New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: dance music

The World’s Most Popular Surf Band Cover a New Wave Cult Hero

Los Straitjackets are hardly known as a cover band  Sure, every surf group does a version of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, just like the Ventures. But what’s made Los Straitjackets one of the best-loved (and by now, best-covered) surf bands ever is their originals. That’s why their new album What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets – streaming at Spotify   is such a radical departure for them. Still, in keeping with the band’s signature originality, they chose an odd source: the Nick Lowe catalog. Then they redo the songs like probably no one ever imagined.

Lowe is well-loved by an aging new wave era crowd (a New Yorker might cynically say that he’s a WFMU guy). But a lot of people, especially those who haven’t seen him live, might not realize what a good guitarist the self-described Jesus of Cool is. So his first-wave retro rock is a lot better suited to a fast 2/4 beat, and twang and clang and lots of reverb than might first seem apparent. The band are making a quick New York stop tomorrow night, June 25 at 9 PM at City Winery; cover is $30 for standing room. Be aware that there is a headlining act and that he is not worth seeing – unless you go for dorky guys who steal their fashion sense from early Elvis Costello, but forget to rip off Costello’s catchy tunes and edgy lyrics.

Another cool thing about the new album is that it isn’t all just the popular or the uptempo stuff: these guys really went through Lowe’s repertoire to find material that makes the most waves, whether whitecaps or gentle ripples across the pond. The A-side opens with Shake and Pop, bassist Pete Curry anchoring it with a little grit in his tone over Chris Sprague’s drums. Is that Eddie Angel or Danny Amis taking that nasty tremolo-picked solo? Everybody’s wearing masks, so it’s impossible to tell.

By contrast, they give All Men Are Liars a cheery, conversational early 60s Joe Meek bounce. Then they turn a relatively more recent tune, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide into resonant midtempo Ventures with a little Tex-Mex and Hank Williams thrown in. After that, a balmy take of You Inspire Me throws a fond nod back to Theme From a Summer Place

Rollers Show – Lowe’s snarky swipe at wildly popular 70s British teenybopper rock band the Bay City Rollers – gets an aptly swaying sock-hop beat and a deviously cruel quote or two from other songs. The first side closes with (What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding, which a million bands have covered, none of them remotely as well as Costello did. Los Straitjackets opt for reinventing it as a loping Lee Hazlewood desert-rock theme.

The B-side begins with I Read a Lot, slow and shadowy, drums drenched in reverb for extra noir, along with some wry siren effects. Half a Boy and Half a Man is the first number that isn’t really surf: it’s pretty close to the British pub rock that Lowe got his start in. Likewise, Checkout Time is a mashup of early Shadows skiffle and the Mexican side of the Ventures: the tongue-in-cheek medley of riffs from classic surf tracks at the end is LOL funny.

The Lowe tune that turns out to make the best surf song of all of these is I Live on a Battlefield, yet even with all the wry historical references – DAMN, these guys know their surf – they don’t add a chord change in the verse that would totally Venturize it.

Sprague’s Wipeout drums add a droll touch to the cover of Raging Eyes. The band saves the most obvious stuff for last, Cruel to Be Kind recast as a melancholy, swaying ballad and Heart of the City as a mashup of Buck Owens and the Modern Lovers (you know the song – the Sex Pistols covered it). If you always wanted to be in a surf band, get this album and learn it cover to cover. Someday somebody will pay you good money to play this stuff.

An Awesome New Album and an East Village Release Show by Ethio-Jazz Songstress Meklit

Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz  But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that  into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.

Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.

The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.

Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?

Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.

Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” –  her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.

Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.

Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.

Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava Put on a Colombian Beach Party in Their New York Debut

The cumbia party at Lincoln Center last night started at about nine. For the better part of the previous ninety minutes, a vast expanse of bodies had been bouncing and swaying to the thunderous beats of Colombian gaita negra band Paíto y los Gaiteros de Punta Brava, who were making their New York debut. Introducing the group, Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez kept her cool, but she couldn’t hide how psyched she was to have booked them, current political climate be damned. “The music is deep, and goes way back,” she told an energized, sold-out crowd, and then let the music speak for itself.

