Concert review: Esmerine at The Great Hall with Matana Roberts, Saltland, Jerusalem In My Heart, and Dundasa 80 (Constellation Records showcase) at The Great Hall

Montréal label presents less exposed offerings to rapt audience

Esmerine performed at Constellation Records showcase at The Great Hall with four visiting members from Turkey, who helped them record their new album, 'Dalmak,' in Istanbul. Photo: Tom Beedham

Esmerine performed at Constellation Records’ label showcase Sept. 5 at The Great Hall, bringing in tow  four visiting musicians from Turkey, who helped them record their new album, ‘Dalmak,’ in Istanbul. Photo: Tom Beedham

“If all these things don’t make sense then just listen to the singing, alright?” Esmerine collaborator and current touring member Hakan Vreskala said after explaining the lyrics to “Yavri Yavri” as an articulation of a Hebrew relation regarding a bird that takes on the burden of crying others’ tears for them so that its own heart can become calm.

The disclaimer might not have demystified much for the audience gathered at The Great Hall for the headliner of the Toronto Constellation (CST) Records showcase, but Vreskala’s closing statement did convey a sentiment that seems to have been instrumental to the accomplishments of the label’s many experimental bands: who cares about satisfying what we think we know about music or instruments – let’s see what the stuff can do!

What began as Godspeed You! Black Emperor percussionist Bruce Cawdron and Set Fire To Flames cellist Beckie Foon’s cello-marimba duo, Montréal-based Esmerine pulled into Toronto Sept. 5 eight times the size of what it began as, having recruited Turkish collaborators Baran Asik, Ali Kazim Akdağ, James Hakan Dedeoğlu, and Vreskala himself after recording their recently released album, Dalmak, in Istanbul with the musicians, also having counted Jamie Thompson (Unicorns, Islands) and Brian Sanderson as members since early this decade.

The larger stage band helped the group deliver the sounds provided by the more exotic and numbered instruments heard on the new Esmerine album (they brought out a darbuka, an erbane, and a saz, among other things you’ll have to type into Google), but it also granted Esmerine the ability to perform some of its older material – they presented “A Dog River,” “Walking Through Mist,” and “Little Streams Make Big Rivers” from 2011’s La Lechuza (full setlist at bottom of review) – as new, fuller-sounding renditions.

With their set proper clocking in at less than an hour, the band did an admirable job adopting the headlining slot formerly granted to CST’s Colin Stetson, who had been forced to drop off of the bill some weeks beforehand following the announcement of a broken finger. The crowd response that led to the band (including its Turkish contingent) returning for an encore presentation of an abbreviated, higher-personnel version of Aurora’s (2005) epic “Histories Repeating As One Thousand Hearts Mend” seemed to completely dismiss the fact that the show’s original draw had dropped off of the bill; the crowd at The Great Hall was recognizably thinner in comparison to that in attendance at Stetson’s May concert at the same venue, but all in company appeared to arrive with a genuine interest in exploring more of the label’s diverse roster of experimental musicians – ambassadors the original headliner’s absence arguably gave the label the better opportunity to showcase.

While the acts onstage at the CST showcase might have been lesser known, with more formal ambassador and CST label founder Ian Ilavsky (Thee Silver Mt. Zion) on hand, the night didn’t pass without audiences getting their introductions: when he wasn’t manning the merch table displaying albums from CST bands present and absent or advising fans on their purchases, Ilavsky was before the crowd giving introductions to the evening’s performers – which included Chicago-born and New York City-based sound experimentalist Matana Roberts, Beckie Foon’s solo project Saltland, and Jerusalem In My Heart – or airing thanks to all involved, illustrating that CST’s resourcefulness goes well beyond that of its rule-breaking musicians.

