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A Hauntingly Allusive New Album and a National Sawdust Show From David Smooke

David Smooke explains the premise of his fantastic, eclectic new album,  Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death – streaming at Bandcamp – as being an exploration of “unreal landscapes that sonic events can evoke.” Smooke takes his title from a series of grimly allusive training dioramas in the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s Office. As troubled, picturesque, cinematic music goes, it doesn’t get any better than this in 2017. As a demo reel, this album should score Smooke  a long list of clients in film and video if he wants the commissions. He and several of the ensembles on the album – including the mighty Peabody Wind Ensemble, a stormy chamber group comprising brass, winds and percussion, are playing the album release at 7 PM on Jan 22 at National Sawdust. Advance tix are $25.

Smooke’s axe is the toy piano. He ranks with Phyllis Chen as one of the few people to get the absolute max out of that improbable instrument. The album opens with the title composition, a concerto for toy piano and the big ensemble. It’s a real showstopper: if you ever wondered what a toy piano sounds like while being tortured, this will open your eyes. Horrified Bernard Herrmann tritone cadenzas punctuate thunderous swells from the brass, unexpectedly dusky microtonal banjo, and the toy piano plinking and clicking mutedly under extreme duress.

The second number is Transgenic Fields, Dusk, played solo with characteristically detailed attention by pianist Karl Larson. It’s a mashup of Debussyesque clusters, understatedly kinetic Andriessen clock-chime phrases and long, stygian, tentatively stairstepping Messiaenic passages: a reflection on baby raptors turning into big ones someday, maybe?

The album’s most twisted moment is A Baby Bigger Grows Than Up Was, sung with deadpan Tourette glee by Jefffey Gavett against the marionettishly dancing winds of his indie chamber ensemble Loadbang. Some Details of Hell, an orchestration of a Lucie Brock-Broido poem, is delivered with knifes-edge stateliness by chamber group Lunar Ensemble with some dramatic flights to the upper registers by soprano Lisa Perry. As the epic Down Stream methodically unravels, Smooke becomes an increasingly dissociative one-man anvil choir, his toy piano over calm, distant drones.  Michael Parker Harley’s multitracked bassoons build an increasingly bubbly, allusively nocturnal tableau in 21 Miles to Coolville, the album’s final cut. What a deliciously dark late-night playlist.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Aurelio Brings His Irresistible Garifuna Grooves to Lincoln Center Next Week

This coming Thursday, Jan 19 at 7:30 PM there’s a killer dance party at the atrium space at Lincoln Center just north of 62nd Street. And it’s free. Over the past year and a half or so, these more or less weekly, sometimes more frequent shows have really caught on, and you have to get there a little early to get a seat – sometimes simply to get in. While crowds here are large and enthusiastic, security never lets the space reach the point where it’s cramped and there’s no room to move around. If you get there in time this Thursday, you will be golden, because the artist onstage is Aurelio.

Aurelio Martinez fronts the Garifuna Soul Band from La Ceiba, Honduras. They play Garifuna coast music that often sounds like bachata at doublespeed, although it has many other flavors, like pretty much all styles from that part of the world. There are echoes of roots reggae in the long vamps, and sometimes in the beats when it slows down, but it’s not reggae. Same deal with the salsa influence. Most of it is upbeat and irresistibly fun, although Aurelio’s band uses a lot of dynamics.

The last time this blog was in the house at an Aurelio show, it was the spring of 2015 downtown at the World Financial Center atrium where the Bang on a Can Marathon used to be held. Aurelio plays with the same kind of bright, stinging acoustic guitar tone – almost like a twelve-string – that’s typical in bachata. And he’s fast, firing off one long spiral after another. Sometimes he did that in tandem with his sensational lead guitarist, who shifted between joyous, bucolic Veracruz folk-tinged licks, Cuban-influenced interludes, starry reverbtoned psychedelia and on a couple of numbers, built an uneasy, echoey, dub-tinged atmosphere. That made for a striking contrast with all the scampering dance tunes, bringing to mind Burning Spear at his darkest and most Ethiopian-flavored in the mid-70s. Which makes sense in context: the Garifuna people have retained much of the African culture their ancestors brought with them after being kidnaped by 18th and 19th century slavers.

Surprisingly, despite all the props he gets for his chops, Aurelio only took a couple of solos, leaving the lengthy guitar breaks to the lead player. As the show went on, there were a couple of points where the band took it down to just the percussion section, which really got the crowd going. Aurelio’s bassist delivered a scrambling, nimbly melodic pulse that was the closest thing to classic salsa dura that anyone in the group was playing. The bandleader interacted with the crowd a lot; there was some “para ahi, para alla” type stuff, occasionally juxtaposed with some surprisingly dark, considerably more low-key, almost noir moments. If Aurelio hasn’t changed his steez in the eighteen months since this concert, the Lincoln Center show ought to be much the same.

A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

Resonant Music For Troubled Times: Amir ElSaffar at the Fridman Gallery

Last night at the Fridman Gallery in Soho, trumpeter Amir ElSaffar opened the night solo with a series of sweepingly concise, panoramic phrases that came across more as a call to arms than to prayer. Or maybe just a calm, resolute series of wake-up calls. In between, he left some of the most pregnant pauses hanging in the air anywhere in this city. Maybe the effects of a Pauline Oliveros retrospective here the previous night lingered as well. In between notes, the hushed, high harmonies of the ventilation system – a ninth interval, if you were there to hear it – became part of the music, along with the occasional random footfall from an adjacent room. The effect was as suspenseful and cinematic as anything Bernard Herrmann ever wrote. There would be a lot of deep listening this evening, matched by the depth of the music onstage.

As ElSaffar went on, the images on this vast canvas became more distinct, the occasional moody, graceful riff appearing amid the desolation. A series of slow, matter-of-fact crescendos gave way to a brief series of doppler effects – a calm before a storm, or planes hovering high over the fields and plains of northern Iraq? While ElSaffar is best known for his ornate and often harrowing blend of jazz and Middle Eastern sounds from that country to Syria, if there was any specific genre he brought to mind, it was austere 19th century blues.

Tenor saxophonist Ole Mathisen and drummer Tomas Fujiwara joined him for the second half of the show, a series of interconnected themes and variations that echoed ElSaffar’s mighty, turbulent 2015 large-ensemble Crisis suite. Trumpeter Peter Evans, the sonic curator for this ongoing series of shows at the gallery, is known for his extended technique, pushing the limits of what his instrument can do. ElSaffar’s own ability to conjure images, from a diesel engine at peak RPM, to sepulchral microtones and keening, overtone-fueled polytonalities, proved every bit as daunting and inspiring.

Fujiwara grounded the music with majesty and gravitas on his toms, delivering a coy doppler of his own from the bell of his ride cymbal outwards, later riding the rims with a moody, mutedly syncopated suspense. ElSaffar and Mathisen locked harmonies, whether in the western scale or outside of it as the music finally rose into magically Middle Eastern microtones. The themes were sturdy, and emphatic, and hardly at ease. A stately, regal movement gave way to a troubled fanfare, a march and variations that more than hinted at sarcasm, then a wary, practically furtive passage that made for a gently resonant crescendo before the horns finally took the music toward the region where the Chicago-born trumpeter has found his greatest inspiration over the past fifteen years or so. There will be a “best concerts of 2017” page at the end of the year here, if we’re all still here, and this will be on it.

The series of shows at the Fridman Gallery, 287 Spring St. between Vandam and Hudson, continues tonight, Jan 10 at 8 PM with jazz/hip-hop drummer/lyricist Kassa Overall. Cover is $20.

Xenophiles Celebrate While We Still Can at Globalfest

Last night’s Globalfest multi-band extravaganza at Webster Hall began gently with Ranky Tanky – the Alabama Shakes of South Carolina retro gospel-pop – and ended with EDM in the basement and its even more stomping analogue two flights up. A packed, sweaty crowd got to revel in electronic musician/rapper Batida‘s sharp, sardonic sense of humor, his archive of Angolan beats and multimedia show, while the big rock room was bouncing with dancers getting down to the mighty shout-and-response of fourteen-piece Washington, DC proto-rap collective Rare Essence.

That’s the main premise of Globalfest. Over the years, the annual festival has become more eclectic, extending to acts from around the world whose music is more contemplative than danceable. Artists playing the three stages are staggered so that you can catch a little of everybody, more a nod back to the evening’s origins as part of the annual booking agents’ convention than to, say, Warped Tour. While Ranky Tanky was reclaiming the old Bible Belt folk standard O Death as a stark gullah hymn, goth-folk singer Maarja Nuut was doing her Estonian girl-down-the-well act one flight up.

The night’s most intricately entrancing moments happened right afterward, when alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa was joined by guitarist Rez Abbasi and drummer Dan Weiss, the trio working out new material over an exploratory forty-five minutes or so. Watching Mahanthappa air out one sleek wind-tunnel volley after another of variations on jaunty bhangra riffs was as adrenalizing as Abbasi’s own detours from sizzling, rapidfire raga-inflected riffage, to flurries of erudite postbop and the incisive, purposeful, judicious melodicism he’s made a name for himself with. Putting Weiss on a riser,  centerstage, reaffirmed the deep rhythmic roots of the ancient Indian sounds the saxophonist and guitarist have explored so individualistically both here and elsewhere.

But as inspiring as that set was, nothing compared to Hoba Hoba Spirit. They’ve earned a rep as the Moroccan Clash, and in a sense they are. Not only because a lot of what they play is punk rock with fearless, politically charged lyrics, but also because, like Joe Strummer’s band, they take that punk sound to so many different, complicated places. And there were times where it would have been just as easy to call them the Moroccan Stooges. When Strat player Anouar Zehouani, his amp ablaze with  a blast of searing, reverbtoned midrange, hit his wah pedal for a solo, he channeled Ron Asheton at his most surreal and incendiary.

Co-frontman/Telecaster player Reda Allali catchy, emphatic, minor-key riffs throughout the show,  opening with a rapidfire hardcore number straight out of the GBH catalog circa 1983. When charismatic singer/percussionist Othmane Hmimer put down his boomy dombek goblet drum for a pair of clanking qraqab castanets and the band launched into a hypnotically leaping gnawa groove, the crowd went wild: much of the posse from New York’s own Innov Gnawa, including the band themselves, were in the house. From there, drummer Adile Hanine and bassist Saad Bouidi shifted briefly toward roots reggae. There was an arena-rock number for whatever soccer hooligans might have been on the floor, as well as plenty of darkly slinky, serpentine art-rock. The group’s 2015 Lincoln Center debut was a lot more intimate and an awful lot of fun, but this might have been even better even though their set was shorter.

Which is where Lolapalooza-style staggered sets get vexing. It sure would have been fun to catch all of Ssing Ssing, who treated a crowd in the basement to a similarly slinky if completely different set of pansori-tinged Korean disco-punk. Bassist Young-gyu Jang played with a sly, note-bending edge that was as freaky as it was chic while the band’s three frontwomen – Hee-moon Lee, Da-hye Choo and Seung-tae Shin strutted and harmonized like a young Madonna on steroids. Dressed respectively as femme fatale, ingenue and badass, they kept a multicultural crowd on their feet and gave the downstairs headliner, Batida, a solid launching pad. Nights like these draw your eyes to the calendar: how many days are there left before 1/20/17 and we have to really dig in and figure out how – and if – we can stay on our multicultural feet in a nation fronted by an anti-culturist?

Three Nights in a Row at Drom: An Embarrassment of Riches

Last night at Drom, the crowd had reached critical mass by the time Innov Gnawa took the stage. It was the second weekend in a row that the seven-piece Moroccan trance-dance ensemble had packed a Manhattan club. This group is hot right now.

“What’s the appeal of this music?” the energetic, personable Virginia publicist asked the worn, haggard New York bass player.

