The most striking group at Globalfest 2008 — the five-hour, 12-band showcase of world music on Sunday night at Webster Hall — was the one that traveled lightest: Lo Còr de la Plana, from Marseilles, France. It was six male singers, four of whom also played hand drums and tambourine. They sang in a disappearing language, Occitan, and in an old style that once was church music. They performed traditional and traditionalist songs that took pride in what the group’s lead singer, Manu Theron, cheerfully called “filthy Marseilles.”
And with just those voices and percussion, they did remarkable things. They sang rich chordal harmonies and joyfully ricocheting counterpoint. There were drones and dissonances akin to Eastern European music, sustained solo vocal lines related to Arabic music and Gregorian chant, and percussive call-and-response hinting at Africa — all the connections of a Mediterranean hub. The music was equally robust and intricate, a local sound ready for export.
That’s the undercurrent of Globalfest, which runs during the annual conference of the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and doubles as an audition. Globalfest revels in the vague (or open-ended) term “world music” as it mixes local and national styles with international hybrids.
There was local pride from Puerto Plata, an 84-year-old Dominican guitarist turned singer. He holds on to vintage styles that were overpowered by modern merengue. Puerto Plata sang elegant Dominican sones and boleros in a timeworn but still courtly voice, while Pablo Rosario sent quick, staccato guitar lines darting around the melodies. When Puerto Plata wasn’t singing, he demonstrated some dance steps.
Chango Spasiuk — an Argentine who has dedicated himself to chamamé, a style from northeastern Argentina — had his guitarist, Sebastián Villalba, singing about “the pride of my region.” Mr. Spasiuk’s version of chamamé slightly dresses up the old rural dance tunes, with chamber-music-tinged arrangements that use sighing violin lines and delicate accordion voicings, along the lines of what the towering Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla did with tango. But Mr. Spasiuk also preserves the music’s six-beat bounce and vitality, with passages that huff and scurry the length of his keyboard.
Another local style — the Senegalese funk called mbalax — arrived with the singer Fallou Dieng, a protégé of the Senegalese superstar Youssou N’Dour. Mr. Dieng’s band, Le DLC, could rival his mentor’s band with its cantering, skittering grooves and neatly placed hooks.
Traditionalism and spectacle merged in Dulsori, a South Korean group whose name means “wild beat.” The group played huge drums placed overhead, along with flutes and a kotolike zither. They set up deep, pounding rhythms derived from outdoor farmers’ festivals that could probably be heard in the next village. But Dulsori had modern show-business touches, too. Its singers cued audience participation like pop stars, gesturing with wireless microphones. At one point the melody on a double-reed instrument turned into the “Olé, Olé” sports cheer.
Some of the hybrids were just as spunky. Vinicio Capossela — a playful, raspy-voiced Italian songwriter whose visionary cabaret style draws on all sorts of music — had a different mask (including Medusa), jacket and hat for nearly every song, and one of his arrangements mingled toy piano, theremin, banjo and melodica. Samarabalouf was a nimble French trio — two guitars and bass — that breezed through tunes hinting at Hot Club swing, Arabic melodies and rockabilly, making as many droll faces as possible as they played.
Nation Beat, from exotic Brooklyn, uses the maracatu beat and rabeca fiddle of northeastern Brazil, and it has a Brazilian singer, Liliana Araújo. But the band also tosses in New Orleans second-line rhythms and bluesy slide guitar.
The other American bands were less consistent. Crooked Still, a Boston band with mountain-music roots, a cellist and a breathy-voiced singer, was best when it stayed closest to eerie old fiddle tunes. Pistolera, from New York City, played accordion-pumped Mexican-style polkas and rancheras with a female perspective, but it needed more dance-floor drive. Accordion was the Hungarian element in Little Cow, a frisky band from Budapest whose songs suggest that Jamaica ska, or its new-wave revival, has just reached Eastern Europe.
Finally, there was Toumast, led by a Tuareg guitarist from Niger, Moussa Ag Keyna, who came to Paris after being wounded in battle. The Tuaregs, whose separatist rebellion was defeated by Mali and Niger, developed music that merges modal African riffs with stark electric-guitar rock. Aminatou Goumar, who usually shares lead vocals, was unable to appear, leaving Mr. Ag Keyna to lead what sounded like a power trio plus a percussionist (playing hand drums and metal castanets). The songs — about the rebels and expatriate sorrows — revolve around Mr. Ag Keyna’s high voice, starkly hypnotic riffs and snaky lead lines, working up to a trancelike momentum. They don’t need to be heard as world music. With the right bookings, Toumast could be a sensation on the stoner-rock circuit.