Live review: Ethio Cali, SK Kakraba Band at Zebulon, August 25.


Twenty years ago I stumbled into a club, gallery or airplane hangar and got sufficiently blown away by Kakraba Lobi, a master of the Ghanaian gyil (wooden xylophone), that I bought his CD. Now the hurricane has hit me again, and this SK Kakraba is not coincidentally the first dude's nephew.

Here was SK at Zebulon, a recently opened Frogtown venue already valued for its indoor/outdoor tapas/booze and its high-celinged, semicomfortable and adventurously booked concert space. At the front of the deep, low stage stood that mythic gyil, a contraption like a knee-high weasel rope bridge that uses tricked-out gourds as resonators. None too soon, a stripe-smocked SK Kakraba squatted and began wailing on the thing with his mallets, joined at leisure by his matchingly clad younger band.

The gyil hardly needs a band: The dense waves from its wooden plates expand via the overtones from spider cocoons (or equivalents) covering holes drilled in the gourds to produce nerve-tingling vibrations like copper foil on a revving tractor. SK hurled into it with abandon, his joyful rhythms and mesmerizing Afro-riffs commanding a yo-yo response from our heads and feet, his chants encouraging benevolent spirits to evict our demons. Yet the tight ensemble provided welcome framework and embroidery, as the theatrically wristed Davey Chegwidden slapped complementary congas, inward-focused Caitlin Moss emphasized the basic beats on traps, Balam Garcia located counterpoints on electric bass, and guitarist Steven Van Betten buzzpicked melodies and bent his strings into oddly appropriate Nashville figures. The packed room erupted loud, louder, loudest.

Next, the eight-member Ethio Cali lavished their own lilt, Afro groove, ska and more to reference the famous '70s-archive "Éthiopiques" record series. Nerdwise leader-trumpeter Todd Simon and South L.A. sax lion Randal Fisher blew with chopworthy passion, and mysterious Tylana Renga slipfingered elegant violin while beaming cinematic allure with her silk dress and subtle footwork. If the ensemble seemed a trifle unblended, it coulda been just the phase of the moon; this group will continue to make a significant contribution.

The Carib-centered deejaying of Mexican Dublab affiliate Tropicaza, by the way, reinforced the upbeat atmo; an annotated playlist from him would have sent music sojourners down some wild new roads. Getting lost is where it is.

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