Echoes of Sudan and the ’60s, free in New York parks

Exiled singers, dancers and musician from Sudan, that hell on earth, rallied for peace and unity at Central Park Summerstage. Greyed rockers, still rousing on oldies radio, turned Coney Island into a bit of heaven for eager oldsters. Who’s curating the great free summer concerts in New York? Who’s attending them?

To catch-up on the free New York City concerts of past week (forgive my posting lapse, the worst blogging sin) —
— At an afternoon-long unity rally cum concert calvalcade, an initially impassive Nile Music Orchestra confidently blending strings, saxes, electric keyboards & guitars, indigenous drums and a traps kit, lent solid support to a series of robed male singers, and got funkier (the violinists swaying in formation as they bowed) to accompany two of the three “Hummingbird” sisters, draped in colorful Sudanese costumes, vocalizing with the fetching melisma most familiar to U.S. listeners from gospel and r&b/soul backup parts.
Apparently the Summerstage producers — including hugely curious thus greatly talented director of arts and cultural programs Alexa Birdsong — felt the crowd didn’t have to know anything about the roots or nuances of the genocidal campaign that continues to afflict Sudan’s southern Darfur region, because there was no background info available from a program or speeches from the stage. And they were right. There is only one human position on genocide — to revile it. And the lesson of this concert was about the resilience of survivors of such rampage. Everybody ought to join in demanding that the outrages end, and urge our political representatives to make it so.
Ethnomusicological devotees such as Ned Sublette, Cuban music historian and post-Katrina New Orleans chronicler, and Banning Eyre, of the Afropop radio and website, were scooting around, basking in sounds they, like the bulk of we Americans in the stands and on the field, had never before heard live, grabbing interviews with the musicians when possible. But there was also gratifying attendance by families and groups of friends who appeared to be of East African origin, and they needed no introduction to the musicians onstage nor explanation of the lyrics, styles or unusual instruments (one singer strummed a kithara-like lyre).
The musical mood was from the first upbeat and accessible, as if the pieces performed were designed for very public functions, like rallies or radio broadcasts for mass consumption, rather than intimate recitals or the delivery of personal messages. This was a style akin to that (as Sublette said) of mid-1950s Cairo hotel orchestras, with inexorable, single-themed pentatonic movements, monumental as pyramids and as unmoving. By mid-show, though, the instrumental sounds had cast their spell and could be discerned as much more syncopated, angular and complex.
There was no melodic or harmonic hint of blues — no angst, aggression, nostalgia, homesickness, though perhaps some rue — and a sketchy song list I obtained from Dawn Elder, the composer and events producer who organized this extravaganza, suggested there were no overt appeals for divine intervention to end the catastrophe. Warmth, gaiety, confidence and a ready embrace of modernity marked the musical expression — tunes were designated as “long live Sudan,” “Mambo in the middle of the Nile,” “missing close ones,” “patience,” “beautiful Sudanese girl,” “let’s live it together” — pieces that in several cases could have doubled as pointed political messages and love songs. Such universality of lyrics emphasized, as did the lively singing and playing that eventually inspired audience dancing and cheers, that those in Sudan are just like us, but under terrible fire.
Such distress, of course, seemed a million miles from the mildly smug crowd of mostly middle-aged, middle-class Brooklynites who attended “Hippiefest” on a midweek night in a park near Coney Island, part of a series organized under the auspieces of Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who was onstage, on-mike for a half-hour before the music commenced — and the songs purveyed were as well-known to this audience as the plight of Sudan was ignored.
There wasn’t much genuine hippieism in evidence: no flowers in long hair, peace & love “political” statements, or psychedelic lights. Country Joe McDonald, at the insistence of AM deejay-mc Cousin Brucie, wanly led the infamous Fish cheer in expurgated form. As Colin Brunstone, singer of the Zombies remarked, “We actually missed the hippy thing — we disbanded in 1968.” Text messages from the listeners were displayed on giant screens hung high off the stage, and it was 45 minutes before anyone texted: “Who brought the weed?”
Still, this event was more than an oldies show. Guitarist-singer Denny Laine, who opened the “Hippiefest” concert apparently in substitution of previously announced Mountain may not seem like a boldface rock name, but he was lead singer of the Moody Blues and Paul McCartney’s right hand man in Wings, and though he’s as old as the rest of us Baby Boomers, he’s retained his chops and commitment to rock. He fronted the Hippiefest tour’s capable pickup band.
The singer-songwriter Melanie, now matronly, offered up her catchy, girlish phrases with a voice challenged by the requisites of intonation, but her heart was in the right place and she was accompanied by one of her sons, a guitar virtuoso who keep beaming at his mom. Country Joe performed alone, singing Pete Seeger-style folk adaptations about saving whales and the earth; he seemed like a genuine troubador for this era (as he was in the late ’60s) and also the most au courant of anyone, earnestly pushing his new subtly subersive song, “Support the Troops,” until headliner Felix Cavaliere (of whom more in a paragraph or two).
The main Zombies — Brunstone, who looks like a dessicated lounge lizard, a beginning-to-turn Dorian Gray, but retains the full range of his penetrating voice and cool moves, and keyboardist-songwriter Rod Argent, obviously running the band — had brought their own rhythm section, and delivered detail-perfect version of their hits “Time of the Season,” “She’s Not There” and “Tell Her No,” plus strong non-hits, especially “I’ve Been Abused.” They projected menace (“What’s your name? Who’s your daddy? Is he rich like me?”) and also, somehow, solidarity. Or was that my imagination?
The Turtles — Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, aka Flo and Eddie — throughout their 40 year career always have sung of and with delight, and despite many legal ups and downs (resolved with the reinstitution of their rights to their band name and music) have not changed their tune. Who would want them to? “Happy Together,” “She’s My Girl” and “You Baby” ought to sound just as they did in 1968 when I turned up the car radio to bellow along on the way home from my high school era dates. They don’t take themselves very seriously — which is also to the good. Rock = fun, remember?
To Felix Cavaliere, co-founder of the Young Rascals/the Rascals with estranged partner Eddie Brigati, rock = fun = soulful, heartfelt songs. He detests the term “blue-eyed soul” — “My eyes aren’t blue!,” he has objected — which was used in the hyper-race conscious ’60s for the Rascal’s crossover initiative, beginning with their early r&b cover hits (i.e., “In the Midnight Hour”). That term hardly seems relevant now that musical miscegnation has over four decades become the norm.
But Cavaliere and his music are entirely relevant, vitally enduring today, and as he stormed at the keyboards, masterfully leading the pickup players, tossing off gravely asides and interjections on “Good Lovin’,” “I’ve Been Lonely Too Long” and “People Got To Be Free” my question was — “Where has he been?” (Answer: touring with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Band. What a waste!). His power and immediacy were tangible. He is obviously a born performer, on the order of Ray Charles, and after seeing him so possessed (self-possessed) onstage, you had to wonder how he could be kept out of the spotlight (“Can’t make a good record,” shrugs my friend rock ‘n’ roll storyteller Mitch Meyers).
I was never particularly a Rascals fan, despite their recording with Alice Coltrane, Joe Farrell, Hubert Laws et al on Peaceful World (1971), but after Cavaliere’s set I felt I should have been. I’m his fan now, want to hear him again and encourage that he do more music, new music, soon. He stirred me.
As the man says, People got to be free. Neither the music of Sudan nor the hits celebrated by Hippiefest might have any more relation to jazz than that — but that puts both events into relations to the jazz beyond jazz.

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