New York Music Daily

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Tag: ethiopian music

Two Thirds of a Potentially Magical Triplebill Revisited at the Met Tonight

More about that great triplebill staged by the World Music Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art tonight, March 24 at 7 PM: it’s a reprise of two thirds of what should have been the best concert of 2017 but wasn’t. The problem wasn’t the artists on the bill: it was the sound. But the Rogers Auditorium at the Met has superb sonics. Central Park Summerstage is an outdoor venue and can’t compare, and although the sound there last summer was usually pretty good, it was problematic that August evening when two charismatic singers with North African ancestry, Emel Mathlouthi and Alsarah led their respective bands, opening for the godfather of Ethio-jazz, Mulatu Astatke.

Mathlouthi and Alsarah & the Nubatones are both on tonight’s bill along with Jordanian chanteuse Farah Siraj, and as of this morning it wasn’t sold out, probably because of the price, $35. But if you have the cash, it’s worth it, especially if you figure that each artist is only about twelve bucks apiece.

On one hand, the Central Park gig was a chance for each woman to put their strengths front and center. Both draw on a long tradition of allusive, imagistic classical Arabic poetry for their lyrics and subject matter. Alsarah’s kinetic dancefloor anthems address themes of Nubian longing and displacement in Aswa Dam-era Egypt. Mathlouthi’s icy, cinematic art-rock opaquely references struggle and resistance: in her formative years, she was a heroine of the  Arab Spring in her native Tunisia.

Alsarah’s set kicked off the afternoon. Her not-so-secret weapon is oudist Brandon Terzic, whose rippling microtones drove the rise and fall of the songs. It wasn’t til the end that he got a chance to stretch out and solo; the time out, the band’s most wildly applauded solo spot was a boomy trip through a funhouse mirror of North African rhythms from master percussionist Rami El Asser. Given less time onstage than her epic album release show at Flushing Town Hall back in the spring of 2016, the bandleader didn’t talk to the audience as much but still found room to mention how the Nubians’ forced relocation to cities mirrors the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East as well as anti-immigrant violence here at home.

Mathlouthi was next on the bill. Her not-so-secret weapon is her voice, a powerful weapon that began looming and eventually took some dramatic flights upward. Backed only by keys and drums, she stood more or less motionless, drawing the crowd in. But while the stage monitors were probably working, the PA wasn’t. Midway through the show, the atmospheric keys that have been a major part of her sound lately disappeared from the mix and didn’t return until almost the end. Much as her voice was strong against the beats – a trippy, techy electroacoustic mix – the grandeur and angst of her songwriting never reached altitude. As with the opening act, she didn’t interact with the crowd as much as at her own epic show at the Global Beat Festival downtown back in 2015: “The world’s biggest terrorist is capitalism,” was her most acerbic comment.

Mulatu Astatke headlined. It was strange to see that the space wasn’t completely sold out for the guy who, if he didn’t invent Ethiopian jazz, has done more to bring it to a global audience than anyone else. Joined by an inspired, horn-spiced pickup group including but not limited to Jason Lindner on keys, Marcus Gilmore on drums and Roman Diaz on congas, Astatke delivered a haunting, gracefully rippling,  chromatic mix of mostly midtempo numbers punctuated by a very long percussion interlude. He took the lead on electric piano on most of the tunes, Lindner holding his own when taking over on the techier songs and taking them subtly toward P-Funk territory without ripping their austere fabric. It was great to finally get to see Astatke live, but a bad taste lingered. What an incredible show it would have been if the PA had been working for Mathlouthi.

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An Amazing New Compilation Album of Rare, Magical Sounds Never Before Available Outside of Somalia

Thousands of years before the medieval European patronage system took shape, African dictators made it a practice to surround themselves with the best musicians they could find. Somalia’s Said Barre, no doubt inspired by Haile Selassie’s campaign to blend big band jazz with indigenous sounds in adjoining Ethiopia, set up a culture ministry of his own. Barre’s motivation was to help solidify Somalia’s status as a new nation-state. Beginning in the late 1960s, the result was some of the most amazing music to ever come out of Africa. Less than twenty years later, in a stroke of colossal irony, the dictator tried to destroy it when he realized that great art is always opposed to tyranny.

