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Category: balkan music

A Hotrod of a Band Headlines This Year’s Greek Jewish Festival

More about today’s annual Greek Jewish Festival at the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum at 280 Broome St. in Chinatown: the headliners, Pontic Firebird, hit the stage at 5 PM. Not only do they have one of the coolest bandnames ever, they’re also a party in a box. They play a wildly adrenalizing mix of traditional Greek Mediterranean dance tunes that sometimes echo the eerie chromatics of rembetiko gangster music, and the Smyrnika sounds that permeated the underworld in that part of the globe in the decades after World War I.

This blog most recently caught Pontic Firebird in action at the 2018 edition of Golden Fest, which for years has been arguably the most exciting annual concert in New York (the 2020 edition took place as usual. that January; there was also an abbreviated, outdoor 2021 edition, but none so far this year). You can download the band’s 2018 set there at the recently and unexpectedly restored Free Music Archive, as well as a longer show from four years earlier. Let’s give that one a spin, shall we?

Frontwoman/violinist Beth Bahia Cohen first leads the group through a raw, rustic, trickily rhythmic dance that veers from minor to major and back and sounds more like Greek hill country music than it does Mediterranean. The group members aren’t listed, but there’s also oud, boomy standup drums and bass in the mix.

Oud and violin double the melody line over pouncing syncopation in the next number, followed by a hypnotically loopy one where Cohen goes flying into some spine-tingling spirals when least expected. The fourth track starts starkly and auspiciously and suddenly cuts off – hey, it’s a field recording, that happens sometimes. The group wind up the set – or at least what’s here – with their edgiest, most chromatically bristling number.

The rest of the bands on today’s bill are also excellent. If you can get out of the house early enough, you can catch the whole lineup, which starts at noon with the bouncy Elias Ladino Ensemble, followed by the Greek American Folklore Society band, the Noga Group featuring brilliant oudist Avram Pengas, bellydancer Layla Isis and then psychedelic Middle Eastern oud player and bandleader Scott Wilson & Efendi at 4. Take the B or D to Grand St.

Anouar Kaddour Cherif Releases an Inimitably Gorgeous North African Album

Anouar Kaddour Cherif’s axe is the mandola, the gorgeous, woody-toned North African lute, akin to an oud with a larger body and expanded upper register. The Algerian expat’s latest album Djawla – streaming at Bandcamp – is a deliciously edgy mashup of North African Arabic music and Balkan jazz. Cherif’s songs are unpredictable: dirges burst out into scampering, deftly syncopated dances and vice versa when least expected. It’s closer to chaabi or Turkish diasporic styles than it is jazz, and his quartet play briskly but with a striking economy of notes: noodling not allowed here. There’s really nothing quite like this out there.

In the opening track, Sans Pap the group take a slinky chromatic riff, go scampering, then slow it down, the mandola and Clément Meunier’s tersely looming bass clarinet over the lithe, understated pulse of Antoine Brochot’s bass and Hannes Junker’s drums.

Meunier’s aching, desolate, duduk-like upper register flutters over Cherif’s spare riffage as the group slowly make their way into Albatross over an ominous bass drone. Eventually they pick it up – and suddenly the bird breaks free of its shackles! Was this inspired by the Baudelaire poem maybe?

Likewise, Cherif backs away from his scrambling opening taqsim for more plaintive bass clarinet to introduce Savage Butterfly, then the band scramble and team up for bristling chromatic harmonies over a tricky dance beat. Brochot opens Call of the Night with a mysterious, skeletal solo before Cherif’s Lynchian chords enter from the shadows, only to back away, leaving just the rhythm section and low-key vocals.

Neatly orchestrated echo effects shift between instruments in Sirocco, a return to tight, rapidfire syncopation, with a break for spare, misterioso solo mandola. The band hint at the Pink Panther theme, slowly building Automne Occidental into a slow North African noir blues and then a briskly circling, vampy theme.

A True Lie is an ingenious, seemingly halfspeed take on what would otherwise be a lickety-split dance tune that would be just as much at home in Macedonia or Turkey as Algeria. Virgule – French for “comma” or “decimal point,” depending on context – is the loopiest and most rhythmically straightforward track here, with playful exchanges between the instruments. The group wind up the record with Amiret Erriyam, a loping, stately anthem in the biting Arabic hijaz mode with a tasty microtonal bass solo at the center.

The Spy From Cairo Keeps Making Deliciously Serpentine Middle Eastern Dub Sounds

For more than a decade, one-man band Moreno “Zeb” Visini has been making wildly psychedelic dubwise Middle Eastern dance music under the name The Spy From Cairo. Oud and saz lute are his main axes, but he’s also adept at keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. As usual, he plays everything with expertise and a wry sense of humor on his new vinyl record Animamundi, streaming at Bandcamp.

He was able to record the album in his home country of Italy despite the fascist restrictions which are still in place there, since he does all the music himself with a little transcontinental input from talented vocalists on the web. The central message is freedom. If there are bouncy castles at the rallies in Rome, this is the kind of stuff that freedom fighters (and their kids) could re-energize with. There are a ton of flavors on this record, all held together by lusciously chromatic maqams.

He gets off to a strong start with the title track. a brisk Egyptian reggae tune built around a catchy, scampering, biting oud lead track. Daf frame drum booms in the background, “Information of creation is stored in our DNA,” a rasta explains in the voiceover at the end. No doubt!

Asssembled around a catchy chromatic riff, Beautiful Baraka, featuring Adil Smaali is a chaabi-reggae-rap mashup with a couple of keyboards trading off in a wry call-and-response. Black Sea comes across as a trebly dub plate with wah-wah oud. Visini balances another slithery, catchy oud riff against microtonal roller-rink organ in Cosmic Pasha, then takes a deep plunge into Middle Eastern cumbia in Criminal, with Mambe Rodriguez taking a coy turn on vocals.

Divination has a more enigmatic Balkan-flavored tune, but Visini works anthemic string synth riffs into it. He goes back to a brisk cumbia groove, adding layers of cifteli lute and a scrambling oud solo in Extraterrestre, featuring Andalucian vocalist Carmen Estevez. Hamsa Shuffle has lusciously microtonal violin and a blippy, hypnotic cumbia sway, while Mizmirized has otherworldly zurna oboe and a swaying rai beat.

Visini ripples and pings his way through Qanun in Dub, a reggae tune and one of the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tracks on the record. Seeds of Culture is a loopy Indian-flavored song with snakecharmer ney flute over a rai rhythm and an unexpectedly bristling oud outro (is there such a word as “oudtro?”). The final cut, Ya Wuldani features guests Fatou Gozlan & Duo Darbar and is arguably the most psychedelic, dubwise number. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best albums of 2022, but this is one of them.

High-Voltage Catalan Dances and Party Tunes From Fenya Rai

Fenya Rai play high-voltage Catalan folk and Romany dance tunes with a rock rhythm section. Their sound is more unscripted and less flamenco-oriented than the Gipsy Kings, less self-referential than Gogol Bordello, although in their own irrepressible way they’re every bit as punk. Their latest album Placa Major – meaning “town square” – is streaming at Spotify. It’s a party in a box. Jordi Jubany plays guitar, with Jaume Martínez on accordion, David Tudela on bass and on Roger Montalà on drums

The opening number, Pastor Cabrer is a gruffly bouncy, upbeat tune that could be the Pogues singing in Catalan – or a bluegrass tune, for that matter. Sometimes party music sounds a lot alike no matter where it comes from. Joan Reig is the boisterous guest vocalist.

Jaume Arnella sings the similarly upbeat Les Rondes del Vi with a gruff, wintry delivery, in contrast to the spritely acoustic guitar. Francesc Ribera a.k.a Titot takes over the mic on La Fonda de Cal Xai, a briskly pulsing minor-key Romany tune. He returns a bit later to sing El Rector de Collbató, a klezmer-tinged tune with moody, resonant clarinet from Aura Roca along with stabbing accordion. Playing electric guitar, Albert Ibarra trades off some biting riffage of his own.

Bat de Sol is where the flamenco comes simmering in, with the expressive Arturo Gaya on vocals and Clara Colom on diatonic accordion. Adrià Dilmé joins the vocal harmonies in the cheery, pastoral cumbia El Vi de la Terra. Ibarra’s spiky guitar adds a wild psychedelic tinge to Quin Enrenou, another cumbia bounce.

Baixeu al Carrer, a swaying accordion tune, has sly guy/girl harmonies: it could be the roots of a Venezuelan cumbia hit from the 60s. The band pick up the pace even more with Els Tres Xicots, a big scampering banjo anthem.

There are mariachi horns on El Gall Negre, which could be a Mexican banda hit with a lickety-split sprint out at the end. The band go back to cumbia for album’s final track, El Tiexidor, a singalong drinking song.

Poignant, Gorgeous New Songs For Viola Da Gamba on Almalé’s New Album

Pilar Almalé’s axe is the viola da gamba. It’s an unusual choice for an original songwriter, especially since most of the repertoire for the instrument is from the baroque era and before . Almalé has an expressive voice, uses the gamba for both cello-like sustain and basslines, writes strong melodies and reinvents older material with considerable flair. Her new album, Hixa Mia (My Daughter), released under her last name, is streaming at Spotify. She has a fantastic, similarly adventurous band. Violinist Thomas Kretszchmar and guitarist Alex Comín blend terse, imaginative jazz and Romany influences without cluttering the sound, percussionist Fran Gazol adding flamenco and Middle Eastern grooves.

Almalé opens the album with the title track, a catchy, Andalucian-flavored, poignant minor-key anthem with a swaying, levantine-tinged groove and a stark, jazz-inflected violin solo. You could call this folk-rock, or Romany music, or something fresh and new. The string harmonies on the slow, gently syncopated second track, simply titled Passacalle, are stark, rich and reedlike, a close approximation of an accordion. Comín bobs and weaves and chooses his spots, whether with feathery tremolo-picking, big lush chords or carefree single-note jazz lines.

She opens A la Luna