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Tag: north african music

A Long Overdue Sonic Healing Ritual in Brooklyn

The sun goes down Wednesday evening behind Grand Army Plaza, welcome relief from the day’s crushing swelter. Heat is still rising from the stairs and courtyard extending to the gold-embellished facade of the Brooklyn Public Library. Feet stumble, brains fog and people collapse in conditions like this.

All the tables on the north side of the plaza are taken. There are a couple rows of chairs, carefully spaced apart. The area could accommodate many more, but paranoia in this part of town runs as deep as Loch Ness. A woman wears a surgical mask over her hijab. Hopefully she’s remembered to bring along a big water jug.

The PA is cranked up loud as Innov Gnawa launch into an undulating, clattering Moroccan gnawa groove. Six guys in regal robes and caps play heavy cast-metal qraqab castanets, flanking their leader and mentor, Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, who opens the show from behind a heavy drum slung over his shoulders. In his robe, sandals and blue-green reflector shades, he looks like Omar Souleymane.

One by one, the group members take a turn out front, showing off their fancy footwork as they crouch and strike expectant poses, their bandmates shifting between time signatures with split-second precision. Ben Jaafer has coached them well: they seem to know what’s coming, even though a lot of it is being made up on the spot.

The vocals are vigorous and incantatory: Ben Jaafer calls, the rest of the guys respond. He sings in Arabic, with a rugged, slightly raspy voice, saluting the spirits and engaging them to help us in our time of need. We’ve never needed them more than we do now.

Science tells us that low frequencies have healing properties: they calm our stress, lower our heart rate and our blood pressure. When Ben Jaafer pulls off his drum and picks up his sintir – the three-stringed Moroccan bass lute – the effect of his riffage, as he continues to move matter-of-factly from one rhythm to another, is visceral.

Although Morocco is home to a massive annual gnawa festival, the music is typically played at lila rituals. A lila is a lot of things: an all-night barbecue-and-hash party, a big communal jam, but also, perhaps more than anything else, a healing ceremony. This evening there’s exuberance, even triumph in Ben Jaafer’s voice and a hypnotic earth-heart pulse from his anthemic, blues-tinged sintir phrases. Maybe he’s channeling unseen sources, telling us that everything’s going to be all right even though all the earthly signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

Or maybe that’s a purely personal hope, finding solace amid the barrage of low tonalities punctuating the shamanic clank of the qraqabs. Ben Jaafer winds up the group’s first set much faster than he would have in Fes, where he learned his craft from some of the giants of the gnawa world. And then brought that repertoire here. At the moment, Innov Gnawa are the only traditional gnawa ensemble in North America.

The break between sets also affords an opportunity to crack a 24-ounce Modelo, but off the plaza, out of sight of the police cruisers circling the area. The slow walk toward Vanderbilt Avenue, in the shade, offers another kind of welcome comfort. The subway beckons, and at this point, it’s time to answer that call. Calm withstands the descent into renewed hellfire. Thank you for a restorative evening, Innov Gnawa.

The next show on the steps to the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library is Aug 18 at 7  PM with feminist Guinean folk songwriter Natu Camara.

Rapturous, Haunting, Moroccan-Inspired Sounds From Ensemble Fanaa

One of the best albums to come out of New York in the last couple of years is Ensemble Fanaa’s often magical, mysterious debut, streaming at Bandcamp. The trio of alto saxophonist/bass clarinetist Daro Behroozi, bassist/sintir player John Murchison and drummer Dan Kurfirst conjure up a sometimes hypnotic, sometimes stark interweave inspired by Moroccan gnawa music.

The opening track, Creation doesn’t seem to engage with North African traditions, but it’s a fun piece of music. Behroozi opens it, solo on bass clarinet, with a snort of overtones; slowly the trio work their way up from stillness. Kurfirst rattles the cage for contrast. Behroozi and Murchison – on bass – size up the space, peering through the cymbal mist, then they bring it full circle with a cheery, syncopated hook.

Murchison picks up his sintir (the band call it a gimbri; either way, it’s the Moroccan three-string bass lute whose distinctive, lightly boomy sound defines gnawa music) for Traces, Part 1, running a steady, catchy riff while Behroozi’s sax floats spaciously overhead. The trio reprise it later on the record, slowly building to a lithely circling, raptly catchy gnawa theme with Behroozi back on bass clarinet.

