New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: worldbeat

House of Waters Bring Their Gorgeous Psychedelic Textures to the Rockwood

House of Waters are one of New York’s most interesting and unique bands. Part funky jamband, part Afrobeat and part pan-Asian, there is no other group in the world who sound remotely like them. In a casually expert way, frontman Max ZT is the Hendrix of the hammered dulcimer, an instrument on which he is a former American national champion. Yet while American folk music informs his songwriting, his rippling, hypnotic, warmly psychedelic instrumentals draw on styles from around the globe. As one would assume from a disciple of Shivkumar Sharma, India’s greatest master of the santoor – an ancestor of the hammered dulcimer – he’s taking his instrument to places it’s never gone before. The lush, dreamy quality of many of these songs disguises the fact that there are only three instruments in the band: the dulcimer, Moto Fukushima’s eight-string bass and Luke Notary’s cajon. They’re playing the small room at the Rockwood at 11 PM on May 17; if global sounds with a psychedelic edge are your thing, you’ll love this band.

Their album is titled Revolution: their kind of revolution is a good-natured, upbeat one. It’s a generous fifteen-track mix, the resonant ring of the dulcimer blending with the undulating bass and a thicket of percussion. Sometimes the dulcimer and bass double each others’ lines; other times they play off each other, or trade places, dulcimer anchoring a trancey groove as the bass sails overhead. There’s often a layer of dirt in the tone of the bass, and Fukushima uses all eight strings, especially if he takes a rapidfire guitar lead. Sometimes the beats are straight-up, other times they’re more tricky. That it’s often hard to tell who’s playing what speaks to the intricacy of the arrangements and the chemistry in the band.

A couple of the numbers work variations around a central tone as in indie rock, one of them rising to a big, insistent, anthemic stadium-rock crescendo, the other going into unexpectedly moody, ominous territory. Another track has a swaying triplet rhythm and a warm Mediterranean feel. Sound of Impermanence works around spiraling upper-register licks on the highest strings of the bass, while Sabula rises to a majestic, spacious atmosphere, Max ZT choosing his spots. The album’s most energetic cut, Agnolim, has the dulcimer machinegunning over a nonchalantly catchy, low-key groove – and then the bass goodnaturedly takes over. The closing track, Ball in Cage sets spacious Asian riffs over interwoven loops in both the lows and the highs from the bass. There’s also a terse rainy-day theme and a brief interlude that sounds like a resonator guitar solo but clearly isn’t.

A Fun Random Rediscovery

Isn’t it cool when you stumble on something completely random that’s so much fun that you have to share it? This is a mix simply titled Arabic Beat, assembled by the avid playlisters at Putomayo and streaming in its entirety at Bandcamp. It’s sort of a North African  equivalent of those Strictly the Best reggae compilations that VP Records have been putting out since forever. Most of the artists here are from Algeria or Morocco, playing variations on Rachid Taha-influenced rai-rock or Khaled-style trip-hop. For those unfamiliar with this kind of music, it sounds a lot more gypsyish, i.e. minor-key and chromatic than Arabic, i.e. microtonal and otherworldly.

The best song is a real surprise: French gypsy/Middle Eastern rockers Watcha Clan doing a spot-on Chicha Libre imitation, right down to the creepy analog synth on a psychedelic cumbia sung in Arabic and French. Of the rai-rock tracks, Algerian guitarist/singer Djamel Laroussi offfers a more sunny take on the classic Ya Rayyeh riff, with a bit of a Gipsy Kings vibe. That style is echoed a bit later on tracks by Moroccan chanteuse Samira Saeid and Moroccan-French bandleader Cheb Amar.

Another Algerian, singer Ali Slimani is represented with a bouncy habibi-pop track, as are Algerian brother duo Choubène, who manage to blend cheesy, techy synth with a bitingly tuneful chorus. The most traditionally Arabic-sounding song is a lush, string-driven ballad by Moroccan crooner Jalal El Hamdaoui. And Algerian dub maestro Nour has a chromatic Arabic reggae tune with growly bass and wah guitar.

