Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Elikeh’s Afrobeat Makes an Unbeatable Party Soundtrack

Washington, DC-based Afrobeat band Elikeh’s album Adje! Adje! landed on a lot of best-of-2010 lists at the end of last year for a good reason: it’s a phenomenal party album. This isn’t fratboy music, and it’s about as far from Vampire Weekend as you can possibly get: it’s the real thing, a mix of Fela-inspired, 1970s style Afro-funk with Ethiopian tinges, traditional Togolese sounds, a defiantly smart lyrical sensibility and a groove that’s every bit as infectious as it should be. There isn’t a single song on here that’s not catchy. The lead guitar, in particular, is excellent, whether burning through bluesmetal on the resolutely anti-imperialist title track that opens the album, delivering swaying funk or judiciously incisive blues lines. Add spicy horns and hypnotic, organic dancefloor rhythms to the darkly incisive, minor-key melodies, and you have a recipe for a tidal wave of moving bodies.

“Here they come again, this time I won’t let them take over my place,” Massama, the band’s Togo-born frontman insists on the title cut. “Congo is burning, they burn down our barriers…they killed Sankara, they killed Lumumba,” a warning that the imperialists are still as mindful of African resistance as they were during the colonial age. The single best track here might be the last one, a tersely thoughtful rap number, delivered in French over simple, funky acoustic guitar: “Everybody follows the American way,” Massama warns, but even if you’re African and you’re born in Paris, or the US, you’re still African. The solution? It’s up to the people; the oppressors won’t make things any better.

The rest of the album is just as diverse. About two thirds of the way through, there’s what’s essentially a suite of three hypnotic one-chord jams that speed up and raise the ante higher and higher, the sort of thing that seems designed to bring a concert to peak intensity. The album’s second track adds hints of reggae and balmy flute; the third, a flamenco-flavored number, features deliciously twangy reverb guitar and a dramatic Spanish guitar solo. The rest of the album veers from slinky funk to funk-pop and a suspenseful, intense vamp to wrap it up right before the closing rap. Shame on us for blinking and not including this on our Best of 2010 list. Elikeh are at Joe’s Pub this coming April 16 at 11:30 PM.

February 10, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a 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

Concert Review from the Archives: Jimmy Cliff and Burning Spear at the New Ritz, NYC 8/25/92

[Editor’s note – this is what we do when we’re on vacation: raid our archive of over a thousand, mostly unpublished accounts of New York concerts for some blasts from the past. In the old days, August was reggae month – here’s a classic example]

Majek Fashek opened with his innocuous, percussive blend of reggae and afropop, surrounded by an entourage that included a midget percussionist and undulating female backup singers. Surprisingly, the Man from the Hills was next on the bill instead of headlining, playing mainly new and unfamiliar tracks from his just-released Jah Kingdom album (including the title track, a bouncy number, the only recognizable one of the new songs). He also did a handful of similarly pop-oriented, upbeat cuts like The Youth, from his Live in Paris album. Peering through slits of eyes, he delivered his signature loose extended jams on give-thanks-and-praise lyrical motifs. His hot band included a three-piece horn section, and a guitarist whose effects boxes provided organ and Stevie Wonder harmonica sounds. Jimmy Cliff followed with a driven and inspired performance: he’s political, pissed as hell, getting inspiration from all over the place and it shows. He told the crowd that the UN had made him a “spiritual ambassador.” He opened with War A Africa. Another new one, a slow, lush keyboard ballad, How Can There Be Peace attacked the Rodney King verdict. A surprisingly fresh version of The Harder They Come appeared as well as an even more surprisingly inspired, sweepingly majestic, powerfully rendered Many Rivers to Cross. His excellent band included three percussionists (four if you count Cliff) and two keyboardists, not to mention Cliff’s kids wandering the stage and toying with all the drums. The show ended with Cliff solo on acoustic guitar (he’s a lefty, as it turns out), playing A Higher and Deeper Love, the band finally joining him on the last chorus. An uplifting, redemptive note to end the night.

August 25, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars – Rise & Shine

Feel-good story of the year: Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars have emerged from the refugee camps there with a genuinely inspiring, indomitably high-spirited album that literally transcends the horror they’ve collectively experienced. Their cause is peace, unsurprisingly considering what they’ve been through. They’re a terrific roots reggae band, although this new cd intersperses the reggae tracks among a traditional peacemaking chant and a handful of circular, jangly afropop numbers sung in a vivid English patois along with several African languages including Mandingo and Mende. Recorded both in Sierra Leone and New Orleans, with the Bonerama Horns’ sly brass livening three tracks, the songs bring a striking global social awareness to the party: it’s good-time music, but it’s also rooted in the here and now. This isn’t just a good party album, it’s an important one.

