Performing Arts: Music
May 7, 2017
Brooklyn Bowl is an awful place to be if you are alone, clinging like a barnacle to a brick wall in a sea of couples obnoxiously enjoying themselves. Similarly, the critic has no power in places/events such as these, especially if one has no familiarity with what s/he is writing on. These are both, however, privileges. One (read: myself) is not distracted by the self-importance generated by press ticket booths and seat reservations or companions to use as a reservoir for insecurity-numbing commentary. One (read: I) must hang on every performed moment as it unfolds – a fortunately easy task when faced with the World Music Institute’s pairing of Tinariwen and opening act Dengue Fever.

Cambodian singer Chhom Nimol is at once out of place and seamlessly woven into Dengue Fever’s psychedelic surf-rock afro-jazz fusion tapestry of reverberating guitar, silent movie organ, fuzzy bass, self-harmonizing saxophone, crystalline drums, and pulsing auxiliary percussion. Her glittery voice, maintaining traditional eastern techniques, has a brightness, both sustained and agile, that blends with the sax in her higher register. Her microtonal ornamentation is warmly welcomed in the basic harmonic progressions that rely on pentatonic openness. The band gives (almost) everything away immediately, such that we take Nimol’s vocal gift for granted until she duets with guitarist Zac Holtzman – a strikingly humorous juxtaposition, this mortal pleading to a goddess while also playing a double-necked guitar incredibly well.

Songs share similar constructions. Guitar and sax double on riffs that Nimol sings over in refrain form. Grooves are built piece by piece, subtly modified throughout the song as each bandmate takes a solo. Deviation from the formula is limited, save a hypnotic a cappella solo by Nimol.

Dengue Fever’s melting pot of styles gives way to a comparatively traditional image of men in long shirts, turbans, and veils all holding electric guitars except for a drummer and a dancer (who ends up playing guitar as well). Explicitly Tuaregian in image and language, Tinariwen plays an infectious blend of North African music melded with folk-rock blues. Their songs also follow a consistency in structure: an antiphonal exchange between rotating soloists and group cycling many times without much variation until the final go-around unceremoniously ends.

The sense of group and fluidity within is important. Band members slip away, return, and trade instruments, tuned out loud. The melodies, sometimes memorable, sometimes a collection of pitches that carry words, have a sense of rite or campfire that testify to the band’s nomadic origins.

The sound, stripped down by a large margin compared to Dengue Fever, does not negate sophistication, but makes it all the more visible. Tinariwen has a propensity for polyrhythm within their earthy pulses. Voices ride on top, also incorporating indigenous techniques. The multiplicity of guitars is not redundant, but allows interlocking patterns of complementary strumming in different registers through which bluesy solo lines are cleanly plucked. We know the sonic essence of a Tinariwen song in its first few seconds. The music is, therefore, a different sort of experience: not an unfolding journey, but a moment, echoed.

Both bands display particular physicalities. Nimol is the primary mover in a band of slow sways. She raises her hands in precious mudras, eventually mirrored drunkedly by the audience. Tinariwen remains largely still and solemn, save one singer/guitarist who spends most of his time gleefully oscillating horizontally with fluid hands, a bobbing head, and a beaming smile. He is the conduit between the band and the listeners, letting us who might not speak the language know physically that everything is ok. The consistency of his movement purely visualizes the rhythmic idiosyncrasies in a kind of performed listening, which leaves concertgoers imbued with funk-induced reverence.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Jonathan Matthews

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