New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

Two of the World’s Greatest Middle Eastern Musicians Revisit a Legendary Collaboration at Pace University This Saturday Night

Kayhan Kalhor is arguably the world’s greatest player of the kamancheh, the rustically overtone-drenched Iranian standup fiddle. He also might be the world’s foremost composer. His music is harrowing, windswept, mystical and majestic, often all of those qualities at once. Considering his Kurdish heritage, it’s no surprise that a powerful political streak runs through his work, most notably on his shattering 2008 Silent City suite, whose epic centerpiece commemorates Saddam Hussein’s poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Hallabjah,

Unsurprisingly, Kalhor – a founding member of the Silk Road Ensemble – is constantly sought after as a collaborator. Back in the mid-zeros, he made a characteristically magical, serpentine album, The Wind, with Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan (streaming at Spotify). In a serendipitous stroke of fate, the two are touring this month, with a stop this Saturday night, May 19 at 7 PM at the Schimmel auditorium at Pace University at 3 Spruce St. in the financial district. Tix are $30 and still available as of today; the closest train is the 6 or the J to Brooklyn Bridge.

Obviously, with two of the world’s great improvisers onstage, there’s no telling where they’ll go, or to what degree they’ll replicate any of their previous performances together. Interestingly, back in the winter of 2013 at the Asia Society, Kalhor and santoorist Ali Bahrami Fard closely followed the trajectory if not the exact changes of their unforgettable duo album, I Will Not Stand Alone.

 At times, this album seems like an endless taqsim, a Sisyphean Middle Eastern journey up the mountainside which rather than tumbling down will slide back gracefully from an electrifying thicket of notes into into spare, plaintive resonance. In the same vein as American jazz, music from this part of the world, this included, relies on the western scale but with all sorts of blue notes, in lieu of the microtonal scales of, say, the Egyptian maqam tradition.

Erzincan flutters elegantly through a pensive minor mode to open the collaboration. Kalhor joins in with eerily microtonal melismas, then sets his sights on the clouds – or other galaxies, as he stabs further and further into the great beyond. Erzincan subtly moves toward the forefront with variations on a catchy riff with a surreal resemblance to an Appalachian theme.

Throughout the album, spare plucking interchanges with long, desolate kamancheh phrases and angst-fueled, quavery interludes. Interestingly, it’s not Erzincan but Kalhor who first introduces two plaintive classical Turkish themes, although Erzincan welcomes them with a spiky abandon. Angst rises as the two grow more insistent and then hypnotic together. A lively pizzicato duel grows into a bouncy, uneasy circle dance, then the two return more slashingly to starkly driving chromatics. There is no western jamband who can match their intensity. Find out for yourself Saturday night. 

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A Grand Finale From One of This Century’s Most Fearless String Quartets at the Met

How does a string quartet go out in style?  By grabbing Beethoven’s String Quartet, Op. 132 by the tail and speeding it up at the end, a practice considered treyf in traditional classical circles, but a fearlessly stunning way to cap off an eighteen-year career.

Or by joining a bill spiced with the stern, stygian, somber sonics of a sextet of men in monks’ outfits singing variations on Gregorian chant. ‘

Or with the New York premiere of a major work by the timelessly vital Philip Glass.

In their final major performance, the Chiara String Quartet did all this and more, bowing out at the absolute peak of their powers on familiar turf at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since the early zeroes, they’ve championed obscure composers, brought standard repertoire to crowds in bars and jails, and played and recorded one of the most strikingly intuitive Bartok cycles ever released. Violist Jonah Sirota told the crowd soberly that everyone in the group found this concert moving beyond words – the three standing ovations at the end underscored this group’s potency and relevance. What a run they had.

They opened with Nico Muhly‘s Diacritical Marks, an impressively artful, distantly Balkan-tinged theme and variations that eventually circled back on itself – things coming full circle was a major theme throughout this show. Sirota, cellist Gregory Beaver, violinists Rebecca Fischer and Hyeyung Julie Yoon juggled between flickering and starkly resonating motives as tectonically rhythmic variations rose and fell.

Making a dramatic march from the back of the auditorium, the Axion Estin Chanters delivered an alternately severe and triumphant triptych, working permutations on the same Gregorian melody on which Glass based his Annunciation piano quintet. At first, that piece came across as a magically direct, lushly glittering, Lynchian piano concerto – until Glass’ steady arpeggios shifted to the quartet, and then back and forth. The quartet really dug in for the triumph of the outro against pianist Paul Barnes’ incisively liquid cadences.

