“Somebody asked me what I thought about Black Lives Matter,” Pedro Coquenão, a.k.a. Batida mused to the crowd gathered around the stage at Lincoln Center last night. He didn’t address the matter any further, letting his multimedia performance answer that question. Footage from a rare 1972 Angolan film by Sarah Maldoror flickered on the screen above the stage, two Africans weighing the pros and cons of societal class structure. One espoused a proto-trickle-down theory: the rich are good to be around because you can work for them. The other guy was more blase: “The rich exist to keep the poor down.”
Meanwhile, Batida’s drummer kept a brisk shuffle beat going, his two dancers, a man and a woman leaping and pouncing while the Angola-born, now Lisbon-based electronic musician/rapper/freedom fighter worked a spare, catchy, pinging melody into the mix, like a mbira through a reverb pedal. But nobody was dancing: everybody was watching the screen, apprehensively. That’s Batida’s steez, sort of George Clinton in reverse: free your mind and your lower extremities will follow.
Although the atrium space was packed, this was an unusually small crowd for Batida. He typically performs for thousands at big outdoor EDM festivals, using that platform as an opportunity for tireless advocacy for human rights worldwide, and in his war-torn native country, as documented by Amnesty International. In roughly an hour onstage, his show came across as an Afro-Portuguese take on Thievery Corporation, but minus the doctrinaire worldview, with the welcome addition of a withering sense of humor. Batida is one funny guy. He jabbed at the crowd with a torrent of cynical banter between numbers, with a plainspoken charisma akin to Iggy Pop or Rachid Taha. He was that self-aware: when he broke the fourth wall and entreated the gradeschoolers in the crowd to disbehave, or self-effacingly made fun of his own penchant for appropriating imagery, for example. And he was just as intense.
And he turned out to be a master at how to work a crowd. After he’d set the scene with with some matter-of-factly disturbing found footage from years of war in his native land, he’d run the visuals through a gel filter and pick up the pace. His samples were diverse and were absolutely fascinating, the most hypnotically entrancing one being a rare mid-70s wah-guitar-driven Angolan Afrobeat vamp that he said was noteworthy for not having drums (it did have what sounded like a djembe or two on it). Iimagine that, a dance music maven spinning the one Afrobeat tune on the planet without a drumbeat. Irony is not lost on this guy.
As scenes that weighed heavy postcolonial issues, such as the lingering effects of collaborating with enemy colonizers, shifted across the screen, the sonics and the beats grew more anthemic and the crowd surged. With a sardonic grin, Batida told them that “You’ll like this one, this one’s for the ladies, it works every time.” And then eventually painted himself into a corner while poking fun at just about every gender stereotype out there. The crowd got a kick out of that, but he also held their attention when he sent a shout-out to his compadres back home who’d been sprung by Amnesty Internation’s efforts after being jailed for a year for reading literature deemed subversive by the dictatorship.
“I’m so excited I could almost die,” confided Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal beforehand, who explained that it had been her dream to stage this show since discovering Batida’s music four years ago at Other Music. Then without missing a beat she scurried up to the front to join the dancers. In the back, a veteran chronicler of the New York music scene, still on the mend from a nasty injury, eventually rose from one of the press seats and began swaying back and forth. Physical therapy never felt so good.
The next show at the Lincoln Center atrium – the rectangular 62nd St. space where the most culturally diverse and happening acts perform – is Jan 5 at 7:30 PM with Burnt Sugar playing a “greatest hits” show, which might include everything from hard funk to ambient soundscapes to psychedelically danceable covers by James Brown, Prince, David Bowie and Steely Dan. As always, early arrival at these free shows is always a good idea.