Night One of Golden Fest 2017: A Darkly Danceable Feast

by delarue

It’s four in the morning as this is being written. Opening night of this year’s Golden Fest – the annual gathering of Balkan bands from around the world in Kensington, Brooklyn’s majestic, old-world Grand Prospect Hall – ended riotously about three hours ago with stomping, original brass band West Philadelphia Orchestra. Tonight is the big megilla, which starts at six, and tickets are still available. If you can afford to, go. It’s probably the best concert you’ll see this year in New York, maybe anywhere.

The overall experience last night was also old-world, in all the best ways. Eighty-year-old grandmothers danced with twenty-year-old dudes and gradeschool kids from what appeared to be every corner of the globe. Through five nonstop hours of music, the circles of line-dancers kept expanding, to the point where those who weren’t dancing either had to join the line or step off the dance floor. It was amazing how well about half the audience had the steps down cold, many of which are in meters considered to be very odd – at least from a rock or hip-hop point of view. The other half of the crowd were obviously somewhat mystified, but couldn’t resist joining the line and bouncing along. There were no judgments and lots of impromptu learning going on. And the music was sublime, as it has been since the festival was launched twenty years ago.

The most lustrously beautiful solo of the night came early, during a dance lesson: one of the truba players from Zlatne Uste, the original gangstas of New York Balkan bands, was responsible. The most dazzling display of technique, among hundreds of those, was the wild series of glissandos from West Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter Koofreh Umoren. Their sousaphone player, Jimmy Parker, has terrifying chops as well, at one point taking an intro that hit notes that big fat low-register horns aren’t supposed to be able to reach, not even close. That beast of a band made a good headliner: in a short, barely half-an-hour onstage, they finally gave the night’s younger contingent the chance to cut loose to a pretty much straight-up 4/4 beat after an evening of the hypnotic kinetics that started a little after seven. Although a grandmother who looked about seventy was having plenty of fun taking a circle of oldsters down, down, down: how do you say “rock lobster” in Serbian?

Triage is the name of the game here. Tonight’s show features literally scores of bands on four separate stages: you can see a little of everybody, or focus on your favorites from around the world. Last night was a chance to hear four of the most exciting American – or mostly American – groups in the field, along with a goosebump-inducing opening act from Bulgaria. Zurla oboe virtuoso Milo Destanovski led that ensemble, Novi Maleshevski Zurli, through an otherworldly, booming vortex that was as ancient-sounding as it was sophisticated, both rhythmically and melodically. Like most of the music of the Romany people, Destanovski’s group plays microtonally, building an acidic mist that often brought to mind Moroccan jajouka music, rising high over a looming, stygian tapan drum pulse. Right from the start there were dancers out there, and they knew what to do.

The mighty, almost twenty-piece Zlatne Uste have been playing and writing their own rat-a-tat cocek dances and ominously resonant minor-key epics since the 80s. This is their festival, and this was their moment to remind everybody that their music is just as memorably eclectic as their collective address books are vast. A big Romany anthem was the centerpiece of a dynamic mix of acerbically chromatic minor key romps and an unexpectedly blithe, bouncy closing number, the band in the center of the dance floor, the eye in a growing storm of dancers.

Pontic Firebird – #bestbandnameever, right? – took the stage for what might have been the most expansive set of the evening. Jerry Kisslinger’s standup daouli drum and Paul Brown’s muscular bass kept a tight but slinky grip on the tricky tempos, beneath the serpentine lines of Adam Good’s oud and frontwoman Beth Bahia Cohen’s soaring, often searing microtonal violin. Then Good went down on the floor, switched to bass and anchored the similarly intense, even more microtonally magical sounds of Bulgarian band Cherven Traktor, fueled by gadulka fiddler Nikolay Kolev’s uneasy leaps and his wife Donka Koleva’s robust, elegantly ornamented vocals against Belle Birchfield’s spiky bandura lute and Zlatne Uste maven Michael Ginsburg’s sturdy tapan beats. Each of these acts will return in various spaces throughout the hall tonight: see you in the Rainbow Room at around 6:30!

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