Bandleader and wood flute player Sixto Delgado a.k.a. Paito hails not from the mainland but from Rosario Island off the coast of Cartagena. He’s one of very few remaining practitioners of gaita negra, a style that originated hundreds of years ago when slaves kidnaped from Africa began playing music with native Colombians. The result turned out to be as rhythmically sophisticated and eclectic as it is otherworldly. And as the group made clear, among the many grooves in their repertoire is the original cumbia. Even though they’re Colombian rather than Peruvian, if there’s ever a third volume of the Roots of Chicha compilation albums (which, if you love cumbia, you have to own), Paito needs to be on it.

It was a beach party night, and if there’s anybody who knows how to do it, it’s this group. The torrents of beats started very direct and matter-of-fact, then grew more complex and dynamic as the night went on, hitting a mighty peak, then down again and finally out with a lickety-split cumbia celebrating Colombian pride. Over the course of the party, the slinky, booming rhythms, played by two men and a woman on standup bass drum, conga and a surprisingly resounding hand drum, blended and alternated elements that can be heard in African Nyabinghi drumming, roots reggae, Cuban son montuno and Puerto Rican salsa, among other flavors.

Likewise, the fervent call-and-response of the vocals echoed African sounds that have spread around the globe, from American gospel and field hollers to the magical, ritualistic Moroccan trance music of Innov Gnawa. On their wood flutes, Paita and his counterpart played emphatic, gritty riffs based on the blues scale, the younger man keeping time all the while with a pair of shakers. The segues were clever, almost imperceptible, as the group would gallop along a triplet groove and then subtly make their way into straight-up 4/4, whether with a proto-reggae bounce, a slithery clave or the irresistible pendulum motion of cumbia.

One especially tasty subtlety turned out to be that the drums were tuned to a fourth interval, which enabled the drummers to interchange riffs with each other as well as with the flutes. By the end of the night, even the oldsters in the back were on their feet. The next dance party/global music event at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is June 22 at 7:30 PM with South African guitarist Derek Gripper, who plays his own intricately virtuosic arrangements of ancient Malian music. 

And Paito and the band play a rare Brooklyn date on June 19 at 9:30 PM at Barbes; cover is $15.

An Epic, Explosively Catchy Balkan Brass Album from What Cheer? Brigade

What Cheer? Brigade headlined this year’s Golden Festival, the nation’s top gathering of Balkan bands. It was two in the morning in Brooklyn when they hit the stage, and by then, there were almost as many people playing as watching. Which meant more brass instruments and drums than could fit onstage, so what seemed like half the band were gathered around in front. It was an apt way to wind up what will probably prove to be the best party of the year.

Beyond the New York Philharmonic, there is no other band this size on the East Coast, and no brass band in the United States other than MarchFourth with as many members. Maybe that’s why they aren’t listed on the band’s webpage –  maybe there’s not enough bandwidth! Calling their sound titanic is beside the point.

Beyond sheer volume, what’s most impressive about their new album You Can’t See Inside of Me – streaming at Bandcamp – is how tight it is. Bands this size, let alone punk brass street bands like these people, tend to be unwieldy. Their Golden Fest set was pretty crazy, but it’s a good bet they’ll be extra tight since they just made the record – and maybe will be a little smaller in size too – when they play the album release show tonight, June 16 at around 10 at the new Littlefield at 635 Sackett St. in Gowanus, just around the corner from the old location. As a bonus, the similarly explosive if considerably more compact Raya Brass Band – arguably the best Balkan brass unit in the United States – open the night at 9. Cover is $10.

The album’s opening track, Iahabibi, is a Balkan cumbia. The way the lush wall of trumpets (and trubas, maybe) slithers and bends in unison to reach the highs on the chorus sounds effortless, but in reality it’s just the opposite. The chromatics and rat-a-tat attack get even more fearsome and catchy in the second track, Punk Gratitude, the band eventually dropping back to just the tubas and drums for a flamenco-edged trumpet solo and then an explosively flurrying drum break.

Ekremov Čoček has towering, expansive minor-key harmonies to match a big Renaissance choir. The song struts more than it careens, no small achievement. Then again, nothing about this band is small. Hora Din Petrosnitza is a mghty, bubbling punk klezmer number, like the Klezmatics turned up to eleven, with another big drum break. The epic, cinematic, funkified You Don’t Want to Go to War is packed with call-and-response and echo phrases; deep inside, it’s a soul song.