Sirota introduced Beethoven’s famous late quartet a the kind of crazy piece that “makes a person want to become a musician.” That made sense, considering how cohesive yet individually focused the performance was. Sirota’s insight into how the lachrymose, prayerfully changing melody of the third movement echoed plainchant and foreshadowed Glass’ work was spot-on. He also alluded to how utterly bizarre the shifts were between those variations and what in this context seemed to be the sheer snark of a courtly dance that leaps further and further toward satire. They took it out with sheer abandon at the end and contrasted with the encore, a mutedly elegaic take of the third movement of the Debussy string quartet. How much fun these four must have had onstage…and how sad that the ride together is over.

All four have plans that dovetail with their pioneering work together. Sirota’s Strong Sad album, examining themes of everyday loss, is due out early this summer. Fischer is moving on with The Afield, a new multidisciplinary duo project with visual artist Anthony Hawley. Beaver and Yoon’s careers continue as educator and impresario, respectively.

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

Two Rare New York Shows by Magically Chameleonic Israeli Singer Victoria Hanna

Singer Victoria Hanna has built a career as one of Israel’s most individualistic and magically protean vocalists. She draws on centuries of Middle Eastern music as well as the avant garde and more commercial dancefloor sounds. Her lyrics often explore ancient mystical themes; her evocative, protean voice transcends linguistic limitations. You don’t have to speak Hebrew to fall under her spell. The last time anybody from this blog was in the house at one of her performances was way back in the zeros, when she electrified a sold-out crowd at Tonic on the Lower East Side with a couple of cameos at a Big Lazy album release show. Since that iconic noir cinematic group very seldom uses vocals, that they would choose Hanna to sing with them speaks for itself.

Hanna is at the Bronx Museum of the Arts at 1040 Grand Concourse on April 25 at 6 PM in conjunction with the opening for new exhibits by Oded Halahmy and Moses Ros. Admission is free but a ravp is required; take the B to 167th St. Then the next day, April 26 she’s making a very rare Brooklyn appearance on April 26 at 7 PM with Gershon Waiserfirer on electric oud and trombone at the first special event in Luisa Muhr’s fascinating Women Between Arts series at the Arete Gallery, 67 West St. in Greenpoint. The closest train is the G at Greenpoint Ave; cover is $25.

Hanna’s long-awaited debut album is streaming at her music page. The instrumentation is usually very spare – occasional strings, brass and percussion. The songs are a mix of upbeat, new wave-tinged dance numbers, with occasional windswept ambience. The first track, Aleph- Bet (Hoshana) is both characteristically playful and unsettling. It’s a Hebrew alphabet rhyme that also references ancient Jewish numerology. Hanna’s multitracked, processed voice takes on both techy outer-space and otherworldly Middle Eastern cadences over former Big Lazy drummer Tamir Muskat’s shamanistic, echoey beats – if Bjork was Middle Eastern, she might sound something like this

The second track, 22 Letters revisits that theme over a funky, minimalist habibi pop groove. That grows a lot slinkier in Orayta, a catchy, bouncy, similarly spare devotional hymn spiced with spare, echoey synth and spiky buzuq riffs. Hanna infuses Sheharhoret (Brown-haired Girl) with a misterioso, coyly conspiratorial energy, her melismatic delivery part levantine, part Bollywood.

Ani Yeshena (Sleeping But My Heart Is Awake) is a surreal mashup of a stately klezmer dirge, Balkan brass music and catchy new wave pop. Hanna follows with the wistfully hazy, atmospheric Kala Dekalya (The Voice of All the Voices) and Hayoshevet Baganim (Sitting in the Garden), the latter with airy accordion and echoes of north Indian ghazals.

In contrast with the song’s spacious rainy-day piano, Hanna’s voice is both more hopeful and tender throughout Shaarei Tziyon, a duet. With its lush string ambience, Yonati (My Dove) brings to mind the terse art-songs of Tunisian chanteuse Emel Mathlouthi. The album’s final and most haunting track is the majestically crescendoing grey-sky tableau Asher Yarzar. Fans of all of Hanna’s many influences, from classical Indian to Middle Eastern to dance music should get to know her.

