New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

Oud Virtuoso Rahim AlHaj Plays the Year’s Single Best Concert at Lincoln Center

From the moment he took the Lincoln Center stage this past evening, playing material off his new album Letters from Iraq, oud virtuoso Rahim AlHaj – one of the world’s most eclectic and riveting musicians – made no secret of the fact that he’d really been looking forward to this gig. He has a wit to match the magic, and gravitas, and vast, global sweep and majesty of his compositions. “Here, I can talk about Trump and not worry that they’re going to take me away,” he joked. More seriously, took care to mention that he was genuinely concerned about his trio getting broken up at the airport by Homeland Security. AlHaj sarcastically calls the group the “Axis of Evil,” since santoor player Sourena Sefati is Iranian and percussionist Issa Malluf is Palestinian. While the trio promote global unity – which is the opposite of terrorism – the concern is that Trump and his minions don’t see it that way. “This administration wants to divide us,” AlHaj warned, but added defiantly that if we all pull together, that will never amount to more than a pipe dream for the extreme right.

The trio followed with a performance that ran the gamut of human emotions: sometimes harrowing, often haunting, but also kinetic and dancing, with a delirious, exhilarating stampede out at the end. They opened on a distantly somber note with an adaptation of a string quartet AlHaj had written for a friend at the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra. Soberingly, AlHaj reminded that sanctions against the nation have taken their toll in child mortality, illustrated by the fact that his violinist pal no longer plays: he had to burn his violin one night to provide heat for his critically ill infant. A big, insistent cadenza punctuated the song’s serpentine interweave of notes, Sefati taking a judiciously incisive solo midway through.

By contrast, AlHaj explained that the wryly bouncy Chant was inspired by how his mom would sing to keep the bratty kids around her from getting out of hand. The oudist infused this lilting, practically Celtic minor-key dance with frequent wry bent-note riffage. The trio followed the pensively swaying, chromatically edgy One Voice with a clapalong in 10/8 time, the crowd’s irrepressible energy matching the group onstage, throughout a toweringly moody theme sparkling with intricate harmonies from the santoor and oud.

Sefati opened what was arguably the  high point of the night with a suspenseful, Mediterranean-tinged solo taqsim; then the group took it in a far more uneasy, anthemic direction over Malluf’s briskly strolling beats, AlHaj anchoring Sefati’s icepick insistence.

The picturesque Fly Away soared with elegant harmonies from earth to sky from oud and santoor, respectively, a wickedly catchy, interlocking riff at the center. Again, Sefati took centerstage, choosing his spots as AlHaj and Malluf held the melody to the ground.  On the number after that, the santoorist had fun with the rapidfire trills that AlHaj had originally written for accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek.

AlHaj explained that he’d written the night’s lone vocal tune when he was 13. That he’d based it on an Iranian maqam as an Iraqi kid during the Iran/Iraq War speaks to his fearlessness. The three musicians closed with a race to the finish line, speeding up again and again over a catchy Kurdish dance vamp. Yet all the energy, and passion, and frequent humorous japes were matched by a somber undercurrent, party music for a city and a world increasingly under siege.

There is another oud performance coming up at Lincoln Center that all New York fans of Middle Eastern music should be aware of. On July 29 at 8 PM, Palestinian brother ensemble Trio Joubran play a tribute to their longtime mentor and collaborator, legendary poet Mahmoud Darwish at the theatre at the Lynch Theatre at John Jay College, 524 W 59th St; $30 seats are available and worth it.

Omar Souleyman’s Soulful Rasp and Dancefloor Thud Brings New York Together in the West Village

It was Arabic music that drew what might have been this year’s most diverse crowd at any New York concert. Maybe it’s a stretch to credit Syrian crooner Omar Souleyman for uniting these people, but he definitely brought them together at his sold-out show last night booked by the World Music Institute at the Poisson Rouge.

The wannabe Republican operative leaning against the back wall of the club was bitching to his fiancee about how Donald Trump’s latest misadventures in reality tv-style management might bolster Democratic hopes in the 2018 midterm elections. Neither his fiancee nor her petite friend had much to say in response. Soon after, a mustachioed dark-skinned man arrived and whisked the fiancee’s friend off to the dance floor.

A few feet away, a lesbian couple twirled and whispered sweet nothings to each other in Arabic. Around the corner by the bar, a couple of preciously scruffy Bushwick boys in matching belly shirts did much the same, next to a posse of German tourists chugging shots and beers. Appearances can be deceiving, but the Arabic-speaking contingent seemed to be outnumbered at least three to one.

