In the heart of Chicago lies an oasis. This is no desert oasis—it won’t disappear before your eyes, there’s no sandy grit, and it has as much replenishment for a thirsty mind as it does for a thirsty body. It’s Millennium Park, a space created in the busy downtown hub that was designed with Chicago in mind. Until its completion in 2004, there was no recognizable public space in Chicago comparable to the great plazas and squares of European or Mexican urban areas that bring people together and capture a city’s unique personality. The lush landscaping, artistic features, world-class architecture, and live music performances work together to provide Chicagoans a place to interact with each other and the world.
One of the highlights of the Park is the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, named after a prominent Chicago businessman and designed by famed architect Frank Gehry. The billowing steel structures that rise up from the stage area reach out to a 4000-seat sitting area encircled by a 7000-capacity lawn. The steel trellises that gracefully hover over the audience area support a pioneering state-of-the art sound system designed to mimic the acoustic quality of an indoor venue and ensure that those sitting farther away from the stage area and even on the lawn hear the performance just as well as those with a front-row seat. Michael Orlove, senior program director of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, calls the Pavilion a “small-big venue,” capable of creating an intimate experience for the assembled masses despite its capacity. Yet it’s more than just interesting architecture; it’s an aesthetic vision that seeks to maximize access and minimize the logistical obstacles to a public’s high-quality experience of the varied performers the venue presents. This vision is matched by the free programming of the venue, a rarity in the industry.
The “Music Without Borders” series, now in its third season, transforms the Pavilion into a global launching pad. The string of performances brings the world to Chicago in themed concerts. The array of music and cultures represented provide residents the opportunity to experience sights and sounds they may not have experienced before—or perhaps have overlooked in their own neighborhoods. Orlove explains: “We’re presenting performers that can easily extend into any of the dozens of communities here in Chicago.” It fosters a unique connection to Chicago by mirroring the depth of the city’s demographic. While local performers are often highlighted at the venue in other Pavilion series, some performers use Music Without Borders to launch their US tour, as a US debut or even a world premiere.
The series kicks off with a celebration of Catalonian culture on June 19 at 6:30 pm. While Spain is represented in many people’s minds by flamenco or paso doble, there’s much more than meets the eye. Catalonia has a rich tradition and a distinct culture in the northeastern region of the country. One way it shows is through the language, and in that evening’s performances alone, listeners will hear at least four languages other than Spanish. Singer-guitarist Miguel Gil, well-known back home, will be performing in both Catalan and Valenciano, a local dialect. Also featured will be Maria del Mar Bonet, a famous Catalonian chanteuse who Chicago welcomes back after her performance at the World Music Festival five years ago. She performs a range of musical styles spanning several decades, and began her career singing protest songs. She performs in Catalan and Mallorcan—forbidden during Dictator Francisco Franco’s time—and is so beloved that she’s become known as the voice of Catalonia. Also performing that evening will be The Arab Orchestra of Barcelona, a symphonic contribution highlighting the region’s Middle Eastern flavor. Representing the region’s recent immigrant heritage will be Nino Galissa, a North African arrival to Catalonia who is a kora (African harp) master. Saxophonist Llibert Fortuny rounds out the evening with his contemporary, jazz-infused take on Catalonian culture.
The lineup for "The Bachata Roja Concert: Unsung Heroes, Rediscovered Icons" on June 26 at 6:30 pm will be a world premiere. The performance presents some of the most venerable Dominican performers of early acoustic bachata, the guitar-driven romantic ballads that placed the Caribbean country on the musical map and which set the foundation for and name of the pop style of the same name now heard on the radio. Singers Ramon Cordero and El Chivo Sin Ley and guitar giant Edilio Paredes evoke the sensibilities of an era left by the wayside. Up-and-coming bachatero Joan Soriano joins the elder legends on stage for a style sprinkled with risqué double entendres and gentle guitar solos, the songs dwelling on love and the perilous nightlife of the barrios. Opening the concert will be stunning songbird Mayra Andrade, from Cape Verde, the musically rich archipelago off the coast of Senegal.
On June 28 at 8:30 pm, Senegal’s highly-lauded Orchestra Baobab takes the stage. This iconic band has a range of influences from Afro-Cuban and Portuguese Creole to Congolese rumba, high life, calypso, American soul, and traditional Senegalese styles.
Another USA debut takes place on July 10 at 6:30 pm as Chicago welcomes the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival. An unprecedented roster of Sudanese artists puts a musical face on the extreme diversity of a rich culture that prior to this was, to many, little more than a passing news story. The rich cultural fabric of Sudan crosses ethnic, tribal, and regional differences despite recent political troubles that have divided Sudan along these lines. This concert gives listeners an opportunity to experience the range of cultural traditions in the country. The lineup includes singer/bandleader Abdel Gadir Salim, an artist from the western desert region who has adapted many traditional melodies to his oud (lute). Village-born musician Abu Araki El Bakheit from the Al-Jazira province became an important recording star, and continues to perform for Sudanese diasporic communities across the world. Representing the richness of the presently troubled Darfur region is Omer Ihsas, a musician who leads an ensemble of musicians and dancers. Al Balabil, a Nubian trio of sisters, has been referred to as “Khartoum’s answer to The Supremes,” and although they stopped singing together after devoting themselves to their family lives, they reunite for this appearance for the first time in over two decades. Composer, producer and arranger Yousif El Mosley, who has traveled back and forth between Cairo, joins the roster as well. The performances promise listeners an evening of lively music and dance. This is your chance to hear the compelling music of a country that most Americans have yet to explore.
The series is rounded out with a special partnership with the Pitchfork Music Festival (artists to be announced) on July 17 at 6:30 pm and the series finale performed by Bajofondo Tango Club, with Fernando Otero on August 27 at 6:30 pm. Bajofondo is an electronic tango project lead by Gustavo Santaolalla, showcasing the past, present, and future of Argentine tango.
Millennium Park’s “Music Without Borders” series includes six concerts in total. All events are free and open to the public. Here is the full schedule:
Thursday, June 19:
Miquel Gil and the Arab Orchestra of Barcelona/Maria del Mar Bonet. 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM, FREE - Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ Sonic feast of Catalonian culture showcasing the range of the region’s delights
Thursday, June 26:
The Bachata Roja Concert: Unsung Heroes, Rediscovered Icons, with Mayra Andrade. 6:30 PM - 8:00 PM, FREE – Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ Dominican acoustic bachata legends joined by a rising bachatero and a Cape Verdean songstress
Saturday, June 28:
Orchestra Baobab. 8:30 PM - 10:30 PM, FREE – Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ An iconic Senegalese band mixing Afro-Cuban, Portuguese Creole, Congolese rumba, highlife, calypso, and traditional Senegalese styles
Thursday, July 10:
Sudanese Music and Dance Festival. 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, FREE - Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ A Sudanese sampler of regional superstars performing in a gesture of peace and hope for a united Sudan
Thursday, July 17:
Pitchfork Music Festival Preview Night.
6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, FREE - Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ A Music Without Borders/Pitchfork Festival co-presentation featuring an evening filled with an eclectic sampling of music from around the globe
Wednesday, Aug. 27:
Bajofondo Tango Club, with Fernando Otero. 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, FREE – Jay Pritzker Pavilion
~ An electronic tango project lead by Gustavo Santaolalla, showcasing the past, present, and future of Argentine tango