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Global Fest 7.0: Sounds from every corner

by Samuel Bathrick

Global Fest 2010 has come and gone for the seventh time. For those who trekked it to Webster Hall on a frigid Sunday evening, instead of bundling up with a cup of hot cocoa for Survivor re-runs, the reward was a warm island oasis of their own. Three stages, twelve acts, each with an hour to transport you to their corner of the world. Don't think just because no one got voted off the island that the stakes weren't high. For some, like Burkina Faso's Alif Naaba , Sunday evening was a U.S. debut. The audience packed the lower level studio for Naaba and he returned the favor, crooning majestically in French and Mòoré, while the Kora plucked a cyclical six-count, lulling the crowd into elated submission. At one point, Naaba told us he wanted to speak to us in English. He paused and then said, "I love you!" The feeling was mutual and we let him know it. Somebody sign this man.

No time to lose, I raced upstairs to the Marlin Room, where Celtic soprano Cara Dillon had assembled a highly talented group of musicians, all of whom she gracefully put forward throughout the show. I would have told you that contemporary Celtic music is not my thing, but dammit if those feckin' pipes, the flute hustling through the rounds and a doh-see-doh upswing guitar, didn't find a soft spot in my heart normally reserve for bluegrass. The ease with which she moved between pierce and whisper and a natural sensibility for storytelling reminded me of an Irish Alison Krauss. I was quietly sneaking out when Dillon announced she would now do a song about a drunken man who comes home to wake up his wife to demand a cup of tea. Turns out I had time for one more.

In the ballroom, Caravan Palace was thumping hard and from the esteemed press balcony I witnessed a sea of heads nodding below. Also making their U.S. debut, the Parisian sextet spread tasty Django-inspired horns over house beats. According to a Wikipedia entry, the band was formed in 2005 when three of the members were hired by a production company to do the soundtrack for a silent porno flick. I'm sure I wouldn't be the first blogger to make the comparison to Gotan Project; both do the tango with cinematic flare. But Caravan Palace is not burdened with the task of differentiating itself back home. One of France's top four sellers in 2009, the group was nominated in the electro category for the Vitoires del la Musique, the French equivalent to the Grammys. So much for years of rejection and failure before getting spit out the bottom of the porn industry. As a disclaimer, I must say I can't ever fully get behind a live band that relies on a drum machine (I tend to rage against), but the festival organizers got it right by putting these guys in the ballroom. This is a big, big, sound.

After stuffing an entire hot dog in my mouth outside the entrance, I squeezed my way back into the ground floor Studio, where Grammy-nominee Cedric Watson was doing what he's been doing for years: turning out new fans of Zydeco music. Born in East Texas, Watson became obsessed with Cajun music and, after mastering the fiddle and accordion, he moved to Southern Louisiana where, Watson explained, "even catfish have soul." There he began to dig on the deep and sprawling roots of Zydeco: a stew of French, Creole, Caribbean, African and American folk music. At once a forceful and playful presence on stage (oh, and he can sing), Watson stirs the pot deliberately; we waltzed, we two-stepped; some people even put their hands in the air like they just don't care. His band, Bijou Creole, held their own and then some, with standout performances by Mike Chaisson-froitoir on "rub board" (a metal washboard worn on the chest like armor) and drummer Jermaine Prejean, who clearly just lives in the pocket and never comes out. In one short monologue between songs, Watson fumbled his words and accidentally coined a new term that so perfectly described his live show it might just make the band's next press release: "Testifry."

Needless to say, I stayed for all of Cedric Watson's set without an ounce of regret for missing some sure gems on the other stages. I did, however, slide back up to the ballroom to catch a few moments of NAMGAR. Led by a costumed Tibetan songstress of the same name, the band swung dramatically from mystic to metal. A disembodying experience, the next morning my scribbled notes appeared to read Bjork against the machine.

Before the hot dog caught up with me and I called it a night (It was a Sunday, after all), I also caught a few moments of Nguyen Le's Saiyuki . A Parisian jazz musician born to Vietnamese parents, Saiyuki blends Vietnamese, Indian, North African, and Japanese musical elements. Saiyuki has been putting out albums since the late eighties but in the few minutes I stood on I got a pretty good taste of the self-titled Saiyuki, his latest project. It started with free-form Tabla and electric guitar dawdlings, nimbly layered with Koto (a Japanese relative to the American plucked dulcimer). When Saiyuki rolled out a soaring guitar phrase, reminiscent of the Sahara's own Tinariwen, and the band fell back in, this time in perfect sync--India returning to Africa by way of Japan--a sort of obvious notion hit me between the eyes: "world music" is just beginning.

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