New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: afrobeat

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Release the Most Rapturously Epic Album of 2017

Trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar’s epic, rapturous new double vinyl album Not Two, with his large ensemble Two Rivers, is a new kind of music. It sounds more composed than improvisational; the reverse is probably true. While the lp – soon to be streaming at New Amsterdam Records – embodies elements of western classical music, free jazz, Iraqi maqams and other styles from both the Middle East and the American jazz tradition, it’s not meant to be cross-cultural. Pan-global is more like it. Haunting, dark and incessantly turbulent, it reflects our time as much as it rivets the listener. The performances shift tectonically, dynamics slowly surging and then falling away. ElSaffar and the ensemble are playing the album release show outdoors at 28 Liberty St. at William in the financial district (irony probably intended) at 6 PM tomorrow night, June 16 as the highlight of this year’s River to River Festival.

The personnel on the album come out of as many traditions as the music, and more. The core of the band comprises ElSaffar’s sister Dena, a first-rate composer herself, who plays viola and oud, joined by multi-instrumentalists Zafer Tawil and Geroges Ziadeh, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, oboeist/horn player Mohamed Saleh, multi-reedman JD Parran, vibraphonist Jason Adasiewicz, guitarist Miles Okazaki, cellist Kaseem Alatrash, saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol, buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, bassist Carlo DeRosa, percussionist Tim Moore and drummer Nasheet Waits.

That the album was recorded in a single marathon sixteen-hour session, live to analog tape, makes this achievement all the more impressive. The album’s first track, Iftah capsulizes the scope and sweep of ElSaffar’s vision. It slowly coalesces with shivery rhythmic variations on a majestic three-note theme the group slowly expanding on a vast ocean of ripples and rustles both near and distant, drums and cymbals introducing ElSaffar’s towering fanfare. But this is not a celebratory one: it’s a call to beware, or at least to be wary. Ole Mathisen’s meticulously nuanced voice-over-the-prairie sax signals another tectonic shift outward, ripples and rings against brassy echo effects. The result is as psychedelic as any rock music ever written, but deeper. A scampering train interlude with sputtery horns then gives way to the main theme as it slowly winds down.

The second track, Jourjina Over Three follows a lively, spiky groove that rises to an energetic, microtonal Iraqi melody and then takes a sunny drive toward Afrobeat on the wings of a good-natured Abboushi solo, the whole orchestra moving further into the shadows with a shivery intensity as the rhythm falls out.

The groove of Penny Explosion alludes to qawwali, while the melody references India in several places, the stringed instruments taking it more enigmatically into Middle Eastern grandeur that then veers toward what could be a mashup of Afrobeat and the most symphonic, psychedelic side of the Beatles. A Mingus-like urban bustle develops from there, the bandleader leading the charge mutedly from the back.

Saleh’s mournful oboe over a somber dumbek groove opens Ya Ibni, Ya Ibni (My Son, My Son), plaintively echoed by Mathisen and then the bandleader over a stark, stygian backdrop. Adasiewicz then channels a glimmer, like Bryan & the Aardvarks at their most celestial. How the group unravels it into an eerie abyss of belltones is artful to the extreme.

Layl (Night) is just as slow, more majestic, and looks further south toward Cairo, with its slinky, anticipatory electricity, a mighty, darkly suspenseful title theme. The composer’s impassioned, flamenco-inflected vocals and santoor rivulets drive the group to an elegantly stormy peak. Live, this is a real showstopper.

More belltones and a bristling Andalucian-tinged melody mingle over an implied clave as Hijaz 21 gets underway, the strings building acerbically to a stingingly incisive viola solo, trumpet combining with vibraphone for a Gil Evans-like lustre over a clip-clop rhythm.

The next-to-last number is the titanic diptych Shards of Memory/B Half Flat Fantasy, with galloping variations on earlier themes. Its intricately intertwining voices, vertiginous polythythms, conversational pairings and echo effects bring to mind ornately multitracked 70s art-rock bands like Nektar as much as, say, Darcy James Argue or Mohammed Abdel Wahab. The cartoonish pavane that ends it seems very sarcastic.

Bayat Declamation, the album’s most traditional maqam piece and arguably its most austerely beautiful track, makes a richly uneasy coda. Other than saying that this is the most paradigm-shifting album of the year, it’s hard to rate it alongside everything else that’s come over the transom this year because most of that is tame by comparison. There’s no yardstick for measuring this: you need astronomical units. If you’re made it this far you definitely owe it to yourself to immerse yourself in it and make it out to the show tomorrow night.

The Battle of Santiago Bring Their Wild, Hard-Rocking Latin Dancefloor Jams to Red Hook

The Battle of Santiago sound like no other group on the planet. Ostensibly, they’re an Afro-Cuban dance band, but that’s just for starters. They also bring elements of Afrobeat, dub, south Asian sounds and even a little stadium rock to their undulating, serpentine dancefloor jams. They’re bringing their wild live show to Pioneer Works in Red Hook at 8 PM on May 14; the show is free.

Maybe more than anything, the Battle of Santiago are all about contrasts. They fill the sonic picture from boomy lows to airy highs over a clattering, hypnotic beat from Sty Larocque’s drums in tandem with the congas and percussion of Reimundo Sosa and Magdelys Savigne. Their album La Migra – an obvious reference to the terror facing displaced persons and immigrants these days – is streaming at Bandcamp.

It opens with the stormy, seven-minute jam Aguanileo, part shamanistic call-and-response chant, part Afrobeat and part dub, awash in ominous low brass and Lyle Crilly’s resonant guitar as bright alto sax flutters overhead. The second number, Rumba Libre sets distantly fiery, tremolo-picked guitar and a hypnotic interweave of horns over a circling, qawwali-like groove. In Pa’ Bailar, the band sticks with that pulse but picks up the energy, burning electric guitar anchoring the sax and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s violin. Congo is much the same, centered around a bright, anthemic Hawaii 5-0 brass hook.

After the music box-like miniature El Viajes del Bata, a balafon solo, the band brings back the bluster with Asi Vengo Yo, a blazing, galloping, cinematic theme awash in nebulous atmospherics, spiced with guitar, sax and a little reggaeton. Barasu-Ayo is a diptych, opening with a lively santeria chant over bubbly balafon, then picking up with a brisk Afrobeat drive and a scurrying Jason Hay baritone sax solo. With cloudbanks of synth slowly turning overhead, it’s the album’s most hypnotic number.

Se Me Complica, a big, dramatic Afrobeat jam, bounces along with clip-clop percussion. The album winds up with Bomba Grande,  a launching pad for a long, treetop-brushing bari sax solo. For those who like like Radiohead and Pink Floyd but wish that you could dance to them – or who would like Fela better if his music was more focused and heftier – this is your jam.

Ethio-Jazz Soul Singer Meklit Airs Out Her Brilliant Forthcoming Album at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Meklit came to conquer. Rocking a sassy kente cloth skirt and black top, the ex-Brooklynite Ethio-jazz belter bounded and whirled across the stage, singing in both English and Amharic, leading a tight six-piece band through a passionate, fiery, subtly relevant mix of mostly new songs from her forthcoming album When the People Move, the Music Moves Too. Freed from behind her acoustic guitar – at least for most of the set – she’s found new vocal power in her low register, and commands the stage like never before. It’s hard to believe that the artist formerly known as Meklit Hadero – her full name – got her start in the cautious, sedate world of singer-songwriters.

While her work has always drawn on her Ethiopian roots, her newest material goes deeper into that nation’s joyously cantering, brassy dance music from the 60s and 70s. “Ethio-jazz in 2017!” was the mantra throughout the night’s most explosively kinetic number, I Want to Sing For Them All, a shout-out to influences ranging from the golden-age hip-hop she grew up with and found kinship in, to Coltrane and Mulatu Astatke, among many others. Drummer Colin Douglas and percussionist Marco Peris Coppola negotiated the song’s twists and turns with a steely precision as bassist Sam Bevan bubbled behind the searing, thrilling, trilling chomatic harmonies of tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpeter DeAndre Schaifer. It was a visceral validation of George Clinton’s observation about how freedom begins in the lower extremities.

In between songs, there was silence, and Meklit let it linger, choosing her thoughts like she chooses her spots as a singer. “Welcome to my living room!” she beamed as the second line-tinged groove of You Are My Luck got underway, an irrepressibly shuffling shout-out to the power of love as fuel for the struggle. She bookended her roughly hourlong set with a couple of bracing Ethio-jazz numbers, the first with a trick ending and a tantalizingly brief Wiley solo, the closing number a careening, pulsing take of the first Ethiopian number Miriam Makeba learned for her initial trip to that country in the 1960s.

They reinvented an Erykah Badu pop hit as Ethiopiques, with a still, suspenseful intro that gave way to spine-tingling microtonal horn riffage. One of the new songs, Supernova was akin to the Sometime Boys tackling Ethiopian funk, with Meklit’s most powerful, dramatic vocal of the night. “In case you’re ever feeling ordinary, remember you were born in a supernova,” she mused beforehand.

Musically speaking, the high point of the evening was an insistent minor-key anthem, part Ethiopiques, part Aretha, with a long, feral, microtonal Wiley solo that began with aching sirening effects and eventually picked up with volley after volley of chromatics and microtones. Then Meklit plugged in her krar harp for a number she hoped would be as hypnotic to the crowd as it is to her, an argument that held. Then she flipped the script with her own wryly sunny happy-birthday song, a welcome alternative to what you hear blasting from the speakers in East Village Indian restaurants.

The triumphantly crescendoing, anthemic, soukous-tinged This Was Made Here peaked out with a long, riveting, trilling trumpet solo fueled by Schaifer’s circular breathing. “I’m not going to wait, and I’m not going away,” Meklit belted. Throughout the set, Bevan – switching from standup and five-string Fender, and then back – impressed with his ability to be busy but not obtrusive, playing lots of variations on bouncy octaves. Coppola, with a big Indian dhol bass drum slung over his shoulder, handled the tricky metrics in tandem with Douglas and Bevan. At one point the drummers left their posts to bang on the bass strings for a solo: this group has as much fun onstage as their bandleader. The next stop on their current US tour is tonight, April 7 at 8 PM at World Cafe, 500 N. Market St. in Wilmington, Delaware.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center is where most of the most happening shows there take place – it’s an easy place to call home away from home. The next one is on April 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic Colombian champeta dance band Tribu Baharu.

More Creepy, Psychedelic Soundtrack Magic from Morricone Youth

You’re going to be hearing a lot of Morricone Youth in the next year, and not just here. Prolific guitarist/composer Devon E. Levins’ ominously psychedelic film soundtrack outfit are off to a good start with their planned marathon fifteen-album cycle of original film scores they’ve performed live over the past five years. The latest in the series is the music for Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 silent The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the oldest animated feature still in existence. As with the previous release, this one’s available on limited-edition vinyl as well as digital formats. Most of it’s up at the band’s youtube channel (tracks aren’t in sequential order, but there’s a heavenly feast of noir sound here).

The title theme scatters hints of Middle Eastern modes in Dan Kessler’s dramatic funeral organ, Levins’ steely tremolo-picking finally hitting a slasher peak over altered cha-cha drums, pouncing along on a tricky 5/4 beat. Conrad Harris’ koto-like, reverbtoned pizzicato violin and Ayo Awosika’s inscrutable vocalese spice the Asian psychedelica of Chinese Emperor; then Levins takes it further into Vampiros Lesbos territory with his sunbaked, distorto lines.

Harris channels vintage Bollywood in tandem with Levins’ guitar sitar in Peri Banu. Changing Modes drummer Timur Yusef adds all sorts of eerie, jungly textures to open Maestro in Baghdad, as he frequently does throughout the album, while Kessler’s organ keens in tandem with Levins’ terse, distantly menacing Andalucian lines.

Fraser Campbell’s tenor sax channels a classic Addis Ababa riff as the elegant Maidens gets underway: Mulatu Astatke might have done something like this if John Carpenter had hired him for a horror soundtrack forty years ago. Sorcerer, the final cut, takes a completely unexpected turn into blippy Afrobeat. For a band that seems hell-bent on dumping release after release of collector vinyl onto the market, they maintain an amazingly high level of consistency: this is every bit as fun and arguably even more eclectic than the band’s just-released score to George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Ifrikya Spirit Debuts with a Wild Dance Party at Lincoln Center

Why is it that the music that gets the most people dancing at a concert is invariably the most rustic-sounding? You can crank a drum machine to concrete-crushing levels, but what people who like to cut a rug really want to hear is acoustic sounds. In their Lincoln Center debut last night, Algerian band Ifrikya Spirit ignited a raucous dance party. What was it that sent a posse of a couple dozen middle-school kids spinning in a line amid the rest of the dancers gathered in the center of the atrium space? A slinky, hypnotically circling gnawa number, frontman Chakib Bouzidi playing gimbri – the three-string North African bass lute – and intertwining riffs with his bandmate Rafik Kettani, who’d switched from percussion to sousanne, a slightly more trebly two-string model.

Ifrikya Spirit are hybridizers rather than stylistic chameleons. Instead of switching from one African genre to the next, they blend elements of them into a distinctive Algerian psychedelic funk. Although the band’s percussively hypnotic sound definitely has a trance element, their rhythms are more dynamic and diverse than a straight-up, funky 4/4 beat. There was a little bit of that in their roughly 90-minute set, which keyboardist Reda Mourah used as a launching pad for his expansive blues and jazz-inflected riffage. Drummer Hafid Abdelaziz and terse bassist Samy Guebouba also propelled the band through some spot-on, shuffling 70s disco interludes and a couple of dizzyingly circling, Afrobeat-influenced jams.

Singer Meziane Amiche took centerstage on a mashup of Egyptian habibi pop and North African rai. As the energy reached fever pitch, guitarist Nazim Bakour got to more opportunities to flex, particularly during a long, loping, seemingly qawwali-influenced number that brought to mind the Brent Mydland-era Grateful Dead (one suspects that Mourah knows who that was). And the whole band built to a sprint on what sounded like Malian duskcore icons Tinariwen on steroids. They rocked the gnawa hard at the end. Seemingly sensing that on a night where air conditioning might be overkill but ventilation would be a good idea, the Lincoln Center staff threw open the doors on the Broadway side of the stage, and in seconds there was a refreshing breeze wafting in. Genius.

Ifrikys Spirit are the 21st band from outside the country brought in by global music advocates  Center Stage. They’re currently on US tour; their next stop is the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on Oct 11 and 12. And for any dancers who might regret missing this show, jazz pianist Marc Cary does his funky Fender Rhodes thing here at the atrium space tonight at 7; early arrival is always a good idea. Enter on Broadway between 62nd and 63rd.

MAKU Soundsystem Bring Their Darkly Delirious Global Sounds Back to Lincoln Center

The secret to MAKU Soundsystem‘s latest album, the aptly titled Mezcla – streaming at Spotify – is Felipe Quiroz’s  tremoloing, funereal organ. There are thousands of bubbly, terminally cheery, dancey acts out there aping sub-equatorial sounds from both hemispheres. But MAKU Soundsystem have an element of danger, and a ubiquitous if understated populist political sensibility. For example, with the album’s opening track, Agua, the band takes a generic soukous guitar riff and layers suspenseful horn swells and slinky, creepy psychedelic rock organ over a scrambling beat. The point of frontwoman Liliana Conde’s lyrics is that water goes wherever it can, and that our own quest for global unity ought to be just as fluid, and, ultimately, successful. The group are bringing their conscious dance party to the Lincoln Center Atrium on Sept 22 at 7:30 PM, and judging from the crowds they’ve brought to Lincoln Center in the past, you should get there early if you’re going.

The album’s second cut, Thank You Thank You isn’t your ordinary psychedelic cumbia. As it clatters along, the band blend elements of Afrobeat, soukous and ancient African call-and-response into the psychedelic swirl. Let It Go is even trippier – while Camilo Rodriguez’s guitar runs a terse minor-key cumbia hook, the polyrhythms from the horns and a growing army of percussion build in both channels. There isn’t a mathrock band alive who could have so much fun with an interweave of so many different beats at once.

The tangent that Positivo takes is easier to follow – it’s phantasmagorical, it’s part cumbia, part reggae, part chamame and follows a hypnotic, swaying groove: 11/4 time was never so easy to swing your hips to. Then they straighten it out, with a deliciously incisive, smoky organ solo before the brass takes it up to a mighty peak. La Inevitable – implying that you can’t resist dancing to this stuff – is a lot more hypnotic, Rodriguez’s wah-wah guitar just as much a percussion instrument as the rest of the rattle and thump as the group rises to a fiery Ethiopian-inspired crescendo.

The band follows La Hatiana, the most straight-up psychedelic cumbia here, with the album’s most straight-up Afrobeat number, What Do You Wish For. The best track here is Happy Hour, a phantasmagorical cumbia that’s the missing link between Los Destellos and Antibalas. The album winds up with another stunner, De Barrio, a moody mashup of psychedelic cumbia, dub and a sad neoromantic waltz, pure solace for gutter stargazers. To paraphrase George Clinton, liberation isn’t a trickle-down effect.

Anbessa Orchestra Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to Red Hook

One of the most exciting concerts of this summer promises to be the twinbill on July 1 at Pioneer Works at 159 Pioneer St. in Red Hook, where sizzling Israeli-American Ethiopiques groove band Anbessa Orchestra opens for popular Ethiopian jazz bandleader/keyboardist Hailu Mergia. Realistically, there probably aren’t a lot of people outside of Red Hook who are going to go to this, but if you are in Red Hook, get your ass over to the venue and pick up an advance ticket for $20 and save yourself five bucks off the door charge. The show is advertised as beginning at 8, although things usually start on the later side here. The easiest way to get to the venue from downtown Brooklyn is to catch the B61 bus, which runs down Court St. and then takes a right on Atlantic, past Sahadi’s, and will drop you off about a block and a half from the venue.

Anbessa Orchestra played an amazing show at Barbes the Saturday night over Memorial Day weekend. They hit hard right from the start, shifting rhythms artfully from slinky to funkier as guitarist Nadav Peled fired off intricate Malian desert rock hammer-on riffs, the alto saxophonist picking things up with a bluesy, exuberant solo as the band cantered behind him. They hit a punchy, staccato minor-key Ethio-funk groove after that, Peled distinguishing himself as he would do all night, finding interesting places to go on the fretboard throughout what was basically a one-chord jam as the dancers on the floor twirled and bounced.

Fueled by Eden Bareket’s smoky baritone sax, the next number built quickly out of an ominous intro to a brisk, camelwalking triplet rhythm, balmy alto sax overhead. Considering that the blues is African and Ethiopian music is the world’s oldest, it’s no surprise to hear so much blues in this band’s music. What’s most refreshing, and ultimately makes them as catchy as they are, is that they keep things terse and purposeful and don’t overplay. The horns are tight and so is the rhythm section, and when somebody tales off on a solo, they make it count, whether Bareket’s offhandedly wild postbop spirals on this particular number, or the bubbling organ against the ominously looming horns on the similarly funky but considerably more otherworldly tune after that. A biting, puristically bluesy Wayne Tucker trumpet solo and Peled’s clanking, clenched-teeth guitar each built to an explosive peak as the music rose and fell.

The highest point of the night was when Tucker went blasting and trilling to an instant crescendo as the even mightier anthem afterward swelled and then grew quieter, Peled’s deep-desert riffage bobbing and weaving under a tightly syncopated minor-key horn chart, drummer Eran Fink and bassist Tamir Shmerling nimbly negotiating its tricky rhythm, seemingly shifting in and out of focus. Peled took it down to a quiet, darkly majestic solo interlude before the organ and rhythm section pulled it back up into the stormclouds. Then the band completely flipped the script with an easygoing, catchy, major-key, vintage Jamaican-style rocksteady tune. And that was just the first set. These are just some of the flavors they’re likely to bring to Red Hook on the first of next month.

 

Black Masala Bring Their Deliriously Fun, Edgy Brass-Fueled Dancefloor Intensity to Drom

Black Masala are sort of the Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. They play an intoxicatingly edgy blend of Romany, Indian, Afrobeat, circus rock and hard funk dancefloor grooves. Their brassy attack features lots of biting minor keys and slinky rhythms. They’re bringing their high-voltage live show to Drom on June 10 at 11:30 PM. Advance tix are $10.

Their latest album I Love You Madly is streaming at Bandcamp. The title track opens with a swaying hi-de-ho noir swing theme and then hits a brisk Romany punk strut ablaze with the brass harmonies of trumpeter Steven C, trombonist Kirsten Warfield and Monty Montgomery’s pinpoint sousaphone pulse.

Drummer Mike Ounallah gives Too Hot to Wait an oldschool Earth Wind & Fire-style disco groove, the guys in the band trading vocals with percussionist Kristen Long, who delivers a coyly whispery Jane Birkin-style boudoir interlude as the song winds out. Guitarist Duff Davis drives the hypnotic but explosive Bhangra Ramo with his stinging upper-register riffage, akin to Red Baraat with a woman out front.

Cool Breeze adds hard funk edges, a lustrous EW&F sheen and spacy George Clinton psychedelia to a fiery minor-key Balkan brass instrumental. Sounds of the Underground, the album’s most straight-up, catchy number, is a pouncing latin rock-tinged number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Karikatura catalog, Davis’ nimble Django solo giving way to tightly wound spots from trumpet and sax.

Devil Sunset opens as Balkan reggae and then vamps along on a trippy disco beat, with plenty of sizzling riffage from the horns: it isn’t til the end that you realize that it’s mostly a one-chord jam. With its uneasy chromatics and staccato brass, the album’s arguably best number, Haute Cultura has both the catchiness and the edge of Serbian groups like Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar. The swinging, funky Oh No What Can I Do? makes a good segue from there as the band sprints to the finish line. The album winds up with a “radio edit” of the title cut. Nine songs, every one of them excellent, one of the best dozen releases to come over the transom here in the past several months.

 

Debo Band Bring Their Darkly Bristling Update on Classic Ethiopian Dancefloor Sounds to Williamsburg

What do you associate Ethiopian music with? Those slinky triplet grooves? Stark, ancient, otherworldly bluesy modes? Shivery, melismatic vocals and fiddle? Debo Band take all those tropes and rock them out with both blazing brass and strings over an undulating pulse. Their new album Ere Gobez is streaming at Storyamp, and they’re opening a killer twinbill at Brooklyn Bowl tonight at around 8, with similarly minor-key fixated original first-wave Afrobeat dancefloor groovemeisters Antibalas headlining afterward. Hopefully you have $15 advance tix; it’s more at the door.

On the album’s opening track, Endris Hassen’s hypnotically circling, oscillating massenqo fiddle riff underpins the blaze of horns, and then guitarist Brendon Wood fires off a succinct solo. The second number, a Somalian tune, is similar, but with a trickier, syncopated beat. Track three – in purist Ethiopian fashion, most of the song titles are in frontman Bruck Tesfaye’s native Amharic – sets a joyous mix of upper-register violins and saxes mingling with Marie Abe’s accordion over bassist PJ Goodwin and drummer Adam Clark’s dancing, waltzlike beat.

Track four, Yachat, is a hard-rocking detour toward psychedelic 60s garage rock – it’s their Psychotic Reaction, Wood’s rampaging, bluesy lines front and center. Blue Awaze makes more or less straight-up hard funk out of an uneasily modal, proto Middle Eastern riff, Danny Mekonnen’s judiciously smoky baritone sax solo leading up to a swirly, string-fueled psychedelic breakdown where everything goes haywire, then finally back. From there the band segues into Goraw, a defiant Amharic-language Ethiopian-pride anthem which sounds like the ancient roots of Isaac Hayes at his most psychedelic – or what Hayes might have done had he collaborated with Mulatu Astatke.

The band builds Sak ominously over a brooding bati vamp, like a thunderstorm on the horizon, counterintuitively growing more spare as Mekonnen launches into a growling baritone solo. The album’s most epic number, Oromo swings along on a mighty minor-key blues groove, following a long, triumphantly majestic upward climb punctuated by a thoughtful massenqo break. The band follow the joyously circling, lushly orchestrated Hiyamikachi Bushi with the slinky, bitingly latin-tinged Yalanchi and close the album on a searingly trad note with the hauntingly propulsive Eyew Demamu, arguably its strongest track and a lauching pad for Tesfaye’s intense, expressive vocals.

Since Ethiopia is where it all started, at least as far as the human species is concerned, it’s not an overstatement to say that music from this part of the world resonates on a deep level, quite possibly in our collective DNA. This is the rare album that will hit the spot with people who like energetic, upbeat music as much as with those who gravitate toward the dark and mysterious.

Sometimes You Can’t Catch a Break, Sometimes You Can

The man in the long black coat stood alone, or so he thought, over the kitchen table, chomping on a plate of spicy Russian beet salad. He took a pull from a plastic cup of beaujolais nouveau. This year’s wasn’t anything special, nothing like the 2003, for that matter not even up to the level of 2008, at least this particular bottle. But enough of it still did the trick, just as it did in better years. In the living room, a pretty young mother played a Bach cello sonata, calmly and comfortably, to the small crowd of guests who remained at that late hour: her parents, a yoga girl and her dreadlocked white boyfriend, a petite, bookish brunette from Park Slope and her intense-faced, solidly built, bearded companion.

In the kitchen, the man in the long black coat turned around to see the woman’s reedy, bespectacled ten-year-old son staring at him. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you,” the boy urged him, the hint of a smile at the corners of his thin lips. He was small for his age, especially in profile against the fat, freckled, autistic girl who lingered in the doorway behind him.

The man in the long black coat took another pull from the cup and followed the children into an adjacent bedroom. Paint chips fell from the far wall, behind a leather reclining chair, a dartboard overhead. “Sit down,” encouraged the boy. “Everybody I do this to likes it.’

The man in the long black coat sat down slowly and leaned back. His head was driven further into the headrest when struck from behind, in the center of his forehead, with a sharp object. The man in the long black coat gasped and was just starting to pull himself out of the chair when struck a second time. This time the boy drew blood: for someone his size, he was strong, and on a mission to inflict pain. In the corner, the autistic girl began howling with laughter. The man in the long black coat pulled himself to his feet, but not in time to avoid being hit again, a glancing blow to the side of the head. That, too, drew blood.

Jarred from a red wine haze, the man in the long black coat moved out of the bedroom quickly, not looking back. The girl in the corner was still laughing, and by now the boy was giggling as well. The man in the long black coat saw a bathroom to his right and closed the door behind him. Droplets of blood trickled down the worn but now adrenalized face in the mirror. He reached for a piece of toilet paper, then thought better of it and pulled a napkin from his coat pocket. Gingerly, he blotted at his wounds.

He walked out into the hallway. The mother’s parents were there, glanced up and said nothing. The mother, behind them, did the same. No reaction, no offer of a band-aid, peroxide, even a simple “Are you ok?”

The man in the long black coat walked past them, toward the door, then stepped out into the cold Brighton Beach air. It was best to be out of this house of no empathy. Was this a ritual from the old country? A game to initiate outsiders? What would happen if he returned? Would he be skewered, eaten with beets and horseradish? Questions best left unanswered. He looked up, blinking the blood from his eyes as a B train rumbled into the station overhead.

The following night, the man in the long black coat reached the exit at the top of the stairs to the IRT local train at Broadway and 66th, the affectingly bittersweet, minor-key strains of what could have been an old Ukrainian Jewish song but was probably an original drifting from a couple of blocks south. Carefully, he adjusted the old black Mets hat over the wounds under the bandage.

A crowd of Jews were gathered in front of a Christmas tree near the point of the park where Columbus and Broadway cross at 63rd. The band onstage in front of them was fantastic: Alicia Svigals out front on violin, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums. The man in the long black coat didn’t recognize the bass player. Was this a comfortably typical New York moment or a subtle bit of subversion? What does it say about how far we’ve come that such a sight could be subversive in a city that at least on the surface seems to embrace so many cultures?

The man in the long black coat paused. This music was beautiful, and soul-stirring, a moment of comfort and warmth on an early winter night. But that’s not what he was there for. Halfheartedly, he moved ahead, south and west. Inside the Lincoln Center atrium space, with its desk for cheap day-of-show tickets and sandwich stand emanating smells of burnt cheese and sandwich meat, Fela cover band Chop & Quench were amassed onstage, ready to launch into a slinking, galloping set of Nigerian stoner dance grooves from the 1970s. An altogether different vibe from what was being played outside, notwithstanding that Afrobeat and Ukrainian Jewish music share a defiance and resilience.

Chop & Quench were the pit band for the Broadway musical Fela, arguably the most relevant production to appear on the Great White Way. The man in the long black coat was aware of this, but this show was all about the music. He leaned against the atrium wall, watching frontman Sahr Ngaujah, who starred as the Nigerian agitator bandleader in the theatrical run, spun and pounced across the stage, a trio of brightly skirted women to his right undulating along with the grooves spinning from Tim Allen’s bass and Greg Gonzalez’s drums. Guitarists Ricardo Quinones and Bryan Vargas clinked and jangled and mingled, trumpeter Jeff Pierce and tenor saxophonist Morgan Price taking the occasional long crescendo upward with a rapidfire solo.

Although the long rectangular room was pretty full, there weren’t many people dancing. After awhile, it was as if the band was playing a single, long song. After about forty minutes, they finally hit a snarling minor-key riff and launched into Water No Get Enemy, an aptly relevant number for this era. That was enough for the man in the long black coat, who exited back onto Broadway. Were the Jewish bands still playing? Yes!

Onstage now were trumpeter Frank London, accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and pianist Uri Caine, two thirds of the original New York punk klezmer band, the Klezmatics. “We may be in Manhattan, but this show is all about Brooklyn,” London grinned, explaining how much of their repertoire they’d discovered hanging with a Hasidic crowd there. Together they followed the rises and falls of a set of dances, a stately, cantorially-flavored hymn for peace and finally a droll, jazzed-up version of the dreydl song – it was Hanukkah season, after all. Violist Ljova Zhurbin came up onstage and added an acerbic edge for a couple of numbers; London encouraged him to stay for more, but he obviously had other places to be.

The man in the long black coat spotted Zhurbin’s wife, the great Yiddish singer Inna Barmash, in the audience. She smiled and waved; the man in the long black coat waved back. He looked up at the big evergreen behind the stage, festooned with ornaments, then at the lights twinkling down the avenue. In the austere washes of the accordion, London’s balmy trumpet and Caine’s careful, focused, sometimes darkly bluesy phrases, it was easy to call this home, good to be alone in the crowd.