In 1988, the northern city of Hargeisa was a stronghold for freedom fighters working to bring down Barre’s reign of terror. Barre was worried that Radio Hargeisa, the local branch of the state radio network, would rally the opposition. Realizing that the station would become a target of the dictator’s bombing raids, personnel there worked furiously to remove fifty years’ worth of priceless archival recordings.

And then buried those cassettes and master tapes deep underground, where the bombs that eventually destroyed the city wouldn’t get them. Some of those recordings were spirited across the border into neighboring Djibouti and Ethiopia. Now, Ostinato Records have put out an incredible compilation, Sweet As Broken Dates: Lost Somali Tapes from the Horn of Africa (streaming at Bandcamp) that draws from those archives. None of the album’s fifteen tracks have been released outside of Somalia, and very few have ever been heard outside of East Africa. This collection could do for Somali music from the 1970s and 80s what Barbes Records’ Roots of Chicha anthologies have done for cumbia. Maybe in five years’ time the whole world will be listening to dhaanto.

That’s the slow, loping groove that propels the album’s first track, Nimco Jamaac’s  Buuraha U Dheer (The Highest Mountains). It starts out with an uneasily wavering, microtonal vocal improvisation and then morphs what sounds like roots reggae, except that this is a native Somali beat rather than slowed-down ska. It validates any argument that reggae isn’t a western hybrid but an original African rhythm!

Like many of the other tracks here, the instrumentation is spare: in this case, lo-fi synthesizer patches, guitar and drums. The flutter and wow from the original cassettes is still present, an early example of the longstanding African tradition of making albums on the best-available technology, in this case probably a boombox recording of a live show or a rehearsal.

The rest of the album is a mix of ballads and dance numbers. Bollywood-influenced high-soprano songbird Aamina Camaari’s Rag Waa Nacab iyo Nasteexo is translated as “Men Are Cruel and Kind” – maybe we should take that as a compliment! More likely, it’s a coded political message. Lyrics were censored under the Barre regime, so many of these lost-love songs are laments for a time free of repression or enemy invaders.

Calm crooner Ali Nuur sings a number whose title has been lost,  pouncing along with clangy, trebly guitar and ominous minor-key organ. Hibo Nuura’s acerbic, brassy, Afrobeat-influenced Haddii Hoobalkii Gabay (If the Artist Lets You Down), a late 80s tune, speaks to the perils of selling out at the worst possible time.

Gacaltooyo Band, fronted by chanteuse Faduumina Hilowle, are represented by Ninkaan Ogayn (He Who Does Not Know), a slow, haunting mashup of noir soul, Bollywood balladry, Ethiopiques and what sounds like J-pop – Somalian pentatonic scales come across as positively Asian in places here.

Iftin Band were one of the most popular state-sponsored acts from the 70s. They have two tracks here. The first is a similarly haunting, slinky duet by popular singers Mahmud Abdalla “Jerry” Hussen and Maryan Naasir,  Xuduud Ma Leh Xubigaan (This Love Has No Boundaries). The other, Anaa Qaylodhaankaan has snappy bass, smokily ominous organ and a guitar line that’s a dead ringer for Mark Knopfler.

Another popular early 80s group, Dur Dur Band have singer Muqtar Idi Ramadan crooning the gritty, soul and Ethiopiques-influenced Duruuf Maa Laygu Diidee (Rejected Because of My Situation), a smash hit about a romance imperiled by class discrimination. And one of the era’s biggest Somali singers, the stunningly tender-voiced Sahra Dawo, delivers Gorof (Elixir), which could be Men at Work with infinitely better vocals.

