Dramatic singing took center stage Sunday in a multi-national celebration of gypsy music: Musafir, from India, showcased wildly demonstrative singers backed by tablas, harmonium and a reed instrument; and Spain’s Alma de Flamenco’s act was filled with wild whoops and vocal bursts of gusto to match pounding dance steps. In the middle, was the Czech Republic’s Vera Bila and her band Kale, which marries the elegance of Brazilian dance music with traditional gypsy stylings on piano and two acoustic guitars. They brew a potent yet familiar mix that could spell significant success in the world music genre.
Bila, a large woman who hails from about 40 miles west of Prague, has the pipes of a jazz artist whose presentation is restrained yet jovial. The band’s 14 songs were short and to the point with just a hint of jazzy flourishes; songs on their one domestic release, “Kale Kalore” on Tinder Records, deal with poverty’s consequences, drinking, love and family. While only three of the album’s numbers made it into Sunday’s set, the program was bracingly alive and organic — an unpolished version of the music popularized by the Gipsy Kings.
With an audience of close to 7,000, the Bowl proves that music from other countries can be effectively presented with success, and that it doesn’t have to be related to the tango or Jobim to draw a crowd. The Bowl’s inaugural world music series, which concludes Sept. 12 with the Brazilian Gilberto Gil and the Angolan singer Waldemar Bastos, has pulled in consistently strong numbers: 15,740 saw Carlinhos Brown’s two shows; the African Pulse sold 6,950 tickets, a blues and roots music program reached 6,764 and last week’s “Hallelujah!” sold 6,580.
Sunday’s numbers were all the more impressive considering the lack of major names on the bill. Evening closer Alma de Flamenco has yet to record, Musafir’s domestic debut, “Dhola Maru,” will be released on the Sounds True label on Sept. 28, and Vera Bila and Kale’s CD is far off the beaten path.
Yet Alma de Flamenco does boast a sonic connection to the million-selling Gipsy Kings, lifting the acoustic guitar-based band’s more rustic and exuberant elements, giving them a stronger sense of urgency and place. Their show, however, was dominated by hand claps and three dancers whose steps don’t appear excessively choreographed. The clapping drowned out the two acoustic guitars at times, leaving vocalist Ana de los Reyes to save the day with some forceful singing.
While attractive in moments, act is not ready for the huge expanse of the Bowl and would be better served in a restaurant-size venue.
Openers Musafir, a group of gypsies from Rajastan in northwestern India, began with six seated musicians not unlike last week’s show by Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. But whereas Khan’s qawwali singing puts emphasis on improvisation and a single soaring voice, Musafir spreads out the duties and makes effective use of several members of the entourage.
And within the unmistakable drone of Indian music, snippets of percussion and melody intimated the better-known French and Spanish gypsy idioms. A fire eater on their finale and a dancer earlier gave their act a visual edge over the others.