Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. He’s joined by his entire massive, seventeen-piece Two Rivers Ensemble – comprising all of these players – for the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

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September 17, 2015 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Deep and Deviously Defiant Underground Persian Sounds from Mohsen Namjoo

Last night at the Asia Society Iranian crooner and songwriter Mohsen Namjoo played a show that was just as entertaining as it was cutting-edge. Namjoo has been compared to Bob Dylan, which makes sense to a degree: both draw on their respective nations’ folk traditions, have a sardonic lyrical side and have been a thorn in the side of the political status quo. Another comparison that came to mind strongly during the early part of Namjoo’s duo set with innovative drummer Yahya Alkhansa was Leonard Cohen, as Namjoo – a powerful, dynamic vocalist – aired out his ominous low range, giving voice to angst-ridden classical Persian poetry by Hafez.

There’s another American artist that Namjoo resembles, in spirit if not exactly musically, and that’s Tom Waits. Both have a vivid sense of the surreal, are purists in their own musical traditions and rely on dark wit to put a point across. Namjoo’s vocals and lyrics were often as funny as his playing, on setar lute and acoustic guitar, were plaintive. One of the most amusing moments was during the metaphorically-charged Sanama (“Idol,” or “Beloved,” in Farsi) where he abandoned his somber, classical intonation and began wailing, teasing, imploring and then simply goofing on this mystical woman. Persian poetry is rich with subtext, and Namjoo worked every angle and every nuance in this entreaty to “stop the pain,” before turning it into a sarcastically comedic soul song of sorts, Jimmy Castor or Cee-Lo Green taken back in time a thousand years.

Namjoo’s playing was as distinctive, individualistic and eclectic as his vocals. On the setar, he used droning, Velvet Underground-style vamps, dark, minor-key American blues riffs and during one of the evening’s most surrealisticallly amusing numbers, the shuffling melody of ZZ Top’s La Grange, over which he sang a brooding, lovestruck, metaphorical Hafez lyric. Alkhansa made it even more surreal by accenting not the two and the four, but the opposite of that beat, which turned out to be more disquieting than it was outright amusing. There can be times when one culture appropriating another’s tropes can be nails-down-the-blackboard grating or ridiculously awkward: this managed to avoid both of those traps even as it added a bizarrely comedic aspect. When Alkhansa wasn’t doing that, he was coloring the songs with a richly terse, counterintuitive verve, adding unexpected shades with the occasional tom-tom rumble, insistently pinging sequence at the top of the ride cymbal or flicker of brushes on his snare.

As the evening wore on, the two veered between dark severity and an almost punk humor: Namjoo, trained in the nuances of classical Persian singing, has an insider’s view of what that tradition takes too seriously, and doesn’t hesitate to hang it out to dry, which drew plenty of chuckles from the sold-out crowd. One of the most unselfconsciously intense moments came when Namjoo launched into the intro to David Bowie’s The Man Who Sold the World and then made Persian art-rock of it. Another was at the end of a skeletal setting of another Hafez poem, Namjoo murmuring “Damn this desert and this endless road” and all that implied. The evening’s biggest crowd-pleaser was the increasingly over-the-top, vaudevillian number that closed the show. And yet, when it came time for the big drum solo, Alkhansa responded with a lingering suspenseful “whoosh” from the drum heads, in keeping with unpredictability of the night. That trait can pay dividends for a nonconformist artist living under a repressive regime. The Asia Society’s celebration of the art and music of Iran is ongoing, with a very highly recommended show by Kayhan Kalhor and Ali Bahrami Fard coming up on November 16 at 8 PM.

