New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

A Slinky, Catchy New Album from Nubian Dance Band Alsarah & the Nubatones

Alsarah & the Nubatones call their music “East African retro pop.” That designation may be historically accurate, but it hardly does justice to the Sudanese-born singer and her band’s enchanting blend of slinky Middle Eastern sounds, starkly bluesy folk and propulsive dance grooves. They’ve got a new album, Manara – streaming at Bandcamp – and an album release show on Nov 30 at 7:30 PM at the Poisson Rouge. Advance tix are $12, but get ’em now – the band pretty much sold out Flushing Town Hall, a much bigger venue way out in Queens, earlier this year – and the 7 train wasn’t even running that evening.

The album’s opening track, Salaam Nubia, is basically a retro 70s disco groove with blues riffage from Brandon Terzic’s oud over clattering percussion and wickedly catchty vocal harmonies. Alsaarah’s tender but resolute vocals soar over a lush bed of strings and accordion on Alforag, a warmly propulsive love ballad. Its austere soul/blues phrasing make a stark reminder of the blues’ African origins.

Albahr follows a moody, minor-key, bluesy sway, eclectic percussionist Ramy El Aaser fueling its dancing peaks as Terzic ripples and simmers, up to a spacious oud solo. Jyan Tiban opens with Mawuena Kodjovi’s suspensefully bass and skeletal oud and builds to a trickily rhythmic, hypnotic call-and-response vamp. Terzic’s edgily dancing lines interspersed between the vocals.

The band follows the gently lilting, catchy minor-key Ya Watan and its wryly backward-masked oud with Nar, a study in dynamics with its airy psychedelic ambience bookending a scampering groove and biting oud solo. The album’s understatedly majestic, intricately orchestraed title track rides a slow pulse lit up by distant, muted trumpet contrasting with incisive, low oud and El Aaser’s misterioso tabla.

With Eroos Elnill, the group returns to catchy minor-key call-and-response, insistent syncopation and some vocal leaps from Alsarah that sound more like Bjork than anything African. Alsilah blends hints of vintage rocksteady and gospel harmony into its warmly hypnotic, undulating sway. The catchy, camelwalking bassline and interweave of voices in Fulani echo Malian desert rock, while the concluding cut, Safr Minni makes an aptly psychedelic, crescendoing coda. All of this is just as accessible as it is utterly exotic to western ears – and this band puts on a hell of a dance party live.

Beyond the love songs and the dance numbers, the Arabic lyrics often reflect on loss and longing for home. Nubian territory has had strategic value for millennia and as you would expect, has been overrun with regularity.  In the wake of mid-60s dambuilding, mass displacement followed, with thousand of migrants bringing their sounds to points further north. This music is a result of that.

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A Historic Performance by Iconic Lebanese Composer Marcel Khalife and His Sons This Dec 7

Rami Khalife plays an elegantly allusive, haunting chromatic piano riff, his brother Bachar’s cymbals flicker and then the pianist goes inside, under the lid, for some otherworldly sonics echoed by the percussion. That awestruck deep-space ambience opens the brilliant, poignantly elegant new album Andalusia of Love by the great Lebanese oudist and composer Marcel Khalife with his pianist and percussionist sons, streaming at Spotify. They’re playing the Town Hall on Dec 7 at 8 PM and $35 seats are available. That’s a steep price by anybody’s standards, but consider that unless some kind of election recount magic happens, this is the last Americans will see of these guys on this continent for the next four years.

The elder Khalife knows no limits stylistically. Since his ascendancy among the elite composers of the Middle East in the late 70s, he’s played vividly bucolic protest songs, cinematic suites, lushly neoromantic orchestral themes, and some of the most poignant oud music written over the past forty years. Employing both traditional Middle Eastern and western instruments, he incorporates both European scales and the magical microtones of his native idiom throughout his diverse and individualistic oeuvre.While the arrangements on this album are somewhat more intimate than on Khalife’s titanically orchestrated 2012 magnum opus Fall of the Moon, the sound is hardly less lavish.

On the album’s opening track Rami’s extended technique on the piano is matched by the ripple of the kanun, the great oudist taking a brief, somber solo  – and then the band takes the piece flying, joyously, doublespeed. It’s victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, setting the tone for the rest of the album, a suite where pretty much every track segues into the next one. A spacious ballad, Ouhbouki, follows it, a richly spare but intricate web of piano, oud, kanun with an expressively crescendoing vocal from the bandleader, building to a characteristically pensive, plaintive swing. As the song hits a rippling peak, it segues into the scampering but similarly awestruck Ana Li Habibi.

