The stage at Boston's in Las Vegas was lit up with candles, floating scents of incense, and covered with tapestries from distant worlds when I entered the main space on the early morning hours of November 2nd. The overheads slightly illuminated what seemed at first glance a well-planned clutter of amps, cables, foreign instruments, and gorgeous crystals setup at the front of the stage, the collective whole striking me as reminiscent of a hipped-out yet modernized Middle Eastern coffeehouse gathering. This scene of well thought-out, themed decking-out of the venue appeared to fit appropriately the character and mission of Hamsa Lila. This is a band that engages listeners, pulls them in, turns them upside down and then rights them up again, leaving listeners deliciously shook up. Mind you, this entire experience and its energy followed the wrap up of two nights of the String Cheese Incident only a few blocks away.

That night Hamsa Lila blended soaring melodies with challenging composition while incorporating backbeat rhythm; blending the rootsy sound of the goat-skinned guimbri from Jajouka which created resonant grooves that spiraled around West African drums, while ethereal flutes, woodwinds set the tone and passion of all the musical liftoffs of the evening. All of this weaved on a platter of powerful male and female vocal chants and lush harmonies in different languages mainly of the Gnawan people of Morocco, although there were sections of freestyle rap in English performed by any one of the three female and single male vocalists in Hamsa Lila.

This unprecedented musical brew was heightened though the responsorial singing and interlocking clapping patterns of this type of music that defined and determined the room's spiritual level. While offering a propulsive drive of good female singing, in languages one may not have understood, the fantastically repetitive pentatonic riffs and deep percussive sound of the bass-like sintir recalled a fretless bass laying down the harmonic and rhythmic foundation in a jazz or rock group.

This solid foundation of groove that Hamsa Lila has should be given a patent on a genre of its own.

The first piece began with swelling vocals and building intensity from the widely-assorted rhythm section working itself into a horn soliloquy of rapid-fire streamed notes. The rest of the band waited and absorbed the cycle of mounting percussion and saxophone. A mixture of non-vocal interplay was clear as the dissonance seemed planned and harmonically effective. Just as it reached a point of climax, the drums triggered into a whole new zone of emotion and let the breath of the jam exhale.

Song beginnings and endings were unclear each continued to the next; all band members playing simultaneously and rarely, if at all, taking breaks from the stage. The Lila refers to a rich, all-night ceremony from the Gnawa people from Morocco that follows a path through the night and whose road is marked in the sensory realms of sound, sight, smells, and movement. The music and song – the visuals of their dress, costume, and stage decoration – the candles and incense – and the passionate dancing: a modern day Lila.

Hamsa Lila was the perfect host. Beginning just after 1am, the show continued past sunrise. This is no ordinary band.

Within an hour I found that the first instance of Hamsa Lila's unique character manifested itself. The three sensual vocal tones of Andrea Vecchione, Nikila Badua, and Sasha Butterfly, layered themselves into a melody which perfectly positioned itself producing a multicolored chorus of sound. After a succession of arching melodies, appropriate percussion continued as the pressure dropped and military-tight drummer Inks> took care of cooling things off with a textured groove. Led by M.J. Greenmountain's vocals and talking drum, he summonsed to up the tempo again, his shouting and chanting seemed to extract the most from each musician.

The meaningful and mesmerizing dance of Nikila Badua commenced on an enormous monster take on "Oshun." With a dance inspired by Yoruba traditions – her dance seemed to reflect an offering and cleansing with water; a ritual filled with intensity, body thrusts, and spins that offers dizziness just from watching the show and never failed to entertain. All of the musicians and artists played the melody and made statements of their own. The freedom of the compositions allow for each musician to stretch and contract as they pleased.

Once again Hamsa Lila's musical effect was conveyed through unconventionality and juxtaposition within their open structure. Musical passages swayed and evolved, sudden mood changes and seemingly out of context coarseness and loose playing melded seamlessly together in calculated, yet improvised, delivery.

The night's exploration then included the quirky wit of Peak Experiences mastermind John Dwork on vocals and percussion and hammered-dulcimer wizard Jamie Janover on all sorts instruments that quickly ushered in an interesting change of mood from the all-Hamsa Lila session. This exploration dove through peaks and valleys of vocal, percussion, and ambient overlay which was enjoyable to a point, then I felt I wanted to band to get their groove back – and take their stage back from its celebrated guests.

Just when things seemed to be resolving themselves, Brett Jacobson throws the echo effect on the guimbri and screams up to the top of the neck of his table steel instrument building a sheet of sound the band feeds off of for what seemed like hours. Repetitive trance-like drumming maintained this elevation of pace and then dropped it down to different peaks and valleys each one cresting on a newly discovered apex of knowledge and realization about the actual point of the lila.

To me, the creations within this ensemble's structure opened new doors of consciousness in the room. Slippery heads danced through the wide floor bouncing to the chop and groove of earthy percussion. Horn handler Terry played exotic solo after exotic solo jumping from baritone sax to clarinet to tenor sax to flute – each had hints of blues and helpings of cosmic inspiration.

I can imagine vamping on a musical utensil for six hours straight could build up a rusty refrain, yet the caliber of musicianship continued and compositions extended and glowed at moments where they could have crumbled. All eight musicians played at once yet the sound did not seem crowded as it could easily have been. The bass and drums coaxed a funky groove taking advantage of the non-stop energy rotating from performer to audience and back. The final statement of the evening, characterizing the purpose of why we were there in the first place, the group wove back together to close with the appropriate 'mellow-dy' of a song purposely soft and enchanting as if it were a musical way to tuck someone into bed. The next step after this Lila was rest.

It is clear that Hamsa Lila is onto something with this ensemble. Male vocalist M.J. Greenmountain put it in good context, "we are creating a very unique musical space where there is a direct connection between the audience and the band. If someone is looking for simple surface entertainment, forget about it! Our purpose is to let the music fill the ears and move the body/spirit, allowing incense and color and foods of different kinds to intoxicate the mind completely to be able to let go of all time and space awareness, and go completely into the moment without distraction." Quite a respectful mission for a group that blends centuries of rich traditions from Morocco with the new-school beats and funk of the 21st century.

What Hamsa Lila offers is powerful and compelling music. It is these two things because the band aggressively breaks format and cliché yet remains compelling because they don't choose the easier and more obvious routes that avant-garde music is sometimes victim to. They remain respectful to the traditions of this music while they open you up to a new level of what music can feel, taste and sound like.

Lizabzeth Rzeed
Jambase | Las Vegas via Morocco
Go See Live Music!

Hamsa Lila Upcoming Dates:
11.29 | The Fillmore | San Francisco, CA (headlining, and with Hypnomadic opening)
12.03 | Ballard Firehouse | Seattle, WA
12.04 | Fez Ballroom | Portland, OR
12.05 | McDonald Theatre Lounge | Eugene, OR
12.06 | Mobius Studio | Ashland, OR
12.10 | Kuumbwa | Santa Cruz, CA
12.12 | The Temple Bar - Santa Monica, CA

[Published on: 11/14/03]

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