Cinematograficos (ICAIC), Helio Orovio, World Music Central

Danzón books

Danzón: Circum-Caribbean Dialogues in Music and Dance (Currents in Latin American and Iberian Music)

Danzón Recordings

The Cuban Danzón

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Year in Review: World Music in Asia Initiative 2017

The second year of the World Music in Asia Initiative has seen World Culture Open, World Music Shanghai and Cambodian Living Arts bring world music festivities to the public in China, South Korea, and for the very first time, Cambodia from September to November 2017.

Over these months, all three countries were united in a series of world music festivals that are free and open to the public. The World Music in Asia Initiative is committed to providing space for cultural exchange through world music, where the public can enjoy admission free world music performances, workshops and other activities.

1. 2017 World Music Shanghai (China) – presented by World Music Shanghai

From September 23 to October 7, in the cities of Shanghai, Wuhan, Chongqing and Foshan in China, World Music Shanghai infused bustling urban spaces with world music performances and workshops, bringing audiences on a musical journey to over 25 regions across the globe.

Audiences were not only able to enjoy an eclectic line up of 24 performance acts, but were also able to have deeper engagement with the artists through educational and family-oriented workshops, all of which were free and open to the public.

With workshops and performances taking place both indoors and outdoors, it is clear from this festival that world music has the potential to fill any urban space with joy and excitement, bringing artists and audiences together for effective moments of musical sharing and creation.

 

Sousou and Maher Cissoko at World Music Shanghai 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Music Shanghai

 

Chinese band Rid at World Music Shanghai 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Music Shanghai

 

African drumming workshop at World-Music Shanghai 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Music Shanghai

 

Hadar-Maoz-World-Music-Shanghai – Photo courtesy of World Music Shanghai

 

More about World Music Shanghai

2. REPfest (Cambodia) – presented by Cambodian Living Arts

REPfest was a festival of new traditional music; presenting creative works based on traditional forms from around the Mekong Region and elsewhere in Asia. From October 27-29, 2017, 44 artists from Cambodia, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam gathered in Siem Reap for three days of performances, workshops, and in-depth conversations within REPfest Forum.

The festival’s intimate setting and focus on collaboration served as a very unique platform for participating artists to express themselves freely, explore shared heritage, and observe similarities and differences in each other’s musical traditions.

In its first edition, REPfest succeeded in building a strong base for meaningful creative exchange in the region, and provided some of the participating artists with their first opportunity to travel internationally. Less than two months later, artists who met at the festival have already set up new collaborations with each other in other countries.

The festival saw much enthusiasm from the audience too – over the three days almost 1000, mainly young and local people, took part in workshops and performances, and hopefully were left with new knowledge and inspiration.

 

Yaksao entertain the audience at Cambodian Living Arts’ Heritage Hub with their new traditional Cambodian music – Photo by Keat Sokim

 

All female drum group Medha start a high energy performance at Krousar Thmey Foundation – Photo by Colin Grafton

 

Japanese flutist Kohei Nishikawa shares his skills with Cambodian students – Photo by Keiko Kitamura

 

45 artists from 6 countries around Asia, together at Wat Bo in Siem Reap, Cambodia – Photo by Choeun Socheata

 

Discovering the similarities in traditional Cambodian and Laotian dance, with music by Champasak Shadow Theatre from Laos – Photo by Colin Grafton

 

More about about Cambodian Living Arts

3. Better Together 2017 (South Korea) – presented by World Culture Open

World music and artistic performances and workshops that celebrated peace, empathy and togetherness were presented from November 10-12 at Better Together 2017, a global gathering of creative changemakers at the revitalized Old Tobacco Factory in the city of Cheongju.

Free and open to the public, this festival invited everyone to enjoy performances by artists from around the world, and members of the public were also able to participate in various hands-on workshops and insightful talks and dialogue with artists during the day.

Without boundaries between audiences and artists, both were able to fully immerse in a journey of cultural discovery and engagement together.

