New York Music Daily

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Category: indian music

A Transcendent, Trance-Inducing Night of Psychedelic Indian Soul at Zeshan B’s Lincoln Center Debut

In his Lincoln Center debut last week, Chicago soul singer Zeshan B delivered one of the most rivetingly psychedelic, impassioned, fearlessly relevant performances at any New York venue this year. Introducing the Chicago-born singer/harmonium player and his fantastic band, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal enthused that he “Encompasses every yummy kind of music there is,” which wasn’t a stretch. In over an hour onstage, he and his slinky, surreal, spot-on four-piece backing band opened with some chill funk, closed with a spine-tingling oldschool soul anthem, in between shifting between new psychedelic arrangements of ancient Indian ghazals, some Bollywood, Sufi balladry, hints of hip-hop and even a couple of sublimely expert detours toward medieval Jewish cantorial music. Is there anything this guy CAN’T sing?

Writer Amy Schiller, ensconced in the front row of the VIP area, quipped that Zeshan B’s brand-new signature style should be called “ghazpel.”

The group’s vampy, impassioned opening number, Breaking Point, rose to a brief guitar solo from the brilliantly incisive Samuel Moesching over the serpentine pulse of bassist Jeremiah Hunt and drummer Greg Artry. The frontman’s harmonium added a trippy, trebly texture, mingling with Rob Clearfield’s blippy electric piano.

Zeshan B isn’t the only brilliant Indian-American singer fronting a psychedelic band – Kamala Sankaram does the same thing in front of the similarly surreal, amazing Bombay Rickey. But it’s hard to imagine anyone else in this hopefully expanding subgenre to channel as much wrenching angst or passion as this guy did with his melismatic baritone. He and the band held the crowd transfixed with their first swaying, gorgeously moody minor-key ghazal, singing in Urdu, rising to an angst-fueled peak, Moesching adding a subtly brooding a wah-wah guitar solo before the bandleader went deep into the grit. Then he went up into the rafters with his powerful falsetto. As he mentioned in passing later in the show, Urdu soul is a real genre. He credited his journalist dad, who reported on African-American music and culture in the 60s and 70s, as a major influence.

The group didn’t waste any time flipping the script, reinventing the Jimmy Cliff ballad Hard Road to Travel as indomitable oldschool Smokey Robinson soul in 12/8 time. Watching a Punjabi-American bring a Jamaican reggae hit full circle, back to its original inspiration, was a real trip; Zeshan B used the outro to air out his falsetto again. A dramatic, mystical invocation that drew on his time as a teenage muezzin at the neighborhood mosque served as the intro to the brisk, anthemic Lonely Man.

Zeshan B has a powerful populist streak. Chicago has been blighted by gentrification almost as devastatingly as New York, and he related how his old neighborhood has been decimated to the point of unrecognizability, just like Williamsburg and Bushwick. He underscored the aftereffects in the longing and nostalgia of a lilting ballad that segued into a slowly crescendoing, echoey interlude. Then with a slow, misty resignation, he and the band built a long launching pad for a big vocal crescendo in Jaane Man, spiced with alternately oscillating and searing Moesching riffage and some wry wah-wah keys from Clearfield.

Zeshan B’s take of Otis Redding’s You Don’t Miss Your Water, just vocals and Clearfield’s piano, took everybody to church. The best song of the night was a brooding minor-key ghazal-rock number, Clearfield’s bitingly trebly keys slithering over a muted swing and Moesching’s jagged accents. Their full-band take of George Perkins’ 1970 cult favorite protest-soul anthem Cryin in the Streets was unexpectedly brief, although the group raised the the rafters with Brown Power, Zeshan B’s affirmation of solidarity among brown-skinned people around the globe. Moesching chopped his chords with a ferocity to match Zeshan B’s insistence that “We ain’t gonna take it no more from the ivory tower – Brown Power!” 

After a stop at Bonnaroo, his next show is a hometown gig on June 22 at 8 PM at the Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W 111th St. in Chicago; tix are $27. And the next free concert at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is tomorrow night, June 7 at 7:30 PM with another fearless firebrand singer and bandleader, Mauritania’s Noura Mint Seymali. Get there early if you’re going. 

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The Brooklyn Raga Massive Celebrate Six Years of Cutting-Edge, Transcendent New Indian Sounds in Red Hook This Saturday Night

The Brooklyn Raga Massive dedicate themselves to taking indian music to places it’s never been before. But rather than doing the John McLaughlin thing and jazzing up ancient Indian melodies, they’re Indianizing jazz, soul and Middle Eastern music, and the avant garde – and also playing their own updates on the classic raga themes that the group’s core members have immersed themselves in over the years. Their rotating talent base comprises some of New York’s best musicians, and they have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, who are headlining the group’s sixth anniversary show this Saturday night, June 2, starting at 7:30 PM at Pioneer Works in Red Hook. Cover is $30.

You might wonder why they’d be doing this in Red Hook. That’s because the Raga Massive also have a weekly Thursday night residency around the bend at the Jalopy. Saturday night’s two opening acts are excellent as well. The first one, pointillistically psychedelic instrumental trio House of Waters are led by national champion hammered dulcimer player Max ZT. They’re not an Indian band per se – they sound like no other band on the planet – but they’re at home with classical Indian melodies. Afterward, Hindustani/North Indian singer Samarth Nagarkar goes deep into classical repertoire, backed by harmonium and tabla.

The Women’s Raga Massive’s most recent show was a frequently transcendent Saturday night concert at the end of March at Joe’s Pub. The first half featured a cycle of small-group improvisations; the second was dedicated to transgressive medieval Indian composer and poet Meera Bai, who is sort of the female Rumi. It could also be said that Rumi was the male Meera – their mysticism and angst-fueled, lovelorn themes disguised as religious poetry have a lot in common. “She’s sort of the original feminist – she followed her heart, she followed her spirit,” co-leader and violinist Trina Basu explained beforehand.

The night’s lineup was spectacular. True to their inclusive spirit, the Women’s Raga Massive don’t necessarily exclude dudes (there were a couple, Max ZT and bassist Perry Wortman, on this particular bill). Anjna Swaminathan played violin alongside Basu, with Amali Premawardhana on cello, Camila Celin on guitar and sarod, Roshni Samlal on tabla and  Lauren Crump on percussion. Massive co-leader and singer Priya Darshini fronted the group, alongside Morley Kamen.

Celin opened the night with a starry, searching, reverb-infused acoustic guitar solo over an ever-present recorded drone. Crump joined her as the music shifted toward a hypnotic, Malian-tinged duskcore groove that grew funkier and then more shadowy. From there a parade of musicians followed in turn.

Samlal and Crump built a scampering yet suspenseful percussion interlude. Swaminathan then joined Samlal, slowly rising from melismatic flickers and surreal echo phrases to restless chromatic riffage. Premawardhana came up to start a lively, catchy cello-violin conversation, spanning pretty much the entire sonic spectrum available to a string band. The addition of Basu completed the echoey picture as the music grew more phantasmagorical and sepulchral. Premawardhana’s rich, low washes drove the sound upward and then back to ghostly territory. Eventually, Morley joined them and took the music in the direction of jazz poetry and new age ambience.

Basu and Premawardhana’s lyrical string ensemble Karavika, joined by Max ZT, played their big crowd-pleaser, Sunrise, first digging in hard for a triumphant, heroic sway over bubbling tabla and dulcimer, then bringing the central raga theme front and center, with a sudden cadenza out. The Women’s Raga Massive’s mashup of a Meera piece with raga Darbari Kanada followed a suspenseful, pouncing, tangoish groove, violins uneasily soaring overhead.

The full ensemble closed the night with the epic Khusro meets Mirabai. Slowly coalescing as bass, dulcimer and finally violins carried the theme, Darshini pulled the majestic swaying raga together with as much insistence as longing, up to a long stampede out. Because this group relies so much on improvisation, this Saturday’s show will no doubt be completely different, if with similarly irrepressible imagination and spirited playing. You can get lost in Red Hook Saturday night.

A View of Classic Ragas From Five Thousand Feet by Sitar Virtuoso Shahid Parvez Khan

Saturday night at Roulette, sitar player Shahid Parvez Khan brought the same vast game plan to two completely different ragas. Much as improvisation is the central focus of classical Indian music, and there were plenty of electrifying jams at this show, it became clear early on that Khan had come up with a devilishly clever architecture for how he wanted to entertain the crowd.

Job one was delayed gratification, to tease them with one implied resolution after another until finally it made sense to ease into a comfortable crescendo, finally tying the tension together. Job two was to make the performance just as fun as it was artfully conceived, and Khan did that incessantly, with a killer sense of humor. Job three was thrills and chills, which he usually but not always saved for the codas at the end, in over two hours onstage with tabla wizard Nittin Mitta and a tanpura player who provided an aptly subtle drone behind them.

Khan opened the first raga with a very long, minimalist alap (improvisation), working with an increaingly rhythmic insistence toward but hardly ever reaching the octave that loomed just above his hypnotically emphatic, circular phrasing. When Mitta joined the fray, it seemed almost almost an afterthought, considering how much Khan had been his own drummer up to that point. As the piece went on, Khan brought his riffs closer and closer together as the two shifted gears, working toward overdrve.

Suddenly the concept became clear: while they weren’t taking the music quite doublespeed, what Khan had done was to bring those adrift riffs closer and closer together until he’d finally crystallized them. Likewise, it became clear that this raga was more about beats than lavish melody. After he and Mitta had interwoven a vertigo-inducing series of polyrhythms, a series of fiery sitar cascades punctuated rising and falling waves, through a trick ending or two, down to a sudden, unresolved conclusion.

The second raga was a brooding nocturne. Again, Khan resisted any easy resolution, putting on a clinic in implied melody, letting the audience’s ears fill in the blanks. This time the recurrent trope was stratospherically high, keening, theremin-like bends, creating sudden spikes of aching intensity. Mitta matched Khan’s plaintive cantabile approach, this time leaving the fireworks to the sitar. Khan took the closing gat out with an increasingly towering series of rapidfire climbs…when he wasn’t hitting on a phrase, then peeking out mischievously at the crowd as he let them fade, forsaken for the next one. If one riff doesn’t work, time to try another! It’s seldom that a piece of music could be so funny at times, yet ultimately so poignant.

Robert Browning Associates, who over the past few years have become a valued resource in bringing music from around the world to this city, staged this concert as part of their World in Trance series at Roulette, which concludes tonight, April 29 at 8 PM with a performance by Iranian ney flute player Hossein Oumoumi and his ensemble. Cover is $30 and worth it.

Captivating Cutting-Edge New Indian Sounds from  the Women’s Raga Massive

True to their bandname, the Brooklyn Raga Massive draw on a huge talent base, including but not necessarily limited to players who specialize in Indian classical music. Their rise from their early days at a grungy little Fort Greene bar to big summer festivals is a rare feel-good story in recent New York music. These days, they reinvent John Coltrane and Terry Riley, put on all-night raga parties and push the envelope with where Indian music can go.

Because all of their members are busy with their own careers, the cast is constantly rotating. The Brooklyn Raga Massive also have a subset, the Women’s Raga Massive, whose new compilation, compiled by brilliant violinist Trina Basu, is steaming at Bandcamp. 20% of the proceeds from the album are being donated to the nonprofit Indrani’s Light Foundation, dedicated to empowering women and combating gender violence. They’re playing Joe’s Pub tonight, March 31 at 7 PM; cover is $20.

The artists here are a mix of singers and instrumentalists. Although most of the tracks ultimately draw on centuries-old melodies, most of the arrangements are brand-new and very innovative. The album opens with flutist Rasika Shekar’s Uproar, rising from a brightly modal swirl to a mashup of Afro-Cuban jazz and modal carnatic riffage fueled by Hooni Min’s emphatic piano.

Basu’s string band Karavika contribute The Time Is Now, its warmly undulating melody over alternately scattergun and hypnotically thumping percussion. Cellist Amali Premawardhana’s memorably gentle solo sets up a brightly soaring response from Basu. A bit later on she and her violinist husband Arun Ramamurthy join forces with the aptly titled, epic Tempest, building from a hypnotic, rhythmic pulse to echo effects, a funky sway and all kinds of juicy, microtonal bends and churning riffs before a final calm.

Multimedia artist/singer Samita Sinha represents the avant garde with the sparse, childlike vocal piece Suspension. Arooj Aftab’s poignantly melismatic vocals swirl over Bhrigu Sahni’s delicate acoustic guitar and Baqir Abbas’ bansuri flute in the sparse, spacious Man Kunto Maula, a more traditional piece.

Mitali Bhawmik’s vocal ornamentations rise from restraint to pure tremoloing bliss in Miyan Ki Malhar, above a stately backdrop of Ramachandra Joshi’s harmonium and Meghashyam Keshav’s tabla.

Pianist/singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s Nithakam: Dedication to Prashant Bhargava is a somber Indian take on Gershwin’s Summertime. Violin/piano sister duo Anjna & Rajna Swaminathan team up with guitarist Sam McCormally for the broodingly modal Indian gothic trip-hop anthem Ocean of Sadness. Then paradigm-shifting carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective flip the script with their playfully hip-hop tinged Urban Gamaka (Hindolam Thillana), singers Roopa Mahadevan and Shiv Subramaniam trading shivery microtonal licks over a steady, swaying backdrop.

Navayee, by Persian-American singer/guitarist Haleh Liza Gafori is a balmy love ballad animated by Matt Kilmer’s clip-clop percussion. Psychedelic soul singer Shilpa Ananth works subtle dynamics with similarly lush atmospherics in Enge Nee, against Takahiro Izumikawa’s bubbly Rhodes piano.  

The album’s longest and most trad track is sitarist Alif Laila’s twelve-minute-plus segment of Raga Kedar, a brisk romp right off the bat that doesn’t wait to get to the shivery, spine-tingling heart of the matter. It’s arguably the high point of the album; the ending is a complete surprise.

Violinist Nistha Raj matches and then jauntily trades riffs with alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal in Jayanthi, which is only slightly shorter. Yalini Dream narrates an imagistic antiwar poem over Ganavya’s vocalese and atmospherics to close the album. Fans of cutting-edge Indian sounds like these should also check out the Brooklyn Raga Massive’s other albums, especially their Coltrane covers collection, which feature some of these artists.

Aakash Mittal at Nationa Sawdust: A Major Moment in New York Jazz This Year

Alto saxophonist Aakash Mittal’s sold-out show with his Awaz Trio at National Sawdust on the 11th of this month was as mysterious as it was mischievous – and delivered an unmistakeable message that this guy’s time has come. The obvious comparison is Rudresh Mahanthappa, another reedman who draws deeply on classic Indian melodies and modes. But Mittal doesn’t typically go for the jugular like Mahanthappa does: a more apt comparison would be visionary Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who joined Mittal onstage for the second half of the program alongside guitarist Miles Okazaki and percussionist Rajna Swaminathan, who played both the boomy mridangam as well as a small, tabla-like hand drum.

Mittal has been simmering just under the radar in New York for awhile but has been increasingly in demand over the past year, playing with both both ElSaffar’s large ensemble and Pulitzer-winning singer/composer Du Yun, who gave him a rave review for an onstage introduction. The trio of Mittal, Okazaii and Swaminathan opened with a seven-part suite of night raga themes reinvented as jazz. Mittal explained that he’d written it during his a year in Kolkata studying traditional Indian sounds, and that his purpose was to redefine the concept of a nocturne to encompass both mystery and mirth. One suspects he had an awfully good time there.

He didn’t waste any time unleashing his daunting extended technique with some uneasy riffs punctuated by otherworldly overtones and microtones, yet throughout the rest of the night he held those devices in store for where he really needed them. Likewise, he chose his moments for puckish accents and sardonic chirps that got the crowd laughing out loud; as the show went on, Okazaki and Swaminathan got in on the act as well. Which made for apt comic relief amidst the lustrous, glimmering and often sparsely plaintive phrasing that pervaded the rest of the suite and the evening as a whole.

Mittal peppered the dreamlike state with lively, often circling, edgily chromatic phrases: he likes lights in the night, but he knows the dark side of the bright lights just as well. Okazaki ranged from spare, emphatic accents, often in tandem with Swaminathan, to expansive, lingering chords, to long interludes where his spiky phrasing evoked a sarod. The evening’s biggest crescendo fell to Swaminathan, and she welcomed a chance to bring some thunder to the gathering storm.

ElSaffar joined the group for the final numbers, opening a brand-new suite – which Mittal had just finished a couple days before, based on a poems by his sister Meera Mittal – with a mesmerizing series of long tones where time practically stood still. From there he and Mittal developed an increasingly animated conversation, through alternately lush and kinetic segments underscoring the influence that the trumpeter has had on the bandleader: it was a perfect match of soloists and theme. The group closed with what Mittal offhandedly called a jam, but it quickly became much more than that, a jauntily voiced mini-raga of its own laced with both utter seriousness and unleashed good humor. Both Mittal and ElSaffar’s music is full of gravitas and sometimes an almost throttle-like focus, but each composer also has a great sense of humor, and that really came to the forefront here.

This was the final show in this spring’s series of concerts at National Sawdust programmed by Du Yun, focusing on composers of Asian heritage who may be further under the radar than they deserve to be. The next jazz show at National Sawdust – or one that at least skirts the idiom with a similar outside-the-box sensibility – is by thereminist Pamelia Stickney with Danny Tunick on vibraphone and marimba and Stuart Popejoy on keyboards on March 28 at 7 PM; advance tix are $25 and highly recommended.

Punjabtronix Put on a Pulsing, Hauntingly Hypnotic Dance Party at the Kennedy Center

UK Punjabi dance band Punjabtronix’s show last night at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC was a hypnotic, undulating, dynamically rich exploration of how far sounds from the rich melting pot around the India-Pakistan border can go. As the concert began, they took their time getting the groove up and running, the keening twin algoza flutes and tumbi lute of multi-instrumentalist Vijay Yamla set to a quasi trip-hop beat from Naresh Kukki’s big dhol bass drum in tandem with the thumps emanating from the mixing desks manned by DJ Swami and his co-engineer. What was live, what was being looped, and what was instrumental karaoke? It was hard to tell. As the textures mingled in the murky mist, that trance-inducing atmosphere set the tone for the rest of the night, John Minton’s shapeshifting projections pulsing in and out behind the band. You can watch most of the show here.

By all accounts, this show was better than the one in Queens the night before. Flushing Town Hall has a reputation for excellent sound, but word on the street was that Punjabtronix didn’t get to experience that (this blog wasn’t in the house for that one). Here, the mix had the clarity this band needs to create the full psychedelic experience. That first number was spiced with uneasy, lingering David Gilmour-esque lead guitar lines. Then sarangi player Dheera Singh took the stage for a take of the popular Punjabi folk song Jugni, Kukki’s hammering dhol polyrhytms veering close to the edge, singer Gurtej Singh energizing the crowd with his passionate, melismatic baritone.

The followed with Chhalla, the band’s frontman alluding that they were going to get this one in to pre-empt the inevitable audience requests. As Singh swayed and pounced, decked out in a regal blue-and-bold traditional suit and headdress, it was easy to see why people would want to hear the big, catchy anthem. They made moody, modal acid jazz out of another popular folk tune, Zindabad, the plinks of the sarangi and Singh’s insistent vocal riffs cutting through the blippy electronic backdrop, Yamla eventually taking a long, droll, warpy upper-register solo on the bugchu, a surreal stringed instrument that looks like a cross between an Ethiopian riti fiddle and a tabla drum.

Yamla switched to the stark tumba fiddle for an intense, rustic call-and-response duet with Pujabi “talking drum,” tuned to play stairstepping melodies much like a tabla. The cinematic epic after that celebrated the 70th anniversary of Indian independence, but also took a sobering look at the devastating effects of the British invaders’ partition of India and Pakistan. The uneasy east/west dichotomy was vivid, the traditional instruments solid and resolute against the techy beats.

Yamla gave the serpentine number after that a deadpan jawharp intro then a broodingly pulsing twin flute solo and rapidfire vocals as the the electronic storm loomed in behind him. The group’s final epic was a celebration of cross-pollination in the global Punjabi diaspora, an enveloping swirl of ancient organic textures mingling with the synthetic.

Punjabtronx’s US tour continues with a couple of stops at South by Southwest. Tomorrow night, March 14 they’re at Barcelona, 209 E 6th St, in Austin at 8 PM, then the next night, March 15 they’re at the Palm Door on Sixth, 508 E 6th St., also at 8.

Lavish Beauty, Depth and Relevance with Awa Sangho and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal didn’t bother to hide how much she was looking forward to reveling in singer Awa Sangho fronting the Brooklyn Raga Massive last night. She was on to something. This show was part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing Outside India collaboration with the India Center and Brooklyn Raga Massive. Dugal promised beauty; Sangho and the band delivered their Malian/Indian mashup lavishly, poignantly and often mesmerizingly.

A moody Eric Fraser bansuri solo wafted over five-string bassist Michael Gam’s distant, low rumble as the show got underway, Sangho triumphantly raising a colorful mask to the heavens, warding off any evil spirits who might have snuck in. Violinist Trina Basu’s plaintive melody received a misterioso response from Fraser, Malik Kholy’s drums joining the nocturnal ambience along with Balla Kouyate’s slinky, chiming balafon. As the music leapt into a swinging, swaying, camelwalking groove, Kane Mathis’ spiky kora and guitarist Baba Kone’s incisive guitar joined the hypnotic mix. The instruments receded as Sangho intoned her terse, impassioned vocalese in a resonant, low midrange. A rippling balafon solo in tandem with percussionist Daniel Moreno brought the intensity higher as Sangho beamed and swayed in front of the band. That was just the first song.

Sangho dedicated her next number to her ailing mom back in Mali. Moreno opened it with a warpy wah-wah ngoni solo, the band slowly making their way in. An emphatic whack of the drums, a methodical volley of blues guitar riffs, growly bass and smoky bansuri led to a lingering Emilio Modeste tenor sax solo before the band backed away for Basu and Sangho to bring the pensive vibe back. As the waves of music rose again, the audience joined in a spontaneous clapalong.

“I’ve been fighting for 35 years for women’s rights and girls’ education,” Sangho explained, prefacing a protest song against what she termed “enforced marriage.” A resolutely vamping two-chord theme emerged as the singer’s voice grew more defiant. Pensive sax mingled with the sax and violins, Arun Ramamurthy positioned for stereo effect – and some sizzling, microtonal melismas – at stage right.

Fraser opened what he called a “condensed” duo version of Raga Yaman, establishing a suspenseful calm, tabla player Roshni Samlal raising the anticipation up to a tense, trilling peak. It was impossible to sit still. Mathis and Basu couldn’t resist joining in with their ripples and washes.

From there they segued into an animated, elegantly polyrhythmic duo piece by Mathis and Samlal with a rapidfire kora solo at the center. The cantering, vamping instrumental that followed brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most epic, back in the 80s, For the rest of the night, the band followed Sangho’s lead meticulously, whether Kone’s aching, plaintive modalities in tandem with her exasperated “what now” delivery on a traditional tune, or Modeste’s smoky soulfulness alongside Sangho’s husky vocals in her original, Maman, which she said through tears was dedicated to mothers everywhere.

The group closed with an insistent, emphatic girl-empowerment anthem, Sangho’s uncanny ability to transcend language barriers in full effect. “Knowledge is power, stand up for your rights,” was the message. A sold-out house roared for an encore: they got a spiraling, undulating jam, an apt coda considering how close a match Indian modes can be for vampy, mostly two-chord Malian psychedelia. For Sangho and the band, it was a spectacularly successful mission.

And after a hellacious train ride, it was an awful lot of fun to cap off the evening with the tail end of Bombay Rickey’s similarly slinky set at Barbes. Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram reached for the rafters with her four-octave voice over Drew Hudgins’ slithery sax and Drew Fleming’s twangy southwestern gothic guitar, with a fat low end now anchored by former Chicha Libre bassist Nick Cudahy. Considering how much cumbia this band mashes up with Bollywood – a couple of pretty wild jams on Yma Sumac tunes, this time out – the group’s finally found their missing piece.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive plays Thursdays at around 8:30 at the Jalopy; advance tix, available at the theatre, are $10. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is a dance party on Feb 15 at 7:30 with Tito Puente Jr. and many alums from his dad’s legendary salsa band.

Rapturous Musical Cross-Pollination at Women Between Arts at the New School

Yesterday was the fourth installment of Luisa Muhr’s new interdisciplinary series Women Between Arts at the New School. One would think that there would be several series in this city devoted to women whose work crosses the line between different artistic disciplines, but this appears to be the only one at present. What’s new with Muhr’s series is that it isn’t just a place for women artists who defy categorization: it’s also a space where adventurous established artists can branch out beyond their usual practice.

Case in point: Jean Rohe. She’s known as a songwriter and a strong, distinctive acoustic guitarist (to call her a folksinger would be reductionistic). Throughout her tantalizingly brief performance yesterday’s show, she did a lot of storytelling.

This narrative was harrowing. Rohe was named after her paternal grandmother, who killed herself on December 9, 1961. Tragically, just like her father, Rohe didn’t find out about the suicide until years later. That revelation springboarded an “odyssey,” as she termed it, to find out the truth and what pushed the woman over the edge.

Like many of the projects that find their way to Women Between Arts, it’s a work in progress, and a hauntingly captivating one. Rohe’s fingerpicking channeled distant delta blues grimness with her opening number, then she referenced the Penelope myth with a more expansive, anthemic tune. Her final song, she told the crowd, was set in Hades: “In New Jersey, as we all know,” she mused, drawing a handful of chuckles. The narrative saw her climbing into her grandmother’s old black Buick at a stoplight, to find her crying and incommunicado, a ghost before her time.

Noa Fort is known as a composer of translucent piano jazz informed by classical music as well as her own Israeli heritage. After guiding the crowd through a brief meditation, she had them write down their innermost feelings on slips of paper so she could channel and maybe exorcise those issues. As it turned out, this was a very  uneasy crowd. Fort plucked around inside the piano gingerly, George Crumb style before launching into a series of eerie belltones, close harmonies and finally a woundedly descending anthem. She closed with a somewhat elegaic but ultimately optimistic ballad where a calmly participatory crowd carried the melody upwards. 

Trina Basu, one of the great violinists in Indian classical music, leads the pioneering carnatic string band Karavika. This time out, she played a rapturous homage to 16th century mystic Meera Bai, joined by Orakel tabla player Roshni Samlal and singer Priya Darshini. Basu explained that she’d discovered the controversial, pioneering proto-feminist poet via the work of 1960s singer Lakshmi Shankar.

Basu opened the trio’s first epic number with elegant spirals that spun off into sepulchral harmonics, then built steam, rising up and down in a series of graceful pizzicato exchanges with the tabla. Darshini sang the second long piece, Basu and Samlal matching its poignancy, an ancient raga theme sliced and diced through the prism of progressive jazz. 

 The next installment of Women Between Arts is Jan 21 at 3 PM at the New School’s Glass Box Theatre (i.e. the new Stone) at 55 W 13th St., with Meredith Monk collaborator Ellen Fisher, lustrously haunting singer/composer Sara Serpa with cellist Erik Friedlander and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and Appalachian music maven Anna Roberts-Gevalt.

An Amazing New Compilation Album of Rare, Magical Sounds Never Before Available Outside of Somalia

Thousands of years before the medieval European patronage system took shape, African dictators made it a practice to surround themselves with the best musicians they could find. Somalia’s Said Barre, no doubt inspired by Haile Selassie’s campaign to blend big band jazz with indigenous sounds in adjoining Ethiopia, set up a culture ministry of his own. Barre’s motivation was to help solidify Somalia’s status as a new nation-state. Beginning in the late 1960s, the result was some of the most amazing music to ever come out of Africa. Less than twenty years later, in a stroke of colossal irony, the dictator tried to destroy it when he realized that great art is always opposed to tyranny.

In 1988, the northern city of Hargeisa was a stronghold for freedom fighters working to bring down Barre’s reign of terror. Barre was worried that Radio Hargeisa, the local branch of the state radio network, would rally the opposition. Realizing that the station would become a target of the dictator’s bombing raids, personnel there worked furiously to remove fifty years’ worth of priceless archival recordings.

And then buried those cassettes and master tapes deep underground, where the bombs that eventually destroyed the city wouldn’t get them. Some of those recordings were spirited across the border into neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia. Now, Ostinato Records have put out an incredible compilation, Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (streaming at Bandcamp) that draws from those archives. None of the album’s fifteen tracks have been released outside of Somalia, and very few have ever been heard outside of East Africa. This collection could do for Somali music from the 1970s and 80s what Barbes Records’ Roots of Chicha anthologies have done for cumbia. Maybe in five years’ time the whole world will be listening to dhaanto.

That’s the slow, loping groove that propels the album’s first track, Nimco Jamaac’s  Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains). It starts out with an uneasily wavering, microtonal vocal improvisation and then morphs what sounds like roots reggae, except that this is a native Somali beat rather than slowed-down ska. It validates any argument that reggae isn’t a western hybrid but an original African rhythm!

Like many of the other tracks here, the instrumentation is spare: in this case, lo-fi synthesizer patches, guitar and drums. The flutter and wow from the original cassettes is still present, an early example of the longstanding African tradition of making albums on the best-available technology, in this case probably a boombox recording of a live show or a rehearsal.

The rest of the album is a mix of ballads and dance numbers. Bollywood-influenced high-soprano songbird Aamina Camaari’s Rag Waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo is translated as “Men Are Cruel and Kind” – maybe we should take that as a compliment! More likely, it’s a coded political message. Lyrics were censored under the Barre regime, so many of these lost-love songs are laments for a time free of repression or enemy invaders.

Calm crooner Ali Nuur sings a number whose title has been lost,  pouncing along with clangy, trebly guitar and ominous minor-key organ. Hibo Nuura’s acerbic, brassy, Afrobeat-influenced Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay (If the Artist Lets You Down), a late 80s tune, speaks to the perils of selling out at the worst possible time.

Gacaltooyo Band, fronted by chanteuse Faduumina Hilowle, are represented by Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know), a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here.

Iftin Band were one of the most popular state-sponsored acts from the 70s. They have two tracks here. The first is a similarly haunting, slinky duet by popular singers Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir,  Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan (This Love Has No Boundaries). The other, Anaa Qaylodhaankaan has snappy bass, smokily ominous organ and a guitar line that’s a dead ringer for Mark Knopfler.

Another popular early 80s group, Dur Dur Band have singer Muqtar Idi Ramadan crooning the gritty, soul and Ethiopiques-influenced Duruuf Maa Laygu Diidee (Rejected Because of My Situation), a smash hit about a romance imperiled by class discrimination. And one of the era’s biggest Somali singers, the stunningly tender-voiced Sahra Dawo, delivers Gorof (Elixir), which could be Men at Work with infinitely better vocals.

Watery chorus-box guitar, punchy organ and woozy, echoey vocals permeate Xasan Diiriye’s Qaraami (Love) – it’s one of the most psychedelic tracks here. Sharaf Band have Xaawo Hiiraan singing Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani (Life is Full of Trouble), an aptly plaintive mashup of what could be I-Threes songstress Judy Mowatt and a Bollywood ballad.

4 Mars – another state-sponsored group – contribute Na Daadihi (Guide Us), an insistent Afrobeat-tinged number with blippy keys and brass. Danan Hargeysa. a northern band with Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi out front, contribute the upbeat Uur Hooyo (Mother’s Womb), raising the question of whether or not Dr. Dre might have somehow discovered this stuff and nicked the keening synth for his own shtick.

Sharero Band, with the darkly nuanced Faadumo Qaasim on vocals,  deliver Qays iyo Layla (a Somali counterpart to Romeo & Juliet) with Afrobeat, roots reggae and Bollywood tinges. And Waaberi Band chug their way through the trippy Afrobeat instrumental jam Oktoobar Waatee? Waa Taayadii (What’s October? It’s Ours).

Much as many of these songs and artists have been iconic in the global Somali community for decades, this is brand-new to most of the rest of the world – and one of the best albums of 2017. And it’s available on double gatefold vinyl with a fascinating and informative thirty-page booklet.

Drummer-Chef Sunny Jain Brings Treats for the Ears and the Taste Buds to Lincoln Center

Last night Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh enthusiastically introduced Sunny Jain as “Our original – an artist who’s had a long history with Lincoln Center…the first artist to play the atrium.” The Red Baraat mastermind and dhol bass drum player is also an accomplished cook. His gameplan was to do a food-themed show, complete with samples of his own all-natural, sugar-free homemade pear chutney, introduced by his ExtravagaJAMza band with a strutting, New Orleans-infused take of a wry 50s-style lounge theme. And the chutney was tasty  – although he admitted it lacked the hot pepper burn of his first batch. Bring THAT stuff next time, dude!

Taking a relatively rare turn behind a full drum kit, Jain mixed up his band members. Flamboyant singer Jonathan Hoard fronted the unit that opened the show – with Marc Cary on electric piano, Gary Wang on bass, Delicate Steve on guitar, Lee Hogans on trumpet and Mike Bomwell on soprano sax – for a coy boudoir funk intro that morphed into a psych-funk vamp, the guitar suddenly switching from emphatic rainy-day chords to sunbaked blues. Red Baraat are no strangers to the jamband circuit; this band could sell a lot of tickets there too.

Jain explained that he’d written Mango Festival back in the early zeros after attending a real mango festival in New Delhi, India, watching his family flex their chops in a mango eating contest. As Wang held down a low drone, the intensity of singer Ganavya Doraiswamy’s wordless melismas rose, then Jain took over with a qawwali groove, sax and keys shifting the music from dusky Hindustani ambience to gritty Harlem summer psych-funk and back.

The lightheartedly energetic Jack & Jill, inspired by Jain’s three-year-old twins, opened with a Vikram Seth poem, followed by a dancing upper-register Cary solo and a dip to more stately, poignant vocalese from Doraiswamy that she again took into the stratosphere. Jain’s quintet got ambitious, jazzing up a Bollywood number, Bomwell switching back to baritone – it didn’t take long to get a clapalong with those who recognized it. But even a pulsing, insistent Ray Mason trombone solo and a slinkier one from Wang didn’t get the crowd dancing – maybe it was just too cold outside.

Jain cracked everybody up with his sardonic account of visiting Global Village in Dubai – that country’s equivalent of Disneyworld’s Epcot Center – to discover that the only country in the exhibit represented by a person rather than architecture was the United States. That individual was a cowboy. Jain couldn’t resist noticing that the Roy Moores of the world all seem to wear the same symbol of subjugation – a cowboy hat. And then the full band – which also included Alison Shearer on alto sax and John Altieri on sousaphone – followed with the colorful, cinematic Indian Cowgirl, mashing up Morricone with a Bollywood take on a western film theme. Shearer’s high-voltage solo was the high point.

Cary switched to drums and Jain strapped on his dhol, closing with the Red Baraat tune Shruggy Ji, which made an improbably successful connection between bhangra and the DC go-go music Cary grew up with, fueled by Hogans’ relentless, edgy trumpet. Who knew that Cary was such an accomplished guy behind the kit?

These Lincoln Center atrium shows at the Broadway space north of 62nd Street are an awful lot of fun. The next one is a Dominican dance party on Dec 21 at 7:30 with newschool merengue band Tipico Urbano. There’s no cover; get there early.