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Lavish Beauty, Depth and Relevance with Awa Sangho and the Brooklyn Raga Massive at Lincoln Center

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.

A Rare Chance to See Haunting Large-Ensemble Turkish Music in the West Village

One of the most serendipitous developments in New York music this year is that Seyyah, who might be this city’s most epic Turkish band at the moment, have been playing more lately. Which is more impressive than it seems, considering that percussionist/singer Jenny Luna has been plenty busy with her own similarly haunting Turkish-Balkan band Dolunay. Pretty much everybody else in Seyyah plays with other bands as well. Tanbur lute player Adam Good is also in Dolunay, and lends his prowess on many stringed instruments to numerous other groups including sizzling rebetiko metal band Greek Judas. Oudist Kane Mathis has his own project, his Indian-tinged groove duo Orakel, and plays in Nubian band Alsarah & the Nubatones. Clarinetist Greg Squared is in Raya Brass Band (who played a sizzling set this past Saturday night at Barbes) and Sherita. Violinist Marandi Hostetter plays with slinky Egyptian bands Nashaz and Sharq Attack (some might say that they’re the same group) and others, as do percussionists Simon Moushabeck and Philip Mayer.

Seyyah’s next gig is this Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum; the food at the downstairs West Village jazz boite is actually a cut above what most jazz club kitchens throw at you. Seyyah are also one of the latest bands with the good sense to release a live album, a free download recorded at Barbes last May on a live WFMU Transpacific Sound Paradise broadcast which also featured a rather rare, starkly intense set of Georgian folk tunes by guitarist Ilusha Tsinadze and his trio, plus a lustrous, hypnotic, tantalizingly brief handful of tunes by a subset of lavish, paradigm-shifting Indian carnatic choir the Navatman Music Collective.

Seyyah’s set – with a slightly altered lineup – opens with Mahur Saz Seman, a catchy, bouncy, somewhat bittersweetly anthemic tune. As the song goes on, the trills of Zoe Christiansen’s clarinet and Eylem Basaldi’s violin take it into more brooding territory before the main theme returns. Sultani Yegah veers between a jiggy, sea chantey-like bounce, and more wary, chromatically incisive interludes, with a spiky, moody tanbur solo. Basaldi takes centerstage with her microtonal nuance in the briskly flurrying, slashing Hicaz Zeybek, the set’s arguably best and most Arabic-inflected song.

Scampering percussion propels Hüzzam Oyun Havasi – like most of the songs here, it starts out with everybody playing the rippling, uneasy modal melody, then Good pulls away, then we get a moody, deliciously microtonally-spiced clarinet solo and a lively percussion break. The night’s coda is Çeçen Kizi, a wickedly catchy, broodingly intense, undulating theme with Basaldi leading the charge out this time. It’s amazing how good the sound quality is, considering how packed and noisy the bar was that Saturday night.

And if you’re going to Golden Fest this weekend, Greek Judas, Raya Brass Band and Dolunay will all be there on Saturday.

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.

A Tantalizing Taste of Golden Fest Last Night at Trans-Pecos

It’s not likely that the WNYU folks had Golden Fest in mind when they booked three of New York’s most exciting bands to play Trans-Pecos last night. But the triplebill of riveting Macedonian duo Glas, hotshot oudist Kane Mathis and haunting Turkish band Dolunay are all vets of the annual Brooklyn mecca for sounds from across the Balkans and the Middle East as well. Golden Fest 2018 takes place next January 12 and 13; this was a hint of the kind of wild intensity and stark rapture that will be in almost absurd abundance there that weekend.

Glas, the duo of tamburist/kaval player Vedran Boškovski and singer Corinna Snyder, opened the night. This was more a showcase for her elegance and subtlety than the floor-to-ceiling power and feral microtones of her vocals in pioneering Bulgarian choral trio Black Sea Hotel. Boškovski made it look easy, steadily strumming his open-tuned tambura, alternating between allusive, hypnotic modes and more ominous, acerbic Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities. He brought more of a stark, rustic touch to a couple of songs, backing Snyder’s wary cadences with stark, overtone-infused lines on the kaval, a wooden Balkan flute.

That Snyder speaks the language further enables her to channel the relentless grimness in these old songs. The road is treacherous, highwaymen are everywhere, war is omnipresent, all omens are bad and love is fleeting. Their most riveting number was a dirge, a guy kidnapped by the enemy giving his last goodbyes. They closed with a somewhat more upbeat number: so you’re already engaged? Let’s elope anyway!

Mathis is the not-so-secret weapon in Alsarah & the Nubatones, filling the enormous shoes left behind by the late, great oudist Haig Magnoukian. Leading a trio with a percussionist on boomy dumbek goblet drum and House of Waters’ Moto Fukushima on eight-string bass, he opened with a hypnotically circling, rippling West African-flavored number that sounded like a tune for the kora – an instrument Mathis also plays virtuosically. From the three went into a serpentine Middle Eastern theme, Mathis adding fiery chords to the mix early on, Fukushima’s solo going off into hard bop before finally making an emphatic, chromatic flourish of a landing. Mathis’ endless, machinegunning flurries in his closing epic left his rhythm section wide-eyed: it’s hard to think of anyone else in town who can play as hard and fast, yet as precisely, on any instrument.

The most haunting song of the entire night was an original by another oudist, Dolunay’s Adam Good, evoking the shadowy majesty of the Trio Joubran with his brooding resonance. Where Snyder had been all about distance and solemnity and mystery, Dolunay frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna went for the jugular with her plaintive, angst-fueled melismas. Violinist Eylem Basaldi echoed that poignancy, playing achingly beautiful, low-midrange, grey-sky washes of microtones, almost as if she was playing a cello.

Dolunay like diptychs and segues of all kinds; this time, they did sets of threes. Most of their material is on the slow and somber side, and this was typical. Most of their songs are about absence and longing: boyfriend goes off to war or over the mountains, never to be seen again, ad infinitum. Plus ça change, huh? What was new was getting to hear Luna sing in Ladino, the Sephardic Spanish dialect, in a couple of moody Andalucian-flavored numbers, something she’s especially suited to since she’s a native Spanish speaker. Dolunay’s next gig is on an amazing triplebill with feral yet supertight original Balkan group Raya Brass Band and hard-grooving Balkan/reggae/rock band Tipsy Oscart at Littlefield on Nov 30 at 9 PM; cover is $10.

Brooklyn Raga Massive’s Version of Terry Riley’s In C: The Most Psychedelic Album of 2017

Considering how much Indian music has influenced Terry Riley’s work, It makes sense that the iconic composer and pioneer of what’s come to be known as indie classical would give the thumbs-up to Brooklyn Raga Massive’s recording of his famous suite. The irrepressible New York collective can’t resist mashing up just about anything with classical Indian sounds: their previous album tackled a bunch of famous John Coltrane tunes. They’re playing the album release show for the new one – streaming at Bandcamp – on Oct 6 at 8 PM at the Poisson Rouge; $20 adv tix are recommended.  

They open the album with an alap (improvisation) on Raga Bihag, strings fluttering and slowly massing behind a rather jubilant bansuri flute line (that’s either Eric Fraser or Josh Geisler), handing off to bandleader Neel Murgai’s sitar, then Arun Ramamurthy’s spiraling violin before the sitar takes the band into the first variation on Riley’s 48 cells. A cynic might say that this is the best part of the album – either way, the band could have gone on four times as long and nobody would be complaining. 

Riley wrote In C on the piano in 1964, but just about every kind of ensemble imaginable – from flashmobs with flash cards, to Serena Jost’s army of fifty cellists – have played it. Any way it’s performed, it’s very hypnotic, this version especially. The whole group is in on it from the first insistent rhythmic measure, vocally and instrumentally, with the occasional minutely polyrhythmic variation. This is a mighty, full-force version of the massive, blending Trina Basu and Ken Shoji’s violins, Aaron Shragge’s dragon mouth trumpet, Michael Gam’s bass, Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer,Adam Malouf’s cello, David Ellenbogen’s guitar, with Timothy Hill and Andrew Shantz on vocals, Lauren Crump on cajon, Vin Scialla on riq and frame drum, Roshni Samlal and Sameer Gupta on tabla.

As the piece goes on, dancing flute and sitar accents answer each other with a gleeful abandon. Echo effects pulse like a stoned quasar, then about halfway in a triplet groove emerges and then straightens out. Kanes Mathis’ oud scampers like a street urchin running from the cops, then provides a low-register anchor for the fluttering strings. Which shift to the foreground, then recede as individual voices throughout the group signal the next change.

There are places where it brings to mind Brian Jones’ trippy loop collages on Their Satanic Majesties Request; elsewhere, the White Album’s most surreal experimental segments. Bottom line is that there hasn’t been an album nearly as psychedelically enveloping as this one released this year. How does it feel to listen to this album without being high? Weird. Either way, it’s great late-night listening for stoners and nonsmokers alike. 

New York’s Ultimate Jamband, the Brooklyn Raga Massive Make a Historic Lincoln Center Debut

There was a point during the Brooklyn Raga Massive‘s Lincoln Center debut last Thursday where violinist Arun Ramamurthy built a solo out of a long, uneasily crescendoing, shivery volley of notes, up to a big crescendo – where he stopped cold, midway through a measure. And then glanced around and smiled for a split second, as if to say, “Good luck following THAT!”

There was another moment earlier on where the entire eight-piece ensemble onstage was basically playing a round, everybody in the band hitting on a different beat, a mesmerizing lattice of kaleidoscopic Indian counterpoint. The group followed an increasingly dark trajectory out of lithely circling improvisation on ancient themes, through a pensive and purposeful Ravi Shankar piece anchored by sitarist Neel Murgai, to an absolutely haunting original by bassist Michael Gam cappped off by an achingly plaintive Aakash Mittal sax solo.

Then there was the longest piece of the night, a trickily rhythmic, vamping, psychedelic epic that evoked the Grateful Dead far more than any Indian classical music. Which was the point of the program. Lincoln Center’s irrepressible, charismatic impresario Meera Dugal had booked members of the group last year for a panel discussion on the future of raga music in America, so this was a chance for the multicultural ensemble to bring that future to life in all its psychedelic glory.

They started slowly and gently, as if to ease the sold-out audience into the concept. Singer Roopa Mahadevan – who may be the most electrifying voice in all of New York – worked her subtle side for all it was worth, with her minutely melismatic take of a raga dedicated to the goddess of knowledge and the arts, Saraswati. Kane Mathis played kora on a blithely dancing number and then switched to oud for the night’s most ominously Middle Eastern-tinged piece, lowlit by Max ZT’s hammered dulcimer, a more trebly cousin to the iconic Indian santoor. After almost two hours onstage, the group closed with a wickedly catchy yet tight-as-a-drum jam on a raga that drummer/tabla player Sameer Gupta told the crowd that they’d recognize instantly. And he was right.

The Brooklyn Raga Massive’s raison d’etre is to use Indian classical music as a stepping-off point for improvisation, be it psychedelically inclined or jazzwise. Here, they shifted through a simmering, atmospherically sunset take of John Coltrane’s India; the week before last, they ably raga-ized jazz material as diverse as McCoy Tyner’s African Village and Thelonious Monk’s Round Midnight at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn.

The contingent onstage at Lincoln Center also featured the intricate and energetically eclectic talents of bansuri flutist Jay Gandhi, Karavika bandleader and violinist Trina Basu, acoustic guitarist Camila Celin, handpan percussionist Adam Maalouf and tabla player Ehren Hanson. The collective, with its rotating cast of members and leaders, play every Wednesday at 8 PM at Art Cafe, 884 Pacific St. in the Atlantic Yards area. Cover is $15; take the 2 to Bergen St.

The Lincoln Center Atrium continues to offer all sorts of similarly deep fun. The next show there is tomorrow, Oct 27 at 7:30 PM with Cuatro Sukiyaki Minimal, who play hypnotically circling, pensive Asian and Latin-influenced themes with thumb piano, traditional Japanese instruments and Korean percussion. The multimedia performance is free, so early arrival is always a good idea here.

Kane Mathis Winds Up His Cutting-Edge Barbes Residency This Coming Saturday

Multi-instrumentalist Kane Mathis specializes in Malian music. He plays both traditional material and writes his own. He’s a fluent and often wildly spectacular player on both the spiky west African kora lute as well as the world’s coolest instrument, the oud. A member of reedman Matt Darriau’s wryly titled group Du’ud, he’s winding up his weekly Saturday residency this month at Barbes with a 6 PM show on the 27th. If hypnotically ringing African sounds or the magically resonant low-register tones of the oud are your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Onstage, Mathis is all business. Having studied with griot masters on their home turf in Africa, he comes across as a very serious guy. As with most people who play Barbes residencies, Mathis has brought in a rotating cast of musicians each week. Last night’s show featured percussionist Rich Stein providing subtle variations on animately clip-clop Middle Eastern-inflected goblet drum grooves when he wasn’t delivering a hypnotically muted thud, playing with brushes on a couple of African drums. Meanwhile, six-string bassist Moto Fukushima – of similarly hypnotic hammered dulcimer instrumentalists House of Waters – matched Mathis with his own nimbly scampering low-register lines, adding a couple of brief, serpentine solos, rising from the lowest registers with a bristling, incisive, punchy tone.

Mathis opened the set with a small handful of kora tunes, then went to the oud, then returned to the kora to wind up the set on a dusky, psychedelic note. A couple of those circling epics were originals; Mathis also sang an unexpectedly upbeat traditional elegy, guest alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie adding balmy washes overhead.

When Mathis went to the oud midway through the show, he took the energy to redline, whether with thoughtfully crescendoing improvisational intros, hard-hitting chords and some pretty savage Dick Dale-style tremolo-picking. While Mathis’ compositions on that instrument draw deeply on African and Middle Eastern tradition, they also push the envelope as far as where the oud can go.

Besides the final show of this month’s Saturday Barbes residency – featuring his Indian classical/electroacoustic project with tabla player Roshni Samlal – Mathis is also playing here on March 24 as part of the venue’s second annual oud summit, a five-artist tribute to the late, great Haig Magnookian, one of the most soulful players ever to pick up the instrument in this city.