Review: ‘GlobalFest’

First staging of a coming-out party of sorts for rapidly growing world-music community. Essentially an open audition staged for the benefit of the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, the majority of the performers did more than push their wares; they spread the spirit of amorphously distant places without resorting to faux tour-guide intimacy.

The first staging of GlobalFest — a coming-out party of sorts for the rapidly growing world-music community — gathered acts from four continents under one roof for a one-night blowout. Essentially an open audition staged for the benefit of the Assn. of Performing Arts Presenters, the majority of the performers did more than push their wares; they spread the spirit of amorphously distant places without resorting to faux tour-guide intimacy.

The best perfs were those that compromised least in terms of multicultural crossover. Haitian singer Emeline Michel cut a striking swath onstage as she laid into dark voudou percussion, her breathy contralto offering an otherworldly counterpoint to the distinctly earthy rhythms.

South African troubadour Vusi Mahlasela was similarly uncompromising, if considerably more spare in his delivery of acoustic paeans that spoke against apartheid and to the immutable spirit of his homeland. Mahlasela offered numerous between-song explanations of his compositions, but the raw power of his voice, which floated effortlessly from growl to falsetto, drove home their point well enough on its own.

The accordion-driven Forro in the Dark and fiddle-laced Dervish — hailing, respectively, from Brazil and Ireland — were bent on altering not only space but time, so heady were their evocations of ancestral sounds and specters.

The evening was not without its moments of fusion. Mercan Dede’s Secret Tribe elicited chills by grafting traditional Sufi melodies onto a framework outlined by drones from both synthesizers and the native instruments. Susheela Raman chose to juxtapose rather than overlap, alternating between eerie vocal improvisation and Jill Scott-style neo-soul.

Not all the cross-cultural pollination proved fruitful. France’s Les Yeux Noirs ham-handedly forced Gypsy folk into a stodgy rock setting, while Lebanese oud player Marcel Khalife was undercut by a backing band, featuring two of his sons, that drifted too far into mainstream jazz.

Still, the seeming ease with which even GlobalFest’s more difficult listening seemed to go down with a novice aud no doubt encouraged the show’s producers and created a good many enthusiastic gatekeepers for wider auds down the road.

GlobalFest

Public Theater, New York, $45

Production

Presented by the French Embassy to the U.S and the French Music Export Office. Performers: Beat the Donkey, Susheela Raman, Marcel Khalife, Raul Paz, Savina Yannatou, Diego Amador, Mercan Dede's Secret Tribe, Vusi Mahlasela, Mariza, Forro in the Dark, Angelique Kidjo, Tania Libertad, Les Yeux Noirs, Emeline Michel, Dervish, GlobeSonic. Reviewed Jan. 10, 2004.
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