New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: african rock

A Rare Chance to See Fearless, Intense African Rock Trailblazer Noura Mint Seymali

The second track on Noura Mnt Seymali’s latest album Arbina – streaming at Bandcamp – is a psychedelic Islamic gospel song. It’s an incredible piece of music. Seymali’s husband and lead guitarist Jeiche Ould Chigaly plays warpedly blues-infused lines through a wah pedal in an offcenter scale that’s somewhere between American rock and an uneasy Middle Eastern mode, Seymali supplying elegant rhythm on her ardine, a kora-like, smallscale harp. The scion of a famed Mauritanian musical family. Seymali is a fearlessly feminist trailblazer from a part of the world where that kind of stance can earn you a death sentence, family ties or not.

Now imagine if a reality tv bully and failed casino owner tried banning Muslims from entering the US in order to placate his political party’s Christian supremacist lunatic fringe. If that happened, we’d never get to see Seymali and her wildly psychedelic band, who are playing the album release show at Littlefield on March 2 at 7 PM. $20 advance tix are available, and considering the political climate, this may be your last chance to see her here for the next four years. The World Music Institute get credit for booking this show as part of their ongoing desert blues series. 

The material on the rest of the album is just as strong as that second cut. The title track opens it, part swaying funk, part Malian-style desert rock jam, Chigaly’s alternately punchy and slinky microtonal lines over a tight groove from bassist Ousmane Toure and drummer Matthew Tinari. Seymali’s indomitable mezzo-soprano voice channels a guarded triumph, at one point opaquely encouraging the women around her to “get a injection” in the event they get sick. Baby steps today, giant steps tomorrow.

The third track might be the most high-voltage lullaby ever recorded, rippling with intertwining ardine and guitar. Suedi Koum is slower and more resolute, a rather tender shout-out from one musician to another, Seymali reassuring the star who’s left the stage that she’s got his back no matter what dangers might be lurking in the crowd.

A cover of a defiantly triumphant anti-imperialist hit by Seymali’s father,  Seymali Ould Ahmed Vall, shifts back and forth between a catchy singalong chorus and shapeshifting desert rock. Ghiana is as hypnotic as it it anthemic: Chigaly’s dulcimer-like lines bring to mind Richard Thompson in extreme folk-rock mode. Seymali shifts toward more wary ambience with Ghizlane, an understatedly desperate escape anthem.

Ya Demb is a spiky, undulating electric update of a funny, traditional Moorish wedding song, a sort of emperor-has-no-clothes scenario. After a misterioso improv intro, Soub Hanak – the most straight-up rock number on the album – speaks starkly to the solace of music amid the ravages of war. The final cut, Tia, a prayer, slinks along Tinariwen style amid Chigaly’s alternately staccato and resonant guitar multitracks.

A shout to No Grave Like the Sea’s Tony Maimone, whose masterful mastering job captured the growliest lows of Toure’s downtuned bass without throwing the rest of the mix off wack.

A Free Saturday Night Brooklyn Show by Psychedelic Desert Rock Guitarslinger Bombino

Fiery Tuareg jamband leader and lead guitar wizard Omara “Bombino” Moctar lives on the road. Over the years, he’s also been able to put out a surprisingly diverse series of albums that continue to push the envelope and change the face of Saharan psychedelic guitar music. His latest album, Azel – meaning “roots” in his native Tamasheq and streaming at his music page – is a lot more terse and crystallized than you migiht expect from a master of the recently resurgent art of lead guitar. He and his five-piece band are playing a free show at 7:30 PM this Saturday night, July 23 at 7:30 PM at Prospect Park Bandshell. Femi Kuti – Fela’s kid – leads his Afrobeat band afterward sometime around 9.

Recorded by Dirty Projectors’ David Longstreth over a ten-day period in Woodstock, the album’s production thankfully doesn’t gloss over Bombino’s signature edge and bite. If anything, the sound is enhanced by increased bass  presence along with crystalline percussion balanced in the corners of the mix. Although Bombino has made it clear that this album is heavily influenced by classic roots reggae, that doesn’t come through as clearly as it could. The songs here, many of them familiar from concerts over the past couple of years, are a lot more dynamic than your typical rootsy two-chord jam, typically keeping things closer to the ground than the long improvisational firestorms that Bombino is known for onstage.

The opening track, Akhar Zaman (This Moment) is a typical blend of catchy and hypnotic, although Bombino’s Tamasheq lyrics address the harsh toll cultural imperialism has taken on his native land’s arts and culture. Iwaranagh (We Must) is even catchier, centered around Bombino’s penchant for playing desert riffs within the structure of American rock chord changes and hooks. The third track, the all-acoustic Inar (If You Know tHow Much I Love You) benefits from Longstreth’s beefed-up production.

Tamiditine Tarhanam (I Tell You,My Love) returns to blazing, distortion-fueled desert rock, the bandleader’s rapidfire hammer-on riffage bringing to mind Vieux Farka Toure. Timtar (Memories)  sounds like that same song capoed up the guitar neck, its call-and-response lyrics contemplating a relationship on the rocks.

From its ominous, distantly Sabbath-inflected solo guitar intro to its jagged, similarly dark reggae groove and long, grim sprint to the finish line (or the grave), Iyat Ninhay/Jaguar (A Great Desert I Saw) reflects the imminent danger of getting lost in the Sahara’s endless expanse. The gently exploratory, acoustic Igmayagh Dum (My Lover) makes a striking contrast. The hushed acoustic ambience grows even duskier with the understatedly elegaic Ashuhada (Martyrs of the First Rebellion), the album’s most trad track.

Bombino plugs in again, seamlessly blending his tube-amped, distorted multitracks in the hard-hitting, anthemic Timidiwa (Friendship). The album winds up with the mutedly hypnotic, acoustic Naqqim Dagh Timshar (We Are Left in This Abandoned Place). If Tinariwen are the Grateful Dead of desert rock (musically at least), then Bombino is the style’s Jefferson Airplane – or, as far as cross-pollination is concerned, its Ravi Shankar. Psychedelic music fans in New York would be crazy to miss Saturday night’s show, especially since lately there always seems to be plenty of room in the arena. And, oh yeah, the concert is free.

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.

A Rare NYC Appearance and a Driving, Resolute New Album by Malian Desert Rockers Terakaft

There’s cruel irony in the title of Malian desert rockers Terakaft‘s new, fifth album, Alone (streaming at Spotify). For two decades, the group’s message has been one of resistance and solidarity. A sort of shadow project to iconic duskcore band Tinariwen, with whom they share several members, they’ve typically served as a harder-rocking version of that group. But the energy of their new album, unlike their previous two releases, is driven not by optimism but disillusion and sometimes crushing despair in the wake of the ongoing war in their native land. Nonetheless, their music is steady, resolute and indomitable, its mantra-like grooves and rhythms testament to their commitment to the struggle that’s taken untold lives in their conflict-stricken home country. They’re at Joe’s Pub on September 7 at 9:30 PM as part of their current North American tour. Cover is $22 and since this band so seldom plays here, advance tix are highly recommended.

Growling, lingering, distorted chords anchor the loping pulse of the opening track, Anabayou (Awkward), further beefed up by heavier percussion than one would typically hear if the group were playing around the fire at sundown in the Sahara. Credit their longtime producer Justin Adams with adding stadium rock muscle without subsuming the music’s otherworldly, hypnotic quality.

Tafouk Tele (The Sun Is There) shifts the shuffling groove to the offbeat, the call-and-response of the vocals – an ancient trait in the region’s folk music – mirrored by the deft exchange of guitar riffage. When the song suddenly falls apart at the end, the effect is viscerally chilling. The album’s most stark and intense track – possibly the band’s best song ever – is Karambani (Nastiness), a rather savage minor-key shuffle fueled by a menacing baritone guitar riff that speeds up to a horrified sprint.

Itilla Ehene Dagh Aitma (To My Brothers) sets a low-key verse and a singalong chorus to trickily rhythmic, undulating waves of ringing, keening guitars. Oulhin Asnin (My Heart Hurts) subtly shifts the rhythm into a more straightforward groove, creating a feeling of forward motion slowly breaking free of restraint. Track six, Kal Hoggar works a more straight-up triplet beat, carefully textured layers of guitars buildilng a serpentine interweave.

