On Saturday, we went underground to check out the acoustics of what maybe the greatest resonating chamber in the whole land—the NYC subway. Constructed with millions of thin-grouted ceramic tiles like out of a men’s bathroom, the 468 different subway platforms and hallways, 25 of which allow musicians and performers, are perhaps the busker’s best friend, like playing at Royce Hall or Disney Hall without having to have a brand name or a guest list. We sat atop a locked shoeshine station and listened to a remarkable cellist/vocalist named Gabriel Royal sing an original song about self-doubt, the pull of his bow shooting a sonorous hum through our breast plate even though he was across the opposing tracks over 50 feet away. Then we moved over to one of those upturned plastic-tub drum battles – the ghosts of thousands of years of African history alive and well in a musty, echoey subway platform in 21st century New York – while kids and hipsters swirled and danced all up and down the boarding area. On the L platform near Tompkins Square we listened to a kid in specs and dreads singing Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale."
All these shows, taken together, acted as sort of a people’s answer to the wonky, geeky CMJ Music Marathon happening all over the city during the whole weekend, all part of the Music Under New York, a program that auditions over 100 musicians to put on weekly performances deep in the Chinese Puzzle bowels of Gotham. Begun in 1987, MUNY was New York’s version of MySpace before there was any Internet – ironic, considering the Internet ceases to exist when one goes underground and gets no signal or server. The busker phenomenon here, which has given music the heights of Louis "Moondog" Hardin and the dregs of David "The Pope Smokes Dope" Peel, has now gone hi-tech. The big difference from the ones we saw in the late-70’s/early 80’s is that the modern busker now has a website, a blog and/or announces their Facebook page between songs.
The ones who didn’t were the R. Crumb-like characters who came shuffling into the subway cars: Eckskooz me lade’s ‘n’ gentmellen but I am a child o’ God like y’all and I don’t believe’n gettin’ somethin’ f’nothin’. No sir, I am an entertainer at heart, just trying to make everyone’s day a lil’ brighter and feel God’s love despite the fact’o my own underfortunate situation, so jussit back an’ relax an’ enjoy the ride while I perform some o’ my fave’rite songs… Then comes a chugging Latin beat tapped out on the floor with an aluminum disability cane and a cracked-vinyl voice emoting “Stand By Me” before switching to another tap pattern for “My Girl.” Nobody paid any attention, but the Beast imagined dueting – him doing the beats, me singing – on Hall & Oates “I Can’t Go or That (No Can Do)."
Saturday night, we took up an invite from our L.A.-via-Boston-via-Brooklyn tastemaker pal Miss Darcey Leonard, who runs the vintage fashion house Screwball Diva and hosts the "monthly psychic dance club" Salome. When she was on the Left Coast, Miss Darcey introduced the Beast to some pretty tasty and twisted under-underground music acts like Milo Jones, Lily Marlene and Indian Jewelry. Now located in funky-arse Bushwick, Darce clued us in to a show at a space Secret Project Robot Art Experiment (near Flushing/Irving on a street called, hilariously, Melrose). Ahhh Bushwick: At night, spooky-lit (if at all) by too-far-between lamplights; desolate, trash-blown streets surrounded by huge-walled warehouses with enormous, abraded lettering for long dead industries; occasionally a sepulchral café winking at you or a brightly lit bodega acting like a port on the wherethefuckarewe storm; little kids speeding past on bikes yelling about “there were bodies allovahdaplace” (a video game, riiiight?) before smashing into parked cars; a guy stalking down the street screaming into a Smartphone that turns out to be his hand.
The SPR compound was nominally a construction site enclosed by corrugated metal with a rickety wooden bar and mismatched chairs and sofas, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari on a TV living on some obscure jerryrigged power source, outhouse-like bathrooms guarded by an entire wall of impaled frozen stuffed animals, bowls of candy and fruit you could just take without being charged a $4 service fee, thick tang of Indian spice incense accompanied by psychedelic Barbarella-meets-Bollywood images splashed across the graffitied brick walls.
Interior of Secret Project Robot and/or Santigold album cover
There were a lot of guys standing around who looked like Devendra Banhart. One of them turned out to be the lead cantor of the first band Invisible Circle, which consisted of circular, emotionally intense raga-riffs on a Farilight synthesizer dressed with Polyphonic Spree-like vocal tapestries from a gender-mixed, six-person choir. This was followed by the Colin L. Orchestra, a seven -piece jam band that melded the Allman Brothers’ triple-guitar gauntlet with a sort of millennial bent redolent of Wilco. The eponymous hulking lead singer looked like a Dutch wrestler named “Jaap.” OK fine, cool.
But the last act was something else entirely, a merciless tribal Salvation Army brass band with groove mixed with hypnotic vamps and Qawwali-like vocal calisthenics. Turns out this band – called Debo – is an 11-piece orchestra from Boston’s Jamaica Plain ‘hood specializing in the complex, pentatonic-scaled funk-based grooves of Ethio-Jazz, a musical movement based in Addis Abbaba that was forming in parallel with the Afrobeat movement. Unfortunately, Ethio-Jazz lasted only very briefly until the country’s emperor Halie Selassie was deposed in 1974. This led to somewhat of a Buena Vista Social Club-like diaspora of musicians who either fled or were wiped out by the ensuing 13-year rule of the Soviet-backed military regime.
But thanks to reissue series like Éthiopiques, this truncated period in African music history has been rediscovered along with its most influential practitioners like Tilahun Gessesse, Getatchew Mekuria, Mulatu Astatke (considered the music's founder), Mahmoud Ahmed, Ari Birra, Alemayehu Eshete and Bezunesh Bekele. Which is not to say that the Debo Band necessarily replicates this music like it was encased in an amber musical note. Their unruly mix of brass (including Sousaphone), reeds (saxophonist/Ethnomusicologist Danny Mekonnen is one of the co-founders), accordion, synthesizer, violins and drums brings forth a Arcade Fire-meets-Fela-meets-Klezmer-meets-avant-garde-jazz-meets-gypsy-soul vibe -- all anchored by the Youssou N’Dour-like vocalese of Bruck Tesfaye and a kinetic stage show that recalled the Pan Afrikan People’s Arkestra’s cathartic whoop-dee-do’s at L.A.’s South Park. The Debo Band just just released its self-titled debut last July on Sub Pop that was produced by Gogol Bordello’s “Tommy T” Gobena. Check out an NPR profile of the band here.