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An Awesome New Album and an East Village Release Show by Ethio-Jazz Songstress Meklit

Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz  But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that  into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.

Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.

The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.

Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?

Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.

Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” –  her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.

Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.

Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.

Ethio-Jazz Soul Singer Meklit Airs Out Her Brilliant Forthcoming Album at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center, Meklit came to conquer. Rocking a sassy kente cloth skirt and black top, the ex-Brooklynite Ethio-jazz belter bounded and whirled across the stage, singing in both English and Amharic, leading a tight six-piece band through a passionate, fiery, subtly relevant mix of mostly new songs from her forthcoming album When the People Move, the Music Moves Too. Freed from behind her acoustic guitar – at least for most of the set – she’s found new vocal power in her low register, and commands the stage like never before. It’s hard to believe that the artist formerly known as Meklit Hadero – her full name – got her start in the cautious, sedate world of singer-songwriters.

While her work has always drawn on her Ethiopian roots, her newest material goes deeper into that nation’s joyously cantering, brassy dance music from the 60s and 70s. “Ethio-jazz in 2017!” was the mantra throughout the night’s most explosively kinetic number, I Want to Sing For Them All, a shout-out to influences ranging from the golden-age hip-hop she grew up with and found kinship in, to Coltrane and Mulatu Astatke, among many others. Drummer Colin Douglas and percussionist Marco Peris Coppola negotiated the song’s twists and turns with a steely precision as bassist Sam Bevan bubbled behind the searing, thrilling, trilling chomatic harmonies of tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley and trumpeter DeAndre Schaifer. It was a visceral validation of George Clinton’s observation about how freedom begins in the lower extremities.

In between songs, there was silence, and Meklit let it linger, choosing her thoughts like she chooses her spots as a singer. “Welcome to my living room!” she beamed as the second line-tinged groove of You Are My Luck got underway, an irrepressibly shuffling shout-out to the power of love as fuel for the struggle. She bookended her roughly hourlong set with a couple of bracing Ethio-jazz numbers, the first with a trick ending and a tantalizingly brief Wiley solo, the closing number a careening, pulsing take of the first Ethiopian number Miriam Makeba learned for her initial trip to that country in the 1960s.

They reinvented an Erykah Badu pop hit as Ethiopiques, with a still, suspenseful intro that gave way to spine-tingling microtonal horn riffage. One of the new songs, Supernova was akin to the Sometime Boys tackling Ethiopian funk, with Meklit’s most powerful, dramatic vocal of the night. “In case you’re ever feeling ordinary, remember you were born in a supernova,” she mused beforehand.

Musically speaking, the high point of the evening was an insistent minor-key anthem, part Ethiopiques, part Aretha, with a long, feral, microtonal Wiley solo that began with aching sirening effects and eventually picked up with volley after volley of chromatics and microtones. Then Meklit plugged in her krar harp for a number she hoped would be as hypnotic to the crowd as it is to her, an argument that held. Then she flipped the script with her own wryly sunny happy-birthday song, a welcome alternative to what you hear blasting from the speakers in East Village Indian restaurants.

The triumphantly crescendoing, anthemic, soukous-tinged This Was Made Here peaked out with a long, riveting, trilling trumpet solo fueled by Schaifer’s circular breathing. “I’m not going to wait, and I’m not going away,” Meklit belted. Throughout the set, Bevan – switching from standup and five-string Fender, and then back – impressed with his ability to be busy but not obtrusive, playing lots of variations on bouncy octaves. Coppola, with a big Indian dhol bass drum slung over his shoulder, handled the tricky metrics in tandem with Douglas and Bevan. At one point the drummers left their posts to bang on the bass strings for a solo: this group has as much fun onstage as their bandleader. The next stop on their current US tour is tonight, April 7 at 8 PM at World Cafe, 500 N. Market St. in Wilmington, Delaware.

The atrium space at Lincoln Center is where most of the most happening shows there take place – it’s an easy place to call home away from home. The next one is on April 20 at 7:30 PM with psychedelic Colombian champeta dance band Tribu Baharu.