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Preview: Big Ears Festival 2016

Big ears festival 2015I'm excited to be returning to Knoxville, TN this weekend for the Big Ears Festival, which I attended for the first time last year and was pretty much blown away by the wall-to-wall mix of new music, electronic music, jazz, drone, and every other genre that doesn't neatly fit into a Pandora's box. This year's lineup includes everyone from Philip Glass and John Luther Adams, to Andrew Bird and Sunn O))). The festivities begin tomorrow night; stay tuned here and @feastofmusic for updates. Click here for a video montage of last year's festival. 


Africa Now! at the Apollo Theater

by Steven Pisano

Mokoomba at the Apollo Theater(All photos by Steven Pisano.)

The Africa Now! music festival, which just wrapped up it's fourth year at the Apollo Theater, aspires to provide American audiences with a tasting menu of current trends in African music. Of course, the problem in general with music showcases (i.e., SXSW, CMJ, etc.) is that sometimes a nibble just isn't enough. Often, groups are just hitting their stride when out trots the smiling emcee to introduce the next act.

Alsarah and the Nubatones, a Brooklyn-based band with origins in Sudan, played a silky smooth, jazz-inflected set that would have connected better with an audience in a midsize venue. Occasionally, she let out a sudden roof-raising belt that sent shivers through the audience, but most of the songs mixed gentle jazz rhythms with folk-style vocals, all strained through an East African filter.

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Christine and the Queens at Webster Hall

by Steven Pisano

  Christine and the Queens
(All photographs by Steven Pisano.)

To an English-speaking audience, the name Héloïse Letissier (le-TISS-ee-ay) was probably destined to drop to the bottom of the sea. But, reimagined as the semi-alliterative Christine and the Queens, Ms. Letissier has surfed across the Atlantic on a perfect wave of media hugs and kisses from Spin, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and others, who have heralded not only her brightly appealing dance pop, but also her gender-bending persona, often dressing in men’s-style suits.

Touring this fall in support of Marina and the Diamonds, Christine and the Queens headlined the Grand Ballroom at Webster Hall on November 11, playing to a sold out audience including a sizable French-speaking contingent. Technically speaking, Christine and the Queens is not a group, but a solo project. But Ms. Letissier tours with others—in this case, two dancers, a guitarist, and a guy on keyboards and electronics. She likes to run back and forth on the stage, moving in a manner that reminds some people of Madonna-style vogueing.

Ms. Letissier is an extremely beguiling performer. She's a bit goofy, a bit romantic, screams, whimpers, and throws herself headlong into every song. In her own words, she is your weird cousin who sits at the end of the table during dinner, playing with her fork. Her English is flawless, which should help her bypass the resistance some Americans have toward Continental Europeans.

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Talib Kweli (and friends) at Brooklyn Bowl

by Steven Pisano

  Talib Kweli

Brooklyn’s own Talib Kweli, a star in the world of hip hop for almost a generation now, brought his expanding hip hop universe to Brooklyn Bowl for two nights last week, spotlighting some of the talent now recording for his new independent music label, Javotti Media. As Kweli turns 40 years old this year, he clearly has plans to continue having an impact beyond his own recording career by supporting young, up-and-coming talent.

On Thursday, the music kept coming for four hours, so the sold-out crowd definitely got its money’s worth. First up was MK Asante, who rapped stories from his best-selling memoir Buck (published by Random House) about growing up on Philadelphia’s tough-luck streets, to find his place now as a professor of creative writing at Morgan State University.

MK Asante

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