New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: dance music

Underground System Bring Their Trippy Afrobeat and Dancefloor Sounds to Two Hometown Gigs

Underground System are one of New York’s funnest party bands. They blend original Afrobeat jams with hard funk and psychedelia along with tinges of tropical and Mediterranean sounds. Charismatic frontwoman Domenica Fossati adds flute and percussion to the mix, and her allusive lyrics often tackle important sociopolitical issues. The band’s debut full-length album What Are You is streaming at Bandcamp; They’re at Bric Arts on March 7 at 8 PM, opening for mesmerizing Palestinian hip-hop/dancehall reggae/habibi pop band 47soul; advance tix are $15 and available at the front desk for those who want to avoid service charges. Underground System are also at C’Mon Everybody on March 22 at 11 for five bucks less.

The album’s opening number, Three’s a Charm has a loping goove, Peter Matson building contrasting layers of gritty guitar and sleek synth over a loopy, punchy backdrop supplied by drummer Yoshio Kobayashi and bassist Jonathan Granoff. They follow a brief, swirly flute-and-synth intro into Go, a hypnotic escape anthem for the dancefloor

As she does in many of her songs, Fossati codeswitches between Spanish and English in the sarcastic, confrontational Rent Party, Maria Eisen tossing in some extra spice with her baritone sax over a catchy, psychedelically looping bass riff,. The album’s title track has more pillowy ambience over a stabbing Afrobeat drive, Eisen adding a sailing, echoey solo overhead.

They keep a hypnotic disco pulse going throughout Just a Place, an organic take on EDM with loopy chicken-scratch guitar and allusions to the disorienting, displacing effects of gentrification. Fossati  swittches to Italian for over a looped Afrobeat bass riff in the brief Sebben (La Lega), followed by State of Mind, a return to the gritty/slick dichotomy of the album’s opening number

If New Order had a thing for Afrobeat back in the early 80s, they would have written something  like What’s It Gonna Take. The album’s final track is Nmani, a surreal mashup of synthy laptop pop and what sounds like Congolese mbira music. If you’re in the mood for psychedelic sounds that also move your feet, or party music that entertains your brain, this is your jam.

Revelry with Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7 at Symphony Space

This past evening. even though Symphony Space seemed to be sold out, it was a little strange not to to see the usual Thursday night crowd of dancers who pack the floor in front of the stage.

That’s right: dancing at Symphony Space. It’s a thing.

Serenaded by the period-prefect early 40s-style originals of guitarist Glenn Crytzer’s Savoy 7, a lone young woman in a red dress twirled, schooling everybody in the house: she really knew her  moves. A middle-aged guy, who obviously didn’t, joined her, but he was game, and he hung in there and got a personal swing dance lesson for nothing. A few other couples went out onto the floor, but it was clear that nobody was going to be able to keep up with the vermilion vixen.

And the music was just as good. Beyond being a rare jazz guitarist who doesn’t waste notes, Crytzer is very funny. Throughout over an hour and a half onstage, the band romped through one trick ending after another, along with innumerable, coy, vaudevillian exchanges that only once in awhile went completely over the top.

Crytzer explained that the model for this band was Benny Goodman’s 1940-41 Septet with Charlie Christian on guitar. True to form, Crytzer was especially chill throughout the show, limiting his solos to maybe a couple of bars at the most. Likewise, the horns followed a dixieland-inspired pattern, with brisk handoffs where everybody was practically stepping on the next guy, like the dialogue in an early MGM talkie. Echoes of Cab Calloway, John Kirby and Louis Jordan also bounced through the songs from time to time.

Guest singer Barbara Rosene brought an understated brassiness to the vocal numbers, which were the night’s funniest songs. The best of these was a midtempo tune with a chorus of “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” With its droll stoner call-and-response, When I Get Low I Get High – sung by Crytzer – was pretty self-explanatory. There was also a number about a melody that bedeviled him so much that he ended turning it into a meta-song, pondering that if he could have come up with a lyric as catchy as the hook, he’d be more famous than Rodgers and Hart.

