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Worlds of local music
Atlas Soul and much much more

BY BANNING EYRE

On a recent Friday night at Matt Murphy’s Irish bar in Brookline Village, an unlikely jam was unfolding. Atlas Soul, a new Boston-based world-music outfit, laid down spacious North African funk grooves with passionate vocals, polyrhythmic percussion breaks, and trancy guitar and saxophone melodies that would be the envy of any jam band. Against the sound of neighborhood patrons lifting pints and tapping their feet, a few of the band’s loyal North African fans clapped out counter-rhythms, and before long strangers were joining them. If September 11 created an environment unfriendly to Arabic and North African culture, nobody told these people.

That night, the Atlas Soul line-up was pared down to a five-piece combo with Jacques Pardo on vocals, guitar, and sax and Lotfi Tiken on vocals and guitar. Pardo was born in France to Greek and Algerian parents; Tiken traces his Berber heritage to Casablanca. Boujemaa Razgui, who’s also from Morocco, played dumbek (hand drum) and nay (wooden flute); the sound was filled out by Scott Palmer pumping out fat bass lines and Andreas Brades playing excellent drums rich with complex, grooving North African rhythms.

Atlas Soul formed about a year ago, when the remaining members of two bands in transition — Cosmos Factor and Casablanca 6/8 — merged. Cosmos were Pardo’s group, a jolly, rambling world-music outfit that has been enlivening Boston clubs since the early ’90s. Casablanca 6/8 were an all-Moroccan jazz-fusion band that Lotfi Tiken started with his brother Majid in 1989. The Tiken brothers guested on Cosmos’s 1995 release, We All Live in a Jungle, and the two bands have remained close ever since. Majid has since moved to Switzerland, but his voice is heard on Atlas Soul’s impressive self-released debut, Chamsa, which means, "Give me five."

What hits hardest about Atlas Soul’s sound is the natural funk of North African music and also Lotfi’s powerful vocals, which span fluid, passionate Gnawa melodies and husky rai hooks. There is great wisdom in a world-music outfit that embraces divergent genres (but not so many that the sound loses its identity). At Matt Murphy’s, Atlas Soul finished the first set with a 20-minute rendition of Pardo’s homage to the Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti. Pardo’s French-accented vocal sounded more like Satchmo than Fela, but the song kicks, and as they worked it through dumbek-driven percussion breakdowns, extended solos, and a chanting passage that got the whole bar calling out Fela’s name (whether or not they knew who he was), his venerable Afrobeat morphed into rhythms and melodies of North Africa and the Middle East and made sense in a whole new way.

Pardo says the North African identity brings a crowd response you don’t get with garden-variety world beat. When the band first formed, they played Sundays at the Kirkland Café in Cambridge. "We had people from the North African community coming to see us every week. They go really nuts. They throw money at you. Sometimes we had North African pop stars coming and sitting in with us. We had Cheb Nasro for a while. When he’d be coming, they’d be throwing between $400 or $1000 at him in a night." The clapping heard at Matt Murphy’s is a standard part of the North African response. "It becomes like a rhythm section. At Francofolie in Montreal, we had hundreds of people clapping their hands together. Kids were jumping on stage. I rarely saw anything like this in my life."

And Pardo’s own musical roots? "I come from a family of music lovers. In Paris, the first gramophone ever possible to buy, my father and mother bought it and played Greek and Arabic music on it all the time. They bought me my first guitar when I was six years old. I was playing three chords and singing. I sang in my first band when I was about 11." After a stint in Israel playing in a mixed Jewish and Arab band, he made his way to the US and ended up in a touring blues band for a few years. When he settled in Boston, his real desire was to play Middle Eastern songs. That was a part of the mix in Cosmos Factor, but tossed in with Latin grooves, Afropop, and New Orleans funk, it never came through with the clarity he’s getting in Atlas Soul. He even sings a respectable Arabic vocal on "Ya Willie."

Lotfi Tiken also comes from a musical family. But as a boy playing music in Morocco, he found that American sounds were the big attraction. The first group he and his brother formed, Peace Band, played the Top 40 and jazz fusion of the day: George Benson, Paco de Lucia, Quincy Jones, Al Jarreau, Duran Duran. Lotfi was the drummer. The Tiken brothers moved to France in 1982 and got in on the early Algerian expatriate rai music scene. "At that time, rai was underground," Lotfi explains. "It was something that writers did, traditional Algerian music. They were wiser guys, older people. So we started taking that kind of music and mixing it up with Western music."

Back in Morocco a few years later, his romance with an American girl who played folk guitar triggered a mad itch to travel again. So in 1988, he headed for New York. "I came to America just starving for music. Honest to God. I had a good situation back home. I could have just had my own business, my own band. I had support from my family. But I wanted more. I wanted to be playing CBGB’s and Kenny’s Castaway." Three months later, he was doing just that, playing bass in a rock band called Among the Living. Lotfi and Majid later joined forces again to form Casablanca 6/8, the band they brought to Boston in 1994.

These days, living off his work as a video engineer, Lotfi is free to take the music where he wants. In addition to performing in Atlas Soul, he records his own material, and he insists that Casablanca 6/8 have a future as well. He’s a dreamer. "I want to give a chance to millions of people out there, people who grew up like me — to just grab an instrument and express themselves through music, simple music, happy music, rock and roll. Jeans, sneakers, T-shirt! Who cares? You don’t have to dress up in silk to get on stage."

Whereas Tiken embraces the humble simplicity of American rock, Pardo is drawn to the spiritual depth of Moroccan trance music. In Atlas Soul, their visions harmonize, both on Chamsa’s varied tracks and in the band’s spirited live shows. Watch for them on festival stages next summer.

Of course, a number of other Boston-based bands who draw upon African music are also working the scene. Rumbafrica continue to please with ever sharper Congolese soukous. Wildest Dreams include a lot of African elements in their world-dance-music mix. Kora player and bandleader Balla Tounkara is turning up all over town and will soon put out his third CD. And new to the scene is another outfit headed by a Malian — indeed, a frequent collaborator with Tounkara. Master drummer and dancer "Joh" Camara came to Boston in 1995 and established a traditional dance company called Troupe Sewa. Now he’s launched a dance band, Jama Jigi, whose name means "hope of the people" in Bambara; they blend West African music with funk, jazz, reggae, and pop.

So, how to find out where Jama Jigi, Atlas Soul, and other Afropop bands — or world-music bands of any variety — are going to be playing? Take heart: it’s now easier than ever to stay on top of Boston’s world-music scene. The World Rhythm Calendar started as a print publication in 1995, and it will soon be a Web site. But in its handiest form, the calendar is a monthly e-mail newsletter available free to subscribers. The brainchild of Martin Pillsbury, the World Rhythm Calendar provides a link to many of the ethnic-music and dance communities that are and have always been hidden away in Boston’s diverse but too often separate neighborhoods.

The December issue included details about West African dance and Brazilian capoeira classes, as well as instruction in tango, samba, and belly dancing. Concert listings range from Javanese gamelan to Celtic music, salsa, reggae, soca, and Haitian kompa. And Pillsbury has recently launched a separate calendar, Ritmo Brasileiro, that’s dedicated to the myriad Brazilian events in the Boston area. It used to be difficult to find out about some of the most interesting concerts here because they were put on by and for particular ethnic communities. Now there’s no excuse for missing out on the action.

Issue Date: January 3 - 10, 2002

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