A Riveting, Poignant Suite of North African Jazz Nocturnes at Lincoln Center

With the New York premiere of their new Abu Sadiya suite last night at Lincoln Center,the trio of multi-reedman Yacine Boulares, cellist Vincent Segal and drummer Nasheet Waits played what might have been the best single concert of 2018. Methodically and poignantly tracing most of its breathtaking peaks and haunted valleys, the three held the crowd rapt through a constantly shifting series of variations on ancient Tunisian stambeli themes.

Like gnawa, stambeli has origins in ancient sub-Saharan animist music brought north by slaves. Until the Tunisian revolution just a few years ago, it had been suppressed and become largely forgotten. It is stark, hypnotic and has an often otherworldly beauty. And since it relies so heavily on improvisation, it’s fertile source material for jazz.

In the course of working out logistics, Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal – one of New York’s few genuinely visionary impresarios, who programmed the night – had sent Boulares the Rumi poem Where Everything Is Music. Boulares told the crowd how moved he had been, particularly by the conclusion, Rumi’s ultimate view of music as divine:

Open the window in the centre of your chest
And let the spirits fly in and out

It was clear from the first few somber, mystical washes of sound from Segal, Boulares’ plaintive, spacious soprano sax lines and Waits’ whispery cymbals that everyone was on that same page.

The Abu Sadiya myth may be a prototype for Persephone. As Boulares explained, the moon kidnaps Sadiya; her dad journeys through the desert, then tries to capture the moon by holding a barrel of water under his arm to catch the reflection and then bargain for Sadiya’s return. Beyond resuscitating the spirit of stambeli, Boulares’ intention is to redeem Sadiya herself. “It’s a very masculine story,” he told the crowd – Sadiya is more of a pretext for male heroism than full-fledged character.

As the suite took shape, Segal alternated between spare, trancey arpeggios, sepulchral bowing, ominous modal vamps and frequent detours into propulsive low-register gnawa riffage. Often if was as if he was playing a sintir – no other cellist has such an intense and intuitive grasp of North African music as he does

Throughout the night, Boulares ranged from forlorn, airily resonant phrases to judicious crescendos up to Coltrane-like flurries capped off by the occasional triumphant cadenza. He and Segal often switched roles, from carrying the melody line to running low, hypnotically looping riffs. This was most striking when Boulares switched to bass clarinet, taking over the low end in one of the gnawa-influenced interludes. Behind them, Waits muted his snare and toms, rattled the traps a little, took a couple of misterioso prowls along the perimeter and finally hit the launching pad with a methodically climbing solo where it sounded as if he was playing a couple of congas. It’s rare that a drummer tunes his kit with such attention to the material, particularly as troubled and angst-fueled as this is.

The three, particularly Boulares, used lots of space – and also the reverberating sonics of the Lincoln Center atrium space – mysteriously well  They gave each other just as much breathing room. Contrasting with the distantly phantasmagorical quality of the music – the moon in this myth is a real pierrot lunaire – was how incredibly catchy so many of the central riffs turned out to be. The suite’s second part opened with a very close approximation of the Rick Wright organ motif that opens Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond. A bit later, Segal’s concentrically arpeggiated circles brought to mind Serena Jost’s melancholy art-rock. And Waits’ subtle shifts in, out of, and around waltz time were delectably fun for listeners as well as his bandmates.

The final segment was a portrait of Sadiya, revisiting the vast sense of abandonment that opened the night but rising with flickers and flares to cast the missing heroine as indomitable, just like her dad. They wound it down to a Saharan expanse of dusky dune ambience at the end.

The trio’s next stop on their current tour is tonight, April 20 at 7:30 PM at the Painted Bride Arts Center, 230 Vine St. in Philadelphia; cover is $20. The next free concert at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is also tonight, at 7:30 PM with salsa dura band Eddie Montalvo y Su Orquesta, featuring alums from some of the Fania era’s greatest 1970s Nuyorican bands. The earlier you get there, the better.

Three Charismatic Women Push the Envelope with Arabic Music at the Met

Last night at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the World Music Institute staged a triplebill of three individualistic, charismatic women bandleaders who’re pushing the envelope with how far music across the Arabic-speaking diaspora can go. The concert raised many questions, one of them being that as New Yorkers, is it our birthright to be able to immerse ourselves in great art from cultures around that world that we may not necessarily be immersed in? Or are we being priced out? Tickets for this one were $35, and while there was a big crowd, the Met’s Rogers Auditorium wasn’t sold out. Likewise, the museum is charging everyone but us full-price admission now – and probably making a killing from all the tourists.

Alsarah & the Nubatones opened the show with a very brief set of bouncy, catchy, vamping dance numbers, rising from a gathering hailstorm of notes from Brandon Terzic’s oud. The bandleader calls their music “retro Nubian pop,” a 21st century update on the slinky sounds produced in the wake of forced migrations to northern Egyptian cities in the 1960s. Blending the edgy chromatics and modes of Arabic music with catchy grooves from deeper in Africa, the band pulsed and pounced, Terzic trading riffs with bassist Mawuena Kodjovi over percussionist Ramy El Asser’s supple drive. Alsarah remarked that she’d come to reinvent the notion of a museum being “where art goes to die,” and then left that thread hanging: art never dies as long as people have access to it.

Tunisian-born Emel Mathlouthi received an overwhelming standing ovation for barely half an hour onstage, leading an icily atmospheric trio with multi-keys and syndrums. Resolute in a black dress, twirling slowly and elegantly and singing in both Arabic and English, she channeled simmering anger and defiance. Her slowly swaying opening number was an invitation to gather and join forces against oppression. After that, another minimalistic, slowly crescendoing minor-key dirge – whose Arabic title translates roughly as “Hopeless Humans” – sent a shout out to the working classes whose exhaustive efforts benefit nobody besides the bosses.

She closed on a more optimistic note with a tone poem of sorts, an Arabic counterpart to an epic from Nico’s Marble Index album – except with infinitely stronger vocals. Mathlouthi’s stage presence, her vocals and lyrics are vividly and often wrenchingly emotional; the mechanical thump of the syndrums made a jarring contrast with all the subtlety she brings to the stage. The music was plenty cold and foreboding without them.

Singer/acoustic guitarist Farah Siraj headlined. “She reminds me of Lauryn Hill,” an attractive, petite Jewish woman in the audience remarked. That observation was on the money, considering how Siraj blends elements of 90s American radio pop, flamenco, Romany ballads, bossa nova and Andalucian sounds with classical Arabic music. Her lead guitarist provided spiky intros and exchanged hard-hitting riffs with oudist Kane Mathis and bassist Moto Fukushima over the drummer’s shapeshifting grooves, moving effortlessly from the tropics to the Middle East. From there they took a detour toward India with an undulating ballad that Faraj wrote with Bollywood composer legend A.R. Rahman – which became a chart-topping hit for her. 

A hauntingly crescendoing Jordanian ballad gave Siraj a launching pad for her most chillingly melismatic vocal of the night – and a chance to salute the bravery and resilience of refugees from Syria, Palestine and around the world. After that, she blended habibi pop, Brazilian balminess and Spanish sizzle, sometimes within a few bars of each other. 

Fans of global sounds ought to check out the free show the WMI is putting on at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. on May 3 at 7:30 PM with hypnotic Saharan rock band Imharhan.

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

Tarek Yamani at Lincoln Center: A Haunting, Ceaselessly Shapeshifting Vision of the Future of Piano Jazz

Playing to a rapt, sold-out, mostly under-30 crowd, Beirut-born pianist Tarek Yamani opened his Lincoln Center concert last night with an a cumulo-nimbus chordal crescendo and then took the band spiraling and rippling through a long, chromatically slashing series of variations on a hundred-year-old Egyptian classical melody. Bassist Sam Miniae danced between the raindrops as drummer Jean John boomed and rattled the rims, Yamani parsing the passing tones in the minor scale for every fraction of intensity he could find. From there the music rose and fell, sometime hypnotic, sometimes with an elegant neoromantic gleam, to a long, insistent peak. It was like witnessing peak-era 70s McCoy Tyner with more Middle Eastern influences.

Yamani’s distinctive style is a confluence of Arabian Gulf khaliji music and American jazz, with a healthy dose of Afro-Cuban groove as well. It’s no surprise that Yamani gravitated toward jazz, considering that khaliji sounds have more African swing than Levantine sway. It wouldn’t be outrageous to call the self-taught pianist and composer Beirut’s (and now New York)’s answer to Vijay Iyer.

Even so, it was impossible to predict how funky the night’s second number, Hala Land – a Nordic Latin Middle Eastern swing prelude of sorts – would get, from John’s irrepressible shuffle as Yamani teased the crowd with an easy resolution he wasn’t going to give in to anytime soon before pinwheeling and then icepicking through a subtly shifting series of Arabic modes. Yamani revealed afterward that although the melody is considered iconically Lebanese, its origins are actually Turkish. “It’s like falafel – it doesn’t really matter,” he grinned.

The night’s third number was an original in 10/8: “If you’d like to count, please do, but do it silent,” Yamani deadpanned. The blend of catchy Afro-Cuban acerbity, Middle Eastern otherworldliness and emphatic, punchy, ceaselessly shifting meters made sense considering that the pianist is also the author of a popular book on polyrhythms. Miniae ran circles and pounced, John gave it bounce and strut.

Ashur – named after the “Egyptian god of sex,” Yamani smiled – was a friendly, methodically crescendoing, wickedly memorable Kind of Blue-style theme and variations that John kicked off hard. Then Yamani completely flipped the script with an expansive take of Lush Life, subtly pushing it further and further toward the Middle East but finally opting for energetic wee-hours postbop lyricism. Then he launched into a tireless, grittily insistent arrangement of paradigm-shifting Egyptian composer Said Darwish’s workingman’s anthem The Melody of the Movers, circling and rippling over the rhythm section’s propulsive swing. 

The trio closed with a cantering detour toward Cuba and then a glisteningly jubilant melody that Yamani explained is claimed by pretty much every culture throughout the Levant. It was amazing how light and seemingly effortless Yamani’s touch remained after all the evening’s exertion.

Auspiciously, this concert was booked not by Lincoln Center but by their Student Advisory Council, whose agenda is to make the world of the arts in New York “a more inclusive and accessible space,” and help discover new talent who might be flying under the radar. Challenged to find an act worthy of the venue, third-year Juilliard percussion student Tyler Cunningham won the competition by suggesting Yamani after seeing the pianist listed on a bill at National Sawdust, where a friend works.  A specialist in symphonic percussion, the personable, articulate Cunningham gravitates toward postminimalist composers like Marcos Balter but has the kind of eclectic taste required in a field where he’s going to be asked to play outside the box more often than not. Cunningham also has a revealing interview with Yamani up at The Score, Lincoln Center’s online magazine.

The next show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just south of 63rd St. is this March 29 at 7:30 PM with Portuguese fado-jazz crooner/guitarist António Zambujo. The show is free; the earlier you get to the space, the better.

Haunting Lebanese Pianist Tarek Yamani Revisits a Classic New York Concert at Lincoln Center This Friday Night

Suppose you could see the guy who played this blog’s pick for best concert of 2014 – for free. Would you go? You have that option when Lebanese-born pianist Tarek Yamani plays this Friday, March 23 at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just south of 63rd St.

Yamani opened a marathon evening of music from across the Middle East at Alwan for the Arts in January of 2014, officially called Maqamfest, known informally as the Alwan-a-thon. Here’s the report originally published here the following day.

“…Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While he didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disquieting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negotiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assignment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.”

Yamani has done a lot since then, notably his 2017 Peninsular album, whose influences span from Cuba to Oman.  You can bet this blog will be in the house for the Friday, show which could rank among 2018’s best as well. And it’s free – you just have to get there a little early to get a seat.

You Can Lead a Bushwick Crowd to Water But…

The Man in the Long Black Coat turns through the entryway and enters the Bushwick bar. Other than a few gaggles of gentrifiers, it’s pretty empty. The walls are festooned with leftwing slogans, but the beer prices don’t match the decor. Nor should they, really. This is all for show, the man decides. It’s a Kafka short story, The Department of Protests. You see the bureaucrat, you sign up to rally about your favorite issue: the weather, catcalls, cruelty to pet marmosets. Anything you want, really, unless that might impede the steady flow of income upward from the working class to the gentrifiers’ parents.

This bar has a reputation for things starting late. Nublu late. Which explains why nothing’s happening yet. The man decides to take a walk around the neighborhood, a dubious choice considering that it’s nine in the evening. On his way out, he almost bumps head-on into a friend, who’s carrying her axe. They greet each other; he swings the door wide so that she can make her way in. “See ya in a bit,” he says brightly.

He’s lying. He has no intention of coming back til showtime. When he reaches the corner, he decides to take a left on Irving for once. Walking toward Myrtle, he stops in at a couple of delis to see if they have his favorite beer. But they don’t carry it.

The Man in the Long Black Coat doesn’t even like beer. But it’s cheaper than anything available at the yuppie wine stores – which at this hour are still open, even if nobody’s in there. Just as well, he thinks. The sidewalks may be deserted at this hour, but the cops always put undercovers out in front of the luxury condos.

Past the park, a guy with a backpack approaches from behind. Suddenly he’s a little too close for comfort. The man weighs the possibility of danger, pulls to the right, then with a quick backward glance takes his phone out of his pocket.  He puts it to his ear. “What?” he asks sharply.

There’s nobody at the other end. But that doesn’t matter. “I’m on Irving and, um, Hart Street,” the man says with a hint of aggravation. He prepares for plan B.

But there’s no need. The guy with the backpack – a blue-collar kid in cheap work boots, jeans and a vinyl winter coat – passes on the left. The man puts his phone back as the kid shuffles along.

As he gets closer to Myrtle, the man brightens as he passes a couple of lowlit Ecuadorian delis. Brightly colored bags of snacks, tropical fruit soda and dried chiles are visible from outside. The man considers going in – he’s running out of hot pepper at home – but decides it would look weird if he brought a bag of groceries into the bar. Out here the new arrivals don’t shop anywhere but Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, or from the expensive Korean delis.

He turns around when he hits Myrtle, retracing his steps, one eye over his shoulder. Luxury condos, undercover cops or not, this is still a dangerous neighborhood. But none of the delis have his first choice of beer – and by now he could use one.

Returning to the bar, his timing turns out to be perfect. The roughly eighteen members of Funkrust Brass Band file from the back room to the front: first the reeds, then brass, then the drummers. They all wear black costumes. The horn players’ valves are all lit up in white like little Christmas trees. Their frontwoman has a bullhorn and leads the band in a chant as the horns pump out a catchy march. They have a theme song! Slowly, one by one, they march back to the inner room.

Several of the customers from the front follow them in, mystified. If they’ve ever seen a street band before, they’ve never been this close. And this group is very theatrical. In formation like a phalanx of soldiers, they crouch, and leap, and strike poses. One of their trumpet players climbs way up by the PA system, balances precariously on something extruding and plays a mean solo. For a moment, the crowd is into it.

For a band who don’t tour much or even play out a lot, they’re very tight. Just as impressive, the man thinks, is that half of their members are women. Even by punk rock standards, that’s noteworthy.  Although they use a lot of minor keys, their songs are closer to punk than Balkan music – and they’re catchy.

The man finds himself nodding along as the trombones blaze and snort and the drums rumble. “Why are we alone?” the group sing in unison throughout one of the quieter vamps. Out of biological necessity, the man wants to tell them. If we were telepathic, it would kill us. If we could feel everyone’s pain, we’d be dead in a nanosecond. But he doesn’t say anything.

The novelty wears off, the crowd starts to filter out and two catchy, thumping numbers later, the band is done. Though what they play is obviously dance music – or at least you can march to it – nobody dances. Afterward, their singer mingles with what’s left of the crowd, handing out buttons and taking emails. The kids seems receptive – that’s a good sign, the man thinks.

Greek Judas play afterward and pretty much completely clear the room. The man finds this amusing, considering that they packed Hank’s the last time they played the place. But this is Bushwick, and the newcomers obviously have no use for loud heavy metal versions of Middle Eastern flavored crime rhymes from the 1930s Greek gangster underworld.

From the first few notes of the first song, it’s clear that singer Quince Marcum – who sings in Greek even if he doesn’t speak it – is way too low in the mix. Afterward, he turns up – and so do his bandmates. Wade Ripka eventually switches from guitar to lapsteel for extra marauding resonance while Strat player Adam Good plays gritty chromatics and some oud voicings – which makes sense considering he’s also an oudist. A mask hangs from the back of Marcum’s head; Good wears a Batman-style mask. Bassist Nick Cudahy plays simple, hypnotic intervals on a big, beautiful Gibson Firebird model and sports a deer mask. Drummer Chris Stromquist is also some equine creature, and makes it look easy as he follows the songs’ tricky meters. He should be the group’s Minotaur – he knows this labyrinth by heart.

Marcum gamely explains a few of the narratives – a guy lusting after a cute Romany girl in the adjacent public bath; two smalltime crooks planning on resuming their music careers once they get out of jail; and a crack whore on the streets of Athens in the 1920s. But there’s hardly anyone there to explain them to. The band soldier on, determined to have some fun even if nobody else is there to share it with them. That’s ok, the man thinks. This isn’t their turf anyway. Or mine either. After their last song, he exits without a word.