Amidinin Senta Neflas (My Trusted Friend) is the closest thing here to straight-up western rock, enhanced by a spare harmonica track, a touch that probably originated in the studio. With its surreal, deep-space lead guitar lines, Wahouche Natareh (Lions) is the album’s most psychedelic number. Its most spare and woundedly pensive tune is the concluding title cut. You may be wondering about the lyrical content here: as with the group’s previous output, themes of exile, longing, anguish and struggle, sung in the group’s native Tamashek, dominate these resonant, memorably lingering songs.

A Characteristically Rapturous Album and a Rare Outdoor Show by Magical Singer Kiran Ahluwalia

Singer Kiran Ahluwalia is one of the world’s great musical individualists. Her cool, clear, lustrous vocals are distinctive, blending the soaring peaks and hairpin-turn melismas of Indian music with the introspection of Pakistani ghazals. She’s carved out a niche for herself as a cross-pollinator, a woman of Indian extraction singing Pakistani and Malian melodies. Her latest album, Sanata: Stillness is streaming at Spotify, and she has a rare outdoor show on July 22 at 7 PM at Madison Square Park.

Ahluwalia’s not-so-secret weapon on the new album is her husband, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who does a one-man Tinariwen impersonation with his bristling pull-offs and spark-shedding, minutely nuanced, reverbtoned rhythm. That should come as no surprise, since Abbasi’s playing can be as protean as his wife’s vocals – and also because Ahluwalia featured Tinariwen on her previous album. The opening track sets the stage perfectly, an undulating, mystical Saharan groove, Ahluwalia’s Punjabi vocals sailing over her bandmates’ practically sinister low harmonies. Throughout the album, Nikku Nayar and Rich Brown take turns on bass, each contributing tersely tasteful low end. Nitin Mitta plays tabla, Mark Duggan alternates between vibraphone and percussion and Kiran Thakrar adds color with his harmonium.

Jaane Na – meaning “Nobody Knows” – is a scrambling, scurrying, funk-tinged number, a metaphorically-charged contemplation of personal demons and how to conquer them; it’s a lot closer to Abbasi’s brand of spiky guitar jazz than anything Ahluwalia has done up to this point. The guitarist’s meticulous multitracks give the the anthemic, subtly crescendoing title track – a wistful breakup ballad – a slow simmer. He grounds Tamana – an anthem for living with impunity – in nebulously jazz-tinged chords, matching Ahluwalia’s wary midrange and gentle melismatics.

Ahluwalia sings vocalese on Hum Dono, a minimalist progressive jazz sketch. The first of the two covers here is Jhoom, a qawwali drinking anthem reinvented as duskcore; the other is Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Lament, done as a psychedelic epic, part 90s trip-hop, part Pink Floyd.

Taskeen opens with a swirly harmonium improvisation and builds slowly and carefully, with judiciously biting Middle Eastern tings; it’s an original setting of a poem about not being jealous of your significant other’s past lovers. The last of the originals is the enigmatically fluttering, folk-rock tinged Qaza:

The truth of the heart has many doors
Some open some don’t
Don’t get lost in them

Who is the audience for this? Anyone who likes to get lost in the mystical sound of ghazals or hypnotic Saharan guitar bands, and for that matter anyone looking for a moment of elegant sonic serenity.

Noura Mint Seymali Brings a Rare African Sound to New York

Mauritainian singer/bandleader Noura Mint Seymali’s show at Central Park Summerstage Saturday evening started about an hour late: it appeared that an opening act had cancelled. Singing mostly in Arabic in a powerful, shiveringly ornamented alto voice that revealed a strong Egyptian classical music influence, she also displayed nimble chops on the ardine harp, kicking off a handful of songs with brief introductions that went from pensively spiky to lickety-split in seconds flat.

Her husband and lead guitarist, Jeiche Ould Chighaly ran his black-and-white Strat through a flange that added an eerily oscillating, watery tone to his phrases, sometimes letting them linger, sometimes tremolo-picking, building relentlessly intense volleys of notes in the same vein as Vieux Farka Toure. And while there was a definite Malian influence in this band’s music, the rhythms were far more complicated, constantly changing shape. Drummer Matthew Tinari managed to keep a solid four-on-the-floor thump going all the while: dancing West African phrases mingled within a hard-hitting arena-rock drive, bassist Ousmane Touré sticking mostly to simple, looping riffs.

