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.