Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A great festival roars back to life.

photo: Catalina Maria Johnson

Well, I guess I didn’t see this coming.

The shakeups at the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events (DCASE) a few years back left the fate of Chicago’s many festivals and cultural offerings in doubt, and most of what unfolded over the course of 2012 only served to add to the sense of apprehension.

Fortunately, this year has had an entirely different narrative. 

First there was news that the city had formed a department to serve the needs of the local music community. Interesting, thoughtful exhibitions like the recent Spontaneous Interventions started returning to the Chicago Cultural Center. Then DCASE and the Jazz Institute of Chicago announced that the annual Jazz Fest was expanding its programming and moving to Millennium Park from the severely challenged Grant Park site. 

In 2012, a hastily scheduled World Music Festival squeaked by with a paltry 7 days, and local rather than visiting artists took an outsized role on stage. When it was announced that this year’s WMF expanded to 11 days, including 5 concerts at Millennium Park’s wondrous Pritzker Pavilion, it was clear that the city was treating the World Music Fest seriously and with the kind of commitment that many, including me, felt had been sorely lacking.

photo: Scott Pollard
Opening night was a spectacular triumph. The Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra enthralled a Pritzker Pavilion crowd of over 6,000 people made up of jazz heads and salsa fans alike with a high energy show opened by Puerto Rico’s Plena Libre. It’s an honest debate as to whether the giant flat screen hanging over the stage is an enhancement or distraction (I go both ways: it’s brilliant when it goes in for close ups, but the camera doesn’t always find the right soloist, and wide shots aren't possible without the heads of the folks in the first 10 rows appearing in the frame) but the fact that DCASE decided it was worth the expense spoke volumes about their commitment to the Fest.

There were other signs of assurance as well. Two Pritzker concerts were devoted to Indian and Pakistani music, and another to Ethiopian and Gypsy music. Perhaps most remarkable of all though, was the all night RagaMala celebration of Indian classical music that took place at the Cultural Center. Talk about commitment! The audacious experiment clearly showed the vision at work from the DCASE artistic programmers, and it was wonderful that the city backed them up and let them run with it. 

Another artistic triumph was hosting the Festival au Desert - Caravan of Peace. When civil strife in Mali cancelled the legendary festival there, a group of Malian musicians banded together to bring the fest to the world. Just weeks before the WMF schedule was announced, I heard someone complaining loudly that it was a disgrace that the caravan wasn’t coming here. And the truth is, it would have been embarrassing if it bypassed Chicago. Given the economics of the situation, though, it is probably only an entity like DCASE that could afford to present such a large undertaking. Audiences were treated to a large Pritzker concert as well as 4 more shows around the city in intimate venues, one of which paired Mali’s Sidi Touré with Cajun zydeco fiddler/accordion player Cedric Watson for a little trans-global cultural exchange.

Speaking of economics: Did I mention that the entire festival was free?

I managed to catch something like 10 shows featuring 20 artists over the 11 days, which means I missed much more than I saw. Such is the nature of such a large event, with nearly 50 concerts at 20 venues showcasing more than 70 artists. Almost everything I saw was terrific, and all of it I dare say was essential. I heard nothing but good things about the stuff that I missed.  As usual, the fest closed with the all day celebration at the Cultural Center, “One World Under One Roof”, where I witnessed what might have been the most unusual and surprising show of the whole Fest with Kiev’s DakhaBrakha, whose stunning visual flair, piercing harmonies and sly manner somehow mixed Ukrainian folk music with a Beastie Boys style hip-hop aesthetic. Yeah, I know. I guess you had to be there…

Thank you DCASE. Transitions are tough, and they can knock you off your feet. But you really stood up and ran with this one.

Bravo! And many happy returns.

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