Music: We Are the World

Organizers of the first World Music Festival highlight the area's world class World music scene

Kimberly Nickoson

Liz Wu

Given the fact that World Music Festival organizers Zach Mechlem and Liz Wu are attempting to raise the profile of local World music artists with their first annual event, it seems fitting that our interview takes place in the international atmosphere of Cafe Istanbul at Newport on the Levee. Over tea, beer and baklava, with the strains of jazzy Pop as the soundtrack, Mechlem and Wu outline their plans for the WMF, noting that their inaugural festival had its genesis in a couple of previous attempts to launch something similar.

"The inspiration came from Worldjam 1999 and 2000, the only two years that it ran," says Mechlem. "Both years met with bad weather; the first year rained out in downtown Cincinnati, the second year was at Sawyer Point and it was like 40 degrees outside. My band, Mohenjo Daro, played both years. We stuck it out in the miserable cold to perform (the second year). After that, they said, 'No more.' As the years went by, it dawned on me that somebody needs to step up and recreate the World Music Festival in the tri-state."

Since both previous mid-October outdoor festivals were ultimately sabotaged by rain and cold, the first order of business was to find an indoor venue to eliminate inclement weather as a potential problem. With its multiple stages and casual ambiance, the Southgate House in Newport was the natural choice to host the festival, which will showcase a wide-ranging assortment of World genres, including Celtic, Middle Eastern, Afro-Beat, Reggae, Indian, Brazilian, Israeli Folk, Latin and Jazz.

"All indoors, all three floors, all three stages of the Southgate House," says Mechlem, clearly relieved at eliminating weather as a factor.

With more than a dozen local, regional and international artists lined up — including world renowned West African drum and dance outfit Sogbety Diomande — and a host of related events, perhaps the most amazing aspect of the WMF is the fact that Mechlem began the process of putting the festival together less than three months ago, an astonishingly brief amount of time to coordinate the details for a large event.

"We started having meetings mid- to late- summer," says Mechlem. "It kind of hurt us a little bit because not a lot of sponsors are obtainable this time of year because a lot of their budgets are already taken up with other non-profits."

With all of the standard logistical festival obstacles to sort out (advertising, marketing, volunteers, liability), the easiest part of the process seemed to be lining up the musical talent, which will include Made in Brasil, the Cincinnati Klezmer Project, Salsa Caliente, Mayan Ruins and the Healing System (for complete lineup and event details, visit

"The funding part was the only stressful aspect of it, but as far as getting the bands together, that was the simplest thing of all," says Mechlem. "Coordinating with them and getting the times right, I couldn't believe how quickly that came together. Everybody that I asked initially was able to participate; I think one person had to back out but someone else was on board to ask next. There's so much of that World music talent around that just speaks for itself. There are so many people on deck in this town that play World music, and it's just not presented as much as it should be. I want to get that World music collective going."

Mechlem and Wu, who are both graduates of the School of Creative and Performing Arts, are serving dual roles within the context of the World Music Festival, as they are not only the event's primary organizers but also among the evening's entertainment as well. Mechlem will be playing with his Middle Eastern Fusion outfit Mohenjo Daro, while Wu will be appearing with her World Fusion group, Acarya.

"I think one of the key points of this is that this is a project by musicians for musicians," says Wu. "The organizing committee is made up entirely of musicians with the idea of really promoting local talent and showcasing the variety of music that greater Cincinnati has to offer, and also bringing the community together to celebrate that."

In an effort to increase accessibility, World Music Fest tickets are an affordable $10 ("Pretty much as low as you can go for showcasing 13 bands in one night," notes Wu), and the food/drink vendors and art exhibit upstairs will all help to enhance the event's party atmosphere.

"This is pretty much a party with our World music friends, if you want to look at it that way," says Mechlem with a laugh. "A very elaborate party."

Another element of the World Music Fest is the VIP dinner at Newport's Mammoth Cafe two hours before the Southgate entertainment kicks off. The $50 VIP ticket includes an international buffet featuring a variety of ethnic cuisines from an array of local restaurants, pre-show entertainment by a Chinese ensemble featuring renowned pipa (Chinese lute) player Ming Ke, and admission to the Music Fest.

If there is a philosophy at the heart of the World Music Festival — the proceeds of which will benefit the Global Center of Cincinnati ( — it may well be that the unity of Greater Cincinnati's music community can make it possible to help bridge some of the divisions that have plagued the area's larger community in recent years.

"Greater Cincinnati is typically portrayed as having diversity issues, and problems within the different communities; racial problems and problems in understanding different cultures," says Wu. "Music is the universal language. It's what we can really all relate to, so it's beautiful when you get a group of folks representing all different types of cultures and backgrounds and traditions — including new original music based on traditional music — and bring that all together and make it accessible to the entire community.

"Whether or not our area has diversity issues, and whether or not people or our local government are doing something about it, in our opinion, musicians are stepping up and doing something about it. We are getting together and celebrating our differences and the things we hold in common. We're finding that people are really eager to be a part of this and the response to this has been overwhelmingly positive."

WORLD MUSIC FEST takes place Saturday on all three floors of the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.

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