Story and Photos by Andy ArgyrakisChicago may be best known as a home for the blues and a place for rock and roll to hang its hat, but it's a also an inviting city with arms wide open when it comes to a cross cultural melting pot of sounds, styles, and scents. The city's predisposition towards diversity was perhaps best manifested throughout this past week's worth of musical activities as the fifth annual World Music Festival extravaganza converged in various venues, museums, parks, cultural centers, and bookstores. Over 40 artists from all over the globe participated in such festivities, breaking down lines of culture, creed, and ethnicity to unite under the umbrella of incredibly innovative sounds. Drawing crowds that swelled to several thousand concertgoers on many occasions, the exhaustive experience culminated in a grand finale, densely populated evening at the Riviera Theatre featuring highly regarded Senegal singer Youssou N'Dour, the Queen of Ndebele Music Nothembi, and Malian guitar hero Djelimady Tounkara.
As much as the openers enlightened fans with their skillful pedigrees and native paint brush strokes, it was N'Dour's stage time that was steeped with the most brilliance and highest audience acceptance level. Out of all the festival's performers, the high pitched vocal wailer was also the most notable to mainstream audiences, dating back to his stateside debut in 1979. In fact, followers will probably recall N'Dour's primary work throughout the 1980s came as a highly sought after session man, including time spent with Paul Simon, Peter Gabriel, and Neneh Cherry. Out of those artists, Gabriel was especially vocal about his admiration of N'Dour, spring boarding the otherwise obscure artist to fame via the smash singles "In Your Eyes" and "Shaking the Tree" and linking him up with Amnesty International's Human Rights Now! Tour in 1988.
Such chart and road action drew considerable attention to N'Dour's previous string of solo recordings and gave him a solid American following to swoop up everything from 1989's international debut "Set" to 1991's Grammy nominated "Eye's Open," to last year's "Nothing's in Vain" on Nonesuch. It was this incredible span of material that greeted World Music Festival goers, who from N'Dour's very first salute and cry of "Waref" came alive and in the mood to dance.
The Senegalese singer spent the first part of the set seated, laying initial groundwork with his lighter Cuban influenced salsas and sambas accompanied by reserved percussion spurts and a touch of keyboard supplementation. Songs from that category included "Tureundo," "Thione Anta," and "Ndiadian," which gradually built up to the jazzy spurts and polyrhythms of "Kignou Sadome" and "Yakar." As the night progressed, N'Dour steadily built up the pace, ditching his seat in favor of sped up percussion and driving West African arrangements on the buyout "Sagalko," the meaty "Dem," and the ethnic swinger "Birima."
Additional elements were added following such selections, including a pair of background vocalists who doubled as dancers, a more experimental edge to the already in place five piece band, and occasional invitations for audience members to celebrate the sounds on stage. This portion of the show was by far the most accessible display of N'Dour's talents and also points where he clearly drew inspiration from the likes of Gabriel and Simon. Chant heavy tracks "Lima Weesu" and "Bamba" boasted contemporary blends of soul, jazz, and pop, while "New Africa" stood out as the runaway emotional highlight. Prior to that finale, N'Dour shared with the crowd in a broken English accent his hopes for a better homeland that's "no longer filled with poverty, AIDS, and war." The comment amassed some serious cheers from those gathered, and with fists clenched in the spirit of Gabriel's "Biko," the poignant thought became a proactive rally that ended the satisfying set on notes of hope and inspiration.
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