Melody Rabe, Analuz Vizarretea, and Jessica Olsen are Medium Rare, presenting music that defies genres while engages and entertains. The three met in the summer of 2012, while organizing Lincoln Center’s annual Midsummer Night Swing festival in Damrosch Park. Their chemistry as budding impressarios that summer prompted Vizarretea to propose, in jest at first, that they found their own production company. In 2012, the Nuyorican Poet’s Café approached Vizarretea to promote music. The three, along with Paula Abreu—a fellow programming associate at Lincoln Center with close ties to Brazil’s burgeoning music scenes, from samba to baile funk—launched the Soul 4 Sound series for the Café. EMEFE, a ten-piece, afrobeat-influenced group, headlined, and Numusbala, a New York cumbia-ska big band with roots in Colombia and Guatemala, debuted. The series was a prototype for connections through diversity, and quickly spread to other venues such as Littlefield, Public Assembly, and the Mercury Lounge, where it featured genre-bending artists like funksters Mokaad, Chicha Libre (inspired by ’60s Peruvian surf-cumbia), and Zuzuka Poderosa, an electronic, tropicália artist who raps and sings in Portuguese, Spanish, and English. Their nascent path came to an apex when they co-produced the Music Frees All Festival, in the summer of 2012. That’s when they adopted the name Medium Rare, the “medium that brings you something rare.”
To start 2014 and mark their first full year producing events, they launched a tour de force showcase concert in conjunction with the Association of Performing Artist’s (A.P.A.P.) Conference, January 13th at Rockwood Music Hall. A.P.A.P. has an interest in international performers, a goal that connects with Medium Rare. Their concert featured four groups engaging audiences across cultural boundaries: Underground System, Oh My Goodness, Pegasus Warning, and EMEFE.
The artists they presented at Rockwood are something rare. They assimilate and play cross-cultural music with finesse and respect for their influences. Underground System fuses multiple genres—jazz and punk, afrobeat and hiphop—and a strong inclination to carioca rhythms. The frontwoman is Domenica Fossati, and she’s joined by four other talented women singers, whose voices shines amidst the eight-piece backing band. There is a punk militancy to their engagement as performers. They concluded their set with the World War II Italian partisan folk anthem against fascism, “Bella Ciao.” Their rendition featured a well-crafted vocal arrangement, and fused tropical funk with the anti-fascist lyrics. The appeal of contemporary music in international languages, like that from Underground System and Zuzuka Poderosa, is that listening to it broadens the inclusivity and authenticity of American life. It fosters a broader identity for those who find a home in New York and adds to the city’s history of multiculturalism. And it makes you dance.
These bands achieve what Medium Rare seeks to capture: a common denominator among disparate musical movements. “I think our interest has been in representing some sort of diaspora,” says Vizarretea. “In that way, we are looking for artists who challenge certain standards. In the case of Underground System and EMEFE, they are doing fusion. They are showing that all this music is connected. They are challenging [nationalism].” As such, their audiences can mix many peoples, yet unify them through a common appreciation of the pop artists that form these bands’ foundations: Fela Kuti, Sly and the Family Stone, The Roots, and Prince. The two groups represent an international cultural community, politically and musically. Underground System’s song “Monsanto” criticizes that corporation’s ethics, and EMEFE’s creed is that music frees all. Coupled with their bold sound, the bands make up a community that aspires to something greater.
“The landscape of [the] music industry is wide, with so many genres, but there is big focus on music that makes you move—that [envelops you] in a musical experience. We are trying to add something to that landscape, such as the organic quality from horns,” says Rabe about the current rise in popularity of afrobeat, in which EMEFE has played a significant role.
Despite experiencing pervasive gender bias in the music industry and in the workplace—the Music Producers guild lists less than four percent women members—Medium Rare stays true to themselves and their mission. “I would love for it to not matter that we are all women and to know that our company rocks,” says Olsen. They see 2014 as a year to continue showcasing expertly curated concerts and to create in-depth portraits of artists that deserve attention. They hope to expand internationally, “But for now, we’ll just do New Orleans,” says Olsen—they are collaborating with a like-minded production company in that city. Without a doubt, their acumen will transcend borders.
ANDREA GORDILLO is a writer based in New York City.