By Dennis Polkow
With all of the buzz about whether Chicago can and will actually host a world-class event with participants from across the globe in the form of the 2016 Summer Olympic Games, the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs has already been doing exactly that for a decade in the form of the World Music Festival.
“We seem to be a likeable convenience right now,” muses Department of Cultural Affairs senior program director Michael Orlove in the Randolph Café following a Friday afternoon “Music Without Borders” concert. “What we have already been doing is pretty much what they are saying we can do for the Olympics. [The city] wants to say that we can stage a world-class event, and we have been putting on a kind of Olympics of world music now since 1999, giving us a small offering of what the city could be like when the Olympics are here.”
Orlove not only founded the World Music Festival but also oversees the music programming for Millennium Park and the Chicago Cultural Center. He has been assisted for the last six years by program coordinator Brian Keigher, a familiar fixture to any of us who used to frequent the late and lamented Tower Records’ Clark Street store, as before working for the city, Keigher was the world-music buyer for that store and meticulously maintained its world-music section. “That was my baby,” says Keigher, 36, noting that before he began working at Tower in late 1994 for what he thought would be a job for the holidays, the world-music section had been left in disarray because the previous buyer had left. “They’d have an Iranian artist over in the Albanian section. I began getting into that section and ended up taking it over and spent six years there.”
As both are relaxing and discussing the tenth annual World Music Festival with, as Keigher lamentably puts it, “one of four journalists in this entire city who writes anything about world music,” they laugh at the thought that the three of us could easily be mistaken for a bunch of white guys who are rabid world-music fans. “People will ask, ‘What was your path to world music?’ but only white people ask that of other white people.”
Orlove, 38, began working with the city in 1994 and started taking a look at the festival circuit and seeing what was being offered. “Back then,” notes Keigher, “in terms of international music, you had the Old Town School of Folk Music, still on Armitage, the HotHouse and events at community centers and banquet halls within a niche community that you would hopefully get wind of.”
A world-music marketing group that consisted of individual presenters, venues, retailers and enthusiasts began a series of meetings in 1998, including Orlove and Keigher. “We sat at about two or three meetings talking about what we could do to broaden the spectrum of international music in Chicago,” says Orlove, “and it was at that time that I really said, ‘Better than anything else, let’s get a festival going.’ I put a proposal together and got the blessing of my commissioner Lois Weisberg, and then executive director of special events Jim Law, and it pretty much passed with flying colors.”
Though the first festival in 1999 was not a tough sell, Orlove admits it has been ever since. “Funding has always been an issue,” says Orlove. “The first year the city backed it wholeheartedly and since then the city still backs it wholeheartedly, but not to the full amount. So it’s up to us to fundraise. The city gives us the seed money with a ceiling and the rest we go out and get.”
There was initially a committee made up of various venues that were part of that first year and while that created what Orlove describes as a “a nice groundwork for the festival,” Orlove notes that “the committee ran its course in terms of how the festival was programmed and run, but a lot of those people are still very much a part of the festival.”
The artistic direction of the festival remains the domain of Orlove and Keigher but Orlove is quick to point out that “I don’t want to paint Brian and I as the sole decision-makers and that nobody else has input. It would be unfair to discount the amount of unsolicited suggestions that we get from the public, venues giving us suggestions, people saying, ‘Hey, have you heard this artist?’” Both are also adamant that they are not “experts” on international music. “We cannot claim to be experts in all or any of these international musics,” says Keigher. “Sure, we have our passions and our loves, for many years—decades now, I guess—but we’re not ‘experts’ in any one style of music.”
Would the pair consider themselves “experts,” at least, in international visas? “I know more than most about the process of getting people in the country,” says Orlove, “but it’s a continuing-education course because the rules keep changing on a yearly basis. In terms of music, the festival is as much a learning experience for Brian and I as it is for anyone else. We’re learning about artists on a day-to-day basis.”
