Rhythm queens

The educational ecstasy of Zili Misik
By MATT PARISH  |  October 21, 2009

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SOUND COLLECTORS Zili Misik’s intense blend of polyrhythms is drawn from all over — and that includes Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, and Ghana.

It’s a chilly Monday afternoon, and at the head of the lawn in front of the Christian Science Center, Zili Misik are starting soundcheck, bear-hugging their instruments to keep them warm. The trombone player has mittens on, and I doubt it’s the kind of day those hand drums had in mind when they got packed away this morning.

“On days like this, my hands get so numb, it feels like I’m playing these drums with rocks,” says head Zili Kera Washington. “It makes me wish I’d learned the piccolo.” Not the default circumstances for a band who draw so heavily from sunny Afrobeat and Brazilian sources — but, being rooted in New England, they’re used to it by now.

Zili Misik win 2009 Boston Phoenix Best Music Poll Award

Washington and I dash across the street to grab coffee and get in from the wind. I ask whether she prefers audiences of seasoned enthusiasts or the blank slates of random passers-by. “Everything has its place. In Boston, it’s very diverse, and there’s always someone who comes up after the show and says, ‘I haven’t heard that rhythm in years.’ Now if we’re in somewhere like Ohio, it’s more like this” — she flashes a deer-in-the-headlights look. “But that’s fine. Everyone comes to us from different places.”

Washington began her career after jumping ship from a Wellesley biology program in the ’90s and diving headlong into drumming, learning on Haitian rada drums and joining up with a booming scene of local Haitian bands like Batwel Rada and Tjovi Ginen. “We played at the Middle East a lot. We practiced at an old warehouse rehearsal space for poor artists at Fenway that got replaced by expensive new buildings. Those were good times, but it was always, ‘You’re pretty good for a girl.’ I finally decided I wanted a world-music band that was full of people with fierce skills who happened to be women.”

Over the past nine years, that idea has been realized in the eight-woman squad of Zili Misik, who specialize in an intense blend of Afrobeat polyrhythms and far-flung sounds drawn from Washington’s continued studies, which have included trips to Haiti, Ghana, and Cuba and a PhD program in ethno-musicology at Brown. Multiple Phoenix Best Music Poll and Boston Music Award winners, Zili Misik have played every weekend for the past three months, from club shows to coffee shops, lectures to brunches.

The Christian Science Center affair is not exactly a home-team kind of show. “This one’s from a place called Cape Verde,” Washington announces. The crowd settles into a cozy lunch-break hibernation while Zili Misik cook through a grocery list of grooves and solos. “You’ll get warmer if you dance,” she advises. A trio of five-year-olds take heed.

But that’s just the warm up. A few hours later, we’re in the middle of a set opening for R&B-from-space sensation Zap Mama at the Paradise — where the listeners are somewhat savvier. Fans pile into the room, speaking a mishmash of languages, dancing and shouting replies to every accent off Washington’s drums. These folks came to get down.

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