The World in My Neighborhood
Actually, one of the wonderful things about this festival is that it happens at all. It's not a tour, with Milwaukee as its heartland stop or anything. No, this thing is put together by Alverno College at what time and expense I can only imagine. Since last year, the vendor booths have doubled (the were only lining the south side of the Humboldt Park Band shell last year, now it's both sides), and the sponsorship has increased. WMSE-FM was the chief radio sponsor last year, now it shares that duty with 88.1 Radio Milwaukee. Sponsorship was important because it was free. World class musicians playing in the park on two lovely afternoons for free-- can you beat that?.
And best of all, it was in Bay View! Not the Fashionable East Side, not Cosmopolitan 'Tosa, but the good ol plebian, polack-infested South Side! (I can say the P word because I'm one of 'em.) Not one month ago the American Legion Band was playing the classics, and now we have 17 Hippies from Germany playing gypsy-coated jamming folk music. The crowd was larger than last year, methinks a wonderful new tradition has taken root, so I hope the folks at Alverno realize this and continue to recruit whatever help they need to pull this off every year.
I missed the Hippies, and I regret that, but Sunday I laid down my blanket, chased the kids all about, and settled in for some terrific vietnamese egg rolls and an afternoon of World Music that rises above the usual "well we found somebody with a cool name so we'll play this and call it world music without editing for quality" that you often get with these things.
recited some poetry that sounded beautiful just for the sounds of the words (although I wished there were subtitles). She then explained a translation, and nothing seemed to be lost. And that's why she was a perfect beginning for Sunday: she set the tone of the music being a universal language as she sang, played instruments I admittedly can't name, and grabbed hold of a beautiful summer day for us.
All-Stars. Lumanovski is from Macedonia, the rest of the band by way of his adopted home of NYC. My first instrument was the clarinet, and so I could personally appreciate Lumanovski's virtuosity on the instrument: this man and his embouchure made it cool. The music itself sounded exactly like the band's name would imply -- very middle eastern filtered through Brooklyn and Queens. There were all sorts of percussion, as well as (I think) a bazouki played by a guy who was a handsome version of Gilbert Gottfried. At times, I felt like I was at a Jewish wedding, and clearly the crowd did too as they joined hands for a circular dance that seemed choreographed to the music. To bring us back to the Middle East, they brought out a belly dancer whose veiled dance took at least some of the visual focus off the band, but actually underscored how interwoven the music is with the culture.
Roberto Rodriguez & Maurice El Medioni, from Cuba and Algeria respectively, took the stage next. At this point, I felt transported to some kind of Havana nightclub, perhaps in the pre-Castro days, reflecting the Afro-Cuban mix of culture that gave birth to samba, salsa, and a bazillion Ricky Ricardo reference. I don't know much about these two musicians per se, but knowing their ethnic backgrounds explained this cross between salsa with touches of Arabic scale flourishes. The lit on them indicates that this is a special project between the two of them: I did indeed get the impression that they admired each other's work and background and thought it would be interesting to see what they would do together. The results were indeed interesting and fun.
arresting a capella vocal chant with a tonal quality that hinted at Youssou N'Dour, except it was a woman's voice. That was only the beginning. Her training in dance, percussion, speaking, and all were seamlessly on display for an audience captivated by all her talents, not to mention her stunning physical beauty. Girlfriend is drop dead gorgeous, with a voice and a beautiful personality to match, and not long into the set the area in front of the stage was packed with men, women, and children drawn in to get a closer look. I shot some 400 pictures of her, hoping to capture her devastating presence. She led us in songs, and she told stories with an unnecessary apology for her English -- French is her more comfortable language, but we understood her perfectly, thanks to the tone of the day Haale set. She jumped, she danced, she played all sorts of drums, she traded licks with her band, she entertained the children, at times nearly had me crossed between tears and laughter, with that rich, warm African music that is really a fundamental ancestor of most of the music I love today. She left me making a point of noting her name and promising myself I would never miss a chance to see her again. Thanks Alverno and WMSE (and that other station) for bringing this all less than two miles from my whitebread neighborhood.