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Photograph courtesy of Lisa Alvarado
In Morocco, the Gnawa people conduct an all-night healing ceremony, Lila Derdeba, to cure everything from soul loss to scorpion stings. At the center of this ritual is trance music composed around the guimbri, a lute made from a length of wood, covered in camel skin and outfitted with three goat-gut strings. Chicago bassist and composer Joshua Abrams doesn’t use it as a literalist or folklorist, wisely realizing it wouldn’t be possible out of context anyway. Instead, he writes music respectful of the instrument’s origins but inspired by his genre-jumping background playing with The Roots, Tortoise, Town & Country, and a number of free-jazz ensembles, including Sticks and Stones (featuring brilliant alto-sax player Matana Roberts).
Even after adding loops and psychedelia to the mix, the result never sounds like bricolage, but rather a thing whole and new. Tracks like “Sound Talisman” (from 2012’s Represencing) are dense but not busy, and carry true emotional weight, like a fragment shaken loose from some Western equivalent of an all-night healing song. Backing Abrams is a set of Chicago musicians venerable in their own right: harmonium player Lisa Alvarado; drummer Frank Rosaly (of Roberts’ Chicago Project and Joan of Arc); guitarist Emmett Kelly (who’s played with Bonnie Prince Billy and The Cairo Gang); and free-jazz multi-instrumentalist Ben Boye on autoharp. As always, New Music Circle makes a brilliant match between the musicians and the venue, which in this case is the otherworldly Joe’s Café, with its giant chicken statue, mazy courtyard, and neon-bathed, neo-vaudevillian stage.
New Music Circle Presents Joshua Abrams’ Natural Information Society at Joe’s Café. February 22, 7:30 p.m. $20, $10 students with ID 6014 Kingsbury, 888-662-7851, newmusiccircle.org.