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Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2009

Global Union’s Worldly Melting Pot

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“World music” doesn’t mean the same thing it meant just decades ago, when the term referred to ethnographic field recordings.

“It used to be world music was something that was regarded as quote-unquote ‘pure expressions’ of specific cultures and regions,” explains David Ravel, director of Milwaukee’s annual Global Union festival. “But we don’t live in that world anymore. We live in a world that has Internet and shortwave radio. Our idea of what world music is in the 21stcentury is that it’s really a form of fusion, drawn not just from one culture, but many.”

All the acts in this year’s two-day Global Union festival are the result of that cultural crossbreeding. Mexico’s Los de Abajo, for instance, spikes its salsa with splashes of ska and reggae, drawing as much from the politics and trans-global outlook of The Clash as the playbook of traditional Latin music. Likewise, the Mediterranean electronic act Watcha Clan not only incorporates rhythms from around the world, but also languages, piecing together songs from Hebrew, Arabic, French and English. Ethiopian singer and dancer Minyeshu updates the traditional music of her native country with the contemporary sounds of Western Europe, while Chicago’s Mucca Pazza brings an American marching band pomp to the gypsy music of Eastern Europe.

Ravel says that Global Union, now in its fourth year, has always tried to draw artists from all the major continents, but programming acts from Asia has always been particularly challenging. So he’s excited that this year’s program features two Asian acts: Red Baraat, an Indian brass band that puts a funk spin on traditional Bhangra music, and Hanggai, the first Chinese band Global Union has ever booked.

“Hanggai is a band that exists in a really unusual context that some Western audiences may need a little background on to understand,” Ravel explains. “The lead is a punk rocker from Beijing, but he began to rediscover the Mongolian music of the grasslands, and started this band with these throat singers and traditional musicians. They dress in traditional costume, even though he’s from the city of Beijing. I liken them to indie-rockers from Brooklyn who discovered Bill Monroe and started doing bluegrass music with a distinct, alt-country sensibility. It’s the same way Brooklyn rockers might dress in cowboy hats and boots and shirts with snap buttons, but when we watch those guys in Brooklyn, we understand what they’re paying homage to. The musicians in Hanggai are doing the same thing, but since the cultural context isn’t as clear to Western audiences, we may just see them in these costumes and think that’s how they always dress.”

Context can help American listeners understand these bands better, Ravel says, but it’s certainly not required to appreciate them.

“If you get a little background on who these artists are, it can make the experience a little bit richer, and we try to make that stuff available on our Web site, but you don’t need a dissertation to help you have a good time at this festival,” Ravel says. “All this music is beautiful and immediate on its own terms.”

Global Union runs for free this weekend in Humboldt Park. The lineup is as follows:

Saturday, Sept. 19

1 p.m. Mucca Pazza

2:30 p.m. Los de Abajo

4 p.m. Watcha Clan

Sunday, Sept. 20

1 p.m. Red Baraat

2:30 p.m. Hanggai

4 p.m. Minyeshu

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