“I know trance music when I hear it,” might have been the response of late U.S. Supreme Justice Potter Stewart had he attended last Friday night’s (March 25) concert as the final installment in this year’s Parallels Series, an inspired new music series at Amherst College. For a nonstop hour and 45 minutes, Ethiopia’s greatest singer, Mahmoud Ahmed, backed by Boston’s Either/Orchestra—a progressive ten-piece jazz ensemble—had the audience of 400+ under its power.
What was it about that dark, eclectic music that provoked college-age women to rise up from their seats, shaking and swaying in serpentine thralldom? Or the rest of us to embrace a more seat-bound version of such submission?
Seduced by the darkness. The relentless pulse gained power via the dark confines of the music’s architecture. A pentatonic scale that almost never resolved on “comfort” notes like major fifths, and a tonal range that rarely exceeded two octaves kept the listener in a state of willing confinement. So did horn tones that avoided primary colors and excessive brightness.
The effect was to propel the audience forward in a truncated musical space--as if through a dim-lit subterranean passageway just high enough to stand in. Along the way, periodic syncopations from Mahmoud’s baritone and the horns added spice to the relentless forward progress. The musicians offered additional digressions--call and response vocal and instrumental volleys and extended instrumental improvisations (some of them excellent).
|The redoubtable Grace Zabriskie|
Mahmoud Ahmed’s basaltic voice originates in the back of his throat and takes you for a ride. At age 69 he remains a vocal marvel; his commanding presence got stronger as the evening progressed. Listen to a clip of him below with the Either/Orchestra,which--just like in in Amherst--offers a stunning exploration of crepuscular soundscapes through nuanced arrangements and dark dissonances.