“Shhhh,” Simon Shaheen gently told the boisterous, largely daydrunk crowd crammed into an impossibly small ground-floor space at Webster Hall last night. Then he motioned for his nine-piece pan-Andalucian ensemble, Zafir, to stop. “I think this is disrespect,” he explained somberly, “To the people who are listening.”
That shut up the roar emanating from the back of the room for a minute or two, but then they were back at it. Which perfectly capsulizes both the lure and limitations of Globalfest.
This was the thirteenth anniversary of the annual multiple-stage festival of sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the annual January booking agents’ convention. On one hand, those guys – an older bunch whose general overindulgence at this year’s concert suggested that they haven’t been getting out much lately, at least to tie one on – can be interesting to talk to. It was lovely to be able to get Wayne Shorter biographer and NPR correspondenent Michelle Mercer’s inspiringly un-jaded take on changes in how music is being staged around the world (in Korea, promoters turn a daylong jazz festival into a picnic and in the process create thousands of new fans for the genre). It was less so to have to deal with the noise, and the overcrowding, and the most hostile security staff of any venue in the five boroughs. You usually have to go to New Jersey or Long Island for this kind of hell. How much this city has changed since the festival promoters figured out that they could make a few extra bucks if they opened the doors to the public.
Let’s be clear that the artists who play the festival don’t book themselves into it: they’re all invited. Many of them can be seen – and have been covered here in the past – in the summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wild expat Ukrainian chanteuse/keyboardist Mariana Sadovska, the even wilder New Orleans Russian folk-punk band Debauche, hypnotically kinetic Ethiopian krar harp-driven dance band Fendika and Shaheen himself have all made appearances there.
Fendika’s distinguishing characteristic among similar Ethio-folk acts is their heavy, insistent western dancefloor beat: they switch out the frequently intricate rhythmic latticework for a more straightforward approach for the sake of western audiences who don’t have a feel for those ancient and sometimes tricky beats. The crowd of dancers onstage grew as the music followed a slow trajectory upward toward fever pitch as the krar fired off simple, catchy, upbeat major-key riffs. The dancefloor was pretty empty when they started; by the time they’d finished, the club’s big main room was packed.
In the small basement studio space, Sadovska and her multi-instrumentalist bandmate – who switched in a split-second between drums, keys, what looked like a tsimbl dulcimer and a mixing board – treated the crowd to a phantasmagorical, otherworldly mashup of ancient Carpathian folk songs and eerie electroacoustic art-rock. Sadovska shifted between her trusty harmonium and an electric piano as her voice lept, soared, snarled, snorted and screamed, through a series of pretty wild old folk narratives and finally, a somberly lingering dirge that eventually rose to fullscale horror as a depiction of war in general, and in particular, ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.
Unsurprisingly, even the wildfire noir cabaret punk antics of Debauche couldn’t upstage Shaheen. Equally erudite and thrilling on both oud and violin, he’s simply one of the world’s greatest musicians (in context: it’s probably safe to say that Kayhan Kalhor, Richard Thompson and JD Allen are operating on his level). This ensemble included oud, kanun, strings, multiple percussion plus flamenco and classical Arabic singing and dancing. Matter-of-factly and expertly, they made their way seamlessly and rivetingly through themes from Arabic, Jewish, flamenco and possibly Romany music, interwoven with biting minor keys, ominously elegant Middle Eastern modes, slowly slinking rhythms and frequent, exhilarating peaks. At the end of the show, after having to shush a disinterested crowd (that a crowd could possibly find Shaheen disinteresting speaks for itself), how did he respond to a two-minute warning from the sound guy? With one of the most bittersweetly beautiful violin solos of his life. OK, maybe not the very best one, but it was awfully good, and Shaheen showed not the slightest interest in cutting it short, going on for at least five minutes as his fan base at the front of the room looked on raptly. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.
Although the acoustic Gogol Bordello-esque Debauche downstairs were pretty close (memo to the frontguy – that incessant wolf whistle has got to go). Ultimately, where all this goes down best is in more spacious confines..like Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where everybody seems to be a lot happier and a lot less cynical, an emotion that at this festival gets contagious real fast and shouldn’t be considering the quality of the music. It’s too bad that the overall experience, year after year, doesn’t measure up.