September 8, 2013 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Idan Raichel Project Packs the Town Hall

Over the past nine years the lineup of artsy, eclectic Israeli rockers the Idan Raichel Project has comprised a global cast of over ninety musicians ranging in age from sixteen to ninety-three, bandleader/keyboardist Raichel revealed at his sold-out show last night at the Town Hall. That’s a formula for success if your goal is to be fluent in every global style of music ever invented. What did this particular twelve-piece incarnation of the band not play last night? Music from China, the North Pole, and Jamaica (they didn’t do any reggae). They did just about everything else, something akin to another Project from another era – that one led by Alan Parsons – but with a considerably deeper immersion in Middle Eastern and African grooves. The concert started slowly and built momentum steadily, up to an explosive, darkly bracing Ethiopian dance driven by spiraling flute, trumpet and alto sax over a slinky triplet rhythm. By this point, half the crowd – on the young side, and at least fifty percent female – had moved to the aisles, dancing and waving their glowsticks.

Raichel is a terse, elegant player who usually leaves the exuberance to the band (for a look at his more pensive, exploratory side, keep an eye out for his tremendously good forthcoming collaboration with Malian desert blues guitar star Vieux Farka Toure). In the beginning of the set, global influences flitted in and out of pretty standard if classically-tinged piano-based pop songs. An Iranian tar lute riff, an Egyptian snakecharmer flute motif, Rio rhythms and fetching habibi vocals from the group’s two dynamic, versatile frontwomen all made their way up into and out of the mix as the band almost imperceptibly brought the energy up, eventually rollicking their way through a bouncily hypnotic Afrobeat tune (these folks could teach Vampire Weekend a thing or two about energy and soul).

As the show went on, the band left the straight-up rock behind and dove deeply into global grooves. One of the encores could have been a Yemen Blues Middle Eastern jam, with oud and spiraling ney flute; a couple of others vamped on a rolling Ethiopian beat as the group lept and danced over it. The most intense of the night’s many solos (this group keeps most of them brief and leaves you wanting more) was during the loudest song, a roaring rai rock tune straight out of the Rachid Taha playbook, the guitar player building methodically to a savage Dick Dale-style blast of tremolo-picking. Not all of this came across as dead-serious, either. One track began with the percussionist playing a calabash which was sitting in a tub of water: while it was obviously not intentional, the popping beats alternating with the sound of pouring water evoked a bathroom more than it did a riverbank.

Beyond becoming the most eclectic rocker on the planet, Raichel’s ultimate motive is promoting peace. Obviously he feels that it’s worth repeating the old shibboleth that if we left the planet to the musicians instead of the priests and the mullahs, there would be no wars. Leading by example, blending cultures onstage, he drove his message home with a wallop. Has this band ever done the summer concert tour, places like Coachella? They ought to.

March 16, 2012 Posted by | concert, funk music, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Maqamfest – 2012’s Best Concert So Far

The first weekend after New Year’s in New York is the booking agents’ convention a.k.a. APAP, and most of the shows put on for conventiongoers are also open to the public. Because the artists performing are all auditioning for at least theoretically lucrative gigs, they’re usually at the top of their game. As a result, some of the year’s most extraordinary bills, and extraordinary performances, happen here, and this past weekend was no exception. While Winter Jazzfest on Saturday night and then Globalfest on Sunday – both part of the convention – had their moments, the best show of the weekend was the first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts.

The maqam trail, with its otherworldly microtones and eerie chromatics, stretches from northern Africa to central Asia, and across the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In a spectacularly successful attempt to cover as much ground as possible, the organizers assembled a diverse program including music from but not limited to Egypt, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Palestine and many points in between. Organizer Sami Abu Shumays – virtuoso violinist and leader of the first act on the bill, Zikrayat – took care to point out that while each group drew on centuries, maybe millennia of tradition, each added their own individual vision to the music. Middle Eastern cultures don’t typically differentiate between classical, and folk, and pop music as westerners do, anyway: over there, music is music, pure and simple.

In introducing the program, what Shumays omitted, maybe out of modesty, is that the players on the bill were not only some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians outside the Middle East: they’re some of the most important and creative Middle Eastern musicians anywhere in the world. They make their home at Alwan for the Arts downtown, where a vital, cutting-edge scene has evolved. What the Paris salons of a hundred years ago were for classical, the 52nd Street clubs were for jazz in the forties and fifties and what CBGB was for punk rock in the 70s, Alwan for the Arts is for music from the Middle East now. Unsurprisingly, the acts on the bill each brought classical purism, jazzlike improvisation and some punk rock fearlessness too.