Taratil, a spare, gracefully steady, minimalistically-flavored piano-and-drums duo is next, segueing into Nassiti, a hypnotic variation on the theme where the whole band picks it up with even more poignancy and then rises and falls through several dynamic shifts. Rami’s piano takes the conclusion, Maraya, out with a resonant. starlit unease.

The stately, brief levantine love ballad Ya Habibi gets followed by the swaying, rippling, uneasy Achtahiki, pulsing along on a distantly booming groove with the kanun and piano soairng overhead. Faracha, a tense interlude, features the piano almost fighting through a straitjacket of muffled, muted notes against the sparkling tones overhead. Nahla starts out much the same, but with vocals, and rises to a longing, majestic crescendo. Likewise, Araki rises toward a shadowy grandeur out of a tantalizingly brief, spiky kanun solo as it echoes the album’s opening.

A tolling bell motif holds firm as the kanun pulls upward, almost struggling, as Yadaik opens, rising and then quickly descending to a wary intensity. By contrast, Andalos Al Hob – a title track of sorts – is a scrambling, almost boogie-woogie take on joyous Egyptian habibi pop. The album winds up with its most epic number, Achikain, its opening contrast between muted and unmuted piano tones, briskly scampering groove and ending that’s so unexpected and symbolically charged that it’s too much to give away. The Arabic lyrics, by the late, great Mahmoud Darwish, tersely and symbolically reference an Andalucian golden age now gone but infinitely ready for a return. Middle Eastern music in 2016 doesn’t get any more eclectic or magical than this.

Trumpeter James Williams with Svetlana & the Delancey Five: Midnight at Noon at the Blue Note

“”They let you in here?” the leader of Svetlana & the Delancey Five asked the writer, scrunching up her face.

“No, they didn’t,” the writer answered truthfully. “Your trumpet player did.”

“It’s always midnight at the Blue Note,” the irrepressible swing chanteuse grinned as she took the stage yesterday, and the crowd agreed. This time out, she’d brought a big slice of New Orleans in the person of trumpeter/crooner James Williams. There are thousands of oldtimey swing bands with women out front, but what makes this band different is that they aren’t just a backing unit. And they have the advantage of the kind of chemistry that comes from playing together week after week for the better part of four years. Their latest album Night at the Speakeasy explores some of the territory that Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald worked with so much fun, and the addition of Williams gave them the chance to wake everybody up with a little taste of Mardi Gas.

With the summery neoromantic glimmer of Billy Test’s piano, drummer Rob Garcia hit the first of several devious stumbling-caveman riffs and they were off into a scampering take of I’ve Got Rhythm, with rapidfire solos from Test and saxophonist Michael Hashin, Test trading eights with Garcia. When bassist Daniel Foose soloed, he did it with horn voicings, bubbling and sliding upwards: if you absolutely must indulge yourself and solo on the bass, you want to keep the crowd entertained, right?

First joining forces with a swinging take of Someone Just Like You, the singers took a coy formula perfected by Louis and Ella to the next level. Svetlana played the ingenue, teasing Williams, and he responded by pushing further and further and kept the audience in stitches. His bursts and burbles on trumpet matched the sly soul in his growly bass voice: he played as if he had a mute even though he didn’t . It seemed that he was making up half the lyrics on the spot – he’s got the prewar vernacular and the ginmill seduction honed to a fine shine.

To his credit, both Williams and the band managed for the most part to skirt cheesiness on their take of Hello Dolly, the one number closest to the Louis Armstrong catalog, propelled by Garcia’s second-line inspired shuffle. Svetlana and the band reinvented the Beatles’ Because as stern, stark, hauntingly austere, gospel-infused late 1800s rusticity, Garcia’s chart finding new plaintiveness and poignancy in the moody McCartney melody. They followed with a briskly shuffling Lady Be Good, Williams just a little behind the beat for extra sass. Cheek to Cheek was the most ribald number on the bill, and the whole band got into the act, instrumentally at least, leaving the dancefloor pickup scene for the couple at the mic to work out. Likewise, the band eased their way into Baby It’s Cold Outside, drawing plenty of chuckles with a series of riffs from a whole slew of cheesy Xmas hits.

They wound up the set with a piano-and-vocal intro into a slowly swinging Blue Skies – Svetlana took an equally charming and challenging, stairstepping prowl through the first verse, then the group took it swinging doublespeed with lickety-split solos from Hashin and Test to send the crowd out breathless. Svetlana saved her lone swoop up to the towering peak of her register for the last line of the last chorus. She and the group are off to Israel for a little tour, then they return to New York on Dec 5 at 9 PM at their regular backyard-tenement haunt, the Back Room on Norfolk just north of Delancey. Look for the unlocked gate on the east side of the street about eighty feet up the block.