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Spine-Tingling Moroccan Crooner Emil Zrihan and More at This Year’s Globalfest

Toward the end of Emel Mathlouthi’s set at Globalfest at Webster Hall Sunday night, right in the middle of one of her songs, the power onstage suddenly blew out. It was her birthday, too. What a crappy birthday present! But the Tunisian-born, now New York-based songwriter didn’t miss a beat. She went off mic and led the rest of her band – a couple of guys playing percussion – through an old Tunisian folk song. And that gave her the chance to really air our her powerful alto voice in all its microtonal magnificence. See, earlier in the set, her vocals had been running through a mixer, and a lot of the time the effects flattened her. Robbing Emel Mathlouthi of her nuance makes about as much sense as asking Johnny Ramone to turn down his guitar, or telling Louis Armstrong to stay away from the blue notes.

Left to her own devices, Mathlouthi is a force of nature. Her 2012 album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “freedom of speech”) was a masterpiece of menacingly enveloping art-rock, and she sang a couple of enigmatic, brooding cuts from that album, which were considerably more stripped down considering that the instrumentation was just percusion and whatever was in the mixing desk. It seems that she’s focusing more on vocals at the moment than on the elegantly incendiary lyricism that made her such a popular figure in the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring. Which could be a function of learning a new language – her command of English is already pretty good – or something else. She played a Bjork hit solo, the only number on which she picked up her guitar, and it was an improvement on the original. But it didn’t hold up alongside Mathlouthi’s own ominous chromatics, moody minor keys and angst-fueled political sensibility. And that seemed muted this time out.

Globalfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention. Beyond drawing on a wide spectrum of fans of all kinds of esoterica, the annual January concert pulls together a demimonde of aging hippies from the nonprofit sector and arts auditoriums across the country. Acts play on three separate stages at staggered intervals, so that talent buyers who might be so inclined can make the rounds and get a taste of what they could be doing at home in their pj’s, watching youtube…but a New York vacation on the company dime is a lot more fun, isn’t it?

Although the show was officially sold out, it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as last year, when a phenomenal lineup included Bollywood disco retroists the Bombay Royale, thunderous Kiev folk-punk crew DakhaBrakha, iconic Romany brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and psychedelic southwestern gothic rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. Usually there aren’t a lot of hard choices: the best acts don’t generally conflict. For whatever reason, this year’s lineup had some solid acts, but didn’t feel as celebratory. Maybe that’s explained simply by the absence of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a band unrivalled for awe-inspiring power.

After Mathlouthi’s set was cut short, the crowd made their way upstairs to watch the end of the Nile Project‘s irresistibly slinky, hypnotically undulating grooves. This large and largely improvisational ensemble was pulled together by soul songwriter Meklit Hadero and her Egyptian pal Mina Girgis as a way of bringing together some of the best musicians from the Nile Delta to raise awareness of how the struggle over water rights there is destabilizing the region and threatening its many diverse populations – who have a lot in common, musicwise. There was a loose, easy chemistry among the many members, notably saxophonist Jorge Mesfin, with his eerie, resonant, distantly Ethiopian-tinged lines, and oudist Hazim Shaheen,whose long, nimble, spiraling phrases spiced the music with a dusky shimmer. And when singer Dina El Wadidi took centerstage to lead the band through a long, slowly crescendoing clip-clop anthem, there weren’t any effects on her voice other than a touch of reverb. Which was a thrill to hear, a thrill that could have been replicated in the downstairs space earlier but for the most part wasn’t.

After that, the Jones Family Singers were vamping their way out of their downstairs set: the Houston gospel-funk band has a lot of members, so it took them what seemed like a quarter of an hour to finish the band intros. They’re another force of nature: here’s what another fairly recent show of theirs sounded like.

The high point of the night was the Moroccan Nightingale, Emil Zrihan. He’s the cantor at a Sephardic synagogue in Israel, whose congregation must be very patient considering how in demand the crooner is all over the world. His backing band set a suspenseful, literally breathtaking tone immediately, blending the rippling, chromatically-charged interweave of oud, kanun, percussion, violin and accordion. Zrihan immediately launched into a long, downwardly spiraling series of otherworldly, microtonal melismas, aided by so much reverb that there was slapback. And from then on he worked that for all it was worth, seemingly going for a couple of minutes at a clip without drawing a breath. The music ran the gamut of the Middle East: a rousing, deliriously swaying wedding dance; a couple of waltzes interrupted by volleys of spine-tingling vocalese; a stately, wistful minor-key number that drew on Algerian chaabi balladry; and darker, more sweeping Sephardic and Egyptian themes.He wound up the set with a remarkably fresh, nuanced version of Ya Rayyeh, the famous 1920s rai hit that elevates everyone who plays it, or sings it – it’s one of those rare tunes that anyone from any culture around the world can hum. and suddenly it’s impossible to be in a bad mood. That alone made the concert worthwhile, reason to see what other stars from obscure corners of the globe will make their way here next year.