The trio keep the gnawa catchiness going, rising with a whisper to the surprise rhythmic shifts of Imram, Behroozi’s trilling microtones building a goosebump-inducing intensity. Murchison introduces the loose-limbed groove of Water Song, Behroozi’s spacious, gorgeously desolate sustained lines and increasingly searing microtonal melismas overhead. It’s the album’s most stunning track.

Kurfirst’s marvelous, misterioso, muted thump and rattle anchors Sujood, Murchison’s bass echoing that, Behroozi pouncing and spiraling with an otherworldly intensity.

From a spare, exploratory bass intro, the trio develop a spacious, brooding lattice spiced with the occasional biting chromatic riff in Now What, the album’s most improvisational number. They close with Yobati – Breath, the album’s most energetic track, shifting from a cheery bounce of an intro to a serpentine, undulating, uneasily keening gnawa theme. 

Ensemble Fanaa are still around, individually; all three members maintained busy schedules with other projects in jazz, African and Middle Eastern music until the lockdown. Fortuitously, Kurfirst has a handful of gigs coming up at the cube at Astor Place, staged by Concerts From Cars. Tonight, July 2 at 7 PM he jams with Ras Moche Burnett on sax, then on July 5, also at 7 he’s back with multi-reedman and trumpeter Daniel Carter, Rodney “Godfather Don” Chapman on sax and other artists tba. And then on July 8 at 7 Kurfirst and Carter return to the cube with fearless, politically woke trumpeter Matt Lavelle and supporting cast tba. 

A Blissful Weekend of Otherworldly, Cutting-Edge Moroccan Trance Music

Every year, at the end of June, the Festival Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde – the world’s largest performance of North African music – takes place in the coastal city of Essaouira, Morocco. Literally millions of people gather to watch dozens of the world’s most exciting and innovative acts in Moroccan and Middle Eastern sounds, to discover new bands, to dance or to be whirled into a trance state. By all accounts, Essaouira is a safer city than New York. With the strong dollar, it hasn’t been this inexpensive for Americans to visit in a long time. If you can afford to, you should go – in this political climate, your chance might be now or never, at least for the next few years.

This past weekend, three concerts in New York and one in Washington, DC celebrated the first-ever collaboration between the festival and Lincoln Center. Lincoln Center’s Meera Dugal and Samir LanGus, founder of the only American gnawa band, Innov Gnawa, came up with the idea while at the festival last summer, and the rest is history.  And historic as well: this series of shows marked the first time three of the great maalems (masters) of Moroccan gnawa music, Abdeslam Alikkane, Hamid El Kasri (who was making his North American debut) and New York-based Hassan Ben Jaafer, who leads Innov Gnawa, have ever appeared on the same stage.

About the music: gnawa was brought to Morocco by black slaves from sub-Saharan Africa. Gnawa music originated in pre-Islamic society as a healing ritual, fueled by the well-known calming and curative powers of low-register sonics. It’s typically sung by a maalem who plays a sintir bass lute, accompanied by a call-and-response chorus who add an often mesmerizing series of polyrhythms with a rustle and whirl of cast-metal qraqab castanets. The music’s migration north brought the invocation of Islamic saints and liturgy into the fold along with the traditional ancestral and nature spirits. Like American hip-hop or blues, it was considered ghetto for years before becoming Morocco’s best-known global music export over the past decade or so.

Thursday night at Lincoln Center was the big debut event. It’s safe to say that space was as packed as it’s ever been, an ecstatic, multicultural crowd that drew heavily on the Moroccan expat community, one of the many immigrant cultures that New York’s cultural mecca has reached out to in the recent past.

Alikkane was the first to take the stage, backed by a seven-piece qraqab choir. Rustic, tersely catchy, purposefully propulsive midtempo phrases flowed from his sintir while individual chorus members would spin out into the crowd, further energizing the audience. Would this hypnotically traditional performance be his signature style throughout the US tour? That answer wouldn’t reveal itself until the second night’s concert at the New School.

The atmosphere was electric when Ben Jaafer took the stage. Word on the street is that while audiences in Morocco miss him, there were some musicians who breathed a sigh of relief. At the moment he left for New York, seventeen years ago, he’d become such a popular touring artist that his departure opened up numerous opportunities for his fellow gnawis: he’d left big shoes to fill. Although the three New York concerts didn’t turn out to be cutting contests, per se, each maalem seemed fixated on taking his performance to the next level, and in this case, Alikkane had given Ben Jaafer a launching pad for some of the festival’s most exhilarating bass-string firepower.

