The first annual San Francisco World Music Festival inspires a lot of questions. First on the list: Why? Traditionally, music festivals are attempts to create a local infrastructure where one didn't previously exist, producing a "scene" (or importing one) at least temporarily. But more than perhaps any other American city, San Francisco and the Bay Area in general is already remarkably well-served in terms of showcases for what's clumsily and questionably dubbed "world music." Radio stations like KPFA, KALX, KUSF, KALW, and even big-time KLLC ("Alice") play international artists of all sorts. Record stores like Round World and Down Home specialize in the stuff, and massive sheds like Amoeba make lots of room for albums from places popular with American ears (Jamaica, Cuba, Ireland) and also far-flung regions of Africa, Asia, Brazil, and the Mediterranean, with all the Scandinavian folk you could ever want thrown in for good measure. Venues like Ashkenaz host international music regularly, and the stuff's so popular with local audiences that Bimbo's and the Great American Music Hall accommodate it -- if you're Zap Mama, you can fill the Fillmore. Should you have a burning desire to learn to play Indian tablas or Japanese shakuhachis, classes are available. Locally based record labels support international music for those obsessed with the North African Francophone diaspora (Tinder), international hybrid experiments (Six Degrees), or just folks who want to go the musical armchair traveler route through Africa, South America, and the Mediterranean (Putumayo). You want a San Francisco world music festival? Pick up the paper, scan the calendar, and make your own.
But as Michael Santoro, head of World Music at Clarion and one of the World Music Festival's co-founders, points out, the embarrassment of riches is a relatively new phenomenon, and there's room to further bolster and support the world music community. And as Kutay Derin Kugay, concert promoter, KPFA DJ, and the fest's other co-founder, argues, many such festivals get it wrong, or not precisely right -- Northern California's biggest world music soiree, the Sierra Nevada World Music Festival, emphasizes Afrobeat, reggae, Celtic music, and Latin genres; in other words, the four international genres most deeply entrenched with American listeners. "We're not opposed to that [the Sierra Nevada festival's programming]," stresses Kugay. "But there is a gap. There are a lot of musics that aren't covered. Qualitatively and quantitatively, people are looking for more specialized programming."
With a grant from the city, what Santoro, Kugay, and a host of assistants have spent the last year and a half creating is a more wide-reaching showcase that gives a voice to lesser-noticed regions. Among the countries represented by the 20 groups performing over Memorial Day weekend: Vietnam, Lebanon, Greece, Armenia, China, Tuva, and Azerbaijan, as well as purveyors of better-known musics from Italy, Ireland, and India. On purpose, each night's set showcases three different countries, with little interest in any relationship between the musicians' sounds. "There was an intentional choice not to have regional separations," says Kugay, "but that instead the audience would be exposed to a diversity of musics that are out there in the world." Santoro has seen the enthusiasm for foreign music expand firsthand, given his experience running the Clarion Music Center in Chinatown and playing in the Jumping Buddha Ensemble, as well as working closely with Paul Pena, the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary Genghis Blues, who's taught Tuvan throat singing at Clarion. "There are resources that have opened up all over," he explains. "Education, radio, all the different musicians. Five years ago, you didn't have that."
And five years ago, you especially didn't have rampant growth in the culture of local mixmasters tweaking foreign sounds into their mixes, and the only disappointment amongst those involved with the fest was that it couldn't be better represented. "We talked about that in the initial phase," says Sep Ghadishah, aka DJ Sep, who assisted with programming and promotions for the fest. "[But] this is the first year, and they want to get their legs on it. There is definitely an experimental side that will be represented in the future." It's one of the numerous topics slated to be tackled at a round-table discussion on May 27 at Fort Mason. But the main focus is getting a fix on exactly what "world music" means anyhow -- is it a cheap and facile marketing term for record labels to make songs in foreign languages go down easier, or a useful rubric to get a fix on a slew of genres? "I don't think there is such a thing as 'world music,'" argues Kugay. "If somebody wants to create a band and call it world music, that's fine. But world music is still something that belongs to the world. It belongs to the people."
The festival runs Friday, May 26, through Sunday, May 28, with performances at the Cla-rion Music Center and the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. Tickets are $15-22 for each show; ticket packages are available. For more information, call Clarion (391-1317), the Cowell Theater (441-3687), or see www.sfworldmusicfestival.org.
When Your Band Breaks
"We wanted to be on the same label as 311. That's the real reason," quips Miles Kurosky of his band Beulah's recent signing to Capricorn Records. That wasn't the only label that took interest in the band; on the heels of last year's pop masterstroke When Your Heartstrings Break, a number of labels were putting in offers. But asked what he sees as the benefit of working with the graces of major label support, Kurosky briefly draws a blank. "I guess it's been in the works for so long that it seemed like a natural progression," he says, though he does note that "for the first time, I'm not going to be making a record in my bedroom." Given that, he sees the signing as an opportunity to spend a lot of time on the new record, which -- judging by a brief snippet of a demo played over the phone -- signals a shift away from summery Beach Boys-influenced pop and into more soulful territory. The band's booked 350 hours of studio time at San Francisco's Tiny Telephone and begins recording next month. "I'm hoping to avoid any reference to the word 'sugary' this time," Kurosky says.
Albert Mathias, drummer in turntable-jazz experimentalists Live Human, dropped us a line recently to thank us for the archive on our Web site (you're welcome), but also pointed out an error in the Dec. 15, 1999, House of Tudor column, which said Live Human was collaborating with Zmrzlina. "I don't know the group Zmrzlina," Mathias told us, "and we never did any studio work with them." We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.
Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.