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A-Train rolls through Snatch en route to America: Alvin Atkinson and The Sound Merchants make Gemmayzeh night club last stop on their Middle East tour
(Published: April 18, 2009)

By Matthew Mosley
Daily Star staff
Friday, April 10, 2009

BEIRUT: "We're going to take you on a trip to New York. Are you ready? All aboard the A-train. Mind the closing doors ..." Alvin Atkinson introduced Duke Ellington's classic tune over a chugging bass and swiftly-brushed drums. Atkinson and his group The Sound Merchants had made history only days earlier, performing "Take the A-train" in Baghdad 50 years after Ellington himself originally performed the piece there.

Atkinson and The Sound Merchants did a one-night in a Gemmayzeh bar called Snatch on Wednesday, the last stop of a month-long tour though the Middle East. Having performed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Armenia, the group was brought to Lebanon by the US Embassy as part of its Performing Arts Initiative.

After the success of such events as the Harlem Gospel Choir's stint at Music Hall last year, embassy staff wanted to treat Lebanese audiences with The Sound Merchants as well. The quartet played the University of Balamand Tuesday, and left themselves just enough time for a lone Gemmayzeh show before boarding the 2 a.m. red-eye flight back to America on Thursday morning.

Atkinson says he formed The Sound Merchants eight years ago - the year of the September 11 events, coincidentally enough - with the aim of using music to foster inter-cultural dialogue. "Music allows the common people to meet each other," said Atkinson at the Martinez Hotel on Wednesday. "We always make a point of speaking to the crowd after we perform, and people ask about daily American life as much as the music. They want to know what the average rent in New York is, or what we get paid as music teachers. It allows them to get a perspective beyond what's shown on CNN."

Bassist Corcoran Holt concurs. "Music is a universal language," he says. "It allows you to understand where a person is coming from without speaking the same language. It can also help people in difficult situations to work through their pain."

Whatever the motives of their tour, Alvin Atkinson and The Sound Merchants are a highly skilled and hugely entertaining ensemble. Unusually for a frontman, Atkinson is a percussionist.

It takes a large amount of charisma to engage an audience from behind the fortress of a drum-kit, but charisma is something that Atkinson possesses in spades.

He gave such a virtuoso percussive performance that it was no surprise to learn that he also works as a teacher at such prestigious New York institutions as the New School and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Like an avatar of four-armed Vishnu, Atkinson flicks around his drum kit at an extraordinary rate, blending multiple rhythms and all the while bantering winsomely with the audience and the band.

Their chemistry, evidently honed during multiple overseas tours, and easy-going vibe often disguises the players' complex technical feats.

Pianist Jonathan Lefcoski's fingers raced up and down the keyboard at such a speed that it was difficult to take in the details before his solo ended and the other Sound Merchants launched back into the fray.

The Sound Merchants take their outreach efforts as seriously as their music. In Afghanistan they held a series of workshops with children, and on Tuesday they collaborated with the Safadi Foundation in Tripoli to coach a group of university-age students on playing together in a band.

The group also makes an effort to build local music practices into their concerts, using Duke Ellington's classic track,"Caravan" as a vehicle for their experimentation.

"In India," says Atkinson, "we worked in some raga rhythms, and in Saudi Arabia we built in other local beats." On Tuesday night, bassist Holt and pianist Lefcoski found their way into a Beirut nightclub where live Arabic music was being played and ended up jamming onstage.

"Somehow," says Holt, "they knew we were musicians."

The band members say this tour had a particular effect on them. "More than any trip I've ever been on," says Lefcoski, "this one really brought home to me that, as human beings, we have far more similarities than differences. We all have so much in common."

More Information: https://www.myspace.com/alvinatkinsonjr

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