Bill Bragin '89 on Creating Connections in the Music World
From bringing artists to Haverford to co-founding globalFEST, Bill Bragin '89 reflects on his experience creating connections and providing oppotunities for musicians.
Bill Bragin ’89 doesn’t have to think hard to connect his time at Haverford to his current profession. In his freshman year, he started putting together eclectic bills of live music for the Alt Concert Series, then co-ran it for the next three years and helped turn it into a Tri-College series. Now, he’s the co-founding director of globalFEST and executive artistic director of The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi.
Among the artists Bragin brought to Haverford were Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji and Jamaican reggae legends Toots & the Maytals, and he notes that the personal and professional connections he made by booking musicians such as singer and composer Toshi Reagon and Living Colour guitarist and songwriter Vernon Reid persist to this day.
“The essential dynamic of globalFEST—discovery, turning people on to music outside of their experience—is what I did at Haverford,” says Bragin, who is 53 and lives in Abu Dhabi. “I still work with some of the same artists I worked with then. It’s a direct lineage.”
Begun in a post-9/11 world of heightened political and economic barriers to cultural exchange, since 2004 globalFEST has been an evolving showcase for musicians around the world to find audiences that wouldn’t ordinarily come across acts such as Mauritanian vocalist and ardine player Noura Mint Seymali or Japanese folk-meets-cumbia band Minyo Crusaders.
The idea for globalFEST grew out of Bragin’s work in New York as director of the Joe’s Pub performance space at the Public Theater. He’d seen diverse audiences at Joe’s Pub and Central Park SummerStage react enthusiastically to music from outside of the Western mainstream. But when he attended the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) industry-only showcases, mostly held in hotel ballrooms, he saw that it was harder to replicate that audience enthusiasm in a room filled solely with bookers and other music professionals.
So Bragin and his co-producers took the model of APAP’s showcase and mixed in the energy of excited fans to demonstrate that this music was a solid business proposition. Each globalFEST presents multi-artist programs of international music to an audience of open-minded music fans and industry professionals. The result: Concert promoters who might not have backgrounds in global music “could see the impact on the audience and imagine it on their own stages,” says Bragin.“Our discourse was always about moving marginalized music to the center of the performing arts field. Now there are more venues and festivals that recognize the importance of artists from around the world singing in different languages.”
This year, globalFEST faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge: the near-total cessation of live music in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The festival found a solution in its years-long relationship with NPR’s All Songs Considered and the streaming Tiny Desk Concert series. Tiny Desk impresario Bob Boilen was a longtime globalFEST fan, so Bragin says, “We reached out to brainstorm, and it quickly turned into what we knew immediately was the right match,” In January, globalFEST was reimagined as a four-night series of online performances under the “Tiny Desk Meets globalFEST” banner.
While the streaming festival was born of adversity, it had some upsides. Artists from far-flung locales who couldn’t afford to travel to New York for a one-night gig were able to perform from home. “There was an intimacy in going into the artists’ homes instead of a club, and the ways artists presented their sets,” says Bragin. “If the goal is to provide insight into what they share and what’s distinct about their culture, this format did that in a way that was really specific.”
This year’s lineup was hosted by African vocalist Angélique Kidjo (who performed at the inaugural globalFEST) and featured four acts per night, including Italian singer Rachele Andrioli, eclectic Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha, and Native American blues and soul singer Martha Redbone.
The 16 performances by artists from more than a dozen countries, notes Bragin, did the job that live music is supposed to do: stirring emotions, creating connections, and eliciting joy. “It provided the sense of catharsis that people are missing in their lives.”