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Sample Track 1:
"Trabajala" from Roots Before Branches
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"Solo dos veces" from Roots Before Branches
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Image Henry Cole & Afrobeat Collective – Courtesy

2012 turned out to be a better year for world music in Chicago than was feared when January found the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events in bureaucratic disarray and the fate of the World Music Fest and Music Without Borders series in doubt. Fortunately, there were a few local presenters that stepped in by upping their game, bringing a steady stream of new and established artists to Chicago. Now, one of those organizations, Agúzate, promises to finish the year with a flourish when they present the 2nd Annual Afro-Caribbean Improvised Music Festival over five days in five venues throughout the city, featuring a mix of classic and new salsa, Afrocentric Latin jazz and, celebrating Christmas Puertorriqueño style, a traveling parranda.

Omar Torres-Kortright, Agúzate’s founder, is pretty excited. “We’ve always had an interest in inviting artists that don’t normally come to Chicago and I think this year we have accomplished that with even more success than in 2011,” says Torres-Kortright. “If you just count the number of touring musicians, we have almost twice as many as we did last year. We also took more risks this year by bringing very progressive acts. These entirely different groups are incredibly innovative in their respective genres, keeping Afro-Latin music moving in new directions.”

Agúzate worked closely with Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center to curate the festival, and reached out to respected world music presenters Sound Culture and the Old Town School of Folk Music to help. Thus, the Old Town School’s long-running Tribute to the Improvisational Singer is now the opening night of the festival, saluting salsa great Chamaco Ramírez and featuring his friend Pupy Cantor, a founding member of Manny Oquendo’s legendary Conjunto Libre. The occasion will also include a sneak peak at “Alive and Kicking: La Historia de Chamaco Ramírez”, a documentary film that is in production.

Sound Culture has been presenting world sounds at Mayne Stage and other venues for nearly three years, and the festival includes the Chicago debut of Henry Cole & the Afrobeat Collective there on Thursday. Cole, a jazz drummer from San Juan by way of New York, is perhaps best known as the nimble rhythmic force in Miguel Zenón’s amazing quartet. His 10-piece Afrobeat Collective combines jazz chops and Caribbean influences wrapped in atmospheric electronics, driven by the unstoppable funk of Fela Kuti’s mighty African innovation. This could be one of the best shows of the year.

Orquesta el Macabeo, who plays Friday at Bottom Lounge and the following Sunday in Willow Springs at the Willowbrook Ballroom, was in Chicago just this past summer, and their incendiary performance blew me away. These Puertorriqueños follow a well-trod path: punk rockers re-discovering their parent’s music (in this case salsa dura) and infusing it with rock energy and bits of experimentation, obliterating any notions of salsa romantica with a punchy, horn heavy sound propelled with a ska-like drive. The spirit of El Bronx is alive and well in these guys.

Saturday brings the Traveling Parranda (an island tradition akin to Christmas caroling here, but considerably, um, livelier) finishing with a big party at Studio 914 in Humboldt Park at the Afro-Latin Record Collectors’ Fair and Exhibit, where Pablo Yglesias, author of “Cocinando: Fifty Years of Latin Album Cover Art”, will host.

All in all, it’s a strong ending to a pretty good year, and perhaps a harbinger of good things to come in 2013.

 11/26/12 >> go there
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