When you start a music festival from scratch, it’s not supposed to go as well as Global Union has gone. But Alverno Presents’ annual world music festival is the exception that proves the rule. Neither artistic director David Ravel nor assistant director Rory Trainor would say putting the festival together is easy — either back when they were working on the inaugural 2006 edition or the 10th anniversary show later this month — but they do admit it’s been increasingly successful since day one.
“That this is 10 years old just feels kind of staggering,” says Ravel. “I had never done anything of this size before, so there was a definite ‘fools rush in’ aspect to the first year. And, at the risk of all kinds of hubris, it really worked.”
The structure of the festival has stayed much the same over the past decade. For a single summer-turning-to-fall day in September (early festivals stretched across two days before Ravel and Trainor condensed things a few years ago), Bay View’s Humboldt Park bandshell plays host to a variety of musical acts from around the world. Visitors are encouraged to spread out across the lawn in front of the stage, surrounded by food vendors and merchants, and there’s a strong emphasis on acts that prompt audience members to get up and dance — not, at this point, that many of the fest’s regular attendees need much prompting.
It’s a format that Trainor says differs from that of most other world music festivals in the region, in cities like Madison or Chicago. Those festivals feature multiple venues, many of which are indoors, and even their outdoor venues have acoustics that allow them to book acts that require a more developed sound system. “At Humboldt Park, we’re just blasting out into an awesome natural amphitheater,” he says, and the acts they pick tend to reflect that.
Not that Global Union is trying to compete with those other festivals. In fact, it’s their existence that prompted Ravel to launch Global Union on nine months’ notice back in 2006.
The story, as Ravel tells it, is a mix of serendipity and practical inevitability. He already had the germ of the Global Union idea in early 2006, planted there when he went to check out Madison’s World Music Festival at the invitation of cultural arts and theater director Ralph Russo. Watching what Russo was able to do in the context of the festival that he wouldn’t otherwise be able to fit into a season of programming, Ravel learned that “venues matter, and where you place things matter.”
That seed would come to fruition faster than he imagined, though. While in New York City listening to a set by Luciana Souza, who was scheduled to perform later in Alverno’s season, Luciana’s agent approached him with an acquaintance eager to talk to Ravel. “He says, ‘My name is Mike Orloff; I do the world music festival in Chicago. I need there to be a world music festival in Milwaukee. I want you to do it,’” Ravel says. “And I kind of said, ‘Sure,’ because that’s what you do when you meet Mike Orloff.”
Orloff’s dogged insistence came from more than just a passion for new world music festivals — Alverno Presents launching a world music festival was a key component in the improvement of his festival and all those in the Midwest. A festival in Milwaukee completed a loosely organized route connecting Bloomington’s Lotus World Music and Arts Festival, World Music Festival Chicago and the Madison World Music Festival, making all those festivals more appealing to booking agents and foreign artists because they can do multiple gigs in a tour.
“The idea,” Ravel says, “is if these people are coming from all the way, say, Poland, just for your show, it’s ridiculously expensive and nobody can do it. But if they’re coming all the way from Poland to do six shows in the northern Midwest, their costs get amortized over three to six festivals and it all becomes manageable.”
The inaugural Global Union had a good turnout, estimated by Trainor to be about 5,000 people over two days — a strong showing for any festival in its first year. Still, Ravel says it took a few years for people to truly understand what the festival was about. But word of mouth helped Global Union grow, and Ravel says the increasing success of the festival also helped validate Humboldt Park as a venue, benefiting other performances like the Chill on the Hill series.
It’s also helped that world music “route” blossom, with new series springing up in Minneapolis, Cedar Rapids and Whitewater. Trainor, who’s been directly responsible for programming the festival for the last three years, says he’s increasingly finding that members of the world music management community will work with him and fellow Midwestern world music groups to book gigs in conjunction with an East or West Coast tour.
But one of the biggest benefits of the series, Trainor says, is that it gives Milwaukee a chance to engage with the global music community in a way they can’t always achieve. “We’re bringing in artists to make Milwaukee a global center for that day.
Alverno Presents’ Global Union festival runs from noon to 6 p.m. on Sept. 19, at Humboldt Park, 3000 S. Howell Ave. Admission is free. Visit alvernopresents.alverno.edu for details.