Part II: The Stand-Outs, APAP Global Music Showcases
The seriously fun part during APAP’s annual conference in New York City is deciding which showcases to see, then hopping all over town to catch a great deal of superb music. My focus is usually pretty much international.
This year’s globalFEST at the Copacabana was a joyous curatorial triumph. Most of the 12 showcases from Tibet/U.S.A., Ethiopia/ U.S.A., Louisiana/U.S.A., Senegal, Algeria/France, South Korea, Turkey/Netherlands, France, Hungary, Brazil, West Africa/France, and Venezuela/France were high energy acts. You’d dash from one floor to another to witness intense, frequently danceable rhythms and often, dazzling musical virtuosities.
The one “quiet” exception at the evening’s start was U.S. based Tibetan star Yungchen Lhamo. Dressed in a resplendent traditional robe and headdress, it was as if a goddess had sprung to life from a thangka painting. Her Buddhist songs and chants were deeply meditative as she cast her spell of utter peace and compassion for all sentient beings. Her sweet vocals seemed filled with nostalgia and longing for the snowy mountains of the Himalayas. At one point she led the room in intoning OM as her voice took ecstatic flight.
Among my favored showcases, Cheikh Lo, one of Senegal’s great, popular Sufi-inspired singer-musicians and his band were on precise point with their splendid and fervent mbalax rhythms. They are mesmerizing to experience and difficult to tear away from — just as his early “Ne La Thiass,” the deliriously beautiful 1996 album that was then on constant play with world and African radio hosts as well as my cd player.
Equally absorbing, though it was hard to decide which I preferred the most, South Korea’s Ak Dan Gwang Chil or Algeria/ France’s Sofiane Saidi & Mazalda.
Ak Dan Gwang Chil
Billed on the globalFEST program notes as “Korean shamanic folk funk, Ak Dan Gwang Chil’s performance was stunning in contrasts. The backbone of the group are the instrumentalists, drawing on ancient shamanic ritual music. Deeply focused, they played traditional zithers, drums and percussion, flutes — as the fronting trio of women singer-dancers seemed their foil. Those women could rival a flashy K-Pop group with their coordinated sass and antics and tongue-in-cheek contemporary/traditional costuming. At times the trio comes across as a kind of riotous Korean vaudeville act. But the overall shamanic-based music is powerful and transcendent, almost haunting.
Much as I have always loved 80s North African rai music, Algeria’s Sofiane Saidi, along with the French trip-hop funk-oriented, electronic-grooved group known as Mazalda, came across indeed as the next “Prince of Rai 2.0.” He has the charm and easy swagger of a star. Add his innate sense of “bonhomie” as he danced shoulder to shoulder across the stage with the musicians, as he created celebratory infectiousness among the whooping crowds.
Les Amazones d’Afrique
Three from West Africa’s vivacious women’s star collective, Les Amazones d’Afrique, Mali’s Mamani Keita, Benin’s Fafa Ruffino, and Guinee’s Niariu, had a glittering stage presence. Their costuming ranged from Fafa’s glorious Dutch wax butterfly-sleeved robe, to Niariu’s red sequin tunic with a trail of fish-netting and heavy metal rock star platform boots. I loved their fierce feminism, denouncing violence and mistreatment of women. The group carries some of the great regional traditional griot melodies, especially by Mamani Keita; and their drummer and guitarist synced well with those grooves, beats, and phrasings. However, their French DJ pushed the electronic envelope a bit too much. But when they shimmied and danced together, they were irresistible. Their resilience dominates.
The outstanding virtuoso musician for the night was Turkey’s Tufan Derince and his elektro baglama — accompanied by singer and keyboard player. Their specialty is electric Kurdish wedding music. Song descriptions in the set list read “impassioned song without a dance beat,” “uptempo wedding dance,” and “fast wedding folk dance” Their music is gleeful and watching Tufan Derince’s breakneck speed fretwork with squealing psychedelic slides carried the ancient baglama to stratospheric heights.