Souleyman took the stage to thunderous applause, rocking his signature kaffiyeh and desert shades and proceeded to glide back and forth across the stage, engaging the audience in one clapalong after another, for at least half of his roughly fifty-minute set. By the midpoint, he’d loosened up some. His voice haggard from constant touring, he took frequent breathers and left it to his supersonically fast keyboardist – who was the star of this show – to fill in the gaps. Although the duo had help – a pretty much relentless EDM thump-thump along with lots of synthy atmospherics emanating from a vintage analog mixing desk – most of the music seemed live. Resolute and focused behind his Hasan microtonal keyboard, the guy played Flight of the Bumblebee, or its Arabic counterpart, in hijaz mode for pretty much the duration of the set. This feat was made doubly difficult because of the split-second precision required to stay in sync with the relentless click track. 

For all the good vibes and the endless sea of dancers clapping along and making videos, Souleyman’s music is very much attuned to the here and now. After a suspenseful snakecharmer of an introductory taqsim, he launched into Chobi (Longing for Home), a standout track from his forthcoming album To Syria With Love, his distantly imploring baritone rasp set to machinegunning volleys of synthesized violin and flute patches. Souleyman worked more suspense later in the show with a long jam on the cheating anthem Kayan, another track from the forthcoming album, with all sorts of call-and-response between vocals and keys. He didn’t talk to the audience much, although his shout-outs to his home turf in Al-Jazira, Syria – which he hasn’t visited in six years – drew ferociously assertive applause. Is it any wonder that the Trump Administration wants to keep this kind of inclusive musical cross-pollination out of the country?

By the end of the show, the Bushwick boys had disappeared into the crowd of dancers. A tall Asian man stumbled from the melee and clung to a nonplussed music writer to avoid collapsing on the floor. The tall dude’s companion, a pretty woman in her 20s, made it clear that she was sick of him overdoing it. The Republican operative was all by himself in the back of the club: the bath salts had kicked in by now, and he was still swaying, eyes rolled back in his head, even though the music had stopped.

On the way out, there was no Souleyman vinyl for sale, but there was a big crowd milling around the World Music Institute table, everybody signing up for their email list. The WMI’s next show is tonight at 7:30 at the Miller Theatre at 116th and Broadway, with the great Indian sitar virtuoso Shujaat Khan, son of the legendary Vilayat Khan. Tix are as low as $15, a real bargain, and are still available as of this hour.

Legendary Syrian Crooner Omar Souleyman Plays a Rare West Village Show

It’s been six long years since Omar Souleyman, one of the world’s best-loved Arabic singers, last saw his native Syria. The high-voltage dabke dance numbers and sad ballads on his electrifying forthcoming album To Syria With Love are drenched in longing that transcends any linguistic limitations. Even if you don’t speak Arabic, you can relate to the pain and depth of feeling in his gritty baritone. He’s playing the Poisson Rouge on May 11 at 9ish, a World Music Institute show; advance tix are $30 and still available as of today.

On the new album, Hasan Alo provides a dynamic electroacoustic backdrop behind Souleyman’s vocals, with lyrics co-written with longtime collaborator Shawah Al Ahmad. Most of the songs clock in at a hefty six minutes or more. The opening track, Ya Boul Habari (rough translation: Girl with the Pretty Hijab) is a catchy dancefloor stomp awash in fiercely warping, darkly chromatic synth lines. On the surface it’s a love song; the subtext is a shout-out to Souleyman’s hometown of Al-Jazira. Ya Bnayya (Hey Girl) is an even more rapidfire pastiche of samples and tremoloing synth doing a snakecharmer ney flute impersonation. It’s a hypnotically pulsing love anthem to a girl who can make all of Istanbul sway when she swings her hips, as Souleyman’s sweaty vocals confirm.

Es Samra (Brown-Haired Girl) follows the same trajectory, further down the scale. If the previous track is a violin, this one’s a cello, and Souleyman’s rugged delivery matches that. Aenta Lhabbeytak (rough translation: My Only Love) is a slower, more backbeat-driven number, Alo throwing one creepily techy texture after another into the mix to match the brooding lyrics.

Khayen (Cheater) has rapidfire synth that sounds like shreddy metal guitar, an insistent back-and-forth between vocals and keys, synth, then some cynically funny faux-autotune from the keys. Mawal is the album’s most organic-sounding song, a hypnoticallly circling lament fueled by stark violin (or a good electronic approximation) and Souleyman’s aching vocals:

I walk and my heart
Feels dead among the dead
They told me patience is the remedy
They said you have to be patient
I said what’s the good of patience…
When the pain is so deep?

The final track, Chobi (Longing for Home) brings the dance beat back, but with a slinky, clip-clop groove and more warpy synth. Souleyman sings as a refugee:

We have too many wounds
All of them scream,
“I miss Al-Jazira!”

As poignant as it is energetic, this is an important album from an age of displacement and despair that only looks to get worse.

Word to the wise: dudes, get this album. If there’s a woman alive who can resist Souleyman’s rasp, this blog hasn’t discovered her.

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.