New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: asian music

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.

A Second Night with the Kronos Quartet

[repost from the other blog – if you visit here frequently, you’ll notice how that place comes in handy to keep the front page fresh here at the end of the month when all possible energy is being summoned to pull together a new NYC live music calendar...]

If you could see the Kronos Quartet two nights in a row – for free – wouldn’t you? That’s part of the premise of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. It was no surprise that the seats filled up early last night for an exhilarating string-driven cross-continental journey that began in Syria and ended in Greece, with flights to Palestine and India in between.

The group opened with a deliciously intense, hauntingly pulsing number by Syrian star Omar Souleyman titled I’ll Prevent the Hunters from Hunting You, a particularly apt choice considering the ongoing revolutionary struggles there. Violinist John Sherba’s nonchalantly sizzling swoops and dives soared against the beat of violist Hank Dutt, who was playing goblet drum, amped up in the mix for a ba-BOOM swing that put to shame any drum machine ever devised. They followed with a gorgeously ambered, austere old Yachiel Karniol cantorial tone poem of sorts, Sim Shalom (Let There Be Peace), a feature for the group’s new cellist Sunny Yang to air out the whispery, occasionally wailling ghosts in her instrument.

An electrocoustic take on Palestinian group Ramallah Underground‘s gritty, metaphorically charged Tashweesh (Distortion) was next, the ensemble adhering tightly to a backing track for a hypnotic, menacingly Lynchian ambience. Avant garde Vietnamese-American zither player Van-Anh Vo then joined the ensemble on the traditional, spiky dan tranh and vocals (and later played keening, sinister glissandos on a loudly amplified dan bao) for a lush pastorale possibly titled Green Delta. Violinist David Harrington led them through Vo’s Christmas Storm to a wild chamber-metal crescendo out; Dutt switched to a screechy wood flute for a third Vo work, before returning to his usual axe as the piece morphed into a lithe dance. After a long, rapt Ljova arrangement of the anxiously dreamy alap section of a Ram Narayan raga, Harrington switching to the resonant sarangi, the ensemble brought up Magda Giannikou, frontwoman of the disarmingly charming French lounge-pop group Banda Magda, to play a new, custom-made lanterna with its deep, rippling, pinging tones. The world premiere of her new work Strope in Antistrophe mingled biting yet playful cadenzas and tricky back-and-forth polyrhythms within a warmly tuneful, enveloping atmosphere.

Aptly named Irish chamber-folk quartet the Gloaming opened the evening with a series of resonantly nocturnal arrangements of ancient songs as well as a couple of new ones that sounded like them, violinist Martin Hayes’ otherworldly, deceptively simple washes of melody rising over Dennis Cahill’s casually meticulous guitar, along with piano and vocals. What’s the likelihood of seeing something this esoteric, and this much fun? In the next couple of weeks, pretty much every day.

House of Waters Bring Their Gorgeous Psychedelic Textures to the Rockwood

House of Waters are one of New York’s most interesting and unique bands. Part funky jamband, part Afrobeat and part pan-Asian, there is no other group in the world who sound remotely like them. In a casually expert way, frontman Max ZT is the Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer, an instrument on which he is a former American national champion. Yet while American folk music informs his songwriting, his rippling, hypnotic, warmly psychedelic instrumentals draw on styles from around the globe. As one would assume from a disciple of Shivkumar Sharma, India’s greatest master of the santoor – an ancestor of the hammered dulcimer – he’s taking his instrument to places it’s never gone before. The lush, dreamy quality of many of these songs disguises the fact that there are only three instruments in the band: the dulcimer, Moto Fukushima’s eight-string bass and Luke Notary’s cajon. They’re playing the small room at the Rockwood at 11 PM on May 17; if global sounds with a psychedelic edge are your thing, you’ll love this band.

