Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Gyan Riley and Chicha Libre at the New York Guitar Festival 2/4/10

Last night’s theme was film scores. The New York Guitar Festival is more avant garde than rock (WNYC’s John Schaefer emceed) – this particular Merkin Hall bill started out intensely and virtuosically with a rare artist who’s every bit as good as his famous father (Gyan Riley is the son of avant titan Terry Riley), then got more mainstream with an emotionally rich, frequently very amusing pair of Chaplin soundtracks just completed by Chicha Libre.

Composers have been doing new scores for old silent films for decades (some of the most intriguing recent ones include Phillip Johnston’s improvisations for Page of Madness, and the Trakwerx soundtracks for Tarzan and a delicious DVD of Melies shorts). Riley chose to add sound to a series of brief paint-on-celluloid creations by Harry Smith (yup, the anthology guy), which came across as primitive if technically innovative stoner psychedelia. Ostensibly Smith’s soundtrack of choice had been Dizzie Gillespie; later, his wife suggested the Beatles. Playing solo, Riley opened with his best piece of the night, an unabashedly anguished, reverb-drenched tableau built on vivid Steve Ulrich-esque chromatics. From there, Riley impressed with a diverse mix of ambient Frippertronic-style sonics along with some searing bluesy rock crescendos evoking both Jeff Beck aggression and towering David Gilmour angst. Most of the time, Riley would be looping his licks with split-second precision so they’d echo somewhere in the background while he’d be adding yet another texture or harmony, often bending notes Jim Campilongo style with his fretboard rather than with his fingers or a whammy bar.

With their psychedelic Peruvian cumbias, Chicha Libre might seem the least likely fit for a Chaplin film. But like its closest relative, surf music, chicha (the intoxicating early 70s Peruvian blend of latin, surf and 60s American psychedelia) can be silly one moment, poignant and even haunting the next. Olivier Conan, the band’s frontman and cuatro player remarked pointedly before the show how much Chaplin’s populism echoed in their music, a point that resonated powerfully throughout the two fascinating suites they’d written for Payday (1922) and The Idle Class (1921). The Payday score was the more diverse of the two, a series of reverberating, infectiously catchy miniatures in the same vein as Manfred Hubler’s Vampyros Lesbos soundtrack as well as the woozily careening Electric Prunes classic Mass in F Minor. While Chicha Libre’s lead instrument is Josh Camp’s eerie, vintage Hohner Electrovox organ, as befits a guitar festival, Telecaster player Vincent Douglas got several extended solo passages to show off his command of just about every twangy noir guitar style ever invented, from spaghetti western to New York soundtrack noir to southwestern gothic. When the time came, Camp was there with his typical swirling attack, often using a wah pedal for even more of a psychedelic effect. The band followed the film to a split-second with the occasional crash from the percussionists, right through the triumphant conclusion where Chaplin manages to sidestep his suspicious wife with her ever-present rolling pin and escape with at least a little of what he’d earned on a hilariously slapstick construction site.

The Idle Class, a similarly redemptive film, was given two alternating themes, the first being the most traditionally cinematic of the night, the second eerily bouncing from minor to major and back again with echoes of the Simpsons theme (which the show’s producers just hired Chicha Libre to record last month for the cartoon’s 25th anniversary episode). Chaplin plays the roles of both the rich guy (happy movie theme) and the tramp (spooky minor) in the film, and since there’s less bouncing from set to set in this one the band got the chance to vamp out and judiciously add or subtract an idea or texture or two for a few minutes at a clip and the result was mesmerizing. It was also very funny when it had to be. Bits and pieces of vaguely familiar tunes flashed across the screen: a schlocky pop song from the 80s; a classical theme (Ravel?); finally, an earlier Chicha Libre original (a reworking of a Vivaldi theme, actually), Primavera en la Selva. They built it up triumphantly at the end to wind up in a blaze of shimmering, clanging psychedelic glory where Chaplin’s tramp finally gets to give the rich guy’s sinisterly hulking father a swift kick in the pants. The crowd of what seemed older, jaded new-music types roared their approval: the buzz was still in the air as they exited. Chicha may be dance music (and stoner music), but Chicha Libre definitely have a future in film scores if they want it.

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February 5, 2010 Posted by | concert, Film, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula

‘Even if there is a war going on and it is difficult to travel, a griot, with his ngoni slung around his back, was always allowed through, because it was known that he was going to play for a leader, and perhaps act as an intermediary for political negotiations,” remarked Bassekou Kouyate recently. Where he comes from, music has a few more more important functions than mere entertainment. The Malian bandleader’s axe of choice is the ngoni, a stringed instrument commonly referred to as the ancestor of the banjo with a similar clanking tone, rapid attack and decay. He gets major props in his native land for resurrecting the instrument from obscurity, adding both new techniques as well as western influences and modern electronic guitar effects. It’s not known if he’s ever been pressed into duty as a negotiator between warring factions. On US tour with Bela Fleck starting this month promoting their somewhat defiant new album I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba have come to conquer.

This is urban Malian music: spiky, circular and hypnotic in the indigenous folk tradition, but packed with imaginative licks and production touches that reveal how diverse Kouyate’s influences are, from fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure to Hendrix. It’s a mix of originals as well as new arrangements of historical ballads from over the years. What Tinariwen has done for the Tuaregs, these guys could do for what’s coming out of the cool kids’ ghetto blasters on the streets of Bamako – this stuff absolutely rocks.

The cd opens energetically with boisterous, spiraling ngoni and kora (West African harp)- throughout the album, interplay, much of it absolutely psychedelic, abounds. The first of the two most extraordinary tracks here is a tribute to Kouyate’s brother – who died while the album was being recorded – with Kouyate and Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure playing dizzying wah-wah clusters around each other. The other, Ladon, is a feast of scurrying blues runs, Kouyate showing off his bag of tricks with a big rapidfire crescendo of blues licks that could be American, or not. The band builds this to an unexpectedly explosive coda at the end: acoustic Malian heavy metal.

The closest thing to rock here is the impressively feminist Musow, fast and flurrying with wah-wah ngoni, building up to the end of the verse with a neat three-chord sequence, along with a big 6/8 ballad that could be British or Appalachian except for the language, Kouyate coming in hard against Vieux Farka Toure’s pensive, spacious guitar, nudging the guitarist to elevate his game. There’s also a swaying number that incorporates what sound like elements of both delta and Piedmont blues (or maybe not – this is where all that stuff originated, anyway), a dedication to Kouyate’s wife and bandmate/singer Amy with an intense, hypnotic jam between ngoni and Zoumana Tereta’s fiddle, and the pensive Moustafa, where the ngoni sounds almost like a vibraphone. Definitely the most exciting thing to come out of Africa since Tinariwen’s latest, last year. The album, believe it or not, is out on Sub Pop (the folks who brought you Nirvana).

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 2/5/10

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song is #174:

Gil Scott-Heron – We Almost Lost Detroit

Based on the John G. Fuller expose, this is an understated, haunting look at a narrowly averted nuclear disaster that almost took out a major American city. Now there are actually global warming activists who support the use of nuclear power. How quickly we forget – can anybody say “Chernobyl?” From the South Africa to South Carolina album, 1975; there’s also an even tastier live version on the No Nukes concert anthology.

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Lists - Best of 2008 etc., Literature, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment