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Tag: Kinan Azmeh

The Top Thirty New York City Concerts of 2016

An informed snapshot of some of the most amazing performances across the five boroughs from a year that started out with some promise and ended with the whole world on edge and dreading the worst. Of all this blog’s year-end lists, including the 50 Best Albums and 100 Best Songs of 2016, this one’s the most fun to put together. And the most most individualistic: everybody’s got their own favorite concert moments. While it wouldn’t be hard to think of a hundred from the past year that deserve mention, that would be overkill. It all comes down to triage: apologies to the dozens of artists who played transcendent shows in this city in 2016 who aren’t represented here because of space constraints. Next year, dudes!

Concerts are listed chronologically; the very first one could be the best of the bunch.

Karla Rose at 11th St. Bar, 1/6/16
With her allusive lyrics, her silken voice and enigmatic stage presence, Karla Rose personifies noir. In 2016, out in front of her psychedelic, darkly cinematic twin-guitar band Karla Rose & the Thorns, she played Webster Hall, opened for first-wave punk legends the Dickies and the king of powerpop, Paul Collins. But her most intriguing show of all might have been this low-key trio set with World Inferno bassist Sandra Malak and pianist Frank LoCrasto, unveiling several new, mysterious numbers.

The 35th Anniversary of BC Studios, 1/15-16/16
Producer/guitarist/art-rocker/professional antagonist Martin Bisi booked a global cast of talent to perform and record a long timeline to commemorate his legendary Gowanus space, which might not last much longer if it isn’t landmarked. Highlights of the marathon weekend included slinky jazz punks Barbez, goth legend JG Thirlwell, haunting Middle Eastern noir singer and bandleader Ajda the Turkish Queen, a historic reunion of legendary 80s noiserock band Live Skull – who, back in the day, were better than Sonic Youth – and Bisi himself.

Gato Loco at Joe’s Pub, 1/29/16
The mighty psycho mambo band ambushed the audience with a battalion of baritone sax snipers throughout the space to bolster their explosive, darkly majestic reinventions of themes from the Verdi Reqiuem

Greg Squared’s Circle at Barbes, 3/6/16
The pyrotechnic multi-reedman and co-leader of Raya Brass Band – who’ve made frequent appearances on this page over the last few years – brought a bunch of A-list Brooklyn Balkan talent to work out about two hours’ worth of epically explosive new original pieces

Big Lazy and Mercury Radio Theater at Barbes, 4/1/16
The cinematic noir legends continue their monthly Friday night residency at Brooklyn’s best music venue; pound for pound, this twinbill, with the ferocious Philadelphia circus punk band, was probably the best of the bunch. Big Lazy’s best gig without a supporting act was probably this past May at the Lively, a great little Meatpacking District basement bar that lasted only a few weeks.

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu at Spectrum, 4/9/16
Syrian clarinetist and Turkish guitarist join forces for a smoky, sinisterly ambient depiction of the horrors of war. Keep your eyes out for a forthcoming album of this material.

The Bright Smoke at Mercury Lounge, 4/14/16
Mia Wilson’s harrowingly intense art-rock band took their dynamic, explosively crescendoing live show to the next level at this one: it wouldn’t be overhype to say that they’re the closest thing to Joy Division that New York’s ever produced.

Greek Judas and Choban Elektrik at Barbes, 4/28/16
Greek Judas play careening psychedelic metal versions of classic hash-smoking and gangster music from Greece and Cyprus in the 20s and 30s. Choban Elektrik do the same with themes from across the Balkans, with organ and violin out front instead of screaming guitars. A real wild night, sort of like seeing the Doors and Iron Maiden on the same bill somewhere in the Aegean.

Ambrosia Parsley, Chris Maxwell and Holly Miranda at Hell Phone, 5/5/16
Short sets from the goth-tinged songbird and then the Arkansas gothic songwriter, followed by a raptly intense set from the cult favorite noir Americana singer, who showed off her chops on bothTelecaster and piano.

The Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York at I-Beam, 5/17/16
The room was so packed it was impossible to get inside, after the start of the great jazz pianist/composer/conductor’s shattering, angst-drenched suite reflecting horror and terror in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear meltdown on March 11, 2001. Watch out for the forthcoming album.

Eden Lane at Caffe Vivaldi, 5/29/16
Velvet-voiced jazz chanteuse Stephanie Layton channeled a century’s worth of existential angst and longing in front of her tightly swinging band, with a set packed with obscure treats from across the ages, including a vivid detour into the Erik Frandsen songbook.

Goddess, Ember Schrag and David Grubbs at a private party in Brooklyn, 6/3/16
Unsettlingly theatrical psychedelia, opaquely venomous Shakespeare-influenced Great Plains gothic songs and vast, deep-space guitarscapes to wind up one of the funnest nights of the year.

Lorraine Leckie at Pangea, 6/8/16
Backed by a tight, stripped-down version of her incendiary band the Demons, the eclectic songstress treated an intimate audience to everything from noir cabaret  to surrealistic art-rock. Her full-throttle Bowery Ballroom gig in November might have been even better.

 Attack and Tipsy Oxcart at Barbes, 7/5/16
Violinist Marandi Hostetter’s slinky, classic Levantine bellydance group made a great opener for the boombastic Balkan/Middle Eastern dance jamband.

Mariachi Flor De Toloache and Patti Smith at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, 7/20/16
The all-female Mexican-American folk ensemble mesmerized the crowd with a plaintive set that ranged from mariachi, to rancheras, to some sly psychedelic rock. Then the queen of dark downtown New York art-rock and her band scorched through a characteristically fearless, defiantly populist, epic set of classic anthems and poignant newer material.

Robin Aigner and Kotorino at Barbes, 7/21/16
Brooklyn’s most deviously lyrical, torchy historical songwriter/chanteuse and her excellent, swinging Americana band followed by the darkly intense, phantasmagorical circus rock/art-rock/mambo crew

The Sway Machinery and Hydra at Joe’s Pub, 8/4/16
The debut of the ongoing collaboration between the psychedelic cantorial rock jamband and singer/composer Sarah Small’s lustrous, haunting Middle Eastern/Balkan trio with Yula Beeri and Rima Fand was every bit as entrancing as it promised to be.

Sandcatchers at Barbes, 8/9/16
Surfy, uneasy, richly psychedelic Middle Eastern jamband with a lapsteel along with guitar. Wow!

Bombay Rickey at Barbes, 8/12/16
Powerhouse singer/accordionist Kamala Sankaram brought her four-octave vocal range and also a sitar to a characteristically serpentine set of psychedelic cumbias, Bollywood, southwestern gothic themes and an electric take of a classic Indian raga.

Dan Penta at Sidewalk, 8/14/16
“Now that’s songwriting,” marveled one listener gathered in the back room of the East Village shithole where the harrowing, surrealistically intense frontman of great, obscure New York bands like Jagged Leaves, the Larval Organs and Hearth played a relatively rare solo set of relentlessly doomed anthems and dirges.

The Chiara String Quartet play Bartok from memory at National Sawdust, 8/30/16
The group’s new double-disc set of the complete Bartok quartets has a bristling, conversational quality, echoed by this performance of the sullen Quartet No. 1 and the chilling Quartets Nos. 3 and 5

Ben Holmes and Patrick Farrell at Barbes, 9/3/16
The hauntingly tuneful trumpeter and his longtime Yiddish Art Trio bandmate, pyrotechnic accordionist Farrell, played their creepy, carnivalesque new Conqueror Worm Suite, based on the Edgar Allen Poe poem.

Ensemble Fanaa at Rye Bar, 9/7/16
Otherworldly, microtonal tenor saxophonist Daro Behroozi’s eerily trippy gnawa-jazz trio with bassist/gimbri player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kirfirst slayed at their debut at Barbes back in July. They were even better in this cozy downstairs South Williamsburg boite.

Anbessa Orchestra at Barbes, 9/9/16
The fiery guitar-and-horn-driven Ethiopian psychedelic funk band put on a pretty ferocious show here back in May. This one was even hotter, sweatier and wilder, with some auspicious new material.

Hearing Things at Barbes, 9/11/16
Another band who slayed at a Barbes show that earned a rave review here, but whose next gig at the Park Slope hotspot was even hotter. Saxophonist Matt Bauder, organist JP Schlegelmilch and drummer Vinnie Sperrazza spun and stomped and slunk their way through a darkly psychedelic mix of surf and go-go originals.

The Allah-Las at Baby’s All Right, 9/17/16
About an hour and a half of lushly catchy three-minute retro psychedelic jangle, clang and twang, fueled by the overtone mist from Pedrum Siadatian’s twelve-string. That the best song of the night was a surf instrumental speaks to the quality of this band’s tunes.

The Attacca String Quartet and Jeff Lynne’s ELO at Radio City, 9/18/16
A bucket-list show. The Attaccas impressed with their ability to hold a sold-out crowd who didn’t seem likely to have any interest in composers like John Adams, but the ensemble kept their attention with a blazing, smartly curated mini-set. Visionary art-rocker Lynne’s band included only one remaining member from the iconic mid-70s lineup, and they played mostly radio hits instead of deep album cuts. But the new, young-ish ensemble was stoked to share the stage with one of the world’s alltime great tunesmiths, and he sang as strongly as he did forty years ago. Not bad for a guy who notoriously hated touring and playing live.

Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society at National Sawdust, 10/2/16
Along with the Satoko Fujii Orchestra New York’s Fukushima suite, this was the most intense show of the year, the composer/conductor stern and enigmatic out in front of his mighty big band as they blustered and lurked through his crushingly relevant new conspiracy theory-inspired suite

Satomi Fukami, Masayo Ishigure and others at Merkin Concert Hall, 10/5/16
A feast of spiky, interwoven Japanese koto sounds. featuring the music of legendary 20th century koto virtuoso and composer Michio Miyagi

LJ Murphy in the East Village, 10/8/16
The charismatic noir blues bandleader was at the top of his game, skewering security state paranoia, smarmy East Village gentrifiers and little Hitlers of all kinds while his explosive three-guitar band the Accomplices careened and roared behind him.

Steve Ulrich and Mamie Minch at Barbes, 10/14/16
The debut live collaboration between this era’s definitive noir film composer and the darkly compelling resonator guitarist/blueswoman, a live score to Windsor McCay’s pioneering early animated film The Flying House, turned out to be even more haunting than expected. Then they played some blues, and some Johnny Cash

Sahba Motallebi at Symphony Space, 10/21/16
This concert never could have been staged in the pyrotechnic tar lute virtuoso’s Teheran hometown, because she’s a woman. Her slashing volleys of tremolo-picking and whirlwind riffage were pure adrenaline. That this was a duo performance with another woman musician, percussionist Naghmeh Farahmand made this a special slap upside the head of Islamofascists everywhere.

The Spectrum Symphony with organists Janos Palur and Balint Karosi at St. Peter’s Church, 11/4/16
Possibly this century’s only New York performance of concertos for organ and orchestra featured a richly textural take of the Poulenc concerto plus the world premiere of Korosi’s menacingly cinematic Second Concerto for Organ, Percussion and Strings plus works by Mendelssohn and Bach. Pound for pound, the most mighty, titanic, epic show probably staged anywhere in this city this year.

In 2015, women artists ruled this list; this year, acts were split evenly along gender lines. Tellingly, even more so than last year, about sixty percent of these shows were either free or a pass-the-bucket situation. Clearly the action in this city, in terms of live music at least, is on the ground floor.

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Kinan Azmeh’s Somber New Song Cycle Draws a Sold-Out Crowd at Symphony Space

In a chat with the audience after their sold-out show at Symphony Space last night, clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach explained that their great childhood ambition had been to busk in the Istanbul subway, since their Damascus hometown didn’t have one. It was a humbling revelation from two extraordinary musicians whose work defies category – and has still not been been performed in a duo arrangement on an train platform anywhere in Turkey.

