New York Music Daily

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Tag: middle eastern rock

Iranian Rock Rules at Lincoln Center

Lincoln Center Out of Doors was packed this past evening. The message was clear: New Yorkers, or at least a large subset of us, love Iranian music. On a triplebill that began with a tantalizingly short set by all-female hometown crew Habibi and ended with crooner Faramarz Aslani and his band, rock band Kiosk played one of the best sets of any group in this city this year.

Frontman Arash Sobhani entertained the crowd with his sardonic sense of humor, edgy, mythologically influenced Farsi lyrics and slashingly individualistic Stratocaster chops. His fellow axeman Mohammad Talani wailed and slunk, a nonchalantly powerful presence on a big hollowbody Gibson while bassist Ali Kamali bubbled over the steady, funk-influenced beats of drummer Yahya Alkhansa.

The early part of the set was an update on the psychedelic “Farsi funk” that was all the rage in Iran prior to the 1979 Khomeini takeover, and brutally suppressed thereafter (Kiosk take their name from the kind of venues available for confrontational rock in their Teheran  hometown). Hits like Love For Speed (a sarcastic parable about Teheran traffic), the cautionary tales Everybody’s Asleep and Bulldozer each had a minor-key psych-funk feel grounded by a heavier than usual drumbeat for that style, Sobhani evoking peak-era Leonard Cohen with both his vocals and his chord changes. On guitar, he fired off purist, icepick Chicago blues leads but also slithery volleys of chromatics that were a dead giveaway for the group’s origins.

Talani hung back with his rhythm early on but once he got a chance to cut loose, he took a couple of the darker anthems to angst-fueled peaks with his screaming, anguished leads, like a Middle Eastern David Gilmour. Meanwhile, Sobhani led the group through an eclectic mix that included a pensively crescendoing contemplation of exile, then a rapidfire, punkish romp through a melody that he said was originally Iranian but eventually became a klezmer melody (it sounded Russian).

A couple of shuffling numbers after that could have been American ghoulabilly save for the linguistic difference. After a detour into what could have been dub reggae but wasn’t, and a tune that brought to mind Gogol Bordello, they did a silly faux Chuck Berry tune about a legendary Iranian bootlegger who got jail time for pirating AC/DC records. This group is huge in the Iranian diaspora but should be vastly better known beyond that world.

Habibi deserved more than fifteen minutes onstage. What they lack in tightness they make up for in originality. Lead guitarist Lenaya “Lenny” Lynch fired off needling tremolo-picked riffs over the tense surf-ish rhythm sectdion of bassist Erin Campbell and drummer Karen Isabel as rhythm guitarist Leah Beth Fishman added rainy-day chords that sometimes edged toward Lush dreampop, frontwoman Rahill Jamalifard singing coolly and matter-of-factly, mostly in Farsi. From their brief, Arabic-tinged instrumental intro through a mix of Breeders jangle, Ventures stomp and Farsi funk, they’re developing an intriguing, distinctive sound. Give the rhythm section a year to get their chops up to speed, and this band could be dangerous.

Backed by six-piece band including flamenco guitarist and musical director Babak Amini, Aslani got the crowd singing and dancing along to his allusively biting lyrics set to pleasant, flute-fueled Mediterranean and Brazilian-inflected acoustic ballads that often brought to mind the Gipsy Kings. An icon of Iranian music since the 70s, he’s a wordsmith and connoisseur of classical Persian poetry first and foremost.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow night, July 29 with art-rock guitarist Jonathan Wilson – of Roger Waters’ band – doing his own material. Getting into the show this particular evening was easy, but you might want to show up before 7:30 PM showtime if you want a seat.

An Epic East Village Show by Haunting Turkish Rock Singer Mehmet Erdem

Friday night at Drom, intense crooner Mehmet Erdem led his four-piece band through an epic, towering, majestic set of elegant, darkly crescendoing Turkish art-rock. Wearing a wireless headset, he and the sound guy had an animated dialogue going during the first few numbers of a concert that went on for well over two hours into Saturday morning. Which makes sense – although Erdem is a talented multi-instrumentalist who plays several Turkish lutes, his first gig as a professional was not as a musician but as a sound engineer. After a few tweaks, he was content: Drom is one of New York’s most sonically pristine venues.

That calm, meticulous approach extended to his vocals as well. In a powerful, resonant baritone, he stood resolute and mostly motionless in the center of the stage, intoning a long series of brooding, slowly crescendoing ballads in his native vernacular. You could call him the Turkish Leonard Cohen – although Erdem has a lot more range beyond Cohen’s foggy low register.

As is often the case with Turkish rock, Erdem’s lyrics are enigmatic and allusive, with the occasional mythological reference. What appear to be brooding lost-love laments on the surface may have political overtones, thinly veiled nostalgia for freedom and basic human rights. As the night wore on, the crowd sang along: even for non-Turkish speakers, it was easy to get a sense of meaning from Erdem’s articulation and forcefulness, and from the audience as well. The ladies sang along lustily on the night’s most carefree ballad; other times, phones were raised defiantly. Let’s hope some of this footage makes it to youtube.

The band were fantastic. Interestingly, for all his fretboard talent, Erdem only played oud, and only on a handful of songs midway through the show. And he never cut loose, negotiating a couple of serpentine intros with a brooding terseness, choosing his spots and slowly building suspense. His acoustic guitarist added incisive melody that occasionally shifted toward flamenco or the Middle East, especially when the music’s minor modes grew darkest (Turkish rock can be gothic AF, an effect that really kicked in when he switched to keyboards on the night’s most majestic numbers). Meanwhile, the rhythm section lurked in the background, occasionally rising when the tempos picked up.

But the star of the show was the clarinetist. In the Balkans and eastward, clarinet is often the lead instrument, and this band’s lead guy is killer. Opening with a dazzling, microtonal flourish was a red herring, considering that he matched the bandleader’s moody resonance most of the way through. As the set picked up steam, he opened a couple of numbers with all-too-brief taqsims, parsing every haunting tonality he could get out of his reed.

By about one in the morning, Erdem had methodically worked up to a peak, through grooves that a couple of times snuck their way from cumbia to straight-up stadium rock, with a couple of lively detours into funk and even roots reggae. From there, the group hit the hardest, with a series of singalong anthems. They brought it down somewhat at the end, closing on a somewhat disquieting, unresolved note. At that point, there was no need for an encore.

Drom is one of only a handful of clubs in the US, and the only one in New York which regularly features Turkish rock. Extraordinary chanteuse Sertab Erener – whose music is somewhat quieter but just as lavish – is there on May 25 at 7 PM.

Wild Turkish Psychedelic Rock Rescued From Obscurity

One of the most amazing albums released this year is Uzelli Psychedelic Anadolu, a compilation streaming at Spotify that pays homage to the Turkish cassette label that released some of the wildest, most surreal sounds to emerge from that part of the world. Spanning from 1975 to 1984, this trippy ten-track playlist collects hard funk, symphonic rock, disco, electrified Turkish traditional ballads and anthems…and what sounds like a long radio commercial.

String synth, organ, wry wah synth and soaring, otherworldly, microtonal zurna oboe mingle in Zor Beyler’s suspenseful, lushly anthemic Gozumdeki Yaslar. The second track, by guitarslinger Erkin Koray, is a one-chord heavy funk jam, fuzztone acid lead guitar over loping bass and drums, with an emphatic spoken-word lyric: Turkish rap from forty years ago!

Powerful baritone crooner Kerem Guney’s Sicak Bir Sevda is a slashing, richly catchy Middle Eastern rock gem, sparkling electric baglama trading off with spare yet searing electric guitar. Asik Emrah’s Bu Ellerden Gocup is one of the trippiest cuts here, a mashup of psychedelic latin funk and spiky, oscillating Turkish classical sounds – is that an electric saz lute that’s taking that twistedly oscillating solo?

Longing and hazy angst pervade Yar Senin Icin, by chanteuse Elvan Sevil, a trickily syncopated, broodingly catchy anthem blending austere guitar with more of that delicious electric saz. Seker Oglan’s epic dancefloor jam Akbaba Ikilisi has a straightforwardly slinky, disco-tinged groove and similarly tasty, microtonal fretboard melismatics. Deniz Ustu Kopurur nicks a classic Stooges riff for Unal Buyukgonenc, a similarly vast, shapeshifting web of enigmatic reverb guitar and similarly reverb-drenched zurna: it’s the most psychedelic number here.

Nese Alkan gives her vocals a suspenseful, dramatic allure in Kacma Guzel, which comes across as sort of proto Balkan reggae. The compilation’s final track, by Ali Ayhan, mashes up wah funk and majestically sweeping, starkly string-driven Turkish balladry. All this begs the question of how many other treasures are lurking in the Uzelli vaults. In the meantime, New Yorkers can catch a tantalizing show coming up on Nov 24 at 8 PM at Drom with a current Turkish psychedelic band, the ominously majestic Philadelphia-based Barakka. Cover is $10.

Amir ElSaffar’s Intense, Brooding Crisis Transcends Middle Eastern Music, Jazz and Everything Else

“Driving and to the point, Amir ElSaffar’s music is beyond categorization: not jazz, world music or any facile fusion thereof but a world unto its own.” A lot of bravado there, but the Chicago-born, New York-based trumpeter backs it up. His fifth album, Crisis – a suite inspired by his year in Egypt in 2012, as witness to the Arab Spring – is just out from Pi Recordings, and it’s arguably his best yet. Towering, majestic, haunting, dynamically rich, often grim, it might be the best album of 2015 in any style of music. Here ElSaffar – who plays both trumpet and santoor and also sings in Arabic in a resonant, soulful baritone – is joined by brilliant oudist/percussinonist Zaafir Tawil, fiery buzuq player Tareq Abboushi, tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen, bassist Carlo DeRosa and drummer Nasheet Waits. Since the album is just out, it hasn’t hit the usual streaming spots yet, but three of the tracks are up at ElSaffar’s music page. ElSaffar and all of these players perform the album release show tonight, September 17 at 8 PM at Symphony Space. Cover is $25.

Rumbling, tumbling drums underpin a alow, stately, chromatically edgy trumpet theme distantly echoed by the oud as the introduction, From the Ashes, rises and falls. ElSaffar switches to the eerily rippling santoor for a serioso solo, utilizing the exotic microtones of the Iraqi classical maqam music he’s devoted himself to over the past fifteen years after an auspicious career start bridging the worlds of jazz, latin music and the western classical canon.

Mathisen doubles the reverberating pointillisms of the santoor on The Great Dictator, until a flurrying trumpet riff over distorted electric buzuq, and suddenly it becomes a trickly dancing Middle Eastern art-rock song. Abboushi’s long, slashing solo is one of the most adrenalizing moments committed to record this year, the song moving toward funk as Mathisen sputters and leaps.

After ElSaffar’s plaintive solo trumpet improvisation Taqsim Saba – imbued with the microtones which have become his signature device – the band slinks and bounces their way into El–Sha’ab (The People), which for all its elegantly inspired shadowboxing between the oud and the trumpet is a pretty straight-up funk song. The aptly titled, apprehensively pillowy Love Poem, a variation on the introductory theme, overflows with lyrical interplay between santoor, sax and oud, as well as a graceful pairing between santoor and bass. It takes on an unexpectedly dirgelike quality as it winds out.

The epic Flyover Iraq – as cruelly ironic a title as one could possibly imagine in this century – begins as bright, syncopated stroll, goes back to funk with a lively trumpet/buzuq duet, ElSaffar then taking flight toward hardbop with his trumpet. DeRosa takes it out with a lithe, precise solo. The suite’s most titanic number, Tipping Point introduces an uneasily contrapuntal melody that expands throughout the band, follows an upbeat, funky trajectory toward a fanfare, then vividly voices a theme and variations that literally follow a path of dissolution. ElSaffar’s somber trumpet solo out sets the stage for Aneen (Weeping), Continued, a spare, funereal piece that brings to mind similarly austere material by another brilliant trumpeter with Middle Eastern heritage, Ibrahim Maalouf. The album winds up with Love Poem (Complete), a more somber take on the first one. Clearly, the revolution ElSaffar depicts here has not brought the results that he – or for that matter the rest of the world – were hoping for.

Arabic Music Icon Aziz Sahmaoui Brings His University of Gnawa to Joe’s Pub

When he’s not playing festivals around the globe with the Orchestre National de Barbes, Aziz Sahmaoui fronts another band, the University of Gnawa, who put a harder-rocking, original spin on an ancient North African style. The band is collegiate not in an academic sense but, like the best universities, will school you and at the same time put on a party you’ll never forget. They’re bringing their exhilarating live show to Joe’s Pub on Sept 11 at 9 PM; cover is $20 and considering how packed their US debut at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was a couple of summers ago, advance tix are a very good idea.

Sahmaoui’s latest album with this group is Mazal (Arabic for “Endurance”), streaming at Spotify – and if you’d like to avoid having to mute those annoying commercials that interrupt you when least expected, most of it is streaming at the bandleader’s webpage. Most of the tracks are Arabic love songs, although a couple have the kind of excoriating, politically relevant lyricism of Sahmaoui’s other band. The opening track, InchAllah has a groove that’s almost qawwali, but less serpentine, a catchy, mostly one-chord jam of sorts fueled by uneasily burning, multitracked guitar textures. Hada Ma Jari takes a spiky, upbeat detour into West African kora folk music. Une Dune Pour Deux sets a savagely spot-on French-language parable of divide-and-conquer politics to a more traditionally-oriented gnawa melody, driven by the gentle but resolute pulse of Sahmaoui’s bendir lute.

The album’s title track, another elegantly lyrical wartime parable, has an ominously slinky minor-key pulse to match, part defiant French chanson, part bristling Moroccan chaabi anthem. Water-line, a spiritually-infused escape anthem, makes catchy, jangly folk-rock out of a wistfully strolling chaabi theme. Jilala reverts to a scampering shuffle groove spiced with American hard funk and jamband rock.

Guest flamenco guitarist El Niño Josele‘s nimble, spiraling lines take centerstage throughout the album’s suspensefully cinematic, slowly unwinding, most epic track, Yasmine. Lawah-Lawah – a remake of Sahmaoui’s bitingly vamping hit Zawiya – rocks harder and is more straightforward than the original. Firdawss, with its rippling guitar lines, adds an uneasy art-rock edge to Malian duskcore.

Afro Maghrébin blends echoes of the jazz of Joe Zawinul – with whom Sahmaoui enjoyed a long collaboration – into North African folk. In a similar vein, the album’s last two tracks mash up soukous and gnawa: they seem tacked on rather than an integral part of this otherwise magnificently conceived, eclectic collection of songs.

The Haunting, Mysterious King Raam Brings His Iranian Art-Rock Anthems to the Mercury

If you’ve heard of King Raam, believe the hype. The Teheran-based bandleader, who with the rest of his group plays pseudonymously, is sort of the Iranian Nick Cave. Who is this theatrical, intense Persian-language art-rock singer? He’s in his forties, born in the party city of Bushehr, and has been back and forth to the US several times. He’s collaborated with Johnny Azari and the late Ali Eskandarian, among others. He has a gram account, so it’s certain that the CIA and Mossad know who he is. He and the band are bringing their eclectic, often hauntingly artsy sounds to the Mercury at midnight on August 29; $12 advance tix are still available at the box office, open Tues-Sat from noon to 6 PM.

Iranian music in general tends to be very good and has been for centuries: even pop artists from the 60s and 70s like Googoosh are arguably more interesting and tuneful than their American counterparts. Most of King Raam’s latest album, A Day & a Year, is streaming at Soundcloud along with much of his ominously melodic, often psychedelic back catalog. The band doesn’t waste any time getting off to an powerful start with a slow, foreboding minor-key anthem, Pegasus, bringing to mind similarly brooding global acts like the Russian group Auktyon and Mexican legends Jaguares. The multitracked guitars roar, the keys twinkle uneasily and the drums have a big-room sound: a lot of care and smart production ideas went into this. English translations of the lyrics weren’t available as of press time, but consider that the song is about a winged horse and then do the math.

The moody Closing Credits (Titrazhe Payan), just pensive vocals and simple guitar arpeggios until the final crescendo, bears an even stronger resemblance to Jaguares and that band’s frontman Saul Hernandez‘s solo work. The album’s third track, Tehran has a wistful sway, part folk-rock as the Church might have done it at their peak, part Spottiswoode. The Church resemblance recurs, but more spaciously and sparely, in Distant Tomorrows, featuring guest crooner Makan Ashgevari. The Return follows, with a big, cinematic, rather triumphantly orchestrated sweep: it’s the most stadium rock-oriented track here. Its 70s folk-pop counterpart is Crosswind, one of the later cuts.

Missing Squares has a shuffle groove, surfy reverb guitars and a brass section – another Jaguares soundalike, more or less. A City Without Gates sets the spare quality of Tehran to a more propulsive, even catchier groove, with some of the album’s strongest vocals. The band brings things down with the echoey, dub-tinged piano-based Resurrection and then follows with Salvador, which rises from a rather upbeat, guitar-fueled neo-Motown drive to a swing groove and then pure Lynchian menace.

A Day Will Come is the most gorgeously jangly, bittersweet number on the album – it could be vintage early 70s Al Stewart with better vocals and production. Deja Vu, with its stomping drums, funk tinges and propeller-blade guitars, is a duet with Iranian blues artist Behzad Omrani.  The final cut is the echoey, muted piano ballad Since You’ve Been Gone.

In terms of pure tunefulness, this is one of the half-dozen best rock albums released in 2015. How horribly sad that the citizens of the nation that for centuries was the cultural capital of the world have been forced to literally go underground to enjoy music like this since the fall of the Shah (and he was no picnic either). And what a fantastic thing that artists like King Raam have made their way to the US. If anyone deserves asylum citizenship, it’s this guy and the rest of the guys who play with him.

Figli Di Madre Ignota: One of Europe’s Funniest and Funnest Bands

Figli Di Madre Ignota (Italian for “Nobody’s Children,” more or less) are hilarious. The Milan-based circus rock band’s most obvious reference point is Gogol Bordello, but although there’s a frenetic Romany punk side to their sound, they’re more heavily influenced by Balkan and Turkish music. Some of their lyrics are in English, and those have the kind of surreal humor you would expect in the styles they play. But their Italian lyrics are the bomb, full of sarcastic puns, double entendres and intricate rhyme schemes. Their latest album, Bellydancer – streaming at Soundcloud – is a party in a box. If you consider yourself a fun person, you need to know about it – which is why it’s on this page today, over a year after these friendly people sent it here.

The obvious thought before writing this was, is this band still alive or did they go to Lynyrd Skynyrd Land? Happily, they are very much alive, and flourishing, and playing the Offenburg Brewery Festival in Pietra Ligure, Italy at 10 PM on August 29. The album’s first track is Istanbul, which rocks out a menacing chromatic riff – at halfspeed or quarterspeed, this could be doom metal, but this irrepressible band won’t settle for doom. The title track – in English – adds Mediterranean flavor to big 80s stadium-rock theatrics, fueled by the twin guitars of Marco “Pampa” Pampaluna and Massimiliano “Pitone” Unali. “If all you dancers were the resistance, girl, we’d need no war, no revolution,” frontman Stefano “Iasko” Iascone shouts.

The metaphorically charged Mediterranean Voodoo, built around a searing Turkish guitar riff over a tricky dance rhythm, contemplates the weight of centuries of history, much of it ugly. One of the album’s funniest songs, Escargantua, makes merciless fun of the French: their food fixation, literary pretentions and imperialist tendencies. It’s akin to an Italian take on Les Sans Culottes. Here’s a rough translation of the first verse:

Look, there’s Flaubert eating camembert
With D’Alembert, but Diderot
What is he doing? He’s drinking Pernod to death, with Hugo
“Leave some for me,” Hercule Poirot screams to him
“But you don’t even exist! Everybody knows that,”
Voltaire and Rousseau tell him

Sex Music Pasta is sort of the band’s theme song: it’s a delicious, chromatically bristling Balkan dancefloor stomp, Iascone leading a blazing trumpet section as the guitars roar and a cimbalom ripples eerily in the background. Guest Valentina Cariulo’s edgy violin drives Show Me the Way, which rises from dubwise Balkan reggae to a deliriously pulsing dance. Alternativo, a minor-key disco number, makes fun of trendoids and wannabes and is another really funny one. Another rough translation:

A little savings to live on
You play vinyl and you hang out backstage
What is fair is fair if
You choose not to choose

Tagliatella Punk is a swaying, electrified tarantella, talking truth to power about the timeworn bread-and-circuses situation at home:

Christmas movie releases, and radioactive waste,
Government crises, and celebrity gossip
Money for tanks but not for the earthquake victims…

Caravan Petrol follows a similarly edgy, bouncy tangent. Guest chanteuse Francesca Sottocasa sings Vegan in the Fridge, a wryly satirical go-go number and a slap at extremists from everywhere on the spectrum. But dudes, do you really have to put the vegan in there with the klansman and the theocons and Dianetics?

The album winds up with A Me Non Piace Niente (I Don’t Like Anything), a riotous early 21st century broadside directed at reality tv, social media, “dj culture,” trash fiction, plastic surgery, you name it. “The truth about stupid people is that you can measure them in inches,” Iascone observes. This slightly Beatlesque tarantella punk number has to be one of the best songs released in any language in the past few years – as is this album. Why was it not covered here earlier? Um…blame that computer crash here last spring.

The Sway Machinery Release Another Fiery, Eclectic, Psychedelic Masterpiece

The Sway Machinery are one of the real feel-good stories of the New York rock scene. They’ve come a long, long way since their days in the early zeros, when as one esteemed New York guitarist put it, they were sort of the “cantorial AC/DC.” There’s no band in the world who sound remotely like them. Mashing up hypnotic Saharan duskcore, biting postpunk, Afrobeat, funk and ancient Hasidic ngunim with a searing, guitar-fueled undercurrent, they’re one of the most individualistic and consistently exciting groups to emerge from this city in this century. They’ve got a new album, Purity and Danger, due out next week (hence no streaming link, although three of the tracks are up at soundcloud) and an album release show on March 1 at 6 (yes, six) PM at Baby’s All Right. Cover is $10, which is dirt cheap for that venue.

The big difference with this album is that it’s something of a return to their hard-rocking roots. Bass saxophonist Colin Stetson has been switched out for Antibalas‘ guitar-bass team of Tim Allen and Nikhil Yerawadekar, who provide a bouncy contrast for frontman Jeremiah Lockwood’s tersely searing reverbtoned guitar riffs. The album opens with the brisk, punchy Afrobeat-tinged instrumental title track, Lockwood’s chords blasting in the right channel, Allen playing lithe jangle in the left against the bright harmonies of trumpeter Jordan McLean and saxophonist Matt Bauder over a groove that’s equally catchy and hypnotic.

Rachamana D’Onay mashes up Middle Eastern rock, reggae and Ethiopiques into a surreallistically dancing stew. Revive the Dead has an irrepressible drive that’s part Sly Stone, part pensive 70s European art-rock, with a long jam that’s a study in tasty guitar contrasts, and a soulful trumpet solo out. My Dead Lover’s Wedding circles and careens around a rhythm that’s part 70s stoner art-rock, part camelwalking assouf desert rock.

On Magein Avos, Lockwood makes a bouncy, trickily rhythmic anthem out of its otherworldly, rustic cantorial theme, drummer John Bollinger pushing it with a restless, hard-hitting pulse. The band does Longa, another number based on an ancient traditional theme, as marauding Middle Eastern surf: imagine Eyal Maoz out in front of Budos Band. Then Lockwood returns to a lingering, resonantly psychedelic groove with Al Tashlicheini, a launching pad for his soaring, impassioned baritone vocals.

Od Hapaam is a mashup of joyous oldschool soul, blazing Ethiopiques and searing, suspensefully cinematic stadium rock, Lockwood’s rumbling solo leaving a long trail of sparks in its wake. My Angel’s House skirts funk, desert rock and rhythmically shapeshifting art-rock without hitting any of those style head-on, although Lockwood’s sputtering guitar here wouldn’t be out of place in a Bombino song. The album winds up with Rozo D’Shabbos, by the great Russian-American cantor Pierre Pinchik, reinvented as a vigorously crescendoing anthem that rises out of a hypnotic Afrobeat vamp. Knowing the band, they’ll probably jam the hell out of these songs live.

