New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: african pop

A Long, Strange, Psychedelic New York Week, Part Two

In two parts – part one is here

After seeing Cameroonian singer Blick Bassy‘s unexpectedly psychedelic New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday night, it was fun to wind up the evening at Barbes with a whole set by cinematic Venezuelan-American psychedelic instrumental trio Los Crema Paraiso. After taking their time loading their loop pedals, they played most of their newest album, De Pelicula to projections of segments from 1970s Venezuelan films: a road movie, a comedy and maybe a documentary or two.

When they do their all-instrumental version of Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond, they usually play the whole monstrosity – this time the crowd got just the short version. Bittersweetly summery highway themes, frenetic volleys of tremolo-picking from guitarist José Luis Pardo, slinky and emphatic basslines from Bam Bam Rodriguez and the shapeshifting rhythms of drummer Neil Ochoa were mostly live, although both Pardo and Rodriguez’s pedals kicked in with some simple harmony lines or hazy textures from time to time, as their bouncy chamame rock themes unwound. At the end, they played their cover of Tears for Fears’ Everybody Wants to Rule the World, and finally, after having sufffered through that atrocity more than once before, it made sense – as theme music for a montage of banana republic dictators and their crimes. In this band’s hands, it became a horrible song about horrible people.

Saturday afternoon, it was even more annoying to miss almost all of psychedelic latin soul stars Chicano Batman’s set at Central Park Summerstage. The same thing happened with Roy Ayers’ set on Sunday  too. Both acts ended up going on an hour ahead of schedule, and a lot of people who showed up were disappointed. Five minutes of Bardo Martinez’s magic-carpet organ textures against Carlos Arévalo’s similarly kaleidoscopic guitar were tantalizing to the point of being painful.

And while it’s impossible to hate on Los Pericos – the Argentine ska-reggae crew has been around for thirty years and sound better now than their records from the 80s – it was also impossible to get out of sulk mode for them. Their tunes are catchy, their choruses go to more interesting places than most current roots reggae acts do, and just when it seemed they were about to get bogged down in a vampy, simplistic rut, they finally hit a grey-sky, Steel Pulse-ish minor-key groove. But all that was no substitute for the group originally schedued to headline this bill.

Back at home base Barbes on Saturday night, singer Chi-Chi Glass provided solace in the form of an unselfconsciously psychedelic solo set that she opened with a segment from an Albeniz piano suite. From there she built a synth-and-cajon suite of her own based on a Peruvian folk theme, sang a revolutionary folk tune in Quecha and finally encored with a haunting setting of a Maya Angelou poem, part noir cha-cha, part classical tone poem, part eerie art-rock.

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A Long, Strange, Psychedelic New York Week

In two parts

It’s been a psychedelic week. Any week can be psychedelic if you’re in the right frame of mind, it’s just that this one had music to match the surrealism of the dream state that’s been a daily reality for Americans since the election. Over the past several days, the former’s made it a lot easier to get through the latter.

Blick Bassy’s latest album is spare and pensive, offering no hint of how trippy and magnetic his live show would be. Introducing the Cameroonian singer in his New York debut at Lincoln Center Thursday evening, impresario Jordana Phokompe was clearly stoked to have finally booked him here after seeing him play at Womex a couple of years ago. It was worth the wait.

Colorfully and loosely garbed, red goggle shades perched on his head (he never put them on), he was a much more forceful and magnetic presence than his rather gentle and austere recent work would indicate. And the performance was infinitely more psychedelic. That Bassy would sing in his native vernacular – one of more than 250 languages, many of them endangered, spoken in his country – added to the enigmatic ambience. Yet emotional content, at least at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, were distinct, especially in a wrenching lament, and the long mini-suite of love songs that ended the show, his cat-ate-the-canary croon a dead giveaway.

