Lincoln Center impresario Meera Dugal didn’t bother to hide how much she was looking forward to reveling in singer Awa Sangho fronting the Brooklyn Raga Massive last night. She was on to something. This show was part of Lincoln Center’s ongoing Outside India collaboration with the India Center and Brooklyn Raga Massive. Dugal promised beauty; Sangho and the band delivered their Malian/Indian mashup lavishly, poignantly and often mesmerizingly.
A moody Eric Fraser bansuri solo wafted over five-string bassist Michael Gam’s distant, low rumble as the show got underway, Sangho triumphantly raising a colorful mask to the heavens, warding off any evil spirits who might have snuck in. Violinist Trina Basu’s plaintive melody received a misterioso response from Fraser, Malik Kholy’s drums joining the nocturnal ambience along with Balla Kouyate’s slinky, chiming balafon. As the music leapt into a swinging, swaying, camelwalking groove, Kane Mathis’ spiky kora and guitarist Baba Kone’s incisive guitar joined the hypnotic mix. The instruments receded as Sangho intoned her terse, impassioned vocalese in a resonant, low midrange. A rippling balafon solo in tandem with percussionist Daniel Moreno brought the intensity higher as Sangho beamed and swayed in front of the band. That was just the first song.
Sangho dedicated her next number to her ailing mom back in Mali. Moreno opened it with a warpy wah-wah ngoni solo, the band slowly making their way in. An emphatic whack of the drums, a methodical volley of blues guitar riffs, growly bass and smoky bansuri led to a lingering Emilio Modeste tenor sax solo before the band backed away for Basu and Sangho to bring the pensive vibe back. As the waves of music rose again, the audience joined in a spontaneous clapalong.
“I’ve been fighting for 35 years for women’s rights and girls’ education,” Sangho explained, prefacing a protest song against what she termed “enforced marriage.” A resolutely vamping two-chord theme emerged as the singer’s voice grew more defiant. Pensive sax mingled with the sax and violins, Arun Ramamurthy positioned for stereo effect – and some sizzling, microtonal melismas – at stage right.
Fraser opened what he called a “condensed” duo version of Raga Yaman, establishing a suspenseful calm, tabla player Roshni Samlal raising the anticipation up to a tense, trilling peak. It was impossible to sit still. Mathis and Basu couldn’t resist joining in with their ripples and washes.
From there they segued into an animated, elegantly polyrhythmic duo piece by Mathis and Samlal with a rapidfire kora solo at the center. The cantering, vamping instrumental that followed brought to mind the Grateful Dead at their most epic, back in the 80s, For the rest of the night, the band followed Sangho’s lead meticulously, whether Kone’s aching, plaintive modalities in tandem with her exasperated “what now” delivery on a traditional tune, or Modeste’s smoky soulfulness alongside Sangho’s husky vocals in her original, Maman, which she said through tears was dedicated to mothers everywhere.
The group closed with an insistent, emphatic girl-empowerment anthem, Sangho’s uncanny ability to transcend language barriers in full effect. “Knowledge is power, stand up for your rights,” was the message. A sold-out house roared for an encore: they got a spiraling, undulating jam, an apt coda considering how close a match Indian modes can be for vampy, mostly two-chord Malian psychedelia. For Sangho and the band, it was a spectacularly successful mission.
And after a hellacious train ride, it was an awful lot of fun to cap off the evening with the tail end of Bombay Rickey’s similarly slinky set at Barbes. Frontwoman Kamala Sankaram reached for the rafters with her four-octave voice over Drew Hudgins’ slithery sax and Drew Fleming’s twangy southwestern gothic guitar, with a fat low end now anchored by former Chicha Libre bassist Nick Cudahy. Considering how much cumbia this band mashes up with Bollywood – a couple of pretty wild jams on Yma Sumac tunes, this time out – the group’s finally found their missing piece.
The Brooklyn Raga Massive plays Thursdays at around 8:30 at the Jalopy; advance tix, available at the theatre, are $10. And the next free show at the Lincoln Center atrium space on Broadway north of 62nd St. is a dance party on Feb 15 at 7:30 with Tito Puente Jr. and many alums from his dad’s legendary salsa band.