New York Music Daily

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Tag: asian music

A Spicy Midsummer Taste of Golden Fest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

It’s a fair bet that rustic Carpathian acoustic music-and-dance ensemble the Cheres Folk Orchestra, Malika Kalontarova’s otherworldly tar lute-driven Tajik group, explosive Georgian crew the Dancing Crane Ensemble, and exhilarating Albanian music stars Merita Halili & the Raif Hyseni Orchestra have played Golden Fest, the nation’s most electrifying Balkan music festival, which takes place every January in Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that these four acts’ show Sunday afternoon turned out to be the highlight of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival so far.

The Tirana-born Halili has a wide-angle vibrato that she engages like a high-speed guitar tremolo for a spine-tingling effect that sparkles with microtones along the sharpest edges. Hyseni, who hails from Kosovo, played the entire show with a big smile on his face: if you had his speed on the accordion, you’d be smiling too. He saved his two most supersonic, almost menacingly chromatic flights for one tantalizingly brief solo, and an intro anchored by Halili’s stark vocalese,\ where the rest of the band looked at each other, amazed and mystified about where they were expected to leap in.

When the moment came, they were ready, every bit as adrenalizing as the vocals and accordion. Their reedman doubled on clarinet and alto sax, often playing each during parts of the same song with a relentlessly volleying, microtonal, melismatic attack. Their Albanian bassist and guitarist held the center throughout the tricky changes, propelled by a jazz drummer with a playfully uneasy, boomy thump on his toms. They opened with a brisk ba-bump number that edged from blithely major-key to bracingly minor, then later bounced their way through a dance tune that had a happy-go-lucky Mexican feel. But the best numbers were the wild ones in 7/8 time, the whole band stampeding furiously as if to get out of the way of the Soviet tanks that drove this music underground for so long.

Turbocharged Albanian folk has made a big comeback since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but many indigenous musicians steeped in dancer/bandleader Malika Kalontarova’s spare, hypnotically insistent Tajik Jewish repertoire have emigrated to Israel. This group is one of the few in this country to play this magical material. The group’s three tar lute players would often triple the lines of an allusively modal melody line over similarly stark drumbeats that varied from a straight-up thump to more intricate metrics. The effect was as exotic as it was antique: tar music from Iran and Kurdistan are reference points, but both of those cultures use scales closer to Arabic modes. It was easy to get lost in.

Both Cheres and the Dancing Crane Ensemble often took a seat when their dancers cavorted across the stage to recorded music; considering how fast this show was pulled together, there may not have been enough time to rehearse all the material. When the two groups played, drums and accordions figured heavily through a mix of spare mountain melodies and more straight-ahead minor-key material that edged toward the Balkans in places. The Ukrainians put rippling, incisive cimbalom front and center. The Georgians, in particular, took advantage of their time onstage to showcase the allusive tonalities of their brooding choral music, and the high-voltage moves of their dancers, guys in quasi-military getup with bullet embroidery, women floating and fluttering across the stage in a series of colorful long dresses.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow, August 12 with afternoon performances on the plaza: picturesque Americana songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires at 2 is the highlight. Then out back in Damrosch Park popular, lustrously harmony-driven Americana rock veterans the Jayhawks hit the stage at about 8. Avoid the atrocious 6 PM opening act – the worst band ever to get booked for a Lincoln Center show – at all costs, even if that means you don’t get a seat.

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Three Nights in a Row at Drom: An Embarrassment of Riches

Last night at Drom, the crowd had reached critical mass by the time Innov Gnawa took the stage. It was the second weekend in a row that the seven-piece Moroccan trance-dance ensemble had packed a Manhattan club. This group is hot right now.

“What’s the appeal of this music?” the energetic, personable Virginia publicist asked the worn, haggard New York bass player.

“It’s the blues,” he replied, pulling himself out of a walking dream state. “You hear what the sintir player, the guy with the lute, is doing? He’s bouncing off an octave, but in between he’s playing a blues riff. Catchy, isn’t it? And I think that’s what people latch onto. That, and the castanets on the high end, and the bassline on the low, with the vocals in the middle. Total stereo from a thousand years ago.”

“I don’t really follow blues,” the publicist responded, guardedly. “I like Middle Eastern music.”

“Me too!” the bassist enthused. “This is the roots of Middle Eastern music, from North Africa. And my theory with the blues is that it’s in everybody’s DNA, everybody can resonate to it because the blues goes back to Ethiopia and that’s where the human species comes from.”

There were a lot of conversations like that over the course of the night. This weekend, the booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP, is in town, which for ordinary people means that there are an unusual number of fantastic multiple-band bills happening for cheap or even free. The conventioneers call themselves presenters. Before you dismiss that as pretentious, consider that if you were a booker, you would probably prefer to be called a presenter. The mix of presenters, club people – the night was put on by the folks at Barbes, Brooklyn’s elite venue along with eclectic dance music label Electric Cowbell Records and Multiflora Productions – as well as random dancers got to enjoy a tantalizingly short set of shapeshifting, undulating grooves and energetic call-and-response chants in Arabic that began not onstage but on the floor in the middle of the crowd. What did it feel like to be literally rubbing elbows with bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer, who, before he strapped on his sintir, walloped on a big bass drum slung over his shoulder? Thunderous fun. This music is obviously as adrenalizing to play as it is to be part of on the dance floor.

The previous band, Miramar, channeled a completely different kind of intensity. Singer Rei Alvarez rocked a sharp black suit, pairing off fire-and-dry-ice harmonies with his counterpart Laura Ann Singh, inscrutable in a vintage midnight blue pencil dress. The two looked like they just stepped out of a David Lynch or late-period Buñuel film, with music to match. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most spellbinding performer of the night was keyboardist Marlysse Simmons, who played terse, elegant piano on several of the band’s moody boleros, including the opener, Sylvia Rexach’s classic Di Corazon, one of the saddest songs ever written. But it was her slinky, luridly tremoloing funeral organ on the band’s most haunting numbers, a mix of Rexach covers and originals that defines this band more than anything else. They made their way through a noir Vegas bossa that brought to mind Brooklyn art-rockers Tredici Bacci, a dramatic tango-flavored anthem with some rippling flamenco guitar lines, and a shattering version of another original, Sin Ti. The rest of the material, afloat on a murky river of organ, channeled nonstop angst and longing. In all of latin music, the bolero is the ultimate expression of estrangement and angst: in the hands of this band, that atmosphere was relentless, and breathtaking, and in its own dark way as comforting as the Moroccan grooves afterward.

The night’s most dynamically captivating singer, among many, was Eva Salina, who’d been called in on short notice since Ethiopiques groovemeisters Feedel Band weren’t able to get up from Washington, DC in the snowstorm. Her longtime accordionist Peter Stan shifted from mournful ambience, to slithery cascades downward along with plenty of jaunty Balkan party riffage as the singer moved gracefully and eloquently from a brassy wedding theme, to a brooding abandoned-wife scenario, to an understatedly wrenching Saban Bajarmovic cover addressed to someone he never got the chance to say goodbye to. Eva Salina could front any Balkan band in the world she wants (one might say that she already has). Nobody works harder at getting the accents and ornaments right, or channeling the most minute expression of emotion or shade of irony. Midway through her set, she entreated the agents in the crowd to pair experienced artists with younger groups in order to keep the music fresh…and alive.

Alash were the funniest band of the night: the crowd loved them. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik take their bandname from a river in their native Tuva in central Asia, and they backed that up with a couple of sweeping, uneasily rustic pastorales blending spare acoustic guitar with wood flute and the group’s signature, oscillating throat-singing harmonies. There was also a rather spare, severe number that could have easily passed for American gospel or blues from the 1800s if it had English lyrics. But the big crowd-pleasers were the funny stuff: a swaying drinking song, a tonguetwisting number that brought to mind an auctioneer’s rapidfire delivery, and the catchy, emphatic folk tunes that they began and ended with. “Shoot,” barked Ondar as each reached a sudden, cold ending: it’s a fair guess that means something more optimistic in Tuvan than it does in English.

And Ladama, a pan-latin, mostly female (hence the name) supergroup of sorts – assembled under the auspices of the US State Department under Obama – opened the evening with mix of upbeat folk-rock, a hint of tango and a couple of serpentine cumbias. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, whose axe is the bandola llanera, which looks like a Mexican bajo sexto but sounds something like a baritone ukulele with more bite. Her fleet, flamencoish flurries on a handful of numbers made for some of the night’s most intense moments; otherwise, the band – including a couple of male ringers on accordion and bass, along with singer Sara Lucas, drummer Lara Klaus, conguera Daniela Serna and a violinist, kept a seamless bounce over beats from across South America, mirroring the band members’ diverse backgrounds. That was the night’s subtext. It’s hard to imagine the incoming Presidential administration having any interest in promoting music any more globally-inspired or edgy than Bon Jovi.

A Thrilling Centerpiece to This Year’s Drive East Festival of Indian Music

High-voltage Indian vocal and instrumental group the Navatman Music Collective played one of the year’s most exhilarating concerts as part of this year’s Drive East Festival last night at LaMaMa, a sold-out performance in celebration of the release of their new album An Untimely Joy. Although each member got at least a couple of turns out front to dazzle the crowd with their voices and their chops, their de facto main soloist, Roopa Mahadevan, reaffirmed her status as not only one of the most spellbinding singers in New York but in the entire world. With her pulsing, minutely inflected melismas, powerful low register and the occasional dramatic flight upward, she displayed thrilling command of classical carnatic styles from throughout the ages, in addition to ghazals and theatre music.

The rest of the group pretty much did the same. What was most striking right off the bat was how far they’re pushing the envelope. They opened counterintuitively with the kind of coda typically associated with a dance theatre piece and concluded with what Mahadevan said was one of the alltime bom diggity ragas, and she wasn’t kidding. The strong baritones of Vignesh Ravichandran and Kaushik Ravi anchored the music, usually hovering an octave beneath the kaleidoscopically timbred voices of the women: Mahadevan, Kamini Dandapani, Bhargavi Khamakshivalli, Prettha Raghu and Shradda Balasubramaniam. Kavi Srinivasaragavan negotiated the music’s tricky rhythmic shifts on mridangam, while 17-year-old violin prodigy Harini Rajashekar wove meticulous, often plaintive lines amid the dynamic, often joyously dancing melodies.

Perhaps ironically, the night’s most riveting moments came not during the most ecstatic peaks but in a brooding, low-key mini-epic that Mahadevan began slowly and plaintively. Tali Rubinstein’s flute spun eerily baroque-tinged lines against Camila Celin’s stark sarod while guest tabla player Ehren Hanson engaged Srinivasaragavan in some subtly wry rhythmic jousting.

The early part of the show quickly rose from a raptly enveloping medieval piece to a new arrangement of a classic carnatic theme featuring some stunningly unexpected harmonies and intricate counterpoint making its way throughout the choir, akin to a mashup of Thomas Tallis with classic Indian themes. The night’s most epic work was a torrentially rising and falling new piece by Ravichandrana and Mahadevan, featuring the full ensemble along with Celin on acoustic guitar. There was also an ecstatic raga made famous as a film theme, opening with a stunningly dynamic, melismatic solo vocal from Mahadevan, along with a stately ghazal with Kamaikshivalli taking the lead.

They brought everything full circle at the end. Hearing the voices in unison delivering the kind of shiveringly precise, minutely wavelike phrases commonly associated with the sitar reminded how carnatic music is the foundation of the Indian classical canon. Long before there were sitars, people were doing the same thing with their voices, which is actually more physically demanding than merely playing it on a fingerboard. That this group challenge themselves to take this music to yet another level testifies to their collective fearlessness and irrepressible joie de vivre.

The Drive East Festival continues through Sunday at LaMaMa, 74 E 4th St. between Bowery and 2nd Ave. Tonight’s performances begin at 6 PM with carnatic instrumental ensemble Akshara, featuring sensationally eclectic violinist Trina Basu.