For most of the set, he played banjo, fingerpicking it judiciously rather than frailing the strings bluegrass-style. Toward the end, he picked up what looked like a child’s model Telecaster  and fingerpicked intricate, rippling, kora-like upper-register phrases in a spiny, open tuning

That his trio would have such unorthodox instrumentation, let alone that trombonist Johan Blanc and cellist Clément Petit would put on such a wall-bending display of extended technique, raised the surrealism factor several notches. Blanc was in charge of atmospherics with his low, looming phrases, often playing through a loop pedal or switching to a mini-keyboard and mixer. At one point, he ran Bassy’s vocals through the keyboard and built a harmony line with them as he sang. Of course, Blanc could simply have sung that harmony part himself, but the strange effect would have been lost

Petit is Bassy’s not-so-secret weapon. There were a few places where he held down somber, ambered sustained notes, or threw off a jaunty glissando or two, but mostly he plucked out basslines. As intricate as they grew, Petit never got too busy, often fattening the sound via an octave pedal which sent his cello down low into a rabbit hole where cellos usually can’t go. And he didn’t limit his lines to blues or rock. Like the bandleader, he spiraled through some kora-like phrases, and for a second even evoked the otherworldly bounce of Moroccan gnawa trance music.

Bassy is a diehard fan of plaintive, intense American blues iconoclast Skip James, so it was no surprise that the highlight of the show turned out to be after some amusing stage shtick, where Bassy looped a couple of bars from an old James record and then played variations that took the song straight back to its African roots.

The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center is this Thursday, July 20 at 7:30 PM with a relevance much closer to home: Brooklyn-based, Gil Scott-Heron influenced Brooklyn hip-hop duo Quincy Vidal. The show is free, so getting to the space on time is crucial. 

After the Blick Bassy show, it was great fun to catch a whole set by cinematic psychedelic trio Los Crema Paraiso across the river. You can find out what happened in part two, here. 

Celebrate Nelson Mandela’s Birthday with a Free Concert in the Bronx Saturday Night

For anyone stuck in the Bronx this weekend because of the 2 and 5 train shutdown, there’s an intriguing free show this Saturday night, July 15 at 7 PM at the Bronx Music Heritage Center, where singer Tsidii Le Loka – star of a popular musical that became a Disney film – is doing a Nelson Mandela birthday tribute. A major Miriam Makeba collaborator, Loka will be performing her show To the Rising Sun, featuring songs by Makeba and the words of Mandela.

The BMHC is at 1303 Louis Niné Blvd in the Bronx. The show is part of the Paris New York Heritage Festival, which runs through the 21st of the month.

Blick Bassy, Cameroonian Connoisseur of Americana, Brings His Spare, Surreal Songs to Lincoln Center

Spare, mournful cello rises in the background, awash in reverb, over a stark, muted minor-key acoustic guitar riff. It’s the blues, straight from Africa but refracted back through the relentless heat of the Mississippi Delta. There’s longing in the catchy vocal hook that Blick Bassy sings in one of many of his native Cameroonian vernaculars. That’s the title track on his album Ako, streaming at Spotify. Bassy cites the otherworldly Skip James as a major influence, but that’s hardly the only one.

It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call Bassy a connoisseur of Americana in general. He’s bringing his eclectically dynamic, individualistic sound to the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. tomorrow night, July 13 at 7:30 PM. The show is free; getting there early is a good idea because a good crowd always shows up for these events.

Bassy switches to banjo, joined by the looming harmonies of Clément Petit’s cello and Johan Blanc’s trombone on the album’s second track, a jaunty hot 20s swing tune, sung with contrasting restraint. In the next song he takes that sound forward half a century for a surreal mashup of what sounds like Acadian folk and Nick Drake. Throughout the album, cello and trombone are frequently overdubbed for a lush, orchestral effect.

From there, rhythms vary from a balmy sway to the circling gait of Saharan Tuareg folk. Imagine a Malian guitar griot like Boubacar Traore, for example, scaling back his songs to two and a half minutes. Stylistically, the album runs the gamut from the bittersweetness of  Scots-American folk tunes,, to bouncy Appalachian string band music, to maybe Bill Monroe. Petit is similarly eclectic, sometimes a one-man orchestra, sometimes a bass player, sometimes adding spiky lower-register kora phrases

Screaming wifi isn’t exactly easy to find in Cameroon. Either Bassy was lucky enough to have internet access from a young age, or he was able to get his hands on a fantastic record collection. The Lincoln Center atrium is programmed with seemingly every culture base in the world’s most storied melting pot in mind; it’ll be interesting to see who turns out for this one.