Watery chorus-box guitar, punchy organ and woozy, echoey vocals permeate Xasan Diiriye’s Qaraami (Love) – it’s one of the most psychedelic tracks here. Sharaf Band have Xaawo Hiiraan singing Kadeed Badanaa Naftaydani (Life is Full of Trouble), an aptly plaintive mashup of what could be I-Threes songstress Judy Mowatt and a Bollywood ballad.

4 Mars – another state-sponsored group – contribute Na Daadihi (Guide Us), an insistent Afrobeat-tinged number with blippy keys and brass. Danan Hargeysa. a northern band with Mohamed “Huro” Abdihashi out front, contribute the upbeat Uur Hooyo (Mother’s Womb), raising the question of whether or not Dr. Dre might have somehow discovered this stuff and nicked the keening synth for his own shtick.

Sharero Band, with the darkly nuanced Faadumo Qaasim on vocals,  deliver Qays iyo Layla (a Somali counterpart to Romeo & Juliet) with Afrobeat, roots reggae and Bollywood tinges. And Waaberi Band chug their way through the trippy Afrobeat instrumental jam Oktoobar Waatee? Waa Taayadii (What’s October? It’s Ours).

Much as many of these songs and artists have been iconic in the global Somali community for decades, this is brand-new to most of the rest of the world – and one of the best albums of 2017. And it’s available on double gatefold vinyl with a fascinating and informative thirty-page booklet.

A Wild Ethiopian Dance Party with Debo Band at Lincoln Center

Debo Band are Lincoln Center favorites. They’ve put on some pretty volcanic shows at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and their performance at the atrium space there last night was as fun to watch and take in as a listener as it must have been for the dancers who packed the center of the space in front of the stage. Ethiopian dance music as a rule tends to have a hypnotic quality, and the ten-piece group’s lavish arrangements went pretty deep into psychedelia, to the point where it was sometimes hard to tell who was playing what. Was that otherworldly, oscillating lead coming from Endris Hassen’s massenqo fiddle? Nope. That was Brendon Wood’s guitar. Was that snaky, almost subsonic pulse coming from bassist PJ Goodwin, who was celebrating his birthday? No. That turned out be sousaphone player Arik Grier.

They opened with a couple of undulating triplet grooves ablaze with horns, drummer Adam Clark edging toward a classic 70s disco shuffle groove on the second number. Suave frontman frontman Bruck Tesfaye wasted no time getting rid of the mic stand in front of him to encourage the dancers to congregate closer to the stage, and they followed his lead. From there the band rose from a digeridoo-like drone as the rhythm slowly coalesced, the fiddle circling like a vulture overhead; then they lept into a briskly funky, New Orleans-tinged stomp.

To western ears, one of the most ominous-sounding, chromatically-charged numbers was fueled by cumulo-nimbus low brass, Tesfaye’s shivery, melismatic vocals and capped off by a feral Gabriel Birnbaum tenor sax solo. The song’s title? Amharic for “laughter” Like their brothers in Russia and the Balkans, Ethiopians equate minor modes with energy and excitement rather than sadness.

The first of the night’s three covers featured a wickedly catchy chromatic horn riff over a steady, driving backbeat from Clark; the band took it out with a misterioso ambience as the rhythm echoed and then disappeared.Sax player Danny Mekonnen, who’d switched from baritone to tenor, explained that the next number, based on an Okinawan folk song, was inspired by the Ethiopian soldiers sent to aid the Allies in the Korean War, who returned home with a new fondness for Asian sounds. Which make sense, considering that both Ethiopian and much of Asian music employ similar pentatonic scales.

After that, the band romped through Blue Awaze, their reinvention of Duke Elington’s Blue Pepper from the 1966 Far East Suite, the kind of mashup that the Ellington Orchestra and popular Addis Abbaba group the Police Orchestra could have jammed out the night that the American jazz icon played the city on a State Department-sponsored tour.

