New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

Dynamic, Exhilarating, Haunting New Armenian Sounds from Miqayel Voskanyan

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

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

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

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

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

King Gizzard Adds a New York Show, Goes Off on a Wild Middle Eastern Tangent

If you live for psychedelic rock and you’re depressed that the King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard show tonight at Webster Hall is sold out, don’t fret. A second show has been added for tomorrow night, April 1, no April Fool. $22 advance tix are ostensibly available, but good luck at the Webster Hall box office on a Friday night. To make up for the hit to the wallet, fellow antipodeans Stonefield – the coolest all-female heavy psych band on the planet – open the evening at 7:30 PM.

If you’re brave enough for the venue, you will be rewarded because the Gizzards’ (Lizards’? Wizards’?)  latest album, Flying Microtonal Banana, streaming at Bandcamp, is their best one yet. It’s infinitely more focused than the long, drony, hypnotic late-period Brian Jonestown Massacre-style jams the band had been releasing in droves over the past couple of years. And it’s very Middle Eastern influenced: Zola Jesus is the obvious comparison.

Guitarist Stu Mackenzie claims that playing the Turkish baglama lute springboarded the whole thing. The first cut, Anoxia, sways along on an enigmatically descending, bitingly catchy Middle Eastern riff anchored by what sounds like a sitar-guitar patch. Billabong Valley is a twisted mashup of scampering third-wave glamrock and Mediterranean psychedelia, with a generous nod back to Neil Young, along with microtonal guitar that evokes a Turkish zurna oboe.

Doom City is a characteristically surreal blend of sludgy post-Sabbath low-register riffage and wryly tiptoeing psychedelia, with more of that otherworldly, keening microtonal guitar. Likewise, the overtone-laden bagpipe sonics on the album’s trickily dancing title track. From there the band segues into the organ-fueled Melting, which sounds like the Doors jamming out a jaunty Nino Rota Fellini film theme. As the song goes on, the keyboards shift into uneasy microtones, a potent recurring device throughout the album.

Nuclear Fusion sounds like a Turkish take on pulsing BJM strobe-rock, amped up with tumbling drums, judicious tongues of fire from the bass and electrified lutes. It makes a good segue with the album’s first fullscale epic, Open Water. A hash-smuggling speedboat theme of sorts, it’s got an energetic, hypnotically shuffling, qawwali-ish groove, icepick staccato guitar and all sorts of eerie chromatic hooks.

With its brisk new wave bassline, Rattlesnake is essentially a long one-chord jam, bringing to mind the trippy sounds wafting off the Black Sea thirty-five years ago (for a good introduction to vintage 70s Turkish psychedelia, see the magical reissue compilation Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu). The album winds up with the similarly upbeat, catchy, anthemic Sleep Drifter. If the rest of the band’s planned four additional albums this year are half as good as this, we’re in for a hell of a 2017, Trump or no Trump. 

Looking Back at Some Wild String Madness at Barbes

Violist/composer Leanne Darling is the rare stellar classical musician who can school you with her improvisations. In the early part of this decade, she made a mark as part of the ambitious, dazzlingly eclectic Trio Tritticali. As she proved in that group, she’s as at home with latin and Middle Eastern music, string metal and funk as she is with the classics she was trained to play. She has a flair for quirky, sometimes hilarious arrangements of pop and rock hits. Much as she can be very entertaining, she can also be very poignant: it wouldn’t be overhype to put her on the same page with Jessica Pavone and Ljova Zhurbin.

The last time she was onstage and this blog was in the house, it was last year at Barbes and she was playing with wild chamber ensemble Tom Swafford’s String Power. And it was 4/20. But as much as there was a lot of improvisation going on, it wasn’t a 4/20 kind of show: everybody was pretty much on the same page. Considering how much time has passed since then, it’s hard to remember who was onstage other than the violinist/bandleader, Darling, and bassist Dan Loomis. Her old Trio Tritticali cello bandmate Loren Dempster, maybe? Patti Kilroy on violin, if memory serves right, with a handful of other string players? Regardless, the performance represented everybody well.

They opened with a striking, emphatically swaying baroque number – Pachelbel, maybe? – with a series of tightly wound solos and cadenzas from throughout the group. Swafford’s arrangement of the Velvets classic Venus in Furs was closer to Vivaldi than Lou Reed, full of neat counterpoint and polyrhythms that took on a menacing swirl as the individual group members diverged from the center, Swafford taking a shivery, slithery solo that would have made John Cale smile.