Azmeh also revealed that in the wake of the 2011 Syrian revolution, he found himself so overwhelmed that he didn’t write any music for a full year. Since then, the Yo-Yo Ma collaborator has made up for lost time: just in this past year alone, this blog has caught him playing lively Middle Eastern flavored jazz, intricately conversational improvised music and ominous, war-themed soundscapes. This concert was the album release show for his latest cycle, Songs for Days to Come, commissioned by pianist Lenore Davis, impresario of the popular Upper West Side St. Urban concert and literary salon series. She and Azmeh’s fellow Damascus expat, soprano Dima Orsho, filled out the quartet to perform the raptly brooding, sometimes harrowing five-part suite in its entirety. Each song was preceded by the recorded voice of each of the five expat Syrian poets whose original Arabic words Azmeh had set to music.

The news that the last remaining hospital in the beseiged city of Aleppo had been destroyed in a bombing raid may have fueled the musicians’ steely resolve and acute sense of anguish. The poems – by Lukman Derky, Mohammad Abou-Laban, Hazem Al-Azmeh, Liwaa Yazji and Adnan Odeh – speak of abandonment by god (or sheer disbelief), allude to wartime horrors, solitude, alienation and loss. The most gripping of all, by Odeh, was a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood, where the narrative itself is blown to bits. It was the one moment during the concert where Azmeh went to the deep well of classical Arabic maqamat for gracefully plaintive Levantine melody.

Beyond that, tensely still, sustained passages rose to angst-fueled codas and then returned groundward. Davis played Azmeh’s artful, elegaic bell-tone, Mompou-esque motives and muted inside-the-piano accents with a wounded, resonant restraint matched by rapidfire, circular lines. Likewise, Orsho moved effortlessly between a muted calm – most vividly during one of the early numbers, evoking a Syrian singer killed by a knife to the throat – and soaring operatics. Azmeh’s clarinet alternated between rippling, uneasy balletesque passages and a mournful sustain while Abou-Afach anchored the music in austere washes of sound. Like the rest of Azmeh’s work, it’s informed by but hardly limited to a Syrian idiom. That there was such an engaged, multicultural audience assembled to witness this concert, at a time in New York when live music is often no more than a meme for grubbing for status, speaks well for the people of this city.

The Songs for Days to Come album – streamng at Spotify – is the first in a series commissioned by Davis, with a second volume planned for the spring of next year.

Cocooning on Multiple Levels

If there’s ever been a time for soothing, enveloping sounds in New York, this is it. Two shows this week gave audiences a good idea of what’s available in an month where pretty much everybody’s women friends are afraid of losing their reproductive rights, everybody’s Mexican friends are worried about being lynched, and everybody’s up in arms about where they’re going to live after 1/19/17.

Virtuoso violist Ljova explained that he was new to loopmusic, so he cautioned the crowd at Barbes Tuesday night that they should take what they hear with a grain of salt. Then he launched into a characteristically ambitious solo soundscape that echoed the rigor of his Moscow conservatory training, his wide-ranging eclecticism as one of this era’s great film composers, as well as the wry humor and irony that pervade his work across the board. His setup was pretty simple, mirroring the directness of his melodies: his signature, custom-made six-string “famiola” running through delay, loop and volume pedals. It was interesting to watch him think on his feet: when he hit on a riff he liked, he ran with it. There were also a few times when he’d hit on one he didn’t think worth keeping, scowled a little and then moved on.

Then the great Syrian-born clarinetist Kinan Azmeh joined the festivities. While his music can be kinetic – he leads a fantastic jazz group, his City Band – it more frequently tends to be on the serious side, often extremely poignant. The early part of the duo’s calm, methodically shifting improvisation echoed the eerie washes of Azmeh’s upcoming album with the similarly brilliant Turkish guitarist and soundscaper Erdem Helvacioglu. But Ljova was in a restless mood, and began to pull away, and Azmeh stayed in sync with some judiciously spaced, bubbly phrases in contrast to his more usual brooding resonance. At the end of the set, the two joined in an enigmatically lilting, minor-key waltz by the violist. The two have played together many times, although this was their first joint improvisation. Azmeh plays his song cycle Songs for Days to Come, featuring the work of Syrian poets in exile, tomorrow night, Nov 19 at 8 PM at Symphony Space with pianist Lenore Smith, soprano Dima Orsho and cellist Kinan Abou-Afach. $25 tix are still available as of today. Ljova stays busy on the road: his next gig as a bandleader is with his vibrantly cinematic Kontraband string ensemble on Dec 3 at 7:30 PM PM at the San Fernando Cathedral, 115 W Main Plaza in San Antonio, TX, reservations to (210) 464-1534 are required.

The soundscapes played last night at Spectrum by guitarist Martin Bisi, multi-instrumentalist Thursday Fernworthy and ambient music artist Robert Pepper were more  lushly enveloping, a dense, misty, slowly swirling vortex. Seated within an audience with closed eyes and slowly bobbing heads, just about everybody reclined in a comfy armchair, it felt weird to rise up and actually watch the musicians at work rather than  drifting off in a surrealistic tequila buzz. Although the overall sound was contiguous, a single river fed by a kaleidoscope of streams, there was a lot of interplay and camaraderie among the three. There were distinct segments where each musician essentially got to lead the trio, whether that meant Pepper intoning into what looked like a mini-digeridoo, or Fernworthy sending keening violin overtones spiraling through her mixers, or Bisi doing the same with an emphatically minimalist riff or gentle chordal wash. Meanwhile, trippy projections played on a screen behind them, the best being a slow walk into the woods, Blair Witch style. Likewise, about two-thirds of the way through their roughly forty-minute improvisation, the three laced their ultraviolet backdrop with bracing close harmonies, jarring rhythmic hits and lower, more distinctly ominous drones.

Pepper books and plays the regular Ambient Chaos series at Spectrum, typically on the third Thursday of the month starting at around 9 in the welcoming, comfortable second-floor Ludlow Street space. Bisi and Fernworthy – someone whom Facebook does not believe is an actual person, notwithstanding the evidence of her performance here – have been known to do live atmospherics at Bisi’s legendary Gowanus digs, BC Studios on Sunday evenings. It’s not a public venue per se, but if you know them or care to keep in touch, you may be able to get an invite.

Transcendence in the Face of War and Conflict from Kinan Azmeh’s City Band

This week is Global Week for Syria. Over seventy artists around the world are performing to help raise awareness and help the citizens of war-torn Syria. Brilliantly individualistic Syrian-born clarinetist and composer Kinan Azmeh contributed to the cause with a matter-of-factly transcendent show last night with his City Band – acoustic guitarist Kyle Sanna, bassist Josh Myers and drummer John Hadfield – at National Sawdust.

Last week at Spectrum, Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu played a harrowing duo set of cinematically crescendoing, ominously enveloping themes meant to depict the trauma of life under repressive regimes. This performance was far more lively but had Azmeh’s signature, direct, purposeful melodicism, simple riffs with artfully elegant orchestration set to kinetically shapeshifting grooves. The most spare material had an Andalucian feel: imagine the Gipsy Kings but with trickier meters, depth and unpredictable dynamics in place of interminable cheer. The slowest numbers were the most traditionally Middle Eastern-flavored; the most upbeat featured purposeful solos from everyone in the band, drawing as deeply on psychedelic rock as they did jazz.

The opening song set Azmeh’s moody low-midrange shades over sparse guitar and bass, then picked up with an emphatic flamenco-tinged pulse, Sanna’s judiciously exploratory solo bringing to mind Jerry Garcia in “on” mode until Azmeh took over and sent it sailing through an insistent, crashing crescendo.

The second number, by Myers, had echoes of Eastern European klezmer music as well as Mohammed Abdel Wahab and spiraling flamencoisms. Sanna contributed an austere, catchy tune that built enigmatic variations on what could have been an Elizabethan British folk theme, his guitar rising from plaintive, Satie-esque spaciousness to tersely energetic single-note lines.

Little Red Riding Hood, inspired by a cruelly aphoristic, recent Syrian poem, evoked the lingering shock and angst of wartime displacement. November 22, inspired by Azmeh’s first experience of an American Thanksgiving weekend, looked back with a mix of nostalgia and longing to places and eras erased by bombs and combat. Sanna set up Azmeh for a wild upward swoop and then flurries of suspenseful microtonal melismas. on a shapeshifting anthem meant to evoke the wildness and unpredictability of Syrian village wedding music. They closed by debuting a somber, pensive new song that Azmeh said he’d only written a couple of days previously. dedicated to the small town in the green belt outside of Damascus where Azmeh had spent a lot of time as a kid and which until very recently had been under siege, with barely any access to food or supplies. Azmeh’s next performance is in San Antonio on May 15 to kick off his US/European tour.

Kinan Azmeh and Erdem Helvacioglu Evoke the Horror of Living Under Tyranny

Clarinetist Kinan Azmeh and guitarist Erdem Helvacioglu debuted their harrowingly cinematic duo project last night at Spectrum. An attempt to sonically portray life under oppressive political regimes, some of the music had the icy, technopocalyptic shifts of late 80s Brad Fiedel film scores. As the series of electroacoustic themes segued into each other, the music grew somewhat more kinetic and eventually hit a horror-stricken peak, coming full circle at the end. A one-man orchestra with a Les Paul and a laptop, Helvacioglu methodically and meticulously built lingering, grey-sky atmospherics while Azmeh played simple, plaintive, elegaic modes, eventually rising to the kind of effortlessly serpentine phrasing that characterizes much of his work as a bandleader.

Woven into the music were brief snippets from speeches by the three Assads of Syria and Turkey’s Recep Erdogan. It would be extreme to characterize the autocrats’ stridency and fervor as Hitlerian, but the similarity was unmistakable. Azmeh wove a lattice of uneasily leaping, chattering phrases as Helvacioglu built a somber backdrop of nebulous cumulo-nimbus washes and echoey deep-space pulses. It came across as perhaps an Anatolian take on Steve Reich. Spare, funereal, belltone guitar phrases built to a desolate echo chamber; Steven Severin’s film scores and Sava Marinkovic’s rainy-day tableaux came to mind.

As the suite went on, Helvacioglu’s lines became more incisive and less atmospheric, like a minimalist David Gilmour. Likewise, Azmeh’s phrases grew more animated and ornamented, sometimes with a lamenting wail, sometimes as a possible call to arms, with just the occasional hint of Middle Eastern microtones.Dynamics rose froma whisper to a single blast from a terrified vortex, then back down to echoing pools of sound with a lingering, ever-present menace, a symphony of sorrowful wartime songs. “That was intense,” Helvacioglu remarked to Azmeh, a little out of breath, after the show. He wasn’t kidding. Look for more duo performances by these two, as well as an upcoming National Sawduat show on April 17 at 9 PM with Azmeh leading his Middle Eastern jazz band. Tix for that one are $25.

Maqamfest 2014: Maybe This Year’s Best NYC Concert…Again

The theme for this year’s Maqamfest Friday night at the Financial District music mecca Alwan for the Arts was the influence of Arabic music beyond the Fertile Crescent. This year, festival creator, Alwan music impresario and trumpeter/santoorist Amir ElSaffar teamed up with the Center for Traditional Dance and Music to book an exhilarating evening that underscored the dynamic connection between music from the Middle East and eastern Europe.

As the night began, it was almost comical to see how the oldsters took over the venue’s lower-level auditorium while the all kids went two flights up to catch  rubabist Quraishi’s hypnotically pointillistic Afghan folk and fusion-tinged originals. Downstairs, Lebanese-born pianiast Tarek Yamani kicked off the night with a richly eclectic mix of brooding Middle Eastern themes and blues-infused bop. While Yamani didn’t deliberately seem to be working any kind of overtone series with the piano – it can be done, especially if you ride the pedal – he proved to be a magician with his chromatics and disqueting passing tones. Bassist Petros Klampanis supplied an elegant, terse, slowly strolling low end while drummer Colin Stranahan nimbly negoatiated Yamani’s sometimes subtle, sometimes jarring rhythmic shifts. The trio wove a tapestry of gorgeous chromatic glimmer through a couple of romping postbop numbers to a haunting, starkly direct piano arrangement of a theme by Said Darwish, considered to be the father of modern Middle Eastern classical music. The trickiest number in their set was the title track to Yamani’s album Ashur (the Assyrian god of death). Stranahan got the dubious assingment of carrying its cruelly challenging, almost peevish syncopation, but he ran with it and nailed it.

Next on the bill downstairs was luminous Balkan chanteuse Eva Salina, with her austere, meticulously nuanced, often heartwrenching original arrangements of Balkan and Romany folk songs and hits from the 60s. Upstairs, the kids were treated to a slinky, irresistibly fun set by Mitra Sumara, who played lush and frequently slashing Iranian pop and disco hits by Googoosh, Laila Farouhar and others, mostly from the early to mid 70s. Frontwoman Yvette Perez sang with a clear, resonant, sometimes seductive, sometimes angst-ridden tone: as she put it, all these songs were about impossible love. Keyboardist Jim Duffy fueled the most intense number of the set with his funereal organ lines, turning it into an undulating Persian take on Procol Harum. Bassist Sam Kulik held down a fat, often hypnotically minimalist low-end pulse beneath Bill Ruyle’s ringing, otherworldly santoor lines and guitarist Julian Maile’s insistent riffage, propelled by a swaying twin-percussion dancefloor groove. They ended the set with a biting, funky Zia Atabi number from southern Iran. At this point, the sounds of the band had filtered down to the lower level and much of the older crowd had filtered up to see what they were missing.

Sazet Band followed in the upstairs space. The Bronx-based crew are a huge attraction in the expat Romany community and took the energy a notch  higher. As their set began, with the band’s alto sax/clarinet frontline firing off machinegun riffage over an explosive twin-drum dance beat and a keyboardist playing generic fusion reharmonizations of Balkan chords through a cheesy synthesizer patch, was this going to turn out to be Macedonian Van Halen? As it turned out, no. Alto saxophonist Romeo Kurtali is a protege of Bulgarian legend Yuri Yunakov, and played with a similarly fluid, maybe even more breathtakingly fast attack than his mentor while clarinetist Sal Mamudoski made an even more aggressive foil with his raw, aching, fire-and-brimstone crescendos. Meanwhile, a technical malfunction had taken the synth completely out of the mix: it wasn’t misssed. This reduced the band to just the horns and the drums, taking the sound back in time thirty years or more as they raced through whirlwinds of chromatically bristling doublestops, trills and microtones. Then they brought up a couple of guys to sing. By now, dancelines had formed along the side and in the back, and those who weren’t on their feet were bopping in their seats.

Downstairs, the evening wound up on a historically rich note with a set by the Alwan Ensemble, an all-star lineup of some of the foremost musicians in the New York Arabic diaspora. Their purpose – other than hanging out and drinking tea and other stuff, as ElSaffar grinningly alluded – is to trace the connections between classic Arabic sounds from Syria, Egypt and Iraq. ElSaffar began on santoor, later switched to trumpet and often played both in the same song, along with Zikrayat violinist Samy Abu Shumays, Zafer Tawil on qanun, Georges Ziadeh on oud and a couple of percussionists. Everybody got to to solo or start a number with an expansive, pensive taqsim, and everybody sang, including the audience. The group started matter-of-factly with a rustic Syrian pastorale, followed by a haunting, stately Iraqi suite of sorts told from the point of view of a guy whose girlfriend/dalliance leaves town with her caravan, the stricken narrator pondering whether or not to implore the leader to turn the entourage around and come back to town. Tawil sang a moody Zakariya Ahmad song originally done by legendary 1950s Egyptian chanteuse Laila Mourad; they closed with another Ahmad song from the catalog of Egyptian legend Um Kulthumm, a singalong in every sense of the word from the title to how the group and the crowd brought it to life, ending the show on a high note.

Maqamfest only comes around once a year, but the artists play around town frequently. The Alwan Ensemble make the venue their home base and have a long-awaited debut album due out later this spring; watch this space for news of an album release show.