Only a few TV productions have attempted to climb the massive mountain of world music. "Music Voyager," hosted by Putumayo label chief Jacob Edgar, trots the globe to capture musicians in their native settings, and the Link TV network mixes videos and concerts in an attempt to map the latitude and longitude of a planetary genre.
This week, though, Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music, in partnership with a local PBS affiliate, embarks on a similarly ambitious journey -- but without leaving home.
"Musicology: Live From the Old Town School of Folk Music," premiering at 9 p.m. Friday on WYCC-Channel 20, taps into the Old Town School's acclaimed series of world music concerts and captures them in a program mixing performance with documentary.
The first season will feature 13 episodes, each spotlighting a concert by an artist from a diverse array: the Mali storytelling and American blues of Habib Koité and Eric Bibb, the Creole Choir of Cuba, Iraqi singer Hamid Al-Saadi, Irish band Altan, the South American eclecticism of Bajofondo, the Tuvan throat singers of Alash, Zimbabwe's Oliver Mtukudzi & the Black Spirits, Dominican singer-songwriter Joan Soriano, indigenous Mexican music from P'indékuecha, Cajun band Balfa Toujours, music and dance from Hawaii's Kaumakaiwa Kanaka'ole, singer Buika and Garifuna Collective from Central America.
"We've definitely covered the globe," says Mateo Mulcahy, who books nearly 100 world music concerts each year at the Old Town School. "But these artists were chosen not just because of their geographic locations but because they all have an amazing story to tell."
"Musicology" is scheduled immediately after the music-programming warhorse "Austin City Limits." Re-creating that performance-only format, however, was not what Mulcahy and the series' producers had in mind as the show was developed during the last four years.
Each hourlong show consists of about 45 minutes of performance and about 10 minutes of biography, documentary and behind-the-scenes video. No host, no narration, just the artists' voices.
"You can't watch these shows and really get it unless you provide the backstory of the music and the artists," he says. "Some of these artists are steeped in tradition -- in some cases in actually endangered genres of music and dance -- and some are really cutting-edge fusion. There's so much out there, and each artist requires some context for people to fully get what's going on and fully appreciate it."
"We're calling it a music-doc series," says WYCC supervising producer Louanne Fries, "integrating the amazing world music from Old Town with new interviews with the artists. It helps us get behind the music a little and, for instance, explain the instruments they use or their influences. In a lot of these concerts, people are seeing and hearing instruments they've never seen or heard before. A little information brings this whole experience alive."
When the artists reach Chicago, they often participate in workshops at the Old Town School or with local schools.
"Sometimes we just capture some really special moments," Mulcahy says. "Like, the Creole Choir of Cuba, this great music from these people of Haitian descent living in Cuba. We had 20 students from Senn High School from their arts program -- this was a group studying music, and they came for a workshop. The choir ran through a couple of songs and then decided to show the students how to do it. They broke the students into two vocal groups and got four of the kids to shadow the musicians and learn the percussion, showing them dance moves. Eventually the kids were playing it all by themselves and the Creole Choir stepped back. It was unbelievable.
"Then the kids said, 'We want to share something with you.' They showed a piece they'd learned, and the choir was elated."
About half the season has been filmed thus far. The concerts have delivered, too. Fries was visibly impressed by Bajofondo, an innovative project mixing tango, electronic music and hip-hop and featuring Oscar-winning composer Gustavo Santaolalla,
"Show-stopping," she says, clearly struggling for an adequate superlative. "I'm your traditional, mainstream music girl. I like John Mayer. This show was really, really, really cool." (The Bajofondo episode airs June 21.)
She herself is exactly the broader audience the Old Town School hopes to reach with "Musicology." Both Fries and Mulcahy are upfront about hoping to go national with the show.
Chicago, though, is the perfect home base for a world music show like this, Mulcahy says.
"What Chicago has that many cities do not is really large ethnic communities that are very cohesive, and in fact, so large that they can pull their own audiences," Mulcahy says. "What people may not know outside of Chicago is how ethnically diverse the city is. No other city outside of New York has the type of large immigrant communities like this. If I do a Tibetan show in, say, Madison, Wis., there's no Tibetan community there to support it. I might get some interested people there. But when we do that kind of very focused show here in Chicago, the ethnic community alone is enough to support the show. So it's a very natural place to produce something like this."
"Musicology" tapings are open to the public. Some of the shows are bookings that are part of Mulcahy's regular Wednesday night series, and are free; others are ticketed. A full schedule and details are at oldtownschool.org/musicology.