The diptych Ba Tu/Perin Čoček opens as a slow, gorgeously stormy anthem fueled by low brass chords and then picks up with an intensity that’s just short of frantic. Likewise, the breathtaking fanfare that kicks off the title track, a heavyweight, catchy Andalucian-flavored blast of brass with a tantalizingly brief, simmeringly chromatic trombone solo.. Reka Želja reaches for even greater heights, balancing flamenco fire with wry 80s new wave pop allusions and an artfully circling exchange of individual voices.

Black Cannon is sort of a swaying Balkan Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the album. NBD is a brassy spoof of a popular early zeros rock hit, while the epically puffing, closing cover of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, complete with choir, is even more surreal.

The album also includes nine remixes: while it’s good to hear the songs, at least parts of them, a second time, around that’s hardly necessary considering how meticulously recorded the originals are. Big up to the folks at Pawtucker, Rhode Island’s Machines with Magnets studios for not simply lining these guys up inside McCoy Stadium and recording the album right there on the ballfield. Although it might have been just as difficult to fit everybody into the ballpark too. Count this among the top ten releases of 2017 so far.

You Bred Raptors? Bring Their Cinematic, Instantly Recognizable, Individualistic Grooves to Drom Tomorrow Night

If you pass through the station at Union Square at night, you’ve probably seen one of New York’s most distinctive, high-voltage bands. You Bred Raptors? typically hold fort over the N and R platforms there. Just the sight of Peat Rains, Bryan Wilson and Patrick Bradley wailing on eight-string bass, cello and drums, respectively, is enough to make pretty much anybody stop dead in their tracks. Then there’s the relentless barrage of riffs, and textures, and epic cinematic vistas that transcend any concept of a cello-metal band, let alone what those low-end instruments can typically do. Are these irrepressible instrumentalists a funk band? Sometimes, sure. Postrock? Why not? Prog, too? Umm…while there will probably be some hobbity old men in Gentle Giant tour shirts from 1974 who will dig this stuff, not really – You Bred Raptors? are too tuneful and purposeful. They’re playing the album release show for their new one International Genetics tomorrow night, June 15 at 8 PM at Drom; advance tix are $15 and are still available.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – opens with the slinky Bayonette, Rains switching between anchoring Wilson’s dancing cello lines and burning with big distorted chords: imagine Break of Reality but with a metal edge. The second number, Polkadot has a playful, catchy minor-key Balkan-tinged groove with tasty, baroque-tinged harmonies between the cello and the high strings of the bass, peaking out with a sweet new wave of British heavy metal.

Ringing and resonant glockenspiel from Bradley carries the melody in Bellflower, an unexpectedly summery soul tune that builds toward a brisk highway theme. Stalemate has a trip-hop sway and more intricate baroque exchanges between bass and cello; Jethro Tull only wish they played Bach as tightly as these guys do this, all the way to a starkly fiery early ELO-ish peak.

Lagoon has an easygoing giraffe-walking pace, tinges of Afrobeat from the bass, then shifting to a muted suspense. Sharks & Minnows follows a bucolic, brisk stroll fueled by Wilson’s rustic lines, then predators loom in from the shadows and eventually all hell breaks loose. The band brings the glock ripples back for Vault, a wryly strutting baroque-rock number.

The crescendoing, anthemic Hyperbole is the album’s funkiest track. Melancholy cello contrasts with janglerock guitar lines from the bass and bright glock touches in Eyehole of a Domino. There’s gritty frustration boiling over into rage and hints of flamenco in the growling 6/8 phrases of Kowtow circle around.

Smithereens, the album’s most epic track, begins as an bittersweet, elegaic march – a wartime parable maybe? – and morphs into an art-rock take on a folk hymn theme of sorts. The album winds up with Ass to Ass, most likely the only trip-hop art-rock canon ever written. Pound for pound, this is one of the catchiest albums of the year – and as tersely as the band plays here, they take these songs to some pretty crazy places live. Recommended if you like Radiohead, the Mars Volta, Los Crema Paraiso and Rasputina.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Funkrust Brass Band Release Their Mighty Debut Album on the Year’s Best Triplebill in Brooklyn

Funkrust Brass Band are one of the relatively newer bands in New York’s surprisingly vital Balkan music demimonde. Venues keep closing and working class people keep getting priced out of town, but it seems that at least half of the good horn players who are still here are in this band. They’re definitely the largest one of the bunch, sort of a Brooklyn counterpart to MarchFourth.

Ellia Bisker, who leads the lyrically excellent soul/chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette and is also half of menacing murder ballad duo Charming Disaster – who also have an excellent new album out – fronts this mighty crew. Their debut album Dark City – streaming at Bandcamp – is a party in a box, and a good approximation of the band’s explosive live show. For a release party, they’re headlining at around 10 PM on what might be the best triplebill of the year. It starts at 8 PM on May 19 at Matchless with guitar band Greek Judas – who make careening heavy psychedelia out of crime rhymes and hash-smoking anthems from the Greek resistance underworld of the 1920s and 30s – followed by the similarly explosive Raya Brass Band, who would probably be the best band in town most anywhere between the Danube and the Black Sea. Cover is $10.

Funkrust Brass Band waste no time opening the album with their signature song, Funkrust. Catchy tuba bassline underpinning its rat-a-tat trombones, cinematically rising trumpets and undulating groove, this mashup of Balkan brass and American funk sounds like an even more epic version of iconic Brooklyn band Slavic Soul Party.

Elevator begins as a vintage soul strut with an enigmatically bubbling trombone section; then Bisker gets on her bullhorn and all of a sudden it’s a hip-hop brass number that brings to mind the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Zoology opens with a little latin percussion, a catchy tuba-funk bassline and some high-voltage call-and-response from high and low brass; then Bisker gets on the bullhorn again to encourage everybody to find their inner animal.

The title track, with its uneasy chromatics and tightly crescendoing swells, is the album’s most cinematic and distinctively Balkan number. Swamp Samba is the most original of the tunes here, an unexpected mashup of Balkan brass and Brazilian frevo. As with many of the cuts, Bisker has a good time poking fun at obsessions with technology.

The album’s most incongruously successful mashup is Catch Yr Death, which blends Balkan and Motown dance sounds: “They say it’s not gonna kill you, but they don’t feel like you do,” Bisker wails through a wall of trebly distortion. They wind up the album on a high note with Riptide, a blazing, ominously cinematic Hawaii 5-0 style theme with global warming allusions.

Like many of the Brooklyn Balkan contingent, Funkrust Brass Band has a revolving cast of characters. Co-leader and composer Phil Andrews plays trumpet along with Eva Arce, Andrew Schwartz and John Waters. Their all-female sax section comprises Cassandra Burrows, Anya Combs, Perrine Iannacchione, Danielle Kolker and Melissa Williams. Trombonists include Elizabeth Arce, Sherri Cohen, Phillip Mayer and Cecil Scheib. Matthew Cain and John Lynd play tuba; the percussion section includes Allison Heim, Francesca Hoffman, Monica Hunken, Alex Jung, Seth White and Josh Bisker.

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.

Omar Souleyman’s Soulful Rasp and Dancefloor Thud Brings New York Together in the West Village

It was Arabic music that drew what might have been this year’s most diverse crowd at any New York concert. Maybe it’s a stretch to credit Syrian crooner Omar Souleyman for uniting these people, but he definitely brought them together at his sold-out show last night booked by the World Music Institute at the Poisson Rouge.

The wannabe Republican operative leaning against the back wall of the club was bitching to his fiancee about how Donald Trump’s latest misadventures in reality tv-style management might bolster Democratic hopes in the 2018 midterm elections. Neither his fiancee nor her petite friend had much to say in response. Soon after, a mustachioed dark-skinned man arrived and whisked the fiancee’s friend off to the dance floor.

A few feet away, a lesbian couple twirled and whispered sweet nothings to each other in Arabic. Around the corner by the bar, a couple of preciously scruffy Bushwick boys in matching belly shirts did much the same, next to a posse of German tourists chugging shots and beers. Appearances can be deceiving, but the Arabic-speaking contingent seemed to be outnumbered at least three to one.

Souleyman took the stage to thunderous applause, rocking his signature kaffiyeh and desert shades and proceeded to glide back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience in one clapalong after another, for at least half of his roughly fifty-minute set. By the midpoint, he’d loosened up some. His voice haggard from constant touring, he took frequent breathers and left it to his supersonically fast keyboardist – who was the star of this show – to fill in the gaps. Although the duo had help – a pretty much relentless EDM thump-thump along with lots of synthy atmospherics emanating from a vintage analog mixing desk – most of the music seemed live. Resolute and focused behind his Hasan microtonal keyboard, the guy played Flight of the Bumblebee, or its Arabic counterpart, in hijaz mode for pretty much the duration of the set. This feat was made doubly difficult because of the split-second precision required to stay in sync with the relentless click track. 

For all the good vibes and the endless sea of dancers clapping along and making videos, Souleyman’s music is very much attuned to the here and now. After a suspenseful snakecharmer of an introductory taqsim, he launched into Chobi (Longing for Home), a standout track from his forthcoming album To Syria With Love, his distantly imploring baritone rasp set to machinegunning volleys of synthesized violin and flute patches. Souleyman worked more suspense later in the show with a long jam on the cheating anthem Kayan, another track from the forthcoming album, with all sorts of call-and-response between vocals and keys. He didn’t talk to the audience much, although his shout-outs to his home turf in Al-Jazira, Syria – which he hasn’t visited in six years – drew ferociously assertive applause. Is it any wonder that the Trump Administration wants to keep this kind of inclusive musical cross-pollination out of the country?

By the end of the show, the Bushwick boys had disappeared into the crowd of dancers. A tall Asian man stumbled from the melee and clung to a nonplussed music writer to avoid collapsing on the floor. The tall dude’s companion, a pretty woman in her 20s, made it clear that she was sick of him overdoing it. The Republican operative was all by himself in the back of the club: the bath salts had kicked in by now, and he was still swaying, eyes rolled back in his head, even though the music had stopped.

On the way out, there was no Souleyman vinyl for sale, but there was a big crowd milling around the World Music Institute table, everybody signing up for their email list. The WMI’s next show is tonight at 7:30 at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway, with the great Indian sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Vilayat Khan. Tix are as low as $15, a real bargain, and are still available as of this hour.

Legendary Syrian Crooner Omar Souleyman Plays a Rare West Village Show

It’s been six long years since Omar Souleyman, one of the world’s best-loved Arabic singers, last saw his native Syria. The high-voltage dabke dance numbers and sad ballads on his electrifying forthcoming album To Syria With Love are drenched in longing that transcends any linguistic limitations. Even if you don’t speak Arabic, you can relate to the pain and depth of feeling in his gritty baritone. He’s playing the Poisson Rouge on May 11 at 9ish, a World Music Institute show; advance tix are $30 and still available as of today.

On the new album, Hasan Alo provides a dynamic electroacoustic backdrop behind Souleyman’s vocals, with lyrics co-written with longtime collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad. Most of the songs clock in at a hefty six minutes or more. The opening track, Ya Boul Habari (rough translation: Girl with the Pretty Hijab) is a catchy dancefloor stomp awash in fiercely warping, darkly chromatic synth lines. On the surface it’s a love song; the subtext is a shout-out to Souleyman’s hometown of Al-Jazira. Ya Bnayya (Hey Girl) is an even more rapidfire pastiche of samples and tremoloing synth doing a snakecharmer ney flute impersonation. It’s a hypnotically pulsing love anthem to a girl who can make all of Istanbul sway when she swings her hips, as Souleyman’s sweaty vocals confirm.

Es Samra (Brown-Haired Girl) follows the same trajectory, further down the scale. If the previous track is a violin, this one’s a cello, and Souleyman’s rugged delivery matches that. Aenta Lhabbeytak (rough translation: My Only Love) is a slower, more backbeat-driven number, Alo throwing one creepily techy texture after another into the mix to match the brooding lyrics.

Khayen (Cheater) has rapidfire synth that sounds like shreddy metal guitar, an insistent back-and-forth between vocals and keys, synth, then some cynically funny faux-autotune from the keys. Mawal is the album’s most organic-sounding song, a hypnoticallly circling lament fueled by stark violin (or a good electronic approximation) and Souleyman’s aching vocals:

I walk and my heart
Feels dead among the dead
They told me patience is the remedy
They said you have to be patient
I said what’s the good of patience…
When the pain is so deep?

The final track, Chobi (Longing for Home) brings the dance beat back, but with a slinky, clip-clop groove and more warpy synth. Souleyman sings as a refugee:

We have too many wounds
All of them scream,
“I miss Al-Jazira!”

As poignant as it is energetic, this is an important album from an age of displacement and despair that only looks to get worse.

Word to the wise: dudes, get this album. If there’s a woman alive who can resist Souleyman’s rasp, this blog hasn’t discovered her.