Chicago's First World Music Festival Dates Back to 1893

September 18, 2009

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The World Music Festival gets started tonight at venues around the city. It's been going since 1999, but Chicago has had international concerts a lot longer than that. When did most Chicagoans hear music from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the South Pacific for the first time? Robert Loerzel says it was in 1893.

The World's Columbian Exposition was many different things. It was like a museum and a science fair and a carnival and a symposium, all rolled into one. It was also a world music festival. No one called it that, but just think — If you spent a day strolling down the Midway, you'd hear musicians from Algeria, Tunis, Egypt, Turkey, Persia, China, Java, Samoa and Africa. So what did Americans think when they heard non-Western music for the first time in their lives?

JOHNSON: I'm sure it was very strange and very exotic to them, because this was before TV. There's just newspapers and magazines.

Carolyn Johnson is a research associate at the Field Museum and a lecturer at the University of Chicago. She became interested in the 1893 expo, when she started playing in a gamelan, an ensemble of instruments from Java. Johnson took a gamelan class at the Field Museum in the 1980s.

JOHNSON: Imagine a room full of huge, shining, bronze instruments on brightly colored wood stands. Hanging gongs. Slab instruments. Pot gongs. Xylophones.

Johnson was surprised to learn that these instruments were the exact same ones that musicians from Java played at the 1893 expo. After offering gamelan classes for a while in the early eighties, the Field Museum put the instruments back into storage. But the experience sparked Johnson to find out more about world music at the world's fair. She did her dissertation on the topic at the University of Chicago.

JOHNSON: It turns out that some of the first recordings of world music were made at the 1893 fair.

Benjamin Ives Gilman came from Boston and spent two days at the fair, recording performances by South Pacific Islanders, American Indians and Turks. The Peabody Museum owns the 101 wax cylinders Gilman made, and they're stored now at the Library of Congress. Through all of the crackles and hiss, you can hear faint echoes of what the Midway sounded like at the 1893 World's Fair. Here's a recording Gilman made of four Syrians from Beirut singing as they play lute, harp, tambourine and drums.

AUDIO: Wax cylinder of "Turkish" music.

JOHNSON: Just imagine. He was using this recording thing with wax cylinders that had to be probably hand-turned.

This is a wax cylinder Gilman made of Polynesians from Wallis Island performing a paddle dance.

AUDIO: Wallis Island music.

And here's what Gilman heard Javanese musicians playing at the World's Fair.

AUDIO: "Bima Kurda."

JOHNSON: It was amazing the first time I listened to it ... I learned to play that song on the same instruments... t was just a very eerie feeling...

AUDIO: Segue into a 1972 recording of the same song from the CD "Lokananto Series: Gending Soran."

JOHNSON: So this piece is a modern version of the piece that opened probably every performance in the Java Village at the 1893 World's Fair. And at that time, it was called "Lago Ramae," which I guess means "loud song." (Laughs.) We know it today to be called "Bima Kurda," which means "Angry Bima." Bima is a character from "The Mahabharata," and a very central favorite character in Javanese shadow plays.

The exotic music at the World's Fair did not please everyone, however. Articles and books from 1893 are filled with racist descriptions of foreign people at the fair. Writers called them savages and cannibals. Reporters barely even recognized that the sounds they were hearing were music. One writer said a Chinese orchestra was "molesting" the air. Cosmopolitan magazine said the music from Dahomey, Africa, was "a weird and ear-splitting racket."

JOHNSON: Reporters generally thought that the African music was just kind of loud beating on drums and war whoops. People were a little bit more charmed by the Samoans, though they didn't seem to get it. They would say nicer things about the Javanese music, but, no, I don't think they understood the subtleties of it.

Americans were startled by the rhythms they heard. One visitor couldn't figure out any pattern at all in the Turkish percussion. "The Turkish drummer is entirely independent of time or rhythm," he said. "He is a creature of spasms."

But some people noticed interesting syncopations in the music from Dahomey, which is now part of Benin. Songwriter M.B. Garrett jotted down the notes he heard the Africans playing, and four years later, he used them in an early ragtime song.

JOHNSON: There's a lot of speculation that a lot of composers were very deeply affected by the music on the Midway, because it was complex in very different ways than people were used to.

And where there was music, there was dancing, too.

JOHNSON: There was a huge controversy in Chicago about belly dancing in the Islamic villages. People wanted it banned... (Laughs.) However, they were the most popular exhibits on the Midway Plaisance, so figure that out for yourself.

One melody that almost everyone associates with the Middle East became famous at the 1893 expo. Sol Bloom, the promoter in charge of entertainment on the Midway, claimed that he made up this tune when a piano player needed something to play during a belly-dancing demonstration. But some historians say a similar Algerian melody had been around for hundreds of years. Wherever it came from, it soon became the standard music for hootchy-kootchy dances and snake charmers in cartoons and movies. Here's how it sounded in a Laurel and Hardy film.

AUDIO: "Hootchy-Kootch" from "Be Big."

World music isn't as shocking now as it was for Americans in 1893. There are some similarities between today's world music concerts and those performances at the 1893 expo. We still feel the desire to see and hear something exotic. But Carolyn Johnson says there are important differences in the way world music is presented today.

JOHNSON: It's no longer a colonial display of: Look, this is how savage these guys were and we're so civilized. But rather: Wow, there's this huge amount of diversity in the world, and a lot of music and dance that people can share together.