When Live Music Brings the Beat Back Into Your Body

How did the Metropolitan Museum become cooler than the Museum of Modern Art? Taking in the Met’s first live concert of the year, on July 14, I almost couldn’t believe it. I went to see Conclave, an Afro-Latin-Jazz-House fusion group, which performed an invigorating set inside a chapel at the Met Cloisters, featuring the 12th-century apse from the church of San Martín at Fuentidueña.

On a practical level, the small invited audience helped the museum to pilot how live events in the new normal might work. On an aesthetic level, the night exuded the experimental go-where-no-one-has-gone-before ethos that we once got from MoMA and other institutions more commonly associated with “modern” and “contemporary.” But now, it’s the Metropolitan Museum forging ahead into the future, while MoMA is sticking with a toxic board with no sign of change.

As art spaces reopen in New York, many of us are experiencing post-pandemic firsts. But this was another first: an Afro-Latin jazz and house concert inside one of the Cloisters’ sacred spaces. It’s part of the Sonic Cloisters series, which hosts electronic musicians throughout the Cloisters. By activating these spaces in ways that shed the Met’s stuffiness, the museum is broadening what performance can be.

Conclave performs at the Met Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel on July 14 (photo by Paula Lobo)

Originally, Conclave was supposed to perform outdoors in the Bonnefont Cloister, amid a garden of plants known to have grown in Medieval Europe. But the dire weather forecast forced the team to restage this concert indoors. The Fuentidueña Chapel was selected as the new site. Conclave set up in the back of the space, near the large entry door. In front, near the altar, there was a camera crew recording the music, set to broadcast on the Met’s website in September.

Conclave is a collective of artists led by Cesar Toribio. They performed a set of songs and a few spoken word pieces. Each song featured a different mix of the Afro-Latin tradition, jazzy riffs, and house thumps and beats. Some songs were more jazzy. Others were more house.

Although it was a dance-oriented crowd with many friends of the artists, not everyone felt comfortable dancing. When a rigid Jesus crucifix is glaring down on you, maybe it’s a little hard to let loose and ease into the rhythm. Everyone was also cognizant they might be on camera. Whatever the crowd’s rhythmless reasons, rigid up-and-down bobbing like dippy birds isn’t dancing. But that’s a gripe I feel everywhere.

Cesar Toribio on drums as Conclave performs at the Met Cloisters’ Fuentidueña Chapel on July 14 (photo by Paula Lobo)

Rhythm wasn’t something that most of us could feel at home during lockdown. Live music venues with their high-grade speakers and real-life instruments bring bass into our bodies in a way most home speakers can’t. And this effect of bringing the beat into your body is a hallmark of the Afro-Latin musical heritage that Conclave alchemizes with house music.

As Cesar Toribio, leader of Conclave explained to Hyperallergic, “It’s super special to be in the space and to feel the same vibrations. European music isn’t bottom heavy … it’s the upper frequencies, but African diasporic music is body music, it’s the lower frequencies — you have to bend your knees and sway, use more of your body … the range of the frequency corresponds to what parts of your body to move.”

“You cannot win against that room,” Toribio joked.

The acoustics of the chapel — designed to amplify the higher frequencies of the human voice in the Medieval Ages — was a challenge for the deeper-base frequencies Conclave explores. But the striking juxtaposition of the medieval architecture and the Afro-Latin House Fusion music was nevertheless potent.

I missed the small exchanges between performers and audience members that animate live events. As I danced while others bobbed, one of the performers gave me a look and then mimicked my shoulder movements for a moment. That’s a kind of moment Zoom can’t deliver.

The video from Conclave’s set on July 14 will premiere on the Metropolitan Museum’s website and social media channels on September 23.

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