Las Cafeteras, La Yegros, Seun Kuti among Chicago’s World Music Festival highlights

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Las Cafeteras | COURTESY OF DCASE

BY MARY HOULIHAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA

Before they were Las Cafeteras, the young musicians in the East Los Angeles-based band Las Cafeteras were friends, family, activists and organizers. It was in the mid-2000s at a local community center, the Eastside Cafe, that the founding members studied the Veracruz-based, West African-influenced Mexican tradition of son jarocho.

At first, the friends, most of who were born to immigrant parents, had no intention of becoming a band; each had other interests they thought they would pursue. But little by little, they began playing in public spaces and developing an identity. It was in 2009 that they decided it was time to get serious.

“We got to the point where we had to admit we were a band,” says Denise Carlos, laughing. “We were in denial for many years.”

In addition to Carlos, band members, who range in age from late 20s to early 30s, are Leah Gallegos, Annette Torres, Daniel French, Jose Cano and brothers David and Hector Flores.

At first, Los Cafeteras stuck to the traditional form of son jarocho, a call-and-response style played on rustic, traditional instruments including a variety of string instruments, a donkey’s jaw bone that gives a raspy percussive sound and, for additional percussion, zapateado, a unique form of tap dancing on wooden boxes.

“It’s very African-based and there’s a lot of messaging in the music, Carlos explains. “A lot about nature and love but it’s also music that comes out of slavery in Mexico.”

After playing together for some time, Los Cafeteras realized that they needed a closer, more personal connection to the music. Eventually, they forged a sound still rooted in son jarocho but now including the sounds they grew up with — hip-hop, cumbia, ranchera — and lyrics revolving around issues such as immigrant rights, the politics of the Chicano movement and stories from their neighborhood.

“This is our own rendition of son jarocho,” Carlos says. “We are now putting our own sounds and our own lives into the songs. We find it important to create songs about our reality, about societal issues important to us and our community.”

Las Cafeteras performs at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport; 9 p.m. Sept. 19, National Museum of Mexican Art, 1852 W. 19th.

Here’s a sampling of other performers at World Music Festival Chicago. The free shows are scheduled at venues across the city. Check the website (see info box below) for a complete list.

SEUN KUTI & EGYPT 80 (3 p.m. Sept. 13, Pritzker Pavilion, Randolph and Michigan): Sean Kuti, the youngest son of Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, began playing with his father’s band Egypt 80 at the age of 8. When his father passed away, he took over the band. He funnels his Afrobeat inheritance through a modern sound that results in passionate and honest songs.

LA YEGROS (10 p.m. Sept. 19, Chop Shop, 2033 W. North; 9 p.m. Sept. 20, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse): In her homeland, Buenos Aires, Mariana Yegros is referred to as “The First Lady of Electronic Cumbia.” She challenges the male-dominated world of cumbia and gives it a makeover by drawing on folk traditions as well as cutting edge modern beats.

EMEL MATHLOUTHI (9:30 p.m. Sept. 14; Martyrs’, 3855 N. Lincoln; 8 p.m. Sept. 15, City Winery, 1200 W. Randolph): Two years ago in Tunisia, Emel Mathlouthi became “The Voice of the Tunisian Revolution” when one of her songs went viral during what would become the start of the Arab Spring. Her songs throb with rock beats, trip-hop and oriental influences while embracing issues of freedom and change in her homeland.

AURELIO (3 p.m. Sept. 13, Pritzker Pavilion, Randolph and Michigan; 7:30 pm Sept. 14, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln): Aurelio Martinez grew up steeped in the Garifuna tradition on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. His music has Afro-Caribbean roots, with West African rhythms with touches of Latin, reggae and calypso.

OUMAR KONATE (noon Sept. 14, Willye B. White Park, 1610 W. Howard; 7 p.m. Sept. 15, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse): A rising young star from Gao, Mali, guitarist Oumar Konate is blazing the new wave of Malian music onto the world stage. His modern and traditional sounds serve as a musical treatise for young Malians as they face political turmoil and an uncertain future.

THE DIPOLOMATS OF DRUMS (7:30 p.m. Sept. 17, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln; 7 p.m. Sept. 20, Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th): Formed as a team of young street performers in 2005, the Diplomats of Drum from Malaysia have evolved into a dynamic all percussion ensemble. They create infectious global fusion sounds with a 16-member lineup representing the melting pot of cultures in Malaysia.

PAULINHO GARCIA (5:15 p.m. Sept. 21, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington): For decades, the great Chicago-based Brazilian musician Paulinho Garcia has been melding the musical traditions of his homeland (bossa nova, samba) with edgier Chicago jazz. His buoyant rhythms and airy harmonies are at home here as well as in the wider world.

ORKESTA MENDOZA (7 p.m. Sept. 16, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 18, Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport): Sergio Mendoza helms this mambo big band that brings a fevered energy to classic mambo and cumbia sounds. As a multi-instrumentalist, Mendoza has worked with Calexico and Devotchka, and he brings varied influences back to his orchestra.

CANZONIERE GRECANICO SALENTINO (7 p.m. Sept. 17, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4545 N. Lincoln): This seven-piece group hails from the Salento region and leads a new wave of young performers re-inventing Southern Italy’s pizzica musical and dance traditions for today’s global audience.

SONDORGO (8 p.m. Sept. 14, Schubas, 3159 N. Southport; 7 p.m. Sept. 15, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse): Sondorgo is a group of young players from Hungary who play Southern Slavic folk music. They play different styles of the tamburitza (a mandolin-like instrument) and infuse traditional Blakan sounds with new life.

World Music Festival Chicago, Sept. 12-21, Various venues. Free. Visit worldmusicfestivalchicago.org

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