Global Sounds:
New York (Part 46)

NYC's global music circuit may lack the hyperactivity of its jazz scene, but there are plenty of treats to be had, says Martin Longley

By Martin Longley

Whilst the New York jazz scene is frighteningly bursting with activity, hyper-dense in its clubbing life, there's an impression soon formed that the city's global music community is driven comparatively underground when compared to most big European cities. There seems to be only one major promoter, the World Music Institute, dominating the terrain, adopting the policy of programming gigs at various theatres about town.

Recent exceptions to this hegemony, unearthed by your scribe, include the Tuvanfolkloric troupe  Chirgilchin, the famed Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka, Spanish singer Buika, Gamelan Çudamani (pictured), from Indonesia, and the Nomad Soundsystem. This last bunch are from Berlin, but display a strong enthusiasm for the music of North Africa.

Chirgilchin were found in the unlikely setting of The Knitting Factory, a club famed for its focus on avant jazz, avant rock and avant anything, really. Its reality nowadays, though, is as more of a joint where moderately mainline rock combos strut their stuff, on a variety of levels (that's floor levels). The silkily-costumed four-piece Chirgilchin managed to gather a smallish coterie of informed throat singing fans to witness their galloping and cantering songs (nearly all Tuvan music is obsessively concerned with equine activities). They played two sets of very appealing pieces, with a good variety of vocal and instrumental permutations. Not revolutionary. Rather relaxing. Their instruments are hand-made, and include the igil, a two-stringed horsehair 'guitar', and the doshpuluur, a kind of lute-equivalent.

Ravi Shankar was in town at Carnegie Hall, but there were still plenty of empty seats available in this spectacular space. As is his wont these days, Ravi was joined by daughter Anoushka, who's clearly set to be the inheritor of his bountiful sitar skills. This time, though, she had the whole first set to herself, with father Shankar saving himself for the second half. Initially, this seemed due to his markedly increased frailty, but as what amounted to a ninety minute performance ensued, Ravi seemed to gather a cumulative energy flow, his fingers starting to make slow and spacious shapes, but his extended phrases gaining in fluidity as the performance unfolded. He can't match the increasingly articulate outpourings of Anoushka, but makes up for this in sensitive feel. Last time I saw him, only a few years back, he was still sitting cross-legged on a rug, but now Ravi perches on a plinth, playing what looks like a smaller sitar variant. Even so, he's nearly ninety now, so still comparatively vigorous...

The husky-voiced Concha Buika's Mi Niña Lola was something of a European and North African hit during the summer, and her New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy Of Music saw an over-admiring crowd succumb to a set of flamenco-rooted pop songs. Well, the presentation is still slick, but this Spanish singer is crafting a homogenised band-sound that throws in elements of various rootsy traditions, retaining an authentic feel, but making it more accessible. A lot of 'ethnically-rooted' singers are adopting this approach recently. Buika has a great voice, full of burr and bite, but her band don't leave any spaces in the music, lacking a sense of improvisatory dynamism. Concha's a capella encore allowed us to hear her unsullied voice in all its glory...

If we wanted authenticity, then Bali's Gamelan Çudamani were presenting An Offering Of Music & Dance at the Skirball Center For Performing Arts, which is part of New York University, going so far as to open their show with a complete re-creation of daily village life. The players and dancers (not yet revealed as such) tentatively pottered onstage, sweeping it with their rush brushes, gradually setting up for the day's ceremonial activities. It was impressive how their music-making grew naturally out of small chopping-block drums and bamboo pipes, creating an organic version of the metallophone gamelan array that was soon to be unveiled. This casual development of the performance was on the edge of being experimentally slow, but when the chimers and gongs were finally unveiled, and the jangling group-ripples started up, a sense of supreme completion rang in the air. This was the music of the gamelan at its fastest and most intricate, accompanied by ritualised dance movements that were almost operating along a slightly decelerated time-flow. A brilliantly non-touristic production of an Odalan temple ceremony that entertained without compromise...

Back to Carnegie, but this time in its smaller Zankel Hall, newly re-created to hark backwards to its original usage. Impressive though this space is, it wasn't the ideal setting for a Nomad Soundsystem gig. This German collective were playing near the start of the Hall's Berlin In Lights season, but they had to work hard to overcome a seated concert ambience with their laptop-and-turntables-driven sound. Combining dance beats and rock/funk guitars with traditional North African vocals and percussion, their fusion was acceptable but hardly innovative, with Tunisian singer Karim Sfaxi lacking the outgoing charisma (and powerful lungs) needed to front this kind of outfit. Their blend is theoretically what we want, but would benefit from being harder and more imaginative.
*subsequent investigation has unearthed the fact that the ubiquitous World Music Institute did indeed have a hand in the organisation of two gigs covered herein, so there's really no escape from them in New York City..!
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