Music Review | Lincoln Center Out of Doors
Sounds of Africa (the Four-Hour Mix)
By NATE CHINEN
Published: August 21, 2008
Cultural exchange rarely gets more rapturous than it did on Wednesday night at Damrosch Park, in a free concert of African music presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors.
Over the course of about four hours, an overflow audience beheld the efforts of several imposing legends from Ethiopia; a raucous art-punk band from the Netherlands; a jazz combo from Cambridge, Mass.; and a group with roots in Kenya and Washington. The show started strong and never flagged, helped along by an enthusiastic crowd.
The show’s biggest stars were Mahmoud Ahmed, a transfixing vocalist, and Getatchew Mekurya, an authoritative saxophonist. Both artists have reached global audiences through “Éthiopiques,” the acclaimed reissue series on Buda Musique, a French label.
And both artists used their stage time to evoke the exuberance of Addis Ababa in the 1970s. But they appeared in separate sets, and with two strikingly different groups.
Mr. Ahmed, 67, began his portion of the evening with “Atawurulegn Lela,” wafting a sinuous melodic line over briskly tumbling polyrhythm. His voice was strong, even youthful, and his phrasing was supple.
Later he sang “Ere Mela Mela,” an anthem with a more meditative groove, and here his singing grew rich and plangent; at times its microtonal shivers suggested the somber beauty of an Islamic call to prayer.
His accompanying coterie was the Either/Orchestra, a light-on-its-feet big band led by the saxophonist Russ Gershon, an Ethiopian-music specialist. As they do on “Ethiogroove,” a DVD issued last year, Mr. Gershon and company refurbished the sound of Mr. Ahmed’s old records, with sharper horn intonation and less rhythm-section distortion.
In addition to Mr. Ahmed, the Either/Orchestra backed Alemayehu Eshete, a singer with an equally assertive but less transcendent style.
Opening with “Addis Ababa Bete,” Mr. Eshete was at his charismatic best; each verse began with a single clarion note and then plunged into rapid-fire patter. He tried a few other approaches in his set, like an insinuative croon and a bark befitting his nickname, the Ethiopian James Brown.
Extra Golden, the Kenyan-American band, hit upon funk as a byproduct of its style, which blends Nairobian benga music and old-fashioned rock ’n’ roll. With a steady-thumping downbeat but much variation elsewhere — Onyango Wuod Omari, the band’s drummer, is a mischief-maker — the group made its hybrid feel unlabored.
But there were subtle indications of an arduous exchange. Some songs juxtaposed English and Luo, a bit jarringly. And at one point Opiyo Bilongo sang “Obama,” a song of gratitude for a certain United States senator and his crucial assistance with artist visas.
(Earlier Bill Bragin, Lincoln Center’s director of public programming, had similarly thanked Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York. There was no tune called “Schumer,” though.)
The concert closed with a gripping performance by Mr. Mekurya, the king of Ethiopian saxophone, and the Ex, the punk band from Amsterdam. Drawing primarily from their 2006 album “Moa Anbessa” (Terp), they dug in deeply together, creating a cyclone of stomping rhythm, brash distortion and fluttering modal melody.
There were vocal turns by G. W. Sok, the band’s hyperdeclarative frontman, and Katherina Ex, its rigidly propulsive drummer. But the stage belonged to Mr. Mekurya, who held his ground against two scabrous guitars on his trademark, “Shellela,” his tone a mixture of husky stoicism and earnest supplication. At another point, when he played an unaccompanied cadenza, he earned one of the biggest cheers of the night.
More Articles in Arts » A version of this article appeared in print on August 22, 2008, on page E4 of the New York edition. Need to know more? 50% off home delivery of The Times.
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