 

Rwandan musician Jean Paul Samputu during Better Together 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Culture Open

 

Israeli band Gulaza performing Yemenite women songs during Better Together 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Culture Open

 

A jembe drumming workshop led by Yong Yung Lee during Better Together 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Culture Open

 

Zumbi Munair from Jamaica gives a Capoeira performance during Better Together 2017 – Photo courtesy of World Culture Open

 

More about World Culture Open

headline photo: Shishani-the Namibian Tales at World Music Shanghai – Photo courtesy of World Music Shanghai

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2017 Holiday Music Guide

Do you remember last January when you said, “Hey, just throw all them in that big plastic bag,” and the other person did exactly that? Yeah, well it’s that time of year to face that big plastic bag of now knotted Christmas lights because the person responsible didn’t coil them neatly.

Along with the now snake pit of lights, you’ll be facing the endless list making, trying to crowbar out gift ideas from those curmudgeons in your family, preparing the assembly line of Christmas cookies and treats and rummaging through the boxes of last year’s decorations to pluck out the survivors. You know what you need? You need some Christmas music, either to get you in the holiday mood or to drown out the screaming of the person outside who just stapled his or her finger attempting to put up the new strands of lights because the cat has made a bed of the snake pit of old lights. Lucky for you World Music Central has a whole host of new and classic goodies for you to check out for your listening pleasure.

 

Reba McEntire – My Kind of Christmas

 

Looking to having yourself a merry little country Christmas? Well, you might want to check out country queen Reba McEntire’s My Kind of Christmas with tracks like “Winter Wonderland,” “The Christmas Song,” “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and “Silent Night” with Kelly Clarkson and Trisha Yearwood.

Alan Jackson has out this season Let It Be Christmas with a sweetly country version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” as well as goodies like “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” “White Christmas” and “Silver Bells.”

Nashville session musician and Country Music Hall of Fame member Charlie McCoy has put out the harmonica happy Classic Country Christmas with offerings like “O Beautiful Star of Bethlehem,” “Christmas Time Is Here” and “Tender Tennessee Christmas.”

 

Southern Rock Christmas

 

Ready to kick your holiday shindig up a notch or two? Well, you can get yourself a big old helping of 2015’s Southern Rock Christmas with sweet goodies like “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” by The Artimus Pyle Band, “Merry Christmas Baby” by Point Blank, “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Adam Hood, “Christmas Everywhere” by Black Oak Arkansas and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” by the Oak Ridge Boys.

There is also the compilation from Contrast Records called Santa Claus Is From the South with tracks like “Santa Is On His Way” by Bob Willis & His Texas Playboys, “Christmas Time Is A-Coming” by Bill Monroe, “Blue Christmas” by Hank Snow and for those of you remember The Porter Wagoner Show Kenny Roberts with his track “Christmas Roses.”

There’s also Bluegrass powerhouse Balsam Range’s It’s Christmas Time out on the Mountain Home Music Company label. This has got goodies like “Christmas Lullaby,” “The First Noel,” “I’m Going Home, It’s Christmas” and a kicking version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

North Carolina’s Bluegrass group Nu-Blu is ready to swing you into the mood with their digital offering Shine with sparkling little goodies like title track “Shine,” “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “What Child Is This” and “Mary Did You Know.”

 

Berliner Philharmoniker with Herbert von Karajan on The Christmas Album – Vol. 2

 

For a little loftier fare, the Berliner Philharmoniker with Herbert von Karajan on The Christmas Album – Vol. 2 might just hit that inner holiday spirit in the sweet spot. There are some truly lovely tracks on this recording as in “Corelli: Concerto grosso In G Minor, Op.6, MC 68” Fatto per la Notte di Natalie” -1. Vivace – Grave – Allegro,” “Pachebel: Canon And Gigue In D Major, P 37 – Arr. For Orchestra By Max Seiffert – 1. Canon,” “Torelli: Concerto Grosso In G Minor, Op 8, No. 6 “Christmas Concerto” – 2. Largo,” “Manfredini: Concerto In C, Op 3, No. 12 – “Christmas Concerto: -1. Largo (Pastorale per il Santissimo Natale)” and “Locatelli: Concerto Grosso In F Minor, Op. 1, No. 8 “Christmas Concerto” – 4. Largo Adante.”