Some of the songs vamped along until a catchy turnaround into the chorus. Another began briskly and then hit a swaying, loping, halfspeed desert rock groove. Others shifted back and forth between a funky pulse and trickier meters. Tinari kicked off one of them with a droll “whoomp whoomp whoomp” thud that might have been a parody of cold, mechanical EDM beats. And Chighaly’s precise, scurrying lines took on a more jagged quality as the show went on, culminating on the next-to-last song with some slashing, offcenter chord-chopping straight out of the Velvet Underground playbook circa White Light, White Heat. See, Africans listen to that stuff too!

Another song, by Seymali’s dad Seymali Ould Mouhamed Vall – a legend in Mauritainia – offered a vivid glimpse of how phrasing originally devised for the kora or the oud can be transposed to the guitar, as Chighaly bent his notes to approximate those instruments’ microtones rather than changing his tuning. It was one of many fascinating glimpses this band offered into a style of music too infrequently heard here. Seymali and band are at Joe’s Pub on July 29, guessing at around 9 (the club hasn’t announced the concert yet).

Apropos of the venue, some of the problems that plagued it recently seem to have disappeared. One of the back bleachers is now open to the public again, there didn’t seem to be as much of the arena fenced off as there had been last year, and there wasn’t an army of officious ushers trying to disperse the crowd from the shadows behind the soundboard where they’d gathered to escape the blazing sun. We can be grateful for small favors.

Imharhan Bring Their Hypnotically Intense, Relevant Malian Desert Rock Jams to Littlefield

Timbuktu-based dusckcore band Imharhan differentiate themselves from the rest of their hypnotic desert brethren by way of frontman Mohammed Issa’s brightly incisive, even aggressive lead guitar style. Among practitioners of assouf, ie. so-called “desert blues,” Niger-born guitar star Bombino‘s work comes to mind. Imharhan also have an alter ego, Tartit, where the band, joined by a choir of women, transforms itself into an acoustic act playing ancient traditional tunes, the roots of Issa’s gleaming, guitar-fueled anthems. Imharhan’s latest album, Akal Warled (“Alien Land” in Tamasheq) is out, and they’re playing Littlefield at around 9 on March 23.

Issa’s distinctive, kinetic lines immediately take centerstage on the first number, Aicha Talamomt, ringing out with precise hammer-ons and sputtery but resonant accents over a snaky camelwalk groove. Although Imharhan’s music is typically hypnotic and reflective, this is one of the band’s more sonically adventurous, rock-oriented tracks: the rhythm guitarist plays through a wah pedal, and Issa’s crescendoing attack is as close to western stadium rock as you’ll ever find in this otherwise psychedelic, slinky style of music.

The album’s title track reflects on the angst of an exile, a bitter commentary on the ongoing civil war in Mali, but more animatedly than you might expect. It coalesces into a deceptively brisk shuffle that gets more careening as it goes on, winding up with a lushly intertwined twin-guitar duel that sounds almost like a bagpipe at full power. The following track, Amassakoul in Tenere is more terse, built around a wickedly catchy raga-ish guitar riff as it illustrates the life of a nomad, someone who was born to wander.

Ehala Damohele, a tribute to the resilience of women, works an amped-up, circular Tuareg folk theme. The matter-of-factly swaying Taliat Malat bears the most resemblance to current-day desert rock, as popularized by Tinariwen (who also happen to be in town, on March 23 and 24 at Brooklyn Bowl) and Etran Finatawa. Taliat Ta Silkjourout –  “beautiful girl across the oasis,” essentially – sets Issa’s long, soaring, subtly crescendoing lead lines over calm but bubbly polyrhythms, a hypnotic interweave of guitars, bass and percussion.

Tarha Tizar – meaning “love is the reason”- has a more insistent, purposeful, straight-ahead pulse: Issa clearly means business on this one. As he and the band do even more fervently on the album’s final track, Tidawt (Unity), which laments the state of the band’s native land, portrayed as a camel ripped to shreds by a jackal. Imharhan were one of the stars of last year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival, and their live show promises to be even more electrifying in Littlefield’s more intimate, sonically excellent space. As far as the album is concerned, where can you hear it online? Well, you basically can’t – although live versions of some of the tracks have made it to youtube, you’ll have to go to the show instead.