One of the Year’s Best Twinbills: Sandaraa and Raya Brass Band at Littlefield

This year good things come in twos. Granted, in a city with a population considerably beyond the official figure of eight million, it shouldn’t be hard to put a couple of good bands back to back, but the show back on May 23 at Littlefield was amazing even by this blog’s lofty standards. Sandaraa opened. They might be the most improbable and also the most original supergroup in town. Frontwoman Zebunnisa Bangash – a star in her native Pakistan – jumpstarted the band when she invited Michael Winograd – a klezmer luminary and one of the world’s most exhilarating clarinetists – to collaborate. The rest is history. They didn’t have to look far to fill out the rest of the lineup. This one included violinist Eylem Basaldi, accordionist Patrick Farrell, Yoshie Fruchter doubling on guitar and oud and longtime Klezmatic Richie Barshay on drums. And their sound – a mind-bending, sometimes hypnotic, sometimes propulsive mashup of Pakistani, Balkan and klezmer melodies – was like nothing else that’s been staged anywhere in town this year.

The band typically took their time launching into a groove, with pensive intros from Fruchter (on the oud – a rare treat), Basaldi and Winograd, the latter nonchalantly spiraling down in a shower of chromatic sparks. Farrell did much the same later in the set. Bangash varied her dynamics depending on the song, sometimes with a wounded resonance that brought to mind Eva Salina, other times with a meticulously modulated, melismatic approach. Polyrhythms and counterrythms were everywhere. One number had a tender lullaby quality; another teased the undulating crowd with the hint of a galloping qawwali rhythm, but never went there quite all the way. And although not everything was in minor keys, most of the songs had an apprehensive undercurrent, notably one number that the band spun along like an Irish reel before Basaldi led them into more moody territory with a stark violin solo. They closed with what sounded like a recent Punjabi hit, but with purist, acoustic production values.

Raya Brass Band headlined. For the last few years, they’ve been one of the most explosive party bands in town, sort of a punk Balkan brass jamband. Their metamorphosis into a sensationally tight, even elegant dancefloor group was stunning to witness. Almost imperceptibly, they followed a steady upward trajectory and took the crowd along with them, gathered on the floor around them, as the music led to a fiery peak with an Ethiopian-tinged groove. Don Godwin, the slinkiest tuba player in town, got to launch that one with a bristling minor-key riff – who would have guessed? And it worked like a charm.

This time out, the bandleaders took their time and put a lot of space between their solos, rather than duking it out in a bloody-knuckles match like they used to do. But it’s not like the band has tamed their sound – they’ve just introduced another level of dynamics and suspense. Nezih Antakli’s machinegunning standup drum riffs had the drive of a runaway train, but a steady one; accordionist Matthew “Max” Fass waited til the end before firing off one of the most adrenalizing, rapidfire solos of the night: getting to watch his fast fingers and also Farrell’s on the same stage on the same night was very cool.

As the set went on, the rhythms grew from a cumbia and reggae-tinged bounce to trickier Serbian and Macedonian-style metrics. After playing the voice of reason to the sax’s close-to-the-edge wail for most of the night, Syversen finally set off some fireworks of his own, going off on a searing, microtone-spiced tangent that left the crowd at a loss for words. And as much as the solos, and the chops, and the grooves is what draws the crowds, what might be most impressive is that most of Raya Brass Band’s songs are originals. It’s impossible to distinguish their own songs from the Balkan sounds that have influenced them so deeply. Somebody put these guys on a plane to Guca, Serbia for the trumpet festival next year and watch them give the locals a run for their money.

Norian Maro’s Deliriously Entertaining Korean Harvest Spectacle Keeps the Crowd on Their Feet

You might think that a drum-and-dance troupe performing an ancient Korean peasants’ nongak harvest festival celebration would draw a mostly Korean audience, right? Friday night at Flushing Town Hall in Queens, Korean ensemble Norian Maro (whose name translates roughly as “Premier Performance”) had an unmistakably multi-ethnic, sold-out New York crowd, ranging from in age from kids to their grandparents, on their feet, cheering and stomping along with the irresistibly kinetic performance onstage.

The show reached a peak and then stayed there for its final twenty minutes or so, the performers clad in bright costumes and wearing caps topped with streamers on a swivel. The group members charged with the task – pretty much everybody – first spun their heads in a semicircle to activate the swivel and get the streamers flying in big arcs behind them, all the while spinning around the stage, and also playing intricate polyrhythms on a diverse collection of drums at the same time. And nobody onstage could resist a grin as they worked an ecstatic call-and-response with the crowd – and made it all look easy. How they managed to do that without losing their balance, or the beat, or a lot more, was mind-boggling. As a display of sheer athletic grace combined with musical prowess, it’s hard to imagine witnessing anything more impressive in this city in the past several months.

Norian Maro premiered the piece, titled Leodo: Paradise Lost, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last fall. It’s a metaphorical tale of the cycle of renewal, personified by a lithe dancer who gets caught in an ocean undertow and then comes face to face with the sea gods, among them a strikingly decorated dragon figure requiring two group members to keep him on his feet. After some very vigorous resuscitation, she’s transported to a magical isle where she comes to life again. One of the women in the group sang the narrative in Korean, in low, mysterious, otherworldly microtones, a revealing glimpse of the ancient, mysterious roots of dramatic Korean pansori singing.

As meticulously choreographed and spectacularly athletic as the dancing was, the stars of the show were the drummers, on a series of janggu drums ranging from a big, boomy tom, to a metal gong, to smaller metal hand drums that provided both clanging and mutedly shimmering tones. The star among all the players was a petite woman with a double-headed drum slung over her shoulder that was almost as big as she was, which she played in two separate time signatures at once, at one point firing off long volleys with a single mallet on both drum heads. Of all the players onstage, including Jong Suk Ki, Jung Hyeon Yung, Min Kyoung Ha, Sungjin Choi and Yoo Jeong Oh, she seemed to be having the most fun. Although one of the guys in the group had an equally good time with a tassel that he swung about fifty feet into the crowd, then later spun and spun until he had it flying from the roof to the floor of the stage, practically cartwheeling to keep it in motion.

The Korean Cultural Service, who staged this show, have a series of enticing concerts and spectacles coming up here. The next one is by Korean classical pianist Eunbi Kim playing works by Debussy, Fred Hersch, Daniel Bernard Roumain and others at 7 PM on Feb 26. Admission is free, but you have to RSVP, the sooner the better: and make sure to get to Flushing Town Hall’s historic Gilded Age auditorium, about five blocks from the last stop on the 7 train, at least a half hour early in order to claim your seats.

An Exhilarating Celebration of Ancient Yet Avant Garde Korean Sounds at Symphony Space

Saturday night’s celebration of traditional Korean music and dance staged by Sue Yeon Park of the Korean Performing Arts Center  at Symphony Space featured sounds that were as cutting-edge as they were rustic. Korean pansori singing, and much of Korean singing in general, employs microtones and trills and downwardly bent notes that would baffle an awful lot of western musicians. In her gritty, expressive contralto, like something of a Korean mountain-music counterpart to Tina Turner, iconic pansori chanteuse Shin Young-Hee made it look easy throughout a rather macabre-tinged excerpt from the 19th century love epic Chunhyung-ga. Famous Korean percussionist Lee Kwang-Soo – a gregarious and engaging guy with an edgy sense of humor – led a drum troupe through a thunderously hypnotic, subtly polyrhythmic benediction of sorts. Virtuoso Gee-Sook Baek teamed up with drummer Soung-Jae Cho, who spurred her on through a rivetingly spacious, suspenseful performance on the gayageum, a twelve-string lute that throws off otherworldly tremoloing tones and seems like it could be a predecessor of the sitar. Meanwhile, the night’s emcee, a musicologist from Seoul, reminded the crowd that all this music dated from an era when there was no distinction between performer and audience: participation is pretty much mandatory. All this did nothing to discourage the commonly held notion that Koreans are the 24-hour party people of Asia.

There was plenty of drumming, notably a skull-pounding interlude to open the second half of the concert by the Rutgers Korean Cultural Group, to rival the kind of explosively shamanistic Brazilian sounds produced by BatalaNYC. There was also dancing, lots of it. Park herself took a solo, a graceful number that saw her practically disappear into the stage, facedown, at the end, the folds of her silken costume edging closer and closer downward. It’s one thing to do the splits, Chuck Berry style – it’s another to hold that position in place. Park was doing that twenty years ago and clearly hasn’t lost any athleticism in the ensuing two decades, no small achievement.