Spine-Tingling Moroccan Crooner Emil Zrihan and More at This Year’s Globalfest

Toward the end of Emel Mathlouthi’s set at Globalfest at Webster Hall Sunday night, right in the middle of one of her songs, the power onstage suddenly blew out. It was her birthday, too. What a crappy birthday present! But the Tunisian-born, now New York-based songwriter didn’t miss a beat. She went off mic and led the rest of her band – a couple of guys playing percussion – through an old Tunisian folk song. And that gave her the chance to really air our her powerful alto voice in all its microtonal magnificence. See, earlier in the set, her vocals had been running through a mixer, and a lot of the time the effects flattened her. Robbing Emel Mathlouthi of her nuance makes about as much sense as asking Johnny Ramone to turn down his guitar, or telling Louis Armstrong to stay away from the blue notes.

Left to her own devices, Mathlouthi is a force of nature. Her 2012 album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “freedom of speech”) was a masterpiece of menacingly enveloping art-rock, and she sang a couple of enigmatic, brooding cuts from that album, which were considerably more stripped down considering that the instrumentation was just percusion and whatever was in the mixing desk. It seems that she’s focusing more on vocals at the moment than on the elegantly incendiary lyricism that made her such a popular figure in the optimistic early days of the Arab Spring. Which could be a function of learning a new language – her command of English is already pretty good – or something else. She played a Bjork hit solo, the only number on which she picked up her guitar, and it was an improvement on the original. But it didn’t hold up alongside Mathlouthi’s own ominous chromatics, moody minor keys and angst-fueled political sensibility. And that seemed muted this time out.

Globalfest is a spinoff of the annual booking agents’ convention. Beyond drawing on a wide spectrum of fans of all kinds of esoterica, the annual January concert pulls together a demimonde of aging hippies from the nonprofit sector and arts auditoriums across the country. Acts play on three separate stages at staggered intervals, so that talent buyers who might be so inclined can make the rounds and get a taste of what they could be doing at home in their pj’s, watching youtube…but a New York vacation on the company dime is a lot more fun, isn’t it?

Although the show was officially sold out, it didn’t seem nearly as crowded as last year, when a phenomenal lineup included Bollywood disco retroists the Bombay Royale, thunderous Kiev folk-punk crew DakhaBrakha, iconic Romany brass band Fanfare Ciocarlia and psychedelic southwestern gothic rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta. Usually there aren’t a lot of hard choices: the best acts don’t generally conflict. For whatever reason, this year’s lineup had some solid acts, but didn’t feel as celebratory. Maybe that’s explained simply by the absence of Fanfare Ciocarlia, a band unrivalled for awe-inspiring power.

After Mathlouthi’s set was cut short, the crowd made their way upstairs to watch the end of the Nile Project‘s irresistibly slinky, hypnotically undulating grooves. This large and largely improvisational ensemble was pulled together by soul songwriter Meklit Hadero and her Egyptian pal Mina Girgis as a way of bringing together some of the best musicians from the Nile Delta to raise awareness of how the struggle over water rights there is destabilizing the region and threatening its many diverse populations – who have a lot in common, musicwise. There was a loose, easy chemistry among the many members, notably saxophonist Jorge Mesfin, with his eerie, resonant, distantly Ethiopian-tinged lines, and oudist Hazim Shaheen,whose long, nimble, spiraling phrases spiced the music with a dusky shimmer. And when singer Dina El Wadidi took centerstage to lead the band through a long, slowly crescendoing clip-clop anthem, there weren’t any effects on her voice other than a touch of reverb. Which was a thrill to hear, a thrill that could have been replicated in the downstairs space earlier but for the most part wasn’t.

After that, the Jones Family Singers were vamping their way out of their downstairs set: the Houston gospel-funk band has a lot of members, so it took them what seemed like a quarter of an hour to finish the band intros. They’re another force of nature: here’s what another fairly recent show of theirs sounded like.

The high point of the night was the Moroccan Nightingale, Emil Zrihan. He’s the cantor at a Sephardic synagogue in Israel, whose congregation must be very patient considering how in demand the crooner is all over the world. His backing band set a suspenseful, literally breathtaking tone immediately, blending the rippling, chromatically-charged interweave of oud, kanun, percussion, violin and accordion. Zrihan immediately launched into a long, downwardly spiraling series of otherworldly, microtonal melismas, aided by so much reverb that there was slapback. And from then on he worked that for all it was worth, seemingly going for a couple of minutes at a clip without drawing a breath. The music ran the gamut of the Middle East: a rousing, deliriously swaying wedding dance; a couple of waltzes interrupted by volleys of spine-tingling vocalese; a stately, wistful minor-key number that drew on Algerian chaabi balladry; and darker, more sweeping Sephardic and Egyptian themes.He wound up the set with a remarkably fresh, nuanced version of Ya Rayyeh, the famous 1920s rai hit that elevates everyone who plays it, or sings it – it’s one of those rare tunes that anyone from any culture around the world can hum. and suddenly it’s impossible to be in a bad mood. That alone made the concert worthwhile, reason to see what other stars from obscure corners of the globe will make their way here next year.

Haunting, Angst-Fueled Anthems and a Drom Show by Philly Art-Rockers Barakka

Philadelphia-based Turkish art-rock band Barakka deserve to be vastly better known than they are. Even though the majority of their lyrics are in Turkish, their relentlessly intense, mostly minor-key anthems are memorable and often haunting, transcending any language barrier. They’re playing at Drom on Oct 2 at 7:30 PM, opening for another more psychedelic (and controversial) Turkish rocker, Ahmet Muhsin. Advance tix are $20 and very highly recommended because the diaspora comes out in full force for shows like this.

Barakka’s brilliant album – streaming at their Reverbnation page – is titled Uzaklardan, meaning “far away” or “from a distance.” It’s a feeling echoed in the music’s persistent unease and frontman Baris Kaya’s recurrent themes of longing and loss. More often than not, the lead instrument is Roger Mgrdichian’s incisive, rippling oud, joining in a rich interweave with Kaya’s web of acoustic and electric guitars, William Tayoun’s elegant piano and Chris Marashlian’s kinetic bass. Multiple drummers contribute to the project, including the band’s current stickman, Jim Hamilton and the New York Gypsy All-Stars‘ Engin Gunaydin.

The opening track, Agit sets the stage, piano paired against the oud as the lithely dancing minor-key intro gives way to a crunchy, intense, anthemically swaying drive: as it crescendos, the band creates a dynamic that’s both towering and eerily rustic. The second track, simply titled X builds to a similarly angst-driven peak out of a strummy acoustic waltz. Kayip is the most American-sounding, and ironically the least musically dynamic track, winding down to down to the piano over Joseph Tayoun’s clip-clop darbouka groove.,

The bittersweet Gri Sokaklar is the gentlest number here: once again, Mgrdichian leads the band up and the piano follows. Hedye kicks off with a flurrying darbouka solo and quickly builds to a moody, haunting anthem with a tricky tempo, the wounded ache in Kaya’s voice echoed potently by Mrgdichian’s tense, upper-register oud solo. The steady, precise Yalniz Kahraman is every bit as haunting, with Kaya’s spare, echoey, bell-like guitar accents behind the oud’s stoic intensity.

Sairin Celiskisi sets anthemic mitteleuropean angst to a catchy, unexpectedly tropical pop tune with a little Middle Eastern spice. The stomping, vamping, crunchily hypnotic Hey On Besli pairs the clattering darbouka with bagpipe-like guitar – it’s the most Mediterranean-inflected track. The slow, pensive Son brings back the grey-sky anthemic ambience.The album’s final cut, Hit & Run has a metal-tinged, chromatically-charged intensity, Kaya’s eerie fuzztone lines matching the menace of the lyrics. As lushly and intricately arranged as these songs are, they sound like they’d be real showstoppers in concert.