World dance-fusion band Karikatura packed the East Village’s Bowery Electric to capacity on Sunday, June 1, making the floors throb and the audience whirl. A listener might be hard-pressed to categorize this act, but this is how they self-identify: “An organic synthesis of all the music heard blasting out of car windows and shops onto the streets of NYC, Karikatura lives where cumbia meets hip-hop, reggae meets klezmer and indie-rock meets afrobeat.” The event was an album-release party for their LP Eyes Wide, which includes a number of social themes like gentrification, immigration, media propaganda and the atomization of society (the title track plays on the idea of false consciousness, or at least competing consciousnesses).
The band pulls off these ambitious multi-genre designations by drawing on a deep vocabulary, both of different idioms in general and individual rhythms and riffs in particular. It was instructive to compare this performance with their performance at a private wedding that I attended, by sheer coincidence, back in May. There they offered some very respectable renditions of traditional Jewish freylakhs, followed mostly by originals selected for maximum danceability. It was eighth-note funk beats and percussive riffs from all instruments, including melody ones. However, on June 1, they shared the bill with a very good son/salsa group, Los Hacheros, so, appropriately for the occasion, they focused much more on Latin or Latin-tinged material, with guaguanco patterns on the ride cymbal and claves on the cowbell. Drummer Morgan Greenstreet, perhaps the most deft and subtle deployer of these diverse cues, even took up the conga at one point and launched his kit into a true 6/8 polyrhythm at another.
Guitarist Dima Kay, vocalist Ryan Acquaotta and bassist Eric Legaspi performing at the Bowery Electric on June 1. Photos: David Meadow
Powerhouse bass player Eric Legaspi came up with some great lines in this show. By sheer dint of playing bass, he’s bound to get more appreciation from the musicians than the rest of the audience, but let no one say he doesn’t fight for attention. In a memorable solo turn, he achieved a fast, fugal run by tapping the fretboard with his fingers. I don’t know about the audience, but the first bass player this reminded me of was the late, great Cliff Burton of Metallica shredding it out circa 1986. It was almost cheeky in its unexpectedness (though Karikatura founder and guitarist Dima Kay appears to have started in heavy metal, for whatever that’s worth). In any case, the audience went right along with it and cheered lustily.
Vocalist Ryan Acquaotta, with his forceful yet tender tenor, often seems to plead earnestly with his spectators to join the band in its blissful outpouring of energy, and the Bowery Electric show exemplified this. His undulating dance moves, coupled with those of the hyper-energetic Legaspi — and these two really shake it when they get each other going — almost physically whip the audience into motion.
Joe Wilson on sax, Morgan Greenstreet on percussion and Karl Lyden on trombone at the Bowery Electric. Photos: David Meadow
Another element that works well here is the combination of tenor sax (Joe Wilson, switching occasionally to alto) and trombone (usually Till Keunkler, with Karl Lyden subbing for him at this performance and Ric Becker playing on the album). I’ve noticed this combination adding up to a very full horn sound in more than one band — it’s one that can easily be mistaken for three or four horns. The main thing that can’t happen with this setup is a true James Brown-style blast, which requires at least one trumpet, but between their long, demanding charts of harmonized riffs and their assured solos, the two horns are indispensable to the group’s musical chemistry.
Karikatura is originally the brainchild of the above-mentioned Dima Kay, who conceived the group while making his way across India in 2009. Kay tied things together well that night with his guitar, mostly subliminal as he chorded and matched the bass or horns, and leaped out every now and then with a slinky solo or a prominent bookending riff drenched in delay-pedal effects.
If you want to see Karikatura for yourselves, they are playing at Mehanata, in the Lower East Side, on Saturday, June 28. You will smile, you will shake your butt, you will think about why you love this city so much — and you might even be coaxed into thinking about how it can be made into a better city for everybody.
For more, see karikaturanyc.com.