New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: african music

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

A Clown-Free Valentine’s Day Show at Lincoln Center

Obviously, if you run a music blog in a town where there are over 230 fulltime venues, it pays to get out as much as possible. This blog takes three official vacation days a year: New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day and St. Paddy’s. What’s out there in the clubs on those three nights is almost inevitably worse than what’s onstage.

If Celtic sounds are your thing, you can wait til the 18th when all the amateurs are still at home recovering. New Year’s Eve is a ripoff pretty much everywhere, and Valentine’s Day is cheese central. Venues that wouldn’t ordinarily consider booking a Justin Beiber cover band blink and and hope that there are enough Jersey tourists to justify torturing the sound guy and waitstaff for a night.

But this year there is a show on Valentine’s Day that’s neither cheesy nor extortionistic, and that’s Cape Verde singer/guitarist Tcheka’s gig at 7:30 PM at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. As with the rest of the mostly-weekly early evening shows here, there’s no cover, although the seats tend to get taken as early as an hour before showtime.

Tcheka’s album Boka Kafe is streaming at Bandcamp. He plays solo acoustic guitar, with flair and flurrying energy in an individualistic style that draws on samba, bossa nova, soukous and even funk in places. Which makes sense: music from island nations tends to be a mashup of everything that’s blown in on the trade winds. He sings in an earnest tenor voice, with a smoky falsetto, in his native vernacular and also in Portuguese.

He chops his way through thickets of rainy-day jazz chords on several of the album’s faster numbers; on one, he strums into rapidfire flamenco territory. The quieter songs have a lingering luminosity with echoes of Portuguese fado balladry. And his hooks are catchy: you walk away humming them. Lyrics are a big deal for this guy – themes of the rigors of rural island life, coastal mythology and on one track here, women’s rights are front and center, so his music will resonate most with those who can understand them. But fans of tropical acoustic sounds also ought to check out Tcheka (sorry – couldn’t resist).

Welcome Sonic Improvements For Another Reliably Good Slate of Shows at Prospect Park Bandshell

The best news about this year’s free concert series at the bandshell in Prospect Park is that the sound is vastly improved. Last year’s booking was as good as the sound mix was awful: bass and drums, mostly. An admittedly small sample – two shows last month – revealed that somebody actually seems to care about giving the bands onstage at least baseline-level (pun intended) respect this summer.

The first of those shows opened with Combo Chimbita playing a typically ferocious scamperingly psychedelic set, followed by a lavishly augmented 22-piece version of second-wave Afrobeat pioneers Antibalas. Of all the bands here this year who could have really suffered from a bad mix, Combo Chimbita top the list because of how much of a swirling vortex of sound they can create. This time, when they finally got to that point – more than a half hour into their set – the dubwise effect was obviously intentional.

Otherwise, the clarity of Niño Lento’s vineyard lattice of guitar, Prince of Queens’ hypnotically pulsing bass and Carolina Oliveros’ powerful, emphatic vocals over Dilemastronauta’s flurry of drumbeats was as sparkling as anyone could have wanted. Toward the end of the set, Oliveros finally unleashed her inner metal animal, a truly fearsome moment. Although it wasn’t as feral to witness as the band’s most recent Barbes show, it was pretty close. The bookers here have never hesitated to draw on the vast talent base who make Brooklyn’s best fulltime music venue their home, so it was inspiring to see a whole park full of people beyond the band’s usual Colombian fanbase entranced by the show.

With all the extra firepower, Antibalas hardly limited themselves to two-chord, Fela-inspired minor-key jams. There were a handful of those, perfectly executed, bass and guitars running the same catchy riffs over and over again without a split second’s deviation while the brass punched in and out. Special guests on vocals and horns, plus a trio of women dancers, took turns taking the spotlight with solos that were sometimes resonant and floaty, or ablaze with jazz phrasing. Dynamics rose and fell with lavish abandon, often down from the full orchestra to just the rhythm section and a single soloist, then suddenly up again with a mighty sweep.

