Ragamala was an epic experience — a 15-hour concert of Indian classical music, stretching from 6 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 9, until 9 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 10, with sitars, tablas, flutes, violins and singers sounding all night under the magnificent Tiffany Dome in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Preston Bradley Hall.
This was the fourth year that the Chicago Cultural Center has hosted an all-night Ragamala as part of World Music Festival Chicago. After attending a few hours of last year’s Ragamala, I decided to see the whole event this time. Learning from experience, I brought a pillow. So yes, I did doze off during a few of the performances, but I think the music still penetrated my subconscious brain.
Over the course of this Ragamala — the opening night of World Music Fest — I heard mesmerizing, beautiful and astonishing music from India’s Hindustani and Carnatic classical music traditions. Many of the pieces that were performed were intended to be heard at the specific times they were played, such as ragas for the “coming dawn,” which were heard around 4:30 a.m. Highlights for me included Partho Sarodi’s jaw-dropping performance on the sarod, a stringed instrument sounding a bit like an acoustic guitar crossed with a sitar; and the breathtaking vocals in the morning sets by the Sama Venkatesaiah Balakrishna Troupe and Manjiri Vaishampayan.
This was also a rare opportunity to stay inside the Chicago Cultural Center overnight. The lights were dimmed in the middle of the night, and then the pink hues of the rising sun trickled into the grand room after 6 a.m., glinting in the world’s largest Tiffany glass dome. It was a gorgeous sight to behold, all the more so with such incredible musical accompaniment.
Mahmoud Ahmed is one of the greatest singers of Ethiopia — it may be no exaggeration to call him “one of the greatest singers in the world,” as the World Music Festival Chicago’s website asserted. Several albums in Buda Musique’s endlessly wonderful “Ethiopiques” series feature his songs, especially the recordings he made in the 1970s, when Ethiopia’s music flourished, using a scale reminiscent of Middle Eastern music, hypnotic circular rhythms and arrangements that borrowed from Western jazz and pop — making for an intoxicating, sometimes surreal mix of styles.
Ahmed gave his first public performance ever in Chicago on Sunday, Sept. 13, as part of World Music Festival Chicago, and it was a joyous occasion. The spry 71-year-old occasionally hopped and twirled as he performed on the Jay Pritzker Pavilion’s stage at Millennium Park, but what was most remarkable were the strange twists and turns his voice took. The crowd included many Chicagoans from Ethiopia and Africa, who sang along with Ahmed, danced with big smiles on their faces and waved Ethiopian flags. As much as I was enjoying the music, imagine what it was like for these immigrants to see a superstar from their homeland.
The Moroccan artist Aziz Sahmaoui opened Sunday’s concert, playing with his group University of Gnawa — singing with an alluring voice as the band wove together intricate, rhythmic layers of music. A couple of the other musicians took turns on vocals, wowing the audience with their own stirring and powerful voices.
Hailu Mergia, a keyboardist and accordion player, was a musical star in Ethiopia in the 1970s, playing in the one of the country’s best-known instrumental groups, Walias Band. He’s been living in the Washington, D.C., area for the past three decades, working as a cabdriver and playing his music at private events. But his music has attracted new attention since the Awesome Tapes From Africa label reissued a pair of his old recordings, which had been hard to find for many years. This past weekend, he played two shows in Chicago as part of World Music Festival Chicago — a wonderful series of free concerts sponsored by the city. I saw Mergia’s performance on Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Promontory in Hyde Park (getting there after Eleventh Dream Day’s show in Andersonville). Backed by bass and drums, Mergia played serpentine melodies on keyboards, accordion and melodica, his face occasionally breaking into a gentle smile as he looked out at the young people dancing in front of the stage to the trio’s lively, alluring rhythms.