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Susie Ibarra's Electric Kulintang with Roberto J. Rodriguez and Sean Lennon: Tonic, NYC

Elliott Simon By

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With expansive soundscapes, funky/jazz rhythms and exquisite melodies, Ibarra has created a Kulintang for the new millennium.
An exciting and fruitful consequence of the openness engendered by the Downtown NYC avant/jazz community is a willingness to creatively draw on conventional ethnic dance formats to formulate new music. This has likewise allowed musicians to explore personal musical heritages from their current vantage point. The most successful of such undertakings define a new approach by blending innovative instrumentation, arrangements and composition with a healthy respect for the traditional musical form. Such is the case with the powerfully delicate sound that percussionist Susie Ibarra is creating as she continues to develop her new project, Electric Kulintang.

Skillfully combining intricate melodies with complex quick rhythms, Kulintang is an advanced Filipino musical style that also refers to the central instrument in the music's traditional ensemble. Consisting of a series of eight differentially pitched bowl-shaped gongs free floating in a wooden tray, the Kulintang is played percussively with soft sticks. Ibarra, whose Tzadik releases (Folkloriko, 2004; Flower after Flower, 2000) have highlighted her Filipino heritage, has studied with Kulintang master Danongan Kalanduyan, becoming adept in the wonderful melodically dissonant nuances of the instrument's tonal structure. Sounding somewhat like a richly resonant organic vibraphone, Kulintang's melodies in the hands of Ibarra lend themselves particularly well to jazz improvisation.

To make her Kulintang electric, and in the process create what she terms "Filipino Triphop, Ibarra integrates electric guitar and bass, laptops, loops, and ambient grooves into the mix. Her partners in sound are fellow percussionist Roberto Juan Rodriguez and guitarist Sean Lennon. Rodriguez, whose own ethnically rich Cuban/Jewish Tzadik releases (El Danzon de Moises, 2002; Baila! Gitano Baila!,, 2004) are masterpieces of this methodology, mans the laptop loops and rhythms while additionally bringing his own Latin sensibility and percussion to the music. Lennon alternates between deliciously funky electric bass and guitar stylings, at times within the same piece, to complete the sound and give the music a decided edge.

The trio transported Tonic's intimate space to a different place with four extended pieces that, given the disparate instrumentation, highlighted a surprisingly organized sound. Things appropriately began with homage to the "Ancients as Ibarra melded a lovely Kulintang melody with laptop loops while Rodriguez seated on a percussive "cajon pounded out a snare/bass combo rhythm. Lennon then wah-wahed his electric guitar as Ibarra switched to drum set against a palpably rich ethereal sonic backdrop. Lennon next picked up his bass for some funked-up rhythm over which Ibarra's Kulintang alternated between cymbal and deep bell-like resonance. She is able to dazzle with rapid runs or just as quickly evoke a graceful mood. At times Rodriguez would leave his hand percussive instruments and play the set while his laptops continued to pump. The multiple rhythms amazingly gelled into a cohesive sound; tribute to these two percussionist's knowledge of each other and individual skill.

At times Lennon would solo across the polyrhythmic backdrop resulting in a very hot groove that would dissolve into an enveloping trancelike ocean of sound. The final piece began with Lennon setting up a sonorously hypnotic vocal that melted into a cricket like Martin Denny exotically ambient groove. Rodriguez then set up a jazz vamp that he married with Lennon's bass before going back to drum set as Ibarra drove things to conclusion. With expansive soundscapes, funky/jazz rhythms and exquisite melodies, Ibarra has created a Kulintang for the new millennium.


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