Moroccan singer Ahmed Soultan’s hit Itim is minor-key, bluesy Rhodes funk, Bill Withers done North African style. And Syrian pop chanteuse Zein Al-Jundi has a tasty cut that blends rapidfire accordion with a little surfy guitar. All this is a fun way to discover some of the best of the curent crop of pop stars coming out of North Africa. Right now it’s gypsy music that’s all the rage – maybe, as the Arab Spring turns into summer, Middle Eastern music will take the world by storm. We can hope, right?

And for what it’s worth, there’s a funny (from this perspective, anyway) backstory here. This mix was originally pitched to this blog long before its release date last July. Trouble was, the label wouldn’t provide downloads, so that pitch went straight into the trash. Memo to what’s left of the record industry: want press? Give the bloggers what we need to do our jobs.

Good Imaginative Bands on a Cold Night in Gowanus

For once, a seasonably cold Friday night didn’t keep the Brooklyn massive indoors. Down the block from the trash truck depot at the edge of where Gowanus meets Sunset Park, a boisterously responsive crowd gathered at the unexpectedly lavish, relatively new venue SRB to see two of New York’s most original bands.

Karikatura were first on the bill, playing a slinky mix of latin rock and gypsy rock with some reggae and ska thrown in as well. Their frontman played beats on a conga head on several songs and sang nonchalantly smart, socially conscious lyrics over a fiery horn section (alto or tenor sax plus trombone), plus a guitarist playing biting, often flamenco-tinged lines on a nylon-stringed acoustic-electric over the rhythm section’s eclectic grooves. The most infectious of all the songs was Bailarina, which nicked the riff from the famous Algerian freedom fighter anthem Ya Rayyeh and turned it into an unexpectedly angst-fueled reflection by a guy who’s probably more infatuated with a dancing girl than he should be. It’s too loud to talk over the music, all my friends are drunk and I don’t like the idea of other guys hitting on you, the poor dude laments.

Celi, from the band’s most recent ep, Departures, was more hipswinging and seductive. Shortly after that they went into the edgy reggae liberation anthem Una Idea, a richly bass-heavy track from that release, then brought that idea back toward the end of the set with a soaring version of Some Kind Of (Free), a standout tune from their Muzon ep from a couple of years ago. They finally cut loose and jammed on their last number, with a hard-hitting bass break and then a blazing conversation between tenor sax and trombone. Karikatura are a popular touring act  in Europe and south of the border: it was good to see them on their home turf.

House of Waters are one of the most original bands on the planet. Their name is apt: frontman Max ZT, a national champion on the hammered dulcimer, played intricate, incisively rippling melodies throughout their set alongside cajon player Luke Notary and eight-string bassist Moto Fukushima. On the first song, Fukushima played through an octave pedal for a wry, techy tone that contrasted with the rustic feel of the dulcimer. Their music was as danceable as it was psychedelic: on the occasions when the dulcimer passsed off a rhythmic riff to the cajon, it was sometimes impossible to tell who was playing what. On a couple of tunes, Fukushima hit his pedal for a resonant, djeridoo-like drone; he also meandered through a Jerry Garcia-like solo on the high frets and then a wry disco bassline on one of the last songs. On another, Notary switched to ngoni lute as the drummer from Seth Kessel & the Two Cent Band joined them and played a slinky cumbia groove on guacharaca.

Max ZT is a force of nature and a lot of fun to watch, his hands a blur as he fired off supersonically shuffling licks that sounded almost like a mandolin in places. Bits and pieces of gypsy, Appalachian and soukous melodies rang out and pinged through the mix. The next-to-last song – a track from the band’s Revolution album – was intoxicatingly good, shifting suddenly out of  a slow, moody gypsy-flavored vamp when the band took it doublespeed.

Kessel and his Two Cent Band were scheduled to play their goodnaturedly high-energy oldtimey swing and gypsy jazz at some later point in the evening, but by then it was midnight in Gowanus and time to find out if the trains were still running (they were). Catch you next time, guys – they’re at Union Hall in Park Slope on Feb 2 and then at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg on Feb 6.

