New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

Jamming Like a Refugee Camp at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who’d booked last night’s New York debut by pan-global folk group Translucent Borders, explained that the NYU-sponsored ensemble had pulled a set together after only playing together for four days. NYU’s Andy Teirstein explained that the project grew out of the refugee camps on the islane of Lesbos in 2016. The group he’d assembled to play for the refugees there had the expected impact: it became a magnet for like-minded players and dancers from throughout the camp, and unexpected connections were made. “Musicians like crossing borders,” he observed dryly.

Palestinian singer Amal Murkus gave the show an all-too-brief coda with a trio of songs in Arabic. Modulating meticulous microtones and mining her midrange for every bit of angst she could evoke, she intoned an impassioned exile ballad over Firas Zreik‘s pointillistically haunting kanun. A considerably darker, more atmospheric, poignant tone poem of sorts was next, Zreik brushing the strings of his instrument for a surreal autoharp-like effect. Murkus wound up the concert with a warm Palestinian lullaby that she introduced by reminding the crowd how utterly surreal it was. She didn’t namecheck Gaza, but the message had mighty resonance. Then she led the group – also comprising cellist Mariel Roberts and conguero Francisco Mora-Catlett – on a long, bittersweet upward path interrupted by a surreal conga break.

Reaching a transcendent ending was a work in progress, which was to be expected, given the lack of rehearsal time. Ghanian fiddler Meirigah Abubakari vamped and pounced. Nyckelharpa players Marco Ambrosini and his daughter duetted on a stately, baroque-tinged theme for the resonant Nordic fiddle before Roberts added a muted bassline and the theme morphed into a lively waltz or two. Israeli oudist Yair Dalal was joined by percussionist Muhammad Mugrabi and accordionist Neta Weiner of Israeli hip-hop band System Ali for a couple of spare, moody taqsims, a broodingly serpentine levantine theme and a multilingual mashup of klezmer and Wu-Tang hardcore rap.

Translucent Borders are at the NYU’s Crystal Theater at 111 Second Avenue between 6th & 7th streets tomorrow night, June 29 at 7:30; the show is free. And the mostly-weekly free Lincoln Center atrium concerts at the Broadway space north of 62nd St. continue on July 5 at 7:30 PM with Haitian Creole singer Melissa Laveaux and the amazing Guadeloupe/New Orleans duo Delgres, who blend duskcore guitar and second-line grooves.

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A Phenomenally Tuneful, Catchy New Middle Eastern Jazz Album From Multi-Instrumentalist Gordon Grdina

There’s a consensus among many musicians that if you can play one stringed instrument, you can learn to play them all if you put in the practice time. Gordon Grdina is persuasive proof: he’s as much of a force on the guitar as he is on the oud. And these days, when he’s not on tour, he’s become a welcome addition to the New York jazz scene. He’s got a couple of very different, very enticing gigs coming up. Tonight, June 14 at 8 he’s at Happy Lucky No. 1 Gallery with Marrow, his oud-driven Middle Eastern jazz quartet with Hank Roberts on cello, Mark Helias on bass and Hamin Honari on Persian percussion. Then this Saturday night, June 16 at 8 Grdina leads his more western-inflected guitar band with Oscar Noriega on reeds, Russ Lossing on piano and Satoshi Takeishi on drums at Greenwich House Music School. Cover is $15/$10 stud/srs.

Grdina has new albums with both bands as well. To say that one is edgier than the other is a hard call, attesting to the unhinged intensity the guitar quartet is capable of – especially live. It was pretty hair-raising to catch that latter ensemble doing what was essentially a live rehearsal in the middle of nowhere in Bed-Stuy a few weeks back. Grdina’s latest album with that group, Inroads, is streaming at Bandcamp. The latest Marrow album, Edjeha – Farsi for dragon – isn’t officially out quite yet. And it’s nothing short of extraordinary, genuinely pushing the envelope in terms of how far an artist can take both Middle Eastern maqam music and American jazz.

As Edjeha gets underway, Grdina takes a sparse, incisive approach to the misterioso opening cut, Telesm, almost imperceptibly building to a series of scrambling clusters as Honari keeps a muted, funereal frame drum beat going. Then Roberts builds a plaintive solo as Helias and Honari run a hypnotic groove that eventually hits a triumphant scamper. It’s closer to Levantine classical music than is it to postbop swing.

Helias takes a turn in deliciously suspenseful mode to introduce Idiolect, an insistent, anthemic Middle Eastern jazz epic that veers into waltz time for a bit, both the bassist and cellist having unselfsconscious fun mining the microtones for all the unsettled intensity they’re worth, up to a joyously otherworldly Roberts solo.

Grdina rises out of a broodingly exploratory taqsim to a circling, stabbing theme in the album’s title track, Roberts taking an emphatic, steady solo as the group spin the central riff behind him. The deceptively catchy Bordeaux Bender juxtaposes Grdina’s spare oud against similarly terse bowed strings, intimating at a casual stroll but never quite going there.

The wyrly titled Wayward begins with a darkly haphazard improvisatory interlude before Honari leads the band through a series of grinningly machinegunning motives; then they bustle along with a devious, marionettish pulse, Roberts again jumping at the chance to give it a coda. Grdina’s plaintive intro to Full Circle is a pretty radical contrast, echoed by Roberts; then Grdina completely flips the script with his genial ballad phrasing. The album’s final number is Boubacar, a surrealistic mashup of Mali, boogie and stark 19th century country blues, a shout-out to the great Malian guitarist Boubacar Traore.

Whether you consider all this jazz, Middle Eastern music, both, or a brand-new style that Grdina’s just invented, this is one of New York’s best bands, bar none. And this is one of the half-dozen best albums released this year so far in any style of music.

Mitra Sumara Bring Their Mysterious, Psychedelic Iranian Dancefloor Grooves to Alphabet City

Mitra Sumara are New York’s only Farsi funk band. They play slinky dancefloor grooves in tricky meters, spiced with stabbing horns, purposeful psychedelic keyboards and guitar. The now-obscure classics in their repertoire were all the rage in Iran until the 1979 coup d’etat and subsequent crackdown on human rights. Much like Turkish music, the songs’ melodies shift uneasily between western minor scales and the magical microtonal maqams of Arabic music. Mitra Sumara add both a dubwise edge as well as salsa percussion. The result is as psychedelic as it is fun to jam out to on the dance floor. Their long-awaited debut album is due to hit their music page shortly; they’re playing the album release show on June 7 at 8 PM at Nublu 151. Cover is $15.

As the opening track, legendary Iranian singer Googoosh’s Bemoon ta Bemoonam gets underway, strutting horns give way to a spiraling, marionettish melody, Jim Duffy’s uneasily bubbling electric piano overhead; then frontwoman Yvette Saatchi Perez comes in and the horns return. There are echoes of both Afrobeat and Afro-Cuban music, the latter reinforced by a propulsive Peter Zummo trombone solo.

Zia Atabi’s Helelyos has spare, persistent timbales, dubby minor-key horns and a hypnotic Julian Maile wah guitar loop; later, he adds some arresting jet engine flourishes. Nikhil Yerawadekar’s bass growls and snaps along underneath Duffy’s carnivalesque, tremoloing organ as Perez’s vocals mine the microtones in Shahre Paiz, by Pooran – it’s arguably the album’s best and most Arabic-inflected track.

The longing in Perez’s voice in chanteuse Soli’s broodingly pouncing, similarly catchy, minor-key Miravi is visceral. Bill Ruyle’s santoor adds ripples alongside Duffy’s piano as the horns swirl and rage in Parva’s chromatically juicy instrumental Mosem-e Gol. Gol Bi Goldoon, another Googoosh hit, swings along on a tight clave beat, spare unadorned guitar balanced by Duffy’s roto organ, the guys in the band joining Perez on the big anthemic chorus.

Duffy’s moody, chromatic electric piano flourishes light up a third Googoosh track, Donya Vafa Nadare, vamping along over a lithe 17/8 rhythm. Manoto has a 70s lowrider latin groove, wry singalong riffage and allusions to both latin pop and bossa nova. Melismatic snakecharmer keys and guitar interchange and then edge toward Nancy Sinatra-ish Vegas noir in Hamparvaz, originally recorded by Leila Forouhar.

The album’s final cut is Kofriam, a mighty anthem by Zia that reminds of the Hawaii 5-0 theme and classic early 70s Fela, with a circling duskcore groove straight out of the Sahara. Who knows how far this music might have gone if the Khomeini regime hadn’t crushed it? Big props to Mitra Sumara for rescuing it from obscurity for the rest of the world.

A Spellbinding Downtown Show By Two of the Greatest Players in Middle Eastern Music

Time stood still last night in the financial district at the duo performance by Iranian kamancheh player Kayhan Kalhor and Turkish baglama lute player Erdal Erzincan. They opened with a whisper, Kalhor bowing a barely audible mist until Erzincan responded with a single spare, plaintive, minor-key phrase. After the better part of two hours onstage, they ended cold with a single bracing cadenza. In between, they channeled mystery, and occasional horror, a little irresistible humor and some snark – and pretty much every other emotion in between.

Kalhor is often acknowledged as this era’s greatest Iranian musician, and might also be the most riveting composer of the late 20th and early 21st century as well. He is equally skilled as an improviser, as is Erzincan. In the crowd last night, one of the great impresarios of Turkish music called hin the world’s most innovative baglama player.

Slowly and methodically, Erzincan drew Kalhor from his deep-sky whispers into a brooding exchange of simple, warily allusive phrases. Soon after, Kalhor set the stage for the rest of the evening with a plaintive descending riff in the whole-tone scale. From there the show was a roller-coaster ride of several variations on that theme – four in particular stood out, although variations in Middle Eastern music can be pretty much infinite.

As was the epic scope of the concert. It was impossible not to get completely lost in the music. On one hand, much of it was Middle Eastern Twin Peaks themes, developing increasingly ominous melodies based loosely on the two musicians’ landmark 2006 album, The Wind. This was less a full-force gale – or uneasy breeze – than a series of storms punctuated by portents of more to come.

It’s impossible to remember Kalhor playing with more sheer ferocity than he did last night. His percussive attack seemed to be a new development: often he’d pluck out a galloping beat on his fingerboard, using his little finger on the bulb at the base of his fiddle for a striking, boomy impact, enhanced by the immense amount of reverb that both instruments benefited immensely from. His seemingly endless waves of practically supersonic sixteenth notes as the music reached full altitude toward the end of the show were literally breathtaking,  in terms of both raw speed and clenched-teeth emotional wallop. And he didn’t even introduce his signature echo effects – where he bows the same note and then gradually backs off – until at least the halfway point.

Erzincan’s technique and melody were just as riveting. His rippling, pointillistic volleys of chromatics underneath Kalhor’s aching, astringent washes seemed absolutely effortless. Likewise, there were several interludes where Erzincan put two hands on the fretboard and fired off long spirals of tapping that put just about any heavy metal guitarist to shame. For whatever reason, after Kalhor had introduced that first troubled central riff, it  was Erzincan who ushered in each of the others.

Perhaps because music from Iran and Turkey blends the microtones of classical Arabic maqam music with western tonalities, there were points where razors-edge Middle Eastern chromatics were front and center, and others – particularly during the lulls – where the ambience was closer to western classical, or even horror film music. There were also a couple of points where Kalhor threw a couple of absolutely buffoonish swipes at Erzincan, who passed them right back without missing a beat – was this to gauge how much people were paying attention? For what it’s worth, nobody laughed out loud,

The long upward sprint at about the ninety minute mark turned out to be just clever foreshadowing; the two suddenly backed away for a return to the introductory whispers before raising the energy toward redline again. And then suddenly the show was over. At that point, it was impossible to recall anything more than this, considering how much of a dream state the crowd had been drawn into. A cellist in the audience, sister to one of the great innovators in Punjabi and blues music, mused about what a privilege it had been to witness this. Her friend, one of New York’s foremost concert presenters, revealed that she’d spent the whole show with her eyes closed, letting the duo deliver a surrealist film for the ears.

This was the final concert of the year at Pace University’s Schimmel Center, but is typical of the programming here. A big shout to Isabel Sofer of Live Sounds, who booked this concert and has been one of the world’s foremost advocates for Kalhor and many similar artists from around the world since the 1990s.

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. 

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.