Their album is titled Revolution: their kind of revolution is a good-natured, upbeat one. It’s a generous fifteen-track mix, the resonant ring of the dulcimer blending with the undulating bass and a thicket of percussion. Sometimes the dulcimer and bass double each others’ lines; other times they play off each other, or trade places, dulcimer anchoring a trancey groove as the bass sails overhead. There’s often a layer of dirt in the tone of the bass, and Fukushima uses all eight strings, especially if he takes a rapidfire guitar lead. Sometimes the beats are straight-up, other times they’re more tricky. That it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what speaks to the intricacy of the arrangements and the chemistry in the band.

A couple of the numbers work variations around a central tone as in indie rock, one of them rising to a big, insistent, anthemic stadium-rock crescendo, the other going into unexpectedly moody, ominous territory. Another track has a swaying triplet rhythm and a warm Mediterranean feel. Sound of Impermanence works around spiraling upper-register licks on the highest strings of the bass, while Sabula rises to a majestic, spacious atmosphere, Max ZT choosing his spots. The album’s most energetic cut, Agnolim, has the dulcimer machinegunning over a nonchalantly catchy, low-key groove – and then the bass goodnaturedly takes over. The closing track, Ball in Cage sets spacious Asian riffs over interwoven loops in both the lows and the highs from the bass. There’s also a terse rainy-day theme and a brief interlude that sounds like a resonator guitar solo but clearly isn’t.

The Live Chronicles Continue

Here’s a look back at a couple of Sundays ago, which happened to be a tremendous day for live music in New York: yeah, it’s a while ago, but good music is timeless. This was on a Sunday, no less. Goes to show that even gentrification can’t kill good music in this city: unexpected places yield unexpected rewards.

The day began with the New York Scandia Brass Quintet – comprising part of the brass section of the brilliant and underappreciated New York Scandia Symphony Orchestra – playing in Fort Tryon Park way up in Washington Heights. The tourists all went in the direction of the Cloisters; the neighborhood people went down the hill to hear the music. It might seem like an insult to describe a brass quintet as sleepy, but that vibe perfectly captured the feel of the afternoon, and as the show went on, the musicians picked up the pace. The Scandia’s raison d’etre is to spread the word about Scandinavian composers who deserve to be better known here than they are: the early part of this concert felt like it could have been staged in Copenhagen, or Oslo sometime in the summer of 1876, to pull a year out of the air. There were a couple of national anthems, a couple of arrangements of folk tunes, a secondary national anthem that’s sort of the This Land Is Your Land of Norway, and finally a bracingly modernist composition by Anders Koppel, a sixties rocker who found his calling as an avant-garde composer. Meanwhile, the quintet and their conductor took pains to introduce the compositions, engage the kids in the crowd and hold a raffle for the benefit of those lucky enough to be on the lawn when the music started: a pair of lucky couples walked away with some unexpected goodies.

If that was any indication, the concert picked up the pace from there – the orchestra has played a series of June concerts here for the last few years – but it was time to get on the train, and with some Sunday luck get to LIC Bar in Long Island City to watch Wallace on Fire prowl and sway their way through a casually intense set of Americana-flavored rock outside at the bar’s friendly patio space. An outside observer would never have guessed that this was the equivalent of a pickup band, frontman/guitarist J Wallace leading a four-piece group with a keyboardist and drummer who’d rehearsed together maybe once before, along with eclectic bassist Joe Wallace (who’d dropped his pants onstage during his show the previous night at Webster Hall, playing with glamrock party monsters Haley Bowery and the Manimals). Together they evoked Steve Wynn, Neil Young and maybe Son Volt. J Wallace’s laid-back drawl and unselfconsciously biting guitar set the tone, matched by his keyboardist’s soulful wail and Joe Wallace’s incisive, melodic basslines. Uneasily swaying anthems and a couple of laid-back backbeat-driven country numbers were a big hit with the impressively large crowd who’d gathered in the bar’s backyard patio space to hear the music despite some soccer game that had drawn all the neighborhood Europeans into the front room with the tv.