MAKU Soundsystem Bring Their Darkly Delirious Global Sounds Back to Lincoln Center

The secret to MAKU Soundsystem‘s latest album, the aptly titled Mezcla – streaming at Spotify – is Felipe Quiroz’s  tremoloing, funereal organ. There are thousands of bubbly, terminally cheery, dancey acts out there aping sub-equatorial sounds from both hemispheres. But MAKU Soundsystem have an element of danger, and a ubiquitous if understated populist political sensibility. For example, with the album’s opening track, Agua, the band takes a generic soukous guitar riff and layers suspenseful horn swells and slinky, creepy psychedelic rock organ over a scrambling beat. The point of frontwoman Liliana Conde’s lyrics is that water goes wherever it can, and that our own quest for global unity ought to be just as fluid, and, ultimately, successful. The group are bringing their conscious dance party to the Lincoln Center Atrium on Sept 22 at 7:30 PM, and judging from the crowds they’ve brought to Lincoln Center in the past, you should get there early if you’re going.

The album’s second cut, Thank You Thank You isn’t your ordinary psychedelic cumbia. As it clatters along, the band blend elements of Afrobeat, soukous and ancient African call-and-response into the psychedelic swirl. Let It Go is even trippier – while Camilo Rodriguez’s guitar runs a terse minor-key cumbia hook, the polyrhythms from the horns and a growing army of percussion build in both channels. There isn’t a mathrock band alive who could have so much fun with an interweave of so many different beats at once.

The tangent that Positivo takes is easier to follow – it’s phantasmagorical, it’s part cumbia, part reggae, part chamame and follows a hypnotic, swaying groove: 11/4 time was never so easy to swing your hips to. Then they straighten it out, with a deliciously incisive, smoky organ solo before the brass takes it up to a mighty peak. La Inevitable – implying that you can’t resist dancing to this stuff – is a lot more hypnotic, Rodriguez’s wah-wah guitar just as much a percussion instrument as the rest of the rattle and thump as the group rises to a fiery Ethiopian-inspired crescendo.

The band follows La Hatiana, the most straight-up psychedelic cumbia here, with the album’s most straight-up Afrobeat number, What Do You Wish For. The best track here is Happy Hour, a phantasmagorical cumbia that’s the missing link between Los Destellos and Antibalas. The album winds up with another stunner, De Barrio, a moody mashup of psychedelic cumbia, dub and a sad neoromantic waltz, pure solace for gutter stargazers. To paraphrase George Clinton, liberation isn’t a trickle-down effect.

Debo Band Bring Their Darkly Bristling Update on Classic Ethiopian Dancefloor Sounds to Williamsburg

What do you associate Ethiopian music with? Those slinky triplet grooves? Stark, ancient, otherworldly bluesy modes? Shivery, melismatic vocals and fiddle? Debo Band take all those tropes and rock them out with both blazing brass and strings over an undulating pulse. Their new album Ere Gobez is streaming at Storyamp, and they’re opening a killer twinbill at Brooklyn Bowl tonight at around 8, with similarly minor-key fixated original first-wave Afrobeat dancefloor groovemeisters Antibalas headlining afterward. Hopefully you have $15 advance tix; it’s more at the door.

On the album’s opening track, Endris Hassen’s hypnotically circling, oscillating massenqo fiddle riff underpins the blaze of horns, and then guitarist Brendon Wood fires off a succinct solo. The second number, a Somalian tune, is similar, but with a trickier, syncopated beat. Track three – in purist Ethiopian fashion, most of the song titles are in frontman Bruck Tesfaye’s native Amharic – sets a joyous mix of upper-register violins and saxes mingling with Marie Abe’s accordion over bassist PJ Goodwin and drummer Adam Clark’s dancing, waltzlike beat.

