Diverse Brooklyn Sounds in an Era of Vanishing Diversity
Where was the Brooklyn massive last night? Packed in the middle of the arena in front of the Prospect Park Bandshell, where Protoje and his protean reggae band were energizing the crowd. But as crowded as the middle of the space was, the sidelines were pretty vacant, and the party that goes on out back and off to the sides was almost completely absent. Which was strange: last year, his Jamaican countryman Chronixx drew a packed house that overflowed into the surrounding space.
Is an only 80% capacity crowd for a popular reggae act an indication that 20% of the Brooklyn Jamaican and Caribbean population has been forced into exile by real estate speculation? That the most musically-inclined 20% have been displaced, in the ongoing brain drain out of New York? Or is Chronixx really that much more popular than Protoje? That last proposition is dubious.
Everybody seemed to know the words and was singing or toasting along to Protoje’s eclectic mix of tunes. More than ever these days, the dwindling supply of artists still caught on the record label treadmill are forced from their usual positions and turned into utility players. Protoje did something for the ladies, something for the Rastas, something for the politically conscious – Criminal, an anti-corruption, anti-racist broadside and the biggest hit of the night- and plenty for the weedheads. A small parade of special guests filtered on and off the stage. Meanwhile, the energetic band behind him shifted from punchy dancehall to several detours into some pretty serious metal, including a sizzling guitar duel.
Down the hill, a smaller subset of the Brooklyn massive had gathered at Barbes to watch Middle Eastern group Nashaz debut a spellbinding new set of material. Bandleader/oudist Brian Prunka has been on a creative tear lately and the result is some of the best music his shapeshifting, slinky band has ever made. The decision to write material focusing on oud and trumpet has paid off immensely, with the addition of Slavic Soul Party‘s Kenny Warren to the band. Warren’s immersion in Balkan sounds with that Brooklyn brass crew has given him formidable chops to simmer and storm through chromatics and microtones, as he did last night. The result was akin to the great Lebanese trumpeter Ibrahim Maalouf backed by a more traditional rhythm section. No joke.
Tersely and emphatically, bassist Marouen Allam found just about every trick to make long one-chord jams interesting: slurry, shivery slides around a low note, the occasional leap to much higher registers, subtle rhythmic shifts and changes in voicings. Drummer Philip Mayer played the toms and cymbals with his hands, and engaged in a couple of adrenalizing dumbek duels with his percussionist bandmate Gilbert Mansour.
Prunka opened a couple of the numbers with moodily spiky, methodically crescendoing improvsiations, building up to exit velocity by the end of the first set. Meanwhile, Warren’s mournful resonance, ominously burbling riffage, sharp bursts and exuberant Romany-flavored crescendos were the icing on the cake. Prunka is back at Barbes on July 5 at 8 PM, hopefully not with 20% fewer bandmates because they too have been forced out by the luxury condo blitzkrieg.