New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: Jamaladeen Tacuma

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.

Marc Ribot’s Young Philadelphians Bring Their Twisted Take on Philly Soul and Disco to Bowery Ballroom

To say that guitarist Marc Ribot doesn’t let the grass grow under his feet is a something of an understatement; where this guy treads turns into Carthage. To take that to its logical extreme; whatever he touches, he destroys – in the best possible sense of the word. The irrepressible downtown polymath’s career high point may be his shadowy, noir 2010 Silent Movies album, but his latest release, Live in Tokyo, with his group the Young Philadelphians – guitarist Mary Halvorson, bassist Jamaladeen Tacuma and drummer G. Calvin Weston – might be the best album of 2016. It’s a volcanic punk-funk record – most of it streaming at the band’s music page -with the same noisy, clenched-teeth exhilaration as Ribot’s 2014 Live at the Village Vanguard set. The premise of this one is typically ambitious: to connect the dots between Ornette Coleman’s 70s/80s Prime Time band and the plush Philly soul which served as a backdrop if not an immediate touchstone. AND to do it with two guitars instead of a horn band. Wild stuff. They’re bringing their careening intensity to a gig this Thursday, July 28 at 11 PM at Bowery Ballroom, a rare appearance by a jazz band at Manhattan’s best-sounding midsize venue. Advance tix are $20, half of what you’d spend if you saw Ribot in any number of jazz clubs. Chris Cochrane subs for Halvorson on the band’s current US tour.

The intro to the album’s opening track, Love Epidemic, is worth the price of admission alone: Ribot blazes through a classic funk riff, then Halvorson comes in with an artery-slashing pickslide, a pickup Japanese string section swirling animatedly overhead. Tacuma anchors all this with his bubbly, purposeful vintage disco lines in tandem with Weston’s straight-up dancefloor pulse. Both guitarists switch on a dime between hard funk and irresistibly jubilant blasts of distorted punk rock. It’s fun to just think about this, let alone hear it or try to play it.

By contrast, the two guitarists’ droll wide-angle tremolo approach on the ballad Love TKO brings to mind Isaac Hayes at his most soulfully hot and buttered. Tacuma and Weston draw on their time with both Coleman and James Blood Ulmer, the bassist strutting and slipsliding, drums moving effortlessly from chill to crush. Ribot builds with fiery deliberation from shivery acid blues to skronk to cap it off.

The group twists Fly, Robin, Fly – a cheesy 1975 hit by German one-hit wonders Silver Convention – into a sick mashup of Bush Tetras and late-period ELO – and then takes it toward saturnine Sun Ra territory. TSOP (The Sound of Philadelphia) is just plain hilarious, Weston and the strings opening it as a bombastic Olympic theme over the guitars’ jagged, sandpapery attack, then they hit the groove with a snarky thump. They get a lot looser on an even more sardonic, wah-infused take of the Ohio Players’ Love Rollercoaster, Halvorson having a ball anchoring Ribot and Tacuma’s stoner funk with her cumulo-nimbus ambience and woozy textures.

Do Anything You Want is closer to classic P-Funk than anything else here, and a launching pad for both Halvorson’s and Tacuma’s most incendiary playing. The group winds up the set logically with the funniest number of all, The Hustle. Ribot’s incessant quoting from an iconic anthem from a completely different idiom is as cruel as it is hilarious, finally getting his revenge for having to play the song on a wedding gig decades ago.

On the vocal numbers, it sounds like everybody sings, or at least vocalizes – not that there’s a lot in the way of lyrics, but it adds an extra dimension of fun. Since releasing the album, Ribot explains that the band is now stretching this material out even further, slicing and dicing the big hooks as springboards for even crazier improvisation. That’s an auspicious move since Halvorson’s own legendary ferocity is held in check somewhat here (she plays in the left channel, Ribot in the right).

And in case you haven’t already guessed, the Bowery gig may have something to do with the material on the bill, in addition to the artists. Can’t you see it: two dudes texting back and forth on Okcupid, “Let’s go to this, it’ll be so ironic.” To pronounce that final word correctly you have to hold your nose and say it in as flat and loud a voice as you can while trying to photobomb the selfie being taken by the gentrifier next to you. Steve Wynn put out a couple of dozen brilliant albums before he realized that he needed to write songs about baseball in order to reach a mass audience. Maybe Ribot has to be the leader of the world’s funnest and funniest disco cover band to do the same.