The first of Darling’s arrangements, Boogie Wonderland, was the funnest part of the evening. It’s surprising that only a few punk bands have covered it. Darling’s chart turned it into a constantly shifting exchange of voices. Later in the set she and the group had fun with another one of her charts, turning a schlocky dance-pop hit by Muse into something approaching Radiohead. And Bohemian Rhapsody was as over-the-top hilarious as it possibly could have been, as ridiculously fun as the Main Squeeze Orchesta’s accordion version. That kind of insanity aside, the high point of the evening was Darling’s arrangement of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab Egyptian classic Azizah.

If memory serves right – a dubious proposition at this point – they might have done a Mingus tune, a twisted mashup of psychedelia and bluegrass, and something that sounded like My Brightest Diamond without lyrics but wasn’t. Much as this is Swafford’s project, Darling played an important part in it, and her own groups are just as much fun. If you’re wondering why this blog would wait this long to cover the show, it’s because Darling had a Williamsburg gig scheduled for this week that apparently got cancelled: watch this space for upcoming performances. 

Moroccan Trance Band Innov Gnawa Make History

Innov Gnawa are the only group playing Moroccan gnawa trance music on this side of the Atlantic. You could call it the ultimate, fat bass-and-drum music – or Moroccan gospel. Its origins are in sub-Saharan Africa. It was brought north primarily by slaves and was regarded as ghetto there until fairly recently. It is 100% acoustic, otherworldly, and primeval, but hardly primitive. The call-and-response between maalem (bandleader) and kouyos (chorus) can be hypnotic for minutes on end, then impassioned and explosive, with intricate polyrhythms to rival the most ambitious jazz. The majority of gnawa melodies are based on the blues scale; the lyrics, in either Arabic or Bambara, celebrate Islamic themes. Moroccan expat Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, one of the world’s great masters of the three-string sintir bass lute, leads the group. They’re one of the funnest bands in town to dance to.

They’re making their Coachella debut this year; in the meantime, New Yorkers have a chance to catch their leader this week as part of a historic collaboration between Lincoln Center and this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour. This Thurs, March 16 at 7:30 PM, the game plan is for Ben Jaafer to jam with his old buddy Maalem Hamid El Kasri, who he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane,  who represents the southern Moroccan style of gnawa, is also on the bill at the atrium space at Lincoln Center. It’s a major moment in global music history, the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest virtuosos of Moroccan music. Innov Gnawa are also opening for Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn on April 6 at 7:30 PM; $15 advance tix are highly recommended

Ben Jaafer is revered in his native Morocco much like his mentor, Mohammed Sam, one of the most important figures in the history of gnawa and a great innovator in the 1960s and 70s. The rest of the group comprises the chorus. Founder Samir LanGus (who also plays sintir onstage) and Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani are joined on vocals and cast-iron qraqab castanets by Said Bourhana and Nawfal Atiq, in addition to Ahmed Jeriouda, who also plays cajon. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number is a benediction of sorts used throughout much of Morocco to open a lila – the delirious allnight parties that do double duty as mystical Sufi trance rite. As the steady, misty rain of the chorus’ qraqab castanets shuffles behind him, Ben Jaafer is already working very subtle permutations on a similar but not quite rhythmically identical blues bassline. Beyond the central riffs and choruses, Gnawa is eighty to ninety percent improvised: this band won’t ever play this number this way again.

Ben Jaafer’s rugged baritone grows more insistent on the tune after that, over a circling 6/8 rhythm that brings to mind the wheel-like cadences of qawwali music. Bass players and fans of low-register tonalities will love how Ben Jaafer conceals the occasional, unexpectedly booming chord within his riffage.

His pouncing introduction to the third number offers no hint at how the circling three-on-two rhythm from the qraqabs will return – or how fervent the voices of the chorus will grow alongside him. As the album goes on, Ben Jaafer takes one sudden, unexpected, syncopated detour after another; every time, the band turns on a dime and follows suit. The final number is also the most anthemic and dynamically shifting one. There are six tracks in total, as close to the actual experience of hearing a genuine lila in North America as millions of listeners will ever get.

 

Magical Moroccan Music Masters Make History This March 16 at Lincoln Center

One of the most important musical events in recent history, with global significance akin to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley sharing the same stage – or Robert Johnson jamming with Howlin’ Wolf – will take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 PM at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest masters of Moroccan music. Two of the great maalems (masters) of explosively hypnotic Moroccan gnawa trance music – Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane – will share the stage with Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the only gnawa master this side of the Atlantic, who leads Brooklyn-based ensemble Innov Gnawa.  This first performance on this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour marks the debut of a new partnership between the Festival and Lincoln Center. 

Taking a brief pause in between rehearsals and the innumerable demands of scheduling an event of this magnitude, Maalem Ben Jaafer, his Innov Gnawa protege and bandmate Samir LanGus, and David Rubenstein Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal got together Sunday night to share some intimate details about the event over snacks and a delicious vegan Moroccan stew in the comfortable, lowlit confines of Tagine on 38th Street.

It turns out that this show will be a very heartwarming reunion. Ben Jaafer and El Kasri knew each other as young stars of the lila party circuit, Ben Jaafer from Fez and El Kasri making his home base in Rabat. They haven’t seen each other or even talked on the phone in seventeen years

LanGus was immersed in the music in his native Morocco before moving to North Carolina and then New York to play under Ben Jaafer’s tutelage. Growing up in South Carolina, Dugal didn’t encounter gnawa until moving to New York, where she first met LanGus at a wild Lincoln Center concert by Hoba Hoba Spirit – the Moroccan Clash – in 2014. 

“Samir and I dreamed up this partnership between the two institutions while at the gnawa festival in Essaouira last summer, and this collaboration marks the next step in our mission to share gnawa with a larger audience here in the US. At Lincoln Center, we’ve been listening to our enthusiastic Moroccan community, and they’ve been crucial to our focus on this music, as well as our decision to reach out to the Gnaoua Festival to work together.” 

“If this is someone’s first exposure to gnawa music, it doesn’t get any better than this,” LanGus enthused. “For Moroccans in America, it’s a chance to see something here that wouldn’t even happen in Morocco. For people who know the music, it’s a chance to go really deeply into it and and watch three of the greatest musicians alive. And if you haven’t seen gnawa before, this is as good as it gets.” 

”The Gnaoua Festival also plays a significant role in elevating the status of gnawa music and gnawa people in Morocco,” Dugal explained. Just like Argentine tango, Puerto Rican salsa and American blues, gnawa was marginalized for decades. Gnawa musicians were held in low esteem before a recent resurgence. These days, it’s essentially become the national music of Morocco.

Gnawa’s roots date back to pre-Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. First brought north by slaves and Moorish soldiers, the music slowly gained popularity through lilas, the marathon all-night gnawa celebrations which are part block party and part mystical trance ceremony. There are thousands of songs in the gnawa repertoire; Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa have a repertoire of about two hundred. In live performance, improvisation factors in about eighty to ninety percent of the music: the chorus of qraqab castanet players has to be able to follow a skilled maalem’s sudden rhythmic changes on a moment’s notice. 

Ben Jaafer is revered as an innovator just like his mentor, Maalem Sidi Mouhamed Sam, widely considered the greatest gnawa pioneer of the 1960s and 70s. Ben Jaafer made a name for himself on the lila circuit as being one of the most innovative gnawa singers and virtuosos of the sintir, the Moroccan low-register lute. Eclecticism became his signature sound. He incorporates elements of Sufi hammadcha, in addition to the two primary branches of gnawa, marsaoui and chamali, into his phrasing. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the very few maalems adept at each of the various regional styles of gnawa, which differ widely from north to south and points in between.

Alternating between Arabic, French and English, he shared some colorful stories of life on the road as one of Morocco’s most sought-after musicians (he now lives in Brooklyn, leading Innov Gnawa in concerts across the city and as faraway as big festivals like Coachella). He recalled a time in Morocco going from a low-key afternoon lila in a fancy neighborhood, then taking a break for a snack before moving on to an all-night gig  in an adjoining city. There were times when he’d get home early in the afternoon, thinking he’d finally get some sleep, only to be woken a couple of hours later by a client looking to book him. Then there was the time when he was called in the middle of the night to replace another maalem who’d unexpectedly quit a lila at three in the morning. “We were expected to go til eight or nine,” Ben Jaafer explained with a wry grin. 

For those of you new to gnawa, there are other related upcoming events to help you out. On Monday, March 20 Langus and Dugal are convening a panel at The New School Jazz with journalist Tom Pryor, ethnomusicologist and political scientist Hisham Aidi, and jazz pianist and Juilliard Jazz Chair of Improvisation Marc Cary. The event is free and will feature Moroccan refreshments and a performance by Innov Gnawa, who will also be special guests on March 22, as NEA Jazz Master and piano icon Randy Weston wraps up his residency at Medgar Evers College with a discussion about his history with gnawa. Ben Jaafer and LanGus will join him onstage.  

After the Lincoln Center event, the maalems make a stop on March 17 at 7 PM at the New School, where the performance will be more intimate and akin to a lila as practiced in Morocco. Then they’re at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on March 18 before returning to New  York for a 7 PM gig at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on March 19, where they’ll jam with New York jazz artists including Cary, Marcus Strickland, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Will Calhoun; advance tix are $30. 

An Irresistible, Globally Eclectic Show by Elektra Kurtis and the PubliQuartet

Violinist Elektra Kurtis’ latest album  is a fiery, often explosive electric jazz record. But she has many different sides. Last night at the Cornelia Street Cafe, she showed off as much elegance as kinetic energy in a completely acoustic set featuring irrepressibly adventurous indie classical ensemble the PubliQuartet.

She opened solo with a bravura Mozart interlude and closed the night with a full quintet arrangement of one of her signature originals, blending elements of flamenco, Romany dances and tarantella into a lithely stormy, polyrhythmic exchange of voices. An earlier piece, also featuring the quintet, resembled the work of Per Norgard with its enigmatically eerie, steady microtonal motion.

After a couple of flamenco-flavored solo original miniatures, Kurtis brought up Publiquartet violinist Curtis Stewart, who played a raptly hazy solo pastorale: the video for the song made it into the Inwood Film Festival, which makes sense since that’s where he’s from. Then the two violinists exchanged voices deftly throughout a neo-baroque Kurtis piece.

She then left the stage to the quartet. Valencia, a North Atlantic seaside tableau by Caroline Shaw juxtaposed ethereal, saline astringencies with churning, subtly polyrhythmic riffage circulating throughout the ensemble – violinist Jannina Norpoth, violist Nick Revel and cellist Amanda Gookin – who then tackled the evening’s most surreal number, David Biedenbender‘s Surface Tension. It was inspired by a weird dream where a simple glass of water took on the texture of putty and other unexpected substances. Norpoth took care in explaining its strange elasticity, then the ensemble brought its slithery, uneasy shapeshifting trajectory to life, a showcase for pouncing, emphatic voices throughout the group.

Matthew Browne’s Great Danger, Keep Out illustrated what kind of havoc can result when a Tesla coil explodes: Norpoth called it “fiery” and she wasn’t kidding. The Publiquartet’s next gig is with wild, ambitiously carnivalesque large jazz ensemble the Cyborg Orchestra, led by Josh Green at National Sawdust at 7 PM on March 2; $30 advance tix are available. Kurtis plays frequently at the Cornelia; watch this space for upcoming dates. 

Raptly Tuneful Middle Eastern-Flavored Pastorales From Surface to Air

It would have been fun to see Surface to Air at Barbes last night. The trio – guitarist Jonathan Goldberger, who rarely plays acoustic, alongside bassist Jonti Siman and tabla player Rohin Khemani – also doesn’t play out much either. Their sparse, warmly tuneful, hypnotically intriguing album is available as a name-your-price download from Bandcamp.

The opening track is aptly titled Simple: built on an elegantly catchy rainy-day minor-key theme played with meticulous touch by Goldberger, it centers around a kinetic tabla rhythm. Heysatan is even more spare, Goldberger’s gentle, purposeful, catchy tune again centered around the rhythm section’s steady anchor. Siman’s similarly easygoing bass intro is a clever fake: as the briskly saturnine, Palestinian-tinged theme unwinds, it sounds like an acoustic sketch for a David Lynch soundtrack set in the most war-torn territory in Gaza. Siman’s drone anchors a suspenseful interlude that Goldberger spins and spirals out of with hints of Django Reinhardt.

The slow, somber Odalisque is sort of a bolero counterpart to a Trio Joubran-style Middle Eastern dirge. Matanzas is Goldberger’s platform for using a catchy, melancholy flamenco-inflected theme to set up a swoopy, morose bass solo. With its steady sway, Arcana follows a steadily crescendoing folk noir tangent that brightens as it goes along.

The Sleep in Your Eyes opens with a dusky, sepulchral improvisation, builds to a spare, galloping pulse and then recedes back to spacious, pensive solo guitar. The final track is the ballad Waltz for Celia, the closest thing to postbop here, spiced with the occasional levantine or south Asian riff over rather ominous low-end percussion, with a gracefully uneasy bass solo.

Is this Middle Eastern music? Sure. Indian music? Rhythmically, yes. Jazz? Why not? Download this delicious disc and decide for yourself. Thanks to Barbes for booking this fantastic band, who otherwise would have flown under the radar here. Goldberger is in constant demand in New York as a sideman and plays with a ton of groups, notably violinist Dana Lyn’s psychedelic, ecologically themed Mother Octopus outfit.

Xenophiles Celebrate While We Still Can at Globalfest

Last night’s Globalfest multi-band extravaganza at Webster Hall began gently with Ranky Tanky – the Alabama Shakes of South Carolina retro gospel-pop – and ended with EDM in the basement and its even more stomping analogue two flights up. A packed, sweaty crowd got to revel in electronic musician/rapper Batida‘s sharp, sardonic sense of humor, his archive of Angolan beats and multimedia show, while the big rock room was bouncing with dancers getting down to the mighty shout-and-response of fourteen-piece Washington, DC proto-rap collective Rare Essence.

That’s the main premise of Globalfest. Over the years, the annual festival has become more eclectic, extending to acts from around the world whose music is more contemplative than danceable. Artists playing the three stages are staggered so that you can catch a little of everybody, more a nod back to the evening’s origins as part of the annual booking agents’ convention than to, say, Warped Tour. While Ranky Tanky was reclaiming the old Bible Belt folk standard O Death as a stark gullah hymn, goth-folk singer Maarja Nuut was doing her Estonian girl-down-the-well act one flight up.

The night’s most intricately entrancing moments happened right afterward, when alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was joined by guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss, the trio working out new material over an exploratory forty-five minutes or so. Watching Mahanthappa air out one sleek wind-tunnel volley after another of variations on jaunty bhangra riffs was as adrenalizing as Abbasi’s own detours from sizzling, rapidfire raga-inflected riffage, to flurries of erudite postbop and the incisive, purposeful, judicious melodicism he’s made a name for himself with. Putting Weiss on a riser,  centerstage, reaffirmed the deep rhythmic roots of the ancient Indian sounds the saxophonist and guitarist have explored so individualistically both here and elsewhere.

But as inspiring as that set was, nothing compared to Hoba Hoba Spirit. They’ve earned a rep as the Moroccan Clash, and in a sense they are. Not only because a lot of what they play is punk rock with fearless, politically charged lyrics, but also because, like Joe Strummer’s band, they take that punk sound to so many different, complicated places. And there were times where it would have been just as easy to call them the Moroccan Stooges. When Strat player Anouar Zehouani, his amp ablaze with  a blast of searing, reverbtoned midrange, hit his wah pedal for a solo, he channeled Ron Asheton at his most surreal and incendiary.

Co-frontman/Telecaster player Reda Allali catchy, emphatic, minor-key riffs throughout the show,  opening with a rapidfire hardcore number straight out of the GBH catalog circa 1983. When charismatic singer/percussionist Othmane Hmimer put down his boomy dombek goblet drum for a pair of clanking qraqab castanets and the band launched into a hypnotically leaping gnawa groove, the crowd went wild: much of the posse from New York’s own Innov Gnawa, including the band themselves, were in the house. From there, drummer Adile Hanine and bassist Saad Bouidi shifted briefly toward roots reggae. There was an arena-rock number for whatever soccer hooligans might have been on the floor, as well as plenty of darkly slinky, serpentine art-rock. The group’s 2015 Lincoln Center debut was a lot more intimate and an awful lot of fun, but this might have been even better even though their set was shorter.