Wild, Diverse Global Energy Overflows at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was an exhilarating if somewhat underappreciated mix of global sounds. Opening night of this year’s festival on the 20th of the month, a Pete Seeger tribute kicked off by none other than Judy Collins, was a mobscene rivaled here in recent years only by the overflow crowd at the 2010 staging of pianist Larry Harlow’s iconic salsa jazz suite, La Raza Latina.

A performance of some rather arch indie classical and contemporary ballet pieces this past Friday drew a smaller and less diverse crowd, but the diversity was back last night in epic force, at least musically speaking. Assembled by the prime movers of Globalfest, the evening had every bit of eclecticism and often delirious energy as their annual January Webster Hall celebration of mostly dance-oriented sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the APAP booking agents’ convention. Originating before the youtube era, the concert gives venue bookers and the public alike a chance to sample party music of pretty much every stripe throughout a series of what are essentially longform auditions. There’s literally something for everyone, as there was all over the Lincoln Center complex last night. Don’t like canned beats? Leave the underground parking garage (where the promoters had cleverly stashed that stuff away) and go to the park out back for a funky Indian jamband, or to the plaza for some Mexican brass music.

Around the corner from the opera hall, Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band M.A.K.U. Soundsystem stole the show, and the crowd from Red Baraat – who were half a block south, in Damrosch Park – with their slinky, moodily triumphant grooves, reaffirming their status as one of New York’s best bands. And they left no doubt that at this point, cumbia has superseded reggae as this era’s default global party music. What’s coolest about cumbia is that a lot of it is pretty creepy, a quality underscored by keyboardist Felipe Quiroz’s sepulchrally tremoloing organ. Bassist/frontman Juan Ospina played bitingly catchy, hypnotically bouncy riffs and sang in tandem with multi-percussionist Liliana Conde, alongside guitar, conga, drums and a punchy two-trombone horn section (joined at the end by an esteemed Colombian tenor saxophonist whose introduction got lost in a flurry of applause). The band’s lyrics, mostly in Spanish, celebrate diversity and global unity in a surprisingly poetic way, without being either trite or saccharine, over loping, undulating minor-key vamps punctuated by animated percussion breaks and menacingly swirly keyboard riffs. One of the casually defiant tracks from the band’s latest vinyl ep, Musica Nunca Muere (The Music Never Dies) pretty much said it all. If the IWW had embraced cumbia instead of marching band music, maybe the Wobblies really would have taken over the world.

The evening’s single best performance – and funniest moment onstage – might have been from New Orleans “Russian mafia band” Debauche. Toward the end of their bristling, boisterous, hourlong set, given the “ten more minutes” sign from the sound booth, they responded by speeding up until they were going doublespeed and then even faster. More bands should do that! Frontman/acoustic guitarist Yegor Romantsov evoked another charismatic Slavic rock bandleader, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, as he made his way through edgy minor-key Russian-language romps about duplicitous women, deals gone bad, a love song reinvented from a lesbian perspective, and a mashup of a Jewish wedding song and a happy-go-lucky Mexican folk tune. Their was a distinct klezmer influence in many of the songs, from a sarcastically swaying hi-de-ho anthem, to a series of bouncily brooding, clarinet-and-violin-fueled shuffles. An attempt to get the heavily Russian crowd to sing along on Bublichki, the opening track on the band’s album Cossacks on Prozac – which would be better titled Cossacks on Coke – met with mixed results. But there was a big crowd down front dancing. And somehow the bull fiddle survived being climbed on by both the the burly guy who was playing it, as well as the coyly energetic woman playing standup bass drum and tambourine.

