One of the Year’s Best Twinbills: Sandaraa and Raya Brass Band at Littlefield

by delarue

This year good things come in twos. Granted, in a city with a population considerably beyond the official figure of eight million, it shouldn’t be hard to put a couple of good bands back to back, but the show back on May 23 at Littlefield was amazing even by this blog’s lofty standards. Sandaraa opened. They might be the most improbable and also the most original supergroup in town. Frontwoman Zebunnisa Bangash – a star in her native Pakistan – jumpstarted the band when she invited Michael Winograd – a klezmer luminary and one of the world’s most exhilarating clarinetists – to collaborate. The rest is history. They didn’t have to look far to fill out the rest of the lineup. This one included violinist Eylem Basaldi, accordionist Patrick Farrell, Yoshie Fruchter doubling on guitar and oud and longtime Klezmatic Richie Barshay on drums. And their sound – a mind-bending, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes propulsive mashup of Pakistani, Balkan and klezmer melodies – was like nothing else that’s been staged anywhere in town this year.

The band typically took their time launching into a groove, with pensive intros from Fruchter (on the oud – a rare treat), Basaldi and Winograd, the latter nonchalantly spiraling down in a shower of chromatic sparks. Farrell did much the same later in the set. Bangash varied her dynamics depending on the song, sometimes with a wounded resonance that brought to mind Eva Salina, other times with a meticulously modulated, melismatic approach. Polyrhythms and counterrythms were everywhere. One number had a tender lullaby quality; another teased the undulating crowd with the hint of a galloping qawwali rhythm, but never went there quite all the way. And although not everything was in minor keys, most of the songs had an apprehensive undercurrent, notably one number that the band spun along like an Irish reel before Basaldi led them into more moody territory with a stark violin solo. They closed with what sounded like a recent Punjabi hit, but with purist, acoustic production values.

Raya Brass Band headlined. For the last few years, they’ve been one of the most explosive party bands in town, sort of a punk Balkan brass jamband. Their metamorphosis into a sensationally tight, even elegant dancefloor group was stunning to witness. Almost imperceptibly, they followed a steady upward trajectory and took the crowd along with them, gathered on the floor around them, as the music led to a fiery peak with an Ethiopian-tinged groove. Don Godwin, the slinkiest tuba player in town, got to launch that one with a bristling minor-key riff – who would have guessed? And it worked like a charm.

This time out, the bandleaders took their time and put a lot of space between their solos, rather than duking it out in a bloody-knuckles match like they used to do. But it’s not like the band has tamed their sound – they’ve just introduced another level of dynamics and suspense. Nezih Antakli’s machinegunning standup drum riffs had the drive of a runaway train, but a steady one; accordionist Matthew “Max” Fass waited til the end before firing off one of the most adrenalizing, rapidfire solos of the night: getting to watch his fast fingers and also Farrell’s on the same stage on the same night was very cool.

As the set went on, the rhythms grew from a cumbia and reggae-tinged bounce to trickier Serbian and Macedonian-style metrics. After playing the voice of reason to the sax’s close-to-the-edge wail for most of the night, Syversen finally set off some fireworks of his own, going off on a searing, microtone-spiced tangent that left the crowd at a loss for words. And as much as the solos, and the chops, and the grooves is what draws the crowds, what might be most impressive is that most of Raya Brass Band’s songs are originals. It’s impossible to distinguish their own songs from the Balkan sounds that have influenced them so deeply. Somebody put these guys on a plane to Guca, Serbia for the trumpet festival next year and watch them give the locals a run for their money.