This Saturday night some forty people witnessed excellent intercultural musical cooperation in the shabby backroom of Barbès in Brooklyn where Israel-born Oran Etkin was joined by two Malian musicians, Makane Kouyate and Yacouba Sissoko. The combination of clarinet, kora and calabash is unusual enough, but the musical cross-fertilization and sheer talent of the trio made the event memorable. In the beginning, I thought the music lacked a bit in foundation, because there was no bass in the band. Both kora and clarinet play in treble pitches. However, this shortcoming—mostly in my own head and expectations—was soon overcome, largely because of Makane’s amazing handling of the calabash. While playing complex rhythms and a remarkable range of tones by handling the single drum with his hands and fingers, he was also able to produce a steady bass beat with the base of his hand.
The music was basically based on West African rhythms and tones to which Oran brought his jazz and klezmer influenced clarinet. The concert started with a joyful tune, to be followed by a more melancholy love song, in which Oran switched to bass clarinet. The entire performance alternated between speedier jams and thoughtful and invariably very beautiful pieces mostly featuring the deep sounds of the larger curved clarinet.
Makane was the flashiest performer of the evening. In addition to his calabash, he sang the vocal numbers in an expressive lamenting voice. His percussion work was marvelous. Without warning, he would change the rhythm into double tempo and play flamboyant solos while the kora would keep the tune moving with a steady ostinato. All in all, there was a phenomenal cooperation between the musicians, with the clarinet and kora joining in unison as the drum would strike powerful thumps and bangs to signify a change in a segment or to end a song in a catchy phrase.
Barbès is a small bar and music space in Brooklyn’s Park Slope. It is run by two Frenchmen who named it after the Paris neighborhood, which has a large North African immigrant population. The Brooklyn place has a distinctly Parisian underground feel and a clientele who perfectly fits into the scene. The age range is wide but a certain bohemian demeanor seems to unite the generations. The highly atmospheric music was further lubricated by freely flowing wine and cocktails, which the patrons imbibed in quantities. Although I was irrigating my own throat only with Diet Coke, I did not find any of my fellow audience to be the least annoying, not even those who were clearly quite well marinated.
Oran Etkin is a remarkably creative musician. A student of Yusef Lateef, he has taken after his legendary teacher in his open mind and broad musical vision that bridges a whole range of genres and cultural traditions in an eclectic manner. Lateef (born in 1920 and still going strong) has for decades been one of my greatest inspirations just for the reason of his limitless imagination and incorporation of African, Middle Eastern and Asian music into his own special style. In fact, one of the most intriguing numbers of the evening was a quirky slow blues-based tune that Oran said he had written for his mentor and played on a wailing clarinet. It also took the kora to directions and dimensions that are not normally heard on the stringed instrument. Yacouba Sissoko, however, is a master kora player who has the facility and musical sense to manage such challenges.
The concert was further spiced up by Oran’s good-humored banter in between the tunes. He encouraged the audience to participate in an African style call and response chorus in one of the songs sung by Makane and he also gave people the license to dance, which they took up with delight. During the last number, Yekeke, I observed a middle-aged white couple who were totally absorbed in the moment. The woman shook in overtime as if possessed by a Mandingo spirit, while her partner wearing a pale blazer seemed to imitate former President George W. Bush when he joined in a tribal dance performance during one of his visits to Africa. But how could I blame them? Such was the intensity of the music and rhythm produced by this unorthodox acoustic trio.