Sandwiched in between the cumbia and the klezmer rock were an eight-piece edition of Brooklyn’s Banda de los Muertos, who do both original and traditional Sinaloa-style brass music with trombones, horns, trumpets, woodwinds and drums. Most of their set had a breezy, good-natured sway, through a mix of ranchera waltzes, a Los Tigres del Norte cover and Marty Robbins’ El Paso reinvented as a mariachi brass theme. Trumpets and trombones got most of the solos and made the most of them, Ben Holmes and Brian Drye getting the choicest parts. Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos took the music in a strikingly intense, imploring direction with her powerful, angst-fueled, melismatic vocals on a bolero, Te Quiero Tanto, written by the band’s frontman/clarinetist’s aunt. And then Ramos led the group back onto more upbeat turf.

Opening the night in Damrosch Park, Moroccan/Israeli crooner Emil Zrihan delivered an often riveting, impassioned performance worthy of a headliner, backed by his regular accordionist and an inspired pickup band who played seamlessly despite having been assembled at the last minute (the rest of the singer’s band were back in Israel, having been unable to get visas). Zrihan blends sounds from a millenium worth of Andalucian music as well as Sephardic cantorial themes, with an occasional detour toward klezmer or rai. His smartly dynamic, nonchalantly crescendoing take of the classic protest song Ya Rayyeh was well-received by the small but electrified crowd gathered in the shade toward the front of the stage. Zrihan and the accordion slowly jammed their way into many of the numbers, climbing to melismatic peaks that sometimes took on operatic exuberance or angst against a tightly swaying, rhythmically tricky backdrop of acoustic guitar, violin and twin hand drums.

And it was too bad that there weren’t more people in the park to catch Brazilian dub band BaianaSystem. Although a lot of what they had was on tape (or in the mixing board, or coming from somebody’s phone), their slow, slinky pulse made for an aptly nocturnal sendoff to the few who remained, ending the night with fat, tersely emphatic bass, long, ominously chromatic solos from electric guitarra baiana player Robertinho Barreto and rapidfire, reggaeton-style Portuguese lyrics from frontman Russo Passapusso.

Orient Noir: Klezmer Sounds from the Edges of the Diaspora

On the Orient Noir compilation, billed as a “WestEastern Divan,” the folks over at Piranha Records in Germany raid their own archives for an instant album…and a pretty killer playlist that goes on for well over an hour. It’s quite an inspiration for adventurous downloaders (most of this stuff is on youtube – follow the links below). It’s noir to the extent that the sexy and mysterious microtones of Middle Eastern and Jewish music are noir. This is first and foremost a klezmer playlist, one that ranges across more of the Jewish diaspora than most, with a handful of tasty levantine numbers thrown in for good measure.

The weakest tracks are from French band Watcha Clan: a brief klezmer intro and a woozy reggae cover of an Ofra Haza hit. The track most instantly identifiable as klezmer is from Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars, Susan Sandler out in front of the band, giving the song a barely restrained longing. London also appears in a low-key, moody collaboration with Serbian brass virtuoso Boban Markovic, while another project he’s been involved with for decades, the Klezmatics, are represented by the understatedly ferocious, gospel-fueled I’m Not Afraid.

A couple of instrumentals are stripped down to the basics of slinky percussion and a single melody line: a flute-and-accordion jam from Nubian artist Mahmoud Fadl, and Ali’s Nay, credited to veteran Lebanese composer Ihsan Al-Mounzer. The most eye-opening stuff here is the Jewish music that pushes the boundaries of klezmer with influences from Africa – Moroccan cantor Emil Zrihan’s amusingly titled, flamenco-flavored Maka Shelishit, and Moroccan Sephardic crooner Maurice El Medioni ‘s long diptych Ya Maalem/Kelbi Razahi, a noir cabaret tango with Balkan horns!

Ruth Yaakov’s Las Esuergas de Angora – from her album Sephardic Songs of the Balkans – offers a tricky blend of flamenco and gypsy music with what sounds like creepy, swirly West African riti fiddle. And a track by popular Zanzibar taraab chanteuse Bi Kikude blends Bollywood-flavored, surfy rock with lushly suspenseful levantine orchestration.

Interestingly, on this klezmer-oriented playlist, the most outright haunting tracks are by the Arabs. Salwa Abou Greisha sings a sweeping, haunting multi-part Egyptian bellydance epic, and iconic Egyptian trumpeter Samy El Bably provides his hit Ana Bamasi El Haba Doll, an elegant vamp with richly nuanced solos from trumpet and accordion. The playlist ends the way you might end your own playlist, with something completely random and weird: in this case, The Garden, a cantorially-tinged 1979 song by short-lived German hippie-rock band Efendi’s Garden. If Hotel California-style twin guitars playing vaguely Middle Eastern riffs are your thing, you’ll love this one. Happy hunting, wink wink!