Who Needs Spring, Crytzer explained, was a tune with a very short shelf life; he breaks it out right about now, then retires it until winter comes around again. The instrumentals had plenty of humor as well, from the wry, folksy travelogue Not Far to Fargo, to a sleepy Florida-Georgia highway tune, Road to Tallahassee. Crytzer explained that he wasn’t thrilled with the title of the jaunty Live to Swing until the German superfan who came up with the idea threw big bucks into the crowdsourcing campaign for the guitarist’s most recent, lavish big band double album…money changes everything, doesn’t it?

The best song of the night was I Get Ideas, an uncharacteristically brooding mashup of hi-de-ho swing and distant hints of the music’s klezmer roots, featuring the most biting solos of the night, around the horn from Rich Alexander’s tenor sax to Mike Davis’ muted trumpet, Matt Koza’s clarinet and finally the bandleader himself. The rest of the band – Bob Reich on piano, Ian Hutchison on bass and Andrew Millar on drums – chose their spots for clever cameos throughout the set

Next week’s installment of Symphony Space’s Thursday night Revelry series, as they call it, is on Feb 28 at 7:30 PM with a special intimate duo set from the core of edgy Israeli dance band Yemen Blues; you can get in for $20 if you’re thirty and under, and there are drink specials from the bar all night. Crytzer plays with his quartet at 7 PM on Feb 24 at Peppi’s Cellar at 406 Broome St. in SoHo.

The Spanish Harlem Orchestra Bring a Wild Salsa Party to Curry Hill

Remember when you couldn’t walk down the avenue anywhere in the five boroughs without hearing salsa blasting from every other car and delivery van? Back in the day, it was such a welcoming sound to come home to, especially after being outside the country. Reggaeton and cumbia may have eclipsed salsa as Latino New York’s default party music, but it isn’t just oldtimers who’re keeping it alive. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra don’t play as many gigs as they used to, so if classic 70s salsa dura is your thing, their three-night stand at the Jazz Standard this Feb 21-24 is for you. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 PM; cover is a hefty $35, but remember the club doesn’t have minimums. On the other hand, nobody’s going to blame you if you can’t resist the barbecue: keep in mind they share a kitchen with Blue Smoke upstairs.

The band’s latest album, Anniversary is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of originals and imaginatively reinvented standards. The opening track, Esa Nena sets the stage with a 70s Fania Records blueprint: blazing brass, playful polyrhythms, energetic call-and-response and a pulsingly catchy, vamping Afro-Cuban groove.

Yo Te Prometo is a bristling bolero in bright salsa disguise. Underneath the brassy gusts and insistent drive of Dime Tu, there’s a hypnotic thicket of woodblock and bongos, the timbales coming further toward the front alongside a honking Mitch Frohman baritone sax solo. The song’s message of solidarity carries special resonance in these xenophobic times.

Goza Al Ritmo has a shadowy solo from pianist Oscar Hernández. A tantalizingly brief, punchy trumpet solo and a go-for-broke outro cap off the mighty dance anthem Echa Pa’Lante. Guaracha y Bembe is a distinctly New York update on 50s Cuban big band majesty: singer Marco Bermudez calls this the soundtrack for a crazy night, and he isn’t kidding.

Y Deja and La Media Vuelta are more romantic, looking back to the 80s and then a couple of decades further, respectively. Cancion Para Ti is the poppiest, most 80s-flavored track here, Jeremy Bosch’s flute fluttering in and out. Como Te Quise has some unexpected baroque moments from the brass – Reynado Jorge and Doug Beavers on trombones, Hector Colon and Maneco Ruiz on trumpets.

Tres Palabras – another spiced-up bolero – has a deliciously lush, nocturnal atmosphere: it comes across as a more lavishly orchestrated counterpart to Bio Ritmo. Likewise, Somos Uno has a pouncing intensity along with a bubbling, triumphant trumpet cameo from Randy Brecker, The album’s final track is Soy El Tambor, a mighty, tumbling coda to over an hour’s worth of music. 

First and foremost, this is a party in a box. Lyrically, the songs celebrate pretty women, getting out on the floor and rhythmic sabrosura, with more serious references to the music’s cultural and historical value. At this point in history, salsa is a legacy genre like Chicago blues, roots reggae and bluegrass; there aren’t as many people taking it to new places anymore and this is one group who still are.