Frequently interspersing unexpected, booming chords into his sinewy, serpentine volleys of notes, his strings crackled with ancient, blues scale-based riffage ornamented with contrastingly subtle, microtonal shades. His rugged baritone took on a regal resonance: the most powerful spirits of the night were definitely being invoked.

In his North American debut, El Kasri had a hard act to follow but ended up earning his headliner status. His sintir is flashier and has a grittier, more cutting tone than his colleagues’ models, closer to the sound of an overdriven bass guitar at times. Vocally, he turned out to be every bit the rockstar that Ben Jaafer is. By now, the crowd was amped to the point where they were making requests. With a triumphant grin, El Kasri seemed glad to give his people what they wanted: a chance to see one of the Essaouira festival’s most intense performers conquer a new continent.

The Friday night show at the New School was closer to the atmosphere of a lila, the ritualistic all-night trance ceremony and communal feast. Incense was burned and a platter of delicious dates made its way around as the room grew to capacity. Alikkane led the ensemble this time, a mix of Moroccans and expats, airing out his vast repertoire as the rhythms shifted from punchy and bouncy to a mystically shuffling hailstorm of qraqabs. He sent numerous shouts out to past masters of gnawa, made ancestral homages and kept the waves of reverent Sufi call-and-response going for about an hour and a half. At the end of the show, the great gnawa funk pioneer Hassan Hakmoun stepped in as translator, impromptu emcee, and took a turn on the sintir as well.

That this tour was able to sell out the big Pioneer Arts Center in remote Red Hook, of all places, on the final night speaks to how devoted the gnawa subculture has become. This wasn’t just an audience of expats: there were as many curious American kids, and couples, as there were Moroccans in the house. Alikkane again got to open the show and quickly picked up the pace as he’d done at the New School. He and the chorus were joined eventually by a crew of American jazz players including drummer Will Calhoun, bassist Jamaldeen Tacuma, tenor saxophonist Marcus Strickland and multi-keyboardist Marc Cary. Main themes aside, approximately eighty to ninety percent of gnawa is improvisational, key to its ongoing popularity with jazz musicians. To the credit of everybody onstage, there was cordial camaraderie rather than egocentricity, Alikkane setting up a friendly, low-key rhythmic framework that made room for Strickland and Cary to waft and weave their way through as Calhoun and Tacuma bolstered the simple, purposeful groove.

El Kasri took centerstage for the second set of the night: several of the cognoscenti in the crowd, who’d been to all of the New York shows, agreed that this was the high point of the tour. It wasn’t long before he introduced a number with a long, ominous, enigmatic taqsim, moving beyond the traditional modes that had dominated the show so far, toward Middle Eastern microtones. He shifted back and forth between the two idioms from that point forward: when the jazzcats joined him later, it turned out to be fertile terrain. Tacuma embraced the uneasy, moody modes while Cary added mystital ambience via string synth and echoey electric piano, while Strickland contributed a broodingly gorgeous, slowly crescendoing solo, reminding of Kenny Garrett’s late 90s work. By the end of the show, both Alikkane and Ben Jaafer had picked up their qraqabs and joined the melee onstage, a welcome evocation of North African sun on an unseasonably grim New York evening.

For New Yorkers who might have missed these historic events, there’s are a couple of enticing gnawa events coming up soon. This Saturday night, March 25 at around 9, Innov Gnawa – the only gnawa group on this side of the Atlantic – are playing a benefit for at Littlefield. The rapturous guitar/piano duo of Rafiq Bhatia and Chris Pattishall open the night at 8; members of long-running second-wave Afrobeat faves Antibalas headline at around 10. Depending on what you’d like to contribute, you can get in for $12, or more if you choose. And on April 20 at 8 at Greenwich House Music School in the West Village, Innov Gnawa are playing an extremely rare set of Moroccan Jewish gnawa tunes.

Moroccan Trance Band Innov Gnawa Make History

Innov Gnawa are the only group playing Moroccan gnawa trance music on this side of the Atlantic. You could call it the ultimate, fat bass-and-drum music – or Moroccan gospel. Its origins are in sub-Saharan Africa. It was brought north primarily by slaves and was regarded as ghetto there until fairly recently. It is 100% acoustic, otherworldly, and primeval, but hardly primitive. The call-and-response between maalem (bandleader) and kouyos (chorus) can be hypnotic for minutes on end, then impassioned and explosive, with intricate polyrhythms to rival the most ambitious jazz. The majority of gnawa melodies are based on the blues scale; the lyrics, in either Arabic or Bambara, celebrate Islamic themes. Moroccan expat Maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer, one of the world’s great masters of the three-string sintir bass lute, leads the group. They’re one of the funnest bands in town to dance to.