Duskcore Stripped to Its Acoustic Roots

Niger desert blues band Etran Finatawa’s latest album, The Sahara Sessions, was recorded deep in the desert in their native land. It’s an acoustic album, an intriguing look back at the roots of duskcore in the 70s Tuareg cassette underground – although the recording quality of this one is digital-crisp. Ironically, while it’s been marketed as a jam record, it seems more focused on songwriting than improvisation. Is that because of how desert blues has evolved, with more of a reliance on the timbral nuances of electric guitars to make the solos interesting? If that’s true, it at least somewhat explains what the band does here: what soloing there is tends to be a lot more terse than the slowly unwinding, exploratory grooves the band is best known for.

One thing that differentiates Etran Finatawa from many of their duskcore compatriots is that the band has three distinctive songwriters. Alhousseini Anivolla’s songs tend to be the most anthemic; his fellow guitarist Goumar Abdoul Jamil’s tend to be quieter and more pensive. Bammo Agonla has a high-energy, punchy, more folk-oriented style to match his piercing voice. The band sing in Tamashek and other area dialects. Their lyrics frequently reference current unease in the region, from the bouncy Matinfa (What Is This For?), addressing the spillover of violence from neighboring Mali, to the darkly bluesy An Mataf Germanawen (Unity), the briskly purposeful Toumast (Identity) and Issuad (Let’s Get Together), a haphazardly spontaneous traditional song.

As is the band’s custom, tempos range from straight-up 4/4, to the camelwalking sway that typifies Saharan music, to considerably more tricky and polyrhythmic. The separation of the tracks, not to mention the stripped-down quality of the playing, enhances the contrast between the guitars, whether gently vamping, interpolating dancing accents or long, languid phrases. Hypnotic one-chord verses turn around on unexpectedly rapid successions of chords once some of these songs reach the chorus; others simply sway along and work a single chord for all the nuance the band can squeeze out of it, reflectively and methodically. This album makes a good companion to the recent Super 11 reissue of pre-electric Saharan sounds, as well as much of the kind of stuff you find at Awesome Tapes from Africa.

The Caravan for Peace Takes Over Lincoln Center

“We’re the Caravan for Peace,” Malian desert blues band Imharhan‘s frontman Mohamed Issa told the crowd at Lincoln Center Out of Doors earlier tonight. He paused. “You know, you can’t have development without peace.” He was speaking in French. But someone must have advised him what the average income is in zip code 10023. And he was speaking to it. The French have a word for it: BCBG.

A bit earlier, longtime Ali Farka Toure guitarist Mamadou Kelly told the crowd how hard the past year had been for his fellow Malians. But he and the rest of the Caravan for Peace were clearly glad to be out of the line of fire, whether here or elsewhere. That’s the benefit of being a musician lucky enough to be chosen for this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival. Even by cynical New York standards, this year’s festival is an event not to be missed: the remaining concerts are here, and the Malians travel to Littlefield this Saturday, August 3 where you can watch Tartit play the roots of desert blues and then transform into Imharhan, a current-day electric band, plus sets by Kelly and luminous South Asian ghazal chanteuse Kiran Ahluwalia for a very worthwhile eighteen bucks.

That Tartit aka Imharhan have women in the band may seem almost expected in 2013, but remember that this group comes from a culture where Islamic extremism has wreaked even more havoc than Christian extremism has here. To put it in better perspective: the first successful all-female American rock band, the Go Go’s, are playing Coney Island tomorrow night. Tartit opened the night with spare, acoustic one-chord jams animated by a lot of call-and-response and ecstatically shrieking woo-woo-woo-woo-woo’s to bring a chorus over the edge. Their electric side turns what they do into Tuareg folk-rock: long jams driven by resonant, reverb-drenched electric guitar spiked with nimble hammer-on riffs and more of the same vocals. Issa offered insight into why their music drifts and wanders like it does: “In the desert, there’s no electric power. Just sand dunes, and the sky and the moon.”

