Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

A Taste of the Mafrika Festival

Year after year, the Mafrika Festival just gets better and better. The annual daylong, outdoor world music concert takes place at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem. Today’s surprisingly oldschool weather (low heat and humidity – who would have thought?) made it even easier to stick around for a bunch of excellent, eclectic bands.

The first real band to take the stage after one in the afternoon was Super Hi-Fi, led by Aphrodesia bassist Ezra Gale. With two trombones, guitar, bass and drums, they moved from edgy, minor-key roots reggae to hypnotic, rhythmically tricky Afrobeat to a little straight-up rock and then back again. The early part of the set was the reggae section, the trombones creating a terse, incisive live dub ambience, guitar going off on a surprising noiserock tangent in places. Later on they picked up the pace: one of the later songs went deep into jazzy territory as the trombones diverged, shadowed each other just a fraction of a beat apart and finally converged as they pulled it back into a reggae groove. Then they did a bouncy tribute to minivans, the most popular way to get around in West Africa.

Three-piece punk band the Band Droidz followed: “Harlem born and raised,” the frontman/guitarist proudly told the rapidly expanding crowd. They were excellent. The early part of the set was straight-up, catchy punk rock, the guitarist’s soulful voice too low in the mix for the lyrics to cut through: a band whose tunes and playing are this smart usually has good lyrics, and it was obvious from their interaction with the audience that they’re on the conscious tip. They proved just as good at roots reggae as they are at punk, then midway through the set, they went for more of an indie metal feel. One of the songs sounding like an update on 19th Nervous Breakdown; another used a tune much like the Velvets’ Lady Godiva’s Operation as the launching pad for a long, psychedelic, bone-bleaching guitar solo. The Band Droidz are at SOB’s on the 12th at around 9, and then playing a free in-studio show at Ultrasound, 251 W 30th St. on the 7th floor on 7/16 at 9.

Ivoirien roots reggae star Sekouba a.k.a. Sekouba Diakite and his eleven-piece backing band were next, and were the biggest crowd-pleasers of the afternoon. Delivering his songs in his native land’s dialects, he and the band – two guitars, two percussionists, keyboards, bass, drums and backup singers – stretched the songs out into epics, with frequent hypnotic percussion breaks. He’s a charismatic performer with a genuine social awareness: he doesn’t just give lip service to issues like immigrant rights and world peace. Midway through the set, he did a couple of love songs, one with a catchy yet ornate Marleyesque vibe, another as a duet with one of the women singing harmonies. When the keyboards finally came up in the mix, the anthemic sweep of the songs really took off, as towering as anything Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy ever did.

Psychedelic funk/Afrobeat band the People’s Champs have an excellent new album out (recently reviewed here): onstage, they proved even more eclectic, switching from one groove to another throughout their long, slinky songs. With Super Hi-Fi’s brass section (one of the trombonists switching to trumpet) out in front of bass, drums and keys and their frontwoman’s gritty, edgy vocals, they started out with Afrobeat, then took it down with a mysterious, broodingly psychedelic mini-epic, then brought it back up again with a jaunty vintage 70s soul/funk feel. By now, the space in front of the stage had become a multigenerational dancefloor, a couple of little kids climbing up on the stage to show off their moves (something that would never be allowed at, say, Central Park Summerstage).

Next on the bill was kora (West African harp) virtuoso Yacouba Diabate. How well would his spikily hypnotic, methodically crescendoing one-chord vamps go over with this party crowd? Everybody listened. And as the songs went on, the volume picked up. Backed by bass, drums, djembe and a bongo player who added echoey machine-gun sonics, Diabate methodically brought the volume up and then dipped down again. The best song of the set, in fact one of the best of the afternoon, was a plaintive minor-key number with Middle Eastern allusions, the percussion backing away and letting Diabate’s haunting melodies ring out. By the time they’d finished, it was after five, and the sun had finally come out of hiding from behind the clouds. As tempting as the rest of the bill looked, this meant for us that it was time to grab some some spicy, homemade lamb stew from one of the vendors and then find out what kind of torture the subway had in store.