After that, the day wasn’t over yet. Indonesia’s massive, brightly costumed, roughly 40-person Manado State University Choir brought a stunning virtuosity and also a personal warmth to St. Paul’s Chapel downtown. The young singers – some of whom seemed to be younger than university age – greeted audience members personally, shyly but vigorously: choirmaster Andre de Quadros covers all the bases in their lessons in public performance. African-American spirituals are hugely popular with choirs and their audiences in the Indonesian archipelago, and they sang a handful with the same meticulousness they gave to a couple of Mendelssohn works. It didn’t have the improvisational ecstasy of American choirs; by the same token, it was good to see those haunting old songs treated with the same dignity and respect as Mendelssohn, which they deserve. But it was the traditional works that the crowd – a mix of expats, tourists and fans of esoterica – had come to see. The men assailed the first one with a percussive fury as the women’s voices swirled in a counterpoint rich in microtones, then brought it down with a guttural suspense to end it: there’s a lot of cross-pollination between India and Indonesia, and this piece reflected it. A second one took on an even greater majesty as the tightly choreographed singers shifted places almost as much as they shifted notes with a similar intricacy; the enveloping crescendo reached its peak with a third work, the womens’ lushly interwoven high tonalities mingling to the point where it was impossible to keep track of who was singing what. The group closed with a fascinatingly interpolated mashup of an ancient Andalusian Muslim hymn and an English one: “This was from the days when it was normal to be Arab, Muslim and European,” de Quadros remarked dryly, and his words took on a particular poignancy in a neighborhood that’s seen extremists protesting against a tiny second-floor storefront mosque a few blocks to the north. Susie Ibarra’s Electric Kulintang was next on the bill, but the interior of the landmark old church had risen to boiling point, and since her ensemble is New York-based and plays the occasional concert at the Stone, there didn’t seem to be any harm in leaving. Besides, it would soon be time to get to the Rockwood to see Vagabond Swing.

The Sambasunda Quintet Take Gamelan Music to New Places

What would gamelan music sound like if it was played on stringed instruments instead of bells? The Sambasunda Quintet, a small-group spinoff of the famous Javenese gamelan orchestra, answer that question on their brand-new album, simply titled Java. It’s absolutely gorgeous. But unlike their main project, this particular unit doesn’t use gongs. Instead, this crew substitutes lush layers of kacapi (a boat-shaped zither) along with lute, wood flute, percussion and the delicate, dreamy Javanese vocals of frontwoman Rita Tila for an effect that’s far more eclectic, ambitious and global in scope than you would likely imagine. The songs here are LONG – miniature suites that clock in at ten minutes apiece or even more. It’s music to get lost in, especially for fans of Bollywood, gamelans or, for that matter, anyone who gravitates toward lush, hypnotic sonics.

With its lush dreampop-style harmonies, the opening track makes it easy to see where the roots of Indonesian pop originated.  Elegantly arranged, it builds almost imperceptibly to an unselfconsciously intense crescendo like several of the other tracks here. Another cut morphs from a big, tensely restrained minor-key ballad into a South Sea Islands tango; a bit later on, the group sends an Irish reel reeling into Javanese territory. While the idea of segueing from a gentle march, into hypnotic, pointillistic gamelanesque ambience and then Arabic modes might sound overwhelming, this group does it with a grace that’s often quite plaintive. One of the more anthemic numbers builds from an ominous motif that wouldn’t be out of place in heavy metal; by contrast, a catchy, biting pop number grows sunnier as it goes along, ending with a joyous “wheeee!” The album’s strongest track is a wary, ten-minute epic that mingles Bollywood, Middle Eastern and north Asian tonalities; the album winds up with another catchy, swaying tango-infused track and then a sweeping, insistent overture that rises and falls, mingling gently persistent lute with fluttering flute and the bell-like tones of the kacapi. The band is currently on UK tour; the record is out now on Riverboat Records.