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Tag: Hassan Ben Jaafer

A Long Overdue Sonic Healing Ritual in Brooklyn

The sun goes down Wednesday evening behind Grand Army Plaza, welcome relief from the day’s crushing swelter. Heat is still rising from the stairs and courtyard extending to the gold-embellished facade of the Brooklyn Public Library. Feet stumble, brains fog and people collapse in conditions like this.

All the tables on the north side of the plaza are taken. There are a couple rows of chairs, carefully spaced apart. The area could accommodate many more, but paranoia in this part of town runs as deep as Loch Ness. A woman wears a surgical mask over her hijab. Hopefully she’s remembered to bring along a big water jug.

The PA is cranked up loud as Innov Gnawa launch into an undulating, clattering Moroccan gnawa groove. Six guys in regal robes and caps play heavy cast-metal qraqab castanets, flanking their leader and mentor, Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, who opens the show from behind a heavy drum slung over his shoulders. In his robe, sandals and blue-green reflector shades, he looks like Omar Souleymane.

One by one, the group members take a turn out front, showing off their fancy footwork as they crouch and strike expectant poses, their bandmates shifting between time signatures with split-second precision. Ben Jaafer has coached them well: they seem to know what’s coming, even though a lot of it is being made up on the spot.

The vocals are vigorous and incantatory: Ben Jaafer calls, the rest of the guys respond. He sings in Arabic, with a rugged, slightly raspy voice, saluting the spirits and engaging them to help us in our time of need. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.

Science tells us that low frequencies have healing properties: they calm our stress, lower our heart rate and our blood pressure. When Ben Jaafer pulls off his drum and picks up his sintir – the three-stringed Moroccan bass lute – the effect of his riffage, as he continues to move matter-of-factly from one rhythm to another, is visceral.

Although Morocco is home to a massive annual gnawa festival, the music is typically played at lila rituals. A lila is a lot of things: an all-night barbecue-and-hash party, a big communal jam, but also, perhaps more than anything else, a healing ceremony. This evening there’s exuberance, even triumph in Ben Jaafer’s voice and a hypnotic earth-heart pulse from his anthemic, blues-tinged sintir phrases. Maybe he’s channeling unseen sources, telling us that everything’s going to be all right even though all the earthly signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

Or maybe that’s a purely personal hope, finding solace amid the barrage of low tonalities punctuating the shamanic clank of the qraqabs. Ben Jaafer winds up the group’s first set much faster than he would have in Fes, where he learned his craft from some of the giants of the gnawa world. And then brought that repertoire here. At the moment, Innov Gnawa are the only traditional gnawa ensemble in North America.

The break between sets also affords an opportunity to crack a 24-ounce Modelo, but off the plaza, out of sight of the police cruisers circling the area. The slow walk toward Vanderbilt Avenue, in the shade, offers another kind of welcome comfort. The subway beckons, and at this point, it’s time to answer that call. Calm withstands the descent into renewed hellfire. Thank you for a restorative evening, Innov Gnawa.

The next show on the steps to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is Aug 18 at 7  PM with feminist Guinean folk songwriter Natu Camara.

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.

The Best New York City Concerts of 2017

New York’s best concert of 2017 was Golden Fest, with two nights and about seventy brass and string bands from across the Balkans, the Middle East and the USA on several different stages. Year after year, this annual January extravaganza is unsurpassed in terms of both quality and quantity of talent. This blog managed to catch about fifteen of those acts over that marathon weekend, including but not limited to agelessly soulful Armenian reedman Souren Baronian, rapturous singer Eva Salina  and her whirlwind accordionist Peter Stan, haunting tar lute player Amir Vahab, the searing brass of Zlatne UsteNovi Maleshevski Zurli, Raya Brass Band and Cocek! Brass Band. Golden Fest 2018 is this coming January 12 and 13 at the magnificent Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

There were four other multiple-night events that deserve a special place on this list. In March, the first-ever collaboration between Lincoln Center and the annual Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde in Essaouira, Morocco resulted in a trance-inducing series of concerts that began at the Upper West Side cultural mecca, moved to a cozy auditorium at the the New School for an approximation of a Moroccan lila healing ceremony and wound up at Pioneer Works in Red Hook for a collaboration with some New Jork jazz dudes including Marc Cary and Marcus Strickland. Three of the great sintir lute-playing maalems (masters) of mesmerizing gnawa music –Abdeslam AlikkaneHamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa – got to flex their chops.

The annual Drive East Festival at Dixon Place in August featured a similarly rapturous, weeklong series of Indian classical music and dance performances. Poignantly nuanced singer Indrani Khare and sitarist Kinnar Seen shared one of the midweek bills; theatrical Punjabi folk troupe Rajasthani Caravan headlined the Saturday night show. But the most amazing set of all might have been sarod virtuoso Aashish Khan, with his gracefully flickering, saturnine ragas.

The 2017 Bryant Park Accordion Festival, a weekly series spread out over more than a month in midsummer, featured mini-sets from scores of artists playing everything from klezmer to forro to swing jazz. Balkan and Middle Eastern music in separate corners of the park. Closing night began with some of the world’s greatest Middle Eastern musicians playing a riveting recreation of Ziad Rahbani’s iconic, bittersweet 1975 Bil Afrah suite.

And for the first time ever, this blog was present at every single night of an artist’s monthlong weekly residency at Barbes. Clarinet powerhouse and composer Michael Winograd picked April since there were five Saturdays in the month, where he was joined by a killer cast of musicians including rising star pianist Carmen Staaf for some small-group shows as well as a midmonth big band gig that was the best of them all. New klezmer sounds never sounded so edgy, so purist yet so fresh and wildly fun.

