Lucid Culture


Zikrayat at Gantry Plaza State Park, Long Island City, NY 8/19/08

Possibly the most incongruously situated show of the year, a Middle Eastern quartet playing often beautifully slinky bellydance music in the shadow of hastily constructed, third world style highrises (whose units sell for millions apiece), looking as if a healthy shove would be enough to send each of them tumbling into the river. Down below in the park, with violin, vocals, ney flute, percussion and an excellent multi-instrumentalist alternating between oud and accordion, Zikrayat had the crowd seated along the amphitheatre-like steps clapping along, rugrats included. They started their hourlong set with three Egyptian film songs before bringing the first of their two bellydancers up in front: to the womens’ immense credit, both managed to stay upright in their high heels while shimmying across the park’s flagstones, no small achievement. Meanwhile, the band ran through a rare 1930s Oum Kaltsoum song, on which the violinist tried in vain to get the crowd to improvise, Arab-style (they couldn’t get their voices around either the scale or his low baritone). They also played a rousing 70s Lebanese pop hit on the familiar theme of being broke but still trying to score with a woman, as well as an original featuring a long, impressive taqsim (improvisation) from the accordionist. They closed with the bellydancers prancing around to some rustically-flavored classical material, the violinist switching to an eerie Egyptian spike fiddle. Despite a refreshingly strong wind gusting in from the river, sometimes roaring into the microphones, the sound guy did an admirable job. This is the kind of show that tests the mettle of a band: if they can pull off something like this under less than ideal circumstances – and Zikrayat did – they ought to sound spectacularly good in a club later in the evening without a bunch of kids running around, squealing and drowning out the music.


The series here this year has been uncommonly good: both Peruvian jazz chanteuse Corina Bartra and Chinese pipa pioneer Min Xiao-Fen’s Blue Pipa Trio have played here. How unlikely could that be? As it turns out, shows at the park are booked by the Queens Council for the Arts, the same folks who brought us this year’s wonderful Latino Cultural Festival at the Queens Theatre in the Park, among other events. If next year is anything like this one, this will be a first-class afterwork concert destination.



August 19, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | 1 Comment

CD Review: Burning Spear – Jah Is Real

Roots reggae long ago took a backseat to dancehall, and relatively few of the musicians who still play it are Jamaican. In fact, it’s something of a miracle that Winston Rodney AKA Burning Spear is still alive at 63, long after so many of his contemporaries – Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Dennis Brown, Jacob Miller and others – died under tragic, often violent circumstances. It might also be something of a miracle that Burning Spear remains not only lucid (after all that ganja), but arguably still as vital and important as he was thirty years ago.


Throughout the decade of the 1970s, Burning Spear was one of the most popular artists in Jamaica, second only to Big Youth. While most reggae hits from whatever era you choose are party songs, Burning Spear’s work was always serious, defiant and historically aware. Like Peter Tosh, his signature songs mix frequently scathing social commentary with Rastafarian mysticism. Burning Spear’s musical style, however, is strikingly different from many of the best-known reggae acts of his era, characterized by long, hypnotic, even trancelike anthems that in a live setting can go on for ten or even twenty minutes while the band breaks them down into spacey, echoey dub. While he’s been writing, arranging and producing for himself for decades, this is his debut on his own record label, Burning Music. It’s also his best studio album in a long, long time.


Unlike much of today’s reggae, this album has rich, 1970s production values, layering clinking guitar, bubbling organ, bright horns and backup singers over a fat, bass-heavy groove. Grandfather, a cautionary tale, traces the history of slavery around the world and warns that “slavery coming back again.” On the catchy No Compromise, Burning Spear announces that “My music eye opener music…hail to the one who never look back in the race.” With its Afrobeat guitar feel, One Africa is a fervent, Marcus Garvey-style call for unity. People in High Places calls for accountability from politicians; Run for Your Life snidely chronicles Burning Spear’s entanglements with the record industry, and how it’s imploded in recent years: “Distribution is so desperate…without the artist there is no company…Upcoming artists should take a stand, get some understanding before you sign.”


Clocking in at over eight minutes long, Step It is one of the amusingly interminable list songs that Burning Spear writes every so often. This one chronicles his travels around the world, namechecking just about every city he’s ever played, obviously tailor-made to be a live showstopper with a long instrumental break that threatens to turn into dub but never does. Stick to the Plan is a call to musicians to stay independent and original: “Remember reggae music never used to play on the radio…trying to roadblock us because we so original.” There’s a happy account of an outdoor reggae festival and another happy tale, this one about a reggae cruise, along with more bitterness returns on Wickedness, another tirade against the music industry: “Since 1969 they’ve been robbing, they’ve been holding onto what is mine,” Burning Spear laments. It has the ring of authenticity: innumerable musicians from the 1970s, not just reggae performers, have successfully sued for royalties they were never paid. The cd’s high point is You Were Wrong, a caustic, minor-key anthem with the same feel of Burning Spear classics like Door Peep or Cry Blood. Any way you look at it, this ranks with the best of his studio albums, including the classic Marcus Garvey, or Hail H.I.M, recorded with the Wailers. Longtime fans will find this a delightful throwback; otherwise, this is as good an introduction as any to one of the world’s greatest reggae artists. Burning Spear plays Irving Plaza on August 31 around 10 PM, advance tix highly recommended at the box office.

August 19, 2008 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments