New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern 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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A Rare Chance to See Haunting Large-Ensemble Turkish Music in the West Village

One of the most serendipitous developments in New York music this year is that Seyyah, who might be this city’s most epic Turkish band at the moment, have been playing more lately. Which is more impressive than it seems, considering that percussionist/singer Jenny Luna has been plenty busy with her own similarly haunting Turkish-Balkan band Dolunay. Pretty much everybody else in Seyyah plays with other bands as well. Tanbur lute player Adam Good is also in Dolunay, and lends his prowess on many stringed instruments to numerous other groups including sizzling rebetiko metal band Greek Judas. Oudist Kane Mathis has his own project, his Indian-tinged groove duo Orakel, and plays in Nubian band Alsarah & the Nubatones. Clarinetist Greg Squared is in Raya Brass Band (who played a sizzling set this past Saturday night at Barbes) and Sherita. Violinist Marandi Hostetter plays with slinky Egyptian bands Nashaz and Sharq Attack (some might say that they’re the same group) and others, as do percussionists Simon Moushabeck and Philip Mayer.

Seyyah’s next gig is this Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum; the food at the downstairs West Village jazz boite is actually a cut above what most jazz club kitchens throw at you. Seyyah are also one of the latest bands with the good sense to release a live album, a free download recorded at Barbes last May on a live WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise broadcast which also featured a rather rare, starkly intense set of Georgian folk tunes by guitarist Ilusha Tsinadze and his trio, plus a lustrous, hypnotic, tantalizingly brief handful of tunes by a subset of lavish, paradigm-shifting Indian carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective.

Seyyah’s set – with a slightly altered lineup – opens with Mahur Saz Seman, a catchy, bouncy, somewhat bittersweetly anthemic tune. As the song goes on, the trills of Zoe Christiansen’s clarinet and Eylem Basaldi’s violin take it into more brooding territory before the main theme returns. Sultani Yegah veers between a jiggy, sea chantey-like bounce, and more wary, chromatically incisive interludes, with a spiky, moody tanbur solo. Basaldi takes centerstage with her microtonal nuance in the briskly flurrying, slashing Hicaz Zeybek, the set’s arguably best and most Arabic-inflected song.

Scampering percussion propels Hüzzam Oyun Havasi – like most of the songs here, it starts out with everybody playing the rippling, uneasy modal melody, then Good pulls away, then we get a moody, deliciously microtonally-spiced clarinet solo and a lively percussion break. The night’s coda is Çeçen Kizi, a wickedly catchy, broodingly intense, undulating theme with Basaldi leading the charge out this time. It’s amazing how good the sound quality is, considering how packed and noisy the bar was that Saturday night.

And if you’re going to Golden Fest this weekend, Greek Judas, Raya Brass Band and Dolunay will all be there on Saturday.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra Play a Riveting, Epic Set at Smalls

Last night Smalls was packed for the New York debut of the Todd Marcus Orchestra’s new Middle Eastern jazz suite In the Valley. Much as the band onstage was cooking, these people had come to listen. Bass clarinetist and bandleader Marcus gets a mighty sound, bigger than you would expect from a nine-piece outfit. Part of that stems from Marcus’ use of the whole sonic spectrum, Gil Evans-style. The other is how much gravitas he builds in the lows, best exemplified by the punchy contrapuntal interweave during the first set’s towering final number, Horus, Marcus teaming up with trombonist Alan Ferber against the highs: Troy Roberts’ tenor sax, Brent Birckhead’s alto and Alex Norris’ trumpet, pianist Xavier Davis hitting the midrange hard.

Marcus’ compositions draw a pretty obvious comparison to Amir ElSaffar’s work. But Marcus relies more on chromatics than distinctly microtonal melodies, and typically employs the traditional jazz model featuring individual soloists instead of pairings of musicians or seesawing between contrasting frequencies. And as formidable as Marcus’ orchestra is, it’s smaller than ElSaffar’s current huge ensemble: if ElSaffar is the Red Sea, Marcus is the Nile.

Marcus’ heritage is Egyptian, and the suite draws heavily on his recent travels there. The group opened with the towering, cinematically suspenseful, chromatically pulsing title track, inspired by the Valley of Kings, featuring long, methodically crescendoing solos from Norris and Roberts. The night’s most colorful number was Cairo Street Ride, a depiction of a crazy cab negotiating what Marcus called “controlled chaos.” Rising from a bustling thicket of voices, the music straightened out with a jaunty bounce and eventually an irresistibly funny interlude where the cab’s engine revs up, then the driver shifting through the gearbox. People still drive stickshift in Egypt!

Ferber got to add some wry, Wycliffe-style humor of his own in the next tune, The Hive, the bandleader finally adding a rapidfire, spiraling solo of his own over the band’s lustre. The brooding ballad Final Days built artful variations on a somber stairstepping riff anchored by Jeff Reed’s bass. And the closing epic was a real showstopper. Drummer Eric Kennedy took a regally tumbling solo against Davis’ eerily circling piano loops as it gained momentum, Marcus launching into the most wildly gritty, intense solo of the night before the jousting at the end kicked in. Chamber Music America, who commissioned this piece, got plenty of bang for the buck. And that was just the first set.

You’ll see this on the best concerts of 2017 page here later this month.

Vigen Hovsepyan Reinvents Stark, Impactful, Frequently Haunting Armenian Themes

The little nation of Armenia seems to have more good musicians per capita than almost anywhere in the world. So it makes sense that one of the most intriguing albums to come over the transom here in the past year is singer/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan’s Echoes: Revived Armenian Folk Music, streaming at Spotify. Hovsepyan plays guitar, duduk and percussion and sings in Armenian in a strong, expressive baritone, backed by bass, percussion, oud, cello, and traditional reeds including duduk and zurna. What differentiates this collection from more traditional versions of these tunes is the imaginative arrangements, with edgy, crescendoing solos from throughout the band.

Armenian music is notable for blending the enigmatic microtones of the Middle East within melodies in the western scale. Minor keys are prevalent, along with a lot of what’s essentially implied melody: these themes are simple, stark and striking. The album’s opening number, a dirge, features rising star duduk player Arsen Petrosyan along with intense, otherworldly vocal harmonies. Another Armenian reed star, zurna player Harutyun Chkolyan is featured on a more lively later track. 

The spare, stately, syncopatedly swaying Nare features understatedly incisive, spacious oud work from the great Ara Dinkjian, up to a surprise trick ending. Hoy Nar is a robust work song – a riverboat tune, maybe? – updated with echoes of 90s trip-hop and a long, bracing, uneasily trilling duduk solo.

Garegin Arakelyan’s austere bass riff mingles with Havard Enstad’s sparse piano in the ballad Es Gisher, building to aching close harmonies between strings and reeds. Hovsepyan’s voice rises to an angst-fueled peak over a menacing low string drone in Ani; then the strings build a storm on the horizon. The gracefully dancing, austere Tal Tala features breathtakingly spiraling tar lute from Miqayel Voskanyan against a brooding backdrop.

The moody ballad Gulo sways slowly over an elegant 6/8 guitar/bass groove over resonant, distantly troubled piano: it’s the most Lynchian track here. Drdo opens with a darkly pensive exchange between Hovsepyan’s emphatic vocals, cello, frame drum and duduk, slowly coalescing with an overcast grandeur. The Immigrant blends dancing, Balkan-tinged strings and echoey, Romany-inflected vocals, with a spaciously mournful duduk solo.

A tense low bass drone, a melancholy cello solo and Hovsepyan’s misterioso flamenco-tinged guitar fuel the slow, troubled, cinematic sweep of Lusnyak Gisher. Likewise, the closing cut, Sareri begins with cumulo-nimbus atmospherics and then settles into an elegaic sway. Considering the history of Armenia and how many cultural treasures were lost in the holocaust there a hundred years ago, and before, it’s no surprise how dark most of this music is. But you don’t need to speak Armenian to be drawn into this unsettling masterpiece.

Wild Turkish Psychedelic Rock Rescued From Obscurity

One of the most amazing albums released this year is Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu, a compilation streaming at Spotify that pays homage to the Turkish cassette label that released some of the wildest, most surreal sounds to emerge from that part of the world. Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this trippy ten-track playlist collects hard funk, symphonic rock, disco, electrified Turkish traditional ballads and anthems…and what sounds like a long radio commercial.

String synth, organ, wry wah synth and soaring, otherworldly, microtonal zurna oboe mingle in Zor Beyler’s suspenseful, lushly anthemic Gozumdeki Yaslar. The second track, by guitarslinger Erkin Koray, is a one-chord heavy funk jam, fuzztone acid lead guitar over loping bass and drums, with an emphatic spoken-word lyric: Turkish rap from forty years ago!

Powerful baritone crooner Kerem Guney’s Sicak Bir Sevda is a slashing, richly catchy Middle Eastern rock gem, sparkling electric baglama trading off with spare yet searing electric guitar. Asik Emrah’s Bu Ellerden Gocup is one of the trippiest cuts here, a mashup of psychedelic latin funk and spiky, oscillating Turkish classical sounds – is that an electric saz lute that’s taking that twistedly oscillating solo?

Longing and hazy angst pervade Yar Senin Icin, by chanteuse Elvan Sevil, a trickily syncopated, broodingly catchy anthem blending austere guitar with more of that delicious electric saz. Seker Oglan’s epic dancefloor jam Akbaba Ikilisi has a straightforwardly slinky, disco-tinged groove and similarly tasty, microtonal fretboard melismatics. Deniz Ustu Kopurur nicks a classic Stooges riff for Unal Buyukgonenc, a similarly vast, shapeshifting web of enigmatic reverb guitar and similarly reverb-drenched zurna: it’s the most psychedelic number here.

Nese Alkan gives her vocals a suspenseful, dramatic allure in Kacma Guzel, which comes across as sort of proto Balkan reggae. The compilation’s final track, by Ali Ayhan, mashes up wah funk and majestically sweeping, starkly string-driven Turkish balladry. All this begs the question of how many other treasures are lurking in the Uzelli vaults. In the meantime, New Yorkers can catch a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 24 at 8 PM at Drom with a current Turkish psychedelic band, the ominously majestic Philadelphia-based Barakka. Cover is $10.

A Tantalizing Taste of Golden Fest Last Night at Trans-Pecos

It’s not likely that the WNYU folks had Golden Fest in mind when they booked three of New York’s most exciting bands to play Trans-Pecos last night. But the triplebill of riveting Macedonian duo Glas, hotshot oudist Kane Mathis and haunting Turkish band Dolunay are all vets of the annual Brooklyn mecca for sounds from across the Balkans and the Middle East as well. Golden Fest 2018 takes place next January 12 and 13; this was a hint of the kind of wild intensity and stark rapture that will be in almost absurd abundance there that weekend.

Glas, the duo of tamburist/kaval player Vedran Boškovski and singer Corinna Snyder, opened the night. This was more a showcase for her elegance and subtlety than the floor-to-ceiling power and feral microtones of her vocals in pioneering Bulgarian choral trio Black Sea Hotel. Boškovski made it look easy, steadily strumming his open-tuned tambura, alternating between allusive, hypnotic modes and more ominous, acerbic Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities. He brought more of a stark, rustic touch to a couple of songs, backing Snyder’s wary cadences with stark, overtone-infused lines on the kaval, a wooden Balkan flute.

That Snyder speaks the language further enables her to channel the relentless grimness in these old songs. The road is treacherous, highwaymen are everywhere, war is omnipresent, all omens are bad and love is fleeting. Their most riveting number was a dirge, a guy kidnapped by the enemy giving his last goodbyes. They closed with a somewhat more upbeat number: so you’re already engaged? Let’s elope anyway!

Mathis is the not-so-secret weapon in Alsarah & the Nubatones, filling the enormous shoes left behind by the late, great oudist Haig Magnoukian. Leading a trio with a percussionist on boomy dumbek goblet drum and House of Waters’ Moto Fukushima on eight-string bass, he opened with a hypnotically circling, rippling West African-flavored number that sounded like a tune for the kora – an instrument Mathis also plays virtuosically. From the three went into a serpentine Middle Eastern theme, Mathis adding fiery chords to the mix early on, Fukushima’s solo going off into hard bop before finally making an emphatic, chromatic flourish of a landing. Mathis’ endless, machinegunning flurries in his closing epic left his rhythm section wide-eyed: it’s hard to think of anyone else in town who can play as hard and fast, yet as precisely, on any instrument.