Otherwise, dig in for the longest year-end concert list this blog’s ever put together. It was impossible to whittle it down to any less than a grand total of fifty shows. The real estate speculator blitzkrieg keeps turning neighborhoods to rubble, yet people in this melting pot refuse to stop making great music. The rest of the year’s concerts are listed in chronological order since trying to rank them would be an exercise in futility.

If you don’t see your favorite band or your favorite show here – “What, no Dream Syndicate at Bowery Ballroom, are you guys nuts?” –  it’s a good bet that this blog wasn’t there. If you think this list is epic, just imagine the wishlist that went into it. But it’s one thing to plan on going out every night; it’s another thing to actually do it. Counting all the nights when it actually was possible to get out of the house or the office, there was more than enough good music to somewhat mitigate one of the worst years in memory for the world as a whole.

David Yengbarian, Borbely Mihaly Polygon and Meszecsinka at Drom, 1/5/17
The annual showcases put on by the APAP booking agents’ association can be an insanely good bargain. Cover was ten measly bucks for the dynamic Balkan accordionist, the noir cinematic trio of saxophonist Mihály Borbély, pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés, and the wild Hungarian trance-dance band.

LadamaAlash,Eva Salina and Peter Stan, Miramar and Innov Gnawa at Drom, 1/7/17
This APAP evening was even more insanely good – and this isn’t even the whole lineup! Pan-latin, mostly female dance band Ladama made a good opener for the energetically trancey Tuvan throat-singing trio, the stellar Balkan chanteuse and her accomplice on accordion, the hauntingly psychedelic Puerto Rican bolero revivalists and the only sintir lute-driven, mesmerizing traditional Moroccan trance-ritual band in this hemisphere. That group has good management: Innov Gnawa managed to get themselves on more than one bill on this page.

The Pre-War Ponies and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 1/12/17
Singer/uke player Daria Grace’s swing band opened the evening on a lush, elegantly romantic note; the fiery Balkan band ended up charging into the audience as the show hit peak intensity.

Shilpa Ananth, Rini and Humeysha at Drom, 1/29/17
A diverse triplebill of Indian-influenced sounds, from psychedelic soul, to towering cinematic art-rock and spacerock.

Dave Fiuczynski’s Kif at Drom, 2/3/17
The legendary jamband leader’s microtonal guitar trio were as otherworldly as their albums – and funny too.

The Super Bolus at Footlight Bar, 2/5/17
With half the nation supposedly glued to a soporific pre-Super Bowl gabfest, a posse of A-list Brooklyn improvisers from the Gold Bolus  circle including but not limited to singers Anne Rhodes  and Anais Maviel, trumpeter Daniel Levine, saxophonists Angela Morris and Erin Rogers, vibraphonist Sam Sowyrda, bassist Lisa Dowling and oboeist Dave Kadden paired off for all kinds of strange and beguiling sounds. Kadden’s rampaging microtonal assault was the high point, in fact the most intense solo performance at any show on this list other than Amir ElSaffar’s Soho set in January.

The Musical Chairs String Quartet at the Staten Island Museum, 2/11/17
An unlikely spot to see a riveting performance of Shostakovich’s macabre, anti-fascist String Quartet No. 7 and two world premieres of fantastic quartets by Andrew Rosciszewski.

Laurie AndersonChristian McBride and Rubin Kodheli at the Town Hall, 2/23/17
Avant garde violin icon joins forces with renowned jazz bassist and protean cello wizard for a night of sometimes lively, sometimes raptly sepulchral improvisation, with Anderson’s signature political relevance

Rachelle Garniez at Barbes, 3/2/17
She may be the foremost songwriter working right now, and treated an intimate crowd to a typically eclectic, intensely lyrical set of noir cabaret, Renaissance rock, latin-tinged parlor pop and pricelessly funny between-song banter.

Ballake Sissoko and Vincent Segal at the French Institute, 3/3/17
The Malian kora player and French cellist teamed up for a magical duo performance staged by the World Music Institute that blended phantasmic, cinematic themes, jaunty West African melodies and the baroque. More than one audience member was brought to tears.

Girls on Grass at Halyards, 3/23/17
Guitarist Barbara Endes’ psychedelic janglerock band sounded like the Dream Syndicate with a woman out front – that good, that anthemic, that catchy.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch, and Pierre de Gaillande’s Bad Reputation at Barbes, 3/25/17
Minch’s playful live movie score and Big Lazy mastermind Ulrich’s noir cinematics followed by the former Snow bandleader’s hilarious, brilliant English language parlor pop versions of Georges Brassens classics.

Changing Modes at Webster Hall, 3/26/17
The album release show by New York’s most smartly lyrical, unpredictable, keyboard-driven art-rock band was as protean and poignant as the record.

Miqayel Voskanyan at Drom, 4/5/17
Speaking of protean, the Armenian tar lute virtuoso and his quartet shifted between Near Eastern art-rock, folk-rock, Balkan turbo-folk and Romany dance music.

Meklit at Lincoln Center, 4/6/17
And while we’re still on the protean tip, how about the charismatic, fearlessly populist Ethio-jazz soulstress and her amazing band airing out new tunes from her kinetic, eclectic new album?