“It’s the blues,” he replied, pulling himself out of a walking dream state. “You hear what the sintir player, the guy with the lute, is doing? He’s bouncing off an octave, but in between he’s playing a blues riff. Catchy, isn’t it? And I think that’s what people latch onto. That, and the castanets on the high end, and the bassline on the low, with the vocals in the middle. Total stereo from a thousand years ago.”

“I don’t really follow blues,” the publicist responded, guardedly. “I like Middle Eastern music.”

“Me too!” the bassist enthused. “This is the roots of Middle Eastern music, from North Africa. And my theory with the blues is that it’s in everybody’s DNA, everybody can resonate to it because the blues goes back to Ethiopia and that’s where the human species comes from.”

There were a lot of conversations like that over the course of the night. This weekend, the booking agents’ convention, a.k.a. APAP, is in town, which for ordinary people means that there are an unusual number of fantastic multiple-band bills happening for cheap or even free. The conventioneers call themselves presenters. Before you dismiss that as pretentious, consider that if you were a booker, you would probably prefer to be called a presenter. The mix of presenters, club people – the night was put on by the folks at Barbes, Brooklyn’s elite venue along with eclectic dance music label Electric Cowbell Records and Multiflora Productions – as well as random dancers got to enjoy a tantalizingly short set of shapeshifting, undulating grooves and energetic call-and-response chants in Arabic that began not onstage but on the floor in the middle of the crowd. What did it feel like to be literally rubbing elbows with bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer, who, before he strapped on his sintir, walloped on a big bass drum slung over his shoulder? Thunderous fun. This music is obviously as adrenalizing to play as it is to be part of on the dance floor.

The previous band, Miramar, channeled a completely different kind of intensity. Singer Rei Alvarez rocked a sharp black suit, pairing off fire-and-dry-ice harmonies with his counterpart Laura Ann Singh, inscrutable in a vintage midnight blue pencil dress. The two looked like they just stepped out of a David Lynch or late-period Buñuel film, with music to match. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that the most spellbinding performer of the night was keyboardist Marlysse Simmons, who played terse, elegant piano on several of the band’s moody boleros, including the opener, Sylvia Rexach’s classic Di Corazon, one of the saddest songs ever written. But it was her slinky, luridly tremoloing funeral organ on the band’s most haunting numbers, a mix of Rexach covers and originals that defines this band more than anything else. They made their way through a noir Vegas bossa that brought to mind Brooklyn art-rockers Tredici Bacci, a dramatic tango-flavored anthem with some rippling flamenco guitar lines, and a shattering version of Rexach’s Sin Ti. The rest of the material, afloat on a murky river of organ, channeled nonstop angst and longing. In all of latin music, the bolero is the ultimate expression of estrangement and angst: in the hands of this band, that atmosphere was relentless, and breathtaking, and in its own dark way as comforting as the Moroccan grooves afterward.

The night’s most dynamically captivating singer, among many, was Eva Salina, who’d been called in on short notice since Ethiopiques groovemeisters Feedel Band weren’t able to get up from Washington, DC in the snowstorm. Her longtime accordionist Peter Stan shifted from mournful ambience, to slithery cascades downward along with plenty of jaunty Balkan party riffage as the singer moved gracefully and eloquently from a brassy wedding theme, to a brooding abandoned-wife scenario, to an understatedly wrenching Saban Bajarmovic cover addressed to someone he never got the chance to say goodbye to. Eva Salina could front any Balkan band in the world she wants (one might say that she already has). Nobody works harder at getting the accents and ornaments right, or channeling the most minute expression of emotion or shade of irony. Midway through her set, she entreated the agents in the crowd to pair experienced artists with younger groups in order to keep the music fresh…and alive.

Alash were the funniest band of the night: the crowd loved them. The trio of multi-instrumentalist/singers Bady-Dorzhu Ondar, Ayan-Ool Sam and Ayan Shirizhik take their bandname from a river in their native Tuva in central Asia, and they backed that up with a couple of sweeping, uneasily rustic pastorales blending spare acoustic guitar with wood flute and the group’s signature, oscillating throat-singing harmonies. There was also a rather spare, severe number that could have easily passed for American gospel or blues from the 1800s if it had English lyrics. But the big crowd-pleasers were the funny stuff: a swaying drinking song, a tonguetwisting number that brought to mind an auctioneer’s rapidfire delivery, and the catchy, emphatic folk tunes that they began and ended with. “Shoot,” barked Ondar as each reached a sudden, cold ending: it’s a fair guess that means something more optimistic in Tuvan than it does in English.

And Ladama, a pan-latin, mostly female (hence the name) supergroup of sorts – assembled under the auspices of the US State Department under Obama – opened the evening with mix of upbeat folk-rock, a hint of tango and a couple of serpentine cumbias. The band’s not-so-secret weapon is Maria Fernanda Gonzalez, whose axe is the bandola llanera, which looks like a Mexican bajo sexto but sounds something like a baritone ukulele with more bite. Her fleet, flamencoish flurries on a handful of numbers made for some of the night’s most intense moments; otherwise, the band – including a couple of male ringers on accordion and bass, along with singer Sara Lucas, drummer Lara Klaus, conguera Daniela Serna and a violinist, kept a seamless bounce over beats from across South America, mirroring the band members’ diverse backgrounds. That was the night’s subtext. It’s hard to imagine the incoming Presidential administration having any interest in promoting music any more globally-inspired or edgy than Bon Jovi.

Four First-Class Female-Fronted Global Acts at Drom Last Night

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.

Darkly Hypnotic, Intense, Cross-Pollinated Hungarian Sounds at Drom Last Night

Last night’s concert at Drom hit a harrowing peak with Hungarian trance-dance band Meszecsinka‘s frontwoman Annamaria Olah hidden behind her mane of long, flowing hair, wailing and flailing and crying out on the beat as her own voice echoed low and ominously in response, through a loop pedal. Guitarist/keyboardist Emil Biljarszki had explained beforehand that the song addressed an ancient Christian theme that he didn’t bother to elaborate on any further. “You’ll get it,” Olah told the crowd with an enigmatically wistful smile before bassist Árpád Vajdovich and drummer Dávid Krolikowski kicked off the big, crescendoing minor-key anthem with a hypnotic, insistently swaying pulse. Although this was an intimate club gig with pristine sound, it was easy to imagine a hundred thousand people at some European summer festival flailing and swaying in unison in response to Olah’s passion onstage. Whatever awestruck terror the song was meant to evoke – the apocalypse? A martyr meeting a particularly grisly fate? – it was impossible to turn away from

Earlier in the evening, two darkly psychedelic, Balkan-tinged folk-jazz acts – accordionist David Yengibarian and his trio, and Borbély Mihály Polygon – followed their respective opening jams with similarly captivating, disquieting numbers, albeit much more slowly and quietly. The opening trio’s was a mournful dirge that imbued a stark Hungarian folk theme with a haunted they-burned-down-my-shtetl resonance straight out of klezmer music. Saxophonist Mihály Borbély’s three-piece unit with pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés built shadowy noir cinematics that they slowly took in a slightly brighter, more improvisational direction. That they’d begun their set with a mashup of wild downtown John Zorn-style New York jazz and surf rock is just one example of how wildly eclectic the night was.

That a concert like this could be staged at at moment where nationalist extremists threaten to wall off the kind of transnational cross-pollination responsible for such  riveting musical hybridization speaks to the potential power of resistance. Millions of people resonate to these sounds far more than to strident racist rhetoric or Twitter demagoguery. It’s up to us to mobilize and create an opposition to ensure that this kind of artistry, and the hope it represents, has the opportunity to move forward.

Because it would be a crime not to be able to witness Lukacs playing elegant blues, or channeling Carla Bley with a feral attack on the low strings of his of his ringing, overtone-laden Hungarian zither. What a shame it would have been to miss being able to enjoy the endlessly clever, tongue-in-cheek volleys of deadpan humor that Yengibarian’s drummer, Mark Badics, engaged in throughout the group’s tantalizingly short set – he’s ever bit as formidable as any of his American jazz counterparts, Tain Watts and Rudy Royston included. Or for that matter, to miss out on the chance to get lost in Meszecsinka’s mesmerizing mashups of otherworldly Bulgarian folk and lush European art-rock over irresistibly undulating beats.

This concert was staged by Music Export Budapest along with the Hungarian National Trading House, and the Balassi Institute, one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, who champion Hungarian music, film, visual art and more. If you’re a true cosmopolitan New Yorker and you’re not on their email list, you’re missing out. In addition, this weekend’s slate of shows at Drom – Manhattan’s global music mecca – continues tonight and tomorrow with everything from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to Moroccan trance grooves, to classical Indian sitar music. Cover is only $10 each night; music starts at 7 and goes til past midnight.

An Intense, Riveting Album and a Midtown Show by the Sirius Quartet

The Sirius Quartet  – violinists Gregor Huebner and Fung Chern Hwei, violist Ron Lawrence and cellist Jeremy Harman – play seriously exciting, tuneful, sophisticated music. They’re the rare newschool chamber ensemble who can strike a chord with fans of heavy rock, psychedelia and jazz in addition to the indie classical crowd. They’re playing on an intriguing twinbill, with special guest violinist Tracy Silverman, tonight, Jan 5 at around 9:30 PM at Club Bonafide that makes more sense thematically than you might think. Longtime Astor Piazzolla collaborator and nuevo tango pianist Pablo Ziegler and his ensemble open the night at 7:30, cover is $15 and the club’s webpage notes with some relish that you’re welcome to stay for both acts at no extra charge.

The Sirius Quartet’s latest album Paths Become Lines is streaming at Spotify,  opening with its title number, a pedal note shifting suspensefully between individual voices, pulsing with a steely precision as the melody develops elegantly and tensely around them. The darkly bluesy, chromatically-charged exchanges that follow are no less elegant but absolutely ferocious.

The second number, Ceili, is a sharp, insistent, staccato piece, in a Julia Wolfe vein. Plaintive cello interchanges with aching midrange washes; it grows more anthemic as it goes on. Jeff Lynne only wishes he’d put something this stark and downright electric on ELO’s third album.

Racing Mind builds to a swinging jazz-infused waltz out of a circular tension anchored by a bubbly cello bassline that gets subsumed almost triumphantly by tersely shifting and then spiraling riffage. Spidey Falls! is a cinematic showstopper, a frenetic crescendo right off the bat giving way to a harrowingly brisk stroll that’s part Big Lazy crime jazz, part Bernard Herrmann and part Piazzolla, then an acerbically circling theme in a 90s Turtle Island vein before the cell digs in and a violin solo signals a return to the turbocharged tarantella. String metal in 2017 doesn’t get any more entertaining than this.

The next piece is a fullscale string quartet. Slow, austere, staggered counterpoint gives way to an insistent chase theme that calms slightly and goes marching, with a hint of tango. The second movement, Shir La Shalom is slow and atmospheric, a canon at halfspeed that builds to a wounded anthem. The third opens with stern, stark cello but quickly morphs into a syncopated folk dance and increasingly rhythmic variations. The breathless, rather breathtaking conclusion mashes up Piazzolla at his most avant garde, early Bartok, swing jazz and furtive cinematics.

Get In Line, a staggered, chromatic dance, veers toward the blues as well as bluesmetal, spiced with an evil, shivery glissandos and tritones, suspenseful pauses and an allusively marionettish cello solo. The album winds up with its most expansive number, Heal and its series of variations on a hypnotic, pizzicato dance theme that finally rises, again in a tango direction, to fearsome heights. Other than the Chiara String Quartet‘s relevatory Bartok By Heart double-cd set, and the Kepler Quartet‘s concluding chapter in their wild Ben Johnston microtonal quartet series, there hasn’t been a string quartet album this exciting released in many months.