Chirgilchin performs at the 2007 Madison World Music Festival at the UW Memorial Union.
High winds and failed visas weren't enough to dampen the spirit of the fourth annual Madison World Music Festival, which took over the Memorial Union Theatre, Terrace and some of the Willy St. Fair this weekend. The event pulled in acts from places like Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Tuva, and Rajasthan, all of them making it into an entertaining and colorful experience.
Friday night's lineup had to be moved indoors due to high winds, and one of the acts, Romano Drom, was forced to cancel their appearance when their visas didn't come through on time. The acts that did go on did a fine job of making up for the setbacks.
Chirgilchin, a group of throat singers from the small republic of Tuva in Russia, started things off with what can only be described as one of the most eerie and beautiful human-made sounds. Throat singing involves circular breathing and the creation of two or more tones at once. The effect is stunning and otherworldly, eliciting more than a few stunned "wows" from the crowd. Their songs were about simple things: the beauty of a certain small town, Tuvan cowboys, and women coaxing sheep into accepting their new babies. Chirgilchin displayed their considerable talents with aplomb and a light hearted humility that quickly won over the awestruck audience.
Dominican and American band Puerto Plata stepped in next, filling in much of the time that had been allotted for Romano Drom. Their high energy music was a throwback to styles popular in the 1930s and '40s, with merengue and salsa well represented. It didn't take long for much of the audience to get out of their seats and dance. Even far back in the aisles and up in the balcony, people were happily bopping and swaying to the beat.
By Saturday evening the winds had died off, leaving a beautiful clear sky and slightly chilled air. Estrella Acosta, a band with members from both Cuba and Holland, shook the Terrace stage with heavy Cuban rhythms. Nearby, the stilt walking performance troupe Dragon Knights entertained adults and children alike with their fantastical costumes and strange antics. The performer on stilts was done up as a bird like dragon, complete with articulated beak and shakable tail feathers. Small children darted, ran and screeched with delight as they were playfully chased by the beast and its trickster keeper.
Back inside the theatre, a unique blend of Cuba, Algerian, Jewish and American musical traditions formed via the skillful hands of percussionist Roberto Rodriguez and pianist Maurice El Medioni, with special guest Jennifer Vincent on upright bass. El Medioni, an Algerian Jew, was forced to escape from his home country after the revolution in 1962 and ended up in Marseilles, where he learned Afro Cuban and American musical styles from GI's stationed in the area. He later met up with Rodriquez, a Cuban whose family left that country when Castro rose to power and ended up in Miami and then New York City. Together, they fused their various styles into an award winning arrangement of jazz improvisation, Latin rhythms, Algerian melodies and, sometimes, American boogie woogie.
Out on the terrace again, the Dhoad Gypsies exploded onto the scene with an intense tabla (two drums played with fast, staccato notes) solo, followed by a number of traditional Rajasthani gypsy tunes. Most of their work was centered around percussive instruments: the tabla and other hand drums plus castanet like pieces of wood played with a rapid fire cadence. The Gypsies' show included performances by one man who balanced a jar of water on up to four small glasses at a time on top of his head while dancing. He also stood on a bed of nails and three curved swords and breathed fire in time with the music -- extra fun if you happened to be sitting right up against the stage like I was.
This show gathered perhaps the most enthusiastic audience of the night. A contingent of students who spoke the same language and knew some of the songs were all singing and dancing along, encouraging others to get up and do the same. Two encores were demanded and the band was only too happy to oblige.
We were then directed back inside to the theatre, where Sephardic Jewish band The Gerard Edery Ensemble were already in the middle of their set. The music and culture of the Sephardic Jews comes from communities originating in Spain, Morocco and Northern Africa and has a much more Middle Eastern sound and rhythm to it. The Ensemble played traditional ballads and driving flamenco style tunes, with lead singer Edery's soaring baritone at the center of it all. The sound was old world and powerful, filling the space with beautiful, old world melodies and driving rhythms.
Last but certainly not least, and again back out on the now very chilly terrace, Zimbabwean musician Louis Mhlanga and his band were warming up a large group of onlookers, now including a large group of students still inebriated after that morning's football game. Even so, the atmosphere was festive and friendly, as people of all ages and backgrounds grooved to the group's modern rock and traditional African influenced music.
The festival will likely be deemed a success, having drawn large appreciative crowds that broke all the usual unspoken rules of audience demographics at Madison shows. Whether they were playing upbeat gypsy tunes or ethereal songs of the homeland, the musicians were all world class, extremely talented and gave fantastically entertaining performances.
The Union plans to continue holding concerts by various world musicians all throughout the year, including renowned sitar player Anoushka Shankar, daughter of Ravi Shankar. The hope is that after a weekend packed with free, wonderful music from all across the world, people will be driven to come back for more.