Every summer, New Yorkers and visitors to the city flock to Central Park for free SummerStage programs of music, dance, film and spoken-word performance. The outdoor series was founded in 1986 to draw more ordinary New Yorkers to Central Park, which then had a reputation as crime-ridden. In the 22 years since, the park has flourished, and SummerStage has become one of New York's leading outdoor performance venues, especially for world music. Carolyn Weaver reports.
Many of Central Park's SummerStage programs are devoted to world music, like a recent West African concert. It presented artists from Mali, Senegal and Nigeria, including Nigerian-born singer Kaleta. People lined up early to get good seats.
"They bring some really topnotch acts, and you can't beat coming here for free to see them," said one young woman, a recent transplant to the city.
Two sisters originally from Guyana seconded her. "It's a beautiful series. We've been coming here 15 years," one said. "Whatever they serve up on the plate, we're here to gobble it up."
SummerStage programmer James Burke says he tries to appeal to all New Yorkers.
"We try to bring out all the diverse communities of New York, and also just people who love music," he said. "I always encourage people, come out to a program when you don't know any of the artists' names, because you're guaranteed to have an eye-opening experience."
To that end, he often mixes genres in concerts, putting American rock bands, for example, on the same program as visiting world musicians. At this summer's West African event, however, all the music was rooted in that part of the world.
Kaleta's band Zozo Afrobeat includes white American musicians, including a brass section. But Kaleta, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1991, says the music is authentically African.
"I think world music is the only way to let the world know where you come from, your origins," the singer said, who traces his own origins to Benin as well as Nigeria. He played with the late Nigerian superstar Fela Kuti before moving to New York. "No matter how you play it, your origin is pinpointed in the music, no matter what you do," said Kaleta.
Another star performer was Vieux Farka Toure, the son of the late Malian guitarist Ali Farka Toure. In an interview he said that both traditional Malian songs and western rock inform his blues-y music. He added that he believes Americans are developing an ear for world music, even if they don't fully get it. "It's like us," he said. "We don't understand most American music – but we like it."
Senegalese mbalax musician Fallou Dieng was the other headliner. His version of a Bob Marley song, "One Love" riveted the crowd, especially when he brought out a traditional dancer to perform alongside him. It was a typically diverse New York audience, according to Central Park SummerStage regulars.
"Everybody's here, every color you could think of: white, black, yellow, red. You know what I mean?" said one of the sisters from Guyana. "Everybody's here. And nobody's objective [objectionable] to no one."