Easy Dreams and Karla Rose at 11th Street Bar, 4/11/17
Further proof that some of the best shows sometimes happen way under the radar. Rose, arguably the most captivating and versatile singer in all of New York and a haunting tunesmith as well, took a turn behind the drums in a mini-set by the uneasily jangly indie band, then picked up her guitar and haunted the crowd with her own brooding, film noir-influenced soul and psychedelic rock.

Gato Loco at Barbes, 4/20/17
This was more of a show for the drinkers than the stoners, a toweringly crescendoing mix of slinky noir instrumentals, psycho guitar-driven mambos and bouncy, carnivalesque themes.

Michael WinogradKill Henry Sugar and Las Rubias Del Norte at Barbes, 4/22/17
Goosebump-inducing klezmer clarinetist and his quartet, artfully lyrical, sardonic Americana rock duo and a farewell show (for now, at least) by keyboardist Alyssa Lamb and singer Emily Hurst’s hauntingly harmony-driven pan-American noir band.

Miklos Lukacs’ Cimbalom Unlimited at Drom, 5/22/17
Lukacs’ second appearance on this list was as a bandleader, playing fiery, relentlessly crescendoing themes, fingers flying across his magically rippling Hungarian dulcimer.

Rahim AlHaj at Lincoln Center, 5/25/17
The Iraqi oud virtuoso, joined by Iranian santoor player Sourena Sefati and Palestinian percussionist Issa Malluf, played the most haunting and understatedly relevant small-group New York show in a year when anti-Muslim bigotry reached a new low.

Sara SerpaSofia Rei and Aubrey Johnson in the West Village, 6/2/17
Three of the most distinctive, individualistic voices in all of music – the intense, noir-inspired Serpa, the irrepressibly fun Rei and the enigmatically lustrous Johnson – shared a characteristically eclectic bill of a-cappella songs and improvisations in a storefront church space. Unexpected venue, magical show.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 6/3/17
Brooklyn’s funnest band – JP Schlegelmilch on organ, Matt Bauder on sax and Vinnie Sperrazza on drums – are a cross between the Doors, the Ventures and maybe WIBG. The result: a brand new style. Psychedelic surf noir jazz dance music!

The Barbes Benefit at Drom, 6/9/17
Brooklyn’s best venue was in trouble. Some of New York’s best bands joined forces for a wildly successful fundraiser to make sure it’s here for another five years. On the bill: thunderous Brazilian drum troupe Maracatu NY, noir icons the Jazz Passengers, Romany song maven Sanda Weigl, a subset of the haunting, soaring all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache; charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Afro-Colombian trance-dance choir Bulla en el Barrio , the similar but lower-register Innov Gnawa; one-off Balkan brass supergroup Fanfare Brooklyn – and Lynchian guitar-bass-drums trio Big Lazy .

Michael Winograd and Ben Holmes, Sean Cronin and Dolunay at Barbes, 6/10/17
The clarinetist and his trumpeter compadre opened an eclectic early-summer evening with a quartet show and lots of darkly chromatic new tunes, followed by the similarly eclectic guitarist and his purist band playing Hank Williams covers, and then riveting singer Jenny Luna’s haunting, oud-infused Turkish band

Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble Outdoors in the Financial District, 6/16/17
The paradigm-shifting trumpeter/santoorist/singer and his big band played a titanic set of Middle Eastern jazz from his latest album. His show at the Fridman Gallery in SoHo back in January, which he began with a distantly harrowing solo trumpet improvisation, was much more quietly transcendent.

Rose Thomas Bannister and Goddess at Corkscrew Wines, 6/21/17
A witchy, psychedelic twinbill in a comfortable Fort Greene back courtyard with the lyrically ferocious, Shakespeare-influenced chanteuse and the theatrical psych-folk band. Backed by lead guitar monster Bob Bannister, she was also awfully good there a couple of months later on a doublebill with oldtime Americana singer Stephanie Jenkins.

Lara St. John at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park, 6/27/17
In front of an impressively game pickup group, the violin virtuoso treated the crowd to a kinetic Jessie Montgomery piece, a lyrical take of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending and a harrowing world premiere by Matthew Hindson, Maralinga, a narrative of terror in the wake of a 1950s Australian nuclear disaster. After that, Stravinsky was anticlimactic.

Orkesta Mendoza and Lila Downs at Prospect Park Bandshell, 6/29/17
The slinky psychedelic cumbia and noir mambo band set the stage for an epic set of classic mariachi and fearlessly political ballads by the iconic Mexican-American singer and her titanic band, joined on several numbers by Mariachi Flor de Toloache. The afterparty down the hill at Barbes, with wild Veracruz-style folk-punks Radio Jarocho, was pretty intense too.

The Mary​ ​Halvorson Octet at the Village Vanguard, 7/18/17
The world’s best jazz guitarist not named Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot and her lush, enveloping ensemble – featuring brilliant pedal steel player Susan Alcorn – aired out a lot of dynamic, uneasy new material.

Rev. Billy & the Church of  Stop Shopping Choir and Sexmob at Prospect Park Bandshell, 7/27/17
A brand-new set of original apocalyptic, anti-fascist and anti-racist original gospel tunes by the firebrand activist and his gargantuan choir, followed by the cinematic jazz quartet playing a darkly undulating, colorful live score to the 1920s Italian silent film Maciste All’Infierno.

The Trio Joubran at the Lincoln Center Festival, 7/29/17
The three Palestinian oud-playing brothers charmed and haunted the crowd with a dynamic tribute to their late collaborator, iconic poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Big Lazy at Barbes, 8/4/17
Guitarist Steve Ulrich’s cinematic noir trio made it onto the bill on more than one of the year’s best concerts, but their best single show – this blog was in the house at many of them – might have been this wildly jam-oriented night, two creepy sets at the band’s Park Slope home base. How did it feel afterward? “Free,” grinned drummer Yuval Lion.

