Lincoln Center Festival: Voodoo Rhythms to Gypsy Rock

Classic Arts Features   Lincoln Center Festival: Voodoo Rhythms to Gypsy Rock
 
Bob Marley or Matisyahu? Robert Johnson or the White Stripes? Patsy Cline or Taylor Swift? The purist in us might be tempted to choose the former. But two ensembles at this year's Festival prove that it's possible to simultaneously honor a musical tradition and make a pop-friendly party out of it.


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Benin's Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou and Sarajevo's Emir Kusturica & the No Smoking Orchestra are evidence to this fact. Just as the White Stripes might lead young listeners back to the Delta blues or Matisyahu may inspire a fan to study up on roots reggae, these groups point the way to their respective native cultures while at the same time providing an accessible, high-energy spectacle.

Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou (July 11) embodies a tradition that could scarcely seem more arcane to most Americans: Vodun (or "Voodoo"), a polytheistic religion practiced in West Africa. Related to but not equivalent with Haiti's more well-known Vodou, the practice of Vodun involves fantastical costumes, ecstatic dances and intricate webs of percussion. Since its late-'60s formation in Benin, the Orchestre has proudly incorporated the complex polyrhythms of Vodun into its exuberant, dance-friendly sound.

But as you can hear on the ensemble's vintage pieces, honed in a club known as the Zenith in the city of Cotonou, the Orchestre was also looking toward the U.S. for inspiration. At the beginning of "Gbeti Madjro" (found on African Scream Contest, a well-received compilation of '70s-era sounds from Benin and Togo), lead singer Vincent Ahehehinnou sings in a plaintive voice over a driving, heavily syncopated groove. Soon the track heats up and Ahehehinnou unveils his piercing shriek, unmistakably inspired by James Brown yet perhaps even more extreme. "The goal was to match the musical realities from Europe and America," Ahehehinnou told The Independent recently. "In Benin, that made us stand out." It's the same quality that makes the Orchestre sound so instantly infectious today. You'll hear hints of hard funk, psych rock, Afrobeat (as practiced by Orchestre associate Fela Kuti), Congolese soukous, Cuban brass-band music and more, all couched in authentic Vodun rhythms: a folkloric-music master class disguised as a celebration. In his conversation with The Independent, Ahehehinnou summed up the outfit's approach nicely: "There's no groove like the Voodoo groove anywhere else. We thought, 'Why shouldn't we make that our rock & roll?' "

Emir Kusturica & the No Smoking Orchestra (July 14) hinges on a similar collision of the old and the new, a melange of Gypsy-music drama and punk-rock aggression. But whereas Orchestre Poly-Rythmo de Cotonou approaches its native culture with reverence, the No Smoking Orchestra takes a satirical attitude toward its homeland. Originally called Zabranjeno Pusˇ enje (Bosnian for "No Smoking"), the group formed in Sarajevo in the early '80s, and it soon became infamous for its impish humor. Under the leadership of frontman Nele KarajliÔäc , the band spearheaded the New Primitivism movement, which used absurdist humor to celebrate everyday life in Sarajevo. After poking fun at the death of Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito during a concert, the outfit garnered criticism in the press and eventually fell victim to a media boycott that all but sunk its career.

The group got a major boost in the late '90s, when the highly acclaimed filmmaker Emir Kusturica, who had performed with Zabranjeno Puenje in the mid-'80s, joined up as a full-time guitarist. Kusturica, whose trademark brand of picaresque humor was a perfect match for that of KarajliÔäc , helped the band garner international acclaim and eventually assumed its nominal leadership. Now known by its current English moniker, the outfit perfected a raucous folk-punk style, simultaneously a send-up and a celebration of Gypsy culture. "We take garbage and we turn it into something beautiful," Kusturica told Telegraph last year. "It is something antic, like the pagan rituals of ancient Greece." You'll understand what he means as you watch Kusturica & Co. segue from mournful overtures into sweaty, hyperactive frenzies on pieces such as "Unza Unza Time" and "Devil in the Business Class." Much like the group's more well-known descendants such as Gogol Bordello, the No Smoking Orchestra portrays Gypsy culture as something lusty and off-the-wall yet essentially warmhearted and even dignified.

Sometimes we experience so-called world music from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist, via talking-head documentaries or meticulously researched box sets. But neither the Orchestre or the Orchestra treats its art like a museum piece. Coming face-to-face with the former's vibrant Vodun-infused funk or the latter's wild turbo-klezmer, you're not likely to require a great deal of context or cultural translation. Despite their vast differences, both bands specialize in putting on a festive show that doubles as a window into another world.

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