A bevy of women swayed and gently exchanged places throughout a stately fan dance, serenaded by the band offstage. Several of the drummers wore ribbons on a swivel affixed to the rear of their uniform helmets, which they spun by moving their heads quickly, side to side – how they managed to keep their footing, keep the ribbons swirling, and keep time, without losing their balance or running headfirst into the the back wall of the stage, was impressive, to say the least. One of them finally made a circle of the stage, spinning faster and faster, leaning in toward the center in a more explosive take on what Turkish dervishes will do at the peak of a musical number. The night’s final performances brought a full musical ensemble together with the dance/drumming contingent (there was a lot of overlap among them, the night’s organizer included); tersely intense geomungo (six-string zither) player Mi Jin Park being a standout among them.

The Korean Peforming Arts Center and their house ensemble, Sounds of Korea, stage frequent outdoor concerts during the warmer months, from Lincoln Center to Little Korea just south of 34th Street and points further south as well; bookmark their webpage if sounds as sophisticated yet ancient as these are your thing.

A Pensive, Quietly Dynamic, Relevant Album of Japanese-Tinged Themes from Kojiro Umezaki

Kojiro Umezaki‘s axe is the shakuhachi, the rustic Japanese wood flute, an instantly recognizable instrument that can deliver both ghostly overtones and moody, misty high midrange sonics. Umezaki’s background spans the world of folk music and indie classical – he’s a member of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble -and is a frequent collaborator with groundbreaking string quartet Brooklyn Rider. Umezaki also has an album, Cycles, out from that group’s violinist Johnny Gandelsman’s maverick label In a Circle Records and streaming at Spotify. It’s a mix of originals along with reinvented themes from folk and classical music. As you might imagine, most of it is  quiet, thoughtful and often otherworldly, a good rainy-day listen.

The opening track, (Cycles) America reimagines a theme from Dvorak’s New World Symphony as a solo percussion piece for Joseph Gramley, who opens it on drums with hints of majestic grandeur, then provides loopily resonant vibraphone. The album’s thoughtfully spacious second track, 108 is where Umezaki makes his entrance, joined after a terse, slowly crescendoing intro by Dong-Wan Kim on janggo drum and Faraz Minooei on santoor. It builds to a swaying and then rather jauntily dancing groove with hints of South Indian classical music as Umezaki chooses his spots.

The traditional Japanese lullaby that follows is as gentle – and ghostly – as you might expect from a melody that could be a thousand years old, a graceful solo performance. Umezaki then delivers a circular, uneasily looping piece modeled after a famous 1923 post-earthquake work by Japanese composer Nakao Tozan, bringing it into the present day as a tense, distantly angst-ridden contemplation of a post-3/11 world.

On For Zero, Gramley plays lingering vibraphone  interspersed with the occasional emphatic cymbal crash or fuzzy wash of low-register synth. The album’s final track is a new version of a collaboration with Brooklyn Rider that originally appeared on the quartet’s 2010 album Dominant Curve, alternating between raptly inmersive atmospherics and edgy interplay between the quartet and the wood flute, a shakuhachi concerto of sorts.

From the Black Sea to Spanish Harlem in a Single Day at Lincoln Center

This year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors has been as reliably fun and eclectic as ever. And it’s more watchable than ever since many of the events are being simulcast (and promise to be archived for streaming later). As far as music from around the world is concerned, that’s been arguably better than ever. The previous weekend’s standout concert modeled itself on Globalfest, the dance-friendly annual spinoff of the January booking agents’ convention held at Webster Hall. Sunday’s show on the plaza mirrored the arguably even more deliriously fun, Middle Eastern-inspired Alwan-a-Thon conceived by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, held over the same weekend at downtown cultural mecca Alwan for the Arts.

The concert began with self-taught Afghani rubab lute player Quraishi leading a trio with twin dhol drums. His brief set of three traditional folk numbers and a bouncy original was considerably more lighthearted than his rather somber new album Mountain Melodies. Lilting pastoral themes that brought to mind more longscale Hindustani music rose and fell with a hypnotic pulse flavored with spiky, briskly fingerpicked improvisation. The lutenist explained that while some of his music reminds of styles from further east, many Indian ragas are based on Afghani melodies, and that the rubab is the ancestor of the Indian sarod. In a droll Q&A with the audience, Quraishi revealed the secret to keeping his instrument in tune with all the strings intact, no small achievement: he uses steel for the ringing, sympathetic strings and gut for the rest, with the exception of the bass string, which he’d liberated from a tennis racket. He didn’t specify whether that one was gut or nylon, but either way it didn’t break like others had.

Next on the bill were the haunting, exhilarating Ensemble Shashmaqam. As organizer Pete Rushefsky explained, the group originally came together in 1982 in Queens to play Bukharan Jewish repertoire but since has expanded to include Muslim folk material from Uzbekhistan and Tajikistan. In an otherworldly, passionately expressive bass-baritone, their powerful lead singer “Samarkandi,” a.k.a. Rustam Kojimamedov intoned and implored over an alternately haunting and bouncy backdrop fueled by the biting lines of David Davidov’s homemade tar lute. A trio of women dressed in colorful silk costumes took turns twirling and dancing gracefully across the stage throughout the show. A couple of elegaic waltzes, an anthem punctuated by anguished crescendos from Samarkandi that drew gasps of astonishment or solidarity from the crowd, as well as a jaunty, surprisingly lighthearted Jewish wedding dance mini-suite, vocals and tar set against a rather somber wash of minor-key accordion and backing vocals, made this the day’s most impactful set.

Turkish singer/composer Ahmet Erdogdular and his quartet – Peter Daverington on expressive, sailing ney flute, Elylen Basaldi on similarly lithe violin and meticulously precise, soulful oudist Mavrothi Kontanis (who has an alter ego as a darkly psychedelic rock bandleader) – maintained the serious mood. Maybe to differentiate his performance from the others, Erdogdular counterintuitively chose several songs in rather obscure maqam modes, rather than relying on the edgy chromatics and eerie microtones that make Turkish music both so haunting and so instantly identifiable. Erdogdular sang in a powerful, emotive baritone while accompanying himself on frame drum, and on one number, on tambur lute, contributing a long, plaintive solo that mirrored his pensive, brooding approach to the vocals.

The NY Crimean Tatar Ensemble continued the day’s theme of how the music of Turkik peoples has made such an impact from the Balkans through central Asia. Frontman Nariman Asimov spun adrenalizing, rapidfire violin lines balanced by the careful approach of virtuoso kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars) while a succession of men and women dancers, in gold-embroidered silk costumers similar to those worn by Ensemble Shashmaqam’s dancers, moved with a jaunty precision in front of the quartet. This group’s set was the most eclectic and stylistically diverse, ranging from moody klezmer-infused romps, a stately waltz or two and joyously pogoing dances, all of them lit up with searing violin and pointillistic kanun work. Pinarbasi shadowed the melody, indicating that he might not have had much if any rehearsal for the set but nonetheless managed to infuse everything with his signature dynamics and intensity.

About an hour and a half after this show had ended, bandleader Cita Rodriguez and her Orchestra took the stage in Damrosch Park just to the south, leading an ecstatic, towering tribute to her late father, the great salsa singer Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. Her brother, Pete, who happens to be one of the most potent, pyrotechnic trumpeters in all of jazz, got to take more of a turn on vocals this time, a role he grew into while still in his teens, singing choruses with his famous dad. The concert began with a hypnotic, otherworldly booming African drum interlude, then the orchestra kicked in with a mighty swell and kept the energy at redline well after the sun had finally gone down as a parade of El Conde’s colleagues, including but not limited to Johnny Pacheco, Willie Montalvo and others, took their turns on the mic. Through catchy, endless two-chord vamps punctuated by explosive brass swells, a couple of epically symphonic anthems and a suite of 70s hits, the party was in full effect and never relented. El Conde was a musician’s musician, a craftsman who was always looking for ways to take his art to the next level, through the last weeks of his life: as a celebration of Puerto Rican pride dating from the days when there was plenty of opposition to it in this city, he would have taken a lot of satisfaction from this.

MWE Rocks Out New and Classic Turkish Sounds

Bay Area band MWE play explosive, raw, intense music from Turkey, Armenia and Central Asia as well as their own songs which draw on those sounds. The band get their otherworldly sonics from the blend of sax, clarinets and the keening overtones of a Turkish zurna over the booming pulse of a davul marching drum. Their high-voltage, often haunting new album Second Wind – streaming all the way through at their Bandcamp page – kicks off with an instrumental cover of Bibining, by Turkmenistan-based group Ashkhabad. A hard-hitting clip-clop rhythm anchors supertight, eerie horn harmonies with echoes of Persian, Azeri and Turkish music.

They do a long take of the well-known Turkish traditional song Kara Gozlu as a diptych. The first part featuring Balkan sensation Eva Salina on lead vocals, hypnotic and resonant with her microtones over an ominous beat and lushly droning reeds; the second part is a long jam that dances along with biting, melismatic solos from both zurna and clarinet. Tea High, by zurna player Calvin Lai has a hypnotic trip-hop groove, his double-reed horn’s keening wail against the backdrop of clarinets creating a strange resonance much like a bagpipe, taking a shivery, swirling solo and then leading the band up to a dizzying thicket of polyrhythms and counterpoint.

Sari Galin, a traditional tune that appears in folk music from Turkey to Central Asia, gets a slow, haunting, funereal treatment with elegant exchanges of voices and plaintively spiraling solos for clarinets and zurna. Sad side note – the woman singer of a Persian group who won a Grammy for her version of this song wasn’t allowed to sing it live with the men in the band in her native Iran.

Ananke, by saxophonist Paul Bertin, kicks off as an upbeat, slinky, Macedonian-tinged number before the clouds come in and the chromatics and darkness descend, with a lusciously microtonal clarinet solo. The Armenian folk song Shalakho sways along over an Arabic-flavored chromatic mode lit up by call-and-response between the zurna and clarinets and bracingly lively solo sax over the drums before the band brings the edgy riffage back. They take they hypnotic, anthemic Agrelia, by Boril Iliev back in time a hundred years over guest Marco Peris’ tapan drum, clarinet circling anxiously over a hypnotically pulsing riff from the rest of the band. The album winds up with the traditional Turkish song Ne Yalan, opening with a long, suspenseful zurno solo over drony atmospherics, then the drums kick in and it’s a towering, slinky, shapeshifting Middle Eastern anthem. Party music in 2013 doesn’t get any more intense than this.

Delicate, Otherworldly Exotica from Vietnamese Folk Innovator Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

It took two and a half years, but an album finally came over the transom here that’s so strange and otherworldly and surrealistically captivating that it qualifies as exotic. Van-Anh Vanessa Vo‘s new release Three Mountain Pass mixes and sometimes mashes up traditional Vietnamese sounds along with an opera piece featuring the Kronos Quartet, plus a reinvention of an iconic, macabre classic. Her main instruments are the dan tranh – which has the ringing, sitar-like, bent-note resonance of the Indian sarangi, but with fewer overtones – and the dan bau, which can swoop and dive like an acoustic version of a theremin, or carry long resonant lines like a violin.

She opens the album with a solo dan tranh diptych, slowly unfolding in the Asian pentatonic scale and then working its way into an insistent raga-like interlude. Erik Satie’s creepily immortal Gnossienne No. 3 gets an expansive interpretation, the lingeringly eerie melody grounded by ghostly chords played on a bass dan tranh. On the minimalistic title track, Vo sings her own arrangement of  an 18th century Vietnamese poem with a brittle, impassioned expressiveness over hypnotic hang (the Swiss steel drum) and percussion. Vo joins with the Kronos Quartet on Green River Delta, a folk-inspired opera piece written by Luu Thuy Truong, rising to a dancing pastoral sway that blends hypnotically with the spiky dan tranh melody underneath.

She concludes the album with a trio of originals. Mourning, an elegy for those maimed and killed during the Vietnam War, mixes dizzyingly sepulchral layers of echoing, sirening, multitracked dan bau. The Legend illustrates a Vietnamese creation myth, its spacious atmospherics interchanging with an intricate web of dan tranh, percussion and keyboards. Vo plays t’rung, the South Vietnamese bamboo xylophone, accompanied by boomy Japanese taiko drums on the final cut, Go Hunting, a mysterious but lively jungle theme. All of this has a strangely soothing effect: it isn’t likely that there’s been another album that remotely resembles this one released (in this case, by Innova) in the US this year.