Keigher is a drummer and a percussionist, “and if you consider a DJ a musician,” jokes Orlove, “then Brian is that, too.” “I really came at world music from getting sick of rock and jazz and growing up with those and figuring there had to be more out there,” says Keigher. “When all my friends were going around the country to follow the Grateful Dead, I was flying to New York to hear Nusrat Fatah Ali Khan and to catch these maestros who aren’t going to be with us forever. I had been a drummer in rock and jazz groups but felt that I had hit a wall and began exploring hand drums and percussion from around the world and that really led to my loving gamelan, tabla, frame drums and all this music from other cultures.”
The epiphany moment for Keigher was when he heard Zakir Hussain and his father Alla Rakha with Ravi Shankar. “That turned my ears inside out and opened a whole other path of what drumming, percussion and hand drums were all about.”
“I am the farthest thing from a musician,” chimes in Orlove, “so in that sense, Brian has much more pedigreed, tangible path to this than I do since I have zero training on any musical instrument. Growing up with two older brothers, they introduced me to a ton of great music ranging from The Dead Kennedys to The Who, The Clash, PiL, David Bowie, all these great artists. After listening to all of that, I started getting bored with the ‘new’ pop music that was coming out and I was trying to find something that would challenge me.
“The flame that is burning inside of me is the necessity of curiosity, to still learn about the world. I grew up in Chicago in Rogers Park and went to a very diverse grammar school and high school. Part of the World Music Festival probably stems back to my high-school experience in that there were sixteen nationalities represented. My parents took me to all of the festivals since I was a little kid: the Hyde Park Music Festival, the old Chicago Fest, all the festivals. In high school and college, I was pretty much into what I would call Chicago world music, which was house music and hip-hop, that’s what I grew up with. While Brian was going to a Zakir Hussain concert, I was listening to Hot Mix 5.
“But there was frustration. How many times can I listen to the same forty songs on the radio?”
“Or the same classic rock songs?” adds Keigher.
“If I have to give any kudos to a radio station,” says Orlove, “I remember my senior year in high school, I would go to bed listening to WNUR. They had the ‘Street Beat’ show; there was also ‘Continental Drift,’ world-music programming that really helped me, because I knew there had to be something else out there and that if I had to listen to the Talking Heads one more time on the radio—which isn’t to say I didn’t like that music, and I have a great appreciation for current pop and alternative rock—but it’s a big world out there.
“For me, it’s always been about curiosity and part of the fun of the festival is that I learn so much every year. Of the sixty or so artists playing on this year’s festival, I knew nothing about half of them the year before. That never ends because there is so much out there that it’s just going to continue. It’s almost like a master class for me while I am working. That’s my path.”
How much does personal musical taste have to do with what is booked at the festival? “We’re here to serve the public,” says Keigher, “and we do try and separate that.”
“Obviously,” adds Orlove, “I would be lying if I were to say that personal influences don’t get involved: it’s natural. But I have certainly presented plenty of music that I didn’t like but that I knew other people would. My personal taste parallels a lot of what I do professionally. And I’ve learned a lot.”
For an annual event that is now ten years old, the formula, budget and scope of the World Music Festival has remained remarkably the same. “Actually, it was a mistake on my part,” admits Orlove, “but we started out huge, right out of the box. The first festival in 1999 was ten days long, two weekends, sixty artists, which is about where we’re at now. You look back and think, ‘Oh my God, that was done so poorly.’ It’s always been big in terms of the number of artists. The concerts have always fluctuated between about seventy and a hundred in that time period. There hasn’t been much change. The formula has always been to present artists from all over the world and from all around Chicago. The slogan was always ‘A Celebration Around the World, Around Chicago’ and it’s always pretty much been that formula.”
One thing that Orlove and Keigher felt strongly about from day one was that the festival should not a static experience for the audience. “Instead of just setting up one stage and putting a bunch of artists up on one stage and having people sit there,” says Orlove, “it’s always been the opposite: get off your butts and hit three, four, five venues and not only discover music, but discover different places in Chicago.”
“Getting around to neighborhoods that the audience might not have ever been to before,” adds Keigher, “so that the festival be a showcase for Chicago as well as for international music.”
The original proposal was to set up a mechanism where for a week during the year, there would be a time where Chicagoans and tourists could experience a wave of artists coming in from all over the world that they never heard before and to make every event accessible—even free, where possible.
Despite a minimum of change over the years to the basic formula, the overall budget of the festival has fluctuated. “It’s not as easy to find sponsorship,” says Orlove, “especially in this economy. We’ve been in more comfortable situations in terms of budgets. We’ve cut back on certain things, but we’re pretty much where we’ve always been. Not counting in-kind such as our salaries—and this isn’t the only thing we’re working on—we’re able to do the festival for about $150,000, which is a pittance. This is really penny-pinching, too.”
That is a mere fraction of what the city spends on larger annual festivals such as the Blues Festival and the Jazz Festival, although Orlove notes that “we got lucky” and that an anonymous donor really wanted to have Sonny Rollins at this year’s Jazz Festival and ended up donating the money to make that possible.
With the World Music Festival, though, there are also those times where despite the best efforts to make all expectations transparent, things get lost in translation and artists who are huge stars in a home country and insist on coming with a manager, tour manager, sound-monitor person, lighting person, wardrobe person, hairdresser, et al, only to find out that no one here knows who they are and that they are playing to a venue of 300 people. Or an artist who is used to playing a five-hour concert having to adjust to the scaled-down reality of a ninety-minute set.
For the audience, too, there can be almost a bewildering variety of events to choose from on any given day of the festival. Despite attempts to book some of the festival artists across various venues to maximize exposure, availability of venues and artists inevitably means that audience members have to pick and choose what to prioritize. “We lay out a big menu,” admits Orlove, “and sometimes we realized that we were doing way too many concerts on a certain night. I don’t think that’s a lesson we’ve ever fully learned. There are times when were presenting ten concerts in one night. I’ve always felt that there are enough people in this city and we’re not presenting at 10,000-seat venues. So if you really add it all up, if you have six concerts going on in a night and all at venues 300 or less, which is pretty much where we’re at, you mean to tell me that there aren’t five thousand people in Chicago, given that there’s eight million in the area, that would want to go see those given artists?”
And whatever you do, don’t ask either Orlove or Keigher to start making recommendations about what is most worthwhile to try and catch at this—or any other year’s—festival. “We don’t play favorites,” they both intone like a mantra.
Perhaps the most lasting legacy of the festival is how many artists who have passed through it end up finding a sustained base here. “We debut a lot of unknown artists,” says Keigher. “We book sixty-five artists and hope that twenty-five of those bands will find a home here at Martyrs or Schubas and keep getting invited back. And it’s been proven that it does happen. Groups like Balkan Beat Box, Antibalas or Gogol Bordello, that had played for us at the Abbey Pub and now play the Riviera. There are success stories: Lila Downs, who was unknown when she came here and ended up doing movies and soundtracks. We can’t afford Rodrigo y Gabriela anymore. We debuted them here, but we couldn’t afford them now. We love that. They’re well on their path. We brought them here, turned them on to Chicago, and vice-versa.”
One particularly memorable World Music Festival was its third year, 2001, when the festival was held mere days after 9/11. “The loss of life that year was heavily on everyone’s mind and we were heavily impacted that year,” Orlove recalls. “Everything ended up cut in half. Some artists didn’t want to come. Some were afraid to fly. Some couldn’t get in the country. And then there was the whole Arab backlash. The whole visa process changed three- or fourfold.
“But in same bizarre way, it gave more meaning to the festival. Except for people who are living under rocks, it served as a vital reminder that maybe it’s important for us to know a little more about our neighbor. Maybe we should start to pay more attention to the world around us. The festival allows us to have a brush with the world without leaving Chicago. You hope that it will factor into other things the rest of the year and that it might help serve as a wake-up call that we’re pretty shut off from the rest of the world, even if we think we’re not.”
The 10th Annual World Music Festival Chicago 2008 runs September 18-25 at various venues across the city; call (312)744-7098 or visit worldmusicfestivalchicago.org for more details.