Newpoli Whirl Through the Rich, Edgy Kaleidoscope of Southern Italian Music

by delarue

This Friday, January 15 there’s an amazing six-band lineup at Alwan for the Arts at 16 Beaver St. in the financial district. The acts are slightly staggered, Lolapalooza style, on two stages, so that you can see at least some of every one of them between 7:45 and around 11. Cover is on the steep side, $30, but look at this lineup: on the fourth floor (the main space of this cultural center for the Arabic-speaking diaspora), the night starts with singer Jenny Luna’s exhilarating Turkish/Balkan/Middle Eastern band Dolunay, followed an hour later by similarly intense Palestinian-American buzuq player Tareq Abboushi’s Shusmo art-rock/funk project, then the whirlwind Russian Crimean Tatar Ensemble at 9:45. Upstairs on the sixth floor, there’s wild southern Italian folk reinventors Newpoli at 8, then veteran Malian griot guitarist Abdoulaye Diabate at 9 and then at 10 Punjabi chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia, who makes mystical, mysterious albums but is very dynamic and fun onstage.

Newpoli’s latest album, Nun Te Vuta – meaning “Don’t Look Back”- is streaming at Spotify. The title is sardonic, considering that what the band plays is rooted in centuries of Mediterranean-borne, southern Italian cross-pollination. On the other hand, just like their antecedents in centuries past, they’re putting their own spin on an old sound, and half of the album is original songs. With eight people in the band, there’s a lot going on. The opening title track sets the stage, frontwomen Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi soaring through an angst-ridden reflection on the depopulation of the countryside as a younger generation of Italians migrates to the cities, Bjorn Wennås’ acoustic guitar and mandola laying down a lush backdrop for Roberto Cassan’s warily dancing accordion, Megumi Sataaki’s violin and multi-reedman Daniel Meyers’ flute.

Bazar works its way up from a stately, suspensefully pulsing intro to a wild, wailing chorus, then back and forth, Meyers’ flute adding a bracing Middle Eastern edge. Sciure d’Arance – meaning “orange blossom” – is even more misterioso, an elegantly balletesque, mightily crescendoing, minor-key ballad, with a woundedly circumspect Jussi Reijonen oud solo at the center. The trio of chirpy dance numbers afterward make a lively, contrasting interlude: finally, about ten minutes in, the music takes a turn back into bristling minor-key terrain with a gritty staccato pulse.

Wennås’ moodily cascading guitar and Cassan’s rich washes of accordion anchor the womens’ insistent harmonies on the next number, simply titled Pizzica: it takes on a more flamenco-flavored swirl as it goes on. Even more intense is the Palestinian-tinged dirge that follows, Marsico’s voice rising with dramatic intensity over spare, funereal mandola, percussion and a stygian accordion drone. Intensity-wise, it’s the album’s high point.

The group keeps the minor-key coals burning, fueled by Cassan’s spiraling accordion, throughout the dance number after that, followed by a slow, serpentine mashup of what sounds like Elizabethan English folk and Mediterranean balladry. They close the album on a rustically otherworldly, dancing note.

If you’re wondering why there are so many multiple-band bills with acts from all over the world in town this week, it’s because the annual booking agents’ convention is here, celebrating a tradition of live auditions even though youtube and streaming audio long ago rendered all that running around obsolete.