Cherven Traktor Bring Balkan Excitement to Manhattan

by delarue

Once a month the Jalopy Theatre books a free Friday early evening concert at the American Folk Art Museum. As a way to lure a Manhattan-centered audience, it’s good marketing for the esteemed, otherworldly lowlit, comfortably welcoming Red Hook Americana music venue/instrument repair shop/music school. It’s also an easy way for a Manhattan-centered audience to get an idea of the kind of fantastic shows the Jalopy puts on.

This past Friday, high-energy Bulgarian folk band Cherven Traktor were the guests. Percussionist Michael Ginsburg stood holding his big, boomy tapan bass drum and helped the audience count out the tricky meters – 9/4, 7/4 and even 13/4 – as well as the offbeat accents that propel the old country dances this music was meant for. Meanwhile, it didn’t take long for a line to form along the back of the gallery area, the dancers gamely negotiating the museum space. The quintet opened with what sounded like an Irish reel, but with eerie microtones spinning from bandleader Nikolay Kolev’s gadulka fiddle. Belle Birchfield strummed stately rhythm on her tambura lute over the bassist’s tersely dancing pulse; chanteuse Donka Koleva led the band with her elegantly otherworldly melismas, soaring resonance and occasional swoops and dips on a handful of numbers as well.

As Ginsburg reminded the crowd, Bulgarian music is as eclectic as any other nation’s. Regions to the south have a leaping, spiraling style closer to Macedonian or Greek music, while music from the the north typically has more of a traditionally chromatic, occasionally Middle Eastern-inspired feel. From the middle comes a sound that’s as hard-charging as it is hypnotic. Methodically and kinetically, Cherven Traktor made their way through all of them: it’s not every day that you see music this exciting in a museum. Kolev led the way with flurrying Middle Eastern flourishes, nonchalantly shivery chromatic runs and bounding riffs that he ran over and over again with unflinching precision, which wasn’t exactly easy to do considering how little wiggle room there was between the notes.

Ginsburg crooned a slowly swaying tune that began like a Balkan take on a mariachi ballad. Koleva soared through a hopeful number about the accessories women traditionally wore in Bulgaria in anticipation of spring. A couple of tunes teased the listener before suddenly switching from an easygoing major-key to a biting minor. The band didn’t seem like they wanted to stop and neither did the danceline. Cherven Traktor’s NYC home base is – you guessed it – the Jalopy; watch this space for upcoming shows.