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

Epic, Fearless, Funky Orchestral Jamband Burnt Sugar Celebrate Twenty Years at Lincoln Center

Burnt Sugar hold the record for the most performances at Lincoln Center’s atrium space, impresario Jordana Leigh enthused moments before the mammoth ensemble took the stage there this past evening in celebration of their twentieth anniversary. “I can’t think of a band that more encapsulates New York…and the talent, and the energy, and style!”

“If you’ve seen us before, you know that we alternate between the raw and the cooked,” founder and conductor Greg Tate grinned, referring to the band’s penchant for swinging wildly between reinventions of others’ music and their own serpentine, tectonic, often thunderous mass improvisations. If memory serves right – there were a LOT of people onstage – this version of the collective had four singers, four guitarists, a horn section, rhythm section and keys in addition to plenty of beats and maybe atmospherics stashed away in somebody’s pedal.

From behind his Strat, Tate directed rises, falls, signaled for solos and for specific groups of instrumentation to punch in or out, in the same vein as the inventor of “conduction,” the late, great Butch Morris. The evening’s sprawling opening instrumental rose and fell with all sorts of sudden shifts, punchy and lyrical solos from JS Williams’ trumpet, V. Jeffrey Smith’s alto sax and Paula Henderson’s smoky baritone sax.

With former member Rene Akan’s Wretched of the Earth, Page 88, they made squalling, careening, Rage Against the Machine metalfunk out of a grim account of a city under fire in Frantz Fanon’s classic antiglobalist manifesto. This may be the performance where Burnt Sugar set another record, as the loudest band ever to play this space, a possibility reinforced by another Akan number that sounded in places as if the Bad Brains had cloned themselves.

“Rome burned while freedom lurked, masquerade and misdirection, incantations hide intentions,” singer Lisala Beatty mused over Leon Gruenbaum’s percolating, slinky Fender Rhodes groove a bit later in the set. It was akin to symphonic Gil Scott-Heron: “Young, black and vague, now you gotta ride the future shock wave.”

Smith’s disarmingly beautiful sax swirls spun over a slow, hypnotic beat as a wryly funny duet between Beatty and fellow vocalist Mikell Banks got underway – it could have been a joint homage to Sun Ra and Prince. The vocal version of Chains and Water – the opening track on Burnt Sugar’s 2009 album Making Love to the Dark Ages – had a subdued, hypnotic sway that masked its ferocious look back at the legacy of the Middle Passage, at least until the guitars flared up. They took it down with a rather chilling chain gang-style contrapuntal vocal outro.

Smith and bassist Jared Nickerson dedicated Naomi, a tender yet lively duet, to Nickerson’s aunt. It brought to mind Kenny Garrett back in the 90s in a particularly sunny mood. Then the group completely flipped the script with Ride Ride Ride – complete with sarcastically loopy faux-anthemic organ and a singalong chorus that went “Ride ride ride, everybody gonna get gentrified.” Henderson’s snarky, honking, repetitive solo offered momentary relief from a scenario where everyone’s “Homeless and boneless, your judgment an eternal curse.”

Tate might laugh if he heard this, but at this show he was the best guitarist onstage, plucking out sparse, enigmatic chords that resonated far more than any Eddie Van Halen squeals and divebomb effects could have. The group wound out the night with a nebulous backbeat-driven examination of racism in the early Bush/Cheney war era, an oldschool disco tune, and a gritty, atmospheric, Nina Simone-tinged ballad sung with considerable gravitas by Meah Pace.

Burnt Sugar are at the Brooklyn Museum on Jan 31 at 7 PM; cover is $16 and includes museum admission. The next show at the atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is Jan 17 at 7:30 PM with the amazing and only slightly less epic Black String, who blend stormy art-rock, mesmerizing Korean traditional music, opera and hip-hop. Get there early if you’re going.

Globalfest 2019: Esoterica Rules, Again

Special thanks to Globalfest staffer Neha Gandhi, whose quick thinking, quiet diplomacy and efforts beyond the call of duty (and complicity in trying to create a teachable moment) made it possible for this review to appear

The premise of Globalfest in its early days was to connect talent buyers with booking agents representing acts from around the world. Youtube may have rendered that innovation obsolete, but every January, both crowds get together in New York to party on the company dime….and see some great music. The public comes out too. “I didn’t expect to see you here!” draws a response of “I didn’t expect to see you either!” Friends from the swing jazz or country blues scene discover a possibly secret, shared love for middle eastern music, and so forth. In 2019, more than ever, esoterica rules.