Where Imharhan stuck to the roots, Kelly was clearly amped to show how diverse Malian music has become. He and his band – spiky lute, terse bass, and deep muddy calabash drum – opened with a brightly attractive song that worked an American folk-rock lick. Later on Kelly vamped through bluesy riffage that either predated John Lee Hooker or was nicked from him – or maybe both: this music brings the African influence on the guitar full circle. He went to the north for swaying camelwalking grooves and to the south for funkier rhythms, all the while airing out his bottomless bag of hypnotic yet biting licks. And he’s a funny guy – thinking his show was over, he told his band to pack it in, building to a big crescendo. Then he learned they had four more songs, grinned and launched back into another long, slow upward trajectory.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa headlined. Sahmaoui earned a worldwide cult following in the now-legendary French/Middle Eastern Orchestre Nationale de Barbes, and he played a few of that band’s long, crescendoing anthems to an ecstatic crowd massed in front of the stage, his fellow Algerians alongside French and Americans in a scene that Frantz Fanon would never have envisioned in his wildest dreams. The band felt the moment – it was their New York debut, after all – and rose to the occasion. Who knew that kora player Cheikh Diallo was also an excellent keyboardist, as adept at reggae as gnawa rhythms? Their bassist grinned and switched in a split-second from warm lead guitar lines to growly, snapping funk interspersed with evil, booming chords. The most jaw-dropping solos of the night were taken by Sahmaoui’s astonishingly good acoustic lead guitarist, firing off barrages of biting, terse, flamenco-tinged lines and then finally a whirlwind of hauntingly modal tremolo-picking, somehow managing not to break a string as he impersonated a guitar army.

Depending on the song, the crowd either sang along or didn’t. The Americans couldn’t cut it on the vocalese or the Arabic (Sahmaoui energizing the audience in Arabic, French, Spanish, English and possibly multiple other dialects),  but the home country posse swayed and roared as the anthems reached sudden, towering heights. Sahmaoui stuck mostly to his low-register, two-string bendir lute, playing nimble oud on a couple of songs including the haunting Makhtoube (“Destiny”), a grueling chronicle of wartime destruction as seen through a child’s eyes. Through bouncy, hypnotic call-and-response gnawa rock, then rising to stadium levels, Sahmaoui had come to bring the Arab Spring to New York and reaffirmed its power and honor for everyone who could understand it, whether or not they knew what he was talking about.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa Play a Rare US Show for Free at Lincoln Center

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa’s 2011 album is a lot closer to the rai-rock of Rachid Taha than the hypnotically bouncy Berber trance music popularized by Hassan Hakmoun. Sahmaoui – former frontman of the wildly popular French-Middle Eastern group  Orchestre Nationale de Barbes – and his band are playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, July 31 on an excellent bill with shapeshifting desert blues collectives Tartit and Imharhan plus longtime Ali Farka Toure sideman Mamadou Kelly.

The crisp digital production of Sahmaoui’s album, which will no doubt be available at the merch table, separates everything carefully into its own place in the sonic picture: no doubt the band will sound more reckless and energetic onstage. Sahmaoui plays a museum’s worth of North African stringed instruments as well as acoustic and electric guitars, backed by multiple percussionists (and electric bass, when he isn’t playing the funky two-stringed bendir lute). The tracks intersperse spare, mantra-like traditional tunes within a mix of eclectic originals.

Beginning with a hypnotic, circular ngoni theme, the album gets rolling with its catchiest and arguably most haunting track, with a nod to the Clash’s Guns of Brixton. It’s a lament for a war-torn country as seen through the eyes of a young girl in the rubble of her home, reprised in a more spare, acoustic version at the end of the album. The fourth track, Kahina (Destiny), with its ominous chromatics and pensive antiwar lyric, is another standout. Samhaoui played in a late version of Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul’s band, so it’s no surprise to find a cover of Zawinul’s Black Market here, redone as swaying, surprisingly skeletal rai-rock. A couple of songs blend echoes of Malian desert blues with lilting soukous from further south. Sahmaoui uses catchy two-chord trip-hop vamps as palettes for layers and layers of tersely interwoven, tersely plucked melody.

Sahmaoui’s Arabic lyrics are excellent and often corrosive. A rough translation from the brooding anthem Miskina (The Empoverished):

Is it a miracle or a new religion?
We serve institutions
Accountants in collusion
And idiotic tv
On our knees before the screen,
Where once we got together
Electronic is the order of the day
It’s a universal problem
Books abandoned in their homes
Injustice on the horizon