Hypnotic, Danceable Global Grooves from Tom Teasley

Whether he realizes it or not, multi-instrumentalist Tom Teasley’s latest album All the World’s a Stage is sort of the worldbeat counterpart to Augustus Pablo’s reggae classic By the Banks of the River Nile. As with that album, Teasley’s main melody instrument here is the melodica, which floats and flurries over a hypnotic thicket of percussion, all of which he plays himself. The result is a collection of exotic grooves which often recall Peter Buck’s popular late 90s gamelan-rock band Tuatara. All this works equally well as trance music or dance music, enhanced by the fact that these typically long, expansive tracks are basically just one-chord jams. Then again, that could be said about a lot of music from Iraq (where Teasley has toured extensively in recent years) and India, both cultures that Teasley draws heavily from here.

The album takes awhile to get going, but once it’s off the ground, it stays aloft. One especially prominent instrument is the African balafon, a lower-pitched prototype for the marimba and vibraphone, which sometimes plays a catchy bassline, sometimes carrying the melody by itself amidst a web of – are you ready? – frame drum, goblet drum, Irish bodhran, tambourine, cajon, Korg Wavedrum, Roland Handsonic and several of Teasley’s own inventions including the Aquasonic (a bowed instrument set in water), the Didgi-Harp (a spring-loaded shaker tube) and the Mallet Kat, a synthesizer designed to deliver the pinging sounds of the marimba, kalimba and koto. If you hear high, resonant, violin-like tones, that’s probably the Aquasonic; where the Didgi-Harp appears in this kaleidoscopic maze isn’t clear; the Mallet Kat makes its most powerful appearance on the album’s best track, Rise Up, which Teasley uses to deliver a biting, cimbalom-tinged solo against crescendoing melodic flourishes which evoke both flamenco and classic Egyptian dance music.

The album’s second track contrasts the keening Aquasonic and edgy melodica against a boomy backdrop, a device that Teasley uses memorably throughout the album. The third cut works a dubwise vibe, the drums tuned to provide a hypnotic bassline. Next, he alternates short, punchy melodica riffs with long spirals over a densely orchestrated shuffle beat, followed by the album’s most gamelanesque interlude.

From there Teasley explores Balkan modalities, revisits the south seas with a hypnotic yet jaunty flute tune, closing the album with a stately, cinematic Japanese-flavored theme. Who is the audience for this? Lots of people: dance music fans, stoners and fans of esoteric sounds from the aforementioned Tuatara to the Middle East and beyond.

Imani Uzuri’s Unique Sound Travels Everywhere

There’s a point on Imani Uzuri’s new album where the cello is playing a gypsy horn line over a tango beat as a sitar rings and pings in the background and an otherworldly choir of Balkan gospel voices go up, and up, and up in a swirling, fiery crescendo. That track is called Meet Me at the Station – it starts as a pensive country blues song and expands from there. It’s one of many high points on the aptly titled Gypsy Diaries, due out June 5; Uzuri plays the album release show at 7 on June 1 at Joe’s Pub. As of today, $15 advance tickets are still available but probably going fast.

You could file what Uzuri does under soul music, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. A world traveler and musical omnivore, she blends global styles seamlessly but impactfully. Given the instrumentation on the album – Christian Ver Halen’s acoustic guitar and bass, Todd Isler’s versatile percussion, Neel Murgai’s sitar (!), Kaoru Watanabe’s flute, Tarrah Reynolds’ violin and Marika Hughes’ cello – the songs often build to an unexpected, epic grandeur. Uzuri has a powerful yet nuanced contralto voice that occasionally will reach stratospheric heights, with an ecstatic, gospel-fueled intensity. As dark as the music can be here, her message is one of liberation and self-empowerment. And it’s not prosaic and obtuse like Ani DiFranco, or empty and cliched like Erykah Badu: what Uzuri is after is transcendence. The album begins with a tone poem of sorts that fuses vintage soul with qawwali and ends with a rustic, 19th century style a-cappella field holler. In between there’s acoustic rock, Brazilian, Mediterranean, funk and a lot of blues and soul styles. Several of the songs, particularly the casually funky acoustic flute tune I Sing the Blues work a vamp up to a hypnotic, insistent mantra that Uzuri hammers home, again and again.

The third track, Winter Song grows from a Greek string riff to pensive fingerpicked guitar blues, a lush anthemic chorus lit up by the sitar and finally a sweeping, apprehensive yet ultimately triumphant coda. Likewise, the most rock-oriented track here, Whisperings (We Are One) hits a soaring crescendo with Uzuri’s voice going full force against a south Indian-tinged melody. And the ba-BUMP beat of Gathering, a modern update on a field holler, eventually builds to a mighty wallop as the strings rise with it. There’s also the funky, bossa-inflected flute tune You Know You Love Me, the gorgeously brooding, epic Soul Still Sings, a couple of songs that start sparsely and build to more of Uzuri’s signature mantra vocal riffs, and the dreamy Indian-flavored lullaby I’m Ready. Eclectic enough for you?

Emel Mathlouthi Captures the Horrors of Fascism and the Thrill of Revolution

Fifty years ago, it was Americans who were writing some of the most powerful and resonant protest anthems and songs of freedom; a generation later, it was the British. Today, it’s the people of the Arabic-speaking world. To fail to acknowledge these artists at this moment, as their message of transformation and genuine hope spreads around the globe, would be the same as dismissing Bob Dylan in 1964 or the Clash in 1979. A star in France where she moved after leaving her native Tunisia, singer/guitarist Emel Mathlouthi became to last year’s Tunisian revolution what Warda was for the Algerians a half-century ago: a lightning rod, and a particularly fearless one. Mathlouthi’s album Kelmti Horra (Arabic for “Freedom of Speech”) is out recently worldwide from World Village Music – while the obvious audience is an Arabic-speaking one, it’s a riveting listen whether or not you understand the lyrics.

By any standard, Mathlouthi is an extraordinary singer, highly nuanced, evoking an intense tenderness yet often direct to the point of being confrontational. She cites both Dylan and Cheikh Imam as influences, and draws as much from American soul music and new wave rock like Siouxsie & the Banshees as she does from Arabic pop and classical styles, often layering her vocals into a mighty, ornate wall of harmonies. Behind her, violin and piano stand out stark and plaintive against murky low-register keyboard drones and the ominous boom or thud of a drum machine or percussion loop. This is haunted, exhausted, angry, bitter, wounded wartime music, with the inescapable message that if we continue to let the world be run by dictators and speculators, that choice is suicidal.

The album begins on a soul-infused but wary note with Houdou On (Calm), rising and then falling down into a nebulous interlude that she comes out of with an insistent intensity. Ma Ikit (Not Found) alternates a growling Marilyn Manson-ish synth bassline with an anguished, sweepingly anthemic minor-key melody. Rhythms here tend to be straight-up and closer to rock than the Middle East, whether the slow, stalking, Peter Gabriel-ish Stranger, with its stern chromatic riffage and Mathlouthi’s perfect English lyric, or the bittersweet, surprisingly delicate title track, a cautionary tale familiar to anyone watching his or her back while the spycams roll and the troops roll out.

Ya Tounes Ya Meskina (Poor Tunisia), the anthem that started the ball rolling, sets vocals that offer comfort rather than fueling the fires of rage, against a backdrop of ominous motorik synth, echoey syndrums and a string arrangement that’s absolutely majestic – it’s no surprise that this was such a hit. By contrast, Dhalem (Tyrant) is crushingly sarcastic, a faux lullaby with a creepy music box interpolated into its pleading, longing melody. And the epic Ethnia Twila (The Road Is Long) slowly and wistfully unwinds through constant tempo changes into a final crescendo of crowd noise and children chanting resolutely.

The single most gripping track here might be Dfina (Burial), a bitter Tunisian-flavored art-rock anthem that shifts between distant disillusion and raw, unhinged rage. The most pop-oriented one is Hinama (When), with its ominous post-new wave production and watery guitars. The album ends with another multi-part epic, Yezzi (Enough), shifting from a pensive folk rock-tinged intro as it reaches for freedom once and for all, resolute and indomitable. The album is best enjoyed as a whole – it’s hard to turn away once Mathlouthi hits her stride. There aren’t many albums that pack this kind of impact: simply one of 2012’s best, and probably destined for iconic status as both historical artifact and artistic achievement.

Emel Mathlouthi and her band play the Alliance Francaise, 55 E 59th St. in Manhattan on May 22, 2013 at 8 PM. Tickets and information are available here.

Two Tracks You Might Like

Bobby Vacant & the Worn’s new video Nobody’s There is surprisingly upbeat, apprehensive and distantly creepy rock from the Swiss-based songwriter whose 2009 album Tear Back the Night with noted Chicago producer/multi-instrumentalist George Reisch was one of that year’s best. This rocks a lot harder yet more opaquely than this guy’s recent work (those reverb tank explosions kick ass…). And the video – old Midnight Cowboy-style neon-lit downtown Main Street footage from the 60s – is choice. From the forthcoming album Virginia Neon, due out on Swiss label Weak Records next month.

And speaking of relevant socially aware songwriters, Stephan Said has a completely kick-ass new site  with a global mix of related, politically-fueled artists, plus a new album, difrnt, and some killer tracks up at soundcloud including Aheb Aisht Al Huriyah (the classic 1920s Mohammed Abdel Wahab levantine anthem I Live the Life of Freedom), updated for the Traquair Square/Zucotti Park era with a gently swaying trip-hop/rock edge that gives way to a blistering psychedelic guitar solo at the end. The other tracks on the page, including the more hip-hop flavored Take a Stand give you a taste of how eclectic this guy is.

A Dark and Stormy Night with Amour Obscur and Copal

After grabbing a surprisingly quick train in midtown following Matt Herskowitz’s show Wednesday night, it was good to be able to catch most of Amour Obscur’s set on a completely kick-ass gypsy punk bill at R Bar. Dee Dee Vega, a small woman with a big, powerful contralto voice fronts the band. For her, cabaret is strictly noir – when she went down to a growl, it was as creepy as it was lurid. A lot of their songs reminded of World Inferno when that band was just coming up, part ska, part klezmer punk, part creepy cabaret. They left no doubt that St. James Infirmary Blues is a funeral march, and turned Minnie the Moocher into the world’s most energetic song about smoking pot. But their originals were the best. Bassist Matt “The Knife” Goldpaugh swapped vocals with Vega on a couple of lickety-split, darkly chromatic gypsy punk stomps while Matt Dallow got some macabre organ tones swirling from his neon-lit accordion, the electric mandolin slashed and skanked and the horns punched in and out like a drunken but still dangerous prizefighter. “Only the whiskey’s coming home with me,” they sang deliriously and defiantly as the show wound out. They’re at the small downstairs space at Webster Hall on Nov 12.

Copal were up next. At one point during their set, the band suddenly went almost silent, interrupting a couple of guys in the crowd who’d been embroiled in a conversation. A couple of people turned around – and the guys immediately shut up. This wasn’t a stuffy classical audience, either. It was a young, drinking crowd who just happened to be transfixed by the band, crowding toward the stage as bandleader/violinist Hannah Thiem and cellist Isabel Castellvi – who also plays in the equally adventurous and eclectic Mivos Quartet – exchanged riffs and built an atmosphere that ranged from hypnotically swirling to downright menacing. With its elegantly rising bass intro and stately minor-key melody, the opening instrumental set the tone for the rest of the night. They picked up the pace with the second tune, a pounding drum intro and cello-metal riff kicking off a tarantella theme. After a solo by guest dumbek player Liron Peled (of Raquy & the Cavemen), a wild vortex of strings rose and then gracefully returned to the theme, taking it out sudden and cold.

The most intense song of many was Into the Shadow Garden, the opening track on the band’s latest album. Thiem’s apprehensive, Middle Eastern intensity was echoed in ghostly fragments by Castellvi over a long, hypnotic brooding levantine vamp contrasting the strings’ tense elegance with the percussion’s eerie, boomy ambience. Once again, they reached a point where the strings leaped into a snarling whirlwind, then back away just a hair, Thiem shadowing Castellvi this time. The next tune was a roomful of mirrors: first the group’s bellydancer moving in unison with Thiem as the two swayed, smiling, completely lost in the music, then Thiem reprising a Castellvi riff move for move, right down to the overtones as the phrase trailed out with a sepulchral chill. The magic continued as the band made their way through more Middle Eastern as well as Celtic, Balkan and trip-hop influenced grooves, closing with an anthemically stomping, trippy tune that had the whole floor either dancing or bobbing their heads. Is Copal the best live band in New York right now? After seeing this show, the answer might be yes.

Bad Buka were next: by the looks of things, everybody stayed, which they should have, since those gypsy punks are a phenomenal live band. But in this blog business, you eventually see pretty much everybody who’s any good. If you happened to miss them, Bad Buka are at their home base, Mehanata, on Halloween around midnight.