Last night Kiev band DakhaBrakha made their US debut at CUNY’s Elebash Hall to a sold-out crowd that screamed for more and practically wouldn’t let them leave the stage. Word is out: this four-piece punk-folk-circus-rock band makes Gogol Bordello look like slow, lazy slugs by comparison. They began and ended the set with wailing, explosively percussive arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs driven by the heavy-artillery thud of singer Olena Tsibulska’s bass drum. Considering how they managed to fill the hall with just their searing, otherworldly four-part harmonies and lots of percussion on several of the songs was impressive, to say the least.
Given the band’s origins in subversive Ukrainian theatre, it’s no surprise that humor is a big part of their act. Singer/percussionist/accordionist Marko Halanevych had the audience in stitches with Baby, his falsetto, half-English, half-Ukrainian parody of schlocky “r&b” radio pop. They put a hip-hop beat on a handful of ancient songs, the surrealism of those mashups enhanced by the keening close harmonies of the vocals and the frequently droning melodies, which gave the songs a menacing edge. Their more lighthearted numbers brought to mind quirk-rockers the Debutante Hour (which might be less unlikely a comparison than you might first think, considering that Maria Sonevytsky from that band is of Ukrainian descent). Cellist Nina Garenetska ran her cello through a series of effects, beginning with a growly distorted tone, then adding delay and reverb for an echoey resonance as she swooped up the scale into witchy, stratospheric harmonics. A couple of long anthems slunk along on a Middle Eastern snakecharmer groove as the voices built to a dark, carnivalesque counterpoint. A couple of other numbers had the repetitive dancefloor thud of Eastern European turbo-folk – but with a heavier bottom end, and real swing from the murky depths of Tsibulska’s drum!
And they’re great musicians. Halanevych and singer Iryna Kovalenko – who also played accordion, piano, jaw harp, and an evilly trilling reed instrument – passed a garmoshka (sort of the Ukrainian equivalent of a bandoneon) back and forth. Everybody drummed at one point or another, an effect that was often as mysterious as it was hypnotically energizing. DakhaBrakha translates from the Ukraininan as “give-and-take,” with all that phrase implies, a good name for a band that works dynamics as artfully as they do. For all the fireworks, there was a lot of subtlety in how they brought their simple, catchy but harmonically-rich melodies up gently and then set them alight with a gleeful grin.
This CUNY concert series is fantastic. They’ve got Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure (Ali’s kid) here on Oct 29 at 7, then an otherwordly but invigorating bill of music from across the Sephardic diaspora featuring the NY Andalus Ensemble on Nov 5.