The most traditionally-oriented group was Safaafir. A trio led by Alwan music honcho Amir ElSaffar and his sister Dena (virtuoso of the jowza fiddle and leader of the considerably different but equally exciting Salaam), Safaafir play hypnotically rhythmic, centuries-old Iraqi court music and folk songs. The band name means “coppersmiths” in Persian, which is fitting because that’s what the ElSaffars’ grandparents, and their parents before them, did in the Baghdad marketplace. For all the stateliness and split-second precision of the music, Safaafir gave it a jolt of energy, sometimes with a bounce, sometimes with an insistent attack courtesy of percussionist Tim Moore, locked in with the graceful arcs of the fiddle and Amir ElSaffar’s precise lines on santoor dulcimer (and also occasional, unaffectedly exuberant trumpet). Some of the songs had a trancelike, Indian tinge while others allusively referenced modes from the other side of the Euphrates.

The most western-sounding performance was by Gaida and her band. Many of the musicians on the program made multiple appearances, Amir ElSaffar playing torchy muted trumpet in this group along with the night’s most popular musician, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, with George Dulin on piano, Jennifer Vincent on bass, Zafer Tawil on oud and Hector Morales on percussion. The Syrian-born chanteuse has a minutely nuanced, warmly breathy delivery that looks back to iconic singers like Fairouz and Warda; like many of the instrumentalists over the course of the evening, she began a couple of songs with quietly spectacular, microtonally melismatic improvisations. Behind her, the band shifted effortlessly from bossa nova, to urbane saloon jazz, to vintage habibi singalongs and the most dramatic, impactful number in her all-too-brief set, a darkly apprehensive piano-driven ballad that evoked the more ambitious cross-pollinations of legendary Lebanese songwriters the Rahbani Brothers forty years ago.

The set that was the most cinematic (which happens to be the title of the band’s latest album) was delivered by Zikrayat (Arabic for “memories”). Their speciality is classic Egyptian film music from the 50s and 60s, along with originals that update this lush, slinky genre. This particular incarnation of the band featured Shumays accompanied by Abboushi, ney flute player Bridget Robbins, bassist Apostolis Sideris and percussionists Johnny Farraj and Faisal Zedan. Meanwhile, a trio of bellydancers twirled and dipped in front of them, managing to pull off a neatly choreographed balancing act without anyone in the tightly packed, sold-out crowd getting bumped. Through a trickily shapeshifting Mohammed Abdel Wahab mini-epic, a fetching Umm Kulthumm ballad delivered masterfully by guest singer Salma Habib, and another soulful number featuring young crooner Salah Rajab, the instruments blended voices and wove a magical tapestry of melody over beats that were as slinky as they were hypnotic. At the end, they abruptly switched from plaintive elegance to a stomping, ecstatically rustic, jajouka-ish folk tune that managed to be both ancient yet absolutely modern as it pulsed along with the percussion going full steam.

Maeandros, unlike what their name might imply, don’t meander: their oud-based Greek music is straightforward, soulful and frequently dark. Their connection to the rest of the acts on the bill is that they favor bracing Arabic maqams via music from the underground resistance movement in the 1930s as well as originals with the same kind of edgy intensity. Frontman Mavrothi Kontanis is a world-class oudist and a strong singer who conveys drama and longing without going over the top, but he’s a generous bandleader, leaving the spotlight mostly to violinist Megan Gould – whose pinpoint, precise, microtonal inflections wowed the crowd – along with clarinetist Lefteris Bournias. Bournias may not be a household name in the United States, but he’s one of the most sought-after reedmen in the world, especially in his native Greece, a truly Coltrane/Papasov-class soloist. Predictably, it was his rapidfire, flurrying, judiciously incisive soloing that stole the show, supersonic speed matched to an intuitive feel for where to employ it. The band’s set built an undulating, cosmopolitanally nocturnal ambience much as Zikrayat had done, Kontanis opening one number with a long, achingly crescendoing improvisation and ending the set with a brief, upbeat song featuring some blistering tremolo-picking.

