Black Masala

Zeba Bar Washington DC

December 17 2017


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The thing about planning a trip in December about a month in advance is that you just don’t know for sure what the weather is going to be like. So when I decided in November to go from New England to Washington DC I didn’t figure into the equation the winter storm that would descend upon me when I was preparing for the trip.

Undeterred, I grabbed a hotel room near the airport for the night prior, knowing that I could catch a shuttle early and get to my morning flight. So at 7 A when I got up and saw an inch of snow, I wasn’t worried.. until my flight was canceled. Then the wait began- I was rescheduled for 7 P departure, and with a 90 minute flight and travel needed once I got there I started to wonder if I could get to the show on time.

But two shuttles, the flight, and a jaunty jog through a hipster neighborhood brought me into the Zeba Bar in Washington DC to see Black Masala for the first time. I had heard about the band only recently, and when I listened to about a dozen songs on their player, I was hooked. I made it inside, ordered some food and caught the second half of the first set.

Zeba Bar is a cool joint, with a classic bar downstairs and upstairs a 150 capacity or so nightclub with a small stage, dance floor, seating, and even an outdoor patio smoking area. The band was in full swing and everything I thought that they might be was on display. The band has drums, bass, guitar and voice like any other, and a full horn section with trombone, trumpet and saxophone. But it’s not how they look or their lineup that separates, it is what they are playing.

The band is a funky mix of nearly every ethnic style you can imagine, a polyglot. Over the course of the night they managed to traverse ground that included Gypsy, Balkan, Serbian, funk, Bangra, Romanian and even a bit of the Grateful Dead. Kristen Long on the vocals is adeptly able to cover music in multiple languages, and Michael Ounilah behind the drum set also contributed vocals. But his main contribution is to root the essence of the different ethnic sounds that they can create.

But don’t sell this band short- just because they are covering cultural ground does not mean that they are doing it in a stuffy performing arts center sort of way – this is a dance band, and the urge to jump up and down is about as strong as the urge to shout “Opah” every few minutes. The dance floor was gyrating and sweaty, and the crowd ranged from mere happiness to jubilation.

They are also smart enough to not make every song a lesson in multi-culturalism. They reach out to the ‘regular’ folk by plahying a cover or two, as witnessed in the second set. Amy Winehouse’s Valerie was quickly followed by the Grateful Dead / Buddy Holly classic Not Fade Away. And for the lover of the obscure cover, Gogol Bordello’s It’s Never a Crime. But, for all I know, every song was a cover that I had never heard, from a distant and mysterious land.

Their final song of the night, as they were called back for their encore said it all: they repeated the song’s name as it’s chorus over and over again Super Super Good. Every time you thought it was over, Mike would kick the drums back in and there would be more swirling and jumping, more Super Super Good.

Black Masala feels like the best party band for a party that you’ve never been to before, whether in a tent in the Sahara, or floating down a booze barge on the Danube. At times I wanted to find some dishes to break, and other times I was wondering where the harem might be. But, weather be damned, I will take a caravan, a camel, an elephant ride, or the Siberian express to make it see them another time- the sooner the better.

Sure, this video is from a different show, but it’s still cool.

To Submit a review or story for consideration hit us at [email protected]

Check out the Live Music News and Facebook page for updates and announcements.