The Decca/London label has put out Winter Songs by Ola Gjeilo/Choir of Royal Holloway/12 Ensemble. The goodies on this recording “Ecce Novum,” “Across The Vast, Eternal Sky,” “The Coventry Carol,” “Wintertide” and a sweet little version of “Silent Night.”

There’s also Joyeaux Noel French Christmas Music with Michel Corrette, Pierre Dandrieu, Christian Lambour, La Fantasia and the Arcadia Ensemble with conductors Rien Voskruilen and Kevin Mallon. Tracks include “Te Deum in D Major,” “Dixit Dominus,” “Messe de Minuit Pour Noel, H. 9: I. Kyrie” and Messe de Minuit Pour Noel, H. 9: II Gloria.”

 

Placido Domingo & Friends Celebrate Christmas in Vienna

 

Sony Masterworks has put out Placido Domingo & Friends Celebrate Christmas in Vienna. Listeners get to wallow around in the wonders of Placido Domingo and enjoy tracks like “White Christmas” with Diana Ross, “Carol of the Bells” with Vjekoslav Sutej, Sissel Kyrkjebo, Charles Aznavour and the Wiener Opernkinderchor, “I Wonder As I Wander,” “Angels We Have Heard On High” with Tony Bennett and Vanessa Williams and “Stille Nacht” with Jose Carreras and Diana Ross.

Listeners might want to check out the dulcet Dominican Sisters of Mary, Mother of the Eucharist on their season’s offering Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring: Christmas with The Dominican Sisters of Mary. The sweet sisters offer up treats like “Christmas Proclamation,” “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring,” “Emmanuel,” “Adeste Fideles,” “Gabriel’s Message” and “Gaudete” and each is more and more lovely.

And, there’s more. Oh, so much more!

 

Herb Alpert – The Christmas Wish

 

If you were wondering what Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass fame was up to – well, apparently a Christmas CD called simply The Christmas Wish. Ramping up his sound with a 45-piece orchestra, a 10-piece rhythm section and a 32-member choir, Mr. Alpert hits all the right notes with “Medley: Joy to the World/Silver Bells,” “Santa Baby,” “Winter Wonderland,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and other Christmas classics.

Sony Legacy has dug through its archives and pulled out Christmas with Elvis and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for your listening pleasure. Fans can expect oldies but goodies like “White Christmas,” “Merry Christmas Baby,” “Blue Christmas,” “The First Noel” and “Silent Night” by The King himself.

 

Smokey Robinson – Christmas Everyday

 

Even Smokey Robinson has succumbed to the pressure of the Christmas album with his first titled Christmas Everyday. Opening the “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” gets with guest artist Trombone Shorty, Christmas Everyday gets the cool treatment with tracks like “This Christmas,” “The Night That Baby Was Born,” “You’re My Present” with The Dap Kings and “O Holy Night” with Take 6.
The ever popular Celtic Woman has put out The Best of Christmas with tracks like “Joy to the World,” “Silent Night” and “Once In Royal David’s City.”

The powerhouse band the Sultans of String have put out Christmas Caravan. This is a treasure trove of goodies like “Turkish Greensleeves” with Gundem Yayli Grubu, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” with Mary Fahl, “Flight of Angels/Hark the Hearld” with Chris McKhool and Rebecca Campbell, “Celebrate the Holydays: with Sweet Honey in the Rock, “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” with Ruben Blades and Luba Mason, “Himalayan Sleigh Ride” with Anwar Khurshid and “Feliz Navidad/Come on People Sing” with Alex Cuba.

David Arkenstone has put out Native Christmas on the Green Hill Productions label. With Native American flute, percussion, guitar and keyboards, Native Christmas is sweetly spare and restful with “Little Drummer Boy,” “We Three Kings,” “Angels We Have Heard on High” and “Snow on the Mesa.”

If the classic pop Christmas is what you’re looking for you might just want to spring for the whole kit and caboodle in the 5-CD box set 100 Hits – Christmas Legends. This box set has it all from Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” to Perry Como’s “Its Beginning to Look a Lost Like Christmas” to Louis Armstrong’s “Cool Yule.” Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee, Mario Lanza, Glen Miller and Rosemary Clooney are all assembled her for your holiday pleasure.

