New York is the world's most ethnically diverse metropolis, and Carnegie Hall has always reflected the city's vibrant multicultural makeup. Artists may arrive at Carnegie Hall from Hungary or Argentina, Spain or India, but they all seem to agree that New Yorkers: and Carnegie Hall's discerning concertgoers in particular: are among the most receptive anywhere.
"I have fantastic pictures in my mind from my performances in New York," says Bešta Palya, who makes her New York solo concert debut in Zankel Hall this month. Appointed the Global Ambassador of Hungarian Culture for 2008 by her native country's Minister of Education and Culture, Palya relishes the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall. "I love the attention and the interest paid to me and to my music by New Yorkers," she says. "I love the open-mindedness and the way audiences challenge themselves to receive these strange-sounding songs."
Mexican vocalist Lila Downs, who will also perform in Zankel Hall, agrees with Palya that the opportunity to perform at Carnegie Hall is something to cherish. "It's wonderful that such a respected institution sponsors music from around the world," she says.
But, she adds, it is best not to saddle the music that she and these other artists create with a catch-all "world music" tag simply because it is rooted in lands other than the US. "Part of the issue with the label 'world music,'" Downs says, "is that people have an idea that it is something exotic that only reaches a specialized audience. In reality it's just contemporary music with deep roots and a lot of soul."
Tad Hendrickson, editor of the online version of Global Rhythm magazine, agrees. "The only thing that really unites world music as an aesthetic category is that all the artists are somehow tied to their home or adopted culture and let that culture inform their art," he says. Hendrickson cites the array of music that fills the rooms of Carnegie Hall throughout the season to illustrate his point. Like many contemporary world music artists, Benin-born Angelique Kidjo: who now calls New York home: fuses numerous genres, including classic American rhythm and blues, Congolese rumba, jazz, and Latin rhythms into something uniquely hers. Similarly, Peru's Eva Ayll‹n: today a New Jersey resident: finds common ground between the landos style of her homeland and the sounds of other regions of the Americas, Africa, and Europe.
"You can position the post-modern Mexican-American diva Lila Downs next to Spain's lovely flamenco singer Estrella Morente and Argentina's Chango Spasiuk, a genius of his country's traditional folk music," Hendrickson says, emphasizing the diversity of world music. "More than that, though, this label also includes the best lineup of klezmer players seen onstage in some time and Indian tabla player Zakir Hussain. Both new and established, these artists are some of the most acclaimed that the world music scene has to offer today."
Carnegie Hall's presentation of international artists includes its Celebrating Hungary series, ranging from the traditional Hungarian- and Gypsy-inspired idioms of Palya (January 30) and violinist Roby Lakatos (January 27), to premieres of classical works by Peter E‹tv‹s (January 29) and Gy‹rgy Kurtšg (January 31 and February 1).
The global music concerts continue with Spanish flamenco legend Estrella Morente (February 21); Downs's contemporary Mexican-American vocals (March 20); Argentinean chamam_ musician and accordionist Chango Spasiuk (March 27); and four concerts in April that feature Indian tabla master and Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist Zakir Hussain.
Call it what you will, as the traditional and contemporary music of several cultures reverberates through Carnegie Hall this season, you can be sure it will be received by some of the most appreciative, knowledgeable, and satisfied audiences anywhere.
For tickets and information, visit the Carnegie Hall.
Veteran music journalist Jeff Tamarkin is the Associate Editor of JazzTimes magazine.