Habibi at National Sawdust
“Wow, there are so many women here; it’s amazing,” someone behind me said. They were right; the young and vibrant crowd at Habibi’s Cardamom Garden EP release show at National Sawdust was notably female (about 65-70%) and was also filled to the brim with local Brooklyn musicians.
The band Habibi, meaning “my love” in Arabic, are a five-piece Brooklyn based all-female rock band that blend psychedelic-rock, sixties girl group harmony (think the Shangri-Las) and Middle Eastern influenced melody with a punk-rock(ish) attitude. Cardamom Garden is their first release since their self-titled debut in 2014.
The show kicked off around 9 with the jazz-fusion duo, Hayes and TJ. The duo consisted of live saxophone improvisations, a looper and scattering arrhythmic drums. Their sound was mysterious, dissonant and sometimes unnerving in a great post-modern kind of way – not everyone in the crowd was a fan.
Sometime after 9:30, the Grammy nominated, Moroccan musical collective, Innov Gnawa, took the stage with vivacity. Dressed in long emerald gowns with beautiful, intricate, red and gold embroidered necklines, Innov Gnawa stood in a straight row on stage. The maâlem (master musician) played the sintir (3-stringed bass lute) and led the five chorus members as they sang, chanted and played krakebs (metal castanets) to traditional Gnawa music, also known as the Moroccan blues. The crowd emanated excitement as they tried to dance to Innov Gnawa’s pounding complex polyrhythms and hypnotic transcendental tunes. At one point, a chorus member playfully tried to get the audience to clap along– no one in the crowd was ambitious enough to even attempt such a task. “In Arabic, we say ‘habibi’ to everyone,” one of the members of Innov Gnawa told the adoring crowd as they roared with applause.
The crowd’s reluctance to see Innov Gnawa’s set end dissipated when Habibi appeared on stage around 10:30. The band wore uniform white jumpsuits with “Habibi” printed along the backside in bold red lettering. Each outfit was personalized with the members’ name embroidered in red script on their left chest pocket.
Illuminated by soft purple lights, Rahill (lead vocals and tambourine) anxiously paced back and forth on stage as the distinctively Middle Eastern chords of “Khodaya” were slowly plucked. The band exchanged secret glances and Rahill began to softly deliver the lyrics, which are spoken in the Persian language, Farsi. With her neon-orange, glowing drumstick, Karen struck the snare and Habibi transitioned straight into “Gypsy Love,” the EP’s ode to Middle Eastern psych-rock, composed of driving rhythm, thick dreamy guitar interplay and the band’s signature vocal harmonies.
Habibi were visibly nervous, but their dedicated fans were patient and supportive as the band fumbled through some of the new Cardamom Garden songs. “Pardon the bumpy stuff,” Lenaya, “Lenny,” (guitar and vocals) joked. “We are going to continue and be less nervous,” Rahill added.
The band then proceeded to confidently play the bubbly, surf-rock inspired fan favorite, “Far From Right.” The crowd squealed and rejoiced.
“Let’s do the classics,” Lenny cracked, referring to the songs on Habibi’s one and only album from 2014. To be fair, when the crowd eagerly sang along to every word of “Detroit Baby,” “Tomboy” and “Sweetest Talk,” they did seem like classics.
Habibi ended with the catchy, whistle-friendly tune, “I Got The Moves.” The floor bounced as the audience jumped up and down. Fans firmly chanted “One More Song!” “Are you sure?” a half joking half surprised, Rahill asked. The band took a moment to scan the set list and figure out what songs, in their limited discography, they hadn’t played yet.
They closed with “Siin,” a song where every lyric is a double entendre and the audience let out an “Aww” when they heard its trailing, somber, angelic guitar phrase. The crowd went quiet as Rahill closed her eyes under the blue lights and sang, “Yeah he’s over me just the way I like it / When I’m under him he feels alright/ ‘Cos I know. I know/ If he hurts me slow/ I gotta let him go/ He’s gonna hurt me slow—” “Oh I know” the fans sang back.
It was a special night. Not only for the mostly-female audience, but for the all-female band, Habibi too.