What defines Boston’s culture? There’s Marathon Monday and Head of the Charles; Harvard and MIT; the MFA and the Freedom Trail; Fenway Park and the Garden. Businessman-turned-philanthropist and Emerson College graduate Ted Cutler wishes that more artists and arts institutions were an integral part of the city’s cultural identity.
Cutler shines a spotlight on the Boston arts scene with his free, no-holds-barred arts festival Outside The Box, which returns to Boston Common for free for the third time from Wednesday, July 13 to Sunday, July 17 (did I mention it’s free?). The bonanza brings together over 100 musicians, dancers, actors and street performers from Boston and across the globe. Cutler expects to pay as much as $2 million to put together this summer’s show, depending on how much money he receives from sponsors.
The festival brings in big names from around the country, such as “Orange Is the New Black” star Lea DeLaria, to give the festival a face, but also showcases local artists, including a number of performers from Berklee College of Music, to show off just how much talent this city holds.
The festival also helps expand the range of possible answers to a more specific question: what defines the Boston arts scene? We’ve got plenty of fine arts and popular music — venues ranging from the Wang Center to Allston’s Great Scott regularly sell out crowds.
But Outside the Box’s diverse lineup also boasts Boston’s burgeoning international arts scene. The festival features international acts based both in Boston and around the globe. Daughtry and Smash Mouth might be the headline bands, but the groups that really give this a new-Boston flavor weave together sounds from all corners of the earth.
Here are some such acts to check out at Outside The Box:
Democratoz | Saturday, July 16; 2:30-3:20 p.m.; Fountain Stage
The first thing you’ll notice when listening to Democratoz is the laid-back, swung groove that was the signature sound of Bob Marley and the Wailers. The band hails from Oran, a coastal city on the edge of the Alboran Sea in northwestern Algeria. Like many Middle Eastern cities, Oran was under the control of numerous European powers, most recently France, until the middle of the 20th century. Oran is the birthplace of Raï, a form of popular folk music developed after the first World War. A music with a social conscience, Raï was influenced by the many cultures that have occupied Algeria, including gnawa — Islamic spiritual music from Morocco — flamenco and cabaret.
Democratoz’ music is a mix of reggae, rock and Raï influences. The groove and instrumentation are reminiscent of reggae, while the vocals have a more Eastern quality. The melodies are typically high in register and static in line, and their steady hemiolic rhythm provides a nice contrast to the swung beat of the drums.
Jaggery | Saturday, July 16; 6-6:45 p.m.; Tremont Tent
I don’t even know how to begin to describe Boston-based Jaggery. Frontwoman Singer Mali, who sings and plays keyboard, is joined by a rotating cast that includes upright bassist Tony Leva, Western African music and jazz influenced percussionist Daniel Schubmehl, violist Rachel Jayson and Celtic harpist Petaluma Vale. The percussion and bass set a jazzy, funky rhythm countered by Mali’s acute, driven lines on the keyboard. Her sharp but ethereal voice confidently lilts above it all. This is definitely a band worth taking the time to listen to.
Federator N°1 | Friday, July 15; 4:30-5:30 p.m.; Fountain Stage
Boston-based 12 piece Afro-dance band Federator N°1 has been playing in the area for years at venues like Paradise Rock Club, the Middle East and Johnny D’s. Band members have ties both to Boston and to various places around the globe. Hand percussionist Erich Ludwig studied in Mali and Guinea. Guitarist Steve Desrosiers and trumpetist Yaure Muniz are from Haiti and Cuba, respectively. And several of the band’s members have either taught or studied at Berklee. With a horn section, a small posse of percussionists and occasionally a pair of dancers on stage, Federator N°1 puts on a lively, energetic and dance-inspiring show. Check out some of their music here.
Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom: Guy Mendilow Ensemble | Saturday, July 16; 4:30-5:30 p.m.; Fountain Stage
Guy Mendilow says his ensemble’s performances are more a show than a concert. According to the group’s website, “Tales from the Forgotten Kingdom” has both a “narrative arc” and “cinematographic quality.” Mendilow calls the performance “a 21st century, global take on beautiful, old music and legends that come from communities in the Mediterranean and the Balkans. These are communities that by and large were destroyed in the second World War.”
Mendilow is a citizen of Israel, Great Britain and the United States and grew up in Jerusalem. There he learned to speak Ladino, a Romance language derived from Old Spanish spoken by Sephardic Jews. Mendilow tries to preserve the rich cultural history of this nearly extinct language through his music. A guitarist and singer who also plays the single-stringed Brazilian berimbau and throat sings, Mendilow is joined in the ensemble by an Argentinian female vocalist, a percussionist, a woodwind player and a violinist. They’ve performed at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport and are based in Boston and NYC.
Kana Dehara | Saturday, July 16; 2:30-3 p.m.; Tremont Tent
Now based in Boston, jazz pianist Kana Dehara grew up in Japan. She studied classical performance at KC College, then left Japan for the United States to study jazz at Berklee. You can hear both her classical upbringing and her passion for jazz in her lively original compositions, which exemplify jazz’s creativity and aesthetic (she most often pairs her piano with silky smooth electric bass and drums) as well as the contrapuntal qualities of Baroque and Classical Music, which can be seen in the introduction to “Burning Steps” below. There’s no mistaking it, Dehara is a whiz at the keys.
Herencia De Timbiquí | Friday, July 15; 8-9 p.m.; Fountain Stage
Hailing from Timbiquí, Cauca, Colombia, the band has been playing their hybrid of traditional Colombian and contemporary urban music since 2000. Their music of course has a lot of similarities to Afro-Cuban dance music, including a simple harmonic structure matched with complex polyrhythms. While the band has received numerous international awards, they do not have much of a following in the United States. Their distinctive instrument (for an American audience) is the marimba, similar to the glockenspiel. The group is incredibly tight; percussion, keys and guitar blend masterfully while the horns support the honey-like voice of Begner Vásquez.
The festival also features a number of dance performances and classes. Boston Ballet’s second company and ballroom dancers from Arthur Murray Dance Centers will both put on shows. Triveni School of Dance will perform classical Indian dances, and SambaViva, a Boston-based Brazilian samba ensemble, will also perform. For those of you interested in exploring your own dancing potential, Boston Swing Central is teaching a lesson and Latin Logic Band is leading a salsa class with Metamovements Dance Company.
Will Sullivan is an ARTery intern. He studies math and music and runs on the cross country and track and field teams at Swarthmore College.