Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Mafrika Festival Review: The Superpowers, Pink Noise, the Brown Rice Family, Devi, Konny and Funkface at Marcus Garvey Park, NYC 6/1/08

It’s hard to recall a better outdoor music festival in New York in recent years than this one was. Forget Central Park Summerstage: not that the rent-a-pigs there would ever let you in anyway, in 2008. That Coney Island thing that the Village Voice does every summer? Snooze. Today’s all-day outdoor show at the bandshell in the northwest corner of Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem harkened back to the days of the old First Street festival about ten years ago, where you could sit on the sidewalk, surreptitiously drink beer and see one good band after another. For one reason or another, this one started late, with sets getting shorter as the day went on, the promoters obviously wanting to get everyone onstage and then off for the following band. This year, they really outdid themselves: six good, frequently brilliant bands in just under five hours, from time to time augmented by random rappers, dancers and even a fashion designer who paraded two of her models around the stage to considerable applause.

The Superpowers, an eight-piece reggae-jazz band with a four-piece horn section opened, auspiciously. They don’t sound much like Antibalas but they’re just as good. Best song title of the afternoon belonged to them: American Exceptionalism, the Reason Behind All Good Songwriting, or something to that effect (they were kidding, obviously). Often led by their organist or one of the sax players, they’d go off on a long exploring mission and then come back to a catchy, anthemic roots reggae chorus evocative of greats like Burning Spear. They could have gone on for twice as long as they did and nobody in the audience would have complained.

Next up were Israeli/American indie rock quartet Pink Noise. Like all the other half-million or so sons and daughters of Sonic Youth, they’re all about the guitars, and when they’d gotten both of them roaring and ringing with all kinds of eerie overtones, the effect was very captivating. When they’d go off on some dorky, herky-jerky math-rock tangent, it was vastly less so. They also could have done without any vocals or lyrics and been considerably better off for it. Memo to the frontwoman: when you sing “I’m so unattractive,” over and over again, that’s what you become.

The following act, a Coachella-style, sunny, cheery, Asian roots reggae band went by the name of the Brown Rice Family. Basmati, yes; jasmine, yes yes; Canadian wild rice, yes yes YES. But that awful glutinous stuff served in health food restaurants? Maybe where these guys come from, brown rice means something different than what it is over here. The world’s only reggae band with a ukulele (played by one of the two lead singers) likes happy uptempo tunes so fast that they’re almost ska. Otherwise, they don’t break any new ground. But that’s ok. It dread in a Babylon, music is the universal language, let’s all get up and dance, ad infinitum, we all know that. It never hurts to be reminded.

Psychedelic guitar-driven power trio Devi (whom both of the emcees onstage introduced incorrectly as “Devirock”) had their second chance in as many days to wrestle with an inadequate sound system. This time around they didn’t even get a linecheck, let alone a soundcheck: when they hit the stage, it was plug in and play. But frontwoman Debra DeSalvo knows a thing or two about DIY from her punk rock days with the False Prophets, and the rest of the crew followed her lead. And she finally got the lethargic crowd out of the shadows and paying attention. If the previous night’s set was the band’s attempt at being quiet, this was the party set: a searing, almost ten-minute When It Comes Down, an equally boisterous cover of Dell Shannon’s Runaway and eventually, after DeSalvo had to put up something of a fight to keep the band onstage for a final number, the potently catchy powerpop hit Howl at the Moon. Many of these songs will appear on the band’s debut cd due out this year, something to look forward to.

The festival’s organizers billed the next act, expat Burkina Faso roots reggae singer Koony as someone on the same level as Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy, a claim that seemed laughable. Believe the hype. Koony is that good, and so is his sensational band, his organist inducing more than a few smiles with some amusingly over-the-top Dr. Dre-style synth fills, his superb guitarist, rhythm section and percussionists laying down a groove that was a bulletproof as it was rubbery. Singing in French in a somewhat thin, raspy voice, he also proved to be an excellent lyricist. The high point of his set was the determined, defiant Sept Fois (a pun – it means both “seven times” and “this time” in French). If reggae is your thing, get to know this guy before it costs you $100 to see him at Madison Square Garden.

