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The Worldwide Music Expo embraces roots and Internet

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For anyone involved in any aspect of world music, WOMEX (Worldwide Music Expo) has become an essential date on the calendar. After a few years of internal wrangling, at the end of October, WOMEX returned to its original home at the House of World Cultures in Berlin, Germany, where from now on it will remain.

A change to the format this year was the introduction of a regional focus, with Brazil chosen to mark its 500-year anniversary in 2000. The Brazilian presence was therefore felt strongly in the trade fair and conference sessions, but most apparently in the showcases, with several artists from Brazil performing.

Lenine headlined the Brazilian night on the second day, and was perhaps the best showcase of the weekend. Great melodies, arrangements and a host of musical influences from Africa and other dance rhythms, all performed with a great deal of skill and charisma.

Showcases took place in three auditoriums, and it was easy to flit from one to another, as well as grab a drink from the bar in between. This would mean, that if the musicians weren’t going down well, the audience would become gradually, or even rapidly, depleted. This happened to Silvia Torres, who was on before Lenine but whose music was essentially too pop-centered for the majority. Cascabulho opened the evening, and their forro — high-powered, accordion-driven, northeast Brazilian music — had a fair number of people dancing. However, it was the group’s singer Silveiro Pessoa who made the show, strutting around the stage like a hyperactive beanpole — the Jim Morrison of forro!

Brazilian veteran Baden Powell opened the showcases of WOMEX, as part of the “Godfathers’ night,” but the reaction to his guitar playing was only lukewarm. Also on the bill was Lili Boniche from Algeria, who charmed the audience with his French-style Oriental pop. Boniche’s music dates back to the 1940s, and is considered a forerunner of modern rai.

Last to play that evening, and another of the successes of WOMEX, was singer Wendo Kolosoy from the Congo. Wendo was the originator of the African rumba, blending Latin rhythms such as merengue and cha-cha-cha into an African framework back in the 1950s.

Each night the entertainment ended with a “club case,” including the U.K.’s chill-out multimedia event, “The Big Chill,” and the excellent U-Cef, a DJ and musician from Morocco living in London. U-Cef mixes dub, hip hop, reggae and jazz with his Moroccan roots.

Mixing roots with technology is one of the latest trends across Europe, especially as the self-confidence of immigrant communities grows — not just the Asian communities in the U.K., but Turkish in Germany, Congolese in Paris, Indonesians in Holland and Iranians in Italy.

The advent of technology, in the form of the Internet, was the conference focus of WOMEX with several sessions devoted to it. Topics included online trading, protection of copyright, MP3 and promoting artists on the Internet.

Other showcases that made an impact included Yat-Kha from Tuva. Fronted by the extraordinary deep-voiced Albert Kuvezin, their music is an unlikely but successful and chilling mixture of throat singing and punk. Nass Marakech from Morocco and Spain combined Gnawa music with flamenco, and even Celtic elements in a mesmerizing mixture.

Disappointments for me, included Nittin Sawhney, one of the major players of the U.K. Asian Underground scene. Combining jazz with Indian music and other influences including flamenco, his music live lacked the vibrancy of the record.

It might be the opposite case for the last group to perform at WOMEX, Funk ‘n Lata. Fifteen of them were squeezed onto the small stage, their members culled from Brazil’s most highly regarded samba school, Mangueira. Not just energetic drumming, however, their music had a soulful and funky quality and proved to be the perfect band for those wishing to party until the wee hours.

The final morning of WOMEX was devoted to another new feature, the WOMEX award. This award was given for “outstanding musical efforts,” but it was further stressed that WOMEX would like to honor not just outstanding music, but business success as well. Under these criteria, there could really have been no other choice than two members of the production team for the Buena Vista Social Club: arranger and musical director Juan de Marcos and executive producer Nick Gold.

It had been an exhausting yet energizing weekend. Perhaps most impressive of all was that nearly everyone at WOMEX, in contrast to some other “music biz” conventions I’ve attended, was a true music fan.

Under the brand of a “world music,” Celtic music in Japan, expecially live, enjoys a popularity that is the envy of others. Together with the Chieftains, Donal Lunny has had much to do with this, performing not only with his own band Coolfin, but with other musicians both local and from abroad. This time he’s the connecting thread linking concerts by Spanish musician Carlos Nunez and Japanese rock group Soul Flower Union: He will be making guest appearances with both.

Nunez is a superb gaitero, or Galician bagpipe player and flutist. For several years he toured the world as an “extra member” of the Chieftains. There could be no better way to meet other musicians than to hang out with the Chieftains, which is reflected in his own two multicollaboration solo albums.

His latest CD, “Os Amores Libres,” was recorded in 10 countries with over 100 musicians. Its premise was to explore the connections between Galician and flamenco music, but it also contains various Chieftains, Moroccan Sufi musicians, a Romanian taraf band, Liam O Mainlai, Mike Scott of the Waterboys, Jackson Browne and yes, Donal Lunny.

Not surprisingly with a project of this scale, some moments are more successful than others, and it lacks a certain cohesiveness. Live, however, with a six-piece band and only Lunny as a guest, it should be possible to hear what the CD is perhaps lacking. The real music, sound, and personality of Carlos Nunez.

Carlos Nunez in Japan 5 p.m. Dec. 18-19 at Laforet Museum Harajuku. Admission 6,500 yen in advance or 7,000 yen at the door. Also at LaForet, a Celtic Christmas Party 8:30 p.m. Dec. 18, 4,500 yen in advance, 5,000 yen at the door. Call Plankton (03) 3498-2881.

7 p.m. Dec. 21 at Sendai Civic Auditorium (Small Hall); 6,000 yen in advance, 6,500 yen at the door. Call Global Village Network Office, (022) 299-3955.

7 p.m. Dec. 22 at Shinsaibashi Club Quattro in Osaka; 6,500 yen in advance, 7,000 yen at the door, including one drink. Club Quattro (06) 6281-8181.

Throughout the ’90s, Soul Flower Union, led by Takashi Nakagawa, and its various offshoots have been one of Japan’s more consistent and intriguing groups. Originally formed in Osaka, Soul Flower Union created a somewhat wacky blend of rock and psychedelic music, but from their first album “Kamuy Ipirma,” included extraneous elements, such as Ainu music, that helped set them apart.

Their musical development has been intrinsically linked to their own social consciences. In the aftermath of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 the group took to the streets of Kobe to “cheer up” the victims, playing around 50 or 60 times. Forced to go “unplugged,” with the absence of electricity, under the name Soul Flower Mononoke Summit, the group swapped their electric guitars for Okinawan sanshin, Korean changgo drum, clarinet, accordion and the chindon drum, these instruments being incorporated later into Soul Flower Union.

Forays into Irish music followed with collaborations, first with the Donal Lunny Band on Nakagawa’s solo project “Soul-cialist Escape” and on Soul Flower Union’s most recent album, “Winds Fairground,” once again with Lunny, but mainly top Irish traditional group Altan.

Soul Flower Union has just released a live retrospective album, “High Tide & Moonlight Bash.”

“We’re essentially a live band,” says Nakagawa, “so this new CD is really ‘Nakagawa’s music’ more than the others.”

Whatever the instrumentation, Soul Flower Union’s music retains a distinctive feel, never compromising their music to accommodate their guests and never emulating Western music. Perhaps Soul Flower Union has come closest to creating Japan’s very own rock sound, or even modern folk music, in its literal sense — music for the ordinary people.