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A sense of puzzlement hung over the SummerStage crowd during Bongo Maffin’s set on Saturday afternoon. The day began with DJ sets by Ron Trent and Martin Morales, whose Afro-Brazilian grooves fell roughly between Bongo Maffin’s club-friendly Afropop and headliners Basement Jaxx’s mutant disco; the burgeoning mass ate it up. So the stage appeared to be set for Maffin, an eight-piece group from South Africa who play kwaito—a hybrid of umbaqanga (township jive), hip-hop, dancehall, and house. On record, Bongo Maffin generate a bottom-heavy 4/4 thump that suggests a crossover with house’s hypnotic pulse. But at Central Park, they were somewhat different than expected—about half their set simmered like traditional umbaqanga rather than riding a bouncing, discolike groove. Guess which half the audience talked through. “I feel like I’m watching a South African Fugees,” a friend said. So did I: Two male rappers—the mellifluous Stoan and the rough-voiced Appleseed—aided and abetted Thandiswa, a female powerhouse with a slightly nasal voice.
Kwaito may be a hybrid music, but the group seemed to take pains to emphasize their individual elements. A mid-set sequence went from r&b slow jam into street-tuff rap into raga chatta. Such showbiz savvy often felt like it was diverting the group’s strengths —they really do sound best at their most thumping, and not just because the house fans at the Park like their beats monolithic. Still, during the moments when Appleseed’s commanding growl interacted with Thandiswa’s startling ululations, Bongo Maffin won pockets of the crowd over. Seeing die-hard clubrats in broad daylight is rare enough. Watching them shake their asses to Afropop was almost surreal. —Michaelangelo Matos
Falling in Love with the Wolfboy
Included in the Fall 2000 “Men We Love” issue of Bust was a chart of possible musician mates. One column described “The Wounded One”: “Your dream date: You go to see his band. Afterwards, he retreats into a funk. As you reassure him, he tells you that he hasn’t played as well since his mom died of cancer. Your consoling hug turns amorous. The reality date: You go see his band. Afterwards, he is brooding and uncommunicative. You ask what’s wrong and he explodes, ‘Nothing! Jesus!’ then pointedly ignores you. You have to find your own ride home.”
Conor Oberst, the Nebraskan singer-songwriter who is Bright Eyes, is a Wounded One. A notoriously unpredictable performer and enigmatic personality, he has been known to take audiences on both sorts of dates. But at the Village Underground on Saturday, Oberst made it very easy for every girl in attendance to want to take him home and console him forever. Alone with an acoustic guitar, eyes closed and bathed in blue light, the 21-year-old Jordan Catalano look-alike seemed almost angelic as he sang of finding the perfect woman, who would love his madness enough to cure him. “Oh, stay with me Arienette, till the wolves are away,” he moaned, shaking on the edge of his seat and gripping his instrument tightly. A room full of wannabe Arienettes mentally reached out their arms.
However, these girls know that there’s more to Conor Oberst’s act than an eroticized pity party—there’s no way just a pretty face and a tragic aura could have gotten this guy as much indie cred as he’s currently workin’. The epic, unreleased set-closer “Waste of Pain” is easily the most piercing song Oberst has written to date; its stark, confrontational language would move even the most jaded cynic. But talented or not, Mr. Bright Eyes is still a Wounded One. My deepest sympathies go out to the girl he ends up with. —Amy Phillips
Ring the Changes
A tight knot of slam-dancers swirled around the sweltering Bowery Ballroom floor, fists poking out of the tangle to shake at slogans like “La voz, la voz, también es una arma” (“The voice is a weapon, too”), chanted by Mexico’s vallenato-punks El Gran Silencio. For all the talk about merging cultures, disappearing borders, and Nuevo Latino music, EGS’s July 9 concert was a fitting close to the second Latin Alternative Music Conference, a weekend-long meeting of fringe-music industry folks from around the globe. The hyperactive quintet meld traditional Mexican, dancehall, cumbia, hip-hop, and punk into a cohesive hybrid that represents the dynamic changes taking place in their home city of Monterrey and most of Latino America. The ubiquitous accordion of the polka-driven norteño tumbles alongside a galloping acoustic guitar, as combative drums charge without resistance to a rapper’s cry, “¡Libres y locos!” In the liner notes of their second album, Chúntaros Radio Poder (out this week), the group describes themselves as “freestyle norteño”—nicely tying together the notion of a postmodern Mexicano loyal both to his Latin heritage and his punk/rap/reggae-informed outlook.
At Bowery, brothers Tony and Cano Hernández tongue-twisted dancehall-style toasts and popular chants over warped merengue beats at double speed, while accordionist Campa never let his instrument rest. In a moment, Nuevo Latinohood became visible when the band broke from their frenetic pace and launched into a Mexican folk song. The mosh pit opened up to form an inner and outer ring of fans with their arms locked, moving in a traditional huapango-style dance. But then the group’s cultural ADD kicked in, and it was back to slamming to accordion-punk riffage. Welcome to the nuevo mundo of freestyle norteño. —Enrique Lavin
To the Manner Born
Sometimes you think you can dance to Mouse on Mars’ electronic fart-funk. But the drum’n’bass cartoons of their past few releases, particularly 1999’s adorable Niun Niggung, only fleetingly cross the line between ass-inspiring rhythms and final theses at Bard College’s vibeology elective. Yet you admire their spirit of kooky experimentation, as unlikely as it is to do more than influence their descendants. Andi Toma and Jan St. Werner, your very polite hosts at Irving Plaza on July 3, aren’t afraid to turn the BPMs up to ludicrous levels and interrupt steady riffs with noodling. Nor are they shy about their mission to bridge the wide gap between hambone and hi-tech. You have a soft spot for goofballs like this, whom one can laugh at and laugh with. If MoM were from Seattle, and not Germany, they’d be the Presidents of the United States of America, wouldn’t they? What you suspect their idiosyncratic beats need in order to be danceable is volume.
So you go to hear them with mind open and hamstrings expectantly stretched. The group has made of themselves a power trio, adding drummer-singer Dodo Nkishi to their bass, synth, and laptop lineup. MoM mostly stick to the material that has any hope of getting four on the floor: Niun Niggung‘s warped disco triptych—”Gogonal,” “Diskdusk,” and “Pinwheel Herman”—are all included. The holiday-thinned crowd, composed of those shy people a few cubicles down, spazzes out to the too-fast, too-exact tempos, with a kind of skinny-person neck-jerk motion. You briefly question the utilitarian mindset that would require them to make dancey dance music in the first place, but they’re so close, why avoid it? Theirs is among the most civilized rock concerts you’ve ever seen, something that might be more comfortable accompanying a digital art opening. And your hamstrings have stiffened up. —James Hannaham
On the Verge of a Nervous Breakbeat
New York’s pioneering 2step garage party Drive By celebrated its first birthday in style with a riverside bashment at Pier 63 and a bill headlined by top-drawer U.K. talents Zed Bias and Deekline on July 3. Both DJ-producers are identified with “breakbeat garage,” the inevitable backlash against 2step’s mainstream crossover, and a mutant offshoot that strips away the r&b vocals and treble gloss in favor of bass-too-dark minimalism. Deekline’s sound has virtually no connection to garage, but instead mashes up hip-hop, a lickle bitta dancehall, and whole lotta hardcore. He played two tracks that are basically unofficial remixes of rave-era Prodigy classics: the Max Romeo-pilfering “Out of Space” and the Arthur Brown-sampling “Fire.” His absolute boom tune was uncharacteristically housey—Nu Yorican Soul’s fevered “Runaway”—and other New York allusions flew by with licks ripped from Todd Terry and Mark the 45 King. Once again, you had to marvel at the Brits’ verve (and nerve) at taking U.S. originals like hip-hop and house, then exporting them back to America as exotic hybrids.
Zed Bias’s sound has more “swing,” using U.K. garage’s sticky snares and crisp, skippy hi-hats more often than the rigid, jackknifing electro beats favored by Deekline. Bias also has a stronger feel for the subliminal skank that is one of 2step’s secret rhythmic ingredients: Tonight he dropped a great version of Tenor Saw’s “Ring the Alarm” and climaxed with “Neighbourhood,” his own dancehall-infused soundboy killer. “Neighbourhood,” I’ve found, is the one tune that infallibly sways skeptics who profess to hate this music (usually based on hearing one Artful Dodger song). In this respect, Zed Bias is the Photek of 2step. Just as Photek drew people into drum’n’bass through his techno edge, five years on Bias seduces nonbelievers with the jungalistic feel of his 2step: growling sub-bass and mash-up beats, corseted within garage’s plush elegance.
What a difference a year makes: With its crammed dancefloor and amazingly euphoric atmosphere, Drive By left one convinced that New York’s 2step scene, after false starts and prematurely announced demises, is finally set to EXPLODE. The city now boasts several U.K.-level DJs (two of whom, Dinesh and Greg Poole, also played tonight) and a fervent core audience who really feel the music. Indeed I’d actually say the New York scene is better than its London prototype, which is increasingly blighted by moody attitude, gangsta bizness, and violence. In the London underground there’s always been this weird mismatch between the music’s effervescent joy and the crowd’s screwface sourness. But New York has “corrected” that discrepancy. There’s never been a better time to join the party. —Simon Reynolds