A second show last month was just as entertaining and stylistically diverse. The Kronos Quartet opened with a defiantly political set, beginning with a new arrangement of Jimi Hendrix’ take of the Star Spangled Banner that had the group keening, and leaping, and shrieking, a remarkable acoustic facsimile of guitar feedback and sonic protest iconography. From a stark, plaintive version of Strange Fruit, through mutedly bluesy takes of Summertime and House of the Rising Sun, to the spare anguish of John Coltrane’s elegaic Alabama, they kept the intensity simmering. The world premiere of Dan Becker’s No More followed an eerily circling path; then children’s artist Dan Zanes brought up his acoustic guitar and led the crew through a singalong of We Shall Overcome.

The second half of the program featured the string quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, violist Hank Dutt and cellist Sunny Yang – joined by Trio Da Kali, playing songs from their new collaboration, Ladilikan. It was fascinating to hear the strings playing loping, sometimes undulating Saharan riffs while Fode Lassan Diabate’s balafon rippled and pinged and Mamadou Kouyate played incisive, tricky syncopation on his bass ngoni, often adding an otherworldly, gnawa-like groove. Meanwhile, singer Hawa Kasse Mady Diabate delivered insistent, sometimes anguished lyrics addressing struggle against oppression and the omnipresent need for human rights for all people, regardless of gender, in her part of the world. The language, considering the venue, may have seemed exotic to most of the crowd, but the message was as resonant here as it would have been on her home turf in Mali.

The next free show at Prospect Park Bandshell is this Thursday, Aug 9 with noirish blue-eyed soul singer Fiona Silver and popular blues guitarslinger Gary Clark Jr. And Combo Chimbita are playing another free show, in the courtyard at Union Pool on Aug 11 at around 4 PM.

Two Great Psychedelic Bands, One Free Brooklyn Concert Series

Two Saturdays ago, Sadies guitarist Travis Good thrashed and flailed and spun the headstock of his vintage hollowbody Gretsch, building a howling vortex of sound while his brother Dallas stood more or less motionless as he kept a river of jangle and clang running from his Telecaster. In the middle of the stage, bassist Sean Dean held down a steady pulse while drummer Mike Belitsky kept a nimble shuffle beat.

This past Saturday, Songhoy Blues guitarist Aliou Touré did pretty much the same thing, building a screaming Chicago blues-infused solo, his fellow axeman Garba Touré running a loping Malian duskcore pattern off to the side, bassist Oumar Touré playing a serpentine, circular riff over drummer Nathanael Dembélé’s counterintuiitive flourishes.

On one hand, the Canadian and Malian bands couldn’t have less in common. On the other, both are as psychedelic as you could possibly want. And that seems to be the theme at this year’s free outdoor concert series at Union Pool. They’ve been doing free shows in the back courtyard there for the past couple of years, but this year’s series is better than ever.

There are a lot of acts more popular than you’d expect to see in at this comfortable, comparatively small space. This year, that started with the Sadies. The last time they played New York, it was at Webster Hall (if there ever was a New York venue that deserved to be turned into a luxury condo or a Whole Foods, it was that despicable stain on the East Village). The last time this blog was in the house at a Sadies show, it was May of 2014 at Bowery Ballroom and they were playing with the late Gord Downie.

This show didn’t feature any of their brilliantly ominous songs with the late Tragically Hip crooner, but they touched on every style they’ve ever played. Travis Good broke out his violin for a lickety-split punkgrass romp about midway through the set, and also for the encores. He also delivered some seamlessly expert acoustic flatpicking on a couple of country numbers.

