All the best things in life are free — but you didn't need to tell that to the crowds of students, adults and youngsters huddled in jackets and arm-crossed T-shirts at Memorial Union each night for the World Music Festival.
Thursday was the proverbial champagne bottle pop, with Ilgi, a Latvian folk band that sounded to me — not known for my cosmopolitan listening habits — a lot like Irish music, which was a great way for the festival to kick off. They played beautiful, heart-rendering, sylvan acoustic tapestries that were sweetened by the melding of the vocalist and violinist Ilga Reizniece. Her ancient-sounding voice, surprisingly rich and deep, along with her lilting violin, transformed the Terrace into a blissful and misty field. Not to Orientalize (or rather, "Scandinavitize"), but it felt like the music was bringing everyone together in some primitive way — a community in celebration.
There was some downtime and an announcement after Ilgi. A man took to the stage and said something I didn't catch, but it was followed by groans.
"What did he say?" I asked the woman next to me.
"This drum band slated to play tomorrow couldn't get in: a visa situation." Back in the modern world. We both knowingly rolled our eyes and nodded.
Without much further delay, The New York Gypsy All-Stars came on stage with lead man Ismail Lumanovsky stunning the crowd for being both a Hal Sparks body double and a clarinet virtuoso. He sounded like Trey Anastasio from Phish, but with a clarinet instead of the Phishian tube-screaming guitar. His clarinet was a machine gun of distinct, half-honking notes that burned through the improvisational scales like kindling.
People were euphoric after the Gypsy All-Stars' first song; There was electricity in the air; there was beer dripping off my chin.
Lumanovsky made an announcement: "We have a special guest for you tonight. … A person is going to appear for you somewhere."
The plot thickens!
A few minutes later my heart hastened, and I stood at attention: Here before my eyes was a sensuous, curvy and beautiful belly dancer. I, meanwhile, felt the same way I do when I've got seats close to the floor at a college basketball game, and I was sheepishly caught ogling like a Cro-Magnon at the extra-revealed, hoisted-up cheerleaders.
By the end of the Gypsy All-Stars concert, the area in front of the stage was populated by very happy dancing people. I was among them, right in front of Lumanovsky, trying my best to pull off some of the moves I learned by intently watching the belly dancer. Did I succeed? Well, I'm 6 foot, 3 inches tall and physically awkward. Draw your own conclusion.
Huong Thanh/Puerto Plata/Halle
The second night of the World Music Fest started with a slight kink. I had arrived at 6:35 p.m., thinking I had completely missed the first band. But I didn't; the whole agenda was thrown askew with the cold and windy weather. The Vietnamese group originally set to perform on the Terrace where there was so much carefree magic the night before, was moved indoors to the Rathskeller. They also started a full hour after their initial slate of 5:30 p.m.
On the stage in the middle of the Rathskeller was the Vietnamese group Huong Thanh & Nguyen Le Quintet. The guitarist, Nguyen Le, used an effect to achieve the traditionally Eastern sitar sounds that characterized the songs. When he was given room to improvise, however, he came off like the technically perfect guitarist Steve Vai. Overall, the Huong Thanh & Nguyen Le Quintet wasn't as awe-inspiring as what I'd heard the night before, and the cramped conditions in the Rathskeller are partly to blame for that. Their songs also tended to sound a little flat, void of dynamics and often were tediously long.
Following that show, I made the exodus to the Union Theater to catch Puerto Plata. Exiting the Rathskeller, I found cigarette smokers shivering in the frigid air — yet more victims of fickle Mother Nature.
Walking around inside the crowded Union Theater, right before Plata performed, were the Dragon Knights, which consisted of an impressive 10-foot-high mechanical flamingo that would lurch forward at the costumed, stilted rider's command, along with a French-Chinese harlequin for good measure. It set an atmosphere of quiet awe in the theater.
Puerto Plata, an 84-year-old legend from the Dominican Republic, apparently needed quite the fashionably late entrance, as no less than four rather anxious-looking attendees and two songs by the backup band were required before he was gently escorted on stage. The complex rhythms of the Caribbean had begun tread water, and attention diverted to the mixture of studied boredom and amused irritation on the ridiculously skilled lead guitarist. But when Plata finally opened his mouth, the room exploded into song and dance, with the area in front the stage almost immediately filling with surprisingly adroit Lain two-steps.
Supported by an accomplished and diverse band (the guiro and tambora drum players being the highlights beside the impossibly quick pickings of the guitarist), Plata offered a somewhat repetitive and inconsistent set — he danced with the 30-year-old backup singer more than he actually sang — but still was a memorable and gifted entertainer. I couldn’t help but notice, however, that the outdoor Terrace stage would have been a better venue. The freedom for people to talk, drink and smoke cigarettes would have helped Plata’s cause during the lulling, tired moments.
After Plata was Halle, a sultry and smart singer from Iran. Her brand of Sufi mysticism made for some tedious song-intro babble, but her "post-9/11 rock" defied its pretentious name to successfully blend Halle's enchanting voice and a complex rhythm backing that built well from ambiance to roaring rock and melodic Eastern funk.
Estrella Acosta/El Midioni
Saturday was the "Last Chance to See," and those not hungover from the football game were rewarded for again braving the weather.
Estrella Acosta, representing Gypsy music from Cuba and Holland, got things started on a rising note. The dancing area was full of kids, who I assume were the last legs of the still drunk Badger fans. "Thanks to our dancers," Acosta said with a smile between songs. Sentimentality swept through the crowd, and we didn't mind.
Acosta's music was lovely; everyone was feeling the vibe, from the strangers exchanging strangers for dance partners, to the big-smile, musical-cue nods being exchanged between the bongo drummer and keyboardist.
The next act, at 7 p.m. in the Union Theater, was the Roberto Rodriguez and Maurice El Medioni jazz trio, representing Cuba and Algeria. Before they performed, however, a promoter explained from the pulpit that the festival committee now accepts private donations. A novel idea, I thought, and probably overdue. The donations they'd received thus far, she said, have come in the range of $3 and $100. A donation of $3 is doable for anyone, college student or not, so set aside some beer money, everyone.
Both Rodriguez and El Medioni had graying hair, which was deceiving, because they played with a wildly young spirit. Drawing largely from Jewish roots (El Medioni was part of the Algerian generation exiled by the Holocaust), El Medioni pleaded with and relentlessly tickled the heartstrings of the audience. The three were the most eerily tight, yet unbounded in improvisation, group of the weekend. Rodriguez, the drummer, was incredible but humble as well. Gesturing toward El Medioni before the concert, he told the crowd, "You look for something like this all your life," paying reverence to their chemistry and El Medioni's virtuosity.
Little did I know that after that point, the festival would be turned on its head by two thrilling, infinitely jammy groups outside at the Terrace: the Dhoad Gypsies and Louis Mhlanga.
It was 8 p.m., and the night was newly dark. The Terrace was packed, people everywhere, including the frustrated ones who realized too late that it was too cold for T-shirts.
The Dhoad Gypsies from Rajasthan came out on stage early to fine tune the audio levels of their far out instruments. While doing this, they sat on stage, "Indian-style" (forgive the Columbusian pun), smoking cigarettes and looking contemplative. Finally, they left to dress themselves in more traditional garb before coming on stage.
The Dhoad Gypsies woke everyone up with the most atavistic, painfully-in-the-pocket percussive flare of sound I've ever heard. The lead singer spat out mouth melodies so fast that it became clear to me, after experimentation, that it was beyond the point of imitation for anyone without years of training. Another man playing a jaw harp-like instrument matched the nimble rate of flutter of the lead singer. Between his explosions of twang, he'd lean back with a goofy smile and flash an innocent "Ta-da" face to the crowd — it was hilarious. "Ha-ha! Comic relief!" I heard someone near me say.
The festival ended with Louis Mhlanga from Zimbabwe, an ethnic twist on, get this: Jimi Hendrix. He had the whole crowd ablaze with his guitar playing. And in some respects, I mean the fire part literally (and not just because he followed an act complete with sword-walking and fire-breathing).
"You're scaring me," a woman dancing near me said, "I don't want your hair to start on fire; it's right by the heat lamp."
"Ah!" I yelled back with a stupid smile, "you have saved my livelihood!"
Meanwhile Mhlanga's guitar was coming through the speakers like two swords mincing eardrums into tissue-like confetti. Following Mhlanga's last song was an applause so rich and enduring that the promoter gave up trying to talk, instead allowing Lewis to continue the musical fireworks for one last song.
If you think about it, most people don't get the convenient opportunity to witness bands as good as these from all over the world. But this weekend, these Gypsy-flavored groups came together from oceans away — for us. Not only was it taste-broadening, but it was informatively and culturally eye opening as well. The performers were proud to discuss their heritage between songs, and there were two separate lectures on Gypsy music for those who were interested.
My only question now is: Why were more people at a low-profile football game than this? Halloween, Mifflin, et al. may bring together a community, but there's no substance at the core. And what's more fun, celebratory and good for the community than a world music festival? I, of course, would say almost nothing is, but the only way you can answer that for yourself is by coming — rain, sleet or snow — to the festival next year.