The crowd was full of New York music cognoscenti. Brooklyn Lutherie fiddle maven Chloe Swantner was in the house, as were at least half of blissful Morrocan trance-dance group Innov Gnawa. Tesfaye got everybody to do the Rock Lobster, up and down, B-52’s style, a couple of times. Throughout the show, there were plenty of edgy solos and some knifes-edge jousting between group members. Hassen built a swirling, upper-register tornado with his massenqo; later, accordionist Marie Abe took centerstage with her acidically shifting sheets of sound. The group wound up the roughly ninety-minute party with a couple of  fiery dancefloor numbers, each with a deliriously circling, leaping groove much in the same vein as qawwali music.

Debo Band continue on their current US tour; dates are here. The next bigtime dance party at the Lincoln Center Atrium is on Nov 17 at 7:30 PM with Brooklyn funksters Igbo opening for charismatic, EWF-influenced retro 70s soul/funk personality Boulevards. Since these events are popular, getting to the space early is always a good idea.

Anbessa Orchestra Plays a Killer Barbes Show, Then Heads to Red Hook

One of the most exciting concerts of this summer promises to be the twinbill on July 1 at Pioneer Works at 159 Pioneer St. in Red Hook, where sizzling Israeli-American Ethiopiques groove band Anbessa Orchestra opens for popular Ethiopian jazz bandleader/keyboardist Hailu Mergia. Realistically, there probably aren’t a lot of people outside of Red Hook who are going to go to this, but if you are in Red Hook, get your ass over to the venue and pick up an advance ticket for $20 and save yourself five bucks off the door charge. The show is advertised as beginning at 8, although things usually start on the later side here. The easiest way to get to the venue from downtown Brooklyn is to catch the B61 bus, which runs down Court St. and then takes a right on Atlantic, past Sahadi’s, and will drop you off about a block and a half from the venue.

Anbessa Orchestra played an amazing show at Barbes the Saturday night over Memorial Day weekend. They hit hard right from the start, shifting rhythms artfully from slinky to funkier as guitarist Nadav Peled fired off intricate Malian desert rock hammer-on riffs, the alto saxophonist picking things up with a bluesy, exuberant solo as the band cantered behind him. They hit a punchy, staccato minor-key Ethio-funk groove after that, Peled distinguishing himself as he would do all night, finding interesting places to go on the fretboard throughout what was basically a one-chord jam as the dancers on the floor twirled and bounced.

Fueled by Eden Bareket’s smoky baritone sax, the next number built quickly out of an ominous intro to a brisk, camelwalking triplet rhythm, balmy alto sax overhead. Considering that the blues is African and Ethiopian music is the world’s oldest, it’s no surprise to hear so much blues in this band’s music. What’s most refreshing, and ultimately makes them as catchy as they are, is that they keep things terse and purposeful and don’t overplay. The horns are tight and so is the rhythm section, and when somebody tales off on a solo, they make it count, whether Bareket’s offhandedly wild postbop spirals on this particular number, or the bubbling organ against the ominously looming horns on the similarly funky but considerably more otherworldly tune after that. A biting, puristically bluesy Wayne Tucker trumpet solo and Peled’s clanking, clenched-teeth guitar each built to an explosive peak as the music rose and fell.

The highest point of the night was when Tucker went blasting and trilling to an instant crescendo as the even mightier anthem afterward swelled and then grew quieter, Peled’s deep-desert riffage bobbing and weaving under a tightly syncopated minor-key horn chart, drummer Eran Fink and bassist Tamir Shmerling nimbly negotiating its tricky rhythm, seemingly shifting in and out of focus. Peled took it down to a quiet, darkly majestic solo interlude before the organ and rhythm section pulled it back up into the stormclouds. Then the band completely flipped the script with an easygoing, catchy, major-key, vintage Jamaican-style rocksteady tune. And that was just the first set. These are just some of the flavors they’re likely to bring to Red Hook on the first of next month.

