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
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