Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Ensemble Fanaa Play a Mesmerizing Debut at Barbes

“Is this your debut as a trio?” Balkan multi-reedman Matt Darriau wanted to know. “Yeah,” his multi-reed colleague Daro Behroozi admitted. The two had just duetted on a hard-hitting, insistently hypnotic take of Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz, their rare two-bass clarinet frontline backed by a robustly perambulating rhythm section. The packed house at Barbes roared with appreciation. Think about it: a jazz trio improvising on original themes inspired by Middle Eastern and North African traditions packed a club in New York City this past Tuesday night. No matter what the corporate media would like you to believe, this is how miraculously un-gentrified and multicultural certain pockets of Brooklyn still remain.

Fanaa basically means “lose yourself.” In their debut, Ensemble Fanaa played music to get seriously lost in. They opened with bass player John Murchison on gimbri, a North African ancestor of the funk bass. He switched to upright bass later in the set, concentrating more on holding down the groove rather than squeezing microtonal ghosts out of the western scale as the rest of the band, particularly Behroozi, was doing. The rhythms in general were tight and slinky, although the meters were sophisticated and often very tricky – it was easy to count one of the North African numbers in 7/8 time, harder to figure out where the others were going. Which was just part of the fun.

Drummer Dan Kurfirst eventually took a long solo interspersing rimshots with a relentlessly misterioso, boomy prowl along the toms, worthy of Tain Watts or Rudy Royston. Then later in the set he matched that intensity on daf (frame drum). Behroozi held the crowd rapt with a seemingly effortless command of melismatic microtones on his alto sax. The night’s most rapturous number brought to mind the paradigm-shifting pan-Levantine jazz of Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the influence of Moroccan gnawa music was front and center, driven by Murchison’s kinetically trancey pulse. The trio closed by bringing up guest Brandon Terzic on ngoni for the night’s bounciest, most upbeat yet similarly mystical number. The trio are at Rye Restaurant, 247 S 1st St in Williamsburg on September 7; it’s a short walk from the Marcy Ave. J/M stop. And Kurfirst is playing a similarly, potentially transcendent duo  set on August 10 at 6 PM with brilliant oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis at the Rubin Museum of Art; the show is free with paid admission.

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July 28, 2016 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Terakaft’s Aratan N Azawad – A Desert Blues Classic

Terakaft (“Caravan” in the Tamashek dialect of their home base, Mali) have a reputation as the hardest-rocking of the North African Tuareg desert blues bands. Their latest album Aratan N Azawad – out now from World Village Music – flips the script, edging further toward the hypnotic otherworldliness of the rest of their nomadic brethren. Like Tinariwen, with whom they’ve shared band members, Terakaft has had a rotating cast of characters – no surprise, considering that the desert blues community is a closeknit one. Many of these musicians are also freedom fighters, since the territory their nomadic ancestors roamed for literally millennia has been decimated by war over the years. This happens to be the first Terakaft album without founder Kedou Ag Ossad, which may account for the more pensive, trance-rock sound here – although the songs are as terse as always, seldom going on for more than four minutes. This latest edition of the band includes a two-guitar frontline of Liya Ag Ablil and Sanou Ag Ahmed, with Abdallah Ag Ahmed on bass and Mathias Vaguenez on drums, with what sounds like the whole band taking turns with the vocals’ mantralike call-and-response.

The swaying, bouncy, upbeat title track works a bluesy riff as the guitars snake and intertwine, bristling with natural distortion, bass rising unexpectedly mid-riff over a simple, insistent 4/4 beat. The second cut is funkier, lit up by a Chicago-style blues lead with slinky bent notes. The title track raises the question of how aware the band might be that what they’re playing is essentially a brooding folk-rock song, sort of a Tuareg counterpart to As Tears Go By; an educated guess is that any resemblance is probably intentional. The following cut offers a nonchalant, polyrhythmic vibe similar to Etran Finatawa; the one after that reverts to the bounce of the opening track but with an even simpler and more optimistic feel.

The best song here, Amazzagh, harks back to the band’s earlier work, packed with delicious reverb-toned lead guitar and a 1960s psychedelic folk tinge. The rest of the tracks range from a trio of Tinariwen-style, suspensefully unwinding one-chord vamps; another with Afrobeat overtones; and a 60s soul shuffle done as desert blues. To western ears, without the benefit of understanding the Tamashek lyrics, all indications are that they’re characteristically allusive: offering encouragement to the young not to give up hope; mourning the loss of ancestral lands; and more direct, slightly more fervent appeals to keep the party going. As this band deserves to: this is their party for their right to fight. For fans of desert blues, it’s an essential album.

July 20, 2011 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Malika Zarra’s Berber Taxi Whisks You Away

Growing up in France, chanteuse Malika Zarra had to downplay her Moroccan Berber roots. Here she celebrates them. It’s a quiet, rapt celebration: imagine Sade’s band if they’d relied on real rhythm rather than that annoying drum machine, and you’ll have a good idea of what her new album Berber Taxi, just out on Motema, sounds like. Blending the warmth of American soul music with tricky North African rhythms, intricately yet tersely arranged, jazz-inflected melodies and lyrics in Berber, Arabic, French and English, Zarra has carved out a niche for herself which manages to be completely unique yet very accessible. She’s got an excellent, pan-global band behind her, including keyboardist Michael Cain (fresh off a potently lyrical performance on Brian Landrus’ latest album), guitarist Francis Jacob, bassist Mamadou Ba, drummer Harvey Wirht, oudist/percussionist Brahim Fribgane and violist Jasser Haj Youssef. All but two of the songs here are Zarra originals.

The quiet blockbuster here is Amnesia. Sung in French, it fires an offhandedly scathing, vindictive, triumphant salvo at a racist politician (Nicholas Sarkozy?) over a hypnotic Afrobeat pop tune as Joni Mitchell might have done it circa 1975, balmy verse followed by a more direct chorus. Your time is over, Zarra intimates: all the kids behind you are playing the djembe. Leela, by Abdel Rab Idris, is a gorgeous, sparse update on a Fairouz-style ballad with rattling oud, austere piano and gentle electric guitar – it wouldn’t be out of place in Natacha Atlas’ recent catalog. Kicking off with Zarra’s trademark resolute, nuanced vocals, Tamazight (Berber Woman) is the closest thing to North African Sade here, right down to the misty cymbals on the song’s hypnotic bridge, and the fetching call-and-response with the backing vocals on the chorus.

The title track pairs a reggaeish verse against a jaunty turnaround, Zarra throwing off some coy blue notes – it’s a vivid portrayal of the search for love in a distant place. Zarra’s casual, heartfelt vocalese – she doesn’t scat in any traditional jazz sense – carries the terse, gently imploring Houaira, and later, No Borders, an instrumental by Ba featuring some clever harmonies between bass and voice. Sung in French, Issawa’s Woman pensively recalls a woman watching her fantasy and reality diverge, Cain’s spacy, reverberating electric piano ringing behind her. Other tracks, including the knowing ballad Mossameeha and the breezy Mon Printemps, give Zarra room to cajole, seduce and show off a genuinely stunning upper register. It’s worth keeping in mind that even in the age of downloading, Sade’s Warrior album sold in the megamillions. As the word gets out, this one could resonate with much of that audience as well. Zarra plays the cd release show for the album with her band at the Jazz Standard on April 19, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM.

April 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Moroccan Music Star Hassan Erraji Makes a Big Comeback

Moroccan/British multi-instrumentalist Hassan Erraji’s career predates the moment when westerners began calling what he does “world music.” By the mid-80s, he’d already won a cult following outside the land of his birth for his ecstatic, virtuosic work on the oud, the violin, qanun and several other stringed instruments. Thirty years down the road finds him he as vital as ever on his new album Awal Mara (Love at First Sight). Recorded at the Kaiser Chiefs’ studio, he’s backed by the rhythm section of Kenny Higgins on bass and Ben Stevens on drums, taking a break here from Corinne Bailey Rae’s band. It’s a characteristically tuneful mix of oldschool-style habibi music (from before the time the drum machines and synthesizers took over), and it’s pretty amazing how he manages to overdub one instrument after another to the point that he sounds like a Middle Eastern orchestra.

The title track is a funky, syncopated, lushly sparkling dance number with some sizzling, rippling qanun cascades, Erraji’s daughter Yasmin contributing soaring backing vocals behind his impassioned, gritty baritone. The swaying, hypnotic second track features another machine-gun qanun solo. With its almost Celtic violin ambience, the next cut is an “I wanna be rich” dance number. They follow that with the dreamily pulsing, staccato jangle of Haili Ayouma (Where Has My Love Gone), a bracingly astringent violin crescendo breaking the trancelike spell of the rhythm.

After a blithely pulsing, violin-driven instrumental, they introduce some tricky clapalong counterrythms on Safir (Safe Journey), with its pensive, suspenseful violin fills. The following song has almost a British folksong feel leading up to its big, clanking crescendo. The last two songs on the album are marvelously catchy, hauntingly slinky Levantine numbers, the first a ballad, the second rich with unexpected harmonies between father and daughter. They wind it up with a joyous dance instrumental. It’s sort of the Middle Eastern equivalent of what Memphis soul from the 1960s – or disco from ten years after that – is here. It’s out now on World Village Music.

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

Concert Review: The Orchestra of Tetouan’s Auspicious New York Debut

Tetouan is sister city to Tangiers, and is historically connected with Granada across the water since this is where many Spanish Muslims and Jews fled the terror of the Inquisition. And they brought their music with them. In a concert that was heaven for early music fans, the Orchestra of Tetouan made their New York debut at Judson Memorial Church in the West Village a memorable one. Their repertoire is medieval Andalusian suites, eleven of which survive. With oud, violin, viola, kanun (hammered zither), tar (tambourine) and darbouka (hand drum), the six-piece ensemble ran through lengthy excerpts from four of them, taking up the better part of two hours and engaging what looked like a sold-out crowd enthusiastically when the pace picked up. From the audience response, much of the lyrically-driven material (sung rousingly and passionately in Arabic) has considerable cultural resonance.

What does it sound like? Like Palestrina with Middle Eastern instruments – no surprise that the adventurous revivalists Gotham Early Music co-produced the concert. The earliest Andalusian music has a definable western feel without the otherworldly overtones and chromatics that have come to characterize pretty much everything radiating from Jerusalem outward for the last several centuries. With a stately sway, pulsing along with the bassy boom of the darbouka, the group would go up from a central key for few steps in the major scale, then back down again and then work around the theme introduced by a brief instrumental overture. Polyphony and antiphony were joyously abundant. The group’s not-so-secret weapon is eighteen-year-old violinist/singer Brahim Idrissi, whose powerful baritone and impressive range dominated the mix. Oudist/bandleader Mehdi Chachoua, a leading Moroccan music scholar, took all of one taqsim (solo) all night and limited his embellishments to a few subtle slides. Likewise, kanun player Hicham Zubeiri’s taqsim could have been a Renaissance-era English reel if given a more straight-up rhythm.

Throughout the Arabic-speaking world, poetry is accorded a vastly higher space in the literary pantheon, and likewise far more of a role in daily life (the day that Bush invaded Iraq, the #1 bestseller there was a book of poetry). From the point of view of a non-Arabic speaker, the passion and longing voiced by all six singers translated viscerally, aided substantially by translations supplied in the program notes. The group concludes their American tour with shows tonight and tomorrow in Bloomington, Indiana; watch this space for upcoming NYC appearances.

September 25, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Khaled – Liberte

This auspiciously mostly-acoustic cd is not a radical change from the slick electronicized dance material the famous Algerian rai-rocker has ground out for most of his career. There’s still drum machine on many of the cuts (especially the trip-hop and downtempo numbers), along with synthesizers faking brass and string parts (and also adding a completely unintentional, comedic 80s feel in places). But there’s also a full acoustic band here, a welcome continuation of the turn back to real North African rai that the former Cheb Khaled has taken over the last ten years – let’s not forget that the Algerians invented trip-hop in the first place. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that musically at least, this is one of Khaled‘s best albums, right up there with his earliest stuff from 1982-83. This cd is back-loaded, almost the equivalent of two albums: the poppier stuff first, followed by the more traditional songs, rich with oud, flute, violin, rattling percussion and fullscale orchestration in places. Over the past almost thirty years, Khaled’s voice has also taken on a darker tone, lending a welcome gravitas to many of the songs.

Of the initial cuts, the title track kicks off with a long accordion and vocal jam and grows to a bouncy midtempo dance number that takes on a somewhat western feel with jangly guitar and synth. The most intense song on the cd is the dark, spare, Rachid Taha-inflected requiem Papa, Khaled’s anguished, melismatic French-language vocals laden with pain and loss. After the hip-hop flavored Raikoum, it’s all oldschool and and it’s very compelling, from the somewhat mysterious, shuffling Sbabi Ntya to the sparsely but beautifully orchestrated Soghri. The cd wraps up with a funky song that gradually adds layers, right up to a gorgeous, dramatic, lushly Levantine outro, and then a midtempo ballad with a nice bass-and-piano groove and a haunting violin solo. For non-Arabic speakers, this works equally well as chillout or dance music – it’s a great way to get to know one of the most important figures in the world of Middle Eastern music over the past few decades.

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

Layali El Andalus Live at Barbes, Brooklyn NY 3/1/08

Tonight the standing-room crowd in the little back room at Barbes were treated to the single best concert we’ve seen so far this year. It was a passionate, fascinating show. Performances by musicians who play traditional Arab music as expertly and emotionally as this group did tonight usually cost upwards of $50 at places like Symphony Space. Led by Moroccan singer/oud player Rachid Halihal, the all-acoustic sextet played a mix of mostly traditional dance numbers spanning the Arab world, including songs from Morocco, Tunisia, Yemen, and, obviously, Andalusia. With its extremely sophisticated counterpoint and microtonal scales, this stuff isn’t easy to play, but Layali El Andalus made it seem effortless. Interpolating a few sunnily upbeat, happily nostalgic numbers within a set of what was otherwise long, frequently hypnotic songs based on the haunting chromatic scale, it was a rare treat to witness a performance like this in such an intimate setting.

The setup of the band – oud, quarter-tone accordion, flute, violin and two percussionists – echoes the small combos used by pioneering composers like Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Said Darwish. Many of the songs they played tonight are popular standards, often lavishly orchestrated: one doesn’t often get to hear this material stripped down to its basics. Often, the band would pick up the tempo at the end of the song, flute player Daphna Mor letting out an eerily triumphant trill as the crescendo would rise to a peak. The individual musicians, including Bruno Bruzzese on violin, Uri Sharlin on accordion, and two percussionists, all got to take extended solos, unanimously proving to be terse, incisive, thoughtful players: this group doesn’t waste notes. Halihal is something of a ham: while re-tuning his oud after each song, he’d improvise on the next song’s melody until everything was on key. His attempts to get some audience participation going met with mixed results. Though he tried strenuously to get the men and women in the crowd to sing a call-and-response with each other on one number, this fell flat – perhaps they didn’t understand, or they were simply unfamiliar with what’s actually a common device in traditional Arab music. But by the end of the show anyone with enough room on the floor to dance (or at least sway a little bit) was doing that while clapping along ecstatically. The best-received song of the night was a richly melodic version of the original Ya Rayyeh (Let’s Party), best known to today’s listeners as French-Algerian rocker Rachid Taha’s signature song. They closed with a rather sentimental song that was somewhat jarring, considering the ecstatic intensity of their other material. But no matter. Layali El Andalus’ next show is Sunday, March 9 at 8:30 PM at Drom NYC, 85 Avenue A between 5th and 6th Avenues, and world music fans would be crazy to miss it.

March 3, 2008 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment