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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.

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.