Friday, August 1, 2008

Fu-Arkist-Ra and Sweet Plantains String Quartet at Joe's Pub-July 27, 2008

While hip-hop and afrobeat aren't generally associated with cellos and violins, that didn't stop the Sweet Plantains String Quartet and Amayo’s Fu-Arkist-Ra from putting on a show packed to the brim with soul, funk and flavor Sunday night at Joe's Pub. Both groups have a reputation for bending genres and originality—Fu-Arkist-fuses afrobeat with free jazz, funk, dub, and classical music incorporating an inventive array of instrumentation and styles, and Sweet Plantain takes a contemporary approach to classical music bridging the gap between hip-hop, jazz, and latin improvisational styles with a classical repertoire. Needless to say, it was unique night.

The Sweet Plantain String Quartet started the night off. Composed of four classically trained musician—violinists Eddie Venegas and Romulo Benavides from Venezuela, Cellist David Gotay from the Bronx, and Violist Orlando Wells from New Jersey—they’re not your average string quartet. The group's mission is to give voice to a contemporary, urban, Latino sound, and much of the group's repertoire is rooted in improvisation. Throughout the course of a set they go from funky to fancy, graceful to gruff. Musically, they were all over the map: they played Afroblue by John Coltrane, a classical rendition of Excursions by A Tribe Called Quest, and Jenny’s Blues, a piece that had a New Orleans blues feel supplied by a strong back beat, Eddie Venegas’ trombone solo, and Romulo Benvides playing a staccato violin to mimic a banjo.

The Sweet Plantains transitioned out of their set with a cover of Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s Water Get no Enemy. Amayo joined the quartet on stage, and the music didn’t stop as all nine members of the Fu-Arkist-Ra joined them onstage and fell into the groove. I don’t know what was more impressive, the seamlessness with which the two ensembles merged their sounds, or their ability to successfully navigate and share the stage.

Everything about the Fu-Arkist-Ra, is unique, but their instrumentation is definitely something you’ll rarely see: electric keyboard, three vocalists, chekere, cello, flute, trap drums, congas, bass, guitar, and an 8-foot Nigerian Ife drum. Their interesting mix of instruments creates an original, unique sound on its own, but when the Sweet Plantains Strings joined them onstage, another layer was added to really make something special. The ensemble laid down a deep winding groove—a churning bass line and multi-layered percussions combined with off beat cello and keyboard lines. It was like an afrobeat score to a scary movie.

Overall, it was one of the more unique shows to which I’ve been.
The rare mixture of musical elements fostered a sound and fusion that doesn’t come around very often. Every time I’ve seen Amayo’s Fu-Arkist-Ra, I always walk away with the same lasting impression of an energy-packed show that keeps the crowd engaged from start to finish. I was especially impressed by the Sweet Plantains as well. Their ingenuity in arrangement and propensity for fusing classical and contemporary genres is unmatched. Both groups are at the forefront of creating new soundscapes and pushing the limits of contemporary music.

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