Sets are staggered in different areas of the venue throughout the night so that everybody can get a little taste of everything. As usual, last night’s show had more flavors than Dosa Hut (in case you haven’t already been seduced by the New York area’s most ambitious purveyors of sublimely delicious, crunchy Indian wraps, you are in for a treat).

Over the last couple of years, the artists on the bill have often represented a forceful backlash against anti-immigrant stridency, and last night was no exception. Both the whirlwind Palestinian rap-rock-reggae crew 47SOUL and magical Mexican chanteuse Magos Herrera – backed by string quartet Brooklyn Rider and drummer Mathias Kunzli – articulated fierce responses against wall-building.

But that issue was just a small part of each act’s many-faceted performance. 47SOUL spoke not only for the rights of Palestinians and Syrian refugees but for full-scale global unity against encroaching tyranny, through a blend of Arabic hip-hop, surreal dub reggae and keening, synthy habibi dancefloor pop. Likewise, Herrera drew on practically a century of pan-latin balladry, protest songs, classical and indie classical music, over a backdrop that was as propulsive as it was lustrous. It’s rare to see a string quartet play with as much sheer vigor as violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicholas.

It would have been fun to have been able to catch more of the spectacularly dynamic Debashish Bhattacharya, who alternated between rapidfire raga intensity on veena, and some unexpectedly balmy, twinkling slide guitar work in a Hawaiian slack-key interlude, joined by his similarly masterful daughter Anandi on vocals along with a first-rate tabla player.

Likewise, it was tantalizing to watch from behind the drums, relying on the monitor mix, throughout most of the night’s best-attended set, by theatrical Ukrainian band Dakh Daughters. The theatrical all-female group came across as a Slavic gothic mashup of the Dresden Dolls and Rasputina. In matching white facepaint and forest-spirit dresses, they paired ominous cellos against creepy piano chromatics and spritely flute over slow, ominous beats, switching off instruments frequently. As with so many artists whose cultures have been under attack, there’s no doubt plenty of grim subtext in their phantasmagorical narratives.

Since headliner the Mighty Sparrow had cancelled, the night’s largest ensemble were oldschool Cuban salsa band Orquesta Akokán, shifting through sparsely pummeling charanga-style passages, slinky mambos at various tempos, a lickety-split tonguetwister number and a machinegunning timbale solo that might have been the most adrenalizing moment of the entire night.

Playing solo a floor above, guitarist/banjo player Amythyst Kiah held the crowd rapt with her powerful, looming contralto vocals, her tersely slashing chops on both instruments and unselfconsciously deep insights into the melting pot of Appalachian folk music. Blending brooding, judiciously fingerpicked originals with a similarly moody choice of covers, she went as far back as 18th century Scotland – via 19th century African America – and as far forward as Dolly Parton, with equally intense results.

The evening ended with an apt choice of headliner, Combo Chimbita, who kept the remaining crowd of dancers on their feet throughout a swirling tornado of psychedelic, dub-inspired tropicalia, merengue and cumbia. Frontwoman Carolina Oliveros, a force of nature with her shamanic, hurricane-force roar and wail, circled the stage as if in a trance. Behind her, guitarist Niño Lento, bassist/keyboardist Prince of Queens and drummer Dilemastronauta built smoky ambience that rose to frenetic electric torrents and then subsided, a mighty series of waves to ride out into an increasingly chilly night.

Combo Chimbita Air Out Their Darkly Shamanic Psychedelic Grooves at Lincoln Center

This past evening at Combo Chimbita’s feral, darkly psychedelic show, Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez explained that the dancefloor at the atrium space had been opened up, “So that you will feed off their energy and they will feed off you.” She was on to something.

The Colombian-American band were celebrating the release of their first single, Testigo, from a forthcoming album due out in 2019. Drummer Dilemastronauta built a boomy, shamanic triplet groove over an enveloping low drone as Niño Lento’s synth woozed in and out. Then a whistle of wind echoed the rain raging outside, and frontwoman Carolina Oliveros took the stage. Decked out in a striking, stark black gothic skirt and blouse, silvery bracelets and facepaint flickering under the low lights, she was an Incan avenging angel hell-bent on righting centuries of conquistadorian evil. As the group rose to a screaming peak behind her, she didn’t waste time cutting loose, Niño Lento blasting out eerie sheets of reverb from his Fender Jazzmaster. Maybe because the guitar was so loud, she was even more ferocious than usual: their usual home base, Barbes, is a lot smaller.

Next it was bassist Prince of Queens’ turn to get a catchy minor-key riff swirling from his keys, then a reggae-tinged pulse as the guitar fired off a flickering, deep-space hailstorm. A stygian vortex of sound took centstage as Oliveros left her trance momentarily, then the group hit a galloping Ethiopiques beat with a furious, insistent- bullerengue-style call-and-response, which made sense considering that Oliveros also fronts the even trancier, considerably more rustic Afro-Colombian collective Bulla En El Barrio. It was a galloping constelacion of Los Destellos psychedelic cumbia and the Black Angels.

Oliveros stalked across the stage, channeling an increasingly forceful series of witchy voices as the next tune grew from a brooding, reggae-tinged groove to a hypnotically cantering blend of icepick reverb guitar and woozy synth swirl. The song after that was just as psychedelic, a deep-space hailstorm of hammer-on guitar over dubwise bass and Oliveros’ looming intensity front and center, foreshadowing the big crescendo the band would hit with the new single a bit later.

From there Oliveros’ imploring voice rose over an echoing, bass-heavy slink that slowly shifted from reggae to cumbia and back and forth, the menace of Niño Lento’s funereal organ closer and closer on the horizon. Sinister dub bass anchored icy minor-key clang, giving Oliveros a long launching pad for her most explosive, assaultively shivery vocal attack of the evening. After awhile, it was as if the show was all just one long, grittily triumphant anthem. You might not have heard it here first, but this is the future of psychedelic rock: lyrics in something other than English and a charismatic woman out front.

The next free show at Lincoln Center’s atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. is this Nov 29, a return to the usual Thursday night programming here with Time for Three playing a similarly surreal if somewhat more sedate set mashing up classical and Americana styles. Get there as close to 7:30 PM showtime as you can if you want a seat.

Kombilesa Mi Bring Their Populist Afro-Colombian Dance Party to Lincoln Center

This past evening a sold-out crowd packed the dancefloor at Lincoln Center to see Kombilesa Mi play a defiant, catchy set of live hip-hop with organic beats – and lyrics in both Spanish and Palenquero, a rapidly disappearing coastal Colombian patois. That there would be as many kids in this city getting down to this music and singing along – in both languages – as there were tonight speaks to what the real New York is: young, immigrant, Spanish-fluent and socially aware.

Everybody in the nine-piece group has an individual look: Busta Rhymes-ish dude with lights in his dreads, flashy guy in a silver jacket with multicolor stars emblazoned into his buzzcut, and in the back the most modestly attired member, dreads pulled back into a tight ponytail and rocking a leopard bodysuit. She hammered on a mighty standup kit with three big bass drums. Two of them looked like big oil drums; the other was a slightly smaller double-headed llamador. The rest of the four-piece live percussion backline included tambora and tambor alegre – the smaller, more rapidfire instruments common to bullerengue, another coastal Colombian sound – and the magical marímbula, which looks like a cross between a Jamaican rhythm box and a big cajon. Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed this show, described it with a wistful sigh: “It sounds like a big drop of water.” At other times, it could be a big, low-register tabla. Just the beats alone would have been enough for this concert, and this crowd.

But this group is all about the message. Solidarity, resistance, struggle and preservation of ancient Afro-Colombian traditions were persistent, insistent themes throughout the night – with some party rap included. Hailing from San Basilio de Palenque, one of the first free black towns in the Americas, they’re one of very few hip-hop acts anywhere in the world to rap in Palenquero, a mashup of Spanish with African Bantu, Portuguese, French and even a little English. In other words, pretty much everything you would have heard in a portside town south of the equator, two hundred years ago. As with innumerable other indigenous traditions, the conquistadors and their descendants did everything they could to obliterate it: even native speakers take care not to lapse into it in the big city since it’s considered lower-class.

Kombilesa Mi (Palenquero for “my friends”) say the hell with that. They have as many different kinds of flow as any rap group could have: fast-paced party rap, machinegunning verses and singalong choruses with big shouts back and forth between group members and the crowd, and singalongs that draw as much on Mayan as African influences. The beats ranged from a jump rhythm that got the crowd going early on, to a cumbia beat that went over just as well. In over an hour onstage, this crew spoke truth to power, celebrating blackness, local autonomy, community and their own individual identity. Toward the end of the set, they took a handful of slinky detours into bullerengue, with its endless volleys of call-and-response. The result was like New York group Bulla En El Barrio, with an even more thundering drum section and that marímbula, with its irresistible, subterranean “plunk.’ 

Along with Terraza 7 in Queens, the atrium space at Lincoln Center is one of the very few places in town – and the only Manhattan venue – that regularly has Afro-Colombian music. There are sounds here that represent many other diverse New York communities as well, and the more-or-less-weekly shows at the space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. are free. The next one is Nov 3 at 11 in the morning, a bill designed for families with preschoolers which features violinist Elena Moon Park leading a band playing children’s songs in Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Tibetan, Taiwanese, Spanish, and also English. If you’re up that early, you ought to get the fam to the space early too since these programs tend to sell out fast.

Sold-Out Revelry With Balkan Brass Monsters Raya Brass Band at Symphony Space

There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.

That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.

How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.

Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.

Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .

Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.

The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.

Newpoli Play a Grand Finale At This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Friday night at Drom, a crowd of women in brightly colored dresses twirled in front of the stage as the resonant clang of a couple of mandolas rang out from the stage above them. Newpoli percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo spun out a slinky clip-clop beat on his big round tamburello while violinist Karen Burciaga and multi-reed player Dan Meyers sent their contrasting textures wafting and bounding through the mix, bassist Jeff McAuliffe cutting through with a biting, trebly tone. The band’s two charismatic frontwomen, Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi left the stage and went down to join the fun. The only thing missing at the grand finale of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival was the pervasive smell of garlic and basil. Then again, the kitchen at Drom turns out cuisine from points further north and east.

Newpoli specialize in Italian folk music, but they play more originals than traditional material, and their influences are global. They’re as dynamic a jamband as they are a dance band. Meyers’ most electrifying solo was a long, otherworldly, tone-bending one on which he played zurla, the Balkan reed instrument that looks like a cornet but sounds like a lower-register oboe. By contrast, Reijonen’s most riveting moments onstage came during a suspenseful, Arabic-tinged, chromatic intro. Burciaga danced through an endless supply of punchy phrases, often in tandem with the mandolas, Bjorn Wennas often switching to acoustic guitar.

The two women who lead the band make a striking contrast. Petite and intense in a green tie-dyed print, Rossi often evoked the otherworldly microtones of the Balkans. Tall, blonde and swaying in her long linen summer dress, her eyes closed much of the time, Carmen Marsico has more of a classic American soul voice. Throughout the night, the two would often trade off verses as well as leading the dancers during two pouncing, edgy tarantellas, the first a shapeshifting original, the second a more rustic traditional number.

Their original material, many of the songs drawn from their most recent album Mediterraneo, has understatedly potent relevance. Marsico introduced the night’s most anthemic number. ‘Na Voce Sola (One Single Voice) as a revolutionary call to unite against fascism (something the Italians unfortunately knew as intimately as Americans do now). Other songs traced themes of displacement, whether in times of war or otherwise, the womens’ voices harmonizing with as much resilient elegance as fullscale minor-key angst.

Toward the end of the show, they tackled a traditional tune which on the new album is about ten minutes long and, for non-Italian speakers at least, becomes pretty interminable. Onstage, they made short work of it – literally – cutting it down to about half the time and keeping everybody, dancers and listeners, in the game as Meyers’ wood flutes punctured through the hypnotic bounce. Newpoli’s next gig is at 8 PM on Oct 12 at the Avalon Theatre,
40 E Dover St. in Easton, Maryland; general admission is $25.