The Capitol label has put out A Capitol Christmas Vol. 2 with treats like Glen Campbell’s “Blue Christmas,” The Beach Boys’s “Frosty the Snowman,” Dinah Shore’s “Jingle Bells” and Lena Horne’s “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

 

Dave Koz & Friends 20th Anniversary Christmas

 

Concord Records has on tap this year Dave Koz & Friends 20th Anniversary Christmas. Joined by David Benoit, Rick Braun and Peter White, Mr. Koz smooths over the holiday edges with cool offerings like “Winter Wonderland,” “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Feliz Navidad” and “The Home Medley: I’ll Be Home for Christmas/Celebrate Me Home.”

For the vinyl junkies out there the label Music on Vinyl has put out the 2-CD set of Beautiful Day: Kurt Elling Sings Christmas. Lush and smooth, Beautiful Day offers up “Sing a Christmas Carol,” “We Three Kings,” “Wencelaus,” “Little Drummer Boy” and “The Beautiful Day.”

The Cleopatra label has Blues Christmas on offer this holiday season. With tracks like Joe Louis Walker’s “Christmas Comes But Once a Year,” Steve Cropper’s “Let’s Make Christmas Merry, Baby,” Kenny Neal’s “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Lightnin’ Hopkins’s “Santa” be prepared to have all your low down Christmas needs met.

Finally, I’d like to give a nod to the Contrast Records label. This label has cleverly put out compilation recordings for the holiday season like Dig That Crazy Santa Claus – Classic R & B, Blues for Christmas – Classic R & B/Blues, Santa Claus Is From the South Classic, Boogie Woogie Santa Claus – Classic R & B/Blues and my favorite Christmas in Jail Classic with such goodies as “Christmas Eve Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson, “The Wrong Way To Celebrate Xmas” by Edward W. Clayborn (Guitar Evangelist), “Christmas Man Blues” by Bertha Chippie Hill, “Christmas And No Santa Claus” by Bumble Bee Slim and “Christmas Night In Harlem” by Jack Teagarden & Johnny Mercer. This has got to be the coolest way to dig into Christmases past.

So, here’s hoping your holidays are filled with music – lots and lots of music.

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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,  womad.co.uk.  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.)

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World music bands help urban audiences connect with nature: performer insights from the 20th Rainforest World Music Festival

The 20th Rainforest World Music Festival (RWMF) in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) delivered a special four-day delight of preview showcases and evening performances. There were also interactive discussions between media and musicians each morning, followed by afternoon workshops and jam sessions.

The 2017 lineup of 22 international and 5 local groups included Abavuki (South Africa), Achanak (UK/India), Ba Cissoko (Guinea), Belem (Belgium), Bitori (Cape Verde), Calan (Wales), Cimarron (Colombia), Dom Flemons (US), Hanggai (China), Huw Williams (Wales), Kelele (South Africa), O Tahiti E (Tahiti), Okra Playground (Finland), Pareaso (Korea), Radio Cos (Spain), Romengo (Hungary), Saing Waing Orchestra (Myanmar), Spiro (UK), Svara Samsara (Indonesia), Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe (Taiwan), The Chipolatas (UK/Australia), and The Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band (Thailand). The Malaysian lineup featured At Adau, Ilu Leto, Lan E Tuyang and Sekolah Seni Malaysia Sarawak from Sarawak, as well as Maliao Maliao Dance Troupe from Malacca.

During media interactions over three days, and in separate interviews, members of these 27 bands described their connection with nature, local and diaspora influences, traditional instruments, industry careers, political messages, and music impacts.

See also my writeups on performer insights from earlier editions of RWMF: 2016 (‘Fusion without Confusion’), 2015 (‘Collective Vision’), 2014 (‘Heritage and Messages’) and 2013 (‘Cultural Preservation’). The commemorative book ‘Rainforest World Music Festival – 20 Years of Song and Rhythm in Sarawak’ was also released at RWMF. The book is edited by Gracie Geikie and Lah Wan Yee, and I am honored and delighted to have a chapter in it on the role of the media at the festival.

