New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: folk music

Sofia Talvik Brings Her Poignantly Original Americana to Manhattan

One of the most distinctively memorable Americana albums of recent years was made by a tirelessly touring, talented Swedish songwriter. Sofia Talvik‘s next New York show is at Scandinavia House at 58 Park Ave, south of 38th St., at 8 PM on April 27. Cover is $15. The following night, April 28, she’s playing Lara Ewen’s prestigious Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum at 5:30 PM.

Talvik’s 2015 album Big Sky Country – streaming at her music page – couldn’t be more aptly titled. Its wide expanses and purist, rustic playing explore themes of regret, disillusion, guarded hope. Talvik has obviously drunk deeply at the well of American and British folk music, adding her own fresh, distinctive voice to the tradition.

The album’s opening track, Aha-Aha is a more wide-angle take on the kind of open-tuned original Britfolk that groups like Steeleye Span and Fairport Convention were doing in the early 70s, lushly arranged but tersely played by Talvik and dobro player Marcus Högquist, bassist Janne Manninen, and drummer Joakim Lundgren.”It’ll make you stronger, take a deep breath now,” Talvik encourages, airy and pensive. She does the same with an American bluegrass shuffle, Fairground, later on.

Driven by John Bullard’s banjo, the towering, waltzing title cut, a band-on-the-run anthem, is absolutely gorgeous. it wouldn’t be out of place in the Hungrytown songbook:

I left my heart in a dirty old bar
Laramie, Wyoming, I slept in my car

Burning dobro and spare banjo pair off with Mathis Richter-Reichhelm’s violin at the center in Dusty Heart, Empty Hand, a wistful Nashville gothic tale of abandonment. The album’s most riveting and most parlor pop-oriented cut is Lullaby, a distantly elegaic waltz. “It’s summer and everything is beautiful, still you wish you were dead,” Talvik intones in her precise, clipped delivery.

Bonfire has echoes of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, although it’s a lot more brisk. Talvik’s bright, lilting vocals downplay the sober lyrics of the banjo waltz Jasmine, Rose & Sage. Jozsef Nemeth’s piano ripples uneasily in tandem with David Floer’s cello in the late-Beatlesque ballad Give Me a Home, building to an understatedly windswept, orchestrated crescendo. The album winds up on an optimistic note with the airy love ballad So. There’s also a cover of Buffy Sainte-Marie’s American Indian freak-folk tune Starwalker. It’ll be interesting to see what else Talvik has come up with since this came out.

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.

Dynamic, Exhilarating, Haunting New Armenian Sounds from Miqayel Voskanyan

Last night Drom was packed with a chatty, boisterous crowd who’d come to party and take in a surrealistic, often haunting, absolutely uncategorizable show by Yerevan-based tar lute player Miqayel Voskanyan and his band. Unlike your typical Iranian tar player, Voskanyan holds his high on his chest, like a giant ear of corn that he’s about to take a big bite out of. While there were a few crescendos during his roughly hourlong set that were packed with high-voltage flurries of tremolo-picking, Voskanyan plays with a great sense of touch and subtlety. He saved his wildest chord-chopping for when he really needed it, and even then, he didn’t give the impression that he was working that hard (beyond frequent trips to the side of the stage to guzzle water, anyway). Otherwise, his attack on the strings was nuanced, and judicious, with a masterful use of space. Guys who can play as fast as he does can’t usually chill with an equal degree of mystery.

Behind him, the trio of Arman Peshtmaljian on a Nord Stage 2 keyboard, Gurgen Ghazaryan on bass and Movses Ghazaryan on drums shifted between rhythms and idioms with a similar, understated dexterity. There were interludes that drew on Near Eastern art-rock, and folk-rock, along with frequent allusions to current-day Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music. And there were some moments, usually when Voskanyan left a verse or two to the band, that veered closer to jazz territory. Yet this isn’t a rock band, and it’s definitely not a folk band, even though they amped up a couple of singalong numbers with the crowd at the end.

Armenia is small, about the same size as Jamaica. Like reggae, Armenian music has a vast, global influence: Voskanyan’s compositions reflect that scope. He and the band opened with a pretty straight-up American funk tune, except that it sounded as if it was being played on a banjo. Then Voskanyan went up the fretboard, where the microtones of the Armenian scale creep in, and the effect was as magical as it was strange and unexpected. There were many, many moments like that throughout the rest of the the evening.

From there he sang vocalese over an uneasy, slow rainy-day theme that drew more heavily on chromatics and microtones. To western ears, his most riveting number was a slow, utterly inconsolable film noir-style chromatic instrumental that could have been a Steve Ulrich composition. Voskanyan’s songs without words are very evocative: a fireside tableau was more bittersweet than you might expect. The biggest hit with the crowd was a TGIF-themed epic that shifted from a brisk, flurrying 12/8 rhythm through all sorts of changes, a long keyboard break  – the only place where Voskanyan really lost the crowd – and then he brought them back in a split second with an enigmatic hailstorm of a tar solo. At the end of the set, he brought up accordionist Sevana Tchakerian, who alternated between terse washes of sound and a rhythmic pulse, and also provided spellbinding, acerbic vocals that were a perfect counterpart to Voskanyan’s confident baritone.

Voskanyan and band are currently on US tour, sponsored by AGBU-YPNC. The next stop is tomorrow night, April 7 at 9 PM at St. John Armenian Church, 275 Olympia Way in San Francisco; cover is $30/$20 stud. Drom, the East Village’s mecca for sounds from every part of the globe, has their usual slate of eclectic acts coming up. There’s a metal show tonight; Greek songwriter Kostis Maraveyas plays with his darkly bouncy rembetiko and latin-flavored band tomorrow night, April 7 at half past eleven for $20. 

Clarinet Titan Michael Winograd Plays a Full-Throttle Saturday Residency at Barbes This Month

If adrenaline is your thing, go see Michael Winograd this Saturday at Barbes. Even if you don’t know much about klezmer music, it’s worth the gamble. There is no Coney Island ride, with the possibility of the Cyclone, that can deliver thrills on the level of Winograd’s clarinet. And he makes it look easy. He’s got a silken, steady wind-tunnel tone, in the same vein as Rudresh Mahanthappa’s approach on the alto sax, and a Saturday 6 PM Barbes residency this month where he’s airing out a lot of new material. This Saturday, April 8 he’s doing “Order: A Musical Seder,” with singer/pianist Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Then Winograd plays with a large ensemble on the 15th and 29th, and with a quartet on the 22nd.

Last week’s show was packed with a mix of oldsters and kids who’d come out to see Winograd deliver an eclectic, dynamic set of new material from a forthcoming album, backed by a pretty sizeable group including accordion, piano, rhythm section (Zoe Guigueno on bass and Dave Licht on drums), plus Avi Fox-Rosen on banjo. The addition of that instrument turned out to be more of an extra textural treat than an attempt to be old-fashioned or go in a bluegrass direction like Andy Statman.

The new material is killer. The dark stuff came first, along with the biggest crescendos and slinkiest, rapidfire volleys of sixteenth notes from Winograd. Since these tunes are getting their first workouts from the band, he took most of the solos. They opened with a handful of chromatically bristling, Russian and Ukrainian-flavored numbers. There was a point early on where the flutter of the banjo against the steady chords of the piano amid the swells of the rest of the group had a bittersweet, achingly beautiful, Ellingtonian lushness.

Later in the set, they did a hora that started out all mysterious and then picked up with a bang, true to form. There was a doina that turned out to be the most exploratory number – some would say it was the the jazziest moment of the night. As the show went on, the songs got bouncier and sunnier. They closed with a catchy, anthemic tune that sounded like a classic from the Russian Jewish folk tradition but could have been an original: Winograd can be like that. And even back at the bar, the sound was good: hanging with friends, away from the crowd didn’t turn out to be an obstacle as far as listening was concerned. See you Saturday. 

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.

First-Class Original Bluegrass and a Lower East Side Gig From Cricket Tell the Weather

Cricket Tell the Weather have pretty much everything you could possibly want from a bluegrass band: inspiring instrumental chops, vivid storytelling and a dynamic range that runs the gamut from ecstatic to mournful. What distinguishes them from the legions of cover bands and pop musicians posing as Americana pickers is frontwoman/fiddler Andrea Asprelli’s songwriting. She’s informed by tradition but not reverent. Her songs are homespun but not sentimental, and she loves historical references. She and the band have a 10 PM gig on March 21 at the scruffy downstairs third-stage room at the Rockwood; cover is $10.

Their latest album, Tell the Story Right is streaming at Bandcamp. Asprelli’s accomplices on this one include Doug Goldstein on banjo, guitarists Mike Robinson and Jeff Picker, with Dave Speranza and Sam Weber each contributing bass. Over a steady backbeat, the newgrass opening number, Briar, takes a rather haggard perspective of being “too far down to come up or too far up to come down…Beware of the righteous and their charity, “ Asprelli intones, moody but purposeful.

If I Had My Way is a bitingly successful, bitter original take on the theme that the Grateful Dead appropriated for Samson and Delilah. “Never trusted photographs to tell the story right,” Asprelli confides over Goldstein’s steady picking on the following tune, Photograph. “All night we wait for the dawn, shimmers then it’s gone,” she laments. The interweave between banjo and fiddle is tasty to the extreme.

Alice, a portrait of a rugged individualist, has a jaunty oldtimey blues swing, a tiptoeing bass solo and a lively handoff from Goldstein to Asprelli. The balmy midtempo instrumental Lucinda’s Daughter is a launching pad for some hot guitar flatpicking and subtly wry banjo. “Gonna open up the classifieds, gonna buy the first rusty bucket I find,” Asprelli announces as the wandering That’ll Be My Home gets underway.

Eugenia is a rock anthem miscast as bluegrass: the band plays it tentatively, and it only leaves the ground at the very end. A group like Deer Tick would have a field day with it. There are also three covers here. The spiritual Little David Play on Your Harp gets a steady, propulsive treatment with soulful vocal harmonies. The version of Laura Marling’s Daisy turns out to be an imaginative mashup of Britfolk and Appalachian sounds, in the same vein as Jan Bell. The last one was written by a dorky, awkward piano pop girl; it gives Asprelli a chance to air out her vocal range, but otherwise it’s a dud. A writer as strong as she is doesn’t need to go scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Plaintive Dirges and Slyly Funny Klezmer Mashups at the Jalopy This Thursday

More or less every Thursday night, drummer Aaron Alexander books a series of some of the world’s foremost talent from across the vast, global expanse of Jewish traditional music into the Jalopy. The show starts at 8:30 PM, cover is $15, or you can show up early for a dance lesson and/or stay late and jam with the band for extra.

Sometimes the music is more jazz-oriented, no surprise considering that Alexander is a jazz drummer whose background is as eclectic as the artists he books. The Art Blakey-inspired leader of the Klez Messengers was also the propulsive force behind one of New York’s most adrenalizing large jazz ensembles, the Ayn Sof Big Band for several years.

This week’s attraction, the Big Galut(e) number among the more folk-oriented acts to play the series. This allstar band mix edgy originals into their repertoire of folk dances and laments from across the centuries and around the world. Clarinetist Robin Seletsky fronts the unit, with Sasha Margolis on violin, Michael Leopold on theorbo and baroque guitar, Mark Rubinstein on accordion and Richard Sosinsky on bass and mandolin. Their wide-ranging debut album is streaming at Spotify.

They open it with a couple of brisk minor-key romps, the first one by Seletsky’s dad Harold – a pioneer in original klezmer – and follow it with one of her own. The second track, Levant is more allusively Middle Eastern, with a mournfully melismatic opening clarinet taqsim echoed by the violin over a mysterious staccato pulse.

Margolis sings an expressive, stagy take of Papirosin, the Yiddish theatre ancestor of Little Match Girl songs. Then the band picks up the pace with Seletsky’s Kalkutta Klezmer and its lithe Indian inflections, followed by a mounfully rubato take of the old African-American spiritual Go Down Moses.

The album’s most surreal track, Charlemos, is a 1940 Argentinian alienation tale, sort of the tango counterpart to Jim Croce’s Operator, at least thematically. From there they mash up fiery Romanian Jewish sounds with bluegrass, then take a stately detour through a couple of darkly catchy baroque sonatinas by Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, Seletsky drawing on her classical background.

They go back to the shadowlands of tango for a familiar Kurt Weill theme, followed by a Belgian barroom musette version of a Sophie Tucker musical theatre hit which they call La Yiddishe Mama. They mine the catalog of Mordechai Gebirtig – purveyor of crime rhymes and folk-punk broadsides in 1920s Poland and further east – for a brooding instrumental medley, which make a good segue with the slowly crescendoing Hasidic dance afterward. The album hits a peak with a trio of minor-key dances, the first bringing to mind New York individualists Metropolitan Klezmer, the second and the final one a portrait of a Thai bagel place (such things exist). Throughout the album, the strings and accordion pulse elegantly behind Seletsky’s liquid-crystal melodies. It’s soulful, and unselfconsciously poignant, and a lot of this you can dance to.

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. 

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal Create a Vast, Starlit Sonic Universe at the French institute

Last night at the French Institute, cellist Vincent Segal and kora player Ballake Sissoko channeled the roots of a thousand bittersweetly beautiful African-American soul ballads. It was a confluence of stately baroque-inflected themes intermingled with an elegantly energetic update on a centuries-old African sound. Segal grinningly explained that the duo took their cues from the animal kingdom: their previous show might have been a bovine one, he said self-effacingly, but this one was a horse, a mighty, majestic one.

Their blend of western classical influences into richly ringing, celestially magical Malian kora music is as much a part of an ongoing tradition as it is cutting-edge. It was a night of deep contemplation, and vast panoramas, an alternate universe where beauty trumped anything that could be trumped.

When they weren’t joining forces as a single celestial generator, they exchanged roles carrying either a lead line or a melodic framework, Segal sometimes taking the role of bass player.  The rhythms grew more complex and intertwining as the show went on, as the two left the page with a sometimes breathtaking improvisational flair. Yet it was the night’s subtlest and most intimate moments that resonated most with the crowd: shivery microtone-inducing rivulets and an unexpected and spot-on gnawa riff from Segal, or supersonically flickering, half-muted volleys from Sissoko.

They opened with a spare, distantly aching ballad, the first of several mysteriously crescendoing two-chord vamps, Segal’s judicious pizzicato and austere washes against the deep-sky ripples that have become Sissoko’s signature over the years. The duo went into even more starry ambience after that until Segal it into an abrupt, stark series of riffs to shift the mood from reverie to a matter-of-factly jaunty dance. There would be many of those, from both musicians, throughout the duo’s roughly hourlong set.

Segal anchored a melancholy vamp over an insistent 6/8 rhythm beneath a river of eighth notes, the duo cleverly working their way to doublespeed and then back  Sissoko’s sepulchrally dancing figures grew closer and emerged triumphantly from the shadows as Segal maintained a hypnotic pulse. Then it was Segal’s turn to serve as exorcist. From there the two wove a spare, slowly crescendoing, plaintive melody over a wavelike, recurrently waltzlike beat punctuated by Segal’s simple, rising accents, echoed more vigorously by Sissoko as it went on. It brought one of New York’s most important musical impresarios to tears.

Segal played percussion as Sissoko bullt a dense thicket of hypnotically leaping phrases; then Segal went back to the cello as Sissoko made a big anthem out of it. The two ended the show on a more delicate, sparsely contemplative note. For the first of the encores, kora wizard Sekouya Diabate’s wife Tariba emerged from the audience to sing the first encore, a Malian praise song, unamplified, in her arrestingly intense, smoky alto. It seemed directed at Sissoko’s mom, who was seeing her son onstage in the US for only the second time in three decades.

Since their days serving as home base for the New York Arabic Orchestra, the French Institute has programmed some of the most intriguing music to emerge from the Francophone diaspora. Watch this space for upcoming artists and concert dates.