New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: folk music

A Rare Music Impresario with Actual Talent

Lara Ewen may be best known as the irrepressible impresario behind the Free Music Fridays series at the American Folk Art Museum, which with the ongoing disappearance of the downtown acoustic scene has arguably become Manhattan’s best listening room for folk and Americana sounds. But Ewen is also one of New York’s most magnetic singers, and a strong songwriter as well. Over the years, her music has gotten darker and gone deeper into gothic Americana, often in a Tom Waits vein. Her hardscrabble Queens roots may have something to do with that.

She’s playing the Scratcher Bar on 5th Street just east of Bowery on Feb 26 at around 7, when you might find fellow songsmith Kelley Swindall tending bar. It’s an intimate space, and a convenient time on a work night so getting there a little early wouldn’t be a bad idea: artists who book venues tend to be popular for reasons other than their art.

Ewen is the rare one who isn’t. Her definitive album is The Wishing Stone Songs, from 2013. But there’s other solid material in her catalog. A listen back to her 2007 cd Ghosts and Gasoline – which happily has made it to Spotify – reaffirms that. Her band on the record is excellent: much as there’s a late 90s influence, there’s no cheesy drum machine, no cliched trip-hop beat. Guitarist Howard Rappaport jangles and clangs, judiciously over the tight, low-key rhythm section of bassist Donald Facompre and drummer Jordan Lash.

Ewen sings in character, with unexpected nuance for someone who doesn’t come from a jazz background. One minute she’ll be serenading you with that crystal-clear, maple-sugar soprano, another she’ll be gritty, then maybe throwing some twang at you, depending on context.

The album’s opening track, Josephine, has a brisk, methodically vamping, hypnotic quality, an allusive portrait of bitterness. The Airport Song is one of those blue-collar character studies that Ewen writes so vividly, part country, part spacious big-sky tableau, Rappaport’s pedal steel soaring overhead. Likewise, the propulsive Untethered is a surreeal portrait of outer-borough disconnection and anomie, bringing to mind a first-rate early-zeros Brooklyn songwriter. Barbara Brousal.

Turning Blue sways along gently, a quietly savage portrait of a a woman settling for less than she should. The album’s most devastating track is Our Song, just Ewen and her acoustic guitar, a gorgeously bittersweet and unexpectedly generous post-breakup reflection.

The oldest track on the album, Clear, will resonate for anyone who wouldn’t trade this city for any other temptation. 20 Years Ago, an aging beauty’s lament, foreshadows where Ewen would go on her next album. Then Ewen picks up the pace with the brooding highway narrative Manahttan Kansas

Facompre walks jazz scales under Ewen’s Rickie Lee Jones-ish delivery in Misery Wholesale. The album winds up with Blessed, a hopeful love song to a down-and-out character, and A Way to You, which is a dead ringer for a well-known Dylan hit. While Ewen typically plays her most recent material onstage, she might bust out one or two of these if you’re lucky. 

Poignant, Powerful Portuguese Fadista Gisela João Makes Her US Debut Downtown This Weekend

Fado is all about heartbreak. Like tango and the blues, it was dismissed for its ghetto origins long before it became more or less the national music of Portugal  Over the years, it’s gone transnational: you may not hear it on big stages in Paris or Berlin, but you will hear it wafting from maids’ quarters late at night in ritzy parts of town.

Charismatic singer Gisela João is just about the biggest thing in fado these days, making a lot of waves in the wake of the release of her latest album Nua (Naked), streaming at Spotify. She’s making her US debut on Feb 25 at 7 PM at the Schimmel Auditorium at Pace University downtown at 3 Spruce St. Tix are $30, and getting them in advance is a highly advised: this show is a big deal for expats across the tri-state area.Take the J/6 to Brooklyn Bridge.

João hardly fits the demure, doomed fado singer stereotype. Reputedly, she puts on a high-voltage show, and some of that energy translates on the album. Her voice has more than a tinge of smoke, and she often goes for the jugular with a wide-angle vibrato to drive a crescendo home. While that device is most closely associated with iconic fadista Amalia Rodrigues, João frequently evokes the darkest, most noirish side of the style. She’s got a fantastic band: Ricardo Parreira plays with a spiky virtuosity on the ringing, overtone-rich 12-string Portuguese guitar, Nelson Aleixo holding down the rhythm elegantly on classical guitar, along with Francisco Gaspar on acoustic bass. The overall ambience is both stately and impassioned.

Most of the tracks are popular standards with spare but dynamically textured arrangements, both retro and radical in an age where indigenous styles in so many parts of the world mimic the most cliched, techy American musical imperialism. Beatriz da Conceição’s Um Fado Para Este Noite (A Fado for Tonight) sets the stage with its ringing, rippling textures and João’s almost stern, angst-fueled delivery.

Há Palavras Que Nos Beijam (The Words That We Kiss) switches out the brooding lushness of the Mariza version for an oldschool, sparse interpretation. A little later, the group flips the script the opposite way with As Rosas Não Falam (Roses Don’t Tell), by Brazilian crooner Cartola. The first of the Rodrigues numbers, O Senhor Extraterrestre is a coyly bouncy, Veracruz folk-tinged tale which does not concern space aliens.

The album’s most recent number, Sombras do Passado (Shadows of the Past), is also arguably its most mutedly plaintive. Likewise, the rustically low-key, hushed take of the metaphorically-charged Rodrigues classic Naufrágio (Shipwreck). Then the group picks up the pace with the rustic Romany waltz Lá Na Minha Aldeia (There in My Village)

Another Cartola tune, O Mundo é um Moinho (The World Is a Windmill) brings back the crepuscular ambience, João channeling a low-key, world-weary cynicism. The band pull out all the stops with Labirinto Ou Não Foi Nada: (Labyrinth, or It Was Nothing): the twin guitars building a hypnotic, harpsichord-like backdrop for this slowly crescendoing lament for what could have been.

João saves her tenderest vocal for the last of the Rodrigues’ songs, Quando Os Outros Te Batem, Beijo-Te Eu (When the Others Hit You, I Kiss You). I In keeping with the album’s up-and-down dynamic shifts, João picks up the pace once again with the scampering, Romany-flavored party anthem Noite de São João

The album winds up with a desolate take of Argentina Santos’ Naquela Noite em Janeiro (On That Night in January) and then a wounded, gracefully lilting fado-ized version of the Mexican folk standard La Llorona. Awash in longing and despair, João’s new collection works both as a trip back in time for fado fans as well as a solid introduction to the style for newcomers from a purist who knows the music inside out.

Relevant Mexican Sounds, and the Hip-Hop Elite Salute a Chinatown Legend

Fearless Mexican-American folk-rockers Las Cafeteras have a cool free download today just in time for President’s Day. If I Was President is off their forthcoming Tastes Like LA album. “We’ve got a different kind of party in the White House tonight.” For real!

And even if rap or stoner Chinese food isn’t your thing, and you’re a New Yorker, check out Narcotechs‘ great new video for their joint Chicken Lo Mein. They filmed it at Wo Hop. If you’re OG NYC, at one time or another you’ve indulged at the legendary Mott Street spot. This was filmed in the basement space – duh – not the street-level room, which draws the tourists in for more ducats. The production draws on a Wu-tang classic from back in the day. Relive your lost youth in this one if you can remember it.

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.

Smart, Cutting-Edge Tunesmithing at Manhattan’s Most Comfortable Listening Room

Much as the world of singer-songwriters has shrunk, in the wake of the death of the big record labels – call it a market correction – Manhattan still has a great listening room for solo acoustic acts and small string bands. That venue is the American Folk Art Museum, just a few steps from the uptown 1 local to 66th Street, across the triangle from Lincoln Center. Their mostly-weekly Free Music Fridays series starts at 5:30 on the nose, goes to about quarter after seven and spans the world of folk music, from vintage Americana, gospel and blues to bluegrass, original songwriters and sounds from all over the world. That’s why this blog picked the museum as Manhattan’s best venue for 2016.

Jessi Robertson, with her harrowing narratives of angst and despair and her otherworldly, soul-infused wail, is the star of the show there on Friday the 29th. She’s a surprisingly funny performer for someone whose music is so dark and intense. She’s as captivating as the three best acts to play the space over the past few weeks: Joshua Garcia, Dina Regine and Anana Kaye.

Garcia held the crowd rapt throughout his brief set there last month. He has a flinty, clipped vocal delivery that’s bluesy without being cliched. He sounds like a throwback to the artists from the 1950s who influenced Dylan, but whom Dylan couldn’t quite figure out how to copy, at least vocally speaking. Along with a handful of populist anthems and nostalgic character studies, Garcia’s most riveting song was That’s the Way You Drop a Bomb. Told from the plainspoken perspective of one of the the crew of the Enola Gay, Garcia nailed every detail, right down to the pilot’s admonishment not to watch the explosion on the ground, the mushroom cloud or the firestorm afterward. Except that Garcia’s crewman had a conscience.

Dina Regine is best known as one of the pioneers of EDM, but her songwriting is vastly more interesting. On that same bill, she played solo acoustic on guitar, unselfconsciously making her way through a fearlessly populist set that made a great segue with Garcia. Shadowy vamping post-Lou Reed grit stood alongside warmly familiar retro 60s soul and doo-wop tunes, everything anchored in Regine’s background as a daughter of the Queens projects in the 1970s. She’s reputedly working on a new album which, if this set is any indication, promises to be just as eclectic and relevant as her last one.

Last week, Anana Kaye opened the night flanked by a couple of guys on rhythm and lead guitar. With her raccoon-eye makeup and circus rock outfit, she looked the part, but she transcends the theatrics of that cubculture (that’s a typo, but it works, right?). As a pianist, she really has a handle on uneasy, cinematic voicings that sometimes reach lurid, bloodcurdling depths. The best song in her tantalizingly brief set was Down the Ladder, a cruelly haunting desperation anthem. The most playful was Blueberry Fireworks, an aptly surrealistic shout-out to a gradeschool-aged friend with a vivid imagination. The more low-key material in her set reminded of Tom Waits while her upbeat, carnivalesque numbers reminded of a strummy, guitar-driven, lyrically infused Rasputina or female-fronted World Inferno. Kaye’s next gig is on Feb 15 at 8 PM at LIC Bar in Long Island City.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Night One of Golden Fest 2017: A Darkly Danceable Feast

It’s four in the morning as this is being written. Opening night of this year’s Golden Fest – the annual gathering of Balkan bands from around the world in Kensington, Brooklyn’s majestic, old-world Grand Prospect Hall – ended riotously about three hours ago with stomping, original brass band West Philadelphia Orchestra. Tonight is the big megilla, which starts at six, and tickets are still available. If you can afford to, go. It’s probably the best concert you’ll see this year in New York, maybe anywhere.

The overall experience last night was also old-world, in all the best ways. Eighty-year-old grandmothers danced with twenty-year-old dudes and gradeschool kids from what appeared to be every corner of the globe. Through five nonstop hours of music, the circles of line-dancers kept expanding, to the point where those who weren’t dancing either had to join the line or step off the dance floor. It was amazing how well about half the audience had the steps down cold, many of which are in meters considered to be very odd – at least from a rock or hip-hop point of view. The other half of the crowd were obviously somewhat mystified, but couldn’t resist joining the line and bouncing along. There were no judgments and lots of impromptu learning going on. And the music was sublime, as it has been since the festival was launched twenty years ago.

The most lustrously beautiful solo of the night came early, during a dance lesson: one of the truba players from Zlatne Uste, the original gangstas of New York Balkan bands, was responsible. The most dazzling display of technique, among hundreds of those, was the wild series of glissandos from West Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter Koofreh Umoren. Their sousaphone player, Jimmy Parker, has terrifying chops as well, at one point taking an intro that hit notes that big fat low-register horns aren’t supposed to be able to reach, not even close. That beast of a band made a good headliner: in a short, barely half-an-hour onstage, they finally gave the night’s younger contingent the chance to cut loose to a pretty much straight-up 4/4 beat after an evening of the hypnotic kinetics that started a little after seven. Although a grandmother who looked about seventy was having plenty of fun taking a circle of oldsters down, down, down: how do you say “rock lobster” in Serbian?

Triage is the name of the game here. Tonight’s show features literally scores of bands on four separate stages: you can see a little of everybody, or focus on your favorites from around the world. Last night was a chance to hear four of the most exciting American – or mostly American – groups in the field, along with a goosebump-inducing opening act from Bulgaria. Zurla oboe virtuoso Milo Destanovski led that ensemble, Novi Maleshevski Zurli, through an otherworldly, booming vortex that was as ancient-sounding as it was sophisticated, both rhythmically and melodically. Like most of the music of the Romany people, Destanovski’s group plays microtonally, building an acidic mist that often brought to mind Moroccan jajouka music, rising high over a looming, stygian tapan drum pulse. Right from the start there were dancers out there, and they knew what to do.

The mighty, almost twenty-piece Zlatne Uste have been playing and writing their own rat-a-tat cocek dances and ominously resonant minor-key epics since the 80s. This is their festival, and this was their moment to remind everybody that their music is just as memorably eclectic as their collective address books are vast. A big Romany anthem was the centerpiece of a dynamic mix of acerbically chromatic minor key romps and an unexpectedly blithe, bouncy closing number, the band in the center of the dance floor, the eye in a growing storm of dancers.

Pontic Firebird – #bestbandnameever, right? – took the stage for what might have been the most expansive set of the evening. Jerry Kisslinger’s standup daouli drum and Paul Brown’s muscular bass kept a tight but slinky grip on the tricky tempos, beneath the serpentine lines of Adam Good’s oud and frontwoman Beth Bahia Cohen’s soaring, often searing microtonal violin. Then Good went down on the floor, switched to bass and anchored the similarly intense, even more microtonally magical sounds of Bulgarian band Cherven Traktor, fueled by gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev’s uneasy leaps and his wife Donka Koleva’s robust, elegantly ornamented vocals against Belle Birchfield’s spiky bandura lute and Zlatne Uste maven Michael Ginsburg’s sturdy tapan beats. Each of these acts will return in various spaces throughout the hall tonight: see you in the Rainbow Room at around 6:30!

Aurelio Brings His Irresistible Garifuna Grooves to Lincoln Center Next Week

This coming Thursday, Jan 19 at 7:30 PM there’s a killer dance party at the atrium space at Lincoln Center just north of 62nd Street. And it’s free. Over the past year and a half or so, these more or less weekly, sometimes more frequent shows have really caught on, and you have to get there a little early to get a seat – sometimes simply to get in. While crowds here are large and enthusiastic, security never lets the space reach the point where it’s cramped and there’s no room to move around. If you get there in time this Thursday, you will be golden, because the artist onstage is Aurelio.

Aurelio Martinez fronts the Garifuna Soul Band from La Ceiba, Honduras. They play Garifuna coast music that often sounds like bachata at doublespeed, although it has many other flavors, like pretty much all styles from that part of the world. There are echoes of roots reggae in the long vamps, and sometimes in the beats when it slows down, but it’s not reggae. Same deal with the salsa influence. Most of it is upbeat and irresistibly fun, although Aurelio’s band uses a lot of dynamics.

The last time this blog was in the house at an Aurelio show, it was the spring of 2015 downtown at the World Financial Center atrium where the Bang on a Can Marathon used to be held. Aurelio plays with the same kind of bright, stinging acoustic guitar tone – almost like a twelve-string – that’s typical in bachata. And he’s fast, firing off one long spiral after another. Sometimes he did that in tandem with his sensational lead guitarist, who shifted between joyous, bucolic Veracruz folk-tinged licks, Cuban-influenced interludes, starry reverbtoned psychedelia and on a couple of numbers, built an uneasy, echoey, dub-tinged atmosphere. That made for a striking contrast with all the scampering dance tunes, bringing to mind Burning Spear at his darkest and most Ethiopian-flavored in the mid-70s. Which makes sense in context: the Garifuna people have retained much of the African culture their ancestors brought with them after being kidnaped by 18th and 19th century slavers.

Surprisingly, despite all the props he gets for his chops, Aurelio only took a couple of solos, leaving the lengthy guitar breaks to the lead player. As the show went on, there were a couple of points where the band took it down to just the percussion section, which really got the crowd going. Aurelio’s bassist delivered a scrambling, nimbly melodic pulse that was the closest thing to classic salsa dura that anyone in the group was playing. The bandleader interacted with the crowd a lot; there was some “por ahi, por alla” type stuff, occasionally juxtaposed with some surprisingly dark, considerably more low-key, almost noir moments. If Aurelio hasn’t changed his steez in the eighteen months since this concert, the Lincoln Center show ought to be much the same.

Sarah Small’s Provocative Secondary Dominance: Highlight of This Year’s Prototype Festival

Sarah Small’s work draws you in and then makes you think. It says, “Get comfortable, but not too comfortable.” It questions, constantly. Throughout her fascinating, understatedly provocative multimedia work Secondary Dominance last night at Here – part of this year’s Prototype Festival – there was so much happening onstage that the leader of the Q&A afterward confessed to having a page worth of notes and no idea where to start.

Executive produced by Rachelle Cohen, the roughly hourlong performance began immediately as the audience settled into their seats, a warm, lustrous voice singing a gorgeous love song in Arabic wafting over the PA. Who was responsible for this gentle and reassuring introduction? It turned out to be Small’s Black Sea Hotel bandmate Shelley Thomas, seated stage right with an assortment of drums and percussion implements.

About midway through, the composer herself emerged from behind her two keyboards and mixing desk – mounted on a podium colorfully decorated like a curbside shrine out of the George Lucas universe – and stooped over, to the side as a trio of dancers – Jennifer Keane, Eliza S. Tollett and Carmella Lauer, imaginatively choreographed by Vanessa Walters – floated on their toes. Meanwhile, Small’s chalked-up collaborator Wade McCollum lurked tenuously behind her as her calmly uneasy vocalese mingled with the atmospherics looming from Marta Bagratuni’s cello, Peter Hess’ flute and Thomas’ voice and drums. A simultaneous projection of the action onstage played on a screen overhead, capturing Small’s lithely muscular, spring-loaded presence in shadowy three-quarter profile.

McCollum’s wordless narrative behind Small’s music explores power dynamics, memory and family tension. Gloria Jung and Henry Packer exuded regal integrity and a stolidity that cut both ways:  there was a moment where someone tried to pry something out of someone’s hand that was as cruelly funny as it was quietly vaudevillian. Ballet school, its rigors and demands was another metaphorically-loaded, recurrent motif, and the dancers held up under duress while barely breaking a sweat. McCollum’s ghostly character didn’t emerge from a fetal position until the spectacle had been underway for awhile, which ended up transcending any ordinary, otherworldly association.

What was otherworldly was the music, which, characteristically, spans the worlds of indie classical, art-rock and the Balkan folk traditions that Small has explored so vividly, as a singer, arranger and composer since her teens. What’s most notable about this surreal, nonlinear suite is that while it encompasses Balkan music – with brief, acerbic, closer harmonies sung by Small, Thomas, Bagratuni and McCollum, in addition to a projection of a lustrously lit seaside Black Sea Hotel music video directed by Josephine Decker  – the majority of it draws on western influences. Inspired by a series of dreams and an enigmatic, recurrent character named Jessica Brainstorm – who may be an alter ego – the sequence has the same cinematic sweep as Small’s work for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus, grounded by Bagratuni’s austere, sometimes grim low register, Hess sailing warily overhead, sometimes mingling with the voices and electronic ambience. As the show went on, the music grew more detailed, with interludes ranging from gently pulsing, midtempo 80s darkwave, to rippling nocturnal themes evocative of Tuatara’s gamelanesque mid-90s psychedelia.

The work as a whole is a stunning example of how Small so often becomes the focal point of a collaboration that brings out the best in everyone involved.  Over the years, these efforts cross a vast swath of art forms: from her playfully ambitious body of photography in the early zeros, to Black Sea Hotel, to her surrealistically sinister starring role in Decker’s cult classic suspense/slasher film Butter on the Latch, and her lavish “tableaux vivants” staged earlier in this decade, equal parts living sculpture, slo-mo dance flashmob, dada theatre and fearless exploration of intimacy in an era of atomization, data mining and relentless surveillance. Small and McCollum have plans for both a more small-scale, “chamber version” of this piece as well as an epic 1200-person version for the Park Avenue Armory, still in the early stages of development. For now, you can be provoked and thoroughly entertained at the remaining three performances at 9 PM, tonight, Jan 12 through 14 in the downstairs theatre at Here, 145 6th Ave south of Spring (enter on Dominick Street). Cover is $30.

Three Nights in a Row at Drom: An Embarrassment of Riches

Last night at Drom, the crowd had reached critical mass by the time Innov Gnawa took the stage. It was the second weekend in a row that the seven-piece Moroccan trance-dance ensemble had packed a Manhattan club. This group is hot right now.

“What’s the appeal of this music?” the energetic, personable Virginia publicist asked the worn, haggard New York bass player.

“It’s the blues,” he replied, pulling himself out of a walking dream state. “You hear what the sintir player, the guy with the lute, is doing? He’s bouncing off an octave, but in between he’s playing a blues riff. Catchy, isn’t it? And I think that’s what people latch onto. That, and the castanets on the high end, and the bassline on the low, with the vocals in the middle. Total stereo from a thousand years ago.”

“I don’t really follow blues,” the publicist responded, guardedly. “I like Middle Eastern music.”

“Me too!” the bassist enthused. “This is the roots of Middle Eastern music, from North Africa. And my theory with the blues is that it’s in everybody’s DNA, everybody can resonate to it because the blues goes back to Ethiopia and that’s where the human species comes from.”

There were a lot of conversations like that over the course of the night. This weekend, the booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP, is in town, which for ordinary people means that there are an unusual number of fantastic multiple-band bills happening for cheap or even free. The conventioneers call themselves presenters. Before you dismiss that as pretentious, consider that if you were a booker, you would probably prefer to be called a presenter. The mix of presenters, club people – the night was put on by the folks at Barbes, Brooklyn’s elite venue along with eclectic dance music label Electric Cowbell Records and Multiflora Productions – as well as random dancers got to enjoy a tantalizingly short set of shapeshifting, undulating grooves and energetic call-and-response chants in Arabic that began not onstage but on the floor in the middle of the crowd. What did it feel like to be literally rubbing elbows with bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer, who, before he strapped on his sintir, walloped on a big bass drum slung over his shoulder? Thunderous fun. This music is obviously as adrenalizing to play as it is to be part of on the dance floor.

The previous band, Miramar, channeled a completely different kind of intensity. Singer Rei Alvarez rocked a sharp black suit, pairing off fire-and-dry-ice harmonies with his counterpart Laura Ann Singh, inscrutable in a vintage midnight blue pencil dress. The two looked like they just stepped out of a David Lynch or late-period Buñuel film, with music to match. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most spellbinding performer of the night was keyboardist Marlysse Simmons, who played terse, elegant piano on several of the band’s moody boleros, including the opener, Sylvia Rexach’s classic Di Corazon, one of the saddest songs ever written. But it was her slinky, luridly tremoloing funeral organ on the band’s most haunting numbers, a mix of Rexach covers and originals that defines this band more than anything else. They made their way through a noir Vegas bossa that brought to mind Brooklyn art-rockers Tredici Bacci, a dramatic tango-flavored anthem with some rippling flamenco guitar lines, and a shattering version of Rexach’s Sin Ti. The rest of the material, afloat on a murky river of organ, channeled nonstop angst and longing. In all of latin music, the bolero is the ultimate expression of estrangement and angst: in the hands of this band, that atmosphere was relentless, and breathtaking, and in its own dark way as comforting as the Moroccan grooves afterward.

The night’s most dynamically captivating singer, among many, was Eva Salina, who’d been called in on short notice since Ethiopiques groovemeisters Feedel Band weren’t able to get up from Washington, DC in the snowstorm. Her longtime accordionist Peter Stan shifted from mournful ambience, to slithery cascades downward along with plenty of jaunty Balkan party riffage as the singer moved gracefully and eloquently from a brassy wedding theme, to a brooding abandoned-wife scenario, to an understatedly wrenching Saban Bajarmovic cover addressed to someone he never got the chance to say goodbye to. Eva Salina could front any Balkan band in the world she wants (one might say that she already has). Nobody works harder at getting the accents and ornaments right, or channeling the most minute expression of emotion or shade of irony. Midway through her set, she entreated the agents in the crowd to pair experienced artists with younger groups in order to keep the music fresh…and alive.

Alash were the funniest band of the night: the crowd loved them. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik take their bandname from a river in their native Tuva in central Asia, and they backed that up with a couple of sweeping, uneasily rustic pastorales blending spare acoustic guitar with wood flute and the group’s signature, oscillating throat-singing harmonies. There was also a rather spare, severe number that could have easily passed for American gospel or blues from the 1800s if it had English lyrics. But the big crowd-pleasers were the funny stuff: a swaying drinking song, a tonguetwisting number that brought to mind an auctioneer’s rapidfire delivery, and the catchy, emphatic folk tunes that they began and ended with. “Shoot,” barked Ondar as each reached a sudden, cold ending: it’s a fair guess that means something more optimistic in Tuvan than it does in English.

And Ladama, a pan-latin, mostly female (hence the name) supergroup of sorts – assembled under the auspices of the US State Department under Obama – opened the evening with mix of upbeat folk-rock, a hint of tango and a couple of serpentine cumbias. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, whose axe is the bandola llanera, which looks like a Mexican bajo sexto but sounds something like a baritone ukulele with more bite. Her fleet, flamencoish flurries on a handful of numbers made for some of the night’s most intense moments; otherwise, the band – including a couple of male ringers on accordion and bass, along with singer Sara Lucas, drummer Lara Klaus, conguera Daniela Serna and a violinist, kept a seamless bounce over beats from across South America, mirroring the band members’ diverse backgrounds. That was the night’s subtext. It’s hard to imagine the incoming Presidential administration having any interest in promoting music any more globally-inspired or edgy than Bon Jovi.