World music powerhouse globalFEST touches down in Seattle

In the cold winter gloom of New York City, there is one date that every world music maven anticipates.

For over a decade, globalFEST has been warming up dark January nights with eclectic programming that brings musicians from overseas and spotlights U.S.-based international performers.

Artists that have graced Seattle stages in recent years like Ethiopian jazz-funk ensemble Debo Band, non-stop party band Balkan Beat Box and First Nations hip-hop crew A Tribe Called Red have all made waves at globalFEST’s annual shindig.

“Seattle is high on the list as a center for world music,” co-director Isabel Soffer said. “It has a great reputation for being a leader in global programming for the last couple of decades.”

But on Thursday Seattle will finally get a taste of globalFEST’s curatorial prowess first hand, when Creole Carnival, the non-profit’s first national tour, comes to Meany Hall as part of the UW World Series.

While it’s a little late to be calling it a Carnival show when Easter has already passed, the show will intentionally draw on countries with rich Carnival traditions, like Brazil and Haiti, as well as emphasize African roots in the music of the Americas with contributions from Jamaica.

The lineup features Emeline Michel, “the reigning queen of Haitian song” according to globalFEST, who emigrated in the 1980s and has since lived in the U.S., France, and Canada. Her gospel roots in the northern Haitian city of Gonaïves blend with the jazz and pop tradition she mastered in Montreal and Paris.

Fresh off a sold out show at Nectar Lounge by reggae hero Protoje, Seattle will get another brush with Jamaica when Brushy One String takes the stage. In an era of blinged-out bashment videos, his acoustic guitar melodies harken to a much older, more rural Jamaican musical tradition that connects the dots between Delta blues and Blue Mountain soul.

Finally, no mention of Carnival would be complete without a taste of Brazil, which comes courtesy of Casuarina, a quintet of contemporary samba players who mine the tradition of Rio’s dancehalls in the bohemian Lapa neighborhood and add in the contemporary renaissance of sounds like choro and Brazilian popular music, a catch-all term known by its Portuguese acronym MPB. Notably, their vocalist, João Cavalcanti, is the son of globalFEST regular Lenine.

Sure, “world music” has always been a clunky category, especially when so many first- and second-generation immigrants have made the music of their homeland in this country’s multicultural hubs. New York alone can make a plausible claim on playing a pivotal role in the birth of salsa, merengue, dancehall, and reggaetón, not to mention that most global of genres, hip-hop.

“GlobalFEST aims to push global music into the center of the performing arts field in order to promote cultural diversity and diplomacy,” Soffer says. “We hope to introduce new music to American audiences and to serve immigrant communities.”

Locally, the best resource is KEXP’s Wo’ Pop on Tuesday nights, hosted by Darek Mazzone, which often features interviews with artists and firsthand reports from world music confabs like WOMEX.

“We often hear that the language of the songs doesn’t matter as much as the music itself.”

But globalFEST believes that there is value in making this explicit, not to mention countering a top 40 radio mentality that privileges music from English-speaking countries like the U.S., UK, and Canada.

But even in an era of seemingly seamless global cultural connections, that doesn’t make the nuts and bolts of world music curation any easier. While for many international artists, it’s a smart business decision to live in the U.S. — Emeline Michel calls New York home, for example, as do many of the artists on recent globalFEST lineups — that isn’t practical or desirable for everyone by a long shot.

So bringing artists to the U.S. presents logistical and financial hurdles for curators like globalFEST, which have netted stages at tastemaker festivals like SXSW and Bonnaroo.

In addition to the baseline costs of domestic travel, accommodations, and reasonable fees for artists — challenges any musician faces — foreign acts must contend with potentially exorbitant airfare just to get to the U.S. as well as the cost of visas, which run into the hundreds of even thousands of dollars. Not to mention the time spent deadling with bureaucratic headaches and long waits for consular appointments.

“Visas are a constant challenge no matter what the situation – right now it’s the absurdly long waiting time to get a visa application approved and the practically mandatory expedite fees of more than $1,000, which makes getting a visa prohibitive for many groups,” Soffer laments. “It’s quite depressing really that we have not been able to address this issue to welcome and make cultural exchange a priority for America.”

But once artists make it past the gruff greeting from the U.S. government, they may be surprised at the warm reception they get from audiences eager to engage with the outside world live and in the flesh.

“America is getting more diverse every day in small and big towns — on the coasts and across the country,” Soffer says. “We often hear that the language of the songs doesn’t matter as much as the music itself.”

So brush up on your Haitian kreyol, Jamaican patois, or Brazilian Portuguese. Or don’t, and just let the music speak for itself.

globalFEST’s Creole Carnival tour plays Meany Hall on April 14. Tickets here.