Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Lament for a lost festival.

Once upon a time (in the very recent past) there was something called Music Without Borders, an 8 week series of world music concerts that took place on Thursday evenings at Chicago's beautiful outdoor concert facility, Pritzker Pavilion.  It was programmed by the city's Department of Cultural Affairs, an agency that, sadly, no longer exists in its previous form. Why it no longer exists is a complicated tale of political and bureaucratic intrigue, but that's not my point. At least today...

Those summer Thursdays were when I loved Chicago the most, and reveled in my good fortune to live in such a cultural crossroads. Pritzker has seating for a couple thousand people. The lawn behind it is a vast picnic area that can hold several thousand more.  Music Without Borders usually booked two artists per concert, and was curated in such a way that the music of each, while from different parts of the globe, complimented each other, allowing you to make the connection. Brazilian samba and African pop, Gypsy jazz and Congolese rumba, Cuban son and Indian bhangra. As a result, you had a sort of gathering of the tribes in the audience made up of the ethnic groups represented on stage, fans of world music like me, tourists, and folks who simply worked downtown and wandered over to see what was up.  And just like that, you had 6,000 people who shared little besides their common humanity dancing and sweating together.

It was glorious while it lasted. The series was discontinued at the end of 2011. There's still music at Pritzker, though. A Monday night series called Downtown Sound has picked up some of the slack, mixing in a little world music alongside adventurous pop, rock and hip-hop. Theoretically, I'm in favor of the concept. "World music" can be every bit equal to and as forward thinking as the best rock or jazz, so why shunt it off into its own little box? Music has always traveled back and forth. Fela Kuti listened to James Brown. Bob Marley listened to Fela Kuti. The thing is, the minds behind Music Without Borders knew this too, and they put it into practice 8 times a year, with a quality so consistently high that you didn't even have to look at a schedule to see who was playing. Just show up on Thursday and enjoy!

The incredible Malian singer, songwriter and guitarist Fatoumata Diawara headlined Downtown Sound this past Monday. Though rooted in the traditional music of Mali, her approach is completely her own. Her band churned out polyrhythmic jazz-tinged hard rock (or was it the other way around?) behind her highly charismatic singing, dancing and magnetic stage presence. It was stunning. And yet, the audience seemed a bit homogenous, not the
gathering of the tribes I cherished. That probably has something to do with the way Downtown Sound is marketed. Still, you did have thousands of people dancing and sweating together, and they were doing it to African music. That's no small thing.

I miss Music Without Borders, and I hope the city figures out a way to revive it. Our mayor seems obsessed with the idea of culture as a way to boost tourism dollars, and I'm all for it. What better way to market Chicago as a world class destination than a regular showcase of world class music?

No comments:

Post a Comment