Matana Roberts used her time on the stage to preview what Ilavsky later confirmed as new material the artist has been preparing for inclusion on the follow-up to 2011’s Gens de couleur libres, the first chapter of her multi-media conceptual composition and narration project, COIN COIN. Spanning at least half an hour, the single track saw Roberts channeling jazz and beat poetry to deliver sourced fragments of American ideological state apparatuses like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee,” the Pledge of Allegiance, and folk songs like “This Land Is Your Land,” juxtaposing them amongst scattered, gnashing renderings of sound bites from antebellum slave auctions – a context that certainly engages COIN COIN Chapter One’s commerce and consumption foci.

Playing in darkness as projections rolled behind her, Matana Roberts previewed work from the next chapter of her multi-media conceptual project 'COIN COIN' at The Great Hall as part of the Constellation Records showcase. Photo: Tom Beedham

Playing in darkness as projections rolled behind her, Matana Roberts previewed work from the next chapter of her multi-media conceptual project ‘COIN COIN’ at The Great Hall on Sept. 5 as part of Constellation Records’ label showcase. Photo: Tom Beedham

All throughout Roberts’s new number were her signature gloomy saxophone riffs, looped, layered, distorted, and eventually compressed into a doomy, overwhelming groan.  The deconstruction of her country’s narratives, memories, and self-perceptions made for an unforgiving post-America pastiche that was made all the more uncomfortable through ad nauseam repetitions and a time code that echoed the long histories of the piece’s disgraceful subject matter.

After the crowd responded to Roberts’s time travelling maxim mélange with a sea of applause, she gleefully asked the crowd, “Can I take you home?”

In a sense, she already had.

Prior to her own set, Roberts performed a workshop with Esmerine’s Beckie Foon and Jamie Thompson, which served as a segue after Foon’s own (brief) solo set as Saltland (which featured a cello-only rendition of Esmerine’s “Quelques mots pleins d’ombre” from Aurora). For the rest of the night, the live debut of Sandro Perri and Craig Dunsmuir’s DJ project Dundasa 80 was tasked with filling the void between stage sets, occupying a mixing booth at the front of the venue.

Fans that arrived early were forced to wait a little longer for their music as the night got underway about half an hour behind schedule, but they were soon treated to an enchanting performance from Jerusalem In My Heart.

Radwan Ghazi Moumneh sings while tweaking delay speeds as Malena Szlam Salazar uses three 16mm projectors to send visuals onto screens behind him on the stage. Photo: Tom Beedham

Radwan Ghazi Moumneh sings while tweaking delay speeds as Malena Szlam Salazar uses three 16mm projectors to send visuals onto screens behind him on the stage Sept. 5 at The Great Hall for Constellation Records’ label showcase. Photo: Tom Beedham

A contemporary Arab multi-media project, JIMH opened the night with Lebanese national and experimental musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh onstage and Chilean visual artist and filmmaker Malena Szlam Salazar jockeying a series of 16mm projectors from the crowd, looping strips of film featuring images of flickering flames, moons crossing across the night sky, or deer running through a brush as Moumneh used dual microphones to provide and loop vocals, also playing a saz and even performing vocals for an entire song through a talk box. It had the audience so spellbound it seemed to resist clapping between some songs for fear it might interrupt the performance.

Forget the caricature of the smartphone generation texting away as it waits for its headliner. Here, the audience was entirely present.

Clocking in around three hours, the Constellation Records showcase was a night that made for a transcendent and entirely immersive experience that demonstrated how it is still possible to stray far from the beaten path in pursuit of art and find an institution that will throw its weight behind you, at least in the arms of a certain Montréal facility. Other labels could learn from Constellation.

Esmerine Setlist:
“A Dog River”
“Walking Through Mist”/”Little Streams Make Big Rivers” medley
“Barn Board Fire”
“Translator’s Clos I”
“Translator’s Clos II”
“Lost River Blues I”
“Lost River Blues II”
“Yavri Yavri”

Encore:
“Histories Repeating As One Thousand Hearts Mend”

Related:
Colin Stetson, Sarah Neufeld, Richard Reed Parry workshop material with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley
Review: Colin Stetson at Hillside Festival
Review: Sarah Neufeld at Hillside Festival

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