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July 10, 2011 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Album of the Day 1/7/11

Every day our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues, all the way to #1. Friday’s is #753:

Alpha Blondy – Jah Victory

One of the best-known African roots reggae artists, Ivoirien singer Alpha Blondy has been putting out politically-charged albums for almost 30 years: this mostly French-language double cd from 2007 is the high point of his career. Fearless and resolute, over a heavily produced, keyboard-driven mix that reaches for an epic grandeur and usually nails it, he skewers repressive dictators, genocidal regimes and hypocrites everywhere, with songs like Ne Tirez Pas Sur l’Ambulance (Don’t Shoot at the Ambulance), Mister Grand Geule (Mr. Big Mouth), Le Bal Des Combattus (The Soldiers’ Ball), Les Salauds (Bastards) and Sales Racistes (Dirty Racists). Other tracks like Sankara and Cameroun incorporate current-day African pop influences; the cautionary tale Le Planete and La Route de la Paix (The Road to Peace) offer hope against hope. Yet the best song here might be the cover of the Pink Floyd classic Wish You Were Here, Blondy returning again and again to the refrain of “We’re just two lost souls in a fishbowl, year after year, running over the same old ground, how we found the same old fear,” building to a literally visceral intensity. If he never makes another album, he goes out on a high note with this one. Here’s a random torrent.

January 7, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Song of the Day 5/21/09

The best 666 songs of alltime countdown continues every day, all the way to #1. Friday’s song was #69:

Alpha Blondy – Wish You Were Here

The Ivory Coast roots reggae superstar has written such incendiary songs as Les Salauds, Les Chiens, Les Imbeciles, Sales Racistes, and Ne Tirez Pas Sur l’Ambulance. But his best one might be his wrenching cover of the Pink Floyd classic, the refrain of “we’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl, year after year” returning again and again to maximum effect. From the Jah Victory album, 2008.

May 22, 2010 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, reggae music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Alpha Blondy at Central Park Summerstage, NYC 7/19/09

Tuesday, July 14, 2009, sometime during the night: a massive computer crash at Lucid Culture HQ cuts off all electronic communication with the outside world, eliminating any possibility of contacting the show organizers for press list to assure access.

Sunday, July 19, 6:30 AM: system finally up and running again. Drink lots of water, contemplate a last-minute attempt to find out who the organizers are and contact them, decide this would only be an exercise in futility. Do some writing, back to bed at 9:30 AM, exhausted.

1:30 PM: awake again. Time to head to the concert!

2:07 PM: no uptown trains. What to do?

2:23 PM: Finally an uptown train, running express on the local track. Thank you Jah!

3:04 PM: The rent-a-pigs at the space are only letting people in one at a time. The line of potential concertgoers extends a quarter mile beyond the arena, and the opening band hasn’t even gone on yet. People standing listlessly with their ipods and their books – a woman reads Proust. Tolstoy would make more sense – she’s going to be here awhile. Time to find a drink – a bar? After Saturday night, no way. Maybe there’s a cheap deli somewhere? Not in this neighborhood. A leisurely stroll east ends at the Duane Reade over on First Avenue and 66th St. who have big cans of lousy, sweet iced tea for a dollar.

4:06 PM: Back at the arena where Lee “Scratch” Perry has taken the stage. Have seen him before. He’s insane. He’s also a genius. He invented dub reggae, then burned down his famous Black Ark studio where he made all those classic recordings. Now in his seventies, supposedly he lives in Switzerland with a much younger wife and still tours regularly: roast fish and collie weed obviously have a sustaining power for him. He’s not that good live, muttering gnomic Rasta “reasonings” over a live band. He worships marijuana – the plant isn’t just a sacrament to him, it’s the embodiment of the deity itself.  Meanwhile, the line remains exactly where it was an hour before. Perry isn’t the insane one here, it’s the people in line! Do they really think they have a prayer of getting inside the show? The woman reading Proust is gone, maybe home to get her copy of War & Peace. Time to take a stroll down to the plaza past the arena.

4:45 PM: Perry’s band is ok. A couple of times they do a little dub, some swirling, echoey organ, some piano but mostly it’s just one long vamp after another. From down the hill, most of Perry’s vocals are inaudible and those that aren’t don’t make any sense. Not that they’d make any more sense if they were. It would be nice to be able to see something but it’s also nice to be outside under the trees with plenty of space.

5:20 PM: The line has mostly disappeared, but the place is clearly sold out. Ivory Coast reggae legend Alpha Blondy has taken the stage, barely visible from beyond the wooden fence just short of the press tent outside. He’s got a couple of women singing harmony, a horn section, a couple of guitars and keyboards. He looks resplendent in his gold robe. The sound is all highs and lows with not much midrange, screechy guitar opening the show with a long, note-for-note Zeppelin riff, bass booming, hypnotic and comforting. Just down the hill behind the back wall of the arena, people have brought their blankets, their picnics, their beer. The sound is great back here, and it’s a lot more comfortable than having to stand inside. Scratch Perry’s deity is everywhere, in the air, in peoples’ lungs, in their red eyes. Time to find a tree that hasn’t been taken, get some back support. One with the earth, yes I! Alpha Blondy plays a greatest-hits show. Despite rumors of ill health, he sounds relaxed and invigorated, at least as invigorated as one can be over such a slinky, relaxed groove. Unity is his central theme: the unity of people, religions, ethnicities and nationalities. They play the big anthem Jerusalem and later the catchy title track from his landmark 1984 album Cocody Rock, recorded with the Wailers. Alpha Blondy sings in French, his native Dioula and in English on a particularly fiery, upbeat version of Staring Straight, later a rocking version of Life Is a Sacrifice with a seemingly endless, pointless metal guitar solo and then Yitzhak Rabin, his tribute to the assassinated Israeli peace crusader. Eventually they do band intros over the chorus of Bob Marley’s The Heathen and then an actually very moving reggae version of Wish You Were Here. He takes one of Roger Waters’ most poignant lyrics – “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl year after year/Running over the same old ground/How we found the same old fear/Wish you were here” – and makes a chorus out of them, coming back to them again and again. The old guys in classic rock tour t-shirts leaning against the wire fence sway to the bassline; the crowd of enthusiastic Ivoirians at the top of the bleachers in the back of the arena wave their flags in time with the music. Suddenly it’s 1994 again.

July 22, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Mafrika Festival Review: The Superpowers, Pink Noise, the Brown Rice Family, Devi, Konny and Funkface at Marcus Garvey Park, NYC 6/1/08

It’s hard to recall a better outdoor music festival in New York in recent years than this one was. Forget Central Park Summerstage: not that the rent-a-pigs there would ever let you in anyway, in 2008. That Coney Island thing that the Village Voice does every summer? Snooze. Today’s all-day outdoor show at the bandshell in the northwest corner of Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem harkened back to the days of the old First Street festival about ten years ago, where you could sit on the sidewalk, surreptitiously drink beer and see one good band after another. For one reason or another, this one started late, with sets getting shorter as the day went on, the promoters obviously wanting to get everyone onstage and then off for the following band. This year, they really outdid themselves: six good, frequently brilliant bands in just under five hours, from time to time augmented by random rappers, dancers and even a fashion designer who paraded two of her models around the stage to considerable applause.

The Superpowers, an eight-piece reggae-jazz band with a four-piece horn section opened, auspiciously. They don’t sound much like Antibalas but they’re just as good. Best song title of the afternoon belonged to them: American Exceptionalism, the Reason Behind All Good Songwriting, or something to that effect (they were kidding, obviously). Often led by their organist or one of the sax players, they’d go off on a long exploring mission and then come back to a catchy, anthemic roots reggae chorus evocative of greats like Burning Spear. They could have gone on for twice as long as they did and nobody in the audience would have complained.