With its funky rock rhythm section and electric bass, Abboushi’s genre-smashing band Shusmo – with Abboushi, Morales, Dave Phillips on bass and Zafer Tawil on percussion – rocked the hardest, covering a vast expanse of sonic terrain, from an understatedly scorching, intense take on an apprehensive Turkish folk melody, to a brief detour into stately western baroque, to hints of jazz, all with a purist, levantine undercurrent. With Bournias’ clarinet salvos bursting out alongside the clank of the buzuq and the hypnotic rhythmic pulse, they evoked another great New York group from ten years earlier, the Dimestore Dance Band, except with Arabic tonalities. Bournias used a long one-chord vamp to cut loose with his most feral, wailing solo of the night, Abboushi also wailing a lot harder than he had as a sideman earlier, particularly through a long, very welcome taqsim where like Bournias, he expertly spun furious clusters of chromatics spaciously and suspensefully, choosing his spots. As the clattering, rumbling grooves shifted unpredictably from funk, to rock, to less predictable tempos and then back again, the intensity was relentless.

The show ended with the Alwan Music Ensemble: Shumays, Abboushi, Farraj, Tawil (now on eerily reverberating qanun), Amir ElSaffar on both trumpet and santoor, George Ziadeh on oud and Cairo Opera star Ahmed Gamal on vocals, making his U.S. debut. It seems that Gamal had other things in mind than the set list Abboushi had come up with: with a little humming and a few cues beforehand, it was amazing to watch the band create a lush arrangement on the spot behind Gamal’s smooth but powerful baritone crooning and breathtaking microtonal inflections (where European opera is all about bombast, Arabic opera is built on subtleties). Gamal sang to the women in the crowd and then got everyone singing and clapping along with a joyous mix of swaying, popular Egyptian standards. Even after more than five hours of music, the crowd was ready for more: as ElSaffar had predicted before the show began, it was impossible to feel tired at this point.

January 10, 2012 Posted by | concert, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Persian Funk: Bizarre Psychedelic Brilliance

Secret Stash Records, who got their start documenting Afro-Peruvian sounds, have recently issued one of the trippiest albums of the year – on vinyl, no less. “This sounds like Starsky and Hutch, what we were listening to in the 70s,” a senior member of the crew here explained enthusiastically, before the vocals kicked in. The songs and instrumentals on the new Persian Funk compilation date from the early to mid-70s, before the Khomeini counterrevolution in Iran, when musicians there were exploring all kinds of global sounds including American rock and funk. This album actually covers a lot more ground than the title implies: there’s rock, and latin-tinged sounds, and Middle Eastern dance-pop mixed in and sometimes overshadowing the funky grooves. Whichever the case, it’s a fascinating glimpse into a brief period where musical expression was exploding there. This is not to imply that life under the Shah was idyllic – however, there’s no question that the Khomeini-era crackdown on free speech, art and music drove most of it either far underground, or out of the country: as in Afghanistan, anyone who could afford to leave the country did. Some of this has made it to youtube; other tracks here are so obscure that this compilation gets credit for debuting them for a western audience, a major achievement.

The opening track is typical, a period-perfect, moody minor-key vamp with strings and wah guitar that gives way to a Middle Eastern pop song (with lyrics in Farsi) and then returns with the hook. The production is tinny, probably deliberately designed for an audience with transistor radios. Shamaizadeh’s brief instrumental, amusingly titled Hard Groove is a brisk shuffle straight out of the Herbie Hancock soundtrack playbook. Shohreh, a chanteuse, is represented by a Middle Eastern-tinged salsa cut; Morteza, by an excellent, suspenseful, Isaac Hayes-influenced theme with all kinds of deliciously unexpected twists and turns.

