If the Creator has a hell scripted for alternative-weekly music writers, he's running previews at Cafe Balaban. The fog of Polo, Obsession and money is as lethal as DDT, and though leopardskin will likely never go out of style, it will likely never evoke more than petulant desperation on the booth-tanned and StairMastered bodies of women who, on the wrong side of 30, occasionally betray the charming appetite of cats watching canaries. Well on the wrong side of 40, the men stand like boys in batting cages, eyeing every delivery from across the bar, smacking the letter-high hard balls with loud thwacks and thuds of conversation and chortle. Don't forget the stifling perfume.
Acoustic Internote is playing on this Sunday, Father's Day, and it's clear they care nothing for what tweaks the sensibilities of a liberal journalist. They have their music. Amir Arab sits with legs crossed, dressed head-to-toe in black, a silver wing dangling from his neck, soloing the living daylights out of his nylon strings, pealing wild Spanish and Arabic gypsy melodies. Facing him is the second classical guitarist and reluctant leader, Farshid Soltanshahi, also dressed in black, his spectacled eyes alive and young, his face wise and bohemian, almost Indian, like a protagonist in a Satyajit Ray film. He tends as carefully to the small mixing board as he does to his rhythm part, with a splashing right-hand motion that looks so effortless, as the speed builds and builds and builds, but whose grace is but the advantage of a young master. Dwarfed by his drum set, John Hale rocks steady, moving from timbales to toms to cymbals, that rapturous Latin cacophony of rhythms, while guest percussionist Bill Walters plays a triangle with a miniaturist's precision. Charlie Siefert, who looks to be the only member out of his 30s, finds the melody on his six-string, fretless bass and closes the song, a supercharged rumba just shy of frenzy, with one last long roll of thunder.
This is Balaban's, mind you, and the crowd swoons. "People really know us more by the music than by the name," Amir says (let us use first names; the band would have it so). "People come and hear us, but if you ask them our name, most probably couldn't tell you. Sometimes they say 'Acoustic Internet' or something like that."
Acoustic Internote may be the worst name for a band west of the Nile, but the group's music has no parallel, no real rival in St. Louis, likely not even in the Midwest. They have an identity no title could fix: a combination of Persian and Spanish percussion and guitar, further combined with Latin American rumba and bolero, further complicated by gypsy jazz master Django Reinhardt and refined through the European classical tradition, (Farshid, Amir and Charlie have worked with the St. Louis Classical Guitar Society). And like a river flooding over a dozen tributaries, their music washes away genres in a massive crest of rhythm.
"First, we are all percussionists," Farshid says. Forget that drum & bass thing the kids thump to these days. Whether on a delightfully incomprehensible revision of "Nights in White Satin" or a reading of "Autumn Leaves" or a torrential Gypsy Kings song, these five musicians have become a single demolishing engine of ancient, unimagined, pure rhythm. "The rhythmic part is very meditative," Amir says. "Sometimes it's enough just to have rhythm. Most bands rely on a rhythm section, and then the soloists, but in this band there are five rhythm sections, five soloists and five percussionists."
Acoustic Internote. The first part is a misnomer, for Charlie plays electric bass and Amir and Farshid love wah-wah pedals. The second part reflects their international identity -- began two years ago, growing out of Grupo Mediterraneo Soleil. The band credits the arrival of Farshid, their most significant composer and arranger, with lifting them from the coffeehouse-and-college scene to a professional level.
"Farshid, Ali (Soltanshahi, Farshid's younger brother) and I grew up with this music in Iran," Amir says. "Farshid knows Persian and Eastern music like a master. So now we're able to do lots of fun stuff, going crazy, up and down, jamming, improvising, but within a certain structure. Ninety-nine percent of the time, we have a certain language. It's like Lego pieces you put together. It's very fast, so if we're not tight, even one cymbal miss will throw it all off. When you speak a foreign language, you may know the grammar, but until you learn the idioms and slang, you don't really speak it."
The deep grammar of their music is the guitar. "This kind of music needs two acoustic guitars," Farshid says. "We play a lot of rumba, and so we need this texture, this punch, this energy. I like the number five. We are a five-piece band. The concept is that we are very good friends first, and that does a lot for unity and energy." Charlie quickly adds: "When Farshid and Amir first approached me to play, and said it was two classical guitars, I said, 'Oh, no.' Too many notes!"
A little musical theory can be a dangerous thing, as evidenced by the more studied jam bands and esoteric free-jazzers. Perhaps it lies in the steady gaiety of their rhythms, or perhaps it is just the soul of Latin music, but Acoustic Internote preserves melody and groove even when breaking into infinite jams on "Oye Como Va."
"Rhythmic-wise and harmonic-wise," Amir says, "Latin music is similar to Persian music. Eastern music is very melodic, and so putting one on top of the other is a perfect fit. There are lots of historic links between the Spanish, Latin, African and Arabic cultures, but it all comes down to that 6/8 rhythm. Spain has always been a bridge between Africa and Europe, and Spanish music also bridges with Arabic culture. We use a lot of Arabic scales in Iran, but the melodies are similar to Spanish and South American music."
"Playing Persian music," Farshid adds, "there's really no way to play that music itself in a new way. Latin music is more open, maybe more accessible and entertaining."
"There is no music without an audience," Farshid adds. Charlie laughs: "We almost got kicked out of the Ritz-Carlton once." Acoustic Internote plays in the hotel's lounge four or five times a month. "People were dancing and gave us a standing ovation. Things got a little crazy. Trent Reznor was there, and he was bopping to us all night long."
At the Whitaker Jazz Festival, out on the meadows of the Missouri Botanical Garden, Acoustic Internote more than entertains an astonishingly large and culturally mixed audience. Older African-American couples, Colombian and Venezuelan students, kids from St. Louis University and kindergartens, Indian families, Arab-Americans, white folks of all ages -- all exchange the lazy bop-bop of summer festival listening for the heated, speeding circulation of this fascinating Middle Eastern/Latin hybrid. On the congas and bongos, Ali Soltanshahi takes a solo, fingers and wrists wrapped in tape, still aching from the ecstatic violence of last week's hand-drumming. Being the youngest member, Ali could just lay back. The music won't let him. "I started on the kitchen table," he says. "Our family is a very music-loving family; Farshid would play guitar at the kitchen table, and I'd beat my hands in time. I then moved on to the dumbek and other Persian percussion, then picked up the congas and bongos. A lot of percussionists play a very standard pattern, but I like to work things out my own way. I play the bongos like the dumbek sometimes, and they are my main love now. I use the congas to add color."
Drummer John Hale has played with country, rock, blues and jazz bands, becoming the principle drummer for blues singer Anne Grant. He has one of the lightest and fullest touches of any drummer in town, as well as a fascinating approach to Latin percussion, incorporating a flamencolike rappity-rap rapping, a staccato but open rhythm, whether he is attacking the toms, snares or timbales. The band's set list -- which moves from bossa nova to Joe Sample to traditional Iranian folk songs to a tune from Black Orpheus to Carlos Santana -- demands nothing if not range.
"This is a very physical band," Amir says. "It's like working out. I didn't realize it until people started sitting in with us, and then after a few songs they'll be out of breath. But speed is only one aspect of the music."