Kill Henry Sugar and Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 8/11/17
Guitarist Erik Della Penna and drummer Dean Sharenow’s Americana lit-rock band have a ton of new material up their sleeves, and aired it out here before the wild Israeli Ethiopian dance band took the intensity to redline with a ferocious, psychedelic couple of sets.

Castle Black at the Well, 8/25/17
Guitarist Leigh Celent’s power trio have grown from a haphazardly promising band into a dark, fearsome monster: not even the sonic interference from the adjacent labyrinth of rehearsal rooms could silence this beast.

Melissa & the Mannequins at LIC Bar, 9/3/17
Put up a good youtube video and the crowd will come. With their killer chops and songs, New York’s best new band switched from jangly new wave to psychedelic soul and tantalizing hints of noir.

Bobtown at the Brooklyn Americana Festival, 9/23/17
Plaintive Anglo-American folk maven Jan Bell books this annual event: it would have been a lot of fun to have been able to catch more of it. With their gleaming four-part harmonies and songs about ghosts and other dead people, New York’s finest folk noir band were at the top of their game.

Greek Judas and the NY Fowl Harmonic at Hank’s, 9/28/17
Volcanic twin-guitar heavy metal versions of Greek songs from the 1920s and 30s about smoking hash, smuggling drugs and outrunning the cops, followed by Gato Loco bass sax monster Stefan Zeniuk’s carnivalesque punk-mambo group.

Seungmin Cha and Ned Rothenberg in Tribeca, 10/1/17
A riveting, intense, enveloping electroacoustic jazz loft set by the paradigm-shifting avant garde Korean daegeum flute player with the downtown multi-reed virtuoso.

The 24-Hour Raga-Thon at the Rubin Museum of Art, 10/22/17
This blog was only around for the wee-hours part that started about three in the morning: prime time for haunting, rarely heard morning ragas reinvented by an adventurous cast of Indian musicians including but not limited to saxophonist Aakash Mittal, guitarist Rez Abbasi, sarodist Camila Celin , trumpeter Aaron Shragge, bansuri flutist Eric Fraser and santoor sorceress Deepal Chodhari. 

Tom Csatari’s Uncivilized Playing Twin Peaks at Barbes, 10/29/17
Brooklyn’s best and most individualistic jazz guitarist led his fearlessly adventurous group through some careening and some absolutely chilling versions of iconic David Lynch tv and film scores.

Edna Vazquez at Lincoln Center, 11/2/17
You could call this charismatic guitarist/singer’s music “noiriachi” – haunting, kinetic, fearlessly relevant dark mariachi rock.

La Mar Enfortuna at the Jewish Museum, 11/9/17
Elysian Fields guitarist Oren Bloedow’s lush, luscious twelve-string jangle and his bandmate, singer Jennifer Charles’ multilingual reinventions of ancient Ladino songs and themes from across the Sephardic diaspora ran the gamut from haunting to even more so.

The ClaudettesBrian Carpenter and the Confessions and Big Lazy at Drom, 11/10/17
The piano-driven Chicago group have reinvented themselves as a catchy blue-eyed soul band; Carpenter, a connoisseur of oldtimey swing jazz, mined a deep noir rock vein, capped off by NYC’s finest noir cinematic instrumentalists.

The Navatman Music Collective at Symphony Space, 11/19/17
This hemisphere’s only Indian carnatic choir sang and played a mammoth, shapeshifting set of reinvented classical themes from across the centuries.

The Greenwich Village Orchestra in the Lincoln Center complex, 12/2/17
A poignant, violin-fueled take of Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Michael Daugherty’s timpani concerto Raise the Roof set the stage for a withering performance of Shostakovich’s classic antifascist Symphony No. 10. Anybody who thinks classical music isn’t relevant wasn’t there.

The Todd Marcus Orchestra at Smalls, 12/3/17
The bass clarinetist/bandleader led his brilliant eight-piece group through his brand-new, catchy, picturesque Middle Eastern jazz suite.

Innov Gnawa and Amadou & Mariam at the Peak of Their Psychedelic Powers at Prospect Park

“It’s hot all over,” guitarist/singer Amadou Bagayoko remarked to the Prospect Park Bandshell crowd last night in his heavy-lidded, Malian French drawl. On the hottest night of the year so far, one of the other things he noticed that was all over the place was weed. See, Amadou is blind. His other senses are working overtime.

But it hardly took a sensitive nose to pick up on what was wafting from the slope out back: this was a show for the smokers. And the place was packed: from personal experience and a survey of random concertgoers who’ve seen multiple shows here recently, the only act who’s drawn as much of a crowd as Amadou & Mariam was Jamaican dancehall star Chronixx. Psychedelic music has never been so popular as it is in 2017.

Which is no surprise. Amadou & Mariam are arguably the world’s most individualistic psychedelic rock band. Over the years, they’ve inched further and further from their original mashup of sprawling two-chord Malian desert rock jams and bouncy central African pop, to a much more western sound rooted in the 1960s. And they’ve never sounded so interesting, or eclectic as they are now.

Mariam Doumbia – Amadou’s wife and childhood sweetheart – sang in her enigmatic, uneasily bronzed, sometimes gritty delivery in both French and Bambara, often harmonizing with Amadou’s balmy croon, going through a couple of costume changes in the process. Behind them, their drummer alternated between stomp, slink and funk while their bassist played tasteful, serpentine riffs and countermelodies, their keyboardist adding lushness and lustre on organ and several synth patches.

They opened with Bofou Safou, their driving, biting new single, sending a message that this show was going to rock pretty hard. From there they made their way methodically through a couple of leaping dance-funk numbers that brought to mind mid-80s Talking Heads, a starry nightscape with majestic Pink Floyd echoes, several similarly mighty blues-based anthems and a deliciously creepy detour into late 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelia.

It was on that allusively menacing number that Amadou took his longest, wildest, solo of the night. While his playing sometimes brings to mind the feral icepicking of Albert Collins, the twangy sparkle of Mark Knopfler and the machinegunning hammer-ons of Vieux Farka Toure, he doesn’t seem to be influenced by any of them, and with the exception of his countryman and younger colleague Toure, may not have even heard those guys. Winding up and down and around, he brought his long trails of sixteenth notes home to a final comet tail and wild applause. The band have a new album due out next month: if this concert is any indication, it’s going to be amazing.

Brooklyn’s own Innov Gnawa, whose career has taken a meteoric rise recently, opened and got a full hour onstage, a rarity at this venue. The sea of fans they’d brought to the show might explain why. Fresh off a Coachella appearance and a marathon series of New York club gigs, it’s hard to imagine a hotter band in town right now.

The only gnawa band in the world west of Morocco, they play the original drum-and-bass music. With roots in sub-Saharan, pre-Muslim central Africa, transplanted to the north, many of their hypnotic, pulsing, crackling themes date from over a thousand years ago. It’s party music, for sure, but it has even more cultural resonance for healing and spiritual purposes. With limited time (for them – this band can jam for hours) and a big stage to work with, they clanked and boomed and snapped their way through a dynamic mix of straight-ahead dance jams and trickier, turn-on-a-dime rhythms, winding up with frontman/sintir lute player Hassan Ben Jaafer running his basslines faster and faster as his chanting choir of bandmates whirled their cast-iron castnets, encircling him and bringing the show to a peak that would have been daunting to most headliners other than Amadou & Mariam.

Amadou & Mariam continue on US tour; their next show is on July 24 at 6:30 PM at Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago; admission is free. Innov Gnawa are uptown at Ginny’s Supper Club on July 27, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30  PM; your best deal is standing room at the bar for $15.

The next show at Prospect Park Bandshell is tomorrow night, July 22 at 7:30 PM and opens auspiciously with Innov Gnawa percussionist Amino Belyamani’s similarly innovative, mesmerizingly rhythmic dancefloor minimalist trio, Dawn of Midi. Jury’s out on the headliner: are Mashrou ‘Leila the Lebanese Cure, or just another lame corporate dance-rock act?

High-Voltage African and American Sounds From Central Park to the River

Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.’s first song this past evening at Central Park Summerstage was Expensive Shit. As a literal, graphic condemnation of wretched capitalist excess and status-grubbing, it has few equals. Fela Kuti’s son and principal heir to the family Afrobeat legacy probably spat the word “shit” more times during the roughly ten minutes it took for the band to bubble and rise and finally bring the relentless underlying vamp to a close, than any other act has done at this venue in many years.

Kuti has been fortunate to sidestep the kind of brutal repression his father faced, but he’s no less fearlessly political. His second song, a defiantly triumphant pro-ganja anthem with a fervent refrain of “Lemme see your lighters,” was a red herring. The younger Kuti shares his dad’s withering sarcasm. He welcomed the audience into the era of fake news – “News that’s for profit,” he explained – by reminding that Nigerians knew all about it before it became part and parcel of White House correspondence. A little later on, introducing African Dreams – a broadside against western cultural imperialism – he snidely commented that “Conscious capitalism doesn’t exist.”

Leading an endlessly undulating fourteen-piece band, he took a quick turn on piano and then showed off a bracing, bitingly metallic tone and a no-nonsense, modally tinged sensibility on alto sax. The percussion section emerged stealthily from a quiet thicket and grew toward a stampede as the brass blazed, the electric piano rippled and the two guitars – one a tenor model for extra upper-register tingle – ran jaggedly circling melodies along with a similarly purposeful bass player, throughout what would become an unexpectedly abbreviated set.

Many people in the crowd – especially those who showed up to see the advertised headliner and consequently missed the guy they came for – were surprised not to see Roy Ayers headlining. He’s certainly earned that respect. He also didn’t get much more than three quarters of an hour onstage, leading his four-piece band through expansive takes of Red, Gold and Green, Everybody Loves the Sunshine and finally, Searchin’.

While he saved his most high-voltage playing for a long solo with Kuti’s band, the iconic vibraphonist who more or less invented noir psychedelic soul put on a clinic in purist, seat-of-the-pants tunesmithing, whether with endless volleys of bluesy triplets, rapidfire chromatics or playing against the beat. His band stayed pretty much on low-key, glimmering point, although they lost the crowd when they went off into warpy keytar spacerock and a snapping, popping, faux Bootsy bass solo. They won them back again with a tight drum solo where the guy behind the kit played the whole thing one-handed, then with both sticks behind his back, finally flipping them forward over his shoulders, and kept going without missing a beat.

Hometown opening act Underground System justified the ambition of sharing a bill with two more-or-less iconic acts through the afternoon’s longest set, a mix of original Afrobeat with a more straight-up funk tune or two and also a whirling Italian womens’ rights anthem. Frontwoman/flutist Domenica Fossati really worked up a sweat with her dance moves; if she was a sheik, her last name would be Yerbouti. Guitarist Peter Matson and keyboardist Colin Brown pinged and rippled and threw off a few clouds of toxic noise, drummer Yahoteh Kokayi and percussionist Lollise Mbi held the beast to the rails while the horn section – including baritone saxophonist Maria Christina Eisen and trumpeter Jackie Coleman – smoldered and sputtered and bassist David Cutler ran simple, emphatically circling riffs that would have made Fela proud. Their high point was the brassy Rent Party, something Fossati said the band knew a little something about. From there they segued into their most ominous, dynamically shadowy number of the afternoon.

Afterward, many faces n the crowd went west to the Hudson, where Innov Gnawa – the only Moroccan drum-and-bass trance band in this hemisphere – played what amounted to the afterparty. In more than ten years of concerts at Pier One at 70th Street and the river, it’s impossible to think of another show that had so many people dancing, from toddlers to oldtimers.

And they did that to ancient animist and Muslim themes originally dating from thousands of years ago in sub-Saharan Africa, sung in Arabic to the hypnotic pulse of sintir bass lute and cast-iron qraqab castanets. This was a slightly smaller subgroup of the band, Moroccan master Hassan Ben Jaafer taking turns with his similarly agile protege Samir LanGus riffing on the low strings. Some of the songs worked a tension between octave notes, others bounced and swayed along with crescendoing call-and-response choruses. As the night went on, Ben Jaafer subtly introduced all sorts of tricky polyrhythms and suspensefully allusive chromatics hinting but never quite crossing into Egypt.

Qraqab player Amino Belyamani sauntered into the dancing melee midway through the show and taught everybody some snazzy moves, complete with a split-second squat in the middle – and by the end of the show, a lot of people had all that pretty cold. Innov Gnawa’s next gig is at Prospect Park Bandshell this Friday night, July 21 at 7:30 PM where they’re opening for wildly popular, microtonal psychedelic Malian band Amadou & Mariam. The next show at Summerstage is tomorrow night, July 17 where 90s noiserock icons and occasional cinematic soundscapers Yo La Tengo hit at around 8. Be aware that there’s an opening act; doors at 6 for those not willing to take chances.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.

This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history.  And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.

About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.

Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.

Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.

The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.

Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.

In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.

The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.

That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.

El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.

For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.

Moroccan Trance Band Innov Gnawa Make History

Innov Gnawa are the only group playing Moroccan gnawa trance music on this side of the Atlantic. You could call it the ultimate, fat bass-and-drum music – or Moroccan gospel. Its origins are in sub-Saharan Africa. It was brought north primarily by slaves and was regarded as ghetto there until fairly recently. It is 100% acoustic, otherworldly, and primeval, but hardly primitive. The call-and-response between maalem (bandleader) and kouyos (chorus) can be hypnotic for minutes on end, then impassioned and explosive, with intricate polyrhythms to rival the most ambitious jazz. The majority of gnawa melodies are based on the blues scale; the lyrics, in either Arabic or Bambara, celebrate Islamic themes. Moroccan expat Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, one of the world’s great masters of the three-string sintir bass lute, leads the group. They’re one of the funnest bands in town to dance to.

They’re making their Coachella debut this year; in the meantime, New Yorkers have a chance to catch their leader this week as part of a historic collaboration between Lincoln Center and this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour. This Thurs, March 16 at 7:30 PM, the game plan is for Ben Jaafer to jam with his old buddy Maalem Hamid El Kasri, who he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane,  who represents the southern Moroccan style of gnawa, is also on the bill at the atrium space at Lincoln Center. It’s a major moment in global music history, the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest virtuosos of Moroccan music. Innov Gnawa are also opening for Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn on April 6 at 7:30 PM; $15 advance tix are highly recommended

Ben Jaafer is revered in his native Morocco much like his mentor, Mohammed Sam, one of the most important figures in the history of gnawa and a great innovator in the 1960s and 70s. The rest of the group comprises the chorus. Founder Samir LanGus (who also plays sintir onstage) and Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani are joined on vocals and cast-iron qraqab castanets by Said Bourhana and Nawfal Atiq, in addition to Ahmed Jeriouda, who also plays cajon. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number is a benediction of sorts used throughout much of Morocco to open a lila – the delirious allnight parties that do double duty as mystical Sufi trance rite. As the steady, misty rain of the chorus’ qraqab castanets shuffles behind him, Ben Jaafer is already working very subtle permutations on a similar but not quite rhythmically identical blues bassline. Beyond the central riffs and choruses, Gnawa is eighty to ninety percent improvised: this band won’t ever play this number this way again.

Ben Jaafer’s rugged baritone grows more insistent on the tune after that, over a circling 6/8 rhythm that brings to mind the wheel-like cadences of qawwali music. Bass players and fans of low-register tonalities will love how Ben Jaafer conceals the occasional, unexpectedly booming chord within his riffage.

His pouncing introduction to the third number offers no hint at how the circling three-on-two rhythm from the qraqabs will return – or how fervent the voices of the chorus will grow alongside him. As the album goes on, Ben Jaafer takes one sudden, unexpected, syncopated detour after another; every time, the band turns on a dime and follows suit. The final number is also the most anthemic and dynamically shifting one. There are six tracks in total, as close to the actual experience of hearing a genuine lila in North America as millions of listeners will ever get.

 

Magical Moroccan Music Masters Make History This March 16 at Lincoln Center

One of the most important musical events in recent history, with global significance akin to Peter Tosh and Bob Marley sharing the same stage – or Robert Johnson jamming with Howlin’ Wolf – will take place on Thursday, March 16 at 7:30 PM at the David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It’s the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest masters of Moroccan music. Two of the great maalems (masters) of explosively hypnotic Moroccan gnawa trance music – Maalem Hamid El Kasri and Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane – will share the stage with Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, the only gnawa master this side of the Atlantic, who leads Brooklyn-based ensemble Innov Gnawa.  This first performance on this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour marks the debut of a new partnership between the Festival and Lincoln Center. 

Taking a brief pause in between rehearsals and the innumerable demands of scheduling an event of this magnitude, Maalem Ben Jaafer, his Innov Gnawa protege and bandmate Samir LanGus, and David Rubenstein Atrium Programming Manager Meera Dugal got together Sunday night to share some intimate details about the event over snacks and a delicious vegan Moroccan stew in the comfortable, lowlit confines of Tagine on 38th Street.

It turns out that this show will be a very heartwarming reunion. Ben Jaafer and El Kasri knew each other as young stars of the lila party circuit, Ben Jaafer from Fez and El Kasri making his home base in Rabat. They haven’t seen each other or even talked on the phone in seventeen years

LanGus was immersed in the music in his native Morocco before moving to North Carolina and then New York to play under Ben Jaafer’s tutelage. Growing up in South Carolina, Dugal didn’t encounter gnawa until moving to New York, where she first met LanGus at a wild Lincoln Center concert by Hoba Hoba Spirit – the Moroccan Clash – in 2014. 

“Samir and I dreamed up this partnership between the two institutions while at the gnawa festival in Essaouira last summer, and this collaboration marks the next step in our mission to share gnawa with a larger audience here in the US. At Lincoln Center, we’ve been listening to our enthusiastic Moroccan community, and they’ve been crucial to our focus on this music, as well as our decision to reach out to the Gnaoua Festival to work together.” 

“If this is someone’s first exposure to gnawa music, it doesn’t get any better than this,” LanGus enthused. “For Moroccans in America, it’s a chance to see something here that wouldn’t even happen in Morocco. For people who know the music, it’s a chance to go really deeply into it and and watch three of the greatest musicians alive. And if you haven’t seen gnawa before, this is as good as it gets.” 

”The Gnaoua Festival also plays a significant role in elevating the status of gnawa music and gnawa people in Morocco,” Dugal explained. Just like Argentine tango, Puerto Rican salsa and American blues, gnawa was marginalized for decades. Gnawa musicians were held in low esteem before a recent resurgence. These days, it’s essentially become the national music of Morocco.

Gnawa’s roots date back to pre-Islamic sub-Saharan Africa. First brought north by slaves and Moorish soldiers, the music slowly gained popularity through lilas, the marathon all-night gnawa celebrations which are part block party and part mystical trance ceremony. There are thousands of songs in the gnawa repertoire; Ben Jaafer and Innov Gnawa have a repertoire of about two hundred. In live performance, improvisation factors in about eighty to ninety percent of the music: the chorus of qraqab castanet players has to be able to follow a skilled maalem’s sudden rhythmic changes on a moment’s notice. 

Ben Jaafer is revered as an innovator just like his mentor, Maalem Sidi Mouhamed Sam, widely considered the greatest gnawa pioneer of the 1960s and 70s. Ben Jaafer made a name for himself on the lila circuit as being one of the most innovative gnawa singers and virtuosos of the sintir, the Moroccan low-register lute. Eclecticism became his signature sound. He incorporates elements of Sufi hammadcha, in addition to the two primary branches of gnawa, marsaoui and chamali, into his phrasing. He quickly made a name for himself as one of the very few maalems adept at each of the various regional styles of gnawa, which differ widely from north to south and points in between.

Alternating between Arabic, French and English, he shared some colorful stories of life on the road as one of Morocco’s most sought-after musicians (he now lives in Brooklyn, leading Innov Gnawa in concerts across the city and as faraway as big festivals like Coachella). He recalled a time in Morocco going from a low-key afternoon lila in a fancy neighborhood, then taking a break for a snack before moving on to an all-night gig  in an adjoining city. There were times when he’d get home early in the afternoon, thinking he’d finally get some sleep, only to be woken a couple of hours later by a client looking to book him. Then there was the time when he was called in the middle of the night to replace another maalem who’d unexpectedly quit a lila at three in the morning. “We were expected to go til eight or nine,” Ben Jaafer explained with a wry grin. 

For those of you new to gnawa, there are other related upcoming events to help you out. On Monday, March 20 Langus and Dugal are convening a panel at The New School Jazz with journalist Tom Pryor, ethnomusicologist and political scientist Hisham Aidi, and jazz pianist and Juilliard Jazz Chair of Improvisation Marc Cary. The event is free and will feature Moroccan refreshments and a performance by Innov Gnawa, who will also be special guests on March 22, as NEA Jazz Master and piano icon Randy Weston wraps up his residency at Medgar Evers College with a discussion about his history with gnawa. Ben Jaafer and LanGus will join him onstage.  

After the Lincoln Center event, the maalems make a stop on March 17 at 7 PM at the New School, where the performance will be more intimate and akin to a lila as practiced in Morocco. Then they’re at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC on March 18 before returning to New  York for a 7 PM gig at Pioneer Works in Red Hook on March 19, where they’ll jam with New York jazz artists including Cary, Marcus Strickland, Jamaaladeen Tacuma and Will Calhoun; advance tix are $30. 

Three Nights in a Row at Drom: An Embarrassment of Riches

Last night at Drom, the crowd had reached critical mass by the time Innov Gnawa took the stage. It was the second weekend in a row that the seven-piece Moroccan trance-dance ensemble had packed a Manhattan club. This group is hot right now.

“What’s the appeal of this music?” the energetic, personable Virginia publicist asked the worn, haggard New York bass player.

“It’s the blues,” he replied, pulling himself out of a walking dream state. “You hear what the sintir player, the guy with the lute, is doing? He’s bouncing off an octave, but in between he’s playing a blues riff. Catchy, isn’t it? And I think that’s what people latch onto. That, and the castanets on the high end, and the bassline on the low, with the vocals in the middle. Total stereo from a thousand years ago.”

“I don’t really follow blues,” the publicist responded, guardedly. “I like Middle Eastern music.”

“Me too!” the bassist enthused. “This is the roots of Middle Eastern music, from North Africa. And my theory with the blues is that it’s in everybody’s DNA, everybody can resonate to it because the blues goes back to Ethiopia and that’s where the human species comes from.”

There were a lot of conversations like that over the course of the night. This weekend, the booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP, is in town, which for ordinary people means that there are an unusual number of fantastic multiple-band bills happening for cheap or even free. The conventioneers call themselves presenters. Before you dismiss that as pretentious, consider that if you were a booker, you would probably prefer to be called a presenter. The mix of presenters, club people – the night was put on by the folks at Barbes, Brooklyn’s elite venue along with eclectic dance music label Electric Cowbell Records and Multiflora Productions – as well as random dancers got to enjoy a tantalizingly short set of shapeshifting, undulating grooves and energetic call-and-response chants in Arabic that began not onstage but on the floor in the middle of the crowd. What did it feel like to be literally rubbing elbows with bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer, who, before he strapped on his sintir, walloped on a big bass drum slung over his shoulder? Thunderous fun. This music is obviously as adrenalizing to play as it is to be part of on the dance floor.

The previous band, Miramar, channeled a completely different kind of intensity. Singer Rei Alvarez rocked a sharp black suit, pairing off fire-and-dry-ice harmonies with his counterpart Laura Ann Singh, inscrutable in a vintage midnight blue pencil dress. The two looked like they just stepped out of a David Lynch or late-period Buñuel film, with music to match. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most spellbinding performer of the night was keyboardist Marlysse Simmons, who played terse, elegant piano on several of the band’s moody boleros, including the opener, Sylvia Rexach’s classic Di Corazon, one of the saddest songs ever written. But it was her slinky, luridly tremoloing funeral organ on the band’s most haunting numbers, a mix of Rexach covers and originals that defines this band more than anything else. They made their way through a noir Vegas bossa that brought to mind Brooklyn art-rockers Tredici Bacci, a dramatic tango-flavored anthem with some rippling flamenco guitar lines, and a shattering version of another original, Sin Ti. The rest of the material, afloat on a murky river of organ, channeled nonstop angst and longing. In all of latin music, the bolero is the ultimate expression of estrangement and angst: in the hands of this band, that atmosphere was relentless, and breathtaking, and in its own dark way as comforting as the Moroccan grooves afterward.

The night’s most dynamically captivating singer, among many, was Eva Salina, who’d been called in on short notice since Ethiopiques groovemeisters Feedel Band weren’t able to get up from Washington, DC in the snowstorm. Her longtime accordionist Peter Stan shifted from mournful ambience, to slithery cascades downward along with plenty of jaunty Balkan party riffage as the singer moved gracefully and eloquently from a brassy wedding theme, to a brooding abandoned-wife scenario, to an understatedly wrenching Saban Bajarmovic cover addressed to someone he never got the chance to say goodbye to. Eva Salina could front any Balkan band in the world she wants (one might say that she already has). Nobody works harder at getting the accents and ornaments right, or channeling the most minute expression of emotion or shade of irony. Midway through her set, she entreated the agents in the crowd to pair experienced artists with younger groups in order to keep the music fresh…and alive.

Alash were the funniest band of the night: the crowd loved them. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik take their bandname from a river in their native Tuva in central Asia, and they backed that up with a couple of sweeping, uneasily rustic pastorales blending spare acoustic guitar with wood flute and the group’s signature, oscillating throat-singing harmonies. There was also a rather spare, severe number that could have easily passed for American gospel or blues from the 1800s if it had English lyrics. But the big crowd-pleasers were the funny stuff: a swaying drinking song, a tonguetwisting number that brought to mind an auctioneer’s rapidfire delivery, and the catchy, emphatic folk tunes that they began and ended with. “Shoot,” barked Ondar as each reached a sudden, cold ending: it’s a fair guess that means something more optimistic in Tuvan than it does in English.

And Ladama, a pan-latin, mostly female (hence the name) supergroup of sorts – assembled under the auspices of the US State Department under Obama – opened the evening with mix of upbeat folk-rock, a hint of tango and a couple of serpentine cumbias. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, whose axe is the bandola llanera, which looks like a Mexican bajo sexto but sounds something like a baritone ukulele with more bite. Her fleet, flamencoish flurries on a handful of numbers made for some of the night’s most intense moments; otherwise, the band – including a couple of male ringers on accordion and bass, along with singer Sara Lucas, drummer Lara Klaus, conguera Daniela Serna and a violinist, kept a seamless bounce over beats from across South America, mirroring the band members’ diverse backgrounds. That was the night’s subtext. It’s hard to imagine the incoming Presidential administration having any interest in promoting music any more globally-inspired or edgy than Bon Jovi.