Kourosh Yaghmei’s Del Dare Pire Misha is galloping, Black Sabbath-ish funky rock; these days, he makes elevator jazz. Sitarist Mehrpouya, who died in 1993, is represented by a raga so out-of-tune with its rock accompaniment that it’s hilarious, and on the opposite end of the quality spectrum by the lushly orchestrated instrumental Ghabileye Layla. Popular singer Ebi Soli Martik’s song here is completely uncharacteristic for him, a rock number in English which nicks a bad idea from the Moody Blues. Soul siren Googoosh and her band also have two tracks here, the first a creepy instrumental that sounds like it was mastered from a slightly warped 45, the second an absolutely killer cover of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. The best of the rock tunes here, Shahram Shabpareh’s Prison Song (sung in English) sets a wary, McCartneyesque tune to a reggae beat, eerily foreshadowing the persecution that would take place even more brutally in just a few years.

Not only is this a tremendously entertaining window into how Iranian musicians took an American style and invented something completely new, it’s also a clever cross-cultural move by the record label. It’s a powerful reminder of how much the people of Iran resemble us: they detest and fear Ahmedinejad and his mullahs just as much as Americans detested and feared Cheney and his apologists just a few years ago. To quote Linton Kwesi Johnson, freedom is a human necessity. This album is just one crazy, fun example of what people can do with it when they have it.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | funk music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pitom Shreds With Ominous Majesty

Guitarist Yoshie Fruchter’s band Pitom’s new instrumental album Blasphemy and Other Serious Crimes, just out on Tzadik, blends Israeli stoner metal with surf music, gothic rock and ancient Hasidic ngunim. Ostensibly a reflection on Yom Kippur, if there’s anything to atone for here, it should be for not making the album longer – and it is a long one to begin with. Here bassist Shanir Blumenkranz (also of Pharaoh’s Daughter) serves as their Lemmy, propelling much of this with a roaring chordal attack, alongside Jeremy Brown on violin and Kevin Zubek on drums. Fruchter has an individual and impressively tasteful style for a genre where florid is the norm: he roars, squalls and skronks but also cuts his chords up into juicy pieces that he offers up like a lion tamer determined to get the best out of the beast. The melodies bristle and wail, charged with eerie chromatics and Middle Eastern tonalities along with the metal riffage and slowly careening psychedelic licks.

The first song is a flamenco-tinged stomp with guitar that ranges from theremin-ish to Dick Dale-ish, set to a pounding Nine Inch Nails beat. After that, they deliver a sludgy bulldozer waltz driven by distorted bass chords and an apprehensive violin solo, Fruchter screaming in wildly to ambush Brown’s stately lines. The third track is a Maidenesque, chromatic gallop with scrapy violin/guitar textures and a watery, dambuster Leslie speaker guitar solo. With slyly growling twin guitars over a gritty bass groove, the fourth track builds to a genuinely anguished crescendo, Blumenkranz wailing with a dirty, distorted tone over Fruchter’s clanging, echoey, menacing chordal fragments.

Motorhead goes to a Jewish wedding and dances in 14/4 through a pungent cloud of guitar/violin smoke on the fifth cut; the sixth is a creepy, low-key spiderwalk. The seventh starts out with a gorgeously plaintive klezmer melody that grows menacing, then hits a grand guignol interlude straight out of early Queen, then back to the menace again. Track eight amps the rustic, wounded beauty higher, with a slow Peter Gunn-style interlude and variations. On the next cut, a frantic Balkan chase scene collapses and gets all Sonic Youth before reassembling and scurrying off again – and then they hit a noisy bridge with an early 70s style bluesmetal solo peeking out from behind the gnashing and thrashing. They close with another klezmer melody, this one done as 80s psychedelic rock a la the the Raybeats or Slickee Boys, and the majestic concluding cut featuring alternatingly intense guitar and violin solos over the murk beneath. Fans of intelligent, artsy metal bands from Junius to Iron Maiden will love this stuff. Pitom play the cd release show for this one at Rock Shop in Gowanus on Monday May 2 at 9 or so with the excellent, eclectic Gutbucket opening at 8. The bands are also bringing food for everybody.

April 28, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Creating a Global Movement with Stephan Said

Multi-instrumentalist tunesmith Stephan Said has been on the front lines of cutting-edge, socially aware music since he was in his teens. As Stephan Smith (his record label insisted that a songwriter with an Arabic name would never get anywhere) he released a series of potently lyrical albums that unapologetically confronted the reality of the Iraq war and the Bush regime’s reign of terror. These days, Said has a monthly residency at New York’s world music mecca, Drom, where he plays tomorrow night along with his band the the Magic Orchestra, with a special guest appearance by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir. The concept here is to create a space for cross-cultural communication, both onstage and in the audience. Said’s an intense presence onstage; out of the spotlight, he’s as thoughtful and historically aware as you would expect. He took some time to give us the scoop on his ongoing series of shows:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: The theme of of your show tomorrow night, the 14th, is from Trahir to Madison: Building a Global Movement. Why not Trahir Square to the White House? Or Wall Street?

Stephan Said: It could be either. Or the same thing! The concept is that this is global, it’s truly become a global issue, and my life has been all about that. I think that consciousness is the answer to any of these national or international problems. A solution can’t come from anything other than an international movement for systemic change, and how we live together. That idea is reaching critical mass by itself.

LCC: What do you say to somebody who says music can’t change the world?

SS: Can music initiate change and make that happen here? I think it can. We’re at a time where it has to! If the US isn’t a part of it, it’s not because it’s not happening, it’s because something in the system like monopolized corporate entertainment, and the music industry following suit, is preventing it from growing. But that’s not stopping it happening on a global scale. I can’t believe it can’t happen now – my career is a testament to that. Being an Iraqi making pop music – Clear Channelable music! – that had a message to it, I was fully aware of the reasons why I wasn’t allowed to open up for somebody afer 9/11. It wasn’t because of the music. There’s been a mainstream evasion of these kind of things, and for this to happen we especially need to hear voices from the Middle East and North Africa, which is a small part of what we’re trying to do here.

LCC: There are all kinds of good things going on across the world, Fukushima or not. Tunisia, Egypt, now Ivory Coast, maybe Syria. If the people of Arab world, and the African world, can overthrow their dictators, can we overthrow Goldman Sachs?

SS: Their dictators are Goldman Sachs. Let’s get real: the generation of activists over there are not largely any different than they are over here, drawing from the same demographics that we saw when I organized demonstrations in Seattle. These are educated people, and they’re fully aware of the magnitude of what’s facing not only them in their own countries, but in the whole world. And to relegate the struggle in Tunisia or Egypt, or Syria or Iraq – or Madison – to those local communities would only be to ignore the global context or the real causes. Dictators are a local problem, and they’re a global problem.

There’s just one conversation that we need to proliferate: change the global economy.

What we have to do has to be as infectious as possible, peneterate everywhere, no enemies. Including Goldman Sachs. One of the songs I did with Hal Willner, on the difrent album, is Isn’t There a Dream: “The enemy is only he who has not been made a friend.” I know people from that sphere, the world of banking and finance, and they are very much aware of the need for community and the changes that need to be made. The people at Goldman Sachs aren’t the enemy. It’s literally all hands on deck now. That means that Republican over there, he’s not your enemy. It’s way more scary than that. My family’s been bombed by our country, in Iraq, and I still don’t think our country is is to blame – the whole world is responsible. We need to get real about changing the global economy, and the first step that we need to take to create change is to create a community where we can face the truth and we can do something about it.

LCC: Breaking down boundaries between cultures is an idea whose time has come. But you know how it is, you go to this concert, or that rally, and after awhile you start to see the same faces over and over again. This is a question that I struggle with constantly, and I haven’t been able to come up with an answer. To what extent are we preaching to the converted? Are we really reaching anyone we wouldn’t otherwise, and if not, how do we get there?

SS: Does anybody have any answers for that? And yes, I do think about that all the time. My thinking is that the ways we have to do it are the ways that it’s been done forever. I was just joking with George, our bass player – it’s the past future, post-contemporary music. To answer your question specifically, I don’t think we should ever think of recruiting people. From the mid-90s, I was one of the few people surrounded by computer geeks when most people didn’t have a computer, when we launched the Independent Media Center in Seattle. The idea was, what if we started a cultural site for the networked global generation in the same way that the printing press served for the independence movement? When a single movement sets up its individual information distribution system, instead of a million individual voices speaking out in the wilderness separately, that’s when change happens.

