Live review

Mark Guiliana and Billy Martin with Soul Gnawa at The Sultan Room, NYC

Mark Guiliana and Billy Martin with Soul Gnawa (Winter JazzFest)
(The Sultan Room, 14 January 2020. Review by Dan Bergsagel)

After the acoustic overload that is much of the Winter JazzFest – many simultaneous venues, at least four groups per evening – it is sometimes nice to be at a more tightly packed event. Artist-in-residence Mark Guiliana‘s Tuesday showcase was compact in its scope of only two acts, but also in its location: an intimate, wildly decorated venue tucked behind a Turkish restaurant and kebab counter on a quiet Bushwick street.

Mark Guiliana. Publicity photo

As might be expected for a night curated by master drummer Guiliana, the focus was rhythm; only 2/7 people who featured on stage were not percussionists. The two non-percussionists were part of the first act, Soul Gnawa, a group born from the Gnawa music of Morocco – which is steeped in healing traditions and trances – but who mix it with the improvised sounds and grooves of the NY scene. Their lineup is flexible (and often features more melodic instruments) but not tonight.

I’m no Gnawa specialist, but this sounded much more Morocco than Brooklyn. But Brooklyn seemed very ready to respond. From the opening, plucked beat of Samir LanGus’ guimbri, the crowd clapping straight along. The guimbri is deep and resonantly miked, and while it functions as a looping bass anchor, the clapped clave becomes more nuanced, complicated, and slowly morphs over time.

In concept this is what Soul Gnawa are about – LanGus at its centre plucking a resonant beat and leading a rising, falling spiritual singing call and response, with a trance-like flood of percussion behind, today with special guest Jason Lindner‘s keys. It is mesmerisingly atmospheric. This format runs through, whether a polyrhythmic polypercussive collection cut through with William Onyeabor-like curious synth sound, or an afrobeat rhythm from drummer Daniel Freedman which starts sparse and ends as a chaotic gorgeous layered mess. While LanGus supports much of the group’s dynamism with a steady stream of beats up front, the flourishes come from Gustavo Di Dalva, adding real sharpness with his stick-snapped congas. Overall an infectious, upbeat and exciting group.

Billy Martin and Mark Guiliana eschew any pleasantries and go straight to their kits. They are all about the rhythms (or ‘riddims’ according to one of Martin’s books). Martin has an international outlook on music, having spent time with Brazilian and Morrocan traditions, and Guiliana, as the of-the-moment percussionist in a diverse city like New York, is suitably well-versed and flexible in a range of modes. They both seem very excited to be playing together, the mutual respect is real.

They start sitting opposite each other in a very controlled, spacious opening, their two drum kits overlaid: one all about deep toms, the other working the cymbals. It’s a bit like two people driving one car: one driver at the wheel and working the clutch, the other shifting the gears. They’re (unsurprisingly) very well synced, and it’s almost more trance-like than the gnawa. And then they split, each taking a different beat. And here they don’t align, but jostle, until they loop around and come together. Instead of two drivers in one car, this is two different constellations whose stars periodically align. It feels quite primal, very powerful.

After their two-kit introduction, Martin is given some scope to roam free and put a percussive top line on Guiliana’s beats. If you were watching without sound, you might suspect that he’s just dicking about with a constantly changing array of toys. These included; Cowbells, dondo, hand cymbals, many shakers, keys on little strings off a wooden plate, a jumbo stick-scraped cowbell, and three big metal spheres with handles and balls inside. When he whipped out two unknown 4ft long rustling tree brushes made from cut paper, I was impressed. I’d never thought of the musical possibilities of animal bedding.

This array of tricks was surreal and amusing, but, to be honest, a very effective piece of musical performance art. It was carefully and fantastically miked, and The Sultan Room was completely hushed and engrossed in it (aside from one idiot shouting and groaning ‘yes’ sporadically). You could hear every shake of the rubbish paper trees. Guiliana and Martin finished with a call and response face-off, both back behind their kits. With cymbal flourishes and competing beats, it sounded very martial.

The whole show was an intense experience, however the connection between the two was most intimate when Guiliana switched kit and played Martin’s: after such a long set, it felt like a very personal moment. And that connection between audience and performers, that power to draw the audience in, was really the thing that united both groups. Although both groups played with very different musical styles, it was collectively an evening showcasing the pulling power of percussion.

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