By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.
“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.
Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.
The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.
A hypnotic triumph of last-ditch musicology. Mamane Barka is best known in his native Niger as a master of his country’s indigenous lute, the ngurumi. But his dream was to preserve the rapidly disappearing repertoire played on the huge five-stringed harp, the biram, an instrument exclusive to the Boudouma, a nomadic tribe of fishermen living along the banks of Lake Tchad. Considered a holy instrument, the biram richly evokes lakefront sounds, from fish jumping to the lapping of waves against the shore. It’s a quintessential country instrument. Happily, Barka was able to woodshed with the man reputed to be the last living biram virtuoso, Boukar Tar and then bring the songs to WOMAD in 2008 along with his percussionist friend Oumarou Adamou (who also plays on this album). In many respects, this cd, just released by World Music Network, is to 2009 what Hamza El Din’s Water Wheel was to 1969, potentially a highwater mark (pun intended) in world music recordings. Barka sings in the Boudouma language as well as in Hausa, Toubou and Kanuri, all languages spoken in Niger; the songs mix traditional material along with some of Barka’s own socially conscious compositions.
The biram has a gentle resonance, like a muffled oud, yet despite its size, its tonalities range high into the treble where it’s loudest. Barka sometimes trades off rhythmically with the percussion, sometimes conversing in a call-and-response. The songs, rich with polyrhythms and Barka’s terse, precisely articulation are hypnotic, even incantatory. Just as with blues, salsa or rock, there are signature motifs and devices that appear throughout, in this case rhythmic tropes and brief single-note phrases. Some of this is reminiscent of the Malian kora repertoire, but vastly more sparsely arranged; other songs evoke the hypnotic oud music of coastal Yemen. The third track here is a slow, almost hallucinatory chant with percussion that sounds like chains clanging in the distance. The sixth works the murky, lower registers of the biram with echoey call-and-response vocals. Still another track bounces along on a fast 4/4 rhythm, biram and percussion putting a delighted stomp on the last two beats of the verse.
It’s out worldwide on April 20 except in the UK where it will be available May 5; cduniverse has it, among other retailers. Too bad Boukar Tar didn’t live to hear his instrument and its gently mesmerizing songs preserved for the rest of the world to enjoy.