Track four, Yachat, is a hard-rocking detour toward psychedelic 60s garage rock – it’s their Psychotic Reaction, Wood’s rampaging, bluesy lines front and center. Blue Awaze makes more or less straight-up hard funk out of an uneasily modal, proto Middle Eastern riff, Danny Mekonnen’s judiciously smoky baritone sax solo leading up to a swirly, string-fueled psychedelic breakdown where everything goes haywire, then finally back. From there the band segues into Goraw, a defiant Amharic-language Ethiopian-pride anthem which sounds like the ancient roots of Isaac Hayes at his most psychedelic – or what Hayes might have done had he collaborated with Mulatu Astatke.

The band builds Sak ominously over a brooding bati vamp, like a thunderstorm on the horizon, counterintuitively growing more spare as Mekonnen launches into a growling baritone solo. The album’s most epic number, Oromo swings along on a mighty minor-key blues groove, following a long, triumphantly majestic upward climb punctuated by a thoughtful massenqo break. The band follow the joyously circling, lushly orchestrated Hiyamikachi Bushi with the slinky, bitingly latin-tinged Yalanchi and close the album on a searingly trad note with the hauntingly propulsive Eyew Demamu, arguably its strongest track and a lauching pad for Tesfaye’s intense, expressive vocals.

Since Ethiopia is where it all started, at least as far as the human species is concerned, it’s not an overstatement to say that music from this part of the world resonates on a deep level, quite possibly in our collective DNA. This is the rare album that will hit the spot with people who like energetic, upbeat music as much as with those who gravitate toward the dark and mysterious.

Alsarah & the Nubatones Put on a Transcendent, Relevant Dance Party in Flushing

If the 7 train had been running between Queens and Manhattan Saturday night, “East African retro pop” stars Alsarah & the Nubatones would have sold out Flushing Town Hall. Even with the transit nightmare, they came awfully close. By the time the stragglers had found their way to Northern Boulevard, there were only a few balcony seats left. It was a dance party, but it was also a profoundly relevant performance, shifting between hypnotic African grooves and otherworldly, microtonally-tinged Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities.

The group opened with a lingering, suspenseful solo by oudist Brandon Terzic. A student of the late, great Haig Magnoukian, his mentor and teacher who preceded him in this band,  he delivered spiky, sometimes carefully modulated, sometimes deliriously untethered spirals of edgy Middle Eastern modal riffage. Overhead, Alsarah bullt to a powerful, wordless wail, louder than she would ever get through the rest of a spellbinding, dynamic performance. Singing mostly in Arabic, the Kartoum-born bandleader voiced the disillusion, and anguish, and resilience of the Nubian people, thousands of whom were dislocated in massive Egyptian dambuilding projects in the early 60s.

From there drummer Ramy El Aaser led the group into a slinky, catchy, uneasily shuffling number packed with split-second call-and-response between Alsarah, her strong, similarly nuanced harmony singer and the rest of the band. Five minutes into the show, and they had a clapalong going; it wouldn’t be long before people were dancing in the aisles. If there ever was a case for the universal appeal and relevance of music from Egypt, this was it.

The “Nubian national anthem,” as Alsarah put it, turned out to be a catchy, circling number. basically a two-chord jam of sorts. Terzic opened The Desert Road with a rustically flurrying solo echoing the blues; a powerful reminder of the blues’ African roots. For that matter, the same could be said for El Aaser’s hard-hitting but nimble clave groove, another African invention. And a bit later on, Alsarah speculated how an old folk tune about maidens being given to the Nile River god might have resulted in mermaid children. “We Nubians gave you civilization…and we gave you mermaids,” she laughed.

Bassist Mawuena Kodjovi methodically built a wrenchingly mournful solo during one of the night’s most haunting moments. Alsarah distinguished herself with a couple of originals which were the arguably the best songs of the night, comtemplating “How governments fail us,” as she put it. The first followed a restless pulse through a “Get up, get up!” revolutionary refrain. The most dynamically crescendoing number of the night was Land of Honey, a moody contemplation of finding a new life in exile that took on special relevance in this era of refugees pouring out of Syria. The crowd went crazy for an exuberantly witty dumbek solo from El Aasser; after almost two hours onstage, the group wound up their second set with a driving habibi pop number and encored with a similarly kinetic, hypnotic dance tune

Adventurous listeners lucky enough to make it to Flushing Town Hall for this show might be interested in May 14, 7 PM concert there by the rustic, otherworldly Ba Ban Chinese Music Society; tix are $16.

