New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: rare essence band

Ensemble Mik Nawooj Reinvent Hip-Hop Classics in Harlem

“Rolling down the street, smoking indo!” soprano Anne Hepburn Smith sang, belting at gale force for maximum dramatic effect. A sold-out audience of white tourists exploded in laughter.

“Sipping on gin and juice!” Ensemble Mik Nawooj’s two MCs, Sandman and Do D.A.T. responded. There wasn’t a member of the chamber orchestra behind them who could resist a shit-eating grin. It was as if to say, we can’t believe we’re actually playing this song at all, let alone this way…heating up the coldest night of the year, Saturday night at the Apollo, no less.

In their first-ever New York concert, at the third-floor cafe space there, that Ensemble Mik Nawooj managed to deliver a show worth seeing at all was a major accomplishment. If they’d been able to hear each other onstage, if the sound mix had been even remotely decent, or if bandleader JooWan Kim hadn’t been forced to play the show and conduct the band from the floor, seated in front of the stage at an out-of-tune upright piano whose lid had been ripped off, there’s no telling how much more comfortable this mighty band would have sounded.

They take a well-loved hip-hop formula – moody, lush strings with eerily tinkling piano – to the next level. Hip-hop with a live band goes way back to acts like Rare Essence and Schoolly D, but this show had more in common with Yaasin Bey’s most lavish mashups of rap and classical music. Kim told the crowd that his new arrangements of popular rap hits, most of them from the 90s, would be radical reinventions, and he wasn’t kidding.

Smith didn’t come in until the death-obsessed second number, like Oya with the thunderbolt when things got really intense. The menacing twinkle from Kim’s fingers mingled with the washes of strings from violinist Clare Armenante and cellist Saul Richmond-Rakerd. Flutist Elizabeth Talbert and clarinetist James Pytko animated the set’s funkiest moments while bassist Eugene Theriault and drummer LJ Alexander gave the tunes more swing than any sample or drum machine ever could.

The two MCs nailed the rapidfire rap toward the end of the show’s epic opener syllable for tonguetwisting syllable. Kim directed brisk, catchy ELO-ish chamber pop interludes, starry macabre set pieces and baroque violin passages in between the rappers’ manic flow, bubbly woodwinds interspersed with the lyrics over the tight rhythm section. They mined the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic first album for several joints, starting with C.R.E.A.M. (which to be honest, they played way too fast), then Shame on a Brother and finally their own version of a classic track which they recast as EMN Ain’t Nothing to Fuck With.

They went to their native Cali and made a march out of J Dilla’s Last Donut, and after Gin and Juice, tackled a second Snoop Dogg number, Gz and Hustlaz, shifting from bouncy flute funk to an ominous cinematic minor-key outro. As the show hit a peak, Kim revealed that this live set reflected his response to and eventual bounceback from a series of deaths in his family: it’s not hard to see how hip-hop death fixations and grimness would resonate with him. Beyond that cover of Gin and Juice, the biggest hit with the audience was when the two rappers left the stage, went to the middle of the crowd and dueled without any help from the band. Then again, Vanilla Ice could have gotten a standing O out of this crowd. Here’s hoping that EMN get better sound here the next time around – or play the  main Apollo stage, where the sonics are reliably excellent.

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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?