Dallas Good seemed to be in charge of the more epic, tectonic solos, particularly during a mini-suite of surf songs, propelled expertly by Belitsky. They went back into the waves a little later with another instrumental that came across as a more bittersweet, southwestern gothic take on the Ventures’ Apache. But it was the brooding, uneasily clanging midtempo anthems that were the high point of the show. Afterward, Travis Good took care to thank the crowd for coming out – for a free show, no less.

Songhoy Blues are probably the loudest and most eclectic of the Malian duskcore bands to make it to the US so far. They only played a couple of the loping Saharan grooves popularized by first-wave bands like Tinariwen and Etran Finatawa. They opened with a briskly stomping, only slightly Malian-flavored garage rock tune with a searing guitar solo from Garba Touré. Throughout the set, he and the frontman took turns with their solos – a lightning-fast, Blue Oyster Cult-ish run in one of the long, hypnotic numbers midway through was the high point.

After that, they slowed down for a moody minor-key blues ballad that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Otis Rush songbook save for the lyrics. “I know that 99% of you don’t understand a word I’m saying,” Aliou Touré told the crowd: the subtext was that the band’s lyrics are potently political. Then he settled for reminding everybody that music is a universal language. After a couple of numbers that shifted between looming desert rock and frenetically bopping, metrically challenging soukous-flavored rhythms, they closed with a mighty, rising and falling anthem and encored with their lone song in English, Together, a prayer for peace from a part of the world that really needs it.

And a shout-out to the sound guy: this may be an outdoor series, but the sonics in the backyard – a completely uninsulated space with highs potentially bouncing all over the place – were pristine. Few venues sounds as good indoors as at Union Pool outdoors the past couple of Saturdays. That’s a real achievement. The Union Pool free concert series continues this Saturday, July 14 at around 3 with jangly British “power trio” Girl Ray.

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.

Elida Almeida Brings Her Catchy, Evocative Cape Verdean Anthems and Dancefloor Grooves to Lincoln Center

Elida Almeida might be the most prominent voice in Cape Verdean music since Cesaria Evora. Her global popularity attests to her ability to transcend linguistic barriers: she can evoke any emotion she wants, from righteous rage to exquisite tenderness.

“We really want to make sure that we are representing the people who make up this city, and the world,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who booked her show there last night, reminded the crowd. “If you have an opinion, call your representative.” She didn’t elaborate any further, but no doubt Almeida was on that same wavelength.

Almeida’s lyrics, in her native vernacular, have a biting social awareness. Sometimes allusively, sometimes very forcefully, she addresses the weariness of exile, young brides’ disillusionment, tragedy and struggle in the ghetto, and themes of nostalgia and escape. Likewise, her music extends far beyond the brooding morna balladry made world-famous by Evora, to bouncy funana and percussive batuque grooves. 

Almeida and her band opened with a pulsing, darkly anthemic minor-key number, segueing in a split-second into a twinkling soukous-tinged dance interlude fueled by Hernani Almeida’s spiky electric guitar and Diego Gomes’ pointillistic electric piano. By now, a young, energized Cape Verdean massive had moved onto the dancefloor.

An achingly lilting ballad rose and fell over a waterfall of echoey keys, matched by a jagged Portuguese guitar solo that peaked out in a flurry of tremolo-picking. “Everybody loves morna,” Almeida acknowledged as she brought the lights down with a moody, expectantly melancholy piano ballad, joining voices with Gomes for some tenderly ominous harmonies. Then she picked up the pace with a catchily whirling, syncopated batuque anthem, inviting a lady in the crowd up onstage for a brief orgy of booty-shaking, then drawing the crowd into a big singalong.

An enigmatically hooky three-chord progression anchored the anthem that followed. Then Gomes switched to accordion for a propulsive cumbia, which was where the whole house really started bouncing. Maybe that’s why the band leapt into doublespeed, bassist Nelly Cruz and drummer Magik Santiago digging in hard at the end.

