As David Spira, the host for the evening, announced to the crowd, “Bethany & Rufus make some of the jazziest folk music you have ever heard.” Toes were tapping; heads were bobbing; and some members of the audience even got up and danced. Audience members kept time to support the players by clapping along and other moments saw them singing with the players to powerful lyrics, such as those from freedom marches that resonate as powerfully now as they have throughout history.
Bethany, Rufus and Fribgane performed music rooted in gospel, the blues, and folk songs from around the world which were infused with world rhythms and timbres, inspired by West Africa, Morocco and Brazil.
The first set included a version of “Cotton Eyed Joe”, a song that predates the Civil War and has since been recorded by many such as Doc Watson, Nina Simone, and even a Swedish Euro-dance combo called Rednex. Bethany’s vocal style flowed over West African rhythms and guitar riffs throughout the set. And she danced, incorporating a communication with her movements between Fribgane’s drumming, Rufus’ playing and the crowd, quite like West African dancers and their drummers where music is a communication between all the players and participants. An old gospel tune called “This Train is Bound for Glory”, was included in the set, as well as, a powerful call and response work and protest song that represented the heat that has been building in current events such as those in Baltimore where people are yelling “No More!”
Master musicians Rufus Cappadocia (cello, guitar) and Brahim Fribgane (Oud, guitar, vocals) made old songs new, filling in what otherwise might have been spare and familiar folk songs with a beauty and complexity that drew all listeners in. The two turned old work songs, gospels, blues and folk tunes into multi-culti meditations that fully supported their soulful and powerful singer. From rich dark drones to the intensity of a massive thunderstorm, the instrumentalists intensified every emotion and idea being portrayed in Bethany’s words and dance. And the sounds were cross-cultural. At some point Fribgane played the blues on the Oud and Cappadocia emulated the berimbau on his cello for songs throughout the second set which took audience members to the sounds and stories of Brazil.
In between songs, Bethany told stories the like of which might be found in poetry or fairy tales. Along with her well-researched renderings of each song, these real-life stories were interwoven in such a way that the songs were not just expressions of the singer but also absorbed into audience members as music of their own. Bethany explained about the tradition of song in many cultures where people sing to give energy to their surroundings, their homes, their families, their communities and she did just that; she infused each person there with the spirit of each song just as well as any high priestess. This is the way to make change, Bethany imparted. It becomes a “unity prayer.”
After beautiful and celebratory Brazilian songs, some of which spoke of and asked favors of goddesses -- such as Yemanja, goddess of the waters and Yansa, goddess of storms -- the trio took the audience through one last song which brought the heat back into the room. It was a song to signify the rising temperature of the earth itself. “Oh Death”, a traditional American folk song, a version of which was featured on the “Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” soundtrack, featured fierce and driving rhythms which brought even more audience members out of their seats to clap and sing and dance.