The South American Music Festival Winds Up Booking Agent Weekend on a High Note

by delarue

For ambitious concertgoers with the stamina to stand for hours through band after band, the dozens of shows programmed around the annual January booking agents’ convention can be a real bargain. Aside from the handful of free concerts, Monday’s South American Music Festival showcase at Drom was among this year’s best, starting out a raptly low-key note and quickly growing into a big fiesta.

You might not expect a percussion-and-vocal duo to play lullabies, but that’s essentially what singer Sofía Tosello and innovative percussionist Franco Pinna’s hypnotic new folk-trance duo Chuño did to get the night started. In addition to his usual battery of south-of-the-border objects, Pinna played his new invention, the arpa legüera, a sort of cross between a hammered dulcimer and an Argentine harp. The sound was closer to the former than the latter, adding mutedly twinkling ambience under Tesello’s dynamically-charged vocals as she ranged from gentle and unadorned to more dramatic intensity where she aired out the lower-register power that distinguishes her work in latin jazz and tango. Guitarist Juancho Herrera – who is a real beast, and was vastly underutilized here – delivered a single, tantalizingly uneasy, punchy original number out in front of the band. Likewise, genre-defying singer Sofia Rei led the group through a coyly chirpy, polyrhythmic mashup of subequatorial jazz and John Zorn-ish indie classical, drawing on her background as a member of Zorn’s all-female a-capella quartet Mycale.

Electroacoustic avant garde singer Ximena was next on the bill, followed by irrepressible percussionist Cyro Baptista’s Banquet of the Spirits. For those unfamiliar with the latter’s celebratory sound, the blog most recently caught his act at last year’s Bang on a Can Marathon, leading a smaller group. What’s cool about these multi-act bills is that if there’s a lull in the action, or a band you’ve already checked off your bucket list, you can always go run errands. Who says multitasking is only something you do online? When you run a busy blog, sometimes that’s your only option.

Hints of an iconic art-rock epic wafted from guitarist José Luis Pardo’s loop pedal as his three-piece tropical psychedelic supergroup Los Crema Paraiso – with five-string bassist Bam Bam Rodriguez and Neil Ochoa, late of Chicha Libre, on drums – took the stage. This blog caught them most recently at Barbes, where they went on half an hour late since Pardo was busy loading that pedal with some of the overdubs from Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Part 1 – and then they played the whole thing, pretty much note for note. Getting to hear that this past August from the best spot in the house – the next-to-last seat at the bar, right under the air conditioning duct – was an awful lot of fun. Were they going to do that again here? Well, sort of. Rather than recreate an art-rock classic, Pardo stuck to playing the melody lines, using his wah to max out the psychedelic factor, Ochoa propelling the music with a lighter, more incisive touch than Nick Mason’s thud on the original. And they did cut it a little short.

From there, they picked up the pace, playing along to snippets of Venezuelan films from the past several decades, bringing a new dimension to several numbers from the band’s latest album De Pelicula and Pardo’s ongoing project of writing new theme music for his favorite old movies. Pardo blazed through furious volleys of crime-theme tremolo-picking juxtaposed with lingering, summery washes as the rhythm section took a comfortable Pacific coastal route. From there they mashed up galloping Pink Floyd psychedelia with bouncy Mexican themes, blistering 70s art-rock with Venezuelan stoner-folk riffage and balmy motorik interludes. You wouldn’t probably consider anything motorik to be the least bit balmy, but this band made it happen. And it’s a miracle that Pardo didn’t break any strings: the guy really punishes them, and on the coldest night of the year so far, he was drenched in sweat.

The Gregorio Uribe Big Band closed the evening with their high-voltage, original blend of just about every large-ensemble sound in the Western Hemisphere. Uribe distinguishes himself as a rare accordionist-bandleader and composer of intricately fascinating big band jazz equally informed by salsa, various latin folk styles and swing. In a way he’s sort of the Carl Nielsen of tropical music – and a hell of a crooner as well. The dancefloor filled in a second as he led the big sixteen-piece vehicle into a slinky cumbia, which they scampered out of at doublespeed. Unsurprisingly, the band’s biggest hit of the evening was another cumbia, Uribe really getting the dancers twirling when he hit an oldschool two-chord vamp on his accordion. Otherwise, he sent a lickety-split, punchy shout-out to his native Colombia as the band swelled and blazed behind him, then swirled and dipped through a couple of fiery salsa dance numbers.

It was a lot of fun to watch alto saxophonist Sharel Cassity think on her feet, judiciously weaving a lattice of post-Coltrane riffage out of a simple Afro-Cuban theme. Likewise, baritone saxophonist Roberto Bustamante contributed a couple of smoldering solos, as did trombonist Matt McDonald and trumpeter Sam Hoyt, among other group members. The audience screamed for an otra after the group had swung through a lively Caribbean cha-cha and band intros were done, and Uribe rewarded them with a final cumbia harking back to the glory days when Bogota bandleaders like Lucho Bermudez took coastal gangster rhythms and bulked them up for cosmopolitan dancefloor crowds. Uribe’s big band return to their regular home turf, Zinc Bar, at 9 PM on February 5.