 

Debo Band Bring Their Darkly Bristling Update on Classic Ethiopian Dancefloor Sounds to Williamsburg

What do you associate Ethiopian music with? Those slinky triplet grooves? Stark, ancient, otherworldly bluesy modes? Shivery, melismatic vocals and fiddle? Debo Band take all those tropes and rock them out with both blazing brass and strings over an undulating pulse. Their new album Ere Gobez is streaming at Storyamp, and they’re opening a killer twinbill at Brooklyn Bowl tonight at around 8, with similarly minor-key fixated original first-wave Afrobeat dancefloor groovemeisters Antibalas headlining afterward. Hopefully you have $15 advance tix; it’s more at the door.

On the album’s opening track, Endris Hassen’s hypnotically circling, oscillating massenqo fiddle riff underpins the blaze of horns, and then guitarist Brendon Wood fires off a succinct solo. The second number, a Somalian tune, is similar, but with a trickier, syncopated beat. Track three – in purist Ethiopian fashion, most of the song titles are in frontman Bruck Tesfaye’s native Amharic – sets a joyous mix of upper-register violins and saxes mingling with Marie Abe’s accordion over bassist PJ Goodwin and drummer Adam Clark’s dancing, waltzlike beat.

Track four, Yachat, is a hard-rocking detour toward psychedelic 60s garage rock – it’s their Psychotic Reaction, Wood’s rampaging, bluesy lines front and center. Blue Awaze makes more or less straight-up hard funk out of an uneasily modal, proto Middle Eastern riff, Danny Mekonnen’s judiciously smoky baritone sax solo leading up to a swirly, string-fueled psychedelic breakdown where everything goes haywire, then finally back. From there the band segues into Goraw, a defiant Amharic-language Ethiopian-pride anthem which sounds like the ancient roots of Isaac Hayes at his most psychedelic – or what Hayes might have done had he collaborated with Mulatu Astatke.

The band builds Sak ominously over a brooding bati vamp, like a thunderstorm on the horizon, counterintuitively growing more spare as Mekonnen launches into a growling baritone solo. The album’s most epic number, Oromo swings along on a mighty minor-key blues groove, following a long, triumphantly majestic upward climb punctuated by a thoughtful massenqo break. The band follow the joyously circling, lushly orchestrated Hiyamikachi Bushi with the slinky, bitingly latin-tinged Yalanchi and close the album on a searingly trad note with the hauntingly propulsive Eyew Demamu, arguably its strongest track and a lauching pad for Tesfaye’s intense, expressive vocals.

Since Ethiopia is where it all started, at least as far as the human species is concerned, it’s not an overstatement to say that music from this part of the world resonates on a deep level, quite possibly in our collective DNA. This is the rare album that will hit the spot with people who like energetic, upbeat music as much as with those who gravitate toward the dark and mysterious.

A World of Great Music at Globalfest, and the Crowd Is Clueless

“Shhhh,” Simon Shaheen gently told the boisterous, largely daydrunk crowd crammed into an impossibly small ground-floor space at Webster Hall last night. Then he motioned for his nine-piece pan-Andalucian ensemble, Zafir, to stop. “I think this is disrespect,” he explained somberly, “To the people who are listening.”

That shut up the roar emanating from the back of the room for a minute or two, but then they were back at it. Which perfectly capsulizes both the lure and limitations of Globalfest.

This was the thirteenth anniversary of the annual multiple-stage festival of sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the annual January booking agents’ convention. On one hand, those guys – an older bunch whose general overindulgence at this year’s concert suggested that they haven’t been getting out much lately, at least to tie one on – can be interesting to talk to. It was lovely to be able to get Wayne Shorter biographer and NPR correspondenent Michelle Mercer’s inspiringly un-jaded take on changes in how music is being staged around the world (in Korea, promoters turn a daylong jazz festival into a picnic and in the process create thousands of new fans for the genre). It was less so to have to deal with the noise, and the overcrowding, and the most hostile security staff of any venue in the five boroughs. You usually have to go to New Jersey or Long Island for this kind of hell. How much this city has changed since the festival promoters figured out that they could make a few extra bucks if they opened the doors to the public.

Let’s be clear that the artists who play the festival don’t book themselves into it: they’re all invited. Many of them can be seen – and have been covered here in the past – in the summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wild expat Ukrainian chanteuse/keyboardist Mariana Sadovska, the even wilder New Orleans Russian folk-punk band Debauche, hypnotically kinetic Ethiopian krar harp-driven dance band Fendika and Shaheen himself have all made appearances there.

Fendika’s distinguishing characteristic among similar Ethio-folk acts is their heavy, insistent western dancefloor beat: they switch out the frequently intricate rhythmic latticework for a more straightforward approach for the sake of western audiences who don’t have a feel for those ancient and sometimes tricky beats. The crowd of dancers onstage grew as the music followed a slow trajectory upward toward fever pitch as the krar fired off simple, catchy, upbeat major-key riffs. The dancefloor was pretty empty when they started; by the time they’d finished, the club’s big main room was packed.

In the small basement studio space, Sadovska and her multi-instrumentalist bandmate – who switched in a split-second between drums, keys, what looked like a tsimbl dulcimer and a mixing board – treated the crowd to a phantasmagorical, otherworldly mashup of ancient Carpathian folk songs and eerie electroacoustic art-rock. Sadovska shifted between her trusty harmonium and an electric piano as her voice lept, soared, snarled, snorted and screamed, through a series of pretty wild old folk narratives and finally, a somberly lingering dirge that eventually rose to fullscale horror as a depiction of war in general, and in particular, ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, even the wildfire noir cabaret punk antics of Debauche couldn’t upstage Shaheen. Equally erudite and thrilling on both oud and violin, he’s simply one of the world’s greatest musicians (in context: it’s probably safe to say that Kayhan Kalhor, Richard Thompson and JD Allen are operating on his level). This ensemble included oud, kanun, strings, multiple percussion plus flamenco and classical Arabic singing and dancing. Matter-of-factly and expertly, they made their way seamlessly and rivetingly through themes from Arabic, Jewish, flamenco and possibly Romany music, interwoven with biting minor keys, ominously elegant Middle Eastern modes, slowly slinking rhythms and frequent, exhilarating peaks. At the end of the show, after having to shush a disinterested crowd (that a crowd could possibly find Shaheen disinteresting speaks for itself), how did he respond to a two-minute warning from the sound guy? With one of the most bittersweetly beautiful violin solos of his life. OK, maybe not the very best one, but it was awfully good, and Shaheen showed not the slightest interest in cutting it short, going on for at least five minutes as his fan base at the front of the room looked on raptly. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.

Although the acoustic Gogol Bordello-esque Debauche downstairs were pretty close (memo to the frontguy – that incessant wolf whistle has got to go). Ultimately, where all this goes down best is in more spacious confines..like Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where everybody seems to be a lot happier and a lot less cynical, an emotion that at this festival gets contagious real fast and shouldn’t be considering the quality of the music. It’s too bad that the overall experience, year after year, doesn’t measure up.

Lions Bring Their Haunting, Slinky, Irresistible Ethiopiques Grooves to Barbes

Lions are one of New York’s most enjoyably slinky, mysterious, psychedelically danceable bands. Their specialty is Ethiopiques, the otherworldly, haunting mix of ancient folk melodies, Afrobeat and American jazz that originated in the 60s and exploded onto the global stage when Mulatu Astatke got popular back in the 90s and early zeros. The group of six Israelis and one American have an amazing debut ep streaming at Bandcamp and a show headlining at Barbes tonight, July 17 at 11 PM.

The album’s opening number, Aynotche Terabuslinky has that classic camelwalking Ethiopian triplet rhythm, with brightly wary minor-key riffage from the horns over resonant minor-key organ from Dor Heled, bandleader/guitarist Nadav Peled holding steady to a terse, circular riff as Tamir Shmerling’s bass and Eran Fink’s drums anchor the groove. Peled caps it off with a deliciously spiky, trebly, reverbtoned solo. His blend of 60s psychedelic rock and Ethiopian phrasing is distinctive and intruguing: you never know exactly where he’s going to go with it.

A dynamic horn intro from trumpeter Wayne Tucker, alto saxophonist (and noted big band leader) Eyal Vilner and baritone saxophonist Eden Bareket kick off the brooding second number, Yematibela Wef. Vilner’s pensively bending phrases and Bareket’s purposeful spirals keep the enigmatic vibe going over a hypnotically swaying beat. The best track here, simply called Lions, takes a classic, creepily chromatic bati riff and builds a mighty anthem out of it, with biting horn harmonies, some clever tradeoffs between guitar and organ, Heled taking centerstage with his menacingly swirling, rippling lines. A straightforward Tucker solo takes it up to a mighty, stomping peak.

Peled makes snaky surf rock out of Nagatti Si Jedha with his pinging, incisive lines, building to a darkly climactic, cinematic theme with more than a hint of Bollywood; Heled’s surrealistically pulsing organ solo might be the best one on the whole album. Le’b has a jauntily swinging horn intro and some bracingly offcenter harmonies over a fat roots reggae groove. The ep winds up with Zelel Zelel, lit up with yet more of Peled’s stingingly psychedelic, nimble riffwork.
One of the last recordings made at Williamsburg’s legendary Excello studios, the album has a warm analog feel. Best debut of 2015? There’s nothing that’s come out so far this year that can touch this. If you’re going to Park Slope tonight, you might want to get there early before the back room fills up.

A High-Voltage, Auspicious Kickoff to the Global Beat Festival Downtown

This weekend’s three-day Global Beat Festival in the financial district got off to an exhilarating start last night. There’s a ton of great music coming out of Israel lately, exemplified by the US debut of Libyan Jewish cantorial revivalists the Libyans. Insspired by his cantor father, bandleader and oud player Yaniv Raba has rescued centuries-old melodies and devotional poetry….and then he and the band rock the hell out of them. Frontman Dvir Cohen Eraki intoned them in a sonorous baritone, occasionally indulging in a thrilling, melismatic, improvisational intro. Raba, kanun player Ariel Kassus, bassist Yankale Segal and ney flute player Itzhak Ventura also got to kick off the songs with carefully crescendoing improvisations that hinted at the ecstasy that would sometimes come later.

The sounds ran the gamut of North Africa and the Middle East, a potent reminder of how music from that part of the world continues to come full circle: six hundred years ago, it was next to impossible to tell what was Jewish and what was Berber or Arabic, with everybody borrowing from everybody else. The group opened on a stately note with a lingering, vamping theme, pretty much everybody in the band doubling each others’ lines over Roei Fridman’s tersely hypnotic hand drumming. As the show went on, the group went into trip-hop (or maybe more accurately, a rai rhythm) for a couple of numbers. The energy peaked with a trio of slinky, bitingly modal anthems that echoed classical Egyptian music. The best of these was an original by Raba, featuring a suspenseful oud solo that mined the lowest registers of that ancient, otherworldly instrument.

Washington, DC’s Feedel Band opened their set with a long, psychedelically echoing Fender Rhodes electric piano solo from bandleader Araya Woldemichael before the eight-piece Ethiopian groove band joined him, their tight three-piece horn section – Ben Hall on trombone, Feleke Hailu on alto sax and Moges Habte on tenor sax – carrying the austere, broodingly minor-key hook that made something of a contrast with the undulating, percussive drive underneath. Other than Woldemichael, Habte got the only other extended solo of the night for this band and made the most of it, adding a darkly bluesy edge to the austere melody that probably predated it by a thousand years or more.

The songs alternated between long, dynamically rich dancefloor grooves and almost minimalist, 70s-tinged hard funk numbers, guitarist Mehary Mehreteab adding the occasional wry wah-wah interlude, contrasting with the resonance of krar lute player Minale Bezu and the keening mesenko fiddle of Seteng Atenaw (who brought two different axes, one with a much scrapier, scarier tone). A parade of dancers, three women and two men made their entrance throughout the show, illustrating what could have been ancient courtship rituals and hunting myths. After spending most of the show in acidic, minor-key modes, the group ended on a more carefree note with what was basically a long, extended one-chord jam with plenty of solos for both the band and the dancers.

The festival continues tonight, May 8 at 8 with intense Tunisian-born chanteuse Emel Mathlouthi – who’s most recently been putting her own spin on classic Arabic diva balladry – and then lushly enveloping Canadian-based Persian song reinventors Niyaz. Then on Saturday night, May 9 at 8 there’s rare Honduran twinbill with surf rocker Guayo Cedeno & Coco Bar and then Garifuna guitar legend Aurelio & the Garifuna Soul Band. The concert is free, but it won’t hurt to get there early if you want a seat. Logistically, your best and fastest bet is to go straight down Vesey St. and hang a left into the World Trade Center Path station, then follow the corridor to the right, around the bend, under the West Side Highway and then up into the “winter garden” across the street with its stage in the center of the building’s west wall.

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.

A Darkly Riveting Concert and an Upcoming Parkside Show by Diana Wayburn’s Dances of the World Ensemble

You might think from the name of the group that pianist/flutist Diana Wayburn‘s Dances of the World Chamber Ensemble play ballet music. That might be possible, but while their music is kinetic and intensely rhythmic, it has an edge and an individuality that transcend the boundaries of African music, classical, jazz, rock and film music while combining elements of all those styles. While Wayburn’s music often reminds of Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopiques, or Astor Piazzolla’s shapeshifting, tango-based compositions, her sound is unique. There is no band in the world who sound anything like this group. If darkly glimmering, intense, energetic sounds are your thing, they’re playing the Parkside tonight, Nov 2 at 7 PM. Which might seem a strange place to see a chamber ensemble, but this group is just as at home in a rock venue as on a classical stage or in a jazz club.

Wayburn’s recordings – up at her Soundcloud page – encompass influences from West Africa to Spain, Argentina and beyond. The group’s concert at St. Marks Church this past September was much darker, more intense and seemingly jam-oriented than any of those tracks suggest: this is first and foremost a high-voltage, dynamic live band. Their opening number at that show began as a leapfrogging dance, Wayburn opening with a jaunty flute solo before handing off to trumpeter Marco Coco and violist Adam Matthes’ lingering lines. As the piece took on a moodily hypnotic Ethiopiques groove, trombonist Spencer Hale and then guitarist Ken Silverman took it deeper and deeper into the shadows, the guitar finally leading them up with a spiraling 70s art-rock feel before the band took it back down again. They let it wind out on an unsettled, unresolved note.

Switching to piano, Wayburn brought to mind Joy Division’s The Eternal, but with a towering, art-rock grandeur lit up with eerie chromatics and passing tones as the brooding second tune got underway. Coco added a tinge of the Middle East, Silverman some more traditional jazz phrasing and then Wayburn played bitingly rippling, incisive neoromantic lines all the way through to a triumphant downward cascade out. She and the band would revisit a similarly epic intensity with a brisk tango of sorts later in the show.

They played a more spacious, spare, bouncy number in between, with methodical solos from flute, trumpet and trombone over an insistent pulse reminiscent of American Indian music. They followed that with a gorgeously cinematic number fueled by Silverman’s insistence and Wayburn’s glistening minor-key piano, the most distinctively Ethiopian-flavored tune in the set. Andy O’Neill’s tumbling drums fueled the one-chord jam they closed with, Coco taking his time, choosing his spots and finally getting pretty wild before the group took it down into an ominously moody interlude fueled by Hale’s mournful trombone, then rising as the guitar and trumpet lept and jabbed over the murk underneath. Obviously, the lows resonated more mightily and maybe more menacingly in the church’s boomy sonics than might be the case in another room, but the intensity of this band – and Wayburn’s catchy, deceptively simple phrasing and intricate thematic variations – will be a factor no matter where they play. Catch them now before Wayburn gets a big Hollywood film score deal and all of a sudden the only place you’ll be able to find them is in much larger, pricier venues.