The Sway Machinery Release Their Richly Psychedelic New Album on a Killer Multi-Band Bill at the Knitting Factory

You might think that a song titled You Will Love No One But Me would be a creepy tale about a stalker. As the title track to the Sway Machinery’s new ep – streaming at Soundcloud – it’s a characteristically eclectic, warmly tuneful mashup of reggae, Afrobeat and psychedelia, frontman Jeremiah Lockwood’s enigmatic, deliciously jangly guitar solo at the center. Like most bands in this century, the Sway Machinery have recorded sporadically, if memorably: their previous album Purity and Danger, from earlier in the year, is a sparkling, psychedelic masterpiece, and this one picks up where that one left off. They’re playing smack in the middle of one of this year’s most enticing and eclectic bills on December 16 at around 9 at the Knitting Factory: country blues guitarist/songwriter Jon LaDeau opens at around 7, followed by funky psychedelic Ethiopiques band Nikhil P. Yerawadekar and Low Mentality, the Sway Machinery and then the People’s Champs, who lately have taken a hard turn from funk into Afrobeat at its most psychedelic. Advance tix at the box offfice, open on show nights, are a bargan at $10.

Beyond the title cut, the Sway Machinery ep’s other tracks are just as choice. Kith & Kin bubbles and dances on the wings of Matt Bauder’s sax and Jordan McLean’s trumpet up to Lockwood’s eerie, lingering minor-key twelve-string phrases, an uncanny approximation of a Middle Eastern kanun that works like a charm in the context of this Ethiopiques-tinged tune. Can’t Help But Stare veers from hints of garage rock, to reverb-drenched dub reggae over the steady pulse of bassist Yerawadekar and drummer John Bollinger, up to an almost stadium-rock grandeur.

This Kiss Blooms But Once a Year is the most straightforward and hard-hitting song here, Lockwood’s biting guitar and expressively melismatic baritone welded to a groove that’s part ominously foreshadowed Ethiopiques and part Marquee Moon-era Television. The final cut, My Beloved, is the most unselfconsciously gorgeous, a brass-spiced, simmeringly guitar-fueled, pouncing update on an ancient cantorial theme. As is typical with this band, there are allusions and frequently less oblique references to the Hasidic music that Lockwood came up in – his grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg, was legendary as a choir leader and soloist in that demimonde, and remains a profound influence in the group’s work as well as the guitarist’s many solo and theatrical projects.

Les Nubians Charm the Kids and Their Parents Too at the French Alliance

What if you told your six-year-old that you were going to take them to a performance that was educational, multicultural, rhythmically challenging and completely G-rated? They’d probably tell you to get lost, right? Well, late yesterday morning the French Alliance staged a program that was all that…and the kids loved it.

French-Cameroonian duo Les Nubians – sisters Helene and Celia Faussart – celebrate sisterhood, unity and Africanness in ways that aren’t cliched, or annoyingly P.C., or patronizing. Their music is sophisticated, blending elements of American soul, central African folk, downtempo, funk, bossa nova and hip-hop, to name a few styles. And much as all these genres got a similarly multicultural, vividly New York crowd of kids and their parents dancing and swaying along, you wanna know what energized the kids the most? A detour into an ancient Cameroonian folk dance fueled by balafonist François Nnang’s gracefully kinetic flourishes, the crowd spontaneously clapping along with its offbeat triplet rhythm. Some things are so innately wholesome that kids automatically gravitate toward them, and the folks at the French Alliance are keenly aware of that.