Funky uptown heavy metal band Funkface got all of three songs but made the most of them: it would have been nice to have heard more from them, which is a compliment. Their first song was totally riff-metal, but their two guitarists share a remarkable self-awareness and sense of humor (in metal, humor is often 99% of it). Their next one revealed them equally good at ska-punk; the last saw them bringing up a couple of enthusiastic gradeschool girls from the audience (someone in the band’s kids?) to get the crowd going on a call-and-response, and this finally got the massive to respond, massively. Their album is titled Your Politics Suck: no doubt the crowd would have been into it.

By now, the clouds that had obscured the sun for most of the afternoon were gone, and both sides of the bleachers, in the shade, were full. A trio of trendoids took the stage and took forever to set up, the guitarist apparently too effete to figure out how to work his guitar. And when the band, the Octagon, finally got going, it was with an attempt at a surf instrumental. For about five seconds, this seemed like a good thing but quickly proved that A) they have an excellent drummer and B) the guitarist doesn’t have a clue. After that, their silly, off-key falsetto vocals and clueless attempts at songwriting gave them away for what they are, imitators of some lame-ass, popular indie band or another: the Flaming Lips, maybe? It’s bands like this that drive the audience out of the house. It would have been nice to be able to stick around to hear the always entertaining, self-described “sonic slayers” Apollo Heights, but they’re on some label, they’re well-known and they’re playing Central Park in July. You probably know them already. Or maybe you will, someday.

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June 1, 2008 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Saving the Bonobos One Show at a Time

An interesting multimedia evening at Jivamukti Yoga Center off Union Square, sponsored by the somewhat Fortean, psychically-inclined Reality Sandwich magazine to benefit the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to ensuring the survival of the remarkably intelligent, socially evolved and notoriously horny bonobo ape in its lone natural habitat, the Congo Basin. Through a quirk of fate – one of the organization’s board members knew Congolese president Joseph Kabila in his student days – the cause has become one of Kabila’s pet projects. So far it has spearheaded the creation of several nature preserves in the bonobo’s native rainforest, along with agricultural programs to help increase the harvest for subsistence farmers and thereby help assure the safety of our bonobo relatives (98.6% of bonobo and human DNA is identical). Both laudable endeavors (although their concept of trying to help the natives wean themselves off subsistence hunting through microcredit is misdirected: with microcredit come micro debt collectors and microbankruptcy, just another way for the big banks to extend their greedy fingers even further down the food chain).

 

A slide show and presentation by a BCI staffer was followed by short, roughly half-hour sets by two bands. The first, Wynne Paris & Groovananda are an Indian-influenced jam band whose lyrics seem to be yoga chants. They have a good sax player, and also Tony Levin from Peter Gabriel’s band playing bass. Their best song was a long, chromatically-tinged homage to the Hindu goddess of music and wisdom.

 

Before her set, Debra DeSalvo, frontwoman and guitarist of headliners Devi seemed concerned that the sonics in the big, boomy, untreated room would not be conducive to a good show. She was right. “We’re, um, kind of a loud rock band,” she told the crowd, assuring everyone that they would try to keep the volume down. While a big, open, uninsulated yoga space may hardly be the ideal place for a scorching power trio like Devi, sometimes adversity brings out the best in a musician. Tonight DeSalvo, her bassist and drummer rose to the occasion and delivered a characteristically fascinating, often mesmerizing mini-set. One of the rock world’s most consistently interesting and often spectacularly good lead guitarists, DeSalvo took her game up a notch for this one, especially as she found herself hanging back a little. She’s the rare player who can shred with anyone, but she also doesn’t waste notes, tonight adding little patches of light with a slide, or an ebow, or just some tastily placed, terse blues licks. The band followed her, creating some playfully entertaining interplay and call-and-response with all three players juggling the fire expertly, particularly on the long, totally psychedelic When It Comes Down. They saved their best song, Welcome to the Boneyard, for last. As DeSalvo told the crowd, this gorgeously sad, crescendoing anthem is sung from the point of view of a 9/11 ghost whose body lies in pieces in the smoking hole at Ground Zero. The longing and ache in DeSalvo’s voice, soaring way up into her upper register at the end of the song, was literally chilling, her haunting guitar chords ringing out beneath, the rhythm section slowly pulsing their way to the end. Nice to see a good New York underground band bring a crowd out for a good cause.  

June 1, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | 1 Comment