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.