Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Trouble in Tribeca, 2011 Style: Sanda Weigl, Razia and Very Be Careful in Concert

It’s about fifteen minutes on foot from Tribeca to the West Village. After the first few times, those fifteen minutes turn into twenty. At which point it’s probably time to call it a night. We made the hike between the 92YTribeca and Bleecker Street more than a few times Friday night and still managed to catch a lot of the first night of Winter Jazzfest as well as the high points of booking agency Trouble Worldwide’s annual showcase further downtown. This marks our third consecutive year at their annual shindig. Why? Because their acts are so consistently good. The most entertaining one of the night, surprisingly, turned out to be the first. Seeing Romanian gypsy singer Sanda Weigl backed by an all-Japanese band might seem incongruous, but until the last artists and musicians here are displaced by hedge fund traders and their “luxury” condos, sights like that will still resonate as New York moments. Weigl is tiny, Edith Piaf-sized, with a similar contralto that if anything is just as subtle: she worked the corners of the songs, holding back until she really needed to hammer a point home, and then she’d cut loose. Her band was phenomenal. Whether prowling the upper registers of the piano with a menacing gleam, hammering out perfect, lightning-fast Balkan horn lines on the keys or supplying eerie washes of accordion, Shoko Nagai stole the show. Five-string acoustic bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi played fluid, melodic lines in the style of a great lead guitarist when he wasn’t gently but forcefully hammering out a rhythm of his own, while percussionist Satoshi Takeishi pulled a surprising amount of rattle and whoosh out of the woodblocks and single, big crash cymbal he’d set up on the floor.

With a wink in her eye, Weigl would begin each song with a brief explanation of what the Romanian lyrics meant. “You liked me when I was young, but now I’m old, I’m a pain in the neck,” she explained over Nagai’s horror-movie cascades. The madness of the music made a delicious contrast with the steely, often stoic intensity of Weigl’s vocals. One of the early numbers in the set sounded like a cocek dance; a lost-love lament (one of several, it seems) had more of a Weimar blues/noir cabaret feel. The rest of the set included another Balkan dance, the tale of a woman who loves her children so much that she leaves her Prince Charming and returns to an abusive husband, and a song whose protagonist thinks that the ideal death would be during sex. After less than forty minutes, the band was yanked offstage: the crowd wanted more but didn’t get it.

Malagasy-American chanteuse Razia was as subtle as Weigl and her band were dramatic, and was every bit as compelling. Backed by an incisive, terse acoustic guitarist and a tight rhythm section, drawing deeply from her excellent new album Zebu Nation (just out on Cumbancha), she ran through a similarly abbreviated set. Her voice has a gentle, reassuring resilience, perhaps unsurprising coming from a woman whose musical journey led her from her native Madagascar, to Paris, and ultimately to New York where she assembled this band. A couple of the songs circled with trancelike polyrhythms that lent an Afrobeat feel. Another built to surprising intensity, anchored by a series of increasingly busy bass riffs. An attempt to start an audience clapalong with those polyrhythms met with mixed results: her own crowd was game, but the rest of the room was rhythmically challenged. They wound up the set with an undulating dance tune based on a hypnotic two-chord vamp.

After a break for jazz a few blocks north and then back, it was time for Very Be Careful, who are sort of the Colombian Gogol Bordello. When they were based in Brooklyn, they were notorious for raucous rooftop parties, so seeing them in such genteel surroundings was a bit of a shock, albeit a sort of heartwarming one, especially for a band whose crazed live album is titled Horrible Club. This set featured a lot of material from their latest one Escape Room, among them a couple of hypnotic classics from the 1960s along with the bouncy cumbia La Abeja (The Bee) and the acidically swirling La Alergia (Allergies, a song written by the band along with Deicy Guzman, mom to accordionist Ricardo Guzman and his brother Arturo, who got a tastily booming, slinky pulse out of his shortscale Danelectro reissue bass all night long). It would be nice to be able to say that they got the whole crowd swaying, but the truth is that they basically separated the kids from the oldsters. The younger people, for whom cumbia is what reggae was to the generation before them, moved toward the stage; the older crowd hung back, seemingly oblivious.

Sharply dressed bell player Dante Ruiz took a couple of stabs at seeing how much energy he could wring out of a room which by now had been on their feet for several hours and seemed to be feeling it, then backed away and concentrated on the band’s hypnotic sway and clatter. In a sense, it was as surreal as watching the Pogues on the BBC: if there was any time to be randomly making out with someone, this was it, but nobody went for it.