The most haunting song of the entire night was an original by another oudist, Dolunay’s Adam Good, evoking the shadowy majesty of the Trio Joubran with his brooding resonance. Where Snyder had been all about distance and solemnity and mystery, Dolunay frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna went for the jugular with her plaintive, angst-fueled melismas. Violinist Eylem Basaldi echoed that poignancy, playing achingly beautiful, low-midrange, grey-sky washes of microtones, almost as if she was playing a cello.

Dolunay like diptychs and segues of all kinds; this time, they did sets of threes. Most of their material is on the slow and somber side, and this was typical. Most of their songs are about absence and longing: boyfriend goes off to war or over the mountains, never to be seen again, ad infinitum. Plus ça change, huh? What was new was getting to hear Luna sing in Ladino, the Sephardic Spanish dialect, in a couple of moody Andalucian-flavored numbers, something she’s especially suited to since she’s a native Spanish speaker. Dolunay’s next gig is on an amazing triplebill with feral yet supertight original Balkan group Raya Brass Band and hard-grooving Balkan/reggae/rock band Tipsy Oscart at Littlefield on Nov 30 at 9 PM; cover is $10.

La Mar Enfortuna Lead a Haunting Guided Tour of Sephardic Music at the Jewish Museum

There was a point last night at the Jewish Museum where La Mar Enfortuna guitarist Oren Bloedow, playing a gorgeous black hollowbody Gibson twelve-string, hit an achingly ringing, clanging series of tritones. Violinist Dana Lyn answered him with a flittingly menacing couple of high, microtonal riffs. It was like being at Barbes, or the Owl, except on the Upper East Side.

That good.

For four years now, the Bang on a Can organization has been partnering with the Jewish Museum for a series of concerts that dovetail with current exhibits there. This time out, La Mar Enfortuna’s starkly beautiful Sephardic art-rock and reinventions of ancient Jewish themes from across the Middle East and North Africa were paired with the ongoing Modigliani show.

Since the 90s, Bloedow and his charismatic chanteuse bandmate Jennifer Charles have been the core of similarly haunting, sometimes lushly lurid noir art-rock band Elysian Fields. Likewise, this show built a dark but more eclectic atmosphere. At their quietest, bassist Simon Hanes – who otherwise looked like he was jumping out of his shoes to be playing this material – switched to acoustic guitar, for a spare duo with Bloedow on an ancient Moroccan song whose storyline was a possibly hashish-influenced counterpart to the Sleeping Beauty myth.

The band slunk through a salsa-jazz verse to a ringingly otherworldly, anthemic chorus on an original, Charles singing a lyric by Federico Garcia Lorca in the original Spanish. Bloedow, who was in top form all night as sardonically insightful emcee, noted that the band had played that same song just a few yards from where the fascists had taken Garcia Lorca into the underbrush and then shot him in the back.

Charles also sang in Farsi, Ladino and Arabic. The early part of the set featured more minimalist, lingering ballads; drummer Rob DiPietro sat back from his kit and played a hypnotic dance groove on daf frame drum on one of them. Matt Darriau began the set on bass clarinet; by the end, he’d also played a regular-size model and also bass flute, fueling the songs’ moodiest interludes with his sepulchral, microtonal, melismatic lines.

The closest to an over-the-top moment was when the band danced through the original Sephardic melody of a big Vegas noir ballad that’s been used umpteen times for Hollywood approximations of exoticism. The night’s most hypnotic song was another Moroccan number that strongly brought to mind Malian duskcore rock bands like Tinariwen. The high point was a slowly crescendoing original that rose to a mighty peak, fueled by Bloedow’s majestically resonating chromatic chords.

The Bang on a Can series at the Jewish museum continues on February 22 of next year at 7:30 PM with similarly otherworldly Czech violinist/composer/vocalist Iva Bittova and her ensemble; tix are $18 and include museum admission.

Innov Gnawa Bring Rare Moroccan Jewish Ritual Healing Trance Grooves to Baltimore

It’s not clear if Innov Gnawa are the first American band to play the slinky, trance-inducing ritual healing grooves of Moroccan percussion-and-bass gnawa music. But there’s no question that they’re the only band in this hemisphere currently playing it. True to their name, they’re taking an ancient sound rarely heard outside of Morocco to new places, whether with their own mesmerizing improvisations, or with repertoire never before heard outside of North Africa.

What’s clear is that their April West Village performance of extremely rare Jewish gnawa repertoire was the first time that’s ever been heard on this continent. Even by Innov Gnawa’s standards, this was a pretty wild show: Moroccan Jews know how to party! Lucky Baltimoreans can hear these otherworldly sounds for the first time when Innov Gnawa play this Saturday night, Oct 21 at 8:15 PM at Temple B’Nai Israel at 27 Lloyd St. Cover is $15, and you don’t have to speak Hebrew, Arabic or Bambara to get lost in this music.

Innov percussionist David Lizmi – one of New York’s most in-demand bass players, and a Karla Rose collaborator – opened the evening with a benediction in Hebrew and added a hopeful 1940s rabbinical poem mid-set. Beyond that, the group meshed their hypnotic cast-iron qraqab castanets behind bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s resonant low-register sintir lute for a revealing facsimile of a traditional Moroccan lila healing ceremony, but one played in the Jewish tradition.

Jewish communities have been a vital and formative part of Moroccan culture for centuries; this show celebrated both the earliest Jewish traditions there as well as those dating from the wave of immigrants who found safe ground there from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1400s. Gnawa music is pre-Judaic, and was brought to Morocco mainly by slaves captured south of the Sahara, but Jews were an important cultural force beyond the music’s expatriate origins to embrace it before it essentially became the Moroccan national sound in the 80s and 90s.

A gnawa ceremony typically begins with an evocation of the saints, and Ben Jaafer led the group through a hypnotic call-and-response of the Jewish pantheon in his gritty, impassioned voice, playing variations on a leaping, catchy bass riff as the qraqabs built a trancey, metallic mesh behind him. From there the rhythms shifted into an almost disco groove, to a circling triplet beat, to a brisk, insistent four-on-the-floor pulse as the passion of the vocals rose toward fever pitch. A shuffling train-track ambience built to a couple of rapidfire interludes that contrasted with stark, snaky, suspenseful sintir passages.

The sintir riffs were catchy to the extreme; there’s a persuasive argument among musicologists that this three-string lute is the forerunner of the funk bass. Sometimes Ben Jaafer would climb an octave or more, other times he’d stay close to the ground with a catchy hook, hanging within the blues scale. How does this repertoire differentiate itself from the many hundreds of non-Jewish songs, sung mainly in Arabic in praise of pre-Islamic Central African deities? Mainly with the lyrics. Either way, one lasting gnawa tradition is that it’s employed for the sake of healing whoever might be in need of psychic or physical repair. Bring your dancing shoes and get ready to banish any mischegas you might have at this one.

A Harrowing, Ferociously Relevant Mother-Daughter Conflict at the French Institute

While there’s nonstop drama and some actual physical violence in Nazmiye and Havva Oral’s No Longer Without You, a searing mother-daughter conflict currently in its US debut run at the French Institute/Alliance Française, its most serious fireworks are only alluded to. We don’t get more than a mention of the abortion, or passing references to the screaming matches and literal tug-of-war between religious Muslim mother and her willful daughter determined to escape the confines of what she feels is an antedeluvian, misogynist environment.

On a surface level, this is a feel-good story of female empowerment and triumph over adversity. A Turkish immigrant in Holland, Havva raises her Nazmiye with an iron fist in a strict religious household. Nazmiye’s father dies young and doesn’t figure much in this story: it’s clear who runs the show in this family. But Nazmiye doesn’t want an arranged marriage at age eighteen and a life of domesticity like her mom. So she leaves home, marries a foreigner, has a couple of daughters of her own, divorces and becomes a world-famous journalist and performer along the way. What’s not to be proud of?

Havva doesn’t exactly see it that way. In this performance piece, she’s less volubly critical than Nazmiye recalls, dredging up one childhood battle after another. And she’s withholding. What Nazmiye wants most is her mother’s love. In the piece’s most touching scene, Nazmiye recalls that despite the disputes and the terror of being dragged off by a teenage husband-to-be whom she doesn’t even like, the one place she feels secure is in her mother’s arms. And time after time, Havva keeps her at arms length.

Yet Havva is also anything but an ogre. Her traditional garb makes a stark contrast with her daughter’s scarlet dress. She’s calm, stolid, unassailably confident and someone who says a lot in a few aphoristic words. And she’s funny! As the piece progresses, it’s clear that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree, two indomitable women, each with big dreams. Daughter speaks in English, mother answers in Turkish, usually translated by Seval Okyay, who also provides gorgeous, haunting musical interludes with electric saz lute and a soulful, often plaintive voice. If there’s anything this performance could use more of, it’s Okyay.

While the cultural idiom here is specifically Muslim, the story is an all-too-familiar one: escapees from militant Christian and Orthodox Jewish environments tell the same tale. Beyond the breaking of one taboo after another – where Havva seems genuinely worried for her daughter’s soul, not to mention her own – the most shocking moment of all might be where Nazmiye asks what right a mother has to live vicariously through her daughter. Havva asserts that it’s perfectly kosher for a child to be the vehicle for a parent’s aspirations – or dashed hopes, perhaps. It’s another familiar dynamic. Obsessive Colorado pageant moms, psycho Texas football dads and harried Park Slope helicopter parents would find themselves more at home in Nazmiye’s childhood environment than they might think.

More poignantly, there are several “do you love me” moments: the answer may surprise you, like the ending, which is anything other than pat. But the one question that Nazmiye never asks, after all she’s accomplished, is “Are you proud of me?” One suspects the response would be more predictable.

Adelheid Roosen’s direction is everything the relationship isn’t: comfortable and familial, the audience seated on comfy cushions around the floor, living room style. There is also a little interaction with the audience, which is similarly welcoming and comforting and a serendipitous respite from the intensity of the performance. The final show today is sold out, but the Institute’s long-running events and concert schedule, including their legendary film series continues through the fall. 

Turkish Star Halil Sezai’s Brooding Revolutionary Ballads Haunt the Crowd at Drom

Saturday night at Drom, Turkish crooner Halil Sezai eventually got the crowd singing along. But he didn’t do it with flag-waving Eurovision-style stadium cliches. He did it with a carefully crafted set of allusive, slow-to-midtempo ballads about revolution and the relentless stress of life in a police state, in styles ranging from moody parlor pop, to methodically crescenddoing anthems awash in minor keys, with microtonally-infused fills and solos delivered by his absolutely brilliant clarinetist. To call this music for our time is an understatement to the extreme.

Sezai sat for the duration of the show, which made sense considering that he doesn’t overemote. Although he’d build to long, resonant phrases to cap off a chorus, he sang with remarkable restraint, always seemingly holding something in reserve. Although he doesn’t have a particularly low voice, he didn’t fly up the scale, remaining grounded in his upper midrange.

Likewise, his band had a nuance matched by few rock bands. Turkish rock tends to be more informed by classical and Turkish traditional music – or in its loudest moments, European metal – than it is by comparatively simple American pop. About three songs into the set, all of a sudden a tersely swaying drumbeat entered the picture. As it turned out, the drummer had been there all along, but up to that point he’d just been adding just the ghostliest flickers of a cymbal or a rimshot.

An acoustic rhythm guitarist held a steady, emphatic forward drive while the group’s superb, eclectic pianist ranged from stately, angst-fueled neoromantic lines to a few detours toward early 80s jazz when the clarinetist switched to alto sax. The bassist would often open a song with judiciously fingerpicked acoustic guitar leads, then in a flash would put down the guitar and then hold down the lows on his four strings. The clarinetist’s volleys of tremoloing, deep-woods mystery and sometimes the macabre contrasted with the low-key sonics behind him. Botanica, and Firewater, and maybe Procol Harum came to mind, but with less emotive vocals than any of those art-rock bands.

Besides being New York’s most welcomingly intimate venue for sounds from around the globe, Drom is one of the few American clubs to regularly book Turkish rock music. There are two fantastic, very different bands there tomorrow night, Sept 30: at at 8 PM, wild accordion-driven Chilean psychedelic band Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna are the latest stars from outside the country to make their US debut here: $15 adv tix are highly recommended. Then at 11:30 PM there’s a free show by excellent Queens rebetiko band Rebet Asker, playing dark Greek gangster and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s through the 40s.