Early into her second raga yesterday evening at Drom, Roopa Panesar took an impulsive slide up the neck of her sitar. Then another, then another, against the rumbling, rippling beat of both a tabla and a mridangam. That twin-percussion drive is unusual in Indian classical music, but it suited Panesar well. For somebody whose right hand was a blur much of the time, she plays with an economy of notes, letting the river of beats carry most of the weight while she ran through a deep catalog of centuries-old riffs and thoughtfully placed variations. None of the material in her tantalizingly brief set went on for much longer than about eight minutes, slowly crescendoing alaps (improvisational intros) included. Meanwhile, the mridangam anchored the music with a fat low end, sometimes in tandem with the tabla, at other times giving the tabla room to sail overhead with an extra layer of polyrhythms. Panesar could have gone on for three times as long as she did and the audience wouldn’t have complained.
Punjabi songwriter and ghazal reinventor Kiran Ahluwalia was next, fronting a fantastic band which included both her brilliant guitarist husband Rez Abbasi and accordionist Will Holshouser along with a rock rhythm section. Abbasi only took one detour into the raga jazz that he’s been exploring so memorably lately, but he really those adrenalizing upward flurries count. Holshouser and the bassist added more than a hint of roots reggae on one of the later numbers while the bandleader brought an especially vigorous edge to her lustrously entrancing songs. The most anthemic was Jane Na, which contemplates how to exorcise personal demons, she explained. The group closed with their bounciest number, a cover that gave Ahluwalia a chance to air out her nuanced but potently expressive upper register.
Quebecoise fiddler Briga and her band have lately shifted from the Balkan music that she first made a name for herself in, to embrace North African grooves and melodies. It’s a good fit all around. There were echoes of moody chaabi balladry, funky Nubian beats and plenty of enigmatic, Egyptian-tinged tunefulness in her kinetically pulsing mix of instrumentals and vocal numbers. Singing first in French in a cool, unaffected alto, she led her excellent band through a set which, like Panesar’s, could have gone on for much longer – but this weekend is the booking agents’ convention, necessitating a constant changeover between acts. Briga’s keyboardist shifted artfully from spacy P-Funk synth, to slithery accordion, to reverbtoned, Herbie Hancock-tinged electric piano psychedelia while her subtle, propulsive bassist and two percussionists wove an intricately boomy lattice of lows.
Eclectic cellist/banjo player Leyla McCalla enjoyed a warm homecoming set, joined by her husband Daniel Tremblay on five-string banjo and electric guitar, in addition to an inspired violinist playing under the name Free-For-All. McCalla’s biggest audience hit was a spare, bluesy, aphoristically minor-key number that she dedicated to “the President-Elect,” whose meaning essentially boiled down to “if you don’t have money, you’re no more than a dog.” That was the night’s most political moment. Otherwise, she switched between instruments, singing in a cool, clear voice in English, Cajun and Kreyol, reflecting her Haitian-American heritage. The spare, Caribbean folk-tinged Time For the Hunter, Time For the Prey, an early number, addressed the perils of Haitian immigration. There was also a lilting Haitian love song, a bouncy Acadian-flavored number along with distant references to zydeco and some deep blues. Hearing her play those spare, plaintively antique phrases way down low on her cello made for some of the night’s most texturally delicious moments, matched by her down-to-earth vocals.
This being booking agent weekend, there were other acts on the bill. The last time this blog was in the house at a Banda Magda show, it was the summer of 2015 on the Hudson River way up on the Upper West, rugrats were running all over the place and frontwoman Magda Giannikou entertained them with a mix of jaunty retro 60s-style French pop, Mediterranean ballads and some hauntingly shapeshifting, Middle Eastern-flavored material. And southwestern gothic avatars Orkesta Mendoza, who were scheduled to headline (after doing the same at a late show at the Mercury, no less), haunted and pulsed their way through a mighty set of noir mambos and bolero rock. That was a couple of weeks after the Banda Magda show and was a lot further inland, at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival. That band has a characteristically psychedelic, epic new album out; catch you next time around, amigos.
There’s another fantastic lineup starting at 7 PM tonight at Drom. With the snowstorm, this might be your chance to see an unusually intimate show featuring all kinds of global sounds from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to wild Ethiopian funk, to Moroccan trance grooves and more. Cover is an insanely cheap $10.