Globalfest Moves Online, Showcasing World Music Without Boundaries


Minyo Crusaders put an old Japanese song, from a tradition called Minyo, on a Nigerian afrobeat groove. DakhaBrakha from Ukraine has moved from Eastern European drones and singing to something like girl group rock. Aditya Prakash from Los Angeles sang a joyous Hindu devotion on optimistic jazz from his ensemble and shared his melody with a trombone. Rachele Andrioli from southern Italy sang a wild tarantella, which accompanied herself with a tambourine and electronic loops of a jaw harp and her voice. Peru’s hit Per Rosa surpassed Cumbia’s clip-clop beat with surreal lyrics, surf-adored guitar solos, and psychedelic swoops and echoes.

They were all part of the 18th annual Globalfest, the world music showcase, which went online this year as a partnership with NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Concerts series to keep the performances online. Previous Globalfests were one-night live showcases in New York City for a dozen bands on club stages. But for this pandemic year, musicians recorded themselves live at home: living room, studios, a record company office, a garden grill. Angélique Kidjo, the singer from Benin who appeared at the first Globalfest, was a virtual presenter in breathtaking outfits. Musicians have made sure that at least one globe is in front of the camera. The sets were short, only two or three songs. However, Globalfest’s potential audience has multiplied enormously.

While necessity forced Globalfest online, networking has long been built into his music. Many musicians who appreciate local and traditional styles have decided that the way to ensure their survival is through adaptation and hybridization, while preserving the essence while modernizing the delivery system. Fusion is also fun for musicians: a chance to learn new skills, an opportunity to discover creative connections. There are similarities in the way voices can sing or bite or break, in mechanisms like repetition or call-and-response when people are supposed to dance. Modernization does not have to mean homogenization.

There were traditionalists at the Globalfest. Dedicated Men of Zion, a group of multi-generational family members, sang persistent gospel standards like “Can’t Turn Me Around,” which sped into falsetto from a backyard in North Carolina with a smoking grill. Edwin Perez led a 10-piece band – mostly Cuban musicians – who updated a New York style that flourished in the 1970s and 1980s: salsa dura, impulsive and danceable with pounding horns, insistent drums, and socially conscious lyrics. (One song was “No Puedo Respirar” – “I can’t breathe.”)

But tradition was often associated with a twist. Nora Brown skillfully played and sang Appalachian Kentucky banjo songs passed down through personal contact with older generations, despite being a 15-year-old from Brooklyn, where she was performing in a tunnel under Crown Heights with a train rumbling overhead. Rokia Traoré from Mali has an extensive catalog of her own songs, but her set draws on a tradition of epic songs: the centuries-old historical praise of the generals who built the West African Mande empire – “Tiramakan” and “Fakoly”. She sang about hypnotizing vampires, plucked and nibbled on ngoni (lute) and balafon (xylophone), switched from delicacy to vehemence, from gently melodic phrases to quick fire declamation and put her virtuosity at the service of the tradition she transmitted.

Musicians who are securely anchored in their own culture could also experiment with others. Martha Redbone – born in Kentucky with Cherokee, Choctaw and African American ancestors – highlighted bluesy, compassionate soul songs with rattles and percussive syllables of the Native Americans. Elisapie sang Inuktitut in her Native American language as she led her Canadian rock band in fleeting songs that ranged from folk-picking to full-scale stomps. Emel, a Tunisian singer influenced by the protest music of Joan Baez, sang two songs from a living room in Paris. They were introspective, brooding, enthusiastic crescendos: “Holm” (“A Dream”) who imagined a “bitter reality destroying everything we build” and in English “Everywhere we looked burned”.

Labess, a Canadian band led by an Algerian singer, had musicians from France and Colombia perform. The set ranged from songs with an Arabic flavor to “La Vida Es Un Carnaval”, a kind of flamenco-samba-chanson amalgam with French lyrics and a solo with a button accordion. Natu Camara, a Guinean singer who now lives in New York, gave her West African pop a touch of American funk when she offered resolutely uplifting messages.

And Sofia Rei, an Argentine singer who now lives in New York, conjured up a wildly diverse, almost hallucinatory international mix from her living room with her band: Andes, Asians, jazz, funk, electronics. True to Globalfest’s mission to cross borders, she sang about life under “Un Mismo Cielo”: “The Same Sky”.