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Best of Boston 2009

Basic elements

The international and roots-music scene heats up
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  September 8, 2008

SAHARAN SONGS: Vieux Farka Touré follows in his father’s footsteps at the Somerville Theatre September 27.

Boston was a world-music stronghold even before the “world music” genre existed. So there’s a rich offering of sounds from Africa, South America, Eastern Europe, India, and other locales coming this fall.

The most eagerly awaited return may be that of VIEUX FARKA TOURÉ. He’s continuing the legacy of his father, Malian music idol Ali Farka Touré, whose solo recordings and breakthrough work with American guitarist Ry Cooder put the art of his impoverished, landlocked African nation’s griots on the charts. Ali died in March 2006; Vieux made his recording debut in 2007 with an album bearing his name on the World Village USA label and a sequel, the remix disc UFOs over Bamako, that introduced him to the international dance circuit.

Like his father, Touré also has roots in blues and R&B, as we saw when he came to the Museum of Fine Arts August 20 as part of the “Still Black, Still Proud: An African Tribute to James Brown” project, whose members included Fred Wesley and Pee Wee Ellis from Brown’s JB’s band, and Senegal’s Cheikh Lô. But the guitarist, singer, and percussionist will deliver a more traditional performance at the Somerville Theatre September 27 at 8 pm: a set of Malian and Saharan tunes, backed by his quintet.

Many of this season’s world-music highlights will be on concert stages rather than in clubs. The Somerville, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Berklee Performance Center, and Harvard’s Sanders Theatre will all host outstanding artists. At the Somerville, the fall offerings begin on September 19 with KAL, a seven-piece group from Belgrade who modernize the romance of Gypsy music from Bosnia, Croatia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia. Then on October 3, it’s LO COR DE LA PLANA, an a cappella six-piece from Marseilles who sing in the Occitan language of Southern France, combining Mediterranean roots with African influences and plainchant.

The theater resonates with African music again on November 1, when the popular TOUMANI DIABATÉ returns. This time it’s a rare solo performance for the world’s leading kora player. And if you can’t get enough Tuvan throat music, HUUN-HUUR-TU on November 22 are your ticket. Sure, Siberia has the gulag, but it also has one of the most resonant and hypnotic vocal styles in the world.

Wondering where the term “whirling dervish” comes from? The appearance of AL-KINDÎ & THE WHIRLING DERVISHES OF DAMASCUS at Sanders Theatre on September 20 will provide the answer. A mix of transcendental music and ritual, the Dervishes featuring vocalist Sheikh Hamza Shakkûr will demonstrate the Sufi repertoire from the Great Mosque of Omeyyad. LURA and her sextet bring their distinctive mix of Cape Verdean folk laced with a taste of international pop to the Berklee Performance Center on October 12. And James Devine, at an astonishing 38 taps per second the planet’s fastest tapper, is featured in “CELTIC TAP,” which will run October 17-19 at the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Barbara Lee Family Foundation Theater. (Tickets for all these World Music events at 617.876.4275 or

The Museum of Fine Arts has emerged as one of Boston’s major music programmers. On October 8, Niger’s ETRAN FINATAWA blends polyphonic singing, raw guitar, and percussion in songs that capture the nomadic life. Oud master SIMON SHAHEEN appears on the 10th, delivering his virtuoso fusion of Arabic music, classical, and jazz. Iran’s KAYHAN KALHOR ENSEMBLE, led by that master of the Persian spiked violin, embrace Kurdish folk music as well as traditional Iranian classical composition. Kalhor is best known to US audiences as part of the Silk Road Ensemble, with Yo-Yo Ma, but on October 17 he’ll deliver a performance steeped in his own roots. On the American-folk-music tip, it’s Austin’s ALEJANDRO ESCOVEDO on November 11 and classic songwriter LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III on November 22. (Tickets for shows at the Remis Auditorium at 617.369.3306 or 617.369.3300 or

On November 6, the Afro-Peruvian diva EVA AYLLÓN will play Berklee backed by a student and faculty group led by 2001 Latin jazz Grammy winner OSCAR STAGNARO (For this one, visit

There are fewer world-music events in the clubs. On September 23, local husband-and-wife team (and guitar-and-tin-whistle duo) MATT & SHANNON HEATON bring their popular update of traditional Celtic music to the stage at Johnny D’s in Somerville. Two nights later, teenage Cajun fiddle sensation AMANDA SHAW plays the club. On October 10, Boston’s own PRESSURE COOKER offer reggae, and on the 28th, AFRISSIPPI, featuring relocated Fulani griot Guebel Kumba and Junior Kimbrough’s drummer son Kinny, leave Oxford, Mississippi, to make a rare stop up north. October 30 is a Latin dance night, with GREGORIO URIBE’s 16-piece band serving up Colombian rhythms. (Uribe also plays the Regattabar in Harvard Square’s Charles Hotel on September 27; call 617.395.7757.) MANGO BLUE, from Boston and New York, bring their Afro-Latin sound on November 8. Johnny D’s tickets are available at the door, but call 617.776.2004 for dinner/show reservations, since there are frequent sellouts and nights when only standing room is available for non-diners.

Cambridge’s tiny Club Passim is roots music central this fall, with too many great folk shows to mention. Among the highlights: BILL MORRISSEY September 19-20; Passim’s 50th Anniversary Gospel and Blues Celebration with MAVIS STAPLES, CHRIS SMITHER, and OLLABELLE on September 27; PATTY LARKIN October 4-5; and JIM KWESKIN & GEOFF MULDAUR October 9-10. Visit for the complete schedule.

Related: Sharp accents, The rise of reggaeton, Three's company, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Alejandro Escovedo, Ali Farka Toure, Barbara Lee,  More more >
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