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Multicultural Musicians Attain Authenticity Without Purity

by Carol Cooper

Public Theater
January 10

Okay Player Tour
Irving Plaza
January 3

With an aural smorgasbord as ambitious as last Saturday's GlobalFEST, it's inevitable that a few choice items will go untasted. In five hours on three stages at the Public Theater, a sold-out crowd scrambled to see 16 multicultural attractions from around the world and around the block. Forty-minute sets were just long enough to leave most of us wanting more.

Few, if any, of these acts were obsessed with the "purity" of their music. Authenticity and purity are not the same, and if festival participants chose to bend and blend genre categories, it was only after serious study of those root musics they hoped to update or alter. If anything, the participants in Manhattan's first GlobalFEST proved it's possible to respect the past without being forced to preserve it forever unchanged.

On "Woman," the Anglo-Indian contralto Susheela Raman incanted ur-feminist mantras over lost chords which link South Indian, Egyptian, and Black American modal options. Raman's stripped-down trio was followed by Greek soprano Savina Yannatou, whose acoustic septet abounded with exotic instrumentation and share Raman's fondness for eastern scales and pentatonic improvisations. Live, Savina reworked Sephardic and Bulgarian folk songs as extended jazz compositions. Sometimes Celtic or flamenco motifs emerged, only to vanish again into a sea of swirling sound.

But since even love songs sound sad wrapped in so much melisma, the major-key riffs and manic polka tempos of Forró in the Dark provoked a delightful shift in mood. A local expat quintet anchored by triangle, a zabumba drum, and piano-accordion, they sang rustic proverbs over cheery baião and xote rhythms, thereby ranking alongside Les Yeux Noirs--led by two Jewish violinists from Paris purveying gypsy jazz with klezmer melodies and art-rock attitude--as the night's best party bands. A similar regional predilection for major mode marked the performance of South African protest singer Vusi Mahlasela, alone on acoustic guitar. Alternating Zulu with English, his gentle voice flowed from reedy tenor to light falsetto, while his nimble fretwork brought to mind the compositional strategies of Cat Stevens, Mississippi John Hurt, or Leadbelly.

Three distinct diasporic sensibilities dominated GlobalFEST: the Semitic, the Gypsy, and the Pan-African. And all three helped shape the cultural profile of the Iberian peninsula, whose mercantile voyages of "discovery" after the fall of Granada created the world we inhabit today.

Published in: Village Voice, January 20, 2004