New York-grown GlobalFEST showcases the power of world music

New York-grown GlobalFEST showcases the power of world music
Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7). Photo: Sachyn Mital.

Forced online-only for the second year in a row, GlobalFEST remains as dedicated as ever to putting international music at the forefront of performing arts.

Commanding attention on the main stage during GlobalFEST 2020, Korean group Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7) was unlike anything I’d seen before — a glam, theatrical nine piece whose music sits at the intersection of K-pop, Korean folk and mysticism, led by three powerhouse singers rocking elaborate hairdos, colorful costumes and geometric hats. ADG7’s musicians played flutes and elaborately strung drums, energetically sawing over and fingerpicking what looked like tabletop harps.

ADG7 were among the 12 performing at GlobalFEST, an annual festival dedicated to showing international talent on a New York stage. On the same stage an hour earlier, I’d watched the genre-blending U.S. debut of French West African feminist supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique, and the psychedelic electronic sounds of French Algerians Sofiane Saidi & Mazalda. One flight up on the Copacabana’s lounge floor, I’d been absolutely entranced by the vocal harmonies of San Salvador — a French group comprising six singers clapping and drumming in a unified and resounding preservation of the Southern Mediterranean language, Occitan.

Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7). Photo: Sachyn Mital.
Ak Dan Gwang Chil (ADG7). Photo: Sachyn Mital.

Founded in 2003 and now in its 19th year, GlobalFEST is both an expertly curated festival for the public and an industry showcase meant to demonstrate to a national network of programmers how “world music” is a viable genre within the performing arts.

“There’s so many traditions, musical styles, that are out there — from pop to rock, to jazz, to cabaret — but … usually you don’t hear the word ‘world music’ or ‘global music,’” said festival co-founder and co-director Isabel Soffer, a 30-plus year veteran of arts programming in New York. “But it’s often the most exciting type of music that you’ll see.”

Global music, Soffer said, “continues to have incredible potential and … people need to see it and experience it.”

GlobalFEST is held concurrently with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) conference and draws about 500 industry professionals annually. About a third of their average audience are artistic directors, programmers, executive directors and journalists, who come to see lesser-known bands on multiple stages each year.

Tufan Derince. Photo: Sachyn Mital.
Tufan Derince. Photo: Sachyn Mital.

Since its founding, GlobalFEST has developed into a nonprofit with year-round programming, a conference and artist-support funds, yet interest in international music remains only “as popular as the medium will allow it to be,” added Shanta Thake, the festival’s co-director.

“It’s wildly more popular than it was 20 years ago because people have so much access to global sounds. What we don’t see is this ability to bring in musicians from around the world,” Thake, who also works as Lincoln Center’s chief artistic officer, said. “The [music] we’re working in is really based in traditional music and so generally will require this introduction period to an audience. That’s not going to happen through the radio.”

Sign up for our newsletter

GlobalFEST’s artist alumni roster reaches every hemisphere, showcasing over 200 bands from 80 countries, with France, Brazil, India and Mali receiving the most representation. The festival is curated by consensus and, in recent years, GlobalFEST directors have invited younger guest curators to broaden the festival’s reach and viewpoint. The event has provided a springboard for artists such as Portuguese fado singer Mariza, who made her debut at the festival and followed up with a concert at Carnegie Hall. It has also helped launch successful careers for locals Antibalas and Red Baraat, and was the stage for critical darlings La Santa Cecilia, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ranky Tanky and Martha Redbone. 

Despite its success, showcasing global music remains incredibly difficult for GlobalFEST and the presenters it attracts. Visas, selling tickets and funding the cost of what’s typically a larger band are constant barriers. Varied COVID-19 protocols have thrown a wrench in the lives of touring musicians, as well as the venues and promoters supporting them. Like many other festivals, the organizers of GlobalFEST developed their past two years of programming with multiple contingency plans.

Xenia França. Photo: Sachyn Mital.
Xenia França. Photo: Sachyn Mital.

Chief among these contingencies was a move to online programming as the ongoing pandemic halted international touring. GlobalFEST leaned into its long-standing relationship with NPR’s “Tiny Desk” series to put its event online as “Tiny Desk Meets GlobalFEST.” The move was fortuitous and furthered the organization’s goals of increasing audience — 2021’s group of 16 artists were split into four episodes and amassed over 1.8 million views. Festival organizers and artists engaged with viewers in Zooms and chats, increasing connection in a particularly disconnected time. 

“The visibility of these artists was magnified to such an extent that it had an incredible impact on each one of their careers,” Soffer noted. “Even if it didn’t become tours because of the pandemic, it gave the artists this incredible YouTube page and something that they could use forever.”

For their 2021 “Tiny Desk Meets GlobalFEST” offering, Japanese folk group the Minyo Crusaders recorded in a mountainside studio that was strung with lanterns and decorated with old photos. The band used a kotatsu, or a heated table, as their tiny desk. “[Viewers saw] this incredible band in this studio space, feeling very at home, truly comfortable, but you’re also getting to see a peek into a recording studio in Japan,” Thake said. “Somebody is peeling oranges, literally, in the corner. So there is this added level of cultural exchange that is happening.”

La Chica. Photo: Sachyn Mital.
La Chica. Photo: Sachyn Mital.

While GlobalFEST 2022 was scheduled as a triumphant return to in-person performances at Webster Hall on Jan. 16 (with an additional online component via “Tiny Desk”), the omicron variant derailed plans. GlobalFEST’s organizers made a quick pivot, putting nine of its scheduled live performers online. The second year partnership with NPR’s “Tiny Desk” will be hosted by multi-Grammy award winner Angélique Kidjo and held Jan. 18-20 on NPR Music’s YouTube page.

COVID-19 contingency planning also changed GlobalFEST’s programming to focus on artists in North America, as well as New York City’s plentiful and diverse musical community. Its Wavelengths: Global Music Conference will be entirely virtual on Jan. 27.

Despite major challenges, the veterans behind GlobalFEST don’t believe international touring will ever stop. “I do think there’ll be more challenges and that we’re going to have to adjust to those,” Soffer said, adding that immigrant artists living in the U.S. provide just as rich a tapestry of sounds as international artists. “We love the cross-cultural exchange aspect of what we do and bringing artists in from overseas. But the talent that lives here is so spectacular … Even if it does slow down, I don’t think we’ll really feel it because international artists will continue to perform; they’ll just be artists that are based here.”

Organizers note that festivals such as GlobalFEST, as well as local staples SummerStage and BRIC Celebrate! Brooklyn, are crucial in connecting a fragmented society.

“To experience these artists live, in a community that doesn’t look like your own and doesn’t involve languages you know, is important. That live experience is a necessary part of how we advance different kinds of global conversation,” Thake said. “The best thing about GlobalFEST is you walk around and you see people from every race, every age enjoying a Russian folk band.”

She continued: “It’s sort of this ideal of what we think society … can aspire to. We need to be offering opportunities to our communities to get together, not under a specific banner of ‘you are going to definitely like this band,’ but under a banner of curiosity.”