New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: balkan music

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 orchestral record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

A Fascinating Album of New Music From the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s Home Turf

One of the most consistently interesting and richly diverse albums of symphonic music released in the last couple of years is the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra’s latest recording, Contemporary Colours, a collection of new works by Maltese composers streaming at Spotify. Malta may be a relatively small place, but the country clearly has no shortage of orchestral or compositional talent. Many of these pieces reflect an edgy Arabic influence; the rest run the gamut from neoromanticism to horizontal music.

Led with striking attention to detail by maestro Sergey Smbatyan, they open with a triptych by Euchar Gravina inspired by the manufacture and then the deployment of fireworks. The first two segments are a a microtonal study in slowly rising, occasionally crushing wave motion against a recording of a brass band playing a much smaller-scale arrangement; most of the third is much more low-key.

Waiting, by Mariella Cassar-Cordina is exactly that, still horizontality from the high strings with a pensively minimalist, increasingly troubled cello solo floating overhead. Christopher Muscat’s magnificently charging, circling, hauntingly minor-key Mesogeios – a portrait of the Mediterranean – features soloist Francesco Sultana on microtonal, melismatic Maltese zummara oboe, zaqq bagpipe and flejguta flute, winding up with a ferocious, Egyptian-tinged dance.

Veronique Vella’s colorful, artfully orchestrated, Romantically tinged Fine Line has a Rimsky-Korsakov sonic expanse and triumphant bustle. Alexander Vella Gregory’s short, Tschaikovskian five-part suite Riħ (Wind) evokes everything from calm sea breezes to winter storms, via pulsing counterpoint, disquieting close harmonies, percussive drama and whispers from the strings.

The orchestra close with Albert Garzia’s Xamm (Scent), a largescale arrangement of a dance piece about a murder mystery. The orchestra have fun with all the classic Bernard Herrmann-ish tropes: sharp tritones over stillness, sudden furtive swells, chase scenes and a surprising amount of Dvorakian windswept calm. Classical music as entertainment doesn’t get any better than this in 2021. Now if we could only see this live!

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Yet Another Haunting, Exhilarating Album From Oud Master Mehmet Polat

Oudist Mehmet Polat hails from the Urfa region of Turkey, a hotspot for cultural cross-pollination for centuries. So it’s hardly a surprise to hear how individualistically he blends traditional Turkish sounds with Arabic, African and Andalucian music in addition to American jazz rhythms. Every year, he seems to put out a new record that always ends up on the best albums of the year page here. The latest one, The Promise – streaming at Bandcamp – will definitely be on the best of 2020 list here next month. In general, it’s Polat’s at his most upbeat and optimistic.

While Polat’s custom-made oud has a couple of extra bass strings, the electrifying opening track here, Firefighters is more of an exploration of the upper registers, peaking out with a series of incisive chords after a long build through enigmatic Balkan-tinged modes over Daniel van Huffelen’s bass and Joan Terol Amigo’s drums.

Polat builds an almost teasing, unresolved suspense in the second track, Nature Hits Back, before spiraling and then descending to the depths over percussionist Ruven Ruppik’s many textures and shifting rhythms. Pathfinder is a catchy, anthemic, dynamically vamping number over elegantly syncopated, boomy frame drum by Alper Kekeç.

Polat teams up with Sinan Arat on ney flute and Kekeç on frame drum again for Footprints, a hypnotically pulsing, mysterious, mostly one-chord jam. Then he completely flips the script with the spare, funky Permission, featuring a starkly melismatic solo from kamancheh fiddle player Elnur Mikayılov.

Polat and the opening track’s rhythm section hint that they’re going into qawwali as Swinging in Hands gets underway, but instead they go off on a bouncy West African kora-inspired tangent and end with a spacious bass solo. The undulating Fidelity to İstanbul makes a good, upbeat segue.

Guest Shwan Sulaiman contributes an expressive, dramatic vocal in Being the Voice over a scampering backdrop with echoes of North African rai music. Polat breaks out his loop and distortion pedals for Symbolizations, the most overtly psychedelic track here.

The real stunner here is Nêterseno, with haunting clarinet and defiantly populist vocals from Mikail Aslan and trebly tenbur lute by Cemil Qocgiri, picking up with a fiery flamenco groove before coming full circle. Polat plays a darkly incisive, melancholy solo over a drone in the lament Nothing Is Yours and closes with My Cultural Womb, a syncopated, edgily modal number reflecting influences from Turkey to Egypt.

Revisiting Fiery Violinist Briga’s Wildly Eclectic Balkan Album

Quebecoise violinist Brigitte Dajczer, who performs under the name Briga for branding’s sake, put out a 2017 album, Femme, which made the best albums of year page here, Then it disappeared into the abyss known as this blog’s hard drive. If you missed it then, you missed a deliciously entertaining mix of songs from across the Balkans along with several similarly diverse originals. Looking at the international cast of special guests on it, it’s obvious that they knew she was on to something good. She sings in French and several Eastern European languages as well. The album is still up at Bandcamp.

The first track is Ibrahim, a bouncingly bittersweet love song with a break for a wildfire solo by kanun player Didem Bagar. New York’s own Eva Salina supplies otherworly harmonies on the tightly pulsing Albanian song Dada Do Ta Shes, the bandleader opening it with a stark solo over accordionist Alix Noel’s drone. As the song goes on, he switches to synth for wry P-Funk textures, bassist Gregoire Carrier-Bonneau hitting a nimbly syncopated groove in tandem with drummer Marton Maderspach and percussionist Tacfarinas Kichou.

Accordionist Sergiu Popa duets with Dajczer on the fleetingly joyful Romanian song Dragoi. Svetulka Rachenitsa, a breathless south Serbian-flavored dance tune, features alto saxophonist Ariane Morin matching Dajcer’s ferocity; Noel’s eerily blipping keys add an unexpected psychedelic edge.

Guest chanteuse Tamar Ilana opens the slow, haunting epic Pour Pelin – inspired by Marcel Khalife’s Asfour – with a sharply plaintive solo over another accordion drone. Again, Bagar’s kanun ripples and pounces, then hands off to the string section (which also includes cellist Gael Huard) and the music grows more lushly orchestral.

Elfassi is a rai hip-hop tune with an amusing stoner rap in French from Giselle Numba One. The album’s itle track is an icepick-precise mashup of Balkan brass and salsa, Briga’s violin leaping over an undulating, tumbling groove featuring trombonist Rachel Lemisch. Briga and singer/violinist Iva Bittova duet on the stark, stripped-down dance tune Mama Irena.

Cafe Sarajevo is a fond, trippy, North African-flavored disco portait of a party spot there, inspired by rai music legend Cheika Rimitti. Briga really picks up the pace and cuts loose on the rapidfire, strutting minor-key Chanson Moldave…and then they speed it up some more! Eva Salina and Popa close the album with a calmly passionate, benedictory duet. From a New York perspective, this is Golden Fest in a box. May we get a Golden Fest in 2021.

A Broodingly Gorgeous New Album From Klezmer Innovators Shtreiml

Shtreiml have been taking the klezmer tradition to unexpected and interesting new places for a long time. Their latest album Har Meron is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a suite of sorts, a dynamic, often pensive theme and variations that draws on many styles from across the Jewish diaspora, jazz, Balkan and latin music.

Frontman Jason Rosenblatt builds minor-key suspense and majesty at the piano in the overture, trombonist Rachel Lemisch’s vivid, brooding resonance over Josh Fink’s bass and Thierry Arsenault’s flurrrying drums. Trumpeter Alexis French and saxophonist Tevet Sela take lyrical turns out in front of the band in the rather stern, pulsing variation that follows

Rosenblatt breaks out his signature instrument (shtreiml is the Yiddish word for harmonica) in the understatedly stark nigun that follows, percussionist Bertil Schulrabe providing a slinky Middle Eastern-tinged undercurrent. Then they pick up the pace with a lively, southern Balkan-flavored linedance tune, a hazy, hypnotic bridge at the center.

Rosenblatt keeps that misty, bucolic ambience going in the next number as the horns play an elegant, ancient-sounding theme spiced with doublestops. Lemisch leads the group with a melismatic grace through a variation on the title theme, Rosenblatt’s piano adding eerie glitter, up to a rapturous intertwine between the horns. Then Sela takes a turn out front as the group strut and swing with an allusively chromatic, Serbian tinge.

There’s barely suppressed joy in the pulsing horn piece afterward. Rosenblatt’s gracefully ornamented harmonica lines sail over the muted, slinky groove that follows. The album’s most epic track is also its most enigmatic and lithely jazz-oriented, Sela taking the album’s most intricately energetic solo.

They wind up the record with a trickily rhythmic, cleverly voiced dance, the sax finallly reaching for the rafters, and a  brisk, brassy sirba to close on a high note. It’s an apt coda for an album marked by reserve and thoughtful, dusky tunesmithing rather than the unleashed wildness of so many klezmer party bands.

Riveting, Haunting Flamenco-Tinged Armenian Sounds From Vigen Hovsepyan

Imagine you’re in Paris the first weekend of October, 2017. You’re in the midst of a crowd gathered on a barge docked alongside the Seine.

Nobody’s wearing a mask.

On the stage in the back, a man sings in a powerful, expressive baritone, in Armenian, wailing on an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, on a cajon. He’s backed by a slinky rock rhythm section, plus a pianist with an inclination toward minor keys and slashing chromatics. The music has a simmering intensity with flashes of flamenco. The crowd roar in appreciation after every song.

You can experience the highlights of the two concerts guitarist/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan played at the intimate quayside venue Peniche Anako – the rive droite counterpart to Brooklyn’s Bargemusic – on his album Live in Paris 2017, streaming at Spotify. Fans of the iconic Souren Baronian’s work with guitarist Adam Good will love this music, especially since brilliant duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan is on it.

Electric pianist Havard Enstad introduces his gorgeous, allusively chromatic opening number, The Immigrant, then the woody, reedy microtones of the duduk float and stab overhead. Hovsepyan picks up his acoustic guitar for the suddenly crescendoing second number, Zepyuri Nman, with sabretoothed piano and shadowy duduk over a punchy groove.

The night really explodes when Hovsepyan delivers the starkly dancing anthem Habrban as Enstad switches to cello. Then he goes back to play angst-fueled, glittering piano alongside Hovsepyan’s melismatic intensity in the first slow ballad of the night, Gulo.

The group ramp up the suspense throughout Kanchum Em Ari Ani, bass and duduk rising mournfully above the slow, dirgey sway. Chkolyan’s aching upper-register crescendo over Enstad’s neoromantic angst in the towering anthem Zulo is absolutely transcendent.

The duduk gets subsumed in the percussive drive of Dikranagerd: as the band speed it up at the end, the connection to Palestinian shamstep is just a step away. From there they edge toward skeletal Balkan funk with Mairyam and then get a singalong going with the women in the crowd with an epic, ecstatic take of Ertank Mer Yegir Moush Hanina Koshari. Chkolyan adds hypnotic sorcery with his long, otherworldly trilling solo out.

Hovsepian sings a low-key solo version of Charles Aznavour’s La Boheme in Spanish, setting up the wounded chromatics of the album’s final, darkly majestic ballad, Lusnyak Gisher. Midway through the record, there’s a long drum solo – a break for the band, maybe? – that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, this is a souvenir of what was obviously an amazing weekend. How serendipitous that we can listen to it now – and let’s resolve to never, never, let politicians create another situation where crowds can’t gather for transcendent moments like this.

Edgy, Upbeat, Relentlessly Uneasy Greek Psychedelia From Trio Tekke

Trio Tekke play Greek psychedelia that looks to the Middle East as much as it does to the first wave of Greek psych-rock bands from the 60s. Zola Jesus‘ most straight-up psychedelic adventures are a point of comparison, as are the first wave of 90s revivalists like Annabouboula, although Trio Tekke have a sparser, less dance-oriented sound. Their new album Strovilos – meaning “whirlwind” – is streaming at Bandcamp.

The first cut is Tempest of the Dawn, a spare, Middle Eastern-tinged melody emerging from Antonis Antoniou’s echoey, allusively Middle Eastern flavored tzouras lute, Lefteris Moumtzis’ guitar, Colin Somervell’s bass and Dave DeRose’s drums. The lyrics are in Greek, although the album comes with translations: this one is a trippy bacchanal narrative. That’s a common theme throughout the rest of the album.

Electric bouzouki clangs and Farfisa organ blips in and out in the similarly spare, more mysterious On the Street, pulsing along on a tricky 10/4 beat with fuzztone bass. Then the band work their way up out of a pensive lauto intro to a creepy, watery, hypnotic groove in Rotten Luck

Fueled by a piercingly gorgeous, chromatic electric bouzouki melody from Antoniou, the rembetiko art-rock drinking anthem I Erase the Day has a slow, syncopated pulse: imagine Greek Judas without the heavy metal thump. Moumtzis’ lingering guitar contrasts with the ring of the bouzouki over a muted, dancing beat in the album’s title cut: it’s anything but stormy.

The band go back to strangely altered, more optimistic rembetiko atmosphere with The First Day, echoing the days when prisoners of the brutal dictatorship of the 30s languished in jails, plotting their escapes. In Breathless Shriek, the band continue that theme more darkly, without the metaphors, over balletesque syncopation with starry, incisive guitars and keys.

The album’s poppiest and most playful number is the taverna dance tune Shooting Star. With its incisive riffs, Karmic is the closest thing here to classic 70s British psychedelia: think early Genesis with Greek fretted instruments instead. The trio close the record with Electric Sighs, a Romany-tinged waltz with dub echoes. Further proof that the best psychedelia these days comes from places far from where it was invented.

New Takes on Rare, Otherworldly Klezmer Recordings to Ease Your Lockdown Pain

Among the glut of musical webcasts that have sprung up since the beginning of the lockdown, one of the most fascinating and entertaining ones is klezmer violinist Ilana Cravitz‘s Nign a Day project, streaming daily at her webpage. She’s assembled an allstar team of string players from around the world, each playing a half-hour solo program of lively dances and party music from the legendary Moishe Beregovski collection. Many of the artists involved offer insights into the nuts and bolts of these stark, ancient songs as well as the occasional archival clip.

Beregovski was a Russian counterpart to Alan Lomax. Beginning before World War I and continuing until about 1950, Beregovski assembled a vast collection of Jewish folk tunes from across what was then the Soviet Union. Tragically, that heroic preservation work essentially cost him his life. Stalin found out about him and had him imprisoned in the gulag in 1951. In 1956, his health broken, Beregovski was released; he died in obscurity five years later.

His collection of wax cylinder recordings was rediscovered in Kiev after the fall of the Soviet Union and has since become a source of global fascination. Cravitz’s project is at about the halfway point now; New York’s Zoe Aqua and Deborah Strauss are featured on May 14 and 15, respectively. The performances are archived at Cravitz’s youtube channel. Thanks to May 10 guest Alicia Svigals for the heads-up about this.

A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.