Reviews, profiles and news about music in Chicago

Offbeat: Bella Voce celebrates Arvo Pärt’s Eightieth Birthday by Looking Bach

Chamber Music, Chicago Artists, Classical, Interviews, Minimalism, New Music, News and Dish, Shape Singing, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Arvo Pärt

Arvo Pärt

By Dennis Polkow

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt turned eighty last month, a milestone which has been celebrated across the music world during this anniversary year. In Chicago, Bella Voce has taken the lead in offering Pärt performances: his “Stabat Mater” last spring and this fall, his “Berliner Messe,” a 1990 work for vocalists and organ which Pärt later revised for string orchestra and chorus.

Bella Voce is no stranger to the music of Pärt, having been chosen by Pärt’s celebrated interpreter and subsequent biographer Paul Hillier to be the choir heard in the North American professional premiere of Pärt’s “St. John Passion”—better known by its short Latin title, “Passio”—back in 1990 when the group was still known as His Majestie’s Clerkes. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Ibeyi/Thalia Hall

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Ibeyi's self-titled debut album comes out Feb. 1


Chicago is blessed with the return of global sensations Ibeyi (pronounced ee-bey-ee), for a second performance in one year. French-Cuban twins Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz, who sing in both Yoruba and English, are the daughters of late Cuban percussionist Miguel “Angá” Diaz of Irakere and Buena Vista Social Club fame. Angá died in 2006 when the twins were only eleven; tragedy stuck again in 2013 when they lost a sister, Yanira. They grew up mostly in Paris and credit their French-Venezuelan mother, a singer, with inspiring their love of West African Yoruba culture (brought to Cuba by slaves in the 1700s). Naomi plays percussion, mixing hip-hop and Afro-Cuban beats on the cajón and Batás, and handles production while Lisa, the primary vocalist, plays piano and concentrates on composition. Read the rest of this entry »

Preview: Albatross/Reggies Rock Club

Alt-Rock, Rock, World Music No Comments »

Albatross - Metro Sydney - HitsFM


After the devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that brought Nepal to its knees this April, the world witnessed an outpouring of humanity’s generosity; and now Chicago will see even more of it, up close. Albatross, one of the top alt-rock bands from hard-hit Kathmandu (they won both Best Performance by a Group or a Duo with Vocals and Best Rock Vocal Performance at the Hits FM Awards in Nepal last year), is now on a tour of ten U.S. cities to raise funds for earthquake relief programs. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: World Music Festival, from A (AfroSoundz) to Z (Zedashe)

Afrobeat, Festivals, World Music No Comments »

Tanya Tagaq

By Gail Dee

The seventeenth World Music Festival Chicago continues through September 22. The city’s free annual cultural blood transfusion, which began on September 11, presents fifty artists from twenty-six countries with over sixty performances taking place at fifteen venues.

The “O.M.G. did you see?” of the entire festival is certain to be the long-awaited Chicago debut of the intense Inuk throat-singer Tanya Tagaq (September 19 at Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 East Chicago) performing a searing live soundtrack to the 1922 silent film “Nanook of the North.” It’s her sole performance in the festival. Like Dakha Brakha in 2013, this is an artist you won’t soon forget. Don’t come expecting a lyrical, meditative musical experience; her intention is to express herself without restraint, and she can be sonically shocking. Most of her shows are improvised, though this performance does have a score (written by a composer Derek Charke). Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: World Music Fest Brings Musical Adventures From Around the Globe to Town

Festivals, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »

Aziz Sahmaoui

By Gail Dee

The seventeenth annual World Music Festival Chicago hits town September 11-22, bringing musical adventures from across the globe. It’s the largest festival of its kind in the U.S., yet appallingly many Chicagoans have never heard of it; you can help spread the word. Completely free to the public since 2012, this cultural feast is absolutely no risk—enjoy just a nibble or consume the whole bounty. This year there are more than fifty different artists from twenty-six countries represented in sixty performances.

Unlike other festivals produced by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, WMF is spread out among eighteen different venues, including Martyrs’, Mayne Stage, City Winery, Chicago Cultural Center, Old Town School of Folk Music, The Promontory, Museum of Contemporary Art and Jay Pritzker Pavilion. You can pick up a printed schedule or check it out online. This year the city is also experimenting with a new phone app called Eventfest, to help you navigate the various performances. Some venues—like Mayne Stage and Old Town School—allow you to reserve tickets; I highly recommend this for the only performance by Manitoba artist Tanya Tagaq, which complements a screening of the 1922 silent film “Nanook of the North” on September 19 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (220 East Chicago); it will definitely sell out. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: From Desert Blues to Peruvian Psychedelia

Festivals, Live Reviews, World Music No Comments »


By Gail Dee

Tinariwen, an ensemble from the Sarahan desert of Mali (coming to Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 North Lincoln, August 26, 8pm, $38/$36 members), is the Tuareg band upon which we measure all the rest, because it’s desert blues at its finest. The group’s first performance in Chicago was in 2004 at the Chicago Cultural Center and they have been back several times. (One unforgettable night in 2011, after growling unhappily at Metro’s staff for putting me in second-floor handicapped seating far from the stage because I was on a crutch, I serendipitously ended up dancing with the Tuareg ladies who were part of the tour—the stage door opens upstairs to a reserved seating area!) Their style of music is considered to be the roots of the American blues; it’s trance-inducing, and as expansive as the desert, with band members trading electric-guitar riffs like heat shimmering on the horizon. The simple rhythms are reminiscent of camels walking in the sand for hundreds of miles. Lyrics speak of sadness and rebellion, as these nomadic people have endured civil unrest and war in their homeland for many years. However, the same night I was happily grooving on a crutch with the lovely ladies in long robes, my companion—a jazz drummer—was critical of what he called repetitive rhythm and thought the graceful, languorous movement of the dancers wasn’t much. I reminded him of the Saharan heat and said I didn’t think it would be the place for break-dancing. Personally I’ve never been disappointed by Tinariwen. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: Cuban Artists Take Chicago

Afro-Cuban, Festivals, Latin, World Music No Comments »

Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club

By Gail Dee

Chicago’s music scene will make history as the stars align serendipitously to bring two of Cuba’s most famous musical acts in the same week: the legendary dance band Los Van Van and the Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club for its Adios Tour—not to mention the almost immediately following Festival Cubano.

Given the recent thaw in Cuban American political relations, people might soon forget the anticipatory thrill of being able to see authentic Cuban music live in the United States. Not so long ago, it was forbidden fruit. Club owners like Marguerite Horberg of HotHouse and Ray Quinn of Martyrs’ took chances bringing the music to us. Shows were picketed and frequently shut down amidst threats, protests and boycotts against the Cuban government by Cuban Americans. I remember the joy of listening to the lovely, romantic, traditional Cuban music called son montuno in 1997, when the “Buena Vista Social Club” album was released, and the excitement of seeing them all live on stage for the first time at the Chicago Theater. Cuban son (a style of music that combines the singing and guitar stylings of Spain with the rhythms and drumming of Africa) and other music by the Buena Vistans wasn’t actually popular in Cuba at the time—the songs represented the golden age of Cuba in the forties and fifties; still, for millions of English-speaking people the Spanish lyrics of “Candela” and “Chan Chan” became almost as recognizable as “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” The remaining handful of original members coming to Ravinia are now touring together for the final time. Read the rest of this entry »

Offbeat: Kenji Bunch Makes Music From the Inside Out

Chicago Artists, Classical, Festivals, Interviews, New Music, News and Dish, Orchestral, Pop, Vocal Music, World Music No Comments »
Kenji Bunch / Photo: Erica Lyn

Kenji Bunch/Photo: Erica Lyn

By Dennis Polkow

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many composers have been attracted to the viola,” says violist and composer Kenji Bunch. Like Bach, who noted that he enjoyed playing viola because he was always “in the middle of the harmony,” Bunch observes that “it lets you experience music from the inside out and you really get a unique perspective on how things are put together.

“If you sing alto or tenor in a choir rather than soprano or bass, those are the hard parts to hear and be able to pick out the right notes for those funky inner lines rather than the more obvious top or bottom lines. I think the viola really finds you. It’s suited for a certain kind of personality that is interested in more offbeat things, literally offbeat things.”

Since the viola is a darker-colored instrument with less brilliance than its more popular cousin the violin, “we don’t have a lot of traditional repertoire written for our instrument, which means we violists usually gain exposure to twentieth century music a lot sooner than violinists or cellists do. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: Irrepressible Rhythms from the African Diaspora

Afrobeat, Jazz, Latin, World Music 2 Comments »

Seun Kuti / Photo: Johann Sauty

By Gail Dee

What a conundrum that the vast majority of western music enjoyed today—rock ’n’ roll, blues, jazz and hip-hop—has roots in African music spread through suffering. Slavery’s tentacles stretched wide. This cultural diaspora isn’t limited to the U.S. and Caribbean, but extends to Mexico (with Son Jarocho), Colombia (with cumbia and champeta), Peru, Brazil and Uruguay. Even the Argentine tango has its origins in the African slave trade, though Argentina itself is often considered a European (i.e. culturally white) country. The story is told in the film “Tango Negro: The African Roots of Tango” on June 18 at Facets Multimedia (1517 West Fullerton, 8pm, $9).

And the story doesn’t stop there. Like a snake consuming its own tail, the funky soul of James Brown, the acid rock of Jimi Hendrix, the cool jazz of Miles Davis and salsa from New York City then traveled back across the Atlantic and influenced popular music throughout Africa.

This summer, an abundance of exceptional African and Afro-Latin music comes to Chicago, bringing opportunities to check out the amazing diversity of the Afro-musical melting pot. And don’t assume the sound is all about drums; jazzy horns, electric guitars and electronica also prominently propel the dance rhythms. It’s going to be one heck of a hot, sexy summer. Read the rest of this entry »

Global Sounds: Making Music Out of War, Weddings and Pride

World Music 1 Comment »
Songhoy Blues

Songhoy Blues

This summer, music pours into Chicago from Mali, Nigeria, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Ireland and India—with more shows being announced daily, like beads on a cold drink on a hot day.

June 1 saw the beginning of the expanded Downtown Sound series at Pritzker Pavilion (201 East Randolph); the series now encompasses both Mondays and Thursdays, each night featuring two different (but not necessarily complementary) bands. And while it’s not the halcyon days of Music Without Borders, global music fans will be pleased to know six nights of the season showcase at least one international act. June 4 features The Very Best—a good choice to introduce a friend to different sounds of the world, as the act mixes electronic global beats by London producer Johan Hugo with the vocals of Malawian singer Esau Mwamwaya. Read the rest of this entry »