Vieux Farka Toure is a Malian guitarist. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The pairings are improbable: a blue-eye soul crooner and a Malian blues guitarist; British electro maestros and a Syrian wedding singer. But in the KCRW World Festival series at the Hollywood Bowl, anything is possible.
Now in its 13th year, the series showcases big names in international music alongside upstarts from across the planet. This season embarked on its cross-cultural journey last week with jammy bluesman Ben Harper alongside L.A. soul throwback act Fitz and the Tantrums, and Malian guitarist Vieux Farka Toure. Though the connection among the blues and soul of America and the songs of Mali, often played on the guitar-like instrument, the kora, may at first seem tenuous, when paired alongside one another, the connections become clear.
"Since I was a very young child I have been listening to the music of John Lee Hooker andB.B. King," Toure says. "My father [famed Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure] loved those guys and played their music for us."
The continent-spanning lineup of the Bowl series continues the tradition of juxtaposing global acts, highlighting the musical through-lines that transcend nationality. Just don't call it "world music."
"I think the term 'world music' helped people recognize what music from other cultures sounded like back in the 1980s," says Laura Connelly, director of presentation at the L.A. Phil. "Over the years, I think the term has become less important as people have access to more and more music from around the world, especially via the Internet. [International music] totally become a part of the fabric of American culture."
"You can't 'cheat' an American audience," says Allan Pineda Lindo Jr., a.k.a. Apl.de.ap from the Black Eyed Peas, who is performing at the Bowl's first night dedicated to original Pilipino music. He was born in the Philippines — his mother was Filipino, his father an African American service man — but grew up in Los Feliz.
Crossing over as an international act is a challenge, he says, but not entirely impossible. "There has to be talent, first and foremost," he says. "People have to love and respect what you do as an artist to accept you, and once they accept you, you've got a new audience. Thinking Philippine artists are part of 'world music' is limiting."
The music industry has evolved to a more inclusive stance toward global music, as African acts have found a home on indie rock labels, Iranian psych-rock rarities are released alongside Detroit funk. This global sound is an intercontinental conversation among cultures, where all countries are welcome at the table.
"Since the mid-1990s, there has been a steady increase in global music exposure that has taken the genre out of its traditional niche," KCRW DJ Garth Trinidad says. "This can be attributed to producers in hip-hop and dance music making use of samples by world music artists and more recently creating music by traveling to different countries to collaborate."
For Omar Souleyman, a Syrian wedding singer, his music was virtually unheard of outside of the Arab world until 2007, when Mark Gergis from Seattle-based label Sublime Frequencies released "Highway to Hassake: Folk and Pop Sounds of Syria." The tracks featured Souleyman's infectious vocal hooks and swirling synth keyboards, gleaned from his numerous cassettes that populated Syrian cassette stalls.
"Weddings in Syria are a very important social event," Souleyman says. "I usually open my performance with mawawil, slow vocal improvisations on different poetic themes, on love and life mainly, I praise the wedding couple, and love and God."
On Sept. 9, Souleyman performs at the Bowl with indie darlings Passion Pit and electro dance crew Hot Chip.
Matching artists is not a random process, says Johanna Rees, L.A. Phil's senior program manager of presentations and special concerts. "We look at the creative connections," she says. "Sometimes an artist has been a guest on another artist's record, or there is a great respect for each other, which audiences would never know about if they weren't sharing a bill."
When looking for musicians to pair with Brooklyn's Animal Collective, Rees says that a bit of serendipity helped to create a night that satisfied both the artists and the programmers. "[The Bowl's] list of co-billing ideas for the Animal Collective night included [Tuvan throat singers] Huun Huur Tu. We were looking at their instrumentation — kengirge, byzaanchi, doshpuluur, horses' hooves — then when AnCo [Animal Collective] sent their list of ideas to me it also included HHT. It's magical when that happens."
As for Huun Huur Tu's opinion of Animal Collective?
"We only [saw] them on YouTube, so we don't know them well. Though, they sound interesting for us. Most in case, electric music doesn't have human emotion," says Radik Tyulyush, Huun Huur Tu's singer from the Russian region of Tuva. "We put the emotion into the electric sound."
KCRW World Festival feat. Apl.de.ap, Animal Collective, Wilco and more
Where: Hollywood Bowl
When: July 8 and 15; Sept. 9, 23 and 30
Price: $17 to $148
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