A slow, spacious, regretful acoustic ballad with an achingly spare guitar solo was next on the bill, followed by a raucously scampering, latin-infused accordion tune that might have been the night’s most memorable song. From there the band took a sprint through what sounded like a Mexican banda polka and then sent a soaring, wryly aphoristic shout-out to cachupa, the Cape Verdean national rice-and-beans dish. Like any other seaside nation, Cape Verde is a real melting pot, further underscored by the salsa-funk tune the band barreled through after that. They encored with a plaintively swaying ballad that brought to mind vintage Sade as much as it did Evora. 

On one hand, listening to music from cultures with unfamiliar languages always feels a little vicarious. On the other, if you want a free, early-evening global tour of what’s happening around the world, just steps from the local IRT Broadway subway, Lincoln Center is the place to be this year. Their Atrium 360 series continues next Thursday, June 28 at 7:30 PM with a NYU-sponsored allstar lineup including but not limited to Palestinian singer Amal Murkus, Italian nyckelharpa virtuoso Marco Ambrosini, Israeli oudist Yair Dalal and Ghanian fiddler Meirigah Abubakari, all mashing up styles from their similarly eclectic backgrounds. With all of those diasporas coming out for the show, get there early if you’re going.

And the following night, June 29 Almeida and band are back in town for a show at SOB’s at 11 PM; cover is $25.

A Rare, Relatively Intimate Lincoln Center Show by Mauritanian Force of Nature Noura Mint Seymali

“It is gonna be an amazing performance,” beamed Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who’d booked Noura Mint Seymali for an extremely rare, relatively intimate show last night. Relatively, since the Lincoln Center atrium space is still a pretty big room, although it’s hardly the size of the stadiums the Mauritanian singer headlines at festivals around the world.

As with Amadou & Mariam’s psychedelic show last night at a much more cavernous venue, Seymali and band switched between hypnotic vamps and big anthemic choruses, although Seymali’s vocals were vastly more intense. In that sense, it felt vicarious to be oblivious to the lyrical content and watch her belting, her brows knitted, fingers chastising the crowd or spurring their responses throughout a mix of songs in her native Arabic vernacular that drew equally on Islamic religious imagery, ancient folk narratives and pressing global issues.

Her husband, Strat player Jeiche Ould Chighaly kicked off the night with a shivery series of hammer-on accents over a hypnotically swaying beat, then the blue-robed singer took the stage and fired off a shivery round of sound on her ardine harp. That hardly foreshadowed the powerful, melismatic contralto wail she cut loose with as the band built ambience behind her. Chighaly played slide-style with his fingers over the music’s fat, undulating low end from bassist Ousmane Touré and drummer Matthew Tinari.

Seymali pierced the crowd with her relentless stare and her uneasy quavers and trills as Chigaly worked the subtlety of the microtones in between, throughout a slow, ba-bump Mauritanian blues that ended cold. They picked up the pace with a similarly insistent, Saharan-tinged sway, Seymali and Chigaly trading off jaunty riffage: Mauritanian modes are just a hair off the western scale, compared to the biting chromatics of, say, Arabic music, just enough to lend an extra layer of unease. Chigaly turned on his flange for extra warp behind Seymali’s volleys of melismatics as the groove and the volume continued to pick up steam, then shadowed her with some upper-register flash. Reaching deep for a sudden wail, she drew an awestruck response from the crowd.

The number after that came across as slightly microtonal Veracruz folk – who knew? – with another big vocal crescendo and a practically accusatory bridge, Seymali’s vocals and Tinari’s drums pouncing in tandem. She held her notes dramatically as Chighaly slunk and clinked through his wah pedal, the rhythm section taking the pulse up a notch.

They made a singalong out of a funky, catchy Black Angel’s Death Song of sorts, then took a turn into pounding, Velvets-influenced mathrock that they suddenly straightened the kinks out of and went flying into doublespeed, Chighaly coloring it with some wry sirening effects. The show reached peak intensity as the rhythm section shuffled, Seymali running a breathless phrase over and over. They closed with the title track of their album Arbina, a fervently hypnotic, vampingly funky quest for healing.

The next free show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is next Thursday, June 14 at 7:30 PM with Mediterranean folk-pop singer Piers Faccini

Hypnotically Slinky, Irresistible Grooves on the Latest Amadou & Mariam Tour

Sometimes all it takes is new keyboards to completely transform a psychedelic band. At Malian legends Amadou & Mariam’s show at Prospect Park last summer, those keys were usually lush and orchestral, giving the husband/wife duo a majestic Pink Floyd backdrop for their mesmerizing, undulating, psychedelic tunesmithing. In the set’s funkiest moments, those textures gave the group more of a Talking Heads feel. But last night at the group’s latest New York stop on their never-ending tour, keyboardist Charles-Frédérik Avot channeled the Doors’ Ray Manzarek with his spiraling, Balkan-tinged organ and surrealistically echoey electric piano. Those carnivalesque timbres were a perfect fit with the duo’s signature blend of trancey Malian duskcore, hot buttered American soul and uneasy 60s acid rock.

They’re one of the genuine feel-good stories of the last several decades: Amadou Bagayoko and Mariam Doumbia met at a school for the blind, married and have gone on to become a major draw on the global jamband and outdoor festival circuit. As usual, Mariam would do a three-song set and then be escorted offstage for a break while Amadou stood inscrutable behind his shades, moving effortlessly between oldschool 60s soul, spare janglerock and energetically unwinding spirals of blues. He soloed like crazy at that Brooklyn gig last summer, but this time out he unleashed a grand total of three solos. The first might have gone twelve bars, tops. The second featured a mysterious, watery blend of wah and reverb; the last was the longest, and most evocative of the wildfire American blues legend Amadou often brings to mind, Albert Collins. The premise last night seemed to be to keep everybody wanting more.

Mariam also induced goosebumps throughout the crowd when her voice took an unexpected flight up toward the stratosphere on a midtempo jangle-soul number midway through the set: vocally, she hasn’t lost a step. And she made an unselfconsciously fetching presence when she reached over to her guitarslinger husband and stroked his shoulder during the last of the band intros: the affection between the two is also still there.

Their lyrics shift between Bambara and French, between the romantic and the political. Amadou’s long introduction to La Confusion, an African unity anthem, underscored how daunting and Kafkasque it is to simply engage with a totalitarian regime, let alone bargain with one. By contrast the band transformed Bofou Safou – a blippy, techy mess on record – into a mighty, unstoppable, whoomp-whoomp dancefloor anthem fueled by the turbocharged beats of drummer Yvo Abadi and percussionist Joel Hierrezuelo, the group’s bassist vamping his way along with a growling, gritty tone.

Among African cities that the duo sent a shout out to, Bamako seemed to be best represented in the crowd. But Amadou didn’t need to give the rest of the audience a French lesson to get them singing along to Je Pense a Toi (Thinking About You), one of their catchiest, most popular and lighthearted numbers. They finally called it a night after over an hour and a half onstage, pretty impressive for a midweek show in the middle of nowhere in outer-borough post-industrial warehouse-land.

After a stop at Bonnaroo, the best ticket to the ongoing Amadou & Mariam tour is for the June 15-16 stand at San Francisco’s SF Jazz at 201 Franklin St., where you can get in for $30.

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.

Single of the Day 4/9/18

The snarling psychedelic guitar solo that kicks off Les Sympathics de Porto Novo’s  A Min We Vo Nou We (via Soundcloud) offers more than just a smoky hint that it’s going to be proto stoner metal.

Nope.

Instead, it warps into absolutely feral pre-Fela Afrobeat. That the band managed to make it under brutally repressive conditions in Benin in the early 70s is even more impressive. When the organ kicks in, there’s no way you’re clicking through to anything else. It’ll be on the forthcoming African Scream Contest 2 compilation this June.