Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Friday Night in Brooklyn: Lebanon to Mali

Friday night at Prospect Park, the monsoon lasted for about fifteen minutes. Then, almost magically, the sun came out and shortly thereafter Lebanese-American multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba and his ensemble – cello, violin, upright bass and drums – took the stage and turned it into a Wonderful Land. That’s the title of Saba’s latest album, and it’s an understatement. Saba’s sweeping, sometimes dreamy, sometimes majestic compositions span the entirety of the Middle East as well as Europe, exemplified by the eclectic Waltz for My Father, which began with a gently swaying baroque-tinged Bach-like theme based on a Russian folk melody and then shifted abruptly but gracefully to the desert. The opening mini-suite, Nirvana, followed a similar course. Saba welcomed the slowly growing crowd with a casually meandering oud taqsim before signaling the group to join him for a warily joyous levantine dance. Throughout the show, Saba would switch instruments mid-song, just as he did here, the piece’s windswept melody afloat on his bittersweet flute lines. This was soul music in Middle Eastern modes.

Another flute tune, Breeze from the South, Saba told the crowd, was meant to evoke a specifically Lebanese ambience, “Like from New Jersey to New York,” he grinned. He opened a traditional Lebanese folk melody with a long improvisation, drummer April Centrone eventually adding a stately bounce on daf frame drum. Saba switched to the jangly, overtone-rich Turkish saz lute for the album’s title track, a hypnotic feast of jangle and clang over pedaled bass, a tricky hypnotic rhythm and a mysteriously swirling cymbal solo by Centrone (whose ability to get a standard rock drum kit to sound like an entire Middle Eastern percussion ensemble was absolutely stunning – her elegant solo toward the end of the show drew the loudest applause of the entire set). They closed with a slinky Egyptian piece with a vintage 1940s ambience, violinist Megan Gould joining in tandem with Saba before reaching ecstatically for the night sky and taking the show out on a high note over the hypnotic bounce and rumble of the drums. And if the cello had been higher in the sound mix – it was practically inaudible beyond the front rows – it would have taken the blend of instruments up yet another notch. Saba leads the exhilarating New York Arabic Orchestra at Damrosch Park out back of Lincoln Center on Friday, August 5 at 7:30 PM.

Malian chanteuse and hoteliere Oumou Sangare and her band headlined. Sangare is an important figure there, a powerful lyricist whose fearlessly feminist stance has won her a global following. To an American audience unfamiliar with the languages she sings in, that aspect of her music is unfortunately lost. Behind her, the band launched into an endless series of grooves that touched on soukous and Afrobeat in places, while exploring themes from both the north and the south of her home country, the south being her home turf, one of the reasons why her music has little in common with the dusky, hypnotic desert blues for which Mali is best known. With the ping of the kora (West African harp), the clang of a Gibson SG guitar, snappy, trebly, fusionesque electric bass, drums and djembe, the group shifted quickly from one song to the next. After awhile, the tunes blended together to the point where it was hard to keep track where they’d been. Which seemed to be intentional. This was a dance party, Sangare leading the way with her charismatic presence and powerful, frequently dramatic alto voice.

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July 31, 2011 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Bassam Saba – Wonderful Land

Truth in advertising: this is a wonderful album, one of the year’s very best. Multi-instrumentalist Bassam Saba leads the New York Arabic Orchestra, arguably America’s most vital large-scale Middle Eastern music ensemble. This is a richly diverse, emotionally resonant collection of original compositions, a tribute to Saba’s native Lebanon. Here the composer plays ney flute, western flutes, saz (Turkish lute), oud, buzuq, bansuri flute and violin, joined by an inspired, virtuosic cast of Megan Gould on violin and viola, William Martina on cello, Peter Slavov on upright bass, and April Centrone and Jamey Haddad on a drum store’s worth of percussion instruments.

The album begins on a lush, vividly pastoral note with the ten-minute suite Nirvana, morphing from a stately dance theme into a sprightly, swinging scherzo and then a distantly haunting ney solo over terse oud and percussion. The ensemble end it with a beautifully majestic crescendo, bringing up the strings and oud. A similarly understated majesty rises later on the evocative Breeze from the South, Saba’s conversational arrangement for oud and buzuq building to a joyous, anthemic theme. Saba’s bansuri flute taqsim opens the goodnaturedly hypnotic Orange Dusk, its loping beat mimicking the sway of a camel making its way methodically across the desert. The title cut takes an apprehensive oud taqsim intro up into a joyous levantine dance with a terse simplicity worthy of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, followed by a long, expressionistic buzuq solo. U Vrot Vastoka (At the Door of the Orient) works tension between the distantly threatening rhythm section versus Saba’s peaceful ney (which cleverly nicks a western spy show melody).

Waltz to My Father, based on a Russian folk melody, could be Henry Purcell, strings cleverly echoing the flute theme – and then suddenly it’s back to the desert, to the here and now with the shifting, trance-inducing pulse of the bass. The group introduce a rattling, increasingly apprehensive oud-fueled East African taraab feel on Afrocola, a homage to Patrice Lumumba. The album concludes with Story of the Dried River, a dreamy, minimalist flute-and-percussion mood piece. It’s to think of another album as warmly and captivatingly atmospheric as this that’s come out in 2010.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Mavrothi Kontanis at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 4/30/10

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.

May 1, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Monika Jalili – Elan

This might be the best world music album of the year, a frequently haunting, unabashedly romantic collection of popular acoustic songs from Iran from the era before the mullahs took over after the fall of the Shah in 1979 (to call what happened there a revolution is revolting). New York-born Monika Jalili comes from a musical theatre background, which makes sense when you hear her clear, minutely nuanced soprano, to which she’s expertly added the trademark ornamentation of Iranian classical song, using a delicate vibrato which often trills off at the end of a phrase for emphasis. The songs, mostly dating from the 60s and 70s, combine the austere microtonality of traditional Iranian music with the vivid emotionality of French chanson and a lush Mediterranean romanticism. Jalali sings in Persian and Azeri as well as English and French on two songs. The musicianship is equally nuanced and haunting: for this album, her second collection of songs from Iran, she’s enlisted the extraordinary New York-based oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis as well as his bandmate Megan Gould on violin, Erik Friedlander on cello, Riaz Khabirpour on acoustic guitar, Marika Hughes on cello and Silk Road Project percussionist Shane Shanahan. To call their performance inspired is an understatement.

Jalili communicates an intense sense of longing on the opening track, Ghoghaye Setaregan (Dance of the Stars), a jangly cosmopolitan ballad in 6/8 with incisive violin. Arezooha (Wishes) evokes 60s French folk-pop with sparse violin and cello behind Jalili’s subtle vocals. Gonjeshgake Ashi Mashi (Little Sparrow) is not a Piaf tribute but an upbeat take of an old folksong, done anthemically with some stirring oud work by Kontanis and the string section.

Ay Rilikh (Separation) is masterfully evocative, Gould’s violin dark and distant with reverb, a chilling contrast with Jalili’s warm interpretation. The upbeat, happy medieval folk dance Evlari Vaar (To Bemaan) has an almost Britfolk feel; by contrast, Biya Bare Safar Bandim (Let’s Be on Our Way) has a slightly Asian tinge, especially on the vocals. Kontanis’ oud holds it to the ground as Gould’s violin soars skyward, Jalili following in turn and then adding some spectacularly flashy vocalese at the end.

Peyke Sahari (Messenger of Dawn) builds to a crescendo with a haunting three-chord descending progression at the end of the verse, illuminated by a beautiful string chart that grows more insistent. The mood turns in a considerably brighter direction with the coy, percussive, bolero-ish Bia Bia Benshin (Come Sit by Me), Kontanis and Gould again taking brief but memorable turns on the bridge. The cd ends with its best song, the darkly swaying, dramatic Ay Vatan (Oh, My Homeland):

Freedom’s here, not in the distance
Oh, my land…
You’re the hero, oh this madness
Oh, my land,

Jalili wails delicately over Kontanis’ eerily swooping oud riffs. The ensemble takes it out with an elegantly fluttering, understatedly chilling conclusion. With the people of Iran uniting against the repression of the past thirty years, there could not be a more auspicious time for this album to come out: the anthem for the next real Iranian revolution could be on it. Watch for this high on the list of the best albums of 2009 here at year’s end.

September 4, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

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