 

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 1 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Connecting with nature

In cities, we are separated from rural life and the natural world. I hope that we can honor nature while living in the city, it’s our responsibility,” said Jon Hunt from UK-based Spiro.

Landscapes are an influence and inspiration in their music as well.

We are nature. We are part of our land. All our costumes are taken from nature,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. For example, women wear red as the color of life.

We really appreciate nature. The jungle is our playground in Sarawak. Our music reflects our love for nature,” said Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. The band is named after the root of the tree used to make the sape string instrument. “Nature is very personal for us,” he added.

Our music mimics the sound of wind blowing under coconut trees, farmers chasing cows, and bees humming around flowers,” said Nattapon Siangsukon of the Paradise Bangkok Molam International Band from Thailand, whose music reflects the culture of the north-east. “One of our musicians grew his own tree for 10 years to make his instrument,” he explained.

Cimarron from Colombia features the rural music and dances of peasants. “Our instruments are made from local woods from the rainforest of South America. We mention local animals in our songs, such as crocodiles and regional birds. The sounds of milking of cows are also in our songs,” explained Carlos Rojas from Cimarron.

RWMF itself sends out strong messages about nature and conservation by conducting a mangrove tree-planting ceremony at Kuching Wetland National Park the day before the festival. “The tree-planting ceremony was one of the most memorable experiences,” said Monika Lakatos, singer from Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.

Local and diaspora connections

A number of artists showcased unique instruments from their regions, such as bamboo mouth organ khaen and two-string guitar (Thailand); cuatro, bandola, maracas and tambora (Colombia); Burmese harp (Myanmar); twin-pipe nose flute (Taiwan); and kantele (Finnish cordophone). Others performed dances and rhythms from their region, such as the clog dance (Wales) and funana (Cape Verde).

Some world music bands play traditional music without modification, while others adapt it to new surroundings and audiences. “We are an experimental world music band. We are neither fully traditional nor fully contemporary,” explained Meldrick Anak Udos from Kuching band At Adau. Their influences include the cultures of the Iban, Bedayu, and Orang Ulu tribes.

Some musicians said they make their own instruments as well. “I make my own sape. I can play better with an instrument I make myself,” explained Mathew Ngau from Sarawak’s Lan E Tuyang.

We learn traditional rhythms from villagers, and then adapt the music to our times,” said Gihon Siahaya, percussionist with Svara Samsara from Indonesia. “Our music is based on traditions but can’t be called traditional music,” he explained.

Our music is rooted in folk but we also add our own lyrics,” said Sami Kujala, bassist with Finnish electro-folk group Okra Playground.

Many diaspora populations in the West have kept alive their homeland music and fused it with their new base culture as well. “Previous generations of our communities came to the UK from northwest Punjab in the 1950s and 60s,” said Ninder Johal, tabla player of UK-based bhangra fusion band Achanak. “We combine Punjabi folk music with Western instrumentation, and have been performing for 20 years,” he said.

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 2 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

Political awareness, social change and diplomacy

Many of the bands also had messages about global dialogue and local social change. “It used to be taboo for females to play the sape,” said Alena Murang of the all-female six-member group Ilu Leto (‘We The Ladies’).

The group is breaking away from such traditions – but also keeping alive other traditions such as the chants of the tribes Iban, Kelabit and Kenyah (there are over 50 tribes in Sarawak). “We are from six different ethnic groups. Social media has helped us connect and collaborate,” explained Alena.

Countries and people need to talk to one another, not just make assumptions. Music festivals may be the last channel of diplomacy. They are going to become more important,” said Huw Williams from Wales.

The creative community needs to engage with the larger issues and challenges confronting our world – this includes visual artists, musicians, writers and more. “Musicians are in an industry which involves traveling around the world. It is our duty to inform others about what is happening where we travel and share these messages back home,” said Siyabulela Jiyani of Pan-African vocalists group Kelele.

Protest music exists in multiple styles. South African music is well-informed of the challenges of the time, and is not just about good times,” said Siyabulela from the Capetown-based group.

