Opinion: Europa Thinks Globally and Plays Locally
World music at Saracen draws a small crowd, for now

By Baylis Greene

Maybe you haven't been to see a band in a while. Maybe you've got a family and going out strikes you as frivolous, or maybe there's always something worth watching on cable if you search hard enough. Maybe the idea seems to you a tiresome outlaying of effort in the name of forced gaiety.

There is a payoff to catching live music when you can, however, such is its superiority to the canned variety. The sensation is akin to having parts of your cerebral cortex receive
a few extra electrical impulses as an observational stimulant. (It's a painless procedure, really, and readily facilitated by an introductory stiff drink.) What's funny is that the enhanced sensory perception kicks in regardless of the quality of music you're
listening to.

The loose, impromptu, and ever-changing assemblage of musicians known as Europa performed at Saracen in Wainscott Friday night, as they do every Friday night. Europa, fronted by a Spaniard turned Frenchman turned Sag Harbor resident, Alfredo Merat, plays world music flavored with touches of post-1965 electric jazz.

The term world music has taken its lumps from the critics (too vague, essentially), but now seems an ironclad part of the music lexicon. And why not? Like any other label, it's facile shorthand for a niche in one market or another, or a demographic, and here refers to mostly a Latin sound, and some French (though that's a little harder to pin down), produced by two acoustic guitars, one electric guitar, several conga drums, and a bass guitar. And Mr. Merat on vocals.

I have to say world music isn't exactly my cup of herbal tea. I admire the Gypsy Kings, but that's about it. The thing is, the layout of Saracen is such that the live music becomes almost an afterthought. (Depending on your tastes, this is a good thing or a bad thing.) If you happen to be eating a late dinner, you can't really see the band. If you're sitting at the bar, you can see maybe half the band. By design or no, live music there becomes less an act and more of a musical ambience drifting over from another room.

I had never set foot in Saracen before - not when it was Sapore di Mare, not in the old days of the Coach House, before the fire halved its size, when it was a reputed mob hangout, thought to be haunted, or both.

The interior of whitewashed walls and terra-cotta tile floors, with a stainless steel bar, is cool - literally cool - and caters to the summer season. Which is economically wise, of course, but the place is not all that snug if there's any kind of chill in the air, despite the fireplace in the sunken dining area. The most appealing feature is the center lounge outfitted with sofas and large wicker chairs and lighted by candles. But again, if you sit there you can't see the musicians.

A warmer, cozier setting would have been nice, as Friday night was a rainy one, in this, the cruelest month. In fairness to Europa, the bad weather kept the crowd small, and a bit subdued. After all, we're in what they call in the tourism business the "shoulder season," an uninteresting, perhaps anticipatory in-between time, neither warm nor cold, neither here nor there. People sat and chatted, or drank silently, while the band played and improvised and had their own fun, the lack of audience participation of no apparent consequence.

Europa was formed in 1997 by Mr. Merat, a friendly 41-year-old guitarist with shaggy hair, sharp sideburns, and perfect teeth. On Friday, the band consisted of five additional members: the percussionist Haim Mizrahi of Israel, Brian LeClerck on electric guitar, Paulie (yes, just Paulie) on bass guitar, Michael Hennessy on acoustic guitar, and East Hampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman in khakis playing slap-and-tickle with a set of conga drums.

This last performer surprised me, though maybe he shouldn't have, this being a small town and all. Still, I thought you'd find a government official in a bar band only in a Hollywood concoction like "Northern Exposure."

Aside from the predominating South American sounds and one excursion into funk, Europa also broke out a familiar cover tune or two. Carlos Santana's "Oye Como Va" showed off some decent group guitar work. A more curious choice was The Allman Brothers' anguished old rocker, "Whipping Post." The song was incongruously modified with an extended jazzy guitar riff, yet I grinned and tapped my foot, imagining Duane Allman, a veteran of many jam sessions himself, somewhere smiling at the idea.

But for me the best moment actually came before Europa opened, when Mr. Hennessy was alone and contentedly plucking out The Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" on his guitar. It was a nicely melodic prelude, and I'm happy to say that the full song made it into the set later in the evening. It's just that - call me unimaginative - I would've preferred to hear John Lennon interpreted without the jazz-fusion break in the middle of his composition.

And there's the rub. If a listener prefers his music straightforward, and not experimental, that's his problem, isn't it? He can take it or leave it, picking and choosing from the aesthetic criteria available. And such criticism is almost beside the point in Europa's case, since these guys were simply having a grand old time making music together. They could have been just as happy jamming in someone's living room.

Maybe next time they take the stage some of their joy will radiate out into the wider audience.

Alfredo
Europa Studio Project
Overseas Records
631-725-9308 ext. 12
alfredo@overseasrecords.com
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