Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ana Moura’s Live Album Surpasses All Expectations

By the end of 2009, fado siren Ana Moura’s album Leva Me Aos Fados (Take Me to the Fado Club) had gone platinum in her native Portugal. This one predates it by over a year, before she sang with Mick Jagger and Prince, before her career had really taken off. Like its predecessor, much of her new live album Coliseu is sad, brooding minor-key nocturnes, recorded at two stadium shows in 2008 and available for the first time on cd outside Portugal. It goes without saying that the true test of a singer is how well they perform live, under the lights, without the comfort of the studio and Moura acquits herself well – if anything, she sings better here. It’s kind of funny hearing her launch into fado icon Amalia Rodrigues’ Lavava No Rio Lavava (Down to the River) a-cappella and actually very compellingly, but the big stadium crowd doesn’t appear to pay any mind – until they’re singing along at the end when the band finally comes in. Other than on a couple of clapalongs, they’re less of a presence the rest of the way through.

It’s a small group for a stadium concert: Manuel Neto on Portuguese guitar, Jose Elmiro Nunes on acoustic guitars and Filipe Larsen on bass. Their spiky, intricate jangle, with the bass an almost imperceptible, driving force, creates a blend of textures that’s absolutely exquisite. In front of them, Moura projects with an impressive subtlety and command of dynamics through a mix of new material along with some fado standards, a mix of stately, wounded ballads and bouncy, upbeat songs – if there was anything to criticize about Leva Me Aos Fados, it was that she sang everything on it pretty much the same. It’s a completely different story here.

Os Meus Ohos Sao Dois Cirios (My Eyes Are Two Big Candles) is a perfect example. Like so many fado songs, it’s a lost love ballad, a gorgeous guitar janglefest with two big dips where they bring it down to where Moura holds back and lets the impact settle in. Later, she adds an element of sarcasm to her brisk interpretation of O Fado de Procura (Waiting for You), sort of a fado counterpart to Three O’Clock Blues – finally she gives up looking for the guy and orders an espresso. In a lot of ways, fado (the national music of Portugal) is a lot like the blues – Sou do Fado, Sou Fadista (Fado Is Me, I’m a Fadista) is something like B.B. King singing “I’m a bluesman,” but it’s an awfully pretty song. They pick up the pace with O Meu Amigo Joao (For My Friend Joao), whose bouncy fingerstyle folk-pop melody contrasts with the bitterness of the lyric, an emigrant whose “blood was a seed for money-grubbing somewhere else.” E Viemos Nascidos do Mar (We Came out of the Sea) is another fast, sarcastic number, the girl on the half-shell with nothing but contempt for the dimwits on the beach gaping at her. There’s also a couple of frisky gypsy jazz songs, as well as a handful of torchy ballads by popular contemporary fado songwriter Jorge Fernando, whose catalog Moura mined the last time around. It’s out now on World Village Music.

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March 8, 2011 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Copal Creates a Haunting Global Dance Mix

Hypnotic string band Copal’s brand-new second album Into the Shadow Garden is for dancing in the dark. Alternately lush and stark, vibrant and mysterious, bouncy and sultry, their violin-fueled grooves mix elements of Middle Eastern, Celtic, Nordic and Mediterranean styles. Violinist Hannah Thiem leads the group alongside cellists Isabel Castellvi and Robin Ryczek, bassist Chris Brown, drummer Karl Grohmann and percussionist Engin Gunaydin (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars). Right off the bat, it starts hypnotically with a drone that gradually fades up – then the drums come in, then a plaintive, Middle Eastern-tinged violin melody and the first of Thiem’s many gripping, suspense-building solos that will recur throughout the album. About halfway through, it becomes clear that this is a one-chord jam. Eventually, a second violin voice is introduced; some terse harmonies follow over the slinky beat, then it fades down to just an oscillating drone, the dumbek drum and violin, and out gracefully from there. In a way, it reduces the essence of this band to its purest form. It’s music that sets a mood, gets your body moving and keeps it going – it’s awfully easy to get lost in this.

There are a couple of vocal tracks. Ether is a slow, dirgelike piece with a spoken-word lyric – in German – that builds to a fullscale string orchestra groove over almost a trip-hop beat and a trance-inducing bass pulse, and then fades down like the first number. Velvet begins with an austere fugue between the violin and cello and then begins to sway on the waves of a catchy descending progression. It builds intensely with dramatic cymbal crashes and a cello bassline, then ends cold when you’d least expect it.

There are three other long pieces here, all of them instrumentals. Ungaro is a playful, bouncy tarantella dance. Cuetara gets a brooding minor-key vamp going over a slinky Levantine-tinged groove, Thiem soaring over a lush bed of strings and stark, staccato cello accents. The album ends as it began with a majestic one-chord jam, the aptly titled Shadows, Thiem’s long Middle Eastern opening taqsim building slowly, picking up other textures along the way, taking a bit of a lull for another long solo and ending on a surprisingly jaunty note. Although pegged as electroacoustic, there isn’t much going on here that’s electro other than the occasional atmospheric keyboard part. Copal are a deliriously fun live band – they play the cd release for this album on Nov 4 at Drom, headlining at 10 PM on a killer triplebill with haunting Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat opening at 8 followed by Middle Eastern-flavored rockers Raquy & the Cavemen at 9.

October 29, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dark Mesmerizing Intensity: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/14/08

The Barbes website billed them as “probably the best Greek ensemble around,” high praise from a generally reliable source. For once, putting cynicism on hold paid off: Mavrothi Kontanis and his spectacular backup band are the real deal. With gypsy music the flavor du jour (let’s hope it becomes the flavor du siecle), all the other hauntingly danceable Mediterranean and Balkan genres, from klezmer to Levantine dance music, are picking up the spillover and the result lately has been an abundance of excellent bands from all of these styles playing more New York shows for English-speaking audiences. In an era dominated, at least in the mainstream, by prissy indie rock and bellowing corporate grunge drivel, this is an encouraging development. Let’s hope it continues.

By stroke of sheer good fortune, at least from a spectator’s point of view, this was the band’s last show with Anastassia Zachariadou, their phenomenal kanun (a sort of cross between a zither and a cimbalom) player who was leaving for Greece the next day. Perhaps for this reason, the band was especially charged up. Or maybe this is just the way they play every time out. Kontanis, the frontman, played oud while singing in both Greek and Turkish. Megan Gould provided eerie sheets of sound on violin, percussionist Timothy Quigley provided a fluidly swinging, hypnotic beat and clarinetist Lefteris Bournias brought a breathtakingly ecstatic, Coltrane-esque intensity to the music.

The band opened inauspiciously with an original, an instrumental about kites (why is it that kites inspire some of the most insipid songs ever written? Kites Are Fun, anybody? And triple bonus points if you were ever tortured by Private Lightning and actually remember who they were). But they turned up the flames after that and kept them burning for the rest of the show. The next instrumental, also an original, began with a long, ominous, slowly crescendoing solo from Zachariadou and she kept it going for all it was worth, holding both the audience and her bandmates rapt with amazement. They built it slowly, the violin doubling the oud, later adding the first of several blazingly fast, intense, microtonal clarinet solos from Bournias.

Kontanis explained how the next tune, Ouzo, a drinking song from the late 1920s reflected its narrator’s “beer muscles,” as he put it. This one sounded nothing like the song by the same title that the wildly popular New York Greek revivalists Magges have made their own; rather, the drunk in this rather dark tune lets it all hang out, shamelessly: in ouzo veritas. The rest of the set was was one haunting, mesmerizing rembetiko song after another (rembetiko, or rebetika, is a darkly psychedelic style with eerie Turkish and Middle Eastern influences that originated in the Greek resistance underground in the 1920s). Kontanis would often open a song with an improvised intro (or taksim, as it’s called in Arab music) on his oud, Bournias and Zachariadou bringing the songs to a flying crescendo with several lightning-fast solos. As Kontanis explained, one of them was a lament sung from the point of view of a man rejected by a woman because he’s not rich enough for her blood – his response is that what he has, money can’t buy. Another took the opposite point of view, a suitor calculating what he can buy – in a lyrical tour through the neighborhoods of 1930s Athens – with his bride’s money. Kontanis finally closed the show tersely with a quiet, brief, somewhat unsettling sketch.

If dark chromatic melodies don’t scare you off, if you don’t think that people who listen to music from other cultures are “weird” – then again, you wouldn’t be reading this if you did – get to know this amazing band. The only drawback about this evening was that it wasn’t possible to stick around to see Chicha Libre play what promised to be a typically energizing, danceable show afterward.

April 15, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment