Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Concert Review: Turkish Woodstock II, 7/3/10

Last year’s “Turkish Woodstock” was sold out practically before the show started: if you include the thousands who couldn’t get inside New York’s Central Park Summerstage arena, a safe guess is that there were about 20,000 people milling about. This year’s “Turkish Woodstock II” a.k.a. Istanbulive didn’t appear to reach peak capacity until well after 4 PM. Both 2009 and 2010 shows blended east and west, although the segues last year (the NY Gypsy All-Stars, clarinet legend Husnu Senlendirici, Painted on Water and MFO, with a cameo from the Brooklyn Funk Essentials) were more seamless. But this year’s still made for a good, eclectic bill. The concert began with a single foreboding, somewhat funereal traditional song by Emrah Kanisicak, backed by oud, percussion, bass, drums and accordion. Chanteuse Sukriye Tutkun then took over centerstage. She has a lovely voice, exemplary range and a completely casual, warmly familiar stage presence. It was as if she was singing in her living room (ok, not her living room, but maybe from her fire escape – it was a brutally hot afternoon). Calmly and methodically, she ran through a selection of understated, Middle Eastern-tinged ballads and a slinky pop song that evoked Henry Mancini. The songs were all seemingly Mancini-era: the crowd knew most of them; a few sang along.

Ilhan Ersahin’s Istanbul Sessions – Ersahin on tenor sax, Alp Ersonmez on electric bass, Turgut Bekoglu on drums and Izzet Kizil on percussion were next, a short, rewarding day’s journey into night. Ersahin, impresario of well-loved East Village jazz oasis Nublu – is at his best when he mines a nocturnal vibe, and he worked his way down. He’s all about melody – it wasn’t til the third song of his set that he worked any kind of ornamentation, in this case an evil little trill, into his playing. Ersonmez matched him, sometimes pedaling a note or, occasionally, a chord, for what felt like minutes on end while the percussion clattered hypnotically and Ersahin scoped out the territory. Chipper and cheery, he worked permutations on a series of catchy hooks much like JD Allen will do, keeping each piece to a comfortable four minutes or so. They got better and better as they went along, Ersahin introducing a sly, late-night, understatedly simple bluesy tinge. Ersonmez introduced one with a fast percussive line that mimicked an oud while Ersahin ran circles around a bouncy spy theme, followed by a trance-inducing percussion solo. They went out on a joyous note with the reggae-tinged Freedom, pulsing along with a wickedly catchy three-chord chorus. Anyone who misses the late, great Moisturizer should discover Ersahin: he has the same irrepressible, irresistibly playful sensibility.

By the time moody rock quartet Duman – Turkish for “smoke” – took the stage, the arena looked close to capacity. They got a lot more singalongs than Tutkun – the young crowd, restless to this point, were suddenly one with the music. Turkish lyrics aside, Duman have the same memorable jangly and sometimes chromatically tinged sound that’s been all the rage in Latin America since the days of popular Mexican rockers Caifanes. Add some terse Johnny Marr cross-string guitar work, with just a hint of surf, or sometimes riff-driven garage rock, and that’s their terrain. What was most impressive was that despite their monochrome sound, all the songs didn’t sound the same: Duman are not boring. One anthem began almost ghostly before its chorus exploded out of nowhere; another sounded like the Smiths’ What Difference Does It Make, through a glass darkly. Brooding verses gave way to upbeat, hook-driven choruses, and vice versa. The band’s two guitarists traded a few solos, including one that they might have learned back in the day when they might have been playing Hotel California for their friends. There was another act scheduled to play afterward, but with a completely different demographic and a pop feel as different from this as Ersahin, and Tutkun before him, had been.

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July 7, 2010 Posted by | concert, jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge

Sometimes the Rough Guide albums have funny titles (how about the Rough Guide to Blues Revival, released in…2009?!?) For those of you who are wondering what on earth this one could be, good news, it’s not really a lounge album at all. Rather, the Rough Guide to Arabic Lounge is a compilation of some of the most interesting, cutting-edge, genre-blurring Middle Eastern flavored music from around the globe, along with some gorgeously familiar traditional sounds. As with the other Rough Guides over the past year, this one is a twofer including an excellent bonus cd by Algerian gypsy-rai songwriter Akim El Sikameya and his band.

If you’re a fan of this kind of stuff, the compilation will stretch your ears. The huge Lebanese hit Al Guineya by Ghazi Abdel Baki that opens it sounds like Leonard Cohen in Arabic, a tango with balmy sax, tasteful fingerpicked minor-key acoustic guitar and Abdel Baki’s sepulchral vocals. Hymn of the Sea by Palestinian chanteuse Rim Banna is slinky trip-hop with accordion and upright bass, evocative of a Stevie Wonder hit from the 70s. Lebanese oud virtuoso and longtime Marcel Khalife sideman Charbel Rouhana contributes Ladyfingers, a violin-and-oud instrumental like the Gipsy Kings. Arabic chanteuse Soumaya Baalbaki is represented by a beautiful habibi jazz song, followed by Emad Ashour’s solo cello taqsim, bracing, intense and in a maqam (scale) that’s not stereotypically Arabic.

Ishtar, of Alabina fame has a characteristically gypsy-inflected levantine dance-pop tune, contrasting mightily with trumpet innovator Amir ElSaffar’s almost bop-jazz instrumental and its boisterous conversation between his quartertone trumpet and a low-register ney flute. Mohamed Sawwah offers a murky piano-and-vocal ballad; there’s also Middle Eastern inflected Cuban son by Hanine y Son Cubano, an Iraquicized oud version of Johnny Guitar by the late oud legend Munir Bashir; the haunting, lush Jordanian harmonies of Dozan; a tersely fiery bouzouki solo by Mohamed Houssein, and Azzddine with Bill Laswell doing a gypsy melody as Morroccan trip-hop with spacey vocoder vocals!

The Akim El Sikameya cd is worth owning by itself and makes a nice bonus. The obvious comparison is Manu Chao, El Sikameya drawing on the native Algerian trip-hop rhythm with frequent gypsy guitar or accordion accents and more modern touches like oud played through a chorus box on the first track, and downtempo, loungey electric piano on another. They start one song out with what’s essentially Egyptian reggae, quickly morphing into a brisk gypsy dance; the later part of the album features some absolutely chilling, beautiful violin work. Another strong effort from the Rough Guide folks, who have really been on a roll lately and should definitely be on your radar if you’re a world music fan.

March 17, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: The Spy from Cairo – Secretly Famous

The audio equivalent of good hashish. Ridiculously catchy, danceable and psychedelic, The Spy from Cairo has put together an upbeat album that spans practically every style of pop music to come out of the Arab world over the last fifty years. The production is typical of what you get these days in Middle Eastern pop, somewhat slick and artificial with synthesizer and percussion loops in addition to the layers of real drums and percussion here. The “secretly famous” artist here also plays soulfully and intensely on the oud, saz (the gorgeously plinky Turkish lute), ney flute and a small army of percussion instruments, all of which happily get long, extended solos over the throb of the beat. What’s new and innovative is the dubwise feel he brings to much of this – for example, he turns the Farid Al Atrache oud classic Ala Shan into Egyptian reggae as someone like Mad Professor or Niney the Observer might do, instruments fading up into the mix and then out just as quickly when you least expect them.

The originals are just as good. The opening track, cleverly titled Nayphony works a catchy ney flute hook over a slinky trip-hop beat and a gorgeous, classically-inflected Arab melody, cifteli (an Albanian version of the saz) clinking beautifully as the string synthesizer climbs and then fades above it all. The second track is a Jordanian wedding tune given a snakecharmer feel with drum-n-bass production. With vocals and lyrics by guest chaneuse Ghalia Benali, Ana Arabi defiantly evokes Arab pride – and pride in denouncing terrorism – over a hypnotic, atmospheric dance-pop tune.

The single most gorgeous song here is Leila, a tribute to the great Mohamed Abdel Wahab with a long, exhilarating, pointillistic kanun solo. There’s also Kembe, which is trip-hop with oud playing variations on a hypnotic two-chord vamp; Jennaty, a particularly psychedelic, slightly funky number with oud played through a wah pedal; and Saidi the Man, a classic bellydance tune redone first as dancefloor pop, morphing back in time to a mesmerizing jam out with saz and percussion. Plus a resoundingly successful, woozily Rachid Taha-esque venture into rai-reggae. This is first and foremost a headphone album (those ipod earbuds don’t do justice to the fatness of the bass here); it also ought to make a great party-starter (or finisher: crank this at 4 AM if you’re in a space where either your neighbors can’t hear it, or if they’re cool and they might come over and wind down the night with you).

January 29, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review from the Archives – Alabina at Manhattan Center, NYC 7/31/99

[editor’s note: one of the things we inherited from our predecessor e-zine was a massive book of over a thousand, mostly previously unpublished concert reviews dating back over a decade. This was one of them. We’d post them occasionally to keep the front page fresh – this was back in the day when we weren’t getting 500 emails a day from bands and publicists. We plan to resurrect the feature soon. Til then, here’s Alabina…]

Tickets were expensive: almost forty bucks to see the Madonna of the Middle East, as the media has pegged her. Unsurprisingly, 99% of the audience were well-dressed Arab kids in their late teens and early twenties, most of them together in small groups. This may have been a sit-down show, but there was no lack of dancing, especially at the front of the stage. Everybody had come out for the party, and Ishtar and Alabina, her band of gypsies didn’t let anybody down. At their worst, they sound like the Gypsy Kings in an inspired moment; at best, they’re the creme de la creme of Arab dance-pop, with a decidedly traditional, acoustic edge. They played for about an hour and fifteen minutes, encore included: while Ishtar had a very good female backup singer to help her out (the Moroccan-Jewish frontwoman is in her late forties now, though it hardly shows), she still did all the lead vocals and wailed, though not as spectacularly as at her recent appearance at Central Park Summerstage.

They opened with a terse version of their self-titled hit Alabina, then played mostly new stuff including a cover of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood which fortunately didn’t venture into Santa Esmeralda territory (a bit of trivia: they were the gypsy disco band from the late 70s who scored a minor hit with an interminable, seemingly 20-minute version of the song). They also played another hit, El-Salaama, without any spectacular vocal solos, though Ishtar did one furiously fast vocalese triplet on another number that left the crowd spellbound. The keyboardist played most of the songs’ chromatic motifs on string synth, although on a couple of slow ballads he used cheesy, lite FM-style, mid-80s DX7 settings. Fortunately, the strength of the melodies and Ishtar’s singing covered for the lameness of the textures. For the encore, they played the long version of Alabina, then Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood and El-Salaama again, Ishtar belting fetchingly and masterfully, shimmying all over the stage. She’s in amazing shape. While it would have been nice to have seen this in a setting better suited to a contagious party vibe, it was still an excellent show.

July 31, 2007 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments