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.

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

Khaira Arby’s Timbuktu Tarab Reinvents Desert Blues

Khaira Arby is sort of the Aretha Franklin of Mali and what’s more, she’s got an amazing band. They’re playing Joe’s Pub on 9/29 at 7 and if her new album Timbuktu Tarab is any indication, the show should be pretty intense. A cousin of desert blues legend Ali Farka Toure, Arby sings in four indigenous dialects with a fearless, raspy wail, unafraid to buck convention and challenge traditional Muslim social order (one can only wonder if she’d get away with this if she wasn’t related to Malian duskcore nobility ). Her band is just as intense. The dual guitars of Abdramane Touré and M’Barka Dembelé blend hypnotically with a wild eclecticism that ranges from snaky desert blues to oldschool American soul, sixties psychedelic rock and even tinges of country music, further enhanced by Ebellaou Yattara’s spiky ngoni lute, the screechy fiddle of Zoumane Tekereta and an exuberant harmony vocal duo.

The album opens on a pretty standard desert blues note but hints at the stunning originality that will come soon after, the band stopping cold and letting Arby wail until the central riff kicks in again. The second cut, simply titled Khaira, spins along on a hypnotic web of interlocking guitar lines, intricate, lightning hammer-ons over a growling, distorted, percussive attack. The methodically hypnotic Djaba, a tribute to a legendary warrior, bounces with swirling flute-like fiddle and more interlocking guitars.

A shout-out to a friend, Dja Cheikna has the backup vocals going full tilt, a dazzling guitar solo and stomping twin-guitar outro. The unapologetic feminist anthem Wayidou has tinges of ornate 70s art-rock; a blistering attack on female genital mutilation, Feryene begins with a haunting psychedelic rock intro straight out of the Pretty Things circa 1967, then winds down into otherworldly duskcore, overtones flying like little banshees from the off-center interplay of the guitars. And the band pull out all the stops on Delya, a showstopper and a genuine high point in the history of desert blues, mixing psychedelic rock, art-rock, Afrobeat and desert blues and a passionate performance from the backup choir. There are also a couple of vividly soul-influenced numbers, one with some unexpected, bucolic American C&W tinges; the last cut on the album is a cross between late 60s psychedelic soul music and desert blues. It’s hard to imagine a more original album in any style of music released this year: you’ll see this on our best of 2010 list in December.

September 9, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Meta and the Cornerstones and Vieux Farka Toure Live in NYC 4/27/10

Wednesday night at le Poisson Rouge, one of the best doublebills in New York so far this year featured a headliner straight from Africa and an opener one step removed. Roots reggae band Meta and the Cornerstones have a Senegalese-American frontman along with band members from Lebanon, Israel and Texas, to name a few places. Bouncing their way through a set as diverse as the musicians’ origins, they reaffirmed their status as one of New York’s most captivating live acts. With two guitars, rhythm section, percussion, backup singer and a terrific keyboardist playing through organ and piano settings instead of the cheesy synthesized brass that the Jamaicans have been using for so long now, they set the tone for the night by getting at least 80% of the crowd on their feet and dancing throughout their too-brief 40-minute set. Among the songs were a wistful Marleyesque reminiscence about a night spent on a rooftop; a rousing anthem with a big, dramatic overture of an introduction dedicated to peace in the Middle East; a bracing minor-key narrative about a weed dealer in the hood hiding out from the cops; a fiery, upbeat song about the dispossessed underclass featuring a brief diversion into dub; a Brazilian-inflected dance tune, and then one dedicated to Senegal. The keyboardist took a solo using a stark, reverberating oldschool Arp synth setting, from minor-key wariness to soaring, jazzy flights down the scale and earned a roaring ovation. A surprising number of people left after they were done – their loss, because in his New York debut, Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure put one of the most exhilarating displays of guitar virtuosity this city’s seen in recent months.

It was the last stop on Ali Farka Toure’s oldest son’s latest American tour – he opens the World Cup festivities with a performance in Johannesburg this summer – and as expected it was a party. Playing through an icy wash of chorus and reverb somewhere between Albert Collins and late-period Ike Turner, he ran a series of simple, catchy, blues based phrases at mind-boggling, 32nd-note speed. Watching this guy fire off one endless salvo after another brought to mind an old John Coltrane comment: a writer once asked why he played so many glissandos, to which Coltrane retorted, “Those aren’t glissandos – they’re arpeggios.” Most guitarists of the Steve Vai or Buckethead school play like a fireman who’s lost control of a high pressure hose, hanging on for dear life as it randomly knocks over everything in its path. Toure shreds – but soulfully. His first-class four-piece backing unit – drums, calabash and an acoustic rhythm guitarist often playing in tandem with the bassist – were tight, inspired and seemingly invigorated for one last show, following every cue in a split-second as Toure would introduce a new rhythm or motif, or pull back and give himself a breather, getting a clapalong or some call-and-response vocalese going with the crowd.

The secret to his success? Simplicity. While his famous father would stay in the same key for twenty minutes at a clip, this particular Toure fils likes two-chord vamps, funky minor-key riffs and what he calls reggae but is basically just raw, primitive, pounding rock (the percussion section had a blast with a couple of these). He started the first numbers out slowly, rubato, feeling his way into them (once with a stark Middle Eastern riff) until the band picked up and then the race was on. The quietest number pulsed and blasted along on a slinky 6/8 soul beat, crazed, percussive sharpshooter guitar juxtaposed with silence as Toure methodically chose his spots. The drums went three on four for an especially hypnotic effect during the loudest and most intense of the final numbers.

By the time they reached the encore, Toure seemed pretty much out of gas but reached back for three long, incendiary crescendos, various members of both bands dancing around the stage (one of the promoters as well, though she was shy), finally leaving the stage to the percussionists who kept a volcanic rumble going until it was clear that the rest of the band really wasn’t coming back.

April 29, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba – I Speak Fula

‘Even if there is a war going on and it is difficult to travel, a griot, with his ngoni slung around his back, was always allowed through, because it was known that he was going to play for a leader, and perhaps act as an intermediary for political negotiations,” remarked Bassekou Kouyate recently. Where he comes from, music has a few more more important functions than mere entertainment. The Malian bandleader’s axe of choice is the ngoni, a stringed instrument commonly referred to as the ancestor of the banjo with a similar clanking tone, rapid attack and decay. He gets major props in his native land for resurrecting the instrument from obscurity, adding both new techniques as well as western influences and modern electronic guitar effects. It’s not known if he’s ever been pressed into duty as a negotiator between warring factions. On US tour with Bela Fleck starting this month promoting their somewhat defiant new album I Speak Fula, Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba have come to conquer.

This is urban Malian music: spiky, circular and hypnotic in the indigenous folk tradition, but packed with imaginative licks and production touches that reveal how diverse Kouyate’s influences are, from fellow Malian Ali Farka Toure to Hendrix. It’s a mix of originals as well as new arrangements of historical ballads from over the years. What Tinariwen has done for the Tuaregs, these guys could do for what’s coming out of the cool kids’ ghetto blasters on the streets of Bamako – this stuff absolutely rocks.

The cd opens energetically with boisterous, spiraling ngoni and kora (West African harp)- throughout the album, interplay, much of it absolutely psychedelic, abounds. The first of the two most extraordinary tracks here is a tribute to Kouyate’s brother – who died while the album was being recorded – with Kouyate and Malian desert blues scion Vieux Farka Toure playing dizzying wah-wah clusters around each other. The other, Ladon, is a feast of scurrying blues runs, Kouyate showing off his bag of tricks with a big rapidfire crescendo of blues licks that could be American, or not. The band builds this to an unexpectedly explosive coda at the end: acoustic Malian heavy metal.

The closest thing to rock here is the impressively feminist Musow, fast and flurrying with wah-wah ngoni, building up to the end of the verse with a neat three-chord sequence, along with a big 6/8 ballad that could be British or Appalachian except for the language, Kouyate coming in hard against Vieux Farka Toure’s pensive, spacious guitar, nudging the guitarist to elevate his game. There’s also a swaying number that incorporates what sound like elements of both delta and Piedmont blues (or maybe not – this is where all that stuff originated, anyway), a dedication to Kouyate’s wife and bandmate/singer Amy with an intense, hypnotic jam between ngoni and Zoumana Tereta’s fiddle, and the pensive Moustafa, where the ngoni sounds almost like a vibraphone. Definitely the most exciting thing to come out of Africa since Tinariwen’s latest, last year. The album, believe it or not, is out on Sub Pop (the folks who brought you Nirvana).

February 5, 2010 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Samba Touré – Songhai Blues

This is an exciting album for desert blues fans fans and fans of West African music in general. Malian guitarist Samba Touré‘s obvious influence is Ali Farka Toure (no relation), with whom he toured internationally as a guitarist in the late 90s. Yet Samba Touré’s got his own, uniquely individual style. It’s more upbeat than the Tuareg music of Tinariwen and their brethren, with a light touch and considerably more speed than most desert blues players, although Samba Touré pretty much eschews chord changes. Likewise, the instrumentation on this new cd is imaginative, drawing from traditional Malian music and including sokou (traditional violin), gnoni (four-string guitar), flute, and electric bass along with a small army of percussion. What’s also notable about this release is how the interlocking layers of guitar work off each other, and how they work within the interplay of the other instruments. Desert blues is one of the world’s most psychedelic styles of music, but this really takes it to another level. The lyrics are in Touré’s native Songhai.

The opening track – a call for unity and celebration of the diversity of Malian ethnicities – is characteristically hypnotic, sokou swirling around Toure’s electric guitar. Lyrically nostalgic, the cd’s second cut is slinky, ringing, fast desert blues with flute and a gorgeous mesh of ringing guitar layers. The third track has call-and-response vocals and a bit of a crescendo, the bass and sokou rising out of the mix like a fish leaping from the surface of a lake, and it’s adrenalizing.

Some of the other numbers work a repetitive, circular riff over and over (these are long songs, most of them clocking in at six or seven minutes). A celebration of Malian identity works off a theme that will be familiar to all Ali Farka Toure fans. There’s also an insistent, clanging number that gives a shout-out at the end to Touré’s mentor, a slight departure into funk and a vivid, fullscale tribute to Ali Farka Toure that ends the album. Somewhere an icon is smiling.

August 25, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Toumast – Ishumar

Hot on the heels of Tinariwen, here’s another expatritate Tuareg band, a very good one. Like their brethren (the two bands share several members), what Toumast play is ostensibly rock, but not what Western ears are used to hearing, although their music contains more definably Western tropes: chord changes, distinct verses/choruses and familiar guitar licks. The band name means “identity” in Tamashek, their native tongue, a matter of great importance for nomads who’ve been uprooted and persecuted in their native Mali for decades now. Like Tinariwen’s music, much of this is beautifully hypnotic, but Toumast is more energetic and melodically-oriented. Their songs are long, often going on for six minutes or more, replete with surprise false endings, crescendos that explode out of thin air, and upper-register blues guitar played with a clean, trebly tone. Their lead guitarist has a unique, percussive style, sounding as if he’s slapping at the strings like an American funk bass player would. Their lyrics are imbued with nostalgia and sometimes outright rage.

The album kicks off with Amidnine, an afrobeat-inflected number that meanders but eventually picks up steam. The following cut Ammilana opens with a chorus of women’s voices, haunting over a hypnotic 3/2 groove with a surprise crescendo driven by the bass before one of their trademark false endings. After that, Dounia opens with the guitar playing a funky bassline as the beat kicks in…and it’s pure 70s disco! The next track, Ezeref begins with an ominous melody that turns out to be straight out of The End by the Doors. Then, on Ikalane Walegh, they mine the Burning Spear catalog for the classic lick from Marcus Garvey, but play it faster, with gently Hendrix-inflected guitar. Finally, about halfway through the song, doubletracked guitars kick in and it bursts into flame.

Innulamane builds on a hypnotic chord until another recurrent lick is introduced, this one from Los Angeles by X. Say what you want about this band, you can’t say they aren’t adventurous listeners! The seven-minute epic Kik Ayyitma, perhaps the best cut on the album, builds its drama quietly from an ominous guitar intro followed by a rousing call from the singer, as the drums build almost unnoticeably until the deluge is unstoppable. After hearing this, one can only wonder how many other sons (and daughters) of Tinariwen are out there, doing the same thing, spreading across the desert via lo-fi cassette recordings. Fans of any hypnotic genre, from dub reggae to Mississippi hill country blues will find much to feast on here. Excellent album, four stars. Toumast make their New York debut sometime in the fall of 2008: watch this space for details.

March 16, 2008 Posted by | blues music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment