Bang Your Shoe on the Punk Rock

When Kofi Annan warms up your crowd and Marcel Marceau is your opening act, you’ve got a tough job ahead of you, but that’s the position a pair of South Asian rock bands were in last Wednesday night. The occasion was the United Nations Day Concert, staged in the UN’s General Assembly Hall, and pretty much everybody was there for symbolic reasons: Euphoria and Junoon because they’re from India and Pakistan, respectively; the audience of UN staff and dignified old dignitaries—many seated behind desks—mostly because their job involves enduring formal events. Protocol guides don’t cover moshing. The Warped Tour this wasn’t.

Usha Uthup, a sort of Indian Donna Summer figure (in a stars-and-bars sari) introduced both bands, delivering some pleasant boilerplate about music creating brotherhood, universal harmony, peace, friendship, you know the drill. As Euphoria mugged for the video cameras and dedicated their “Stuck on You”-ish ballad “Tum” (“You”) to, swear to God, “all the ladies in the audience,” it seemed like everyone could have simply agreed that the concert happened and world peace was a good idea, and headed home a few hours early. (A lot of the older attendees decided that discretion was the better part of diplomacy, and crept toward the exits anyway.) The program noted that Euphoria play “a pulsating mix of rock, rock and roll and retrorock.” Translation: They covered the Joe Cocker/John Belushi arrangement of “With a Little Help From My Friends” as a light show swirled over the UN logo.

Matters improved with the arrival of Junoon, who are big enough back home that a few dozen young UN-ers were singing along with every word. Two of the band’s three core members grew up in New York, and their combination of Sufi-inspired songwriting, Pakistani folk percussion, and very American stadium rock suggests what might happen if Pearl Jam followed through on Eddie Vedder’s appreciation of qawwali. It doesn’t hurt that singer Ali Azmat is a Vedder look-alike, despite his disturbing tendency to play air guitar, with accompanying facial expressions. They’ve got the beat, too: By the time they got to their South Asian hit “Sayonee,” the demographic in the hall was skewing a lot younger and dancing in the aisles, and a little kid in a Harry Potter T-shirt was jitterbugging onstage.

For an encore, we got the Indian and Pakistani bands together, singing an interminable medley of “Give Peace a Chance,” “Imagine” (as in “Imagine there’s no countries”—yes, in the freaking General Assembly), and the na-na-na-na bit from “Hey Jude.” It was sort of a ridiculous gesture, but a ridiculous gesture of genuine brotherhood; at the moment, it’s worth taking those where you can get them. —Douglas Wolk

I Am Cuba

Mainstream American rappers turned hip-hop into big business when their concerns moved away from inner-city strife to showing off barrels of bling and slapping bare ass on MTV. So when rappers from Cuba took the stage at swanky Joe’s Pub to rap about revolutionary ideas and social injustices, there was something decidedly bizarro about the whole thing. “Revolución, yo! Revolución, yo!” Anónimo Consejo rapped over Afro-Cuban rumba and minimalist digital beats; the trio’s set later turned into a free-for-all, with the rest of the visiting artists jumping onstage to spit more lyrics. Part of the first Cuban hip-hop delegation on a month-long cultural exchange to New York City, two other groups—Raperos Crazy de Alamar, a/k/a RCA, and Obsesión—shared their politically and socially minded verses to a mixed audience that packed the house last Wednesday night.

Although tonight was the delegation’s welcoming party, loosely organized by the Manhattan-based International Hip-Hop Exchange, no one provided the context behind the artists’ lyrics to non-Spanish speakers, which defeated a big point about the cultural ambassadors’ visit here. Rap has become as viable an expression as son or rumba in Cuba, in part because of its spoken-word clarity. For years, innovative composers like Los Van Van and Irakere experimented with rap and traditional Afro-Cuban music. Then last year, Cuban expats Orishas led the first wave of Cuban hip-hop from Paris, introducing a fusion of Buena Vista Social Club son and Cypress Hill beats. On this year’s Cuban Hip-Hop All Stars Vol. 1 (Papaya Records), nearly a dozen groups—including the three delegates—demonstrate a thriving hip-hop culture in Havana. Lyrics speak of Cuban pride, Miami’s Scarface-damaged Cubans, the permanence of racism, and jineteras: the women who whore themselves for survival and/or to meet a foreigner who’ll pluck them from poverty. Husband-wife duo Obsesión, the most inventive of the three, rapped over grinding sex-drenched funk and syncopated Caribbean drumming; in a conga-accompanied spoken-word number, Magia Lopez rendered a chilling, ritualistic rant dedicated to Havana’s prostitutes: “They call you puta, they don’t know your body’s blessed,” she chanted in Spanish. Wearing baseball jerseys with letters spelling “Cuba” on their chests, RCA showed how in-tune they are with their Caribbean neighbors, toasting dancehall style with shout-outs to Africa.

In 1956, Castro stormed a very pro-U.S., capitalist Cuba for the first time to eventually make it a Communist nation. Part of the subtext these rappers bring with them is about defying Washington’s stance on Havana, but whether this crowd agreed or not didn’t seem to matter here—when Anónimo Consejo raised its fists to rap, “Cinco, seis, en defensa de mi gente” (“Five, six, in defense of my people”), the fists waved by audience members became a potent symbol of unity, despite any political differences. —Enrique Lavin