Behind The Scenes At CRASHfest: How An All-Star World Music Festival Takes Shape

Rubblebucket (Courtesy of CRASHfest)
Rubblebucket (Courtesy of CRASHfest)

On Saturday, the House of Blues will be transformed. Becoming a multistage festival scene, the venue will be awash in color, lights, music and dancing.

The event is CRASHfest, World Music/CRASHarts’ third annual global music festival. The lineup of 10 acts, which starts at 5:30 p.m. and runs until midnight, ranges artists who embody CRASHarts’ mission of cultural exchange through live performance — genres include African desert blues, R&B with an intercultural twist and “new wave funky rock,” with bands performing from Zimbabwe, Niger and Morocco, among others. The full lineup is on the CRASHfest website.

“What I’m trying to do is create a collective experience among the 10 bands that are performing that will all have different genres and sounds,” says Maure Aronson, founder and executive director of World Music/CRASHarts. “The thing they all have in common is excellence.”

Founded in 1990, World Music/CRASHarts is a performing arts nonprofit presenting global music, jazz and contemporary dance. In addition to CRASHfest, the organization presents about 70 performances throughout the year, as well as educational programming and community events, and is always reaching for opportunities to share global cultures. The organization also sees CRASHfest as a good opportunity to reach a more millennial audience.

“Really what we do is cultural exchange … that hopefully leads to a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures,” says Aronson. “That’s essentially what we’ve been doing, that’s the core.”

One upcoming World Music/CRASHarts event emblematic of that exchange is Red Baraat Festival of Colors at The Sinclair. The show is a celebration of the Hindu holiday Holi and attendees are invited to mingle at an after-party. At another event in March, the Danzabierta Company from Cuba will teach a class for students at the Boston Arts Academy, in addition to performing at the ICA.

Zeshan B, a crooner based in Chicago and a CRASHfest artist, has given some thought to the cultural conversation in the music he will perform — he infuses American R&B with his Indian heritage, primarily performing in English but also working in Urdu and Punjabi languages.

"It's a blend of familiarity with something from another culture, vis-à-vis my experience growing up in a family of immigrants," says Zeshan. "You look at me and you're not going to expect someone who can sing the hell out of a soul tune ... and I think that's always a pleasant surprise for people." His set at CRASHfest starts at 8:35 p.m. on the main stage.

As with most nonprofits, World Music/CRASHarts' pursuit of its mission depends as much on finances as artistry. Its work is subsidized with grants — Aronson states that the caliber and number of artists that patrons of the shows have come to expect would not be possible without significant financial help.

“Exposing new and unfamiliar dance and music to Boston audiences requires a substantial amount of philanthropic support,” he says. CRASHfest, for instance, is funded in large part by The Wallace Foundation, and the larger World Music/CRASHarts organization receives funding from The Boston Foundation and Mass Cultural Council, among others.

Financial logistics also play a role in physically getting artists to perform. It is expensive to bring artists to the United States for a single performance, so for CRASHfest, the organization looks for groups that may already be touring here. It is also expensive for artists themselves to get visas, and the application process can yield unexpected costs.

“Sometimes an artist, if they’re living in a certain country where there is only one consulate, they have to travel over a thousand miles just for their interview,” says Aronson. And every so often a delay occurs because an artist shares a name with someone on a watch list.

“Normally, two weeks later it’s been cleared up, but the tour’s already been going on for two weeks,” says Aronson.

Another challenge World Music/CRASHarts works through is one faced by most Greater Boston performing arts organizations — venues. A problem across the city, Aronson explains there are simply not enough open venues for everyone. In the past this has led to cutting some of World Music/CRASHarts’ yearly programming.

“The city is trying to address it, but finding venues is really a challenge,” he says. “They’re just booked.” One possibility the city is looking into is the Seaport Square development. Noted in the Performing Arts Facilities Assessment Plan this past summer, the city sees potential here for the types of spaces that would meet Boston's artistic needs.

World Music/CRASHarts’ behind-the-scenes hustle is mirrored in the artists slated for CRASHfest on Saturday — Flor de Toloache, a Grammy-winning, all-female mariachi band from New York reminisced about when they started out and played on the subway.

“It’s a lot of hours before the show ever starts,” says Mireya Ramos, Flor de Toloache’s founder and co-director. Ramos is also a lead vocalist, and plays the group’s violin and guitarrón.

“Some of this is not the glamorous kind — it’s grinding and hard work,” says Shae Fiol, Ramos’ co-founder and director, and well as a lead vocalist and vihuela player.

“We’ve grinded all the way through to where we are now … and we still grind!” adds Ramos.

Other artists playing CRASHfest — including the festival's closer, Rubblebucket — note the years they have put into rehearsing and creating music so that performances at shows like CRASHfest can shine.

Aronson says most of the years’ shows fill to about three-quarters capacity. He notes it may be too early to tell with CRASHfest because it is only in its third year, but the excitement of the artists seems a good indicator.

“I’m so excited because I went to CRASHfest for two years in the audience,” says Carmen Marsico, singer and founding member of the Boston-based band Newpoli, performing at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Created in 2003, Newpoli plays what can be described as "Mediterranean fusion" — music from southern Italy (and original tracks) infused with North African and Middle Eastern influences. “I’m honored," says Marsico, "I can’t wait!”

World Music/CRASHarts' CRASHfest runs from 5:30 p.m. to midnight on Saturday, Feb. 24 at the House of Blues in Boston. See the full lineup on the CRASHfest website.

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Hannah Chanatry Producer, All Things Considered
Hannah Chanatry was a producer for WBUR's All Things Considered.



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