Performing Arts

Across the Universe, for the Sixth Time

Watcha Clan at this year's globalFEST (All photos by Derek Beres)

This year's globalFEST was punctuated by performances from Occidental Brothers Dance Band International, La Troba Kung-Fu, Kailash Kher, Watcha Clan, and others -- a brave journey through the world of sounds, guided by open minds and big hearts.

"Sometimes people forget that America is part of the world," announced Bill Bragin at the start of the sixth annual globalFEST at New York City's Webster Hall on January 11. He was introducing the night's first act, New Orleans' Hot 8 Brass Band, and reminding the capacity crowd that the term "world music" applies to the indigenous sounds of every country -- including our own. At the end of the intro, Bragin characteristically drove the point home: "I think that on January 20 the rest of the world will once again remember that we are a part of it." The audience exploded with appreciation, and Hot 8 blared the first notes from the tuba, saxophones, and trumpets.

I did not have high expectations from this crew, mostly due to their latest lackluster album. It's good -- just as they are good -- but the accolades do not exceed that sentiment. That was OK, though, as I had other acts to check out. I made it a goal to see at least snippets of all 12 globalFEST bands that night, a goal I had set in the past and failed to reach each time. Indeed, I would fail again, but I'll get to that. First, we visit the basement.

Occidental Brothers Dance Band International

Occidental Brothers Dance Band International was formed when Chicago-based guitarist Nathaniel Braddock spent time studying guitar music in Ghana, eventually meeting and collaborating with singer/trumpeter/percussionist Kofi Cromwell. To put it lightly, this band blew my head wide open. Cromwell's silky and strong vocals, punctuated by tasteful rhythmic nuances and Braddock's able hand on the six-string, kept the cramped basement quarters steamy. As if their highlife wasn't poignant enough, their cover of New Order's "Bizarre Love Triangle" pushed this set over the edge.

Shanbehzadeh Ensemble

I still had another room to go, however, and was able to catch just a few minutes of Iran-via-France's Shanbehzadeh Ensemble, led by father Saied and featuring his young son Naghib on percussion. (When I say young, I mean it -- I would guess 14.) Saied was playing a double-reed bagpipe, an unexpected choice when contemplating Iranian folk music. And yet, much like Sufi dervishes, the elder Shanbehzadeh spun and twirled, filling the chamber and letting the blaring melodies ride while junior kept a deadly precision on the percussion. As Saied would joke, when saying that he's played venues that insisted that he plug in his instrument, "I think this music was around some time before Edison."

The crowd surged with appreciation; it was a ritual performance, not a spectator sport, and the father-son team performed amazingly. Then I was off, back upstairs for a cumbia/ska/dub/flamenco outfit from Barcelona called La Troba Kung-Fu. That's the thing with globalFEST: since it is a showcasing event geared towards the hundreds of presenters present from across the planet for the APAP conference, you only get a taste of each performer (not that 45 minutes to an hour isn't a sizable chomp).

La Troba Kung-Fu

Kung-Fu immediately reminded me of Ojos de Brujo, which isn't surprising considering they come from the same city, share sonic roots, and are friends with them. Joan Garriga's energetic push on accordion and vocals fueled this six-piece outfit, which while performing a rather linear set were still effective in rousing the audience. They have woven a common thread through cumbia, dub, and rumba, predominantly in the low-end and sparse beats, and injected a fun, happy edge coated with a slight pop feel. They were so danceable, in fact, that I failed to remember to head downstairs to check out the other acts.

I tried, and the truth is I could have made it to French gypsy duet L&O (an offshoot of klezmer gypsies Les Yeux Noirs, who I have seen and loved before), or Inuit throat singer/vocalist Tanya Tagaq, who was accompanied solely by a cellist. In retrospect, I should have, for the reviews I received regarding Tagaq in particular were basically of this sort: I cannot believe what I just heard. It was my loss; I wanted to stay in prime position at front of stage for Kailash Kher's Kailasa, and I ended up running into numerous friends and associates, prompting conversation after conversation. Sometimes this sort of engagement can be even more rewarding than music, so I spent the break in the main room awaiting one of India's most beloved singers.

Kailash Kher

I was looking forward to Kher, who flew from India with his band for one night before returning home to continue his post as a judge on Indian Idol. That alone made me queasy -- would I be subjected to that sort of over-the-edge pop nonsense? A few of the tracks I had heard prior did not do much for me. But then again, he recorded a killer track with the MIDIval PunditZ, "Ali", and my friend of the same name is handling his American affairs, so I had to stay. It was one of those decisions I would not regret.

Without a doubt, his set was larger than any other that night: the sound, lighting, and presentation were arena-sized. They focused where it mattered most -- on the low end. Two local percussionists, Duke Mushroom and Dave Sharma, added splashes of krakebs, darbouka, congas, talking drums, tablas, and dhol; one of Kher's drummers even pulled out one of my favorite percussive instruments, the duggas. More than a show, it was an experience, and Kher stood front and center with a smile larger than his face and a voice larger than his body. Needless to say, I didn't make it back downstairs again for a while.

Not until Watcha Clan, that is. Sure, I stopped into the middle floor to check a minute of Calypso Rose, but was bored halfway through the first song -- rather than Caribbean soul, it was Caribbean cruise ship music. Hailing from Marseilles, I first caught Watcha Clan in Paris in March, and helped bring them to the States for the first time in September for the Droma Gypsy Festival. globalFEST producers picked up from there and invited them back, and the band tentatively plans a US tour in the late summer.

Watcha Clan

Just as that first night, their fearless exploration of the Mediterranean -- Gnawa, Touareg, Sephardic, even up to the Balkans, all coated in bass-heavy electronica -- hyped the packed room into a frenzy. As in the beginning, so the end: it was hot, steamy hot, and people couldn't help dancing, hard. Sistah K led the vocal ceremonies, and all four members jumped from instrument to instrument in a set that was sonically dynamic and intensely passionate. Their hour-long set is a perfect microcosm of the annual globalFEST: a brave journey through the world of sounds, guided by an open mind and even bigger hearts.

For the first, globalFEST was broadcast live thanks to WNYC. You can hear the action housed on the site here.

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