When I first saw Ethiopian-American Meklit during Winter Jazzfest a few years ago, I was knocked over by her stage presence, reminiscent, I thought, of Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, and Dorothy Dandridge all rolled into one bright new persona. This hasn’t changed, Meklit’s only gotten stronger as a consummate entertainer-singer-songwriter. While she now accompanies herself occasionally with the Ethiopian krar harp, her backing musicians, sax, bass, drumkit, and double-headed tupan drum, mesh tightly with her vocals and compositions. Meklit’s musical poise and passion, her laughter and big smiles, are invigorating, lovely.
While globalFEST remains a compact showcase festival over one evening along with its 2 day long Wavelengths pre-APAP conference forum, Winter Jazzfest (WJF) continued to expand its showcase ‘empire’ geographically in New York and over 10 days. Both are major musical events with stimulating discussions and talks during APAP.
This year WJF expanded programming to Brooklyn, taking over 6 more venues in Williamsburg and Bushwick — besides New York City’s multiple venues stretching over lower Manhattan. Judging from all the packed rooms everywhere in Manhattan — besides the impossible-to-get-into shows, demand for WJF programming grows unabated. (Although I’d hoped to see Seu Jorge and James ‘Blood’ Ulmer this year, the press lists were closed.)
Each year, the WJF program booklet reads like a handbook of current historical activism towards a more humane and just world. The main theme of the talks this year centered on wellness and health: “Alternative and Non-Traditional Approaches to Wellness in Music,” “Navigating Healthy Relationships in the Arts,” “Organizations Caring for Musicians: Supporting Recovery from Substance Abuse, Depression, and Illness,” and “Environmental Activism and Jazz: The Power of Music on Global and Physical Health,” for example.
I finally made it to the UK Jazz showcase hosted by Gilles Peterson at Le Poisson Rouge, after previous year press list requests to no avail. No wonder. It has the reputation of one of the best WJF events. The room was completely jammed with ecstatic fans. Gilles Peterson, the UK’s musical entrepreneur extraordinaire, going back to the 80s acid jazz days, continues to embrace vast swaths of international musical ground as a great BBC 6 radio host, club DJ, music producer, and record label head. The UK is a rich and fertile region for so much music and Peterson ‘discovers’ much of the best.
Showstopper for the WJF UK evening was young British pianist Ashley Henry whose new album “Beautiful Vinyl Hunter,” his loving mix of jazz, hip-hop, and pop, with several guests is a listening pleasure. He stepped onstage looming taller than Randy Weston, compressed his lanky frame like an accordion and seated himself on a low chair below his keyboard. With a pared down trio — drum kit and upright bass, and vocalists, his playing jostled references to Hancock, Monk, Jamal. But his style was simple, confident, easy-going, happy too, as he stretched out phrasings with bell-like ostinatos.
Earlier, one of former President Obama’s recent favorites, feminist neo-soul singer Poppy Ajudha, skanked, wove, and dipped lithely, as she delivered her conscious lyrics about race, gender, class.
Sarathy Korwar Band
The riotous drummer, Sarathy Korwar with a group of rappers from Mumbai and New Delhi, Sunny Jain of Red Baraat fame on dhol, and more musicians — sax, keys, drums, blended and clashed jazz, hip-hop, and spoken word with Indian melodies and rhythms. All three, Henry, Ajudha, and Korwar, confront and address discrimination and social injustices in their ethos.
Hailu Mergia & Band
During the WJF Marathon weekend, the revered Ethiopian musician Hailu Mergia appeared at SOB’s. Alternating between Rhodes piano, organ and accordion, his band was spare, just bass guitar and drums compared to his earliest days with the great Ethiopiques Walias Band era with their signature blasting brass. Yet their sound was peerlessly powerful. There is tenderness and yearning in Mergia’s playing, his touch. Too many keyboard players and jazz pianists pound away at their instrument relentlessly. But nuance is key to Hailu’s minor-scale modalities infused with American soul and Ethiopian funk.
Billed as “La Bulla – A Ruckus of Music,” this was a first-time Latin APAP showcase, featuring salsa, cumbia, vallenato, Afro Latin Jazz, and neo-ranchera. I made the last two performances and they were both excellent: fresh, non-stop dancing energies by emerging younger groups.
People of Earth
People of Earth, a wonderfully gifted global collective, with horns, percussion, strings, and fronted by 3 singers with roots in Cuba and Switzerland/Argentina, burned through their mix of rhythms and songs from Cuba, Puerto Rico, Brazil and other parts of the Americas. The group may be young, but they’re seasoned musicians already with 8 different nationalities. They kick their rhythms in such elation together. Yet at heart, their collective music is a commitment to social change and inter-cultural dialogue.
The Toronto-based OKAN duo, Elizabeth Rodriguez, violinist from Havana, and Magdelys Savigne, percussionist from Santiago, are both Grammy and Juno nominees. They sing about love, immigration, and courage in sweet harmonies and with a delightfully lively stage presence. They blend their Afro-Cuban roots and influences, the Santeria religion and folk rumbas, with jazz and multi-ethnic references — and backed by a strong rhythm section, bass, drums, keyboard. While a quintet, their music can swing with the power of a big-band orchestra.
I missed Arturo O’Farrill last year, sold out at Winter Jazzfest, and this year at the very first La Bulla Latin showcase. Following APAP, I was determined to see his “Jazz Across the Americas: ARGENTINA — A Tribute to Lalo Schifrin” concert at Symphony Space.
O’Farrill is one super charged musical genius (See Arturo’s interview in Part I.)
Multiple Grammy winner and nominee, he once said, “I made one rule for myself, and I really try to live it: Play music you love, with people you love, for people you love. If I can’t be that kind of musician, I’ll drive a cab.
Plowing through the frigid sleet the night of January 18th, I finally got to Symphony Space to listen to Arturo O’Farrill on piano and as artistic director with his full 18 member orchestra. Never one for sentimentalism in his tributes, he delved into some of the greatest moments in Argentina’s musical history with the intensity, drive, and focus of a true master. As a pianist, his touch is mercurially swift, light-hearted yet assertive, and this tempers the sound of his orchestra.
The evening blazed with Lalo Schifrin’s “Gillespiana Suite,” written by Schifrin in the early days of his career for Dizzy Gillespie. This was the first time the suite was performed in over 25 years with Pablo Aslan, the Argentinian-born bassist, composer, and producer as conductor. French horns, tuba, and one more trumpet reflected Schifrin’s original composition. As O’Farrill wrote in the program notes: “This celebration of the Maestro and of his beloved Argentina is exactly what the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra was created for.” When you listen to Schifrin’s and Gillespie’s earlier recordings of the suite and compare it with O’Farrill’s live concert, a revelation takes place. The live tribute traverses and encompasses Argentina’s richly diverse and multi-layered rhythms (American blues, pan-America, Africa, Europe) with O’Farrill’s stylistic inflections, and it’s a thrilling experience.
The Buenos Aires-born star, Sofia Rei, one of the featured guests and introduced as “a force of nature” by O’Farrill, mixed the traditional with contemporary as she sang songs by the Argentinian folkloric artists, Leda Valladares and Cuchi Leguizamón. Much touted Leo Genovese on keyboards and Franco Pinna on drums and percussion were her bandmates, as the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra rounded and expanded their sound con brio. Later, she reappeared singing one of her co-compositions with lyrics by Sandra Cornejo, “Todo Lo Perdido Reaparece.” A big, merry syncopated rhythm, she accompanied herself on the charango — joined by Juancho Herrera on guitar and cuatro.
The orchestra’s evening repertoire paid tribute to so much of Argentina’s musical legacies: There was beautiful romance and pensiveness in “Llegará, Llegará, Llegará” by Emilio Solla, and drama in “El Minotauro” by Guillermo Klein. Famed conductor and musician, protege of Pablo Aslan, Gabriel SenaneS appeared with his ”Lalo Cura La Locura.” Enthralling, piquing, the audience — the sprightliness of “Tanguajira” composed by Pablo Aslan and arranged by Gabriel Senanes made tango a delicious form to savor. The orchestra’s finale was the “very sexy” (Arturo’s words) “Tanguango” by Astor Piazzolla. What a breathtaking show it was.
Arturo O’Farrill strikes towards greater knowledge of vistas and horizons in Latin jazz and world music with his phenomenal non-profit Afro Latin Jazz Alliance. Look into all that it is. Support it. And listen to Arturo’s recordings if you miss seeing him play live.