Age groups quickly separated out: gradeschoolers and preschoolers down front, filling the first two rows, tapping out a rhythm along with the band onstage, singing and dancing along as their parents watched bemusedly from the back rows. The crowd was pretty much split down the middle genderwise, at least among the kids, boys just as swept up as the girls in the pulsing grooves and the Faussart sisters’ irrepressible good cheer, charisma and dance moves. Their parents got a 90s nostalgia fix via a playful, French-language remake of the Sade hit The Sweetest Taboo, along with songs like the pensive Demaind (Jazz) from the group’s 1998 debut album, and the spiky, catchy Makeda. Guitarist Masaharu Shimizu played eclectically and energietically over animated, globally fluent clip-clup percussion by Shaun Kell.

Les Nubians have a handle on what kids like. They worked a trajectory upward, enticing the kids to mimic their dance moves, getting some call-and-response going, up to a couple of well-received singalongs (employing some complex close harmonies rarely if ever heard in American pop music). The big hit of the day was the Afro Dance, Helene swinging her dreads around like a dervish. The show was briskly and smartly paced, holding everyone’s attention throughout just a bit more than forty-five minutes. Considering the venue, the sisters took turns addressing the crowd in both French and also in good English; Helene seems to be the main translator of the two. Their repartee with the children was direct and unselfconsciously affectionate – both women taking plenty of time to highfive all the kids down front to make sure that nobody was left out – but the two didn’t talk down to the children either.

Out of this blog’s posse, the hardest member to please is usually Annabel. She’s six – woops, make that six and a half. She spent most of the first half of the show occupied with some actually very sweet sisterly bonding with her friend Ava, age seven, whom she hadn’t seen in awhile. By the twenty-minute mark, both girls had run to the front, Annabel right up at the edge of the stage, transfixed. She got a highfive from Helene; meanwhile, Ava was getting a workout along with the rest of the dancers. What was most striking was that both girls could have been very blasé about this concert: neither is culturally deprived. But they both had a rousingly good time…and were ready for a big lunch afterward.

The French Alliance has all kinds of fun bilingual events and experiences for families on the weekend: this concert was just one example of how kids can get an exposure to cultures and languages they might not ordinarily encounter. As just one example, there are a whole bunch of free workshops for toddlers, preschoolers and their parents this coming Saturday, December 12 in the early afternoon.

Nneka Brings Her Politically-Fueled, Eclectic African Reggae Sounds to the Mercury

Born in Nigeria, raised in Germany, Nneka has gone in many directions over the course of her relatively young career: through soukous-tinged African pop, roots reggae, stripped-down acoustic folk and more ornately jazzy stylings, all of them imbued with a fearless political sensibility. She sings her aphoristic, terse lyrics in a fervent voice that rises to a gritty, almost otherwordly wail when she goes up the scale. The effect is both ancient and in the here and now. She has a new album, My Fairy Tales – streaming at Spotify – and a show at the Mercury on June 23 at 7 PM. Advance tix are $15.

Nneka’s English is better than the songs on the album might have you believe (she titled her second album No Longer at Ease, after the classic Chinua Achebe postcolonial novel). And the songs are a stylistic grab bag, possibly due to having traipsed from studio to studio in making the album. This time out, her lyrics are more skeletal and opaque – several of them in her native dialect -and the revolutionary sensibility both more general than specific, and further in the background. The opening track, Believe System is something of a mashup of Afropop, roots reggae and Stevie Wonder. Likewise, Babylon builds a hard funk backdrop around some lively mid-70s SW-style riffage.

The reggae-lite My Love, My Love goes deeper into its roots on the reprise that follows it, while Local Champion works a trippy, techy vibe with layers of blippy keys. Pray for You takes a disco groove backwards from cold teens electronics to a biting, guitar-fueled 70s vibe. Surprise veers between a propulsive soca bounce and electro-reggae, while the morose impoverishment tale Book of Job is an attempt to make a roots song out of samples and cheap keyb settings. And the last song sounds like it was assembled with Garageband in somebody’s bedroom. On one hand, it’s authentically African – this is what people do when all there is to work with is a secondhand dollarstore Casio. On the other, Nneka is an artist with ostensible label backing and access to topflight recording situations and gear. But she’s also a charismatic performer with a strong back catalog and the ability to transcend the limitations of these recordings onstage.