Many musicians also expressed support for unity in diversity, and found commonality among the various cultures represented. “We are people of the world. We are different but so similar,” said Marguerite Lai, founder of dance troupe O Tahiti E. She pointed to the similarities in some words in Malay and Polynesian languages.

I am a world citizen representing a larger cause,” added Don Flamins, songster and Grammy Award Winner from the US.

RWMF highlights

The performers agreed that one of the unique features of RWMF is the multiple opportunities for the bands to get to know one another and collaborate. “We made many good contacts and want our music from Guinea to go further around the world,” said kora virtuoso Ba Cissokho.

Extreme commitment of the audience to stay and enjoy the performances even during heavy rains adds to the joy,” said Monika Lakatos, vocalist with Hungarian gypsy band Romengo.

We don’t like rain during performances, except in the Rainforest,” joked Tristan Glover from music-humour trio Chipolatas.

The afternoon workshops and jam sessions are a major highlight of RWMF. “It was amazing to play together with people you have never met before. It was a magical experience for us to play with the Chinese horse fiddle player,” said Sami Kujala from Finland’s Okra Playground.

At first we were very nervous about the workshops. But after the first workshop we relaxed and did very well,” said Hwang Dong Yoon from South Korea’s Pareaso.

Rainforest World Music Festival press conference, day 3 – Photo by Madanmohan Rao

 

The lighter side

Many performers also shared humorous anecdotes from their concerts around the world. “Our funniest experience was being in an Italian village where no one spoke English! It’s a great experience for all of you to be in such a situation – have fun,” joked Jay Tilag, director of Sekolah Sani Sarawak from Malaysia.

Finnish audiences may appear expressionless but show their emotions through texts, joked Sami Kujala from Okra Playground. For musicians it is better to have feedback right away, so such reserved behavior can be a challenge!

Tristan Glover of The Chipolatas shared another unusual experience during a performance in a Middle Eastern country. Men and women were seated separately, and there was absolutely no applause during the event – but a huge crowd gathered outside later for autographs and selfies!

Festival impacts

Other than ‘feel good’ sentiments and global geography tours, world music festivals do have notable impacts as well. Many supporting anecdotes and trends were shared by the performers and organizers.

A visible local impact of RWMF is the rise of awareness and pride in local culture and instruments among youth in Sarawak, such as the sape,” said June-Lin Yeoh, RWMF artistic director. “Youth are seeing foreigners play their sape with pride – and getting recognition, fame, and money as well,” she explained. Now many youth are making their own sape and forming traditional and fusion bands.

Another impact of the festival is closer cooperation and collaboration between the musicians from different countries. In many other festivals, the musicians just “load in, play, load out, leave,” said Jun-Lin. But at RWMF they make friends with each other and with locals as well. Interestingly, this year there were bands from China as well as Taiwan!

The setting of the festival is also unique. “Jungle, mountain and sea – all three are here,” said Jun-Lin proudly. The festival also highlights some instruments which one may never see anywhere else even by world music standards.

World music festivals do help preserve and promote local cultures from around the planet, affirmed Betham William-Jones from Welsh group Calan. Ethnic music is not just something taught in school or described in official documents.

In Taiwan, the government did not allow some tribes to use their own language. “Now kids ask their parents about how to sing our melodies,” said Camake Valuaule from the Taiwu Ancient Ballads Troupe, Taiwan. “Traditional music is forever. We sing forever,” he affirmed.

Traditional music need not sit in museums and archives, it can be made alive and contemporary,” said Alena Murang of Sarawak group Ilu Leto; RWMF gives such groups a chance to showcase their music to local as well as global audiences.

With music you can change someone’s life. Welsh music saved my life,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I actually wanted a normal job with a regular check, but due to mass employment in my youth I was forced to become a musician,” said Huw Williams from Wales. “I have been reduced to travelling the world and singing songs,” he joked.

Ironically, some world music bands are more known outside their home country than within. “We need people like you,” said Andile Makubalo from South African band Kelele. Overseas audiences and international festival appearances also help keep alive local music traditions and cultures.

Airlines should also be playing music on board from world music festivals, given how many international passengers they carry, joked Kevin Nila Nangai, communications manager at RWMF.

headline photo: Achanak

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