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Harmonic convergence

Meet one of Boston's hottest bands: Zili Misik, an all-female collective on a musical mission inspired by Haiti

By By James Reed
Globe Staff / March 9, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — There’s scarcely enough room for the band on a recent Friday night at the Lizard Lounge, and that’s before it even takes the stage. The cozy club is nearly full, and when the eight members of Zili Misik cluster around their instruments, it’s clear that their music and stage presence would feel outsize even in an arena.Zili Misik - which derives its name from Ezili, a spiritual entity from the country that gives the band its heartbeat, Haiti - is unlike any other act in Boston. From its visual aesthetic (members often match in elegant white linen) to its pan-global palette to its rallying cry for social justice, the band offers a feast for the senses. A trombone and saxophone might blare in tandem as an electric guitar cuts into the mix, before the group’s leader, tossing her long dreadlocks that tumble halfway down her back, takes the lead on hand drums.

The last thing you’d probably notice, or at least dwell on, is also the most obvious: Zili Misik is made up exclusively of female musicians representing various ethnicities. It’s a fleeting observation but one that has given the band a sense of purpose, a mission statement.

“Zili came out of necessity,’’ Kera Washington, who founded the group in 2000, says recently over dinner in Jamaica Plain, not far from her home. “I was in some pretty amazing bands before this, and every time I was the only woman on an instrument - besides voice and dancing. After every show, people would come up to me and say, ‘That was great for a girl.’ Or, ‘God, I’ve never seen a girl play like that.’ I just got sick of hearing that.’’

She figured the best way to counter that narrow-mindedness was to start her own band, which she initially christened Zili Roots with a focus on Haitian music. A decade and multiple personnel changes later, the group is finally on the ascent, and in the context of Haiti’s devastating earthquake, its music feels more relevant than ever.

“Haiti is in my heart most strongly because I’ve been there,’’ Washington says, referring to trips that have coincided with her academic background in ethnomusicology. “We hear so much about what Haiti doesn’t have, what Haiti has lost. It’s important, especially for us in the United States, to talk about what Haiti has given and continues to give us.’’

Washington notes, however, that Zili is not a Haitian band. For starters, no one in the group is of Haitian descent, a point that Washington considers inconsequential. “The question I’m asked most often is, who’s Haitian? Oftentimes people think I am, and I have to clearly say, I’m a proud African-American woman, but I definitely feel a close connection to Haiti and don’t think you have to be Haitian to feel that.’’

Washington’s love of Haiti goes back to her college days at Wellesley, where she befriended a Haitian professor who eventually taught her the art of hand drumming. Since then, she has made sure she gives back to Haiti, and Zili has worked tirelessly since the earthquake to raise awareness and funds for relief efforts.

“We were involved in the Haitian community before, but now every week we’re doing something that’s a benefit,’’ Washington says. In addition to shows this weekend - Friday at Cabaret in Lexington and Saturday at the Beehive - the band has a full schedule of upcoming events posted on its website, www.zilimisik.com.

As busy as the band is these days, the local music scene was slow to embrace Zili until a few years ago. The ensemble won its first Boston Music Award in 2008 for best international act and later garnered accolades in the Phoenix’s Best Music Poll determined by readers. Still, along with Debo Band, the JP-based group that plays traditional Ethiopian music, Zili is one of the city’s most singular entities.

“The fact that we formed here is important to our identity as a Boston band, but it’s hard to know where we fit,’’ Washington admits. “Boston hasn’t exactly heard before what we’re doing, and we’re so weird. How do you even describe the music?’’

In concert, Washington is fond of calling it “roots music of the African diaspora,’’ but that doesn’t take into account the rhythms the band culls from the Caribbean to Cape Verde. Washington toyed with the idea of branding it “new world soul,’’ which was also the title of the band’s first album, back when Washington was struggling to find Zili’s identity.

Like the current incarnation, the group was first comprised of women, before another lineup change made it a co-ed band for about two years. But something was off with men in the group. Washington eventually realized that she could have the musicianship she wanted with fellow females.

In 2006, she posted a Craigslist ad and was heartened when it got some bites from guitarist Lexi Havlin, a Berklee student at the time, and later bassist Joanna Maria. The lineup has been mostly stable since then, though longtime lead singer Rajdulari left Zili last month. In recent weeks the band has been auditioning hopefuls for her replacement. Washington is adamant that Zili will remain all-female, because it’s still important and necessary.

When Zili recently performed at a benefit and shared the bill with Emeline Michel, the legendary Haitian singer took note of the band’s diverse yet unified makeup.

Washington says, “Her point to me was, ‘Wow, it’s amazing to see so many incredible female musicians up here,’ and she’s a person who travels all over the world. You know she’s experienced some of the things that we did before starting this band.’’

Yet gender wasn’t the selling point for most of Zili’s members; rather the music was, even though its complexity intimidated at least a few people. “I remember hearing the band‘s recordings and thinking I could never play that kind of music,’’ drummer JoBeth Umali says of the kaleidoscope of global rhythms. Keyboardist Kana Dehara came to the group from a classical background and never imagined she’d be playing with Zili, either.

“At this point, it’s just feeling. It’s not technique or anything,’’ Dehara says. “I feel their energy and give what I have to the band. I don’t know if it’s different from what they expect, but I think we’re melding with a lot of colors and styles.”

Washington picks up her thought, likening Zili to an organic creation. “You put the seeds in there, you put the spices in there, and then the tree grows and the food cooks.’’

She has not, however, quite figured out how an audience will react to the band’s cosmic interpretation of world music. When playing in Ohio once, she encountered plenty of blank stares and crossed arms and thought to herself, “why did you come? You’re going to be so unhappy listening to our music. I’m so sorry.’’

But then the opposite happened: At the end of the show, the audience rose for an enthusiastic standing ovation.

“That was amazing, because you know that they really haven’t heard anything like that before, that they took something away from the show that probably nobody else could have brought to them,’’ Washington says.

And if Zili hadn’t won over the crowd that night?

“It would have been fine with me if those folks had chased us down the road, because I would have felt like they got something out of it. That’s the whole point - for people to experience something from our music.”

James Reed can be reached at jreed@globe.com.

CAMBRIDGE - There’s scarcely enough room for the band on a recent Friday night at the Lizard Lounge, and that’s before it even takes the stage. The cozy club is nearly full, and when the eight members of Zili Misik cluster around their instruments, it’s clear that their music and stage presence would feel outsize even in an arena.