This past evening at Lincoln Center was a rare opportunity to hear a band who for over thirty years have represented the Canary Islands. True to their name, Olga Cerpa y Mestisay really mix it up. Island nations tend to be especially cross-pollinated, with sounds from all over the place wafting in on the trade winds for a unique and often surreal blend of flavors.
That seems especially true for this band, who bookended their set not with a bolero, or a flamenco ballad – though hints of both styles figure prominently in their sound – but a vaudevillian swing theme spiced with carefree, dixieland-flavored clarinet. Frontwoman Cerpa went down for dramatic Piaf lows and soared toward plaintive Amalia Rodrigues peaks, yet she doesn’t sing either French chanson or Portuguese fado. Instead, her style is unique to her home turf off the coast of Africa.
Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who booked the group, reminded that this was also a rare opportunity to hear the full lineup from their popular Jallo album. These days, visa issues make bringing a group this size on the road more of an adventure than ever. Behind Cerpa, this configuration included two acoustic guitars, acoustic-electric bass and a two-man percussion section that would have fit in an Afro-Cuban context. In addition to the clarinetist – who doubled on soprano sax and flute – the lead instruments include mandola and the band’s not-so-secret weapon, 21-year-old Althay Páez, a virtuoso of the Canary Islands timple. It looks like a smaller cuatro (Paez has recorded with the Jimi Hendrix of that instrument, Jorge Glem) but sounds much bigger, with a ringing, resonantly jangly tone similar to a Portuguese guitar. Paez’s incisive spirals and clanging accents, especially in tandem with the mandola, gave the songs as much dramatic flair as wistful poignancy.
A seemingly unlikely similarity to several Spanish Caribbean styles became apparent early on, a striking reminder of how Afro-Cuban salsa first took root: not with blazing brass, but as a string band style with the charangas of the early 1900s. A couple of the night’s biggest ballads, with their suspenseful intros and big majestic choruses, came across as a more lilting counterpart to Mexican ranchera music. There were also a couple of bouncy 1-4-5 romps that evoked the son jarocho from further south. Meanwhile, Cerpa explored themes of lost love, abandonment and the lure of the sea, and sent more than one shout out to her home country. All this was a potent if unspoken reminder that great things happen when immigrants bring along cultures from all over the world and then create a new one of their own.
The atrium space at Lincoln Center on Broadway just north of 62nd Street is the main spot at the performing arts mecca where music and cultures from around the world meet and mingle. The series of free 7:30 PM shows there usually take place on Thursdays, but with Thanksgiving getting in the way, the next one is next Monday, Nov 26 with powerful singer Carolina Oliveros’ wild tropical psychedelic band, Combo Chimbita. There will also be lots of outdoor shows around the Lincoln Square neighborhood, including iconic klezmer Frank London and his band at the triangle at 63rd where Broadway crosses Columbus, most likely a bit later.