Next up were Israeli/American indie rock quartet Pink Noise. Like all the other half-million or so sons and daughters of Sonic Youth, they’re all about the guitars, and when they’d gotten both of them roaring and ringing with all kinds of eerie overtones, the effect was very captivating. When they’d go off on some dorky, herky-jerky math-rock tangent, it was vastly less so. They also could have done without any vocals or lyrics and been considerably better off for it. Memo to the frontwoman: when you sing “I’m so unattractive,” over and over again, that’s what you become.

The following act, a Coachella-style, sunny, cheery, Asian roots reggae band went by the name of the Brown Rice Family. Basmati, yes; jasmine, yes yes; Canadian wild rice, yes yes YES. But that awful glutinous stuff served in health food restaurants? Maybe where these guys come from, brown rice means something different than what it is over here. The world’s only reggae band with a ukulele (played by one of the two lead singers) likes happy uptempo tunes so fast that they’re almost ska. Otherwise, they don’t break any new ground. But that’s ok. It dread in a Babylon, music is the universal language, let’s all get up and dance, ad infinitum, we all know that. It never hurts to be reminded.

Psychedelic guitar-driven power trio Devi (whom both of the emcees onstage introduced incorrectly as “Devirock”) had their second chance in as many days to wrestle with an inadequate sound system. This time around they didn’t even get a linecheck, let alone a soundcheck: when they hit the stage, it was plug in and play. But frontwoman Debra DeSalvo knows a thing or two about DIY from her punk rock days with the False Prophets, and the rest of the crew followed her lead. And she finally got the lethargic crowd out of the shadows and paying attention. If the previous night’s set was the band’s attempt at being quiet, this was the party set: a searing, almost ten-minute When It Comes Down, an equally boisterous cover of Dell Shannon’s Runaway and eventually, after DeSalvo had to put up something of a fight to keep the band onstage for a final number, the potently catchy powerpop hit Howl at the Moon. Many of these songs will appear on the band’s debut cd due out this year, something to look forward to.

The festival’s organizers billed the next act, expat Burkina Faso roots reggae singer Koony as someone on the same level as Tiken Jah Fakoly or Alpha Blondy, a claim that seemed laughable. Believe the hype. Koony is that good, and so is his sensational band, his organist inducing more than a few smiles with some amusingly over-the-top Dr. Dre-style synth fills, his superb guitarist, rhythm section and percussionists laying down a groove that was a bulletproof as it was rubbery. Singing in French in a somewhat thin, raspy voice, he also proved to be an excellent lyricist. The high point of his set was the determined, defiant Sept Fois (a pun – it means both “seven times” and “this time” in French). If reggae is your thing, get to know this guy before it costs you $100 to see him at Madison Square Garden.

Funky uptown heavy metal band Funkface got all of three songs but made the most of them: it would have been nice to have heard more from them, which is a compliment. Their first song was totally riff-metal, but their two guitarists share a remarkable self-awareness and sense of humor (in metal, humor is often 99% of it). Their next one revealed them equally good at ska-punk; the last saw them bringing up a couple of enthusiastic gradeschool girls from the audience (someone in the band’s kids?) to get the crowd going on a call-and-response, and this finally got the massive to respond, massively. Their album is titled Your Politics Suck: no doubt the crowd would have been into it.

By now, the clouds that had obscured the sun for most of the afternoon were gone, and both sides of the bleachers, in the shade, were full. A trio of trendoids took the stage and took forever to set up, the guitarist apparently too effete to figure out how to work his guitar. And when the band, the Octagon, finally got going, it was with an attempt at a surf instrumental. For about five seconds, this seemed like a good thing but quickly proved that A) they have an excellent drummer and B) the guitarist doesn’t have a clue. After that, their silly, off-key falsetto vocals and clueless attempts at songwriting gave them away for what they are, imitators of some lame-ass, popular indie band or another: the Flaming Lips, maybe? It’s bands like this that drive the audience out of the house. It would have been nice to be able to stick around to hear the always entertaining, self-described “sonic slayers” Apollo Heights, but they’re on some label, they’re well-known and they’re playing Central Park in July. You probably know them already. Or maybe you will, someday.

June 1, 2008 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, reggae music, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment