An ugly American’s guide to Global Union
A little background to help you in advance of this weekend's world-music festival
Right or wrong, world music is generally perceived as the musical equivalent of Brussels sprouts. Yes, it’s good for us to explore other cultures and find out what the rest of the world enjoys while exercising or doing the dishes. But international iPod exploring can be a treacherous journey riddled with confusion, frustration, and, yes, boredom. A lot of this has to do with familiarity and how we as Americans are totally lacking in it when it comes to music that doesn’t originate here. Looking over the lineup for the Global Union festival, which takes place Saturday and Sunday at Humboldt Park in Bay View, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many (if any) familiar names: Saturday will include expansive Chicago gypsy punk band Mucca Pazza, Mexican punks Los de Abajo, and pan-European group Watcha Clan, and Sunday brings funky North Indian group Red Baraat, Mongolian rockers Hanggai, and Ethiopian traditionalist Minyeshu.
You might as well give up right now, huh? No! The A.V. Club is here to take your hand and guide you through this weekend’s globe-trotting slate of performers, telling you who’s who and putting it in terms even the ugliest American can understand.
Mucca Pazza (1 p.m. Saturday)
Who? This 30-piece gypsy punk band—whose name is Italian for “crazy cow”—plays everything from classical music compositions to classic TV theme songs.
American-friendly hook: Mucca Pazza hails from Chicago, an exotic wonderland located only 90 minutes south of Milwaukee. A self-described “astounding circus punk marching band,” MP melds world music influences with flights of strange, Zappa-inspired lunacy. But at heart, this is basically just a high energy, highly eccentric party band. Oh, and they also have cheerleaders. And, yeah, they’re kind of hot.
Los de Abajo (2:30 p.m. Saturday)
Founded 16 years ago in Mexico City, Los de Abajo is an explosive punk band known for political activism and its support of the revolutionary Zapatista Army of National Liberation.
American-friendly hook: The band’s outspoken support of Mexican social justice issues might be lost on Americans, but Los de Abajo’s stew of rock, reggae, ska, and salsa should translate in pretty much any culture that appreciates energetic live performances.
Watcha Clan (4 p.m. Saturday)
Who? A French group whose musical influences extend far beyond France’s borders, Watcha Clan is a band of wanderers, traveling throughout the world and soaking up different ethnic music styles from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East.
American-friendly hook: While there’s not much in Watcha Clan’s music that sounds at all American, the group’s melting-pot philosophy certainly reflects our country’s increasingly multicultural outlook. Watcha Clan also draws heavily from electronic music, so its songs are definitely danceable.
Red Baraat (1 p.m. Sunday)
This funky big band with roots in North India and New York City claims to be the only dhol ’n’ brass group of its kind in the United States. For those who aren’t well-schooled in Indian instruments, a dhol is a barrel-shaped, double-sided drum that’s played while slung over the shoulder.
American-friendly hook: Equally capable of playing Bollywood standards, improvisational excursions, and insinuating originals, Red Baraat could be the most exotic wedding band you’ve ever heard.
Hanggai (2:30 p.m. Sunday)
Led by singer Ilchi, a former punk-rocker who once fronted the confrontational Chinese band T9, Hanggai is among the leaders of a folk-music revival in its country that’s trying to keep the music of Inner Mongolia vital.
American-friendly hook: There’s no denying Hanggai’s deep roots in Mongolian folk music, but it’s interesting how spare and strange songs like “My Banjo And I” from last year’s Introducing Hanggai don’t sound all that different from American underground freak-folkers like Devendra Banhart and early Animal Collective.