Which is where Lolapalooza-style staggered sets get vexing. It sure would have been fun to catch all of Ssing Ssing, who treated a crowd in the basement to a similarly slinky if completely different set of pansori-tinged Korean disco-punk. Bassist Young-gyu Jang played with a sly, note-bending edge that was as freaky as it was chic while the band’s three frontwomen – Hee-moon Lee, Da-hye Choo and Seung-tae Shin strutted and harmonized like a young Madonna on steroids. Dressed respectively as femme fatale, ingenue and badass, they kept a multicultural crowd on their feet and gave the downstairs headliner, Batida, a solid launching pad. Nights like these draw your eyes to the calendar: how many days are there left before 1/20/17 and we have to really dig in and figure out how – and if – we can stay on our multicultural feet in a nation fronted by an anti-culturist?

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.

Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.

Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.

Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.

This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.

There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.

Innov Gnawa Pack the House in the East Village With Their Intoxicating, Ancient Dance Grooves

Friday night, Ilhan Ersahin’s swanky Nublu 151 club was packed with a crowd of dancers representing just about every ethnic background and language spoken in New York. They’d come to get down to Innov Gnawa, who sing Muslim devotional chants in Arabic and Bambara over grooves which are as sophisticated as they are ancient. Gnawa is commonly used throughout Morocco as part of a healing ritual, and is unsurpassed as dance music. Its roots go back centuries before Islam.

Bandleader Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer opened by pounding out an indomitable, insistent beat on the big bass drum slung around his neck, summoning his choir of percussionists: Samir Langus, Amino Belyamani, Said Bourhana, Nawfal Atiq and guest Ahmed Habibi. Then the seven-piece group launched into the first hypnotically shapeshifting number of the evening, the mesmerizing clickety-clack of the chorus’ cast-metal qraqab castanets balanced with the fat low end booming from Ben Jaafer’s three-string sintir lute – it’s the godfather of this era’s funk bass. His tersely bluesy riffs lept, and pounced, and bounced off the walls as the qraqab players suddenly shifted to doublespeed and then back, drawing a chorus of whoops from the women in the crowd. In the far right corner, Ahmed Jeriouda boosted the low end with his circling beats on a cajon.

For awhile it was a lot of fun trying to figure out what the rhythm was: there were a couple of grooves in 6/8, maybe another couple in 12/8, a couple of triplet beats that brought to mind Malian desert music, and some straight-up 4/4 shuffles. Polyrhythms were everywhere, whether in the call-and-response between leader and chorus, between the sintir and the qraqabs, or in an implied beat left for the dancers to fill out themselves.

Ben Jaafer passed the sintir to his protege Langus to open the second set, a rare occurrence in this kind of music. Traditionally, a master doesn’t share the stage with an apprentice, but Langus held up his end seamlessly with a similarly slinky, kinetic drive. Then he went back into the chorus. The night’s most intense and gripping interlude might have been when Ben Jaafer left the world of gnawa for a bit to sing a hammadcha number, his voice taking on added grit and enigmatic growl as the melody introduced some similarly uneasy Middle Eastern microtones.

It was both a mecca and medina of the mind: visions of olives, and pomegranates, and harissa wafting in on a balmy Mediterranean breeze. Up on the balcony behind the stage, a silhouetted, undulating couple put on a sexy shadowplay. Back by the door, a couple of fratboys jumped around randomly, testament to this music’s ability to grab just about anybody. A little further to the front, a nightcrawler still nursing a nasty injury to the lower extremities joined the dancers, glad to be pain-free for the duration of the set. There definitely is something to this music’s curative power.

Innov Gnawa have a couple of enticing shows coming up. Jan 7 they’re at Drom at around 10 on a ridiculously good multiple-act bill starting at 7 PM with all-female pan-latin group Ladama,  otherworldly Tuvan throat-singing ensemble Alash, legendary Ethiopiques jazz artist Girma Beyene with psychedelic Ethiopian groove orchestra Feedel Band, haunting Puerto Rican bolero revivalists  Miramar, latin rockers the Battle of Santiago, African dance-rappers Janka Nabay, and Afrobeat band Underground System. Cover is a measly ten bucks. Then on Jan 21 Innov Gnawa are at C’Mon Everybody in Crown Heights with the Pogues of populist Veracruz folk music, Radio Jarocho.