They’re making their Coachella debut this year; in the meantime, New Yorkers have a chance to catch their leader this week as part of a historic collaboration between Lincoln Center and this year’s inaugural Gnaoua et des Musiques du Monde Festival Tour. This Thurs, March 16 at 7:30 PM, the game plan is for Ben Jaafer to jam with his old buddy Maalem Hamid El Kasri, who he hasn’t seen in seventeen years. Maalem Abdeslam Alikkane,  who represents the southern Moroccan style of gnawa, is also on the bill at the atrium space at Lincoln Center. It’s a major moment in global music history, the first-ever performance by three of the world’s greatest virtuosos of Moroccan music. Innov Gnawa are also opening for Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn on April 6 at 7:30 PM; $15 advance tix are highly recommended

Ben Jaafer is revered in his native Morocco much like his mentor, Mohammed Sam, one of the most important figures in the history of gnawa and a great innovator in the 1960s and 70s. The rest of the group comprises the chorus. Founder Samir LanGus (who also plays sintir onstage) and Dawn of Midi’s Amino Belyamani are joined on vocals and cast-iron qraqab castanets by Said Bourhana and Nawfal Atiq, in addition to Ahmed Jeriouda, who also plays cajon. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

The opening number is a benediction of sorts used throughout much of Morocco to open a lila – the delirious allnight parties that do double duty as mystical Sufi trance rite. As the steady, misty rain of the chorus’ qraqab castanets shuffles behind him, Ben Jaafer is already working very subtle permutations on a similar but not quite rhythmically identical blues bassline. Beyond the central riffs and choruses, Gnawa is eighty to ninety percent improvised: this band won’t ever play this number this way again.

Ben Jaafer’s rugged baritone grows more insistent on the tune after that, over a circling 6/8 rhythm that brings to mind the wheel-like cadences of qawwali music. Bass players and fans of low-register tonalities will love how Ben Jaafer conceals the occasional, unexpectedly booming chord within his riffage.

His pouncing introduction to the third number offers no hint at how the circling three-on-two rhythm from the qraqabs will return – or how fervent the voices of the chorus will grow alongside him. As the album goes on, Ben Jaafer takes one sudden, unexpected, syncopated detour after another; every time, the band turns on a dime and follows suit. The final number is also the most anthemic and dynamically shifting one. There are six tracks in total, as close to the actual experience of hearing a genuine lila in North America as millions of listeners will ever get.

 

Ensemble Fanaa Play a Mesmerizing Debut at Barbes

“Is this your debut as a trio?” Balkan multi-reedman Matt Darriau wanted to know. “Yeah,” his multi-reed colleague Daro Behroozi admitted. The two had just duetted on a hard-hitting, insistently hypnotic take of Mal Waldron’s Fire Waltz, their rare two-bass clarinet frontline backed by a robustly perambulating rhythm section. The packed house at Barbes roared with appreciation. Think about it: a jazz trio improvising on original themes inspired by Middle Eastern and North African traditions packed a club in New York City this past Tuesday night. No matter what the corporate media would like you to believe, this is how miraculously un-gentrified and multicultural certain pockets of Brooklyn still remain.

Fanaa basically means “lose yourself.” In their debut, Ensemble Fanaa played music to get seriously lost in. They opened with bass player John Murchison on gimbri, a North African ancestor of the funk bass. He switched to upright bass later in the set, concentrating more on holding down the groove rather than squeezing microtonal ghosts out of the western scale as the rest of the band, particularly Behroozi, was doing. The rhythms in general were tight and slinky, although the meters were sophisticated and often very tricky – it was easy to count one of the North African numbers in 7/8 time, harder to figure out where the others were going. Which was just part of the fun.

Drummer Dan Kurfirst eventually took a long solo interspersing rimshots with a relentlessly misterioso, boomy prowl along the toms, worthy of Tain Watts or Rudy Royston. Then later in the set he matched that intensity on daf (frame drum). Behroozi held the crowd rapt with a seemingly effortless command of melismatic microtones on his alto sax. The night’s most rapturous number brought to mind the paradigm-shifting pan-Levantine jazz of Hafez Modirzadeh. Otherwise, the influence of Moroccan gnawa music was front and center, driven by Murchison’s kinetically trancey pulse. The trio closed by bringing up guest Brandon Terzic on ngoni for the night’s bounciest, most upbeat yet similarly mystical number. The trio are at Rye Restaurant, 247 S 1st St in Williamsburg on September 7; it’s a short walk from the Marcy Ave. J/M stop. And Kurfirst is playing a similarly, potentially transcendent duo  set on August 10 at 6 PM with brilliant oudist/composer Mavrothi Kontanis at the Rubin Museum of Art; the show is free with paid admission.

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.

Hassan Hakmoun Amps Up His Mesmerizing Gnawa Trance Music

Hassan Hakmoun’s new album Unity takes the ultimate trance music and spices it with jagged, sometimes searing rock guitar and solid rock-oriented drumming along with the usual thicket of hand-drum percussion that typically underpins the Moroccan sintir virtuoso’s work. As fans of gnawa and North African music know, the low-register three-string sintir lute is the funk bass of the Berber world: in Hakmoun’s hands, it’s as slinky as it is mesmerizing. Hakmoun and band are playing the album release show on April 12 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub; tix are $20.

Hakmoun’s agile hammer-ons fuel the opening track, Zidokan (Just Go), John Lee’s guitar pedaling a chord nebulously in the background over a clattering but hypnotically swaying beat. Then it turns into what could be a mashup of Public Image Ltd., George Thorogood and Moroccan folk music – and in the process sets the stage for the rest of the album. Balili (My Father) sets tightly spiraling sintir and guitar lines – and some unexpectedly boisterous wood flute – to a tight four-on-the-floor snare drum beat. Hamady (Prophet Mohammed) sounds like Hakmoun is playing his trance-inducing, circular riffs through a flange or a wah – or a fuzzbox. Shivery tremoloing guitar lingers way back in the mix before taking centerstage with an unhinged bluesmetal edge, Hakmoun singing in a gruffly passionate baritone in his native vernacular.

Dima Dima (Always) juxtaposes elegantly rapidfire acoustic guitar with the fat, pulsing groove, again bolstered by a steady beat on the rock drumkit and more of that breathless wood flute. Baniy (My Son) veers in and out of hard-hitting, psychedelically tinged funkmetal. Ohio, which aopears to be a shout-out to audiences around the world, is less acidically funky, built around one of the many call-and-response vocal vamps in most of these songs. Boudarbalayi (Saint) begins more slowly, in a more trad vein than the other tracks, before watery Keith Levene-esque guitar and woozy electronic keys enter the picture.

Soutinbi (Makkah) shuffles along on a beat that’s the closest thing to trip-hop here, lightly accented with guitar, electric piano and organ. Hakmoun runs the verses of Amarmoussaoui (People of God) with just guitars and a vocal choir before bringing in the sintir on the choruses: he makes you really miss it! The last of the tracks, Moulay Ahmed (Saint Ahmed) turns out to be the catchiest and most anthemic. The album also includes a couple of remixes, one by esteemed Israeli bassist Yossi Fine, who also produced the album, Hakmoun’s first in twelve years. It’s a vivid approximation of his literally mesmerizing live show.

A Transcendent Debut by Legendary Algerian String Orchestra El Gusto at Lincoln Center

Legendary Algerian orchestra El Gusto’s North American debut Saturday night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was just as important a moment in New York music history as the Buena Vista Social Club’s first American concert. To say that it had been unlikely that this band – who’d beeen defunct since the unrest after the 1962 Algerian revolution – would ever regroup, much less with most of its now octogenarian original members, is an understatement. Thanks to filmmaker Safines Bousbia, there’s a documentary out and an American tour in the works. What became most astonishing within seconds of their appearance on the Damrosch Park bandshell stage is how vital they sound: they literally haven’t lost a step. This was a seventeen-piece version of what amounts to a large Middle Eastern string band: four mandolas, three violins, a mandolin, an oud, a qanun, a piano and accordion, bass and percussion.

El Gusto play chaabi music, the ghetto sound popular in the casbahs of the 1920s and 30s. Think of the nightclub scene in Casablanca: their music sounds like that, but a million times more interesting. There were many different strains of chaabi: El Gusto’s is defined by edgy Middle Eastern chromatics set in the western musical scale, using the fretless oud and violins as well as the qanun for microtonal menace and spice. It was breathtaking to see how brilliant these musicians still are, and how timeless their music sounds. The older musicians were as agile as those a third their age, and much of what they played could be described as acoustic Algerian rock. They closed the set with a lusty singalong of the classic, crushingly sarcastic, politically-fueled mid-20s anthem Ya Rayyeh, which rai-rock bandleader Rachid Taha turned into a worldwide hit twenty years ago. Listening back to a recording of this show without knowing who the band was, it could have easily been a current-day act, testament to the ensemble’s relevance and vitality.

“We haven’t played this in a long time,” mandola player Abdelkader Cherchame admitted sheepishly before mandolinist and musical director Mohamed El Moncour Brahimi kicked off the night’s lushly swaying opening number with a gorgeously rippling solo packed with the otherworldly tonalities that would shimmer throughout the concert. The audience’s reaction was explosive, a chorus of ooo-wooo-woo-woos echoing from several pockets in the crowd. The group’s veteran frontline took turns on lead vocals. Guitarist Mohamed Sergoua opened with a fiery, flamencoesque intro and then handed off to his fellow six-stringer Lucien Cherki. He sang the concert’s iconic centerpiece, the bittersweetly nostalgic Je Suis Un Pied Noir (I’m a Blackfoot), with several diversions into the hits of the day, a series of immigrant-pride anthems among the pieds noirs, as the Algerian-born were called in France until recently (the term is now considered something of a slur). One of those diversions was a haunting, droning violin solo from Redha Tabti, an illustration of “the sounds of my youth,” as Cherki put it. Immigrant pride (and nostalgia for Algerie Algerie) in the face of endless adversity took centerstage early on and never left: a harbinger for the future of the west if there ever was one, even though these songs are fifty years old or older.

Violinist Robert Castel opened the second number with a goodnaturedly boisterous vocal intro, an expansively amusing, self-referential take on “glad to be here” sung in Arabic. As the set went on, it became clear how well-loved the slinky minor-key anthems were, the crowd exploding in cheers after the band would wind their way matter-of-factly to a big chorus. Pianist Smail Ferkioui finally got a chance to take an extended solo and did it carefully and precisely before slinking to the front of the stage and immediately it seemed that half the crowd was on their feet and running for the front row, Castel joining him with a triumphantly vaudevillian smirk, unselfconsciously ecstatic to be back to doing this at all, let alone on an American stage for the first time ever. And the subtext went unspoken: how in this contentious era, that veteran Jewish and Berber musicians could join in a concert that nonchalantly transcended any attempt to divide and conquer. That’s why the first thing dictators do when they seize power is outlaw music.

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa Play a Rare US Show for Free at Lincoln Center

Aziz Sahmaoui & University of Gnawa’s 2011 album is a lot closer to the rai-rock of Rachid Taha than the hypnotically bouncy Berber trance music popularized by Hassan Hakmoun. Sahmaoui – former frontman of the wildly popular French-Middle Eastern group  Orchestre Nationale de Barbes – and his band are playing Lincoln Center Out of Doors at 6:30 PM on Wednesday, July 31 on an excellent bill with shapeshifting desert blues collectives Tartit and Imharhan plus longtime Ali Farka Toure sideman Mamadou Kelly.

The crisp digital production of Sahmaoui’s album, which will no doubt be available at the merch table, separates everything carefully into its own place in the sonic picture: no doubt the band will sound more reckless and energetic onstage. Sahmaoui plays a museum’s worth of North African stringed instruments as well as acoustic and electric guitars, backed by multiple percussionists (and electric bass, when he isn’t playing the funky two-stringed bendir lute). The tracks intersperse spare, mantra-like traditional tunes within a mix of eclectic originals.

Beginning with a hypnotic, circular ngoni theme, the album gets rolling with its catchiest and arguably most haunting track, with a nod to the Clash’s Guns of Brixton. It’s a lament for a war-torn country as seen through the eyes of a young girl in the rubble of her home, reprised in a more spare, acoustic version at the end of the album. The fourth track, Kahina (Destiny), with its ominous chromatics and pensive antiwar lyric, is another standout. Samhaoui played in a late version of Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul’s band, so it’s no surprise to find a cover of Zawinul’s Black Market here, redone as swaying, surprisingly skeletal rai-rock. A couple of songs blend echoes of Malian desert blues with lilting soukous from further south. Sahmaoui uses catchy two-chord trip-hop vamps as palettes for layers and layers of tersely interwoven, tersely plucked melody.

Sahmaoui’s Arabic lyrics are excellent and often corrosive. A rough translation from the brooding anthem Miskina (The Empoverished):

Is it a miracle or a new religion?
We serve institutions
Accountants in collusion
And idiotic tv
On our knees before the screen,
Where once we got together
Electronic is the order of the day
It’s a universal problem
Books abandoned in their homes
Injustice on the horizon