Seeing Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes last night was a time warp back to a secret, revolutionary taverna in an Athens (or Istanbul) of the mind around 1936. Kontanis is an acknowledged virtuoso of the oud, an educator and the author of books on oud technique and is every bit the player you’d expect from someone with that background. The oud has been around forever and has an otherworldly resonance, a distant echo of the millions who’ve put their souls into the instrument over literally millennia. Alongside Kontanis’ soulful reverberation, voilinist Megan Gould and percussionist Timothy Quigley – who seems to be to Barbes what Willie Dixon was to Chess Records’ studio – added textures and lines that matched and then diverged, sometimes hypnotic, other times fiery and intense.
Much of the material they played was taken from Kontanis’ two 2008 cds (both ranked high on our list of best albums that year), notably an irresistibly woozy, sly version of the self-explanatory rembetiko ballad Ouzo. The trio opened with a segue of old songs from Athens and then Smyrna, Kontanis throwing the occasional sharp chord in among his fluid, snaky arabesque lines to raise the energy level, Gould firing off a solo that sizzled with trills at the top of the scale. Another Arabic-flavored one saw the two string players doubling each others’ lines with a casual rapport that bordered on the telepathic. Quigley put down his dumbek (goblet drum) and switched to the boomier riq frame drum on a rearrangement of a swaying, insistently psychedelic bouzouki song from around 1960 – “New for us is 1940,” Kontanis laughed. An audience request was ablaze with Kontanis’ tremolo picking and got even hotter when Gould went soaring over the melee; another rumbled along to a tricky 15/4 beat. Toward the end, they did a winsome number about a heartbroken drunk, finally wrapping up over an hour’s worth of music in a hypnotic, rattling blaze of oud chords, staccato violin and percussion. Plenty of tavernas around town have music but not like this. Mavrothi Kontanis has an intriguing residency coming up at 1:30 PM at the Silk Road exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History on May 9, 23 and 30; he’s back at Barbes on June 11 at 8.