World Music Fest: Ragamala, Tanya Tagaq and Zedashe

World Music Fest Chicago, a festival of free concerts featuring musicians from around the world, finished up tonight. The five events I attended were outstanding, making me wish I’d had a chance to experience even more. I blogged earlier about the concerts by Hailu Mergia, Mahmoud Ahmed and Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa. Here are a few more of the performances I caught:


This was the third year of Ragamala, a marathon overnight performance of Indian classical music under Preston Bradley Hall’s beautiful dome in the Chicago Cultural Center. Beginning at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 18, musicians performed until 8 a.m. the following morning. I arrived a few minutes before midnight and stayed until 4 a.m. — longer than I’d planned. It was such an odd and beautiful experience that I wish I’d been able to be there for all 12 hours. (Maybe next time, if I plan better.) Some audience members brought pillows and blankets or even sleeping bags, resting or dozing off as the Indian musicians played their transporting melodies and drones. I nodded off a few times, but never lost contact with the lovely notes I was hearing.

When I walked in, the room was fairly crowded though not completely full. By the time I left at 4 a.m., there were about 100 people in the hall — and some new people were just showing up. I heard three sets of music: vocalist Sanhita Nandi, accompanied by Shyam Kane on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium; flutist Guruprasad Kathavate, accompanied by Sam Jeyasingham on mridangam; and vocalist Manjiri Vaishampayan, accompanied by Subhasis Mukherjee on tabla and Vikas Falnikar on harmonium. Each of these performances was delightful in its own way. Both singers had incredible voices that floated and flowed and danced through the droning harmonium chords. I didn’t know the meaning of the words, but the spirituality of it was clear. Guruprasad played flute in Indian’s Carnatic tradition, and his melodies were beguiling.

Sanhita Nandi
Guruprasad Kathavate
Guruprasad Kathavate
The hall during Guruprasad Kathavate’s performance
Manjiri Vaishampayan
Manjiri Vaishampayan

Tanya Tagaq

Based in Manitoba, Tanya Tagaq won Canada’s prestigious Polaris Music Prize for her 2014 album Animism, which is filled with her weird, sometimes animalistic throat singing. Tagaq has sung with Björk, and she’s often compared with her. This Inuit singer  from Canada’s Arctic north performed on Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Museum of Contemporary Art — improvising music to accompany a screening of Nanook of the North, the controversial landmark documentary from 1922 showing the same part of the world where Tagaq grew up. Violinist Jesse Zubot and drummer Jean Martin gave the music a structural foundation, while Tagaq sang, groaned and screamed with alarming ferocity. It was hard to believe she could make all of the sounds she was making. She stood still at some moments, but more often, she prowled the stage, moving like a dancer. Or an animal. She got down on her hands and knees and pulled rumbling growls somewhere from the depths of her body. It was a stunning spectacle to witness.

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Zedashe Ensemble, a group of singers, dancers and musicians from the republic of Georgia, performed Sunday, Sept. 20, during a daylong series of concerts at the Chicago Cultural Center. They sing with harmonies that might sound strange to Western ears, reminiscent of the Bulgarian singers in Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares — and the effect was bracing and bold.