Which Way East at the New York Gypsy Festival
It’s likely that most of the people who wrote the songs that Which Way East played last night at Drom died young and forgotten, along with their contemporaries, the only people who might have been able to maintain some record of composer credits. Adding their own improvisational, sometimes jazzy, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged edge, the New York-based Balkan group did justice to the depth and power of those old songs, as part of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival. This particular version of the band featured Jesse Kotansky on violin, Adam Good (of the Berlin-based Ljuti Hora) on several stringed instruments, Uri Sharlin on accordion and Eva Salina Primack on vocals.
Primack’s initials pretty much explain her approach to music. There are other singers who can learn perfect enunciation in Romanes, Macedonian and Turkish, as she demonstrated during the show, but she doesn’t simply have the mechanics down cold: she inhabits the songs. Death and despair were not always front and center during the set – in fact, just the opposite – but they were always lurking around the corner, and Primack’s wary, nuanced modulations were a constant reminder. She may be best known for power and drive – it’s something of an athletic feat to be able to sing over the blasting brass of a band like Slavic Soul Party – but this show was not about pyrotechnics, it was about soul. That she didn’t upstage the other musicians testifies to the equally subtle power they brought to the music. Kotansky typically served as the lead player, building crescendos to the breaking point, sliding, swooping and diving, adding swirls of otherworldly microtones to bring a crescendo to critical mass. Good began on guitar, with an agile, precise gypsy jazz attack, then switched to the clanky yet hypnotic tambura and then oud, the instrument that gave him the opportunity to induce the most goosebumps with a couple of slowly swelling, brooding solos. Sharlin held the rhythm steady, sometimes with a blippy staccato, sometimes with raw sheets of sustain: it would have been fun to have seen him cut loose more than he did because like his bandmates, he typically goes for plaintiveness over flash.
Together they made their way, judiciously but not particularly cautiously, through a Turkish wedding song, a couple of acidically rustic Macedonian tunes and the gypsy anthem Song of the Romanes.They finally let the clouds lift with a cover of the iconic gypsy pop tune Marushka, Primack going down into her low register for a sardonic come-hither vibe. They ended the set with a completely unexpected cover of Jolene. You might think that a Dolly Parton hit would make a bizarre segue with gypsy music, but this band made it work (Primack’s AE duo project with another A-list singer, Aurelia Shrenker, explores the Appalachian-Balkan connection even more deeply). Primack teased the crowd, waiting until the third chorus until she finally went all the way up the scale for “Jo-LEE-ee-een,” unable to resist a grin as she brought the song back down. And she made it absolutely clear how sad a song it was. It’s not a happy karaoke singalong: it’s a plea to a hot mama who can get whatever she wants to refrain from breaking up someone else’s home (although there should be a sequel where the protagonist gets to kick Jolene’s ass, then her man’s ass, and then run off with Jolene’s husband for good measure. Maybe Primack can write that one someday).
Which Way East play Oct 13 at the Jalopy at 9 with Veveritse Brass Band.