The first of the reggae tracks, Global Threat has frequent lead singer Reuben M. Koroma smartly making the connection between global warming and global violence in a fervent rasp similar to Apple Gabriel of Israel Vibration, the band grooving behind him with a slinky, dark vintage Black Uhuru feel capped by an ominously careening trombone solo from Trombone Shorty. They follow that with a hypnotic traditional call-and-response chant over simple percussion. Translation: “Mr. Banker I do not know, do not know what you have done to someone but people hate you.” Living Stone follows, a defiant, triumphant, wickedly catchy upbeat reggae song with the feel of an Israel Vibration classic featuring some sweet soul guitar from Augusrine Kobina Valcarcel. “We are the Rolling Stones,” Koroma triumphantly declares: in their corner of the world, maybe they are.

Jah Mercy does double duty as hymn and sufferah’s litany of injustices; the fast reggae shuffle Jah Come Down aptly revisits the Burning Spear classic Slavery Days for the teens. The acoustic reggae number Bend Down the Corner is a come-on to a pretty woman; the afropop tune Goat Smoke Pipe, sung in Krio (a pidgin English variant) offers a savagely satirical look at food shortages, cows discovering cassava while the goat smokes his pipe to keep hunger at bay. With the trombones going full tilt, the upbeat GBRR Man (Trouble) sounds like Toots & the Maytals. The album closes with a slap at religious hypocrisy, Watching All Your Ways, an all-acoustic reggae song recorded outdoors while the band was sitting around a campfire in Canada. The album’s out on Cumbancha; Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars play the Highline Ballroom on April 14 at around ten (popular African hip-hop group Bajah and the Dry Eye Crew, featuring terrific baritone sax player Paula Henderson, open the show around 9), advance tickets very highly recommended since the show will sell out.

April 12, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Aphrodesia – Precious Commodity

The cd cover of Bay Area Afropop dance band Aphrodesia’s new album (available both digitally and on yummy vinyl) depicts an old 1970s vintage boombox in a briefcase, as if it’s been smuggled in from somewhere. Likewise, the music on the new cd has a defiant feel – it’s insanely good to dance to. Aphrodesia earned their cred in the African music community the hard way, touring the continent and eventually being invited by Femi Kuti to play his famous Shrine club in Lagos. Fela and Antibalas are Aphrodesia’s obvious antecedents, but they add their own fiery, relevant lyricism over a delirious, horn-driven dance groove and adrenalizing solos from the whole band. The songs stretch out, moving between styles comfortably but intensely, especially when the horn section is going full blast.

The instrumental that bookends the album has frontwoman Lara Maykovich playing a mbira (thumb piano) through a bunch of loud amps for something of an over-the-top vibraphone effect, a vividly original evocation of the joy of the morning after Election Day, 2008. The cd’s second cut, Special Girl serves as the title track, a sarcastic rail that mocks the fearfulness of mass consumption (and the global sex trade): “Too much to buy in the marketplace,” Maykovich comments sarcastically as the horns soar ecstatically over the hypnotic, busy shuffle of the guitar and percussion. Track three, Make Up Your Mind takes a jazzy Sade-style ballad and transforms it into catchy funk with a characteristically pointed Maykovich lyric and a long, searing backwards-masked guitar solo

Think/Suffer is a big swaying anthem opening with a fiery horn riff, eventually working its way down into a slinky reggae groove with more explosive noise guitar. Friday Night works a catchy, hypnotic, jangly riff: Vampire Weekend only wish they were this tuneful or fun. “Friday night you ask me for a penny, Saturday night I’ll give you a dollar…when I come you say you’re sick; when I go, you say you’re well,” Maykovich relates sardonically. Spiced with playful sax, Say What is a more traditional, hypnotic Afrobeat groove building to a blazing crescendo of horns.

By the Iron kicks off with an insistent reggae beat and an apprehensive horn chart, morphing into a horn-driven Yoruba chant and then back to the reggae with the horns working up a mighty storm. The rest of the cd includes a couple of more straight-up funk numbers, the second even catchier than the first, and the slinky, wah-wah driven, self-explanatory Caminando. Wow! Don’t put this on if you’re planning on falling asleep.  If this album is any indication they ought to be amazing live; watch this space for upcoming NYC dates.

July 28, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment