New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: dance music

Balkan Beat Box Bring Their Hottest Dancefloor Album Yet to Brooklyn Steel

The immediate image that comes to mind from the opening track on Balkan Beat Box’s new album Shout it Out – streaming at Spotify – is singer Tomer Yosef beckoning a vast crowd of dancers at some summer festival to join in on the chorus. “Can I get a BOOOOM?”

Dude, you can get as much boom as you want because this is a party in a box. Balkan Beat Box have always been a dance band, but this is their danciest record yet. His longtime bandmates, saxophonist Ori Kaplan and ex-Big Lazy drummer Tamir Muskat join him in paring the new songs closer to the bone than ever. The hooks are more disarmingly direct and the beats seem faster than usual, maybe because the energy is so high. For what it’s worth, it’s their least Balkan and most Jamaican-influenced album to date. They’re bringing that kind of party to the Bowery Ballroom empire’s latest and largest New  York venue, Brooklyn Steel in Greenpoint on April 28 at 8 PM. Advance tix are $25, which is not outrageous for a band of this stature. Budget-minded dancers can pick up tix in person at the Mercury Lounge Monday through Friday before the music starts, at around 6, and avoid getting gouged for online service charges

The album keeps the party rolling long after everybody presumably gives Yosef a BOOM. That number, Give It a Tone has echoes of dancefloor reggae. The next, I Trusted U, hints at Bollywood over a Bo Diddley beat that picks up with a mighty sway and a slashing, vintage Burning Spear-style horn chart. The title track is a lean, dub-influenced tune that gives Yosef another big opportunity to engage the crowd.

The woozily strutting electro-dancehall number Ching Ching is really funny, Yosef’s rhymes making fun of status-grubbers who “Wanna be a bigshot on a small screen…everybody do the same twerking,” he snarls. I’ll Watch Myself stirs a simple Balkan brass hook into a pulsing midtempo EDM beat with a little hip-hop layered overhead. From there the group segue into Just the Same, which is the album’s coolest track: a mashup of dub, dancehall and Algerian rai.

Kaplan gets his smoky baritone sax going in Hard Worker, a funny bhangra rap number. “If you want, I can also be Obama,” Yosef wants us to know. There are both fast as well as slower, shorter dub versions of Mad Dog and This Town, the former a No No No-stye noir soul strut, the latter a dancehall tune. There’s also Kum Kum, a skeletally clattering J-pop influenced groove with a girlie chorus. The one thing you can’t do with this is pump up the bass because there basically isn’t any. Bring it on!

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.

Olga Bell’s Irreverently Funny, Relevant Lincoln Center Debut Trumps Adversity

Olga Bell is hilarious. In her American Songbook debut at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse last night, the Russian-born art-rock/avant garde keyboardist/singer validated a brave piece of booking, in the process triumphing over all sorts of adversity. This was a tough gig from the git-go. Cheefing on what seemed like a bottomless thermos til it was gone, then finally switching to water, she battled a cold along with some unfamiliar gear that malfunctioned to the point of threatening to completely derail her show. But she persevered, cheerfully breaking the fourth wall when she wasn’t mercilessly pillorying the yuppie careerism, incessant status-grubbing and money obsessions of gentrifier-era Brooklyn, which she now calls home.

And she did it with more than just her lyrical jabs, which turned out to be a lot subtler than her musical barbs. Those drew the heartiest laughs from a sold-out audience of well-heeled twentysomethings whose mere presence in Manhattan on a Friday night was something of a surprise: turns out that not everyone in zip code 11221 is petrified of being geotagged outside it.

When she hit her pitch pedal and ran her vocals through a toddler-voice patch to make fun of a guy who’s too big for his britches, and then a little later turned the kiss-off anthem Power User into phony hip-hop, the crowd roared. She had similar fun with her electronics and all the loops she’d stashed away in her sequencer, particularly a Bernie Worrell-style low bass synth setting that she worked for every droll riff she could think of.

Her between-song patter also had edge and bite. Acknowledging that for her, this gig spelled revenge for having been rejected by the Juilliard folks a few floors below, she played elegantly nuanced, neoromantically-tinged piano when she wasn’t fiddling with her mixer, or loading a stubborn loop device, or feeding layers of melody into an arpeggiator. Such things exist: clearly, there’s a market among players who prefer chords instead. She namechecked “aspirational hipsters,” including the guy at the corner bar who’s on the take more than he’s on the make.

“Wherefore art thou, Doppio?” she posed to another would-be romantic doofus. Even the simpler, techier, disco-oriented numbers were laced with taunts and sarcasm, particularly Stomach It and Your Life Is a Lie, among other tracks from her 2016 album Tempo. Toward the end of the show, she was joined by cellist Andrea Lee for a moody Russian border-rock ballad from the 2014 album Krai, and then soul singer Sarah Lucas, who belted out one of the more pop-oriented electronic numbers. Bell encored with a vaudevillian piano tune about finding romance on the L train, which she’d written in 2006 for the Rockwood Music Hall open mic. Who knew there was once such a thing – and who knew that somebody who played there would someday headline at Lincoln Center.

This year’s American Songbook series continues to venture much further afield than the theatre music and pop hits from the 1930s and 40s that it was created for almost twenty years ago. There are two Kaplan Penthouse shows next week that deserve special mention: on Tuesday, March 28 at 8 PM, the Cactus Blossoms, who have an eerie resemblance to the Everly Brothers, bring their rapturous harmonies and disconsolate Americana ballads. And the following night, March 29, powerhouse Ghanian-born oldschool soul belter Ruby Amanfu leads her band.

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.

This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history.  And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.

About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.

Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.

Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.

The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.

Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.

In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.

The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.

That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.

El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.

For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.

Moroccan Trance Band Innov Gnawa Make History

Innov Gnawa are the only group playing Moroccan gnawa trance music on this side of the Atlantic. You could call it the ultimate, fat bass-and-drum music – or Moroccan gospel. Its origins are in sub-Saharan Africa. It was brought north primarily by slaves and was regarded as ghetto there until fairly recently. It is 100% acoustic, otherworldly, and primeval, but hardly primitive. The call-and-response between maalem (bandleader) and kouyos (chorus) can be hypnotic for minutes on end, then impassioned and explosive, with intricate polyrhythms to rival the most ambitious jazz. The majority of gnawa melodies are based on the blues scale; the lyrics, in either Arabic or Bambara, celebrate Islamic themes. Moroccan expat Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, one of the world’s great masters of the three-string sintir bass lute, leads the group. They’re one of the funnest bands in town to dance to.

They’re making their Coachella debut this year; in the meantime, New Yorkers have a chance to catch their leader this week as part of a historic collaboration between Lincoln Center and this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour. This Thurs, March 16 at 7:30 PM, the game plan is for Ben Jaafer to jam with his old buddy Maalem Hamid El Kasri, who he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane,  who represents the southern Moroccan style of gnawa, is also on the bill at the atrium space at Lincoln Center. It’s a major moment in global music history, the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest virtuosos of Moroccan music. Innov Gnawa are also opening for Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn on April 6 at 7:30 PM; $15 advance tix are highly recommended

Ben Jaafer is revered in his native Morocco much like his mentor, Mohammed Sam, one of the most important figures in the history of gnawa and a great innovator in the 1960s and 70s. The rest of the group comprises the chorus. Founder Samir LanGus (who also plays sintir onstage) and Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani are joined on vocals and cast-iron qraqab castanets by Said Bourhana and Nawfal Atiq, in addition to Ahmed Jeriouda, who also plays cajon. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number is a benediction of sorts used throughout much of Morocco to open a lila – the delirious allnight parties that do double duty as mystical Sufi trance rite. As the steady, misty rain of the chorus’ qraqab castanets shuffles behind him, Ben Jaafer is already working very subtle permutations on a similar but not quite rhythmically identical blues bassline. Beyond the central riffs and choruses, Gnawa is eighty to ninety percent improvised: this band won’t ever play this number this way again.

Ben Jaafer’s rugged baritone grows more insistent on the tune after that, over a circling 6/8 rhythm that brings to mind the wheel-like cadences of qawwali music. Bass players and fans of low-register tonalities will love how Ben Jaafer conceals the occasional, unexpectedly booming chord within his riffage.

His pouncing introduction to the third number offers no hint at how the circling three-on-two rhythm from the qraqabs will return – or how fervent the voices of the chorus will grow alongside him. As the album goes on, Ben Jaafer takes one sudden, unexpected, syncopated detour after another; every time, the band turns on a dime and follows suit. The final number is also the most anthemic and dynamically shifting one. There are six tracks in total, as close to the actual experience of hearing a genuine lila in North America as millions of listeners will ever get.

 

Magical Moroccan Music Masters Make History This March 16 at Lincoln Center

One of the most important musical events in recent history, with global significance akin to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley sharing the same stage – or Robert Johnson jamming with Howlin’ Wolf – will take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 PM at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest masters of Moroccan music. Two of the great maalems (masters) of explosively hypnotic Moroccan gnawa trance music – Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane – will share the stage with Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the only gnawa master this side of the Atlantic, who leads Brooklyn-based ensemble Innov Gnawa.  This first performance on this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour marks the debut of a new partnership between the Festival and Lincoln Center. 

Taking a brief pause in between rehearsals and the innumerable demands of scheduling an event of this magnitude, Maalem Ben Jaafer, his Innov Gnawa protege and bandmate Samir LanGus, and David Rubenstein Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal got together Sunday night to share some intimate details about the event over snacks and a delicious vegan Moroccan stew in the comfortable, lowlit confines of Tagine on 38th Street.

It turns out that this show will be a very heartwarming reunion. Ben Jaafer and El Kasri knew each other as young stars of the lila party circuit, Ben Jaafer from Fez and El Kasri making his home base in Rabat. They haven’t seen each other or even talked on the phone in seventeen years

LanGus was immersed in the music in his native Morocco before moving to North Carolina and then New York to play under Ben Jaafer’s tutelage. Growing up in South Carolina, Dugal didn’t encounter gnawa until moving to New York, where she first met LanGus at a wild Lincoln Center concert by Hoba Hoba Spirit – the Moroccan Clash – in 2014. 

“Samir and I dreamed up this partnership between the two institutions while at the gnawa festival in Essaouira last summer, and this collaboration marks the next step in our mission to share gnawa with a larger audience here in the US. At Lincoln Center, we’ve been listening to our enthusiastic Moroccan community, and they’ve been crucial to our focus on this music, as well as our decision to reach out to the Gnaoua Festival to work together.” 

“If this is someone’s first exposure to gnawa music, it doesn’t get any better than this,” LanGus enthused. “For Moroccans in America, it’s a chance to see something here that wouldn’t even happen in Morocco. For people who know the music, it’s a chance to go really deeply into it and and watch three of the greatest musicians alive. And if you haven’t seen gnawa before, this is as good as it gets.” 

”The Gnaoua Festival also plays a significant role in elevating the status of gnawa music and gnawa people in Morocco,” Dugal explained. Just like Argentine tango, Puerto Rican salsa and American blues, gnawa was marginalized for decades. Gnawa musicians were held in low esteem before a recent resurgence. These days, it’s essentially become the national music of Morocco.

Gnawa’s roots date back to pre-Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. First brought north by slaves and Moorish soldiers, the music slowly gained popularity through lilas, the marathon all-night gnawa celebrations which are part block party and part mystical trance ceremony. There are thousands of songs in the gnawa repertoire; Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa have a repertoire of about two hundred. In live performance, improvisation factors in about eighty to ninety percent of the music: the chorus of qraqab castanet players has to be able to follow a skilled maalem’s sudden rhythmic changes on a moment’s notice. 

Ben Jaafer is revered as an innovator just like his mentor, Maalem Sidi Mouhamed Sam, widely considered the greatest gnawa pioneer of the 1960s and 70s. Ben Jaafer made a name for himself on the lila circuit as being one of the most innovative gnawa singers and virtuosos of the sintir, the Moroccan low-register lute. Eclecticism became his signature sound. He incorporates elements of Sufi hammadcha, in addition to the two primary branches of gnawa, marsaoui and chamali, into his phrasing. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the very few maalems adept at each of the various regional styles of gnawa, which differ widely from north to south and points in between.

Alternating between Arabic, French and English, he shared some colorful stories of life on the road as one of Morocco’s most sought-after musicians (he now lives in Brooklyn, leading Innov Gnawa in concerts across the city and as faraway as big festivals like Coachella). He recalled a time in Morocco going from a low-key afternoon lila in a fancy neighborhood, then taking a break for a snack before moving on to an all-night gig  in an adjoining city. There were times when he’d get home early in the afternoon, thinking he’d finally get some sleep, only to be woken a couple of hours later by a client looking to book him. Then there was the time when he was called in the middle of the night to replace another maalem who’d unexpectedly quit a lila at three in the morning. “We were expected to go til eight or nine,” Ben Jaafer explained with a wry grin. 

For those of you new to gnawa, there are other related upcoming events to help you out. On Monday, March 20 Langus and Dugal are convening a panel at The New School Jazz with journalist Tom Pryor, ethnomusicologist and political scientist Hisham Aidi, and jazz pianist and Juilliard Jazz Chair of Improvisation Marc Cary. The event is free and will feature Moroccan refreshments and a performance by Innov Gnawa, who will also be special guests on March 22, as NEA Jazz Master and piano icon Randy Weston wraps up his residency at Medgar Evers College with a discussion about his history with gnawa. Ben Jaafer and LanGus will join him onstage.  

After the Lincoln Center event, the maalems make a stop on March 17 at 7 PM at the New School, where the performance will be more intimate and akin to a lila as practiced in Morocco. Then they’re at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on March 18 before returning to New  York for a 7 PM gig at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on March 19, where they’ll jam with New York jazz artists including Cary, Marcus Strickland, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Will Calhoun; advance tix are $30. 

Wild Brass-Fueled Indian Bhangra Band Red Baraat Release Their Most Dynamic, Epic Album

Red Baraat are New York’s best-loved and probably loudest party band. They play original brass-fueled Indian bhangra music, taking an exuberantly explosive sound to new levels of eclecticism and sheer volume. Intense, hypnotic Indian modes follow tidal waves of dynamics up and down, the band’s signature, blazing brass section anchored by the intricately stampeding beats of their three drummers. If you can’t dance to this stuff, you can’t dance to anything.

They’re bringing the party to two release shows for their most diverse and arguably best album, the brand-new Bhangra Pirates, available on vinyl and streaming at Spotify. On March 9 at they’re at the comfortable auditorium at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn for $15 in advance. Then on March 18 they’re at the Poisson Rouge at 10:30 PM for five bucks more. That’s the advance ticket price for standing room, it’ll set you back more if you just show up at the door or if you want a seat. Although going to see Red Baraat and not being on your feet would be pretty bizarre…

The album’s opening track, Horizon Line is a blazing mashup of new wave and bhangra, with a little New Orleans spice; John Altieri’s sousaphone plays the big hook as a bassline. Jonathan Goldberger’s ominous Middle Eastern taqsim kicks off Zindabad, a slinky, epic fanfare of sorts, the high brass – Jonathon Haffner’s soprano sax and Sonny Singh’s trumpet – against the formidable lows from Altieri and trombonist Ernest Stuart, with a wildly sailing Haffner solo midway through. Likewise, on the title track, Golderger’s guitar matches the mighty majesty of the horns; it’s an Indian take on the kind of hip-hop brass mashup that the group’s Barbes colleagues Slavic Soul Party were pioneering ten years ago.

Underneath Haffner’s soaring sax, bandleader/dhol drummer Sunny Jain teams up with twin drummers Chris Eddleton and Rohin Khemani for a scrambling and then titanically swaying groove throughout white-knuckle intense modalities of Tunak Tunak Tun. The brooding exchange of instrumental voices as Rang Barse gets underway only hint at the vast, cinematic panorama the band will build to as they reach escape velocity, stirring in elements of both peak 70s-era Burning Spear roots reggae as well as Serbian brass music.

Bhangale follows a similarly moody tangent upward, but with more punchy rhythm and melody; Goldberger leads the charge with a bluesmetal-tinged attack. With its hip hop-inspired chorus, swaying spirals of beats, biting chromatics and searing, noisy Goldberger solo, Gaadi of Truth has the feel of a big audience-participation number. Then with Se Hace Camino, the band takes a catchy minor-key salsa tune and sets it to a bhangra beat.

Imagine the Hawaii 5-0 theme set to a deliriously clattering but steady groove and you have part of Akhiyan Udeek Diyan; it gets warmer and sunnier as it goes along, with a serpentine trombone solo where Stuart hands off to Haffner, who leads everybody to a wild crescendo at the end . The album’s final cut, Layers is as surprisingly lighthearted as it is wickedly catchy. It’s amazing how many flavors the band have added to their arsenal over the years; count this as an instant contender for best release of 2017. 

The Pedrito Martinez Group Play Rugged, Sophisticated Cuban Grooves at Lincoln Center

The Pedrito Martinez Group are Lincoln Center favorites. Their Friday night show there felt like a block party. There was a comfortable, multi-generational, multicultural afterwork crowd in the house for the latest in the ongoing series of concerts by world-class acts from across the world of latin music. Lincoln Center calls it Vaya 63 since the atrium space is just south of 63rd Street.

The music was slinky, and raw, and irresistibly physical. With just piano, bass, percussion and lots of call-and-response vocals, Martinez kept the dancers on their feet for about an hour and a half. When a couple would sit down for a breather, another would spring up to take their place. It is physically impossible to sit still and listen to this band – your body rebels and begins to hurt. Much as there’s a gritty, no-nonsense, streetwise feel to their music, it’s also extremely sophisticated. Martinez plays a hybrid kit that includes both congas, snare, cymbals and plenty of other bangable objects. He was rocking his usual Yankees cap, this one with a bright gold metal logo.

Because he’s a generous bandleader and likes to keep company with musicians who have chops as daunting as his, Martinez switched to cowbell while his longtime co-percussionist Jhair Sala took a turn on the congas: it turned out to be the most boomingly adrenalizing solo of the night.

Throughout the set, they teased the crowd with false endings. Pianist Edgar Pantoja-Aleman opened the show with a display of elegant classically-tinged phrasing before buckling down into energetically tumbling salsa riffs and cascades. Meanwhile, bassist Sebastian Natal played with a growly, incisive tone, often spicing his hypnotic lines with hints of reggae or bachata. While the clave was always present, it also wasn’t ever completely straight up – there was always something going on between the beats, or against the beat, not to mention the constant jousting between Martinez and Sala. They hit a quasi-triplet gallop midway through which brought the rhythmic drive to a peak. They finally led the crowd in a familiar one-two, one-two-three clapalong at the end.

While the group didn’t take the songs as far into jazz territory as they can, they never stayed in one place for long, even as a tune would go on for ten or twelve minutes. Sala beckoned for “all the single ladies” to come down front and sing coros with him; a little later, they launched into a long, undulating take of Que Palo that started out crepuscular and mysterious but by the end was a triumphant anthem with polyrhythms and vocals from everybody. Pantoja-Aleman opened a recent Martinez original, Dios Mio – an OMG-good moment – using a cheesy 80s salsa romantica DX7 synth patch, but by the middle of the song, the congas were thundering and he was back on the piano. As the set went on, the jams got longer, with more sparring between band members. They closed with a joyous singalong of the salsa standard Bacalao.

“I’ve never known them to play with a setlist,” one audience member in the know revealed: Martinez simply called out the tunes and the band knew them. Martinez’s next gig is tomorrow night , Feb 28 at  7 PM at Subrosa on Gansevoort St.; cover is a measly $7. Then they hit the road for a long international tour. 

And the next dance party at the Lincoln Center atrium space, on March 16 at 7:30 PM features the first-ever US performance by the master musicians of the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco with Maalem Hamid El Kasri, Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane and special guest Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, leader of wildly popular NYC ensemble Innov Gnawa.

Spanglish Fly Bring New Relevance to SOB’s

Spanglish Fly packed the dancefloor at SOB’s last night. There would have been more people out there if had the club had moved more of the tables out, although plenty of the diners eventually ended up hitting the floor. For the rest of the posse who’d come out on one of the coldest nights of the year, Spanglish Fly’s psychedelic blend of classic salsa and oldschool soul kept everybody listening.

Spanglish Fly’s irrepressible sense of fun matches their originality. On one hand, they work a well-loved New York style of music: boogaloo, the magical Afro-Puerto Rican blend that first fermented back in the 60s in Spanish Harlem. On the other hand, Spanglish Fly are pushing the envelope. Just as Chicha Libre would take a theme by, say, Erik Satie and make a psychedelic cumbia out of it – and make it work – Spanglish Fly made a slinky dancefloor smash out of a familiar Woody Guthrie song. Bandleader/trumpeter Jonathan Goldman explained that his new version of This Land Is Your Land – retitled Esta Tierra – celebrated the same idea of of a world without borders, and without anti-immigrant bigotry, that Guthrie envisioned. And if there’s ever been a time to fight fire with fire with that idea, that time is now. That got the most applause of the night.

They set up that number with Ojala-Inshallah, aloft on a blast of tight, heavyweight minor-key horns over a careening clave pulse, spiced with Kenny Bruno’s tumbling Afro-Cuban piano.  As singer Palome Munoz put it, it’s about wishing for a better world. They’d gotten the night started with Boogaloo Shoes, trombonist Vera Kempster taking the first of several spine-tingling, uneasily sliding solos – she felt the room and then went with it.  Bruno brought both gospel and postbop jazz to Micaela, a slithery clave soul number.

With her powerful low register, Munoz brought the lights down to every ounce of noir in Amy Winehouse’s You Know I’m No Good. The band made straight up salsa dura out of it at the end, with another over-the-cliff trombone solo and then a jungle of polythythms with the four-man percussion section -drummer Arei Sekiguchi, conguero Dylan Blanchard, bongo player Ronnie Roc and timbalero Teddy Acosta – going full steam. 

A tight, terse instrumental version of Chain of Fools opened with a machinegunning bongo solo while Rafael Gomez ran that classic bass riff, Bruno adding rich washes of organ as the horns and percussion blazed overhead. The show hit a peak with La Clave e’mi Bugalu and its evocation of the classic 70s Fania era salsa. And that was just the first set.  SOB’s has been the band’s home base lately, at least when they aren’t doing weekly residencies at Barbes. Watch this space for their next big dance shindig. 

Forro in the Dark Bring Their Hypnotically Psychedelic Grooves Home from the Upper West

Some beats are dancefloor crack. Cumbia always gets everybody up out of their seats; at last Thursday’s mostly-weekly dance party at Lincoln Center, it was maracatu that finally brought the population of twirling couples to critical mass. Before then, it had been a slow night. Since the election, crowds everywhere have been sparse. People are either out protesting, or cocooning and trying to figure out what to do next. So watching Forro in the Dark as their roughly hourlong set got underway felt almost like a private party, which was cool.But it was redeeming to see the crowd grow to capacity, which is almost always the case at the atrium space here.

Forro in the Dark are Lincoln Center regulars. Where does the hypnotically bouncy Brazilian rainforest art-folk dance band play when they’re not here? At some hostile, overpriced Live Nation venue, where the simple process of getting inside makes you feel like you’re trying to break into Rikers Island ? No. Forro in the Dark are in the midst of what’s been a long weekly residency at Nublu 151 in the East Village, a comfortable, sonically excellent split-level space that’s a lot bigger than the old Nublu – although that’s kind of like saying that it’s larger than a Smart car. They’re there Wednesdays at around 10 this month; cover is $10.

There’s no small irony in that Forro in the Dark didn’t used to have an accordion in the band, even though their style of music is usually played on one. At this show, they had two, played by their new guy and by a guest from Paris who supplied whirlwind leads as well as rapidfire, tonguetwisting auctioneer-style vocals on one of the songs midway through the set. Frontman/percussionist Mauro Refosco joked that neither he nor his new bandmate come from forro territory in their native Brazil. Which might be one explanation for the vast stylistic reach of their music – that, or the simple fact that in the tropics, all the best bands play a whole slew of styles. To put that in perspective, imagine what would happen if Brazil, or Colombia, or Peru closed their borders to immigration.

The best song of the night was a darkly careening, vamping minor-key cumbia that definitely wasn’t Colombian. and it wasn’t Peruvian chicha either: it was the band’s own creatiom, shuffling along with raw, rustically chattering accordions and violin. The two similarly bristling, rumbling maracatu numbers were also a blast of tropical heat. Their guitarist – who used the bottom strings of his baritone guitar for slinky basslines throughout most of the show – sang a lilting number in English that was practically rockabilly.

Another number sounded like a Brazilian take on 60s Jamaican rocksteady – or was it that the rocksteady guys were ripping off the Brazilians back then? Likewise, the show was full of rustic old riffs that British blues bands, and American soul-pop acts brought into the American mainstream fifty years ago. Whoever wrote that oldies hit by the Rascals was definitely listening to this stuff at the time!

The next one of these free dance events at the atrium space at Lincoln Center is Feb 24 at 7:30 PM with funky latin jazz faves the Pedrito Martinez Group. Show up on time or you might miss out.