Friday, February 25, 2011


Sts. Simon and Jude Church
February 22
Palác Akropolis
February 23

A divine performance amid the angels and saints.

The best feature about Prague culture is its endless variety. The city’s position at the geographical center of Europe makes it a crossroads for everybody from Russian opera stars to Latin tango bands. And Prague’s deep cultural history and traditions nurture a strong local music base, along with pockets of fans for every conceivable type of sound.

Case in point: Two nights of concerts this week that juxtaposed Bach choral works with African trance music. Could any two genres be further apart? Or more deserving of being appreciated for their unique and wildly different attributes? Yet for an open mind and ears, there was a seductive common thread.

The brilliant work of Collegium 1704 has been lauded many times in this space, but like Prague’s ubiquitous květiny (flower shops), the group always has something fresh and vital to offer. This time it was fabulous choral work in a smart selection of J.S. Bach cantatas and motets. The opening piece for two choirs, Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied (BWV 225), was captivating from the first bars, with conductor and artistic director Václav Luks drawing a lustrous, spirited sound from the 12 singers. If the vocals overwhelmed the music at times, there were enough quiet moments to compensate, in particular fine solo work from alto Markéta Cukrová, and very tasty playing by the two oboists.

For the next two pieces – Komm, Jesu, Komm (BWV 229) and Allein zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ (BWV 33) – Luks used eight singers arranged in mirrored quartets, with the bass singers in the center and the tenor, alto and soprano voices extending to the wings. The effect was mesmerizing, particularly on Komm, with its dazzling interlaced vocal lines. Accompaniment by two strings (cello and contrabass) and an organ gave the music a vibratory pitch that was hypnotic. With angels cavorting in the background and saints watching from on high, it was like being transported to God’s own concert hall.

The ensemble added two voices and two flute players for the final pieces, Ihr werdet alle heulen (BWV 103) and Jesu, meine Freude (BWV 227), which were not quite as impressive as Komm and Allein, but a tour de force nonetheless. Jesu in particular is a complex dramatic work with tricky phrasing and breaks that Luks handled with seamless aplomb. The vocal trios were entrancing, and the full choral sections offered a study in how to balance technical finesse with vibrant emotional expression.

From the Congo, music that puts a spell on you.
Fast-forward 250 years to Central Africa, and you find traditional tribal rhythms being married to modern electronics by groups like Konono No1, a good-time jam band of anywhere from 6 to 16 people. At Akropolis Thursday night, the group fielded two percussionists, one banging on a stripped-down drum kit and the other hammering a pair of congas and blowing on a police whistle; three electric likembé (a traditional instrument also known as a “thumb piano”) players; and a female vocalist and vibes player who spent much of the evening at the front of the stage, artfully swiveling her hips.

Part of Konono’s appeal is its dirt-poor aesthetic. The band likes to boast that many of its rhythm instruments and most of its sound system was salvaged from junkyards – and it sounds like it. Muddy, rough-edged and infectiously danceable, Konono’s music comes off the stage like a freight train on a joy ride. There seems to be some nifty likembé playing in the mix, but it’s hard to tell through all the distortion and raucous percussion, which dominates and often overwhelms everything else.

Ah, but the rhythms! Konono hits a groove and stays there for 20 minutes at a time, or even longer, and the mind-numbing repetition is just the point. This is Bazambo trance music, which will run all the rational thoughts out of your head if you go with it, and strip your sensory input down to a single, driving beat. Close your eyes and you could be deep in the jungle, immersed in a tribal ritual of cleansing and celebration and cathartic abandon.

Which is to say, in a state not very different from blissed-out Baroque. One cranks you up and the other slows you down, but both are transformative in their effects. This hallmark of great music cuts across all eras and genres, as noted by no less an authority than Chuck Berry, one of the founders of modern rock ’n’ roll, when he sang, “Roll over Beethoven, tell Tchaikovsky the news.”

Rachot, which produced the Konono No1 concert, brings a lot of interesting music to Prague. Check its upcoming schedule at:

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