New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: robert browning associates

Spellbinding, Cutting Edge Indian Music with Jayanthi Kumaresh at Roulette

It wouldn’t be absurd to call Jayanthi Kumaresh the Jimi Hendrix of the veena, the many-thousand-year-old Indian instrument that looks like a sitar with fewer strings. Veena music is rare these days: Indian stringed instrument players tend to go straight to the sitar, or even the surbahar with its extended low register. But the veena is all Kumaresh needs. Her concert last night at Roulette was awe-inspiring, in terms of fearsome technique as well as cutting-edge ideas and lyrical poignancy.

For the first hour of the performance, she played solo, pulling a symphony of ragas out of thin air. From the first uneasy chromatics of her opening phrases, it seemed that she’d chosen a rather dark path…but that would have to wait. Dynamically and methodically, she built a series of crescendos and lulls, never settling on one particular raga for long, yet frequently returning with variations on a theme. Wide-angle deep-sky rapture gave way to a jaunty bounce, jaggedly stairstepping interludes and finally wildfire intensity that was all the more spine-tingling considering the atmospherre she’d built around it.

It’s astonishing how much sheer volume Kumaresh gets from an acoustic instrument (for the record, the veena was miked through the PA). Not only does she pluck the strings, she swoops up and down the frets, feverishly building quietly looming ambience. Her vibrato was just as jaw-dropping to witness: much as she worked minute, quivering shifts in pitch, she also attacked the strings with a furiously tremoloing attack that in several instances evoked a theremin.

Likewise, her melodic approach is state-of-the-art. There was a point where she fired off a trio of riffs that were as sophisticated, and almost defiantly triumphant, as anything Charlie Parker ever played. She also slammed out a series of big, insistent chords during a handful of crescendos: who says there’s no  harmony in Indian music? With as much elegance as force, she finally brought her one-woman symphony full circle, to the enigmatic, chromatically-charged mode she began with. The audience was spellbound.

The second half of the program was anticlimactic. Percussion duo Jayachandra Rao and Pramath Kiran – on mridangam and tabla, respectively – went for drollery, which on one hand made sense since there was no way anyone was going to top what had just taken place, in terms of intensity. But there are a limited number of jokes you can tell with a jawharp, Kiran’s other specialty. Kumaresh finally returned to the stage for a more-or-less full-throttle romp packed with clever exchanges between all three musicians, up to a series of joyously tricky false endings.

Robert Browning Associates, who booked this show with Roulette, are winding up this year’s edition of what they call their World in Trance festival tonight, April 13 at 8 there with hypnotically whirling Pakistani sufi chants from Hamza Akram Qawwal & Brothers; $30 advance tix are still available as of this afternoon.

Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade Bring the Exhilarating Future of Egyptian Music to Brooklyn

Friday night at Roulette, oudist Mohamed Abozekry & Karkade treated the crowd to a dynamic, exhilarating look at the future of Egyptian classical music. Abozekry has immersed himself in the centuries-old muwashashat tradition and played some of his most exhilarating moments during the most traditional pieces on the program. Yet it quickly became clear that he’s delved into blues and jazz, and some artsy rock, and he knows hip-hop too. But what was most impressive, and ultimately most thrilling about the show was how distinctive and majestic his music is. Karkade aren’t just a bunch of hippies who’ve learned a couple of Arabic modes and think that something like salsa might sound especially exotic if played on Middle Eastern instruments. They’re Middle Eastern virtuosos with boundless curiosity – and access to youtube.

The night’s opening number was a red herring. Effortlessly and spaciously, Abozekry threw some minor-key blues licks into a relatively spare, bouncy number and then deviated towards postbop jazz. The rest of the evening was grounded in the epic sweep and stark intensity of the Levantine classical tradition with judicious enhancement from pretty much every corner of the planet.

The band were brilliant. Ney flutist Mohamed Farag played with a strikingly resonant, gusty tone: there were times when his alternately plaintive and sepulchral microtones sounded almost like a duduk. Violinist Lotfi Abaza delivered similarly nuanced filigrees and flickers, most of the time doubling either Farag or Abozekry’s lines – it would have been rewarding to have heard more of him by himself. Mohammed Arafa on dohola (a double-ended hand drum a tad bigger than a dumbek) and Karim Nagi on riq swung hard through rhythms that swayed and galloped and turned on a dime, and made all that look easy. Arafa’s tongue-in-cheek, peek-a-boo solo about midway through was the concert’s most unselfconsciously amusing moment – clearly, these guys are having a great time on this tour.

Their excursions through a quartet of serpentine levantine themes rose and fell, mysterious and ultimately triumphant: Abozekry has breathtaking speed and precision on the fretboard, but his tantalizingly brief solo work in those pieces were the only points during the night where he really put the pedal to the metal. There was also a hypnotic rondo with the oud, violin and ney each playing subtle variations on three separate, interwoven riffs. In the evening’s most otherworldly, atmospheric epic, Abozekry’s broodingly emphatic anthemic chords bookended a vast, nocturnal soundscape.

Building from an unexpectedly funky drive, he led the band into a pouncing, wickedly catchy theme and variations: Bootsy Collins taking a Land Cruiser out into the desert dunes. They closed with a similarly incisive, balletesque theme referencing the obviously busy and animated Cairo cafe whose name they’ve appropriated for the band (it also means hibiscus).

The show was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who continue to bring some of the most magical and relevant global programming to this city. On Sept 29 at 8 PM at Roulette they’re staging a fascinatingly unorthodox lineup of sitar, shehnai (Indian oboe) and tabla played by the trio of Mita Nag, Hassan Haider and Subhen Chatterjee; advance tix are $30. And Abozekry’s ’s next performance is tonight, Sept 23 at the Flynn Center, 153 Main St. in Burlington, Vermont; tix are $25.

A View of Classic Ragas From Five Thousand Feet by Sitar Virtuoso Shahid Parvez Khan

Saturday night at Roulette, sitar player Shahid Parvez Khan brought the same vast game plan to two completely different ragas. Much as improvisation is the central focus of classical Indian music, and there were plenty of electrifying jams at this show, it became clear early on that Khan had come up with a devilishly clever architecture for how he wanted to entertain the crowd.

Job one was delayed gratification, to tease them with one implied resolution after another until finally it made sense to ease into a comfortable crescendo, finally tying the tension together. Job two was to make the performance just as fun as it was artfully conceived, and Khan did that incessantly, with a killer sense of humor. Job three was thrills and chills, which he usually but not always saved for the codas at the end, in over two hours onstage with tabla wizard Nittin Mitta and a tanpura player who provided an aptly subtle drone behind them.

Khan opened the first raga with a very long, minimalist alap (improvisation), working with an increaingly rhythmic insistence toward but hardly ever reaching the octave that loomed just above his hypnotically emphatic, circular phrasing. When Mitta joined the fray, it seemed almost almost an afterthought, considering how much Khan had been his own drummer up to that point. As the piece went on, Khan brought his riffs closer and closer together as the two shifted gears, working toward overdrve.

Suddenly the concept became clear: while they weren’t taking the music quite doublespeed, what Khan had done was to bring those adrift riffs closer and closer together until he’d finally crystallized them. Likewise, it became clear that this raga was more about beats than lavish melody. After he and Mitta had interwoven a vertigo-inducing series of polyrhythms, a series of fiery sitar cascades punctuated rising and falling waves, through a trick ending or two, down to a sudden, unresolved conclusion.

The second raga was a brooding nocturne. Again, Khan resisted any easy resolution, putting on a clinic in implied melody, letting the audience’s ears fill in the blanks. This time the recurrent trope was stratospherically high, keening, theremin-like bends, creating sudden spikes of aching intensity. Mitta matched Khan’s plaintive cantabile approach, this time leaving the fireworks to the sitar. Khan took the closing gat out with an increasingly towering series of rapidfire climbs…when he wasn’t hitting on a phrase, then peeking out mischievously at the crowd as he let them fade, forsaken for the next one. If one riff doesn’t work, time to try another! It’s seldom that a piece of music could be so funny at times, yet ultimately so poignant.

Robert Browning Associates, who over the past few years have become a valued resource in bringing music from around the world to this city, staged this concert as part of their World in Trance series at Roulette, which concludes tonight, April 29 at 8 PM with a performance by Iranian ney flute player Hossein Oumoumi and his ensemble. Cover is $30 and worth it.

A Night of Haunting, Adrenalizing, Poignant Sounds From the Greek Underground

University of Illinois music professor Yona Stamatis, a native New Yorker, was on a mission to find the real rebetika, the so-called “Greek blues.” The music actually doesn’t sound the least bit bluesy. Popularized by ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and Cyprus, much of it bristles with the eerie microtones and slinky rhythms of Middle Eastern music. At its peak in the 1920s and 30s, it was the sound of the criminal underworld as well as the pro-democracy underground fighting a brutal dictatorship. Rebetika is still played in tavernas and on Greek tv, but all too often it’s watered down, sentimental or downright cheesy.

Acting on a tip, Stamatis tracked down a band playing it raw and oldschool in an Athens dive bar. The lead singer was the bar owner, Pavlos Vasileiou. The tavern is gone now – even Athens is under siege in a blitzkrieg of gentrification that may have triggered the deadly floods there last week – but the band lives on. Stamatis picked up her bouzouki and violin and has since taken the group, Rebetika Istoria – named after the saloon – on several North American tours. Saturday night at Roulette, they had the crowd dancing in the aisles throughout two dynamic sets of boisterous drinking songs, grim anthems and mournful ballads.

When she wasn’t blazing through fast, spiky thickets of notes on her bouzouki, Stamatis was shading the music with uneasy, often microtonal midrange washes on her violin. Bouzouki player Nikolaus Menegas took several edgy solos of his own and sang in a measured baritone. Intense, impassioned singer Eleni Lazarou also took several turns on lead vocals and played a mean baglama on several of the more Middle Eastern-flavored numbers while guitarist Vangelis Nikolaidis anchored the music with his steady acoustic guitar riffage. And group founder/crooner Vasileiou brought plenty of gravitas to the lyrics, playing stark, incisive lines on his tzoura, a smaller counterpart to the bouzouki.

Stamatis explained that much of the setlist comprised the classics most requested by crowds at the old Athens boite. What was most fascinating about this show was that while a lot of the material was iconic, much of it was not, with more obscure songwriters featured alongside big names like Yiorgos Mitsakis and Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Booze factored into pretty much every narrative beyond the usual breakup scenario, whether looking to find the party in the American west in one surreal travelogue, or just running around the Greek isles. There were wry, funny relationship-gone-awry numbers like Apostolis Hatzichristos’ The Bum’s Complaint, Mitsakis’ The Beautiful Gypsy Girl – covered by Brooklyn metal band Greek Judas – and a harrowing closer to the second set, a haunting Mitsakis dirge commemorating a 1917 massacre of striking workers.

There were also recurring allusions to political troubles and repression but not much that was specifically revolutionary, a common trope in music made under repressive regimes. The long series of encores – the band must have played six or seven of them – was where the biting minor keys and influence of music from Turkey and points further east took centerstage, and the band reveled in them. Some consider rebetika the Greek national music, but that’s not a universal opinion considering its association with the Ottomans.

This concert was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who for the past few years have been bringing a spectacular variety of acts from around the world to this city. The next one is at their home base, the refreshingly laid-back and sonically welcoming Roulette, on December 2 at 8 PM with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who are joined by Javanese gamelan luminaries Darsono Hadiraharjo, Midiyanto and Heni Savitri. Cover is $25.

The Dastan Ensemble Put on an Unforgettable, Intense Performance in Brooklyn

Arguably the best concert in any style of music in New York this year took place when the Dastan Ensemble brought an alternately stately, somber and exhilarating mix of new and ancient Iranian music to Roulette Saturday night. The esteemed four-piece group, which has been through a few lineup changes over the years but remains undiminshed in vision and intensity, was joined by up-and-coming singer Mahdieh Mohammadkhani, making a riveting and powerful New York debut.

Throughout the show, the group’s acerbic, often biting riffs and fiery flourishes were simple and vivid, closer to the tonalities of the western chromatic scale than the exotic microtones of Arabic music, although those appeared from time to time when the sound became the most ghosly and otherworldly. Hamid Motebassem, on tar lute, fired off bristling volleys of notes when he wasn’t trading licks with kamancheh fiddle player Saeed Farajpouri, whose own lines were more allusive and airy. Percussionist Pejman Hadadi got the crowd roaring both with his dry wit and his colorful but carefully crafted, intricately individualistic playing on a six-piece kit composed mainly of boomy tombak drums. Hossein Behroozinia played barbat (the Iranian oud) with a judicious, often white-knuckle intensity, like-minded consideration and purpose.

Motebassem contributed the absolutely haunting suite A Window, an epic, plaintively cresendoing work utilizing poetry by Forough Farrokhzad. Hadadi explained the 1960s firebrand poetess’ lyrics as embodying an ultimately hopeful vision for the equality of men and women:. Baseline prerequisite for human civilization, maybe, but not a concept one might necessarily think of originating in Iran. Then again, for centuries during the Middle Ages, that nation was the intellectual capital of the world.

When Mohammadkhani first joined in, she was so quiet as to be practically peeking in from the mix. Was this a fault of the sound system? No. She was establishing herself on the whispery end of a vast dynamic range, her meticulously melismatic inflections finally rising to a dramatic, explosive peak during the final minutes of the show. Throughout her many rises and falls, poised on her chair with a gentle confidence, she was impossible to turn away from. Meanwhile, the music rose from a stark, wounded dirge to an uneasy gallop. Long, slinky, downwardly trailing passages gave way to gripping round-robin solos, a purposeful stroll, then back to severe and up again, Mohammadkhani channeling raw outrage, defiant triumph and just about every emotion in between.

The second half of the program featured a similarly dynamic set of instrumentals by Behroozinia, livened with plenty of interplay, Farajpouri often delivering shivery swirls  in the same vein as Kayhan Kalhor, Mohammadkhani projecting with a gale-force power that drew the loudest applause of the night. They closed with the closest thing to a catchy pop song that they had – the expat contingent sang along – and encored with a brief, elegant improvisation on an enigmatic folk theme. Robert Browning Associates, who have been booking a terrific series of concerts by artists from around the world, have several other enticing shows coming up at Roulette. On October 3 at 8 PM there’s one of Spain’s leading flamenco guitarists, Antón Jiménez, On the 24th, also at 8 PM, west African kora virtuoso Foday Musa Suso – a one-man orchestra of circular rhythmic riffage and intricate ornamentation – plays a rare solo show. Cover for each show $30/$26 stud/srs.

Amir Nojan’s Persian Classical Concert Transcends the Romantic

Saturday night at Roulette was date night. Classical Persian music is romantic! There were a lot of couples in the crowd for California-based setarist Amir Nojan and the Nava Ensemble’s two sets of poems by Hafez, Rumi and others set to dynamic, often impassioned, artfully improvised themes. Taghi Amjadi sang affectingly and poignantly in an expressive, melismatically nuanced baritone, the brother percussion team of Sina and Samandar Dehghani propelling the songs with a hypnotically boomy groove.

The first part of the show was the soul set; the second half was the dark night of the soul. The concert followed a typical Persian classical trajectory, improvisations giving way to conversations – between voice and instruments, and among the instrumentalists themselves – followed by a long, lively drum break and then a couple of darkly bristling, concluding dance numbers. As the long opening crescendo peaked, Amjadi rose to an imploring intensity against a steadily marching, jangly groove that built agitatedly to match the vocals.

The early part of the concert illustrated an ancient poem by Hafez. Here’s a rough translation: “If the army of sadness invades to destroy the lovers, the bartender and I will take care of the troops with sweet wine.” Even the nation whose language was the lingua franca of the educated classes for centuries throughout the Middle East had to cope with invaders and fascist dictatorships. As with so much of classical Persian poetry, the subtext screams quietly.

When he wasn’t trading bars or verses with the other musicians, Nojan closed his eyes: he’s the rare musician whose command of the fretboard is so complete that he can play anything by touch. His flurrying, chord-chopping crescendos both built an riveting intensity, evoking both surf music and Sonic Youth noiserock, even if the melodies and the method he was using went back six centuries beforehand – that’s how evocative this music is. The second set built to an angst-fueled call-and-response with the vocals over a hypnotic, relentless dirge. The Roulette sound system had smartly been set up to catch all the nuances in the music, because when Nojan went down to the most whispery, delicate phrasing, the awestruck audience was still able to hear every note. A twin frame drum solo gave way to a couple of hauntingly fiery dance numbers at the end to send the crowd out into the street, literally singing along to the bitingly catchy four-chord hook of the night’s final number.

Much as this blog takes a very, very cynical view of promoters trying to piggyback on the artists they book for fortune and fame, the promoters of this show, Robert Browning Associates continue to build on an astonishingly good track record that dates back to the 70s. If first-class esoterica is your thing, these people have something for you. Their next concert is here at Roulette on May 3 at 8 PM with visionary Turkish multi-instrumentalist composer Omar Faruk Tekbilek and his hauntingly danceable ensemble; tix are $25 and worth it.