My two mentors were Allen Ginsberg and Pete Seeger. I learned so much from them because they were both the single individual in their scenes without whom those scenes would not have happened. Without Seeger, there never would have been a folk revival, or even Bob Dylan, or Janis Joplin, or Jimi Hendrix. All of that flowed out of something that created a community of social activism, that allowed records to be sold, and a flow of information along with it. Same with the Beats. Kerouac, Corso, amazing writers, but Ginsberg would start mentioning that there are other people doing the same kind of thing, so people would go, “Oh wow, it’s not just about him, or her.” That was something that got lost after the sixties.

I mean, look at the number of megastars that we have today who cite Martin Luther King or Woody Guthrie as their heroes. Do they really emulate them? They have millions. Martin Luther King and Woody did it while being blacklisted!

Now we’re at a time where based on what all those amazing people from the 60s and onward have done, if we can bring our voices together, we can create a community where things can happen. It’s up to us to create a culture to unite people across borders, for me to make a new world pop music that effectively breaks borders and brings people together. Like those theatre movements like dada or surrealism, those rare moments where art can lead the way, we’re in a time of great hope, but it ‘s up to us to create the great culture for all the world to see. If we get off our butts and seize it, we can make the dream of a new global economic system come true if we make it come true, and it’s obvious that it’s going to be culture that leads the way.

LCC: Isn’t that easier said than done? So many people are xenophobic, maybe by nature. A lot of people are terrified of change. How do we get them to get with the program?

SS: The engine of the train never has to worry about how far back the caboose is. They can get on whenever they figure it out. I’m going to the next world and if somebody else isn’t ready to be there, the best way I can help them is to go there myself.

Stephan Said and the Magic Orchestra play Drom tomorrow night, April 14 at 8 PM along with special appearances by Reverend Billy and the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir and actress Najla Said with co-sponsors OR Books, FEN Magazine, Helo Magazine, The Mantle, and the New Jersey Outreach Group.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | Culture, interview, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

Persian Passion: Haale at BAM Cafe , Brooklyn NY 3/22/08

A mesmerizing, passionate, intoxicatingly good performance by the Bronx-born, second-generation Iranian-American psychedelic rocker and her four-piece band. Haale – as in jalapeno – treated the crowd to a hypnotic, pulsing blend of indie rock and classical Persian music. Her backing unit featured violin, cello and two percussionists, one of whom had a spiral gong that he waited til almost the end of the show to make a massive, magnificent splash with. Most of the solos were taken by the violinist, who showed off a spectacularly eerie, gypsy side; the cellist often played dark chords low on the register, frequently evoking another superb New York band, Rasputina. Haale frequently utilizes open guitar tunings that lend themselves especially well to the trancelike feel of much of her music. Vocally, she goes for a drawling, soul-inflected style, but somehow she manages to make it sound completely unaffected, perhaps because it fits her lyrics and her vision so well: this artist is all about adrenaline, exhilaration and transcendence, the soaring exuberance of her voice contrasting with the frequently haunting chromatics of the music.

Speaking in Persian, she rattled off a poem with an obviously impressive, intricate rhythm and rhyme scheme. “That was written eight hundred years ago, in Iran,” she told the audience. “That’s hip-hop!” she exclaimed. And the beat her band was using was pure trip-hop, even if it dates back centuries. Much of the set was new songs from her just-released full-length debut cd, No Ceiling, including the tongue-in-cheek yet plaintive Off Duty Fortune Teller. She told the audience of how Jimi Hendrix, during his brief time as an Army paratrooper, resolved to find a way to make his guitar produce the droning rumble of an airplane engine, then played an evocative new song inspired by that revelation. The set built a crescendo to a wild, swirling finish; Haale saved her best songs for last. The crowd – an impressively diverse crew – wanted more, but it was almost closing time. If this show is any indication, the new album is amazing.

March 24, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment