“We’re the Caravan for Peace,” Malian desert blues band Imharhan‘s frontman Mohamed Issa told the crowd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors earlier tonight. He paused. “You know, you can’t have development without peace.” He was speaking in French. But someone must have advised him what the average income is in zip code 10023. And he was speaking to it. The French have a word for it: BCBG.
A bit earlier, longtime Ali Farka Toure guitarist Mamadou Kelly told the crowd how hard the past year had been for his fellow Malians. But he and the rest of the Caravan for Peace were clearly glad to be out of the line of fire, whether here or elsewhere. That’s the benefit of being a musician lucky enough to be chosen for this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. Even by cynical New York standards, this year’s festival is an event not to be missed: the remaining concerts are here, and the Malians travel to Littlefield this Saturday, August 3 where you can watch Tartit play the roots of desert blues and then transform into Imharhan, a current-day electric band, plus sets by Kelly and luminous South Asian ghazal chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia for a very worthwhile eighteen bucks.
That Tartit aka Imharhan have women in the band may seem almost expected in 2013, but remember that this group comes from a culture where Islamic extremism has wreaked even more havoc than Christian extremism has here. To put it in better perspective: the first successful all-female American rock band, the Go Go’s, are playing Coney Island tomorrow night. Tartit opened the night with spare, acoustic one-chord jams animated by a lot of call-and-response and ecstatically shrieking woo-woo-woo-woo-woo’s to bring a chorus over the edge. Their electric side turns what they do into Tuareg folk-rock: long jams driven by resonant, reverb-drenched electric guitar spiked with nimble hammer-on riffs and more of the same vocals. Issa offered insight into why their music drifts and wanders like it does: “In the desert, there’s no electric power. Just sand dunes, and the sky and the moon.”
Where Imharhan stuck to the roots, Kelly was clearly amped to show how diverse Malian music has become. He and his band – spiky lute, terse bass, and deep muddy calabash drum – opened with a brightly attractive song that worked an American folk-rock lick. Later on Kelly vamped through bluesy riffage that either predated John Lee Hooker or was nicked from him – or maybe both: this music brings the African influence on the guitar full circle. He went to the north for swaying camelwalking grooves and to the south for funkier rhythms, all the while airing out his bottomless bag of hypnotic yet biting licks. And he’s a funny guy – thinking his show was over, he told his band to pack it in, building to a big crescendo. Then he learned they had four more songs, grinned and launched back into another long, slow upward trajectory.
Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa headlined. Sahmaoui earned a worldwide cult following in the now-legendary French/Middle Eastern Orchestre Nationale de Barbes, and he played a few of that band’s long, crescendoing anthems to an ecstatic crowd massed in front of the stage, his fellow Algerians alongside French and Americans in a scene that Frantz Fanon would never have envisioned in his wildest dreams. The band felt the moment – it was their New York debut, after all – and rose to the occasion. Who knew that kora player Cheikh Diallo was also an excellent keyboardist, as adept at reggae as gnawa rhythms? Their bassist grinned and switched in a split-second from warm lead guitar lines to growly, snapping funk interspersed with evil, booming chords. The most jaw-dropping solos of the night were taken by Sahmaoui’s astonishingly good acoustic lead guitarist, firing off barrages of biting, terse, flamenco-tinged lines and then finally a whirlwind of hauntingly modal tremolo-picking, somehow managing not to break a string as he impersonated a guitar army.
Depending on the song, the crowd either sang along or didn’t. The Americans couldn’t cut it on the vocalese or the Arabic (Sahmaoui energizing the audience in Arabic, French, Spanish, English and possibly multiple other dialects), but the home country posse swayed and roared as the anthems reached sudden, towering heights. Sahmaoui stuck mostly to his low-register, two-string bendir lute, playing nimble oud on a couple of songs including the haunting Makhtoube (“Destiny”), a grueling chronicle of wartime destruction as seen through a child’s eyes. Through bouncy, hypnotic call-and-response gnawa rock, then rising to stadium levels, Sahmaoui had come to bring the Arab Spring to New York and reaffirmed its power and honor for everyone who could understand it, whether or not they knew what he was talking about.