If you were out seeing concerts this past weekend in the West Village, you probably noticed an older hippie/academic crowd in full effect: that’s because this time of year in New York is when the annual booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP takes place. Most of the shows associated with the convention are open to the public, and because the performers are essentially auditioning, the performances can be genuinely transcendent. Last weekend certainly was, from the amazing first annual Maqamfest at Alwan for the Arts on Friday night, through the end of the two-day Winter Jazzfest on Saturday and then the grand finale, Globalfest at Webster Hall on Sunday night. Give NPR credit for recording the entirety of Globalfest and making much of that available online. NPR’s coverage of rock music may be a joke, but they really have their finger on the pulse of a whole lot of other genres, including many styles from around the world. This year’s Globalfest theme, or maybe its ongoing theme, was phat beatzz – and until the actually very good Malian rap-rock group SMOD took the stage late in the evening, those phat beatzz were all organic, no canned rhythms to be found anywhere. And the younger portion of the crowd felt them: people came to dance.
Because Globalfest is part of the convention, the performances are staggered throughout several stages – three this year – so that theoretically, a concertgoer (or booking agent wanting to check out prospective talent onstage) can catch twenty minutes’ worth of everyone on the bill. However, having seen what happened at the overbooked Winter Jazzfest Saturday night – at least two, maybe more of the clubs involved were sold out by ten PM and looked like they’d stay that way – it seemed to make more sense to try to cherrypick the performances here, and show up a little early if necessary so as not to get shut out of anything. As it turned out, that never seemed to happen (although the downstairs “Marlin Room” was a sweltering sardine can all night long).
The first notable act was Yemen Blues, who drew the biggest crowd of the evening, an enthusiastic posse of Sephardic kids who packed themselves in close to the stage and danced joyously to the group’s slinky funk rhythms. Yemen Blues are neither Yemeni nor are they a blues band: the nine-piece Israeli-American group is something akin to the missing link between Rachid Taha and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, with occasional detours into the Middle East, or, on one song, into French Creole balladry. Over the hypnotic pulse of Omer Avital’s bass, the string section and horns fired off lively, amiable Moody Blues-style classical cadenzas while their frontman – a big hit with the ladies in the crowd, old and young – slunk and implored and very effectively got everyone to move their bodies. Avital is one this generation’s great jazzmen – although nobody seemed to recognize him. He’s been playing a lot of oud lately, and with that instrument added a dark, pensive thicket of moody textures to the band’s slower songs, including one particularly harrowing, introductory taqsim.
By the time they’d finished, Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino had already begun their equally ecstatic set one floor below. Switching nimbly between instruments, the band romped through a tarantella dance, brass-fueled gypsy tunes, a hypnotic drum-and-harmonium trance piece and even a plaintive waltz sung by frontwoman Maria Mazzotta with a brittle, angst-fueled passion. With many acoustic instruments -bouzouki, fiddle and trumpet, to name a few – but an electric rhythm section, they add a rock explosiveness to a repertoire that seems to encompass every style that ever passed through Italy in the last three hundred years, emphasis on the beatzz – which were phat, and 100% organic.
After them, it was time to head upstairs for a brief detour into French territory with gypsy jazz chanteuse Zaz, who’d also brought out a sizeable crowd from her home turf (the French Music Office, who’ve been an important part of Globalfest since day one, get credit for her as well as many of the other standouts on the bill). Her playful, husky rasp goes straight back to Piaf; the spiky, slinky, twin guitar-fueled tunes, straight back to Django Reinhardt. Casually joking with the crowd and playing coyly seductive cocktail drum, she could be Norah Jones’ more animated Parisienne cousin. Were her beatzz phat? No. But her bassist was – his beatzz were, that is. Tilting his bull fiddle on its side, he was given a solo and wisely chose not to upstage his frontwoman. It would have been nice to have been able to catch more than a handful of her songs, but the idea of getting shut out of a performance by the Silk Road Ensemble just wasn’t happening.
And they were transcendent. While group founder Yo-Yo Ma may no longer play every one of their shows, they remain one of the most astonishingly eclectic and entertainingly virtuosic ensembles on the planet. While much of their recent commissioned work – they continue to dedicate themselves to premiering important pieces from a global list of young composers, not necessarily Asian ones – has been on the hypnotic, intensely quiet side, this time out they flat-out rocked. From the suspenseful, austerely microtonal, upward sweep of their opening piece, through a couple of dizzyingly polyrhythmic percussion interludes, to what seemed to be the club remix of the Kayhan Kalhor classic Ascending Bird, they were no less energetic than Yemen Blues had been. Was violinist Colin Jacobsen going to be able to keep up with the breakneck pace? Yes, he was. The moment when he handed off one particular flourish to his Brooklyn Rider string quartet bandmate, violinist Johnny Gandelsman, who flung it back with equal relish and precision, was the high point of the night.
At one point, their drummer got up, positioned himself in front of the mics, and fired off a solo by hammering on his chest and then working his way down to what seemed his ankles. That’s called “bodymusic” – and one hopes he saves it for the next special occasion, otherwise he’ll be black-and-blue after a week’s worth of shows. The group careened through a bracing tarantella-flavored mini-suite, and after an intense, aching Asian sheng-and-vocal piece, closed with a lush but ecstatic Ljova arrangement of a Taraf de Haidoucks gypsy dance, turning over the high point of the crescendo to the pipa player, who matter-of-factly nailed it in a frenzied flurry of tremolo-picking. Definitely not your parents’ chamber music.
“This is for the girl from Italy,” SMOD guitarist Sam told the crowd, referring to Mazzotta – like many of the musicians, he’d obviously been circulating before before taking the stage himself, and had obviously liked what he heard enough to dedicate a carefree, reggae-tinged ballad to her. The son of Amadou and Mariam, he and his group have an ongoing relationship with Manu Chao, who produced their latest album and has frequently toured with them. Layering catchy reggae-rock tunes with acoustic guitar and swooshy organ over a beatbox and the occasional pre-programmed loop, he and his two vocalists rapped in a mixture of his hometown Bamako dialect and in French as well. While the tunes may be smooth and upbeat, the band is mad as hell. With a message of solidarity for downtrodden populations around the world, they offered hope and redemption as well as revenge on the one-percenters who’re responsible for the mess: they’re completely in the moment and have a lot of catchy songs as well.
Was the club’s small downstairs studio space going to be sufficient for Boston-based Ethiopian funk orchestra Debo Band and all their fans? It’s not much bigger than the back room at Don Pedro’s in Bushwick. Then again, before they moved on to bigger stages, Debo Band played Don Pedro’s, more than once if memory serves right, so with the help of a frenetic crew of sound engineers, this was a triumphant return to their small-club roots. And the kids, knowing what was coming, packed it: if there were any oldsters left in the house by eleven, they probably didn’t stand a chance of getting in. The ten-piece band was the perfect choice of headliner on a night that had already been full of amazing moments, beginning with a sizzling opener, the haunting, chromatically-charged classic Musikawi Silt. Through one hypnotically bouncy vamp after another, with searing solos from wah-wah violin, crazed bebop tenor sax and psychedelic reverb-toned electric guitar, the grooves never stopped. As far as phat beatzz go, this band has both a bass and a sousaphone: it doesn’t get any phatter than that, and to the sound engineers’ infinite credit, they got what looked like a thicket of microphones to work pretty much trouble-free. With any concert this pricy (the Bowery Ballroom folks, who booked this, were selling advance tickets at the Mercury Lounge for $35), the question that arises is was it worth it? Without a doubt, yes.