By LA Weekly
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By Kai Flanders
Burat Wangi, Emekeke, Songs From the Soul Singers At the L.A. Craft and Folk Art Museum, October 15
A death among the Native American Cahuilla Bird Singers kept them off the stage tonight -- tradition requires that they not sing for nine months. Another recent passing, that of museum founder Edith Wyle, added to a mood of reflection. And visa-expiration problems kept the Afro-Cuban jazz band Sinthesis away. But those of the few hundred waiting outside who were eventually able to wedge into the museum's modest courtyard got a more-than-compensatory shot of spirit.
Most members of the Emekeke ensemble spring from a single family in Matanzas, the Cuban village where their drum-and-voice praise songs extend a line of prayer and healing practice that originated in Africa. And in keeping with the museum's folk theme, these performers, dressed all in white, their two-sided lap drums draped in embroidered cloth, are just what you'd expect to find in a rural community: not slick syncretists, but people for whom this expression is a way of life. The drumming usually avoided grooves, with off-accented beats chosen for message rather than propulsion, as a young woman singer's cutting plaint answered a man's rough calls.
CalArts' ever-evolving Burat Wangi gamelan orchestra proved again why it's not just some regional band of amateur enthusiasts. The sight and sound of this costumed troupe, whanging away with hammers and mallets on three tiers of bells, metal plates, gongs and drums as one or two pairs of dancers executed ritual choreography, was stunning. Drawn from a variety of ancient and modern Javanese and Balinese traditions, the complex extended compositions were performed with a subtlety and a precision that rendered questions of "authenticity" irrelevant: This is powerful music whose lapping overtones and harmonics penetrate listeners' bodies and minds. The polite crowd responded with almost unseemly enthusiasm.
Shirley Massey's Songs From the Soul Singers makes a big impression for just three women vocalists (one on piano) and a drummer. Arrayed in outrageous purple-and-gold dresses, the singers stressed their microphones with mighty testifying that ranged from Aretha-style gospel belting to close R&B harmonizing to Disneyesque balladry. This is unashamed populism at work behind the kind of faith that gets folks through their lives every day. No complaints. (Greg Burk)