Interview: Mike Orlove, Chicago World Music Festival


In the last decade, the Chicago World Music Festival has gone from an nascent underfunded gathering of a few groups from around the world, to a huge, weeklong celebration of global sound featuring dozens of venues and group after group of performers and musicians...and though it's still underfunded, the city and sponsors have come together once again to put on a tour de force of world music.

The lion's share of the credit goes to Mike Orlove, who's been the driving force in the festival since its inception, scours the globe to find new, interesting acts and works to bring them to our fair city. Approximately 60,000 people take the opportunity to enjoy the world-wide entertainment, and this year the festival kicks off tomorrow night with performances from places as far-flung as Brazil, Zimbabwe, and Bulgaria. If a show isn't free, it's damn close - ticket prices top out at $15, at most.

In advance of the World Music Fest, we spoke with Orlove about musical misconceptions, keeping the festival spread throughout the city, and just how helpful Homeland Security can be in getting acts to our shores. Kick back, crank up the sound on the World Music Preview Site, and read on after the jump.

Chicagoist: So how does a city boy, a Lane Tech grad, go from urban student to director of one of the nation's biggest world music fests, anyways?

Mike Orlove: [laughs] You're building it up like it's a rise to stardom or something. And I think Lane has a good deal to do with it. Really, I think growing up in the city, growing up in Rogers Park, spending a lot of time on Devon [Avenue], going to a school that's arguably one of the most diverse in the country, it's impossible not to develop curiosities. And I remember at Lane, one of the earliest possible influences of me starting the thought process of the World Music Festival is that Lane has these "International Days." You know, all the ethnic and cultural clubs get together and kinda strut their stuff.

At the time I didn't take it at all seriously, but I think some things kinda stick with you. And as I grew up and focused more on what I wanted to do, I think a lot of that came back into one side of my brain, where you just take a look at what's happening here in Chicago and seemed to be an event that was missing from the city's offerings. That's a roundabout way of explaining things, but I think it had been germinating in my head for a long time, and maybe when I got my feet wet a little bit here and was a little more experienced and [got] a little more confidence in how I wanted to approach it, was when I started putting the real proposal together and ideas and structuring things and talking to the Powers That Be here about staging such a thing.

But in some ways, there's a direct outgrowth from International Days at Lane and just growing up in the city, and going around with my family, and experiencing other cultures.

C: Looking at the list of artists, I was amazed at the size of the net you cast in regard to the number of acts. At this point, do they come to you? Or do you have to trek the globe and track these groups down?

MO: When we started, it was a lot of advocating, getting people to recognize what we're doing, trying to get people to take us seriously. Over the years, it's now not just a blip on the screen, it's a legitimate festival happening, so people are actually planning tours around the festival. We're doing less advocating and more curating, where we can really pick and choose who to have on the festival.

Myself and Brian Keigher really co-curate the festival, and it is a mix of groups we want to have at the festival, in addition to groups that email us or send us their stuff, and we say "Wow - they sound great." And then we get a ton of suggestions from regular folks who are fans of the festival, who travel a lot, who know about music. Submissions and ideas come in from all different angles.

For us, the prerequisite is trying to present something new every year. So trying to find new groups to perform each year, new styles of music representing different countries, and not playing the same stuff every year. One of the nice things about the festival is that virtually 98% of it's new to Chicago.

C: Some of these groups are from countries that are less than politically stable. Is there a lot of trouble getting the acts here, physically?

MO: We're going through our fair share of these issues right now, so there's never an easy year. Some groups fill out the necessary paperwork and they get their visas and it's done. And others, right now with a group from Syria, with a group from London, we're having some issues. Listen, it'd be a lot easier to do a festival that just brought in groups from around the country. But we never take the easy road. It's definitely a trying process each year.

There's never an easy way out, and we've already lost one group - the Vietnamese group (Three Rivers One Source) - their visas weren't approved in Ho Chi Minh City. There's that risk and I never feel confident even a day before the festival starts that everything is in order. Until the group actually arrives - sets foot in Chicago - is when I feel relieved.

C: Is it their governments that throw up all the roadblocks, or is it the US?

MO: No, it's our government. It's definitely our government. There's such a process that gets more and more confusing and more and more expensive, and...yeah, there's no easy road and Homeland Security has not made it easier for anybody.

C: What would you say is the biggest misconception of world music for people who don't know much about it?

MO: I think the name itself turns off a lot of people [Ed. Note: Years ago David Byrne wrote a NYT op-ed on this subject (link)]. I've often thought about discontinuing the name and coming up with something different. I think for us, we've tried to make it as open-ended of a definition as possible and not put boundaries around what we're presenting. You might hear very traditional music from a country, you might hear something that's not at all traditional that sounds more like our music from another country. So you're really coming to a festival with so many possibilities, and I think that's also been a recurring theme for each of the festivals, each of the years.

Every year is different, but every year you can expect this wide breadth of music. I think for a lot of people, they hear "world music" and they're just going to see drummers in native costumes performing in front of a crowd where the median age is over fifty, and I think that's just totally not true. I think the microsite was created to maybe dispel some of that, where you can get a listen to some of the music and think "wow, this is pretty cool."

C: Rather than have the festival at one major venue like Grant Park or Millennium Park, you spread it out through a week, all over the city. How many different venues do you work with?

MO: Every year it fluctuates a little, but it's always between twenty and twenty five venues. It's a full on process, making sure that we're all streamlined together, we're all presenting it together, we're all pushing the same buttons. But also getting the venues excited. Some are overwhelmingly excited, some need a little bit of prodding. But I think that's the fun of the festival - it should be the fun for the public as well, getting the opportunity to just go from place to place and take in some great music.

C: As a fan, I might think it'd be tough to get people to all these different places - do you ever feel like there are pros and cons to the concept of having the fest dispersed across Chicago?

MO: There is and there isn't. It goes on for a week, so if you want to pick one event per night, that's a pretty substantial fill. Half of the events are free, and all the ticketed events are pretty much $15 or less, so there's not a tremendous amount of dollar investment.

I actually think it's fun being able to go from one place to another and in some cases maybe visiting a venue you've never been to before, or an area you've never been to before. That's kind of the fun of the festival. I think it'd be quite boring to sit in a field for 12 hours and never move and have a different group pop up on stage every hour. It's challenging, but it's also an exciting challenge.

C: I'm curious about the level of celebrity of some of these acts in their home country. Are all these groups of some renown at home, or are we seeing people who happened to know of the festival and wanted to be part of it?

MO: It's tough to tell. Every year there's a couple acts that maybe have a broader celebrity in their own country. We rarely, if ever, try to play that up. The only time I can remember where it got played up was where we got Seu Jorge, mainly because he was in a film that was kind of a cult classic ["The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou"].

It's not something we try to play up - we're trying to sell music and get people excited about the music. Sure, some are pretty well known in their country, some to be honest, I'm not sure what their celebrity is like in their country. But most are making their first splashes here, and people are judging them based on their music.

C: Who are you looking most forward to seeing this year?

MO: People. [laughs] I'm looking forward to seeing people come out. I'm looking forward to seeing everything - we've been working on this all year and it's a labor of love for us. But we haven't seen any of these groups live. Well, that's not true - we've seen some of them at things like conferences and stuff like that. But it's hard to push one over the other - I think for us, it's seeing how people respond to the festival. What the turnouts are like. What group attracts the most buzz. What's the sleeper of the festival? Those kinds of things get me excited more than choosing one group over another.

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