January 13, 2011 Posted by | concert, folk music, gypsy music, latin music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Alma Afrobeat Ensemble’s New Toubab Soul Gets the Party Started

The album title is sardonic – “toubab” is slang for “caucasian” in several African dialects. But Alma Afrobeat Ensemble are yet another illustration of how good musicians can rise the challenge of playing a style of music they didn’t grow up with just as joyously and danceably as those who’ve been immersed in it since day one. This new cd, Toubab Soul, is an expansive, hypnotic blend of funk, Afrobeat and Ethiopian grooves with the occasional hip-hop or reggaeton interlude. There are all kinds of shifts in dynamics and tempos from song to song: some of the tracks here spin energetically; others have a gentler sway. And it isn’t just secondhand Fela, either: as much as the group obviously admire him, they’re taking Afrobeat to some exciting new places. This is the second edition of the band, founded after frontman/guitarist Aaron Feder picked up and left his native Chicago for Barcelona, now featuring Joseph Adzraku and Tato Sassone on percussion, Fernando Redondo on bass, Audn Waage on trumpet, Gonzalo Levin on saxes, Octavio Hernandez on guitars and Oscar Bayester on keys.

The opening track, Taskmaster, is a command to get out on the dancefloor, a fluid Ethiopian/funk fusion with blippy horns, propulsive bass and swirling, somewhat sinister organ. They follow that with the bubbly Live Na Yeye with its muted wah guitar, crescendoing tenor sax and then a reggaeton interlude. The next track, Mali, is Pink Floyd’s Money in a very clever red, gold and green disguise, right down to its David Gilmour-inflected bluesfunk guitar followed by a delightfully balmy tenor solo that casually blows the original to smithereens.

New School starts out biting and funky and then goes hypnotic with Rhodes electric piano, growling sax and a brief rap segment, in French. Swaying with catchy call-and-response horns, Kudja switches up midway through, taking the vibe low and mellow. They pick up the pace again with the most overtly Fela-influenced number here, Yoruba, fast and insistently shuffling, then follow it with Own World which starts out with eerily echoey Rhodes piano over a Peter Tosh flavored groove but grows warmer with long, upbeat sax and trumpet solos. Shameless spins a potently dark minor-key horn riff over a scurrying bounce; this is the track you’ll be humming to yourself all the way home if you see them live. They close with the gorgeous South Africa, evoking the Skatalites with its rocksteady pulse and vividly soulful trumpet/sax interplay, followed by a surprisingly laid-back, thoughtful cover of Wallias Band’s iconic, brooding Ethiopian dance classic Muziqawi Silt. Plainly and simply, this is one of the best world music albums – and one of the best dance albums – released this year.

December 3, 2010 Posted by | funk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Razia – Zebu Nation

Malagasy songwriter/chanteuse Razia Said is on a mission: to raise consciousness worldwide about global warming, specifically the devastation it’s brought to her native land. The zebu of the album title – a member of the horse family – is only one of thousands of species in Madagascar who are in danger of extinction. An extraordinarily successful blend of polemic and music, this is a lush, hypnotic, frequently beautiful album, grounded in reality but at the same time transcending it. Said sings in several dialects, as well as one song in English, with a compellingly world-weary, highly nuanced voice that’s been compared to Sade but gentler and airier. On several of the tracks here, the somewhat more energetic but less subtle singer Abena Koomson handles the vocals, along with the rest of a first-rate band: noted jazz drummer Obed Calvaire, bassist Michael Oletuja, Malagasy guitarist Dozzy Njava and accordionist Rabesiaka Jean Medicis. Said’s songwriting mixes traditional tsapiky and salegy music along with elements of American soul and Mediterranean balladry.

Said’s story is something of a triumph: growing up in the Comores Islands with her grandmother, she never knew who her real mother was until she was already in grade school. Her first exposure to music was the salegy songs of the Comores; while still a gradeschooler, she began singing French pop hits and then rock. She moved to Gabon and then France, earned a doctorate in pharmacology and eventually landed in New York where she flirted with several pop styles, unsatisfyingly. This is a return to her roots. The album kicks off with the clip-clop Babonao, a love song (available for free download from Cumbancha), followed by the absolutely gorgeous, wary minor-key ballad Omama, a tribute to motherhood. The band follows that with a lickety-split antiwar song and then the celebratory Salamalama Aby. The best song on the album is the understatedly magnificent epic NY Alantsika (Nature Laments), the first of the numbers sung by Said herself: with its stately 6/8 rhythm and lush atmospherics, it’s a call to action, a gently, compellingly persuasive one.

The hypnotic Slash and Burn takes on a south Indian feel with its circular rhythms and sitar, another gentle but insistent broadside, this one about deforestation: “I heard that the hills were burned away,” muses Said. Koomson and Njava join voices on the distantly melancholy Tsy Tara: “It’s not a malediction, but an urgent call; let’s react now so we won’t regret,” is the translation in the album’s meticulously detailed liner notes. The album winds up with a gentle acoustic guitar ballad, a requiem for an area that once was not a desert; the most Sade-esque number here, Tiaka Ro, a plea to the earth not to unleash disasters on us, and the slinky, West African-inflected wah-guitar anthem Mifohaza (Wake Up). The Clash used to make relevant, topical albums like this: Zebu Nation is considerably quieter but no less timely and important.

July 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment