Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Afghan Youth Orchestra Shifts the Paradigm at Carnegie Hall

With a nod and a grin to Astor Piazzolla and Ravi Shankar, last night the Afghan Youth Orchestra mixed and mingled canonical western classics with material from their native land which, evidenced by the thunderous response from the expat contingent of what appeared to be a sold-out Carnegie Hall crowd, is equally iconic where they come from. The highlight of their US debut was William Harvey’s mashup of Vivaldi with traditional Afghani themes. As he did throughout the concert, Harvey conducted his jaunty, irresistibly iconoclastic arangement, The Four Seasons of Afghanistan, from memory. Any untightness – this was a student performance, after all – was rendered meaningless by the sheer fun the ensemble had with it. Voicing the opening parts of the suite in turn on rubab and tanbur lutes and ghichak fiddle added both surrealism and humor, balanced by alternately rousing and rapt Afghani folk interludes, most of them brief and succinct with the exception of an interminable sitar improvisation midway through. A buzz of excitement was in the air: who was going to get the next introduction or carry the next famous motif? Trumpeter James Herzog wowed the crowd by unleashing a long, sustained pedal note via circular breathing; percussionist Norma Ferreira spun perfect cut-glass ripples from her xylophone, getting some of the juiciest passages. And the sight of young Afghani women onstage playing instruments, their faces unveiled, was even more delightfully radical than the music.

It wasn’t long ago that what they were doing here would have earned them a death sentence back home (and to be truthful, still might in more backwater areas). But to see how far the Kabul-based Afghan National Institute of Music’s showcase group has come in the years since the organization’s revival in 2001, following years of inactivity and Taliban persecution, was heartwarming to the extreme. Pianist Said Elham Fanous teamed up with violinist Mikail Simonyan for an almost nonchalantly fluid, unselfconsciously haunting take of a Chopin nocturne. A litte bit later, the whole ensemble, joined by members of the Scarsdale High School Orchestra, romped through the Ravel Bolero, lutes and native fiddles and sitar and sarod joining in the fun just as with the Vivaldi as Harvey took it higher and higher.

Pioneering third-stream Afghani composer Salim Sarmast’s arrangement of the catchy, pulsing folk song Shakoko Jan, which served as both closer and encore, was one example of how ably this group and its leaders – including Ahmad Sarmast, the composer’s son – are able to merge traditions which differ in virtually all aspects including the scales employed by the instruments. The concert’s pensively anthemic opening theme – another Salim Sarmast chart – quickly established a visceral sense of teamwork and camaraderie among the ensemble. There were also brief interludes of folk themes, including a mini-raga highlighting sitar and sarod. Other instances revealed the interpolation of non-western modes to be a work in progress. As the arabesques built toward the conclusion of the Bolero, this worked like a charm. There were also places where the overtones of the sitars or the microtones of the ghichaks contrasted jarringly against western intervals. Sometimes it seemed to be intentional, a hair-raisingly effective device; elsewhere, it just sounded out of tune. Anyone who’s tried to bridge the gap between two dissimilar musical cultures has to grapple with the often minute distinction between paradigm shift and pitfall. This concert revealed this talented young ensemble to be as well-suited to such a challenge as anyone could possibly want.

February 13, 2013 Posted by | classical music, concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan: Great Album and Important Historical Document

The recently released Rough Guide to the Music of Afghanistan is as important historically as it is fascinating. Let’s not forget the “ban” in Taliban – during their official reign (many parts of Afghanistan are still de facto Taliban territory), music was outlawed. And even prior to the Taliban takeover, Afghan musicians who challenged previous regimes often paid with their lives, as in the case of balladeer Ahmad Zahir – represented here by a hypnotic, orchestrated, somewhat lo-fi hit – murdered at the peak of his popularity at age 33. Also included here is Setara Hussainzada, a finalist from the popular tv program Afghan Star (the Afghani equivalent of American Idol), driven into hiding after a wardrobe malfunction (her burqa slipped, revealing her face). Her contribution is a brief, somewhat woozy Bollywood-ish dance-pop number.

Although sarinda fiddle player Mashinai’s life was spared, his son’s was not. His child murdered and his house blown up, Mashinai was forced to give up playing and worked as a butcher at a local open-air market until music returned to the Afghan airwaves in 2001. Here he turns in a bracing fiddle-and-tabla instrumental. Perennial Afghan chanteuse favorite Mahwash contributes the collection’s best song, the furtively majestic Mola Mamad Djan, which with its intense dambura lute solo and insistent vocals reminds how deeply the levantine art songs of Oum Kalthoum and Fairouz had penetrated the Islamic world. The levantine mood recurs with a towering instrumental by the late rubab (lute) virtuoso Ustad Rahim Khushnawaz, accompanied by damburist Gada Mohammad and percussionist Azim Hassanpur, and on an understatedly lush ballad by female singer Naghma, Lebanese pop teleported to Kabul.

Of the other tracks here, rubab player Homayun Sakhi has a catchy, hypnotic instrumental punctuated by some genuinely breathtaking tremolo-picking. Damburist Mehri Maftun delivers a trickily polyrhythmic live performance, the crowd clapping along happily (which makes sense, given how long Afghanis went without the opportunity to do that). 20-year-old Rafi Naabzada (the 2009 Afghan Star winner), accompanied here by multi-instrumentalist Hameed Sakhizada has a deliciously tuneful, psychedelic pop song that sounds like a Central Asian Chicha Libre. Farhad Darya has two versions of the same song, a plea for peace: one a crunchy 2/4 rock number that gives shout-outs to cities around the world (in English), the other with more of a Bollywood dance-pop flavor. There’s also a long, trance-inducing traditional number from the Ahmad Sham Sufi Qawwali Group, who are included on a full-length bonus cd of similarly soaring, hypnotic devotional songs and instrumentals. The album is out now from World Music Network; those who like this may also enjoy the recently updated Rough Guide to the Music of India.

January 6, 2011 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Tribecastan – 5 Star Cave

Imagine if your favorite world music band made a straight-up rock record. It would probably have some interesting rhythms – American beats are not the world’s most exciting – and probably fewer chord changes, considering that changing keys doesn’t happen very often, or at all, once you get past the Gulf of Suez. Tribecastan’s new cd 5 Star Cave could easily be that album. Their first album Strange Cousin, from last year, will probably prove to be a cult classic, a dizzying range of styles from around the world (with distinct Balkan/Asian overtones) played on a museum’s worth of stringed and wind instruments. This is the instruments from that same museum being used for rock instrumentals. As before, multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene are joined by a like-minded, devious cast: Mike Duclos on upright and electric bass; world beat mastermind Todd Isler on a small army of percussion instruments, with cameos by Charlie Burnham on violin, Al Kooper on organ and guitar, Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas on vocalese and Steve Turre on trombone and shells, to name a few. If there’s one band they resemble – not that such a richly diverse band could ever be approximated anywhere else – it’s similarly devious, more Balkan-and-blues-minded New York band Hazmat Modine.

If the fictional, tongue-in-cheek republic (principality?) of Tribecastan really existed, it would be the last stop on the Silk Road. As much as the crew here appropriate a ridiculous variety of traditional global styles, this is an indelibly New York album – a fearless, sometimes gruff, sometimes completely punk rock sense of humor pervades a lot of these songs, whether the silly, “surf sarod” shuffle of the Violent Femmes ripoff that opens the album, the acoustic wah funk of Ghetto Garbo, the tongue-in-cheek Afrobeat blues of From Bamako to Malibu, a showcase for Turre to jump into and be as funny as the rest of the crew, or the shamelessly psychedelic faux gamelan soundscape He Hears the Ants. There’s also a calypso number, several adventures into funk and blues, and a boogie driven by slide mandolin and a forest of acoustic fretted instruments like something Roy Wood might have done in 1970 if he’d had an even greater attention span.

Yet as with their first album, it’s the darker material that really stands out. Starry Stari Grad and Hemlock Falls are arrestingly sad waltzes with Greek/Macedonian overtones. Bachir’s Blues (a reference, no doubt, to their joujouka pal Bachir Attar) has Kruth playing saz, Greene on boomy yayli tambur lute and even some Jew’s harp – the original wah-wah instrument. And the lone cover here is a darkly rustic Afghan traditional song, Kabul Hill. Tribecastan plays the cd release for this one at Joe’s Pub on May 8 at 8:30 PM with the whole cast of characters, celebrities included. Let’s hope the Tribecastan Concert Bureau has a big WWII-surplus 6X6 truck to get all those instruments to the club and then back home across the border in one piece.

May 7, 2010 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment