New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: latin music

Globalfest 2018: The Best Ever?

Yeah, Globalfest this year was cold. But it’s winter. Judging from the number of midwestern and Canadian accents in the crowd last night, an awful lot of people at this year’s annual festival of sounds from around the world are on familiar terms with it. At this point in history we should be grateful that anything approximating winter still exists.

And it was reassuring to see such great throngs of people coming out on what might have been the coldest night of the year to see music from shithole countries. Neither of the two nations officially designated as shitholes by the Oval Office – El Salvador and Haiti – were represented among the dozen acts on the bill. But Iran has been on a White House shitlist for a long time, Cuba for far longer. And by today’s White House standards (if not tomorrow’s), the cities of New Orleans and Detroit can’t be far behind. So a lineup, which by European standards would have made for a good, solidly eclectic summer festival bill, was positively subversive here in the US in 2018.

Mohsen Namjoo set the bar impossibly high for the rest of the night, opening up the evening with his Persian rock band at the Liberty Theatre stage on the south side of 42nd Street. How did the Iranian setar lute player handle singing to an audience of non-Farsi speakers? Mostly by just vocalizing. “Understand it as sound,” he said with a sardonic wink to the crowd jammed at the front of the stage. Which is a step outside the box for a guy known for his incendiary lyrics.

He’s been called the Iranian Bob Dylan, although Tom Waits is a better comparison – and Namjoo rocks a lot harder than both of those guys put together. Showing off every octave of his formidable range, he prowled from gritty lows to overtone-enhanced highs, evoking a ney flute during one long interlude. His snarling band – lead guitar, bass and drums – made fanged Iranian art-rock out of Metallica, and took innumerable twists and turns through a dynamic mix of multi-part epics in 5/4, 7/4 and 11/4.

Namjoo, who has a withering sense of humor, cynically dismissed the American fixation with four-on-the-floor rhythms. His funniest moment of the night was when he played sarcastic bebop on his setar and scatted – after opening the song with a plaintive, haunting, spacious minor-key lute intro.

Later in the night there were similarly spectacular vocals from Georgia’s Iberi Choir, who are not only a choral ensemble but what could be termed an acoustic psychedelic folk band. Georgian harmonies are unlike music from anywhere else on the globe, with plenty of uneasy adjacencies but not the microtones of Middle Eastern or Balkan music. There was a brooding sensibility throughout much of the group’s set, and also a relentless, sometimes hypnotic intensity, alluding to but never hitting the kind of big minor-key crescendo you might expect from, say, Russian music.

Like Namjoo, the group members all seem to have impressive range, leaping far from monklike gothic lows within thirty seconds of the start of the set. The group’s instrumental chops were also as gripping as their vocals. Throughout a mix of dance numbers, Central Asian field hollers, laments and celebrations, various subsets of the ensemble would move to the front, accompanying themselves on a variety of lutes. In the most spectacular moment of the entire evening, the group leader played jaunty harmonies on two wood flutes at once and didn’t miss a note.

Across the street at Lucille’s, Brazilian rock singer Ava Rocha led her wickedly psychedelic four-piece band through a deliciously acidic, unpredictably shapeshifting set. South of the border, the 80s are still very much alive, but in a much darker way than they are here. American indie bands tend to ape the blithest, poppiest side of the Cure or New Order; down there, the sound tends to be much darker. Rocha’s mask finally came off three songs into her set. By then, the band had prowled through enigmatic early 80s Souxsie terrain, then a hypnotic series of interludes that were best appreciated as a contiguous whole rather than individual songs.

Tightly and methodically, the band negotiated sharp-fingernailed no wave, clenched-teeth Gang of Four skronk and insistently pulsing postrock interludes, the Telecaster player often hanging on the same tense, unresolved hook for what seemed minutes on end, at a couple of points switching to mini-synth for a series of woozy, warpy textures. The other Fender player handled the more aggressive, jagged lines over the rhythm section’s relentless drive. Rocha’s moody mezzo-soprano made a strong match with the songs’ often pained intensity, another case of many this evening where the mood of the music transcended any linguistic barrier.

That was most vividly the case in singer Eva Salina’s rapturous set of music from across the Balkans, in a rising and falling intimate duo set with her longtime accordionist Peter Stan. Where he’d animated a big ballroom full of dancers at Golden Fest a couple of nights before with his whirlwind arpeggios, cascades and looming low pulse, this time he fired off bright rivet-gun staccato riffs and similarly nimble spirals when he wasn’t lowlighting the sadder numbers.

Which would eventually go in all sorts of different directions. Eva Salina reminded the crowd that there’s a little bit of sadness – and happiness too – in pretty much everything, varying her delivery from delicate microtonal nuance, to lustrously sustained midrange, to lively, bounding passages. A handful of numbers – including a surreal tale of a drunk trying (or not trying) to pull his life together, and a bouncy celebration of a rotund little bride who’s eventually going to bear nine children – were taken from the catalog of legendary Romany crooner Saban Bajrmovic. Salina’s forthcoming album mines a completely different repertoire, that of the tragic but indomitable chanteuse Vida Pavlovic, most poignantly exemplified by a couple of ballads about abandonment – with and without children.

Finally, as midnight approached, it was time to move next door to B.B. King’s, the biggest room at this this year’s festival, for Mariachi Flor de Toloache. Where Eva Salina had been all about subtlety, New York’s only all-female mariachi band were all about fire and drama, breathtaking vocal acrobatics and audience participation. Bandleader Mireya Ramos played nimble basslines on her guitarron but saved her most spectacular chops for violin, in a sizzling solo during the night’s final cumbia. Her counterpart on tenor guitar also showed off a sensational top range during an unexpected and wildly successful detour into noir soul- somewhere Amy Winehouse is very jealous. With two trumpets, soaring violin and balmy flute, the group made their way through a defiant shout-out to Puerto Rico, a handful of rhythmically tricky, punchy dance numbers and a droll medley that quoted Led Zep along with other more snarky riffs.

Serendipitously, there was less of a need to triage this year than at past festivals. The only major disappointments were missing Miramar – who are playing Barbes tonight, Jan 15, at 9 – and also Indian carnatic hip-hop duo Grand Tapestry, who if they played at all, were done by half past midnight. And it would have been a lot of fun to see the whole set by slinky, shuffling New Orleans trio Delgres, who with slide guitar, sousaphone and drums played a kinetically hypnotic mashup of Mozambiquean duskcore over New Orleans-tinged rhythms. It was akin to watching Tinariwen playing R.L. Burnside tunes – with a fat low end that frequently bubbled over with distortion.

And what a difference a venue makes. What a pleasant change to see the calm, comfortable faces of the staff at B.B. King’s instead of the paranoid stares of the goons at Webster Hall, a place where just getting inside felt like trying to break into Riker’s Island. Even as transcendent as many of the past fifteen years’ worth of Globalfest lineups could be, being treated like a criminal from the git-go always leaves a bad taste.

But revenge is sweet. At Globalfest 2013, a daily New York music blog proprietor managed to sneak two bottles of wine through Webster Hall’s security gauntlet. Not to drink there – to take home afterward, and carry out through that same exit door, a raised middle finger to every little Hitler in the house.

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Changüí Majadero Bring a Rare, Slinky Oldschool Cuban Sound to New York This Weekend

“It’s gonna be an amazing night,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh beamed, a couple of hours ago.  “Our programming is designed to represent the best of New York and beyond. Even though they’re from East LA, and Cuba, Changüí Majadero represent the kind of quality that we need at Lincoln Center.” She was on to something.

Changüí Majadero play the roots of salsa with a slinky passion. It’s the kind of Eastern Cuban dance music that was popular back when US gunboats were self-destructing in Havana harbor and mishaps like that were blamed on the occupying Spanish forces. It’s a soundtrack for rum and lechon parties on the beach that last for days. Which is to say that the six-piece band play it that way. It’s what the Buena Vista Social Club guys’ grandparents would have listen to as kids.

The tingly, metallic chimes of bandleader Gabriel Garcia’s tres opened the first song of the night, Guararey de Pastora. Roberto Bauto Segarra had a very serious reason for writing this undulating, crescendoing vamp: to placate his mother-in-law, who didn’t like him. Reggae-like polyrhythms between the tres and David Gomez’s 6-string bass percolated throughout this song, and much of the rest of the set, testament to the influence of Jamaican music. Lots of cross-pollination floats across the water in the part of the world this music comes from.

A bouncy tres riff and friendly, conversational trumpet from Roque Garcia kicked off Popurri De Sones, a catchy, upbeat ballad with jaunty harmonies between Garcia and frontwoman/guayo player Norrel Thompson. The bandleader took pride in telling the crowd that he’d written Pa Cuba Me Voy, a fearlessly political shout-out to the island: the packed dancefloor responded with a spontaneous clapalong.

Jorge Ortiz’s bongo de monte opened the steady, pulsing Mayumbero. His twin drums differentiate from your typical set of bongos since one is tuned with the usual drum pegs, but the hardware on the other is fire-tempered, and the sound is boomier. That might be a Haitian influence, considering that Haitian lights are visible across the water from Guantanamo.

The group went back to vampy, matter-of-factly rising proto-salsa in Me le Llevo al Megaton, the guy/girl vocals slowly rising toward fever pitch as the dancers twirled in front of the stage. The deadpan, sardonic Peor Es la Envidia dealt with “Haters that you can’t get off your back,” as the bandleader put it; Gomez’s soulful, serpentine solo echoed Garcia’s tres lines as the percussion section bubbled and clattered behind them. 

They finally, finally slowed it down a little bit with Canconera, sung with wounded poignancy by Thompson over a similarly brooding, bolero-tinged bass groove punctuated by the chime of the tres and a mournful trumpet solo. It was the best song of the night. La Rumba Esta Buena, with its graceful minor-key riffs, was also pretty chill.

From there the band took a fat, bass-centered, trumpet-fueled departure into oldtime Cuban son and followed with the catchiest song of the night, which also most closely foreshadowed the sound that would become classic oldschool salsa in the 1960s and 70s. At the end of the show, the group left the stage and led the crowd in a parranda around the space.

Changüí Majadero are at SOB’s this Monday, Jan 15 at around 10; what’s even better is that the show is free. If you missed the Lincoln Center gig, this is a rare chance to see rural Cuban party music that doesn’t sound like it belongs in a museum. If you’re lucky they’ll play Un Burro y un Elefante, their wryly spot-on critique of American politics written in the wake of the 2016 Presidential election. 

And the next show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is this Jan 18 at 7:30 PM with classic oldschool Cuban-style charanga José Fajardo Jr. y Sus Estrellas. These free dance parties are wildly popular – if you’re going, get there early.

A Rare Appearance From the Darkly Slinky Ghost Funk Orchestra

Over the past couple of years, multi-instrumentalist Seth Applebaum has been building a catchy, slinky, darkly cinematic catalog of organic dance music, mostly by himself. He calls the project Ghost Funk Orchestra. And since he’s a one-man band, more or less, he has to pull a group together if he wants to play live. Which is rare. That’s why the Ghost Funk Orchestra’s upcoming gig on Jan 5 at 8 PM at Baby’s All Right is a pretty big deal – and it’s free.

Back in 2016, Applebaum sent over the tracks to his first album, Night Walker, streaming at Bandcamp. They’ve been sitting here on one hard drive or another ever since. Let’s say they’ve aged well – hypnotic, ominous grooves never go out of style.

After a trippy, atmospheric intro, the first cut is Brownout, which is basically a clattering one-chord latin funk jam with distantly enigmatic vocals from Adrii Muniz. Applebaum laces Dark Passage with flickers of reverb surf guitar over multitracks that spiral and linger over catchy, undulating bass and drums – again, a one-chord jam.

The album’s title track takes a turn into Chicano Batman-style psychedelic latin soul: this time, it’s Laura Gwynn as the femme fatale on the mic. Demon Demon is a funny, Halloweenish vamp: Applebaum’s faux-beatnik spoken-word voiceover builds a creepy after-dark tableau over a percolating backdrop reminiscent of a Herbie Hancock early 70s blaxploitation film score.

Blood Moon makes a return to latin soul: with Muniz’s cheery vocals and Applebaum’s gritty guitars, it’s the album’s hardest-rocking track. After the briskly shuffling latin funk Interlude fades up and out, Applebaum builds an uneasily summery scenario in Franklin Avenue – a dreaded deep-Brooklyn destination lowlit by Gabriela Tessitore’s vocals and Rich Siebert’s trumpet in tandem with Applebaum’s guitars and Ally Jenkins’ shivery violin.

The album’s final cut is the slowly swaying, lingering nocturne A Moment of Clarity. Fans of ominously picturesque grooves by bands from Big Lazy, to the Royal Arctic Institute, will love this stuff. And it’s impossible to sit still while you’re listening. Bounce to this on the south side of Williamsburg next year – or on the train on the way there.

And there’s more! In the months since Applebaum put out this album, he hasn’t exactly been idle. Ghost Funk Orchestra’s latest album, Something Evil – also streaming at Bandcamp – takes a turn into both funkier and more sinister territory.

 

Spellbinding Singer Maria Cangiano’s New Album Rescues Undiscovered Piazzolla Treasures From Obscurity

Maria Cangiano and Astor Piazzolla share Italian heritage as well as passion for taking tango to new and transcendent places. She takes the title of her new album, Renacere – streaming at Spotify – from the lyrics from Piazzolla’s Prelude For the Year 3001. Which makes sense – Piazzolla was always shifting the paradigm, blending jazz, classical and a long list of other influences into tango, and Cangiano does the same here. Along with material that’s easy to pigeonhole as nuevo tango, there’s also Cuban-flavored danzon, rhumba, candombe and several detours into jazz and even 90s pop at the end. The songs’ and instrumentals’ new arrangements, by pianist Miguel Pereiro and guitarist Hernán Reinaudo, do justice to Piazzolla’s dedication to the cutting edge.

The tracklist mirrors Piazzolla’s career trajectory, from sideman in Anibal Troilo’s orchestra, to Europe and New York, then back to Argentina where he distilled everything he’d absorbed in his travels. The album opens with an especially jazz-flavored take of Llueve Sobre Broadway, alto saxophonist Bernardo Monk’s contemplative lines over Pereiro’s incisive chording and scurrying phrases. Fabián Bertero’s tensely vibrato-infused violin dances over similarly incisive, flashy piano in Milonga de la Anunciación.

Cangiano’s wide-angle vibrato maxes out the drama in Pequeña Canción Para Matilde, a rumba spiced with the nimble flamenco touches of Quique Sinesi’s guitar. Bertero’s violin again takes centerstage in Fugitiva, with a long, high-lonesome solo to kick it off. Llanto Negro, a candombe number that’s been a highlight of Cangiano’s live show for years, opens with some irresisitibly fun echo effects and tiptoes along on the misterioso pulse of bassist Nicolás Zacarías and percussionist Quintino Cinalli.

A spare, plaintive piano intro, Cangiano’s similarly poignant vocals and Snesi’s elegant fingerpicking follow in Aire de la Zamba Niña. Preludio Para el Eño 3001 features Piazzolla’s grandson Pipi on percussion, Pereiro artfully switching up the syncopation, edging between postbop jazz and Debussy-esque glimmer through a series of playful trick endings. Sinesi’s muted, pensive picking makes an apt introduction to Graciela Oscura; Pereiro’s somberly flickering piano is the album’s musical high point.

Los Amores de Noviembre slinks along with a tropical danzon groove, Pereiro’s incisive phrasing pushing it further toward jazz. His spacious, noir intro to a dynamic, nocturnal take of Vamos Nina builds a lingering intensity, up to a pulsing series of peaks in tandem with Roberto Amerise’s bass.

Monk’s meticulously flurrying. spiraling sax returns in Greenwich; Cangiano’s forlorn, tortured melismas will give you chills. The album ends with Piazzolla’s big enchilada, Libertango, Julián Vat’s flute weaving in and out until Pipi Piazzolla takes it into trip-hop territory. As rich and evocative as the playing on this album is, it would be even more of a treat to hear more of Cangiano’s otherworldly, evocative voice: here, she’s sort of the Carol Lipnik of nuevo tango.

Uri Gurvich Brings His Fiery Latin and Middle Eastern-Influenced Jazz to a Cozy Saturday Night Spot

Kinship, the latest release by saxophonist Uri Gurvich and his quartet, is a rarity in jazz these days: a concept album. The central theme is connections: familial, ancestral, cultural and musical. Gurvich also deals with issues of non-belonging, including racism and discrimination. Musically, it’s extremely ambitious, with influences spanning from Argentine and Israeli folk, the Middle East and the Balkans. This album – streaming at Soundcloud – doesn’t have the white-knuckle intensity of Gurvich’s landmark 2013 Middle Eastern jazz collection, BabEL, but its scope is even more global. Gurvich is playing a rare trio date comprising three quarters of the quartet, with bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Francisco Mela, at the Bar Next Door on Dec 16, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $12.

Pianist Leo Genovese’s glittering chords and Mela’s majestic cymbals anchor Gurvich’s tenderly gliding and swirling lines in the rhythmically shifting ballad Song for Kate, a dedication to his wife. Slavov’s leaping bass kicks off Dance of the Ñañigos, which shifts between an uneasy, altered boogie and more jaunty latin Caribbean tinges, inspired by a 19th century Afro-Cuban secret society.

Guest singer Bernardo Palumbo opens El Chubut with a harrowing poem written in the 1970s by a captive at that notorious Argentine torture site, then gives it a similarly plaintive edge over a moody waltz that elegantly shifts meters. The Argentine-Israeli Gurvich’s balmy lines seem to offer hope over Genovese’s gritty gleam.

Twelve Tribes is a gorgeously cantering mashup of moody Israeli riffage and stark blues over a circling, qawalli-ish groove, Mela shifting the ambience toward Cuba as he throws off sparks during a tantalizingly brief solo midway through. Im Tirtzi, a slinky cover of a 1970s Sasha Argov Israeli pop ballad, gets a gracefully shuflfing bolero rhythm and a low-key staccato solo from Slavov.

Gurvich makes a soaring soprano sax-infused jazz waltz out of the old spiritual Go Down Moses, whose “let my people go” message has significance far beyond its African-American and Jewish roots. Genovese’s energetically sun-dappled lines duet with Gurvich’s calm, summery sax throughout the album’s title track

Gurvich and Genovese spin off allusively Middle Eastern lines over Mela’s lithely churning rhythm in Blue Nomad. Hermetos – a Hermeto Pascual homage – is another dizzying cross-genre blend, Genovese spiraling and rippling from the Amazon across the Caribbean and back, then trading off with the bandleader. Ha’im Ha’im closes the album, rising from Slavov’s murkily insistent bass intro to a steady midtempo swing, Gurvich alluding to Coltrane, mining for inner blues in another 1970s Argov pop ballad.

The Resistance Revival Chorus Sing a Fiery, Fearless Benefit for Immigrant Rights

When the Resistance Revival Chorus hit the stage Tuesday night for the first of their rousing, oldschool gospel-style protest songs, there seemed to be about two dozen women in the group. By the time the show ended, individual choir members and special guests treating a sold-out crowd at City Winery to a tantalizing series of cameos, it seemed that the size of the chorus had doubled. Are they New York’s largest ensemble? At the rate they’re growing, they will be, and in the current political climate it’s not going to take long.

Much as booking a group with a ton of people in it is a surefire way to pack a club, there’s never been more of an audience for protest music. The chorus had put together a short video to kick off the show, tracing the history and profound influence of protest songs on this continent from field hollers and back-to-Africa anthems thinly disguised as Christian hymns, all the way to hip-hop.

There was a little bit of that, but most of the material was songs that drew on decades of soul music. And this was as much of a populist rally as concert. Three of the group’s founding members were organizers of the Women’s March on Washington earlier this year. They’re also affiliated with many pro-democracy and advocacy groups including Communities for Change and pro-immigrant organizations working under that umbrella. A couple of group leaders took the stage midway through the show and delivered a defiant, grimly entertaining bilingual English-Spanish account of the perils of being an undocumented immigrant, even in a so-called sanctuary city.

Laurie Anderson’s cameo was the funniest, with a bit of droll, satirical faux-autotune pop and a story about narrowly sidestepping what could have been a grisly stage mishap bookending a communal scream. The artist who got the crowd to scream even louder was Amy Leon, who otherwise held everybody rapt with her fearless, individualistic, witheringly acerbic blend of Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron and what might be called avant garde soul. She picked up where Simone left off with a misterioso take of Bob Dylan’s Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and added her own scathingly insightful commentary on coping with white supremacy: things haven’t changed all that much in half a century.

Nigerian-American songstress Ayo – who has an album release show coming up at Drom this Dec 20 at 9:30 -,led her trio through a couple of spare, withering roots reggae tunes dealing with the murder of young black men at the hands of the police, and resistance in general. Trixie Whitley reached for similarly hypnotic ambience with a single psychedelic folk-blues number, solo on electric guitar. And a smaller subset of the choir got the crowd bouncing to their intricate interweave of voices, from Sam Cooke to classic gospel.

The catchiest of all the songs might have been the two by singer Alba Ponce De Leon and her band the Mighty Lions. The latin soul diptych they opened with veered into psychedelic Chicano Batman territory, then they raised the roof with the big, funky vintage-style soul anthem Love Army, which as the bandleader said, needed no explanation.

At one point, the chorus situated themselves throughout the room, for a neat stereo effect. At the end of the show, the whole crew finally made it onto the stage for a soaring, imperturbable take of their big youtube hit Under My Feet, where the narrative starts out at the rich man’s house and ends up at the White House speaking truth to power. And as one of the chorus’ founders reminded, their next performance may be at a rally or with a flashmob if it’s not at City Winery, which has become their home base. Pick an issue, find an advocacy group and then go out and represent – how ironic that at this point in history, we’ve never had so many to choose from.

A Richly Haunting New Tango Album and a Harlem Release Show by Sofia Tosello

Great singers are used to getting called on to sing all sorts of widely different styles, and Sofia Tosello is no exception. She’s just as comfortable fronting experimental trance-folk duo Chuño as she is with classic and nuevo tango. Her latest album, Lluvia Fue – streaming at her music page – is a real cloudburst of intensity, a mix of iconic and lesser known tango ballads from across the decades. She’s playing the album release show on Dec 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the newly reopened and remodeled Minton’s uptown. Cover is $15; as far as minimums, a seat at the bar is your most cost-effective move.

The sonics on the album match the unaffected, raw power of Tosello’s vocals, thanks to Fernando Otero’s brilliantly stark, uncluttered production. He plays piano, joined by Pedro Giraudo on bass, Nick Danielsonon on violin, Yuri Juarez on guitar, Adam Fischer on cello and Omar Massa on bandoneon. It opens with the stormy angst of Piazzolla’s Siempre Se Vuelve a Buenos Aires, the slashing string arrangement underscoring the longing and regret in Tosello’s narrative. In a sense, it’s the key to the album: tango may be a Spanish rhythm, but it was fermented and transformed in Argentina.

Likewise, the strings shift from nebulosity to a moody fugue in the Roberto Calvo title track, Tosello rising from misty acerbity to a full-throttle wail and back. She brings a coy cabaret rusticity to the torrential narrative in the first of the vintage Juan Carlos Cobián pieces here, Hambre. The other, Nostalgias, gets a strikingly spare, vivid treatment with just the strings and guitar behind Tosello’s dynamic, dramatic delivery.

Guest guitarist Adam Tully adds spiky flamenco flavor to another number from the guardia vieja, Jose Razzano’s colorful Tortazos, while Otero teams with Tosello for a lingering, stunningly nuanced piano-and-vocal take of José Dames’ Fuimos, adding jazz color and hints of Debussy that would no doubt strike a chord with Piazzolla. Sebastian Piana’s De Barro is a return to sardonically lyrical, pulsing milonga-room flavor, fueled by the strings and Juarez’s incisive guitar.

Tosello maxes out the cabaret theatrics in José Maria Aguilar’s Al Mundo Le Falta un Tornillo, matched by the tongue-in-cheek, strutting strings; the sad waltz Tu Pálida Voz, a 1943 hit for Charlo-Homero Manzi, follows a similar blueprint.

Osvaldo and Emilio Fresedo’a Vida Mia, popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, gets a glimmering, spaciously expansive piano-and-vocal treatment underscoring the solitude and abandonment in Tosello’s voice. The group follows the enigmatic tropicalia of Nestor Basurto’s Conjuro del Alba with the alternately marionettish and sweeping pulse of Eladia Blazquez’s Contame una Historia. The album closes aptly with Anibal Troilo’s La Ultima Curda, arguably the most haunting of Otero’s many brooding, clenched-teeth string arrangements here. 

Celebrating an Eclectic, Dynamic Force in Venezuelan Classical Music

“I’m having a great time up here,” bassist Gonzalo Teppa told his bandmates with an unselfconsciously grin. He’d been exchanging sly rhythmic riffs all night with the Jimi Hendrix of the cuatro, Jorge Glem. Not something you might expect at a concert celebrating the work of a pioneering classical composer.

Friday night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, an all-star chamber orchestra played the first-ever career retrospective of music by Aldemaro Romero, a 20th century Venezuelan counterpart to Ernesto Lecuona. Romero came to New York at age 34 with his family and worked prolifically as an arranger in both classical and jazz before returning to found the Caracas Philharmonic Orchestra. His 1955 symphonic album Dinner in Caracas, focusing on his signature mashup of neoromanticism and a wide array of styles from across the Americas, was a huge global hit. His son Aldemaro Jr., a biologist and dean of the college, conducted a shapeshifting ensemble which also comprised the Alexander String Quartet, pianist/singer Selene Quiroga, pianist Gonzalo Grau and drummer Fabio Rojas.

In an eerie stroke of fate, the concert took place on the exact spot on 25th Street that housed the RCA studio where Romero Sr. recorded his famous album. The younger Romero, who also contributed a couple of witty cameos on melodica, did not know this until shortly before the performance. “It gave me goosebumps,” he admitted. That the energy and vitality of the show was as fresh as it was testifies not only to the liveliness of the music but also the fact that the group had come up with some of the charts only a couple of days beforehand.

And the concert was anything but stuffy. This music is full of life, and color, and much of it was made for dancing. Subtle rhythmic shifts were everywhere, referencing grooves from the Romeros’ home turf to Cuba, Mexico and ultimately, Spain. The most striking of the instrumental numbers was Capriccio for Viola and Piano, a world premiere given a vigorously incisive workout by Quiroga and Alexander Quartet violist Paul Yarbrough.

Another world premiere, the second movement of the Concerto for Teresa (a dedication to a Venezuelan New York Philharmnoic member ) rose from starkly elegaic into a lush, majestic remembrance. And the entire string section closed with Fuga Con Pajarillo, the most widely performed piece on the bill, an expansive bit of neoromantic dancefloor indulgence that brought to mind Astor Piazzolla’s late work.

When’s the last time you saw a classical pianist move to the mic for a display of vocal power and versatility? The elder Romero probably would have gotten a kick out of the fact that global audiences probably know Quiroga best as a member of irrepressible ska-punk band Desorden Publico. With dramatic flair and often plaintive nuance, she delivered a series of moody, crescendoing ballads, through the expectancy and longing of Quien to the bouncy, salsa-tinged El Musiquito to the uneasily lilting Lo Que Paso Contigo (What’s Up with You), backed by Glem and Teppa’s erudite jousting. Baruch’s choir the Blue Notes, strolling down the stairs on both side of the audience, added harmonic enhancement.

As is across the various CUNY campuses, diversity rules at Baruch. This is the real New York. The next concert in this year’s eclectic season is a holiday show on Dec 5 at 8 PM with pianist Eugene Marlow’s Heritage Ensemble, who blend acerbic klezmer and latin jazz sounds. Cover is $26/$11 stud.

Politically Fearless Noir Mexican Psychedelia at Lincoln Center Thursday Night

“This has been a long time in the making,” Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal told an ecstatic crowd there Thursday evening.  “Tonight you are in for a treat, a powerful and soulful voice.” Then she let Edna Vazquez’s charismatic presence and slinky, thoughtful, psychedelic, often haunting songs speak for themselves.

Maybe the singer/guitarist’s stunningly eclectic blend of styles mirrors her Mexican ancestry, considering that Mexico is every bit as much of a melting pot as the US. “The Mexican government is not so different from this one,” she wryly confided three songs into her set. And then spun through the rapidfire chord changes of a tune that could be characterized as noiriachi…or the great lost Arthur Lee hit from 1966. Did he rip a mariachi riff for the ominous scamper of 7 and 7 Is…or did Vazquez hear that and decide to take that idea to the next level, with a message about freeing ourselves from the distraction that keeps us from joining forces and overthrowing the forces of evil? Or did each artist come up with those ideas completely independently?

Playing acoustic guitar and singing  mostly in Spanish in a formidable, intense mezzo-soprano that often brought to mind Nina Simone, Vazquez and her five-piece band opened with a psychedelic rock number that put a bouncy, syncopated spin on the old Status Quo hit Pictures of Matchstick Men, keyboardist Gil Assayas adding extra menace with his downwardly cascading glockenspiel lines. Then the group – which also included William Marsh on lead guitar, 3 Leg Torso’s Milo Fultz on bass and Jesse Brooke on drums – launched into the first of several slinky numbers that sounded like Love teleported to Mexico City, 1967.

Fultz switched from upright to Fender bass for Do You See, by Vazquez’s old band No Passengers, a kinetic, funk-tinged number with Lynchian lead guitar and keys and a big powerpop chorus –  the Motels gone south of the border. Marsh played allusively uneasy blues on a big anti-globalization anthem; Assayas’ brooding organ and evilly starry keys flickered through the noir new wave number that followed.

From there the band pounced their way through muted trip-hop about the serendipities of meeting random strangers, then driving backbeat rock, a mashup of Cuban rhumba and noir Mexican bolero, and a brisk new wave rock number- is there any style in Spanish or English that this woman can’t write in?

She aired out the big a-cappella intro to Sola, the night’s most dynamic and dramatic anthem, with a dark gospel-flavored intensity that built to righteous 60s soul rage,  When she finally got to the cumbia number that the dancers out on the floor had seemed to be waiting for, it turned out to be a cheery hybrid of vintage soul and Peruvian psychedelia.

An ecstatic crowd called her back for three encores: an understatedly haunting, spare solo acoustic take of the Mexican folk classic La Llorona, a stately, soaring mariachi tune with the band going full steam and then an imploringly resonant soul ballad, which Vazquez sang in English.

Vazquez and band are at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC tomorrow night, Nov 6 at 6 PM; the show is free. And the next concert at Lincoln Center’s atrium space just north of 62nd Street is this Friday, Nov 10 at 7:30 PM, with Afro-Cuban percussionist Roman Diaz joining forces with the Brooklyn Raga Massive  to reinvent classic Indian themes. This show is also free – the earlier you get there, the better.

Party People in the House in Flushing Tonight

If you’re in a party mood, grab the 7 train and head to Flushing Town Hall tonight, Oct 21 where Betsayda Machado and La Parranda El Clavo are throwing a wild Afro-Venezuelan bash at 7:30 PM. There will be all kinds of ecstatic call-and-response, booming drums and dancing: Flushing Town Hall always keeps the front section close to the stage open for the dance crowd. Cover is $16, $10 for seniors, and if you’re a kid between 13-19, you get in free, as you can at all the shows here.

Machado recreates a Venezuelan hill country party vibe, a high-voltage tradition passed down through the centuries and maintained by the descendants of the first African slaves kidnapped and brought to the Venezuelan coast. But not all those slaves remained in chains: just as the Maroons in Jamaica did, some managed to escape and set up self-sustaining communities where the the old African traditions survived more or less intact. Machado and her village band trace their ancestry to those days: with just a choir and many drums handmade from local lumber, they are as oldschool as you can get. Parranda musicians don’t stand still – they typically make a procession. The soaring voices and stomping rhythms of Machado’s band are similar to Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian bullerengue crew Bulla En El Barrio.

Machado’s new album Loé Loá – Rural Recordings Under the Mango Tree is streaming at Spotify. It’s amazing how catchy these songs are: a brass band or a salsa orchestra could have a great time filling in the harmonies between the singers and the beats. Which are all over the place: sometimes a straight-up dancefloor thump but more likely to be a swaying triplet groove, a funky dance pulse or tricky, intricate polyrhythms. What’s consistent throughout the album, and the music in general, is the contrast between the hypnotically booming drums and the energy of the vocals. The songs celebrate good times, dancing, console the lonely or the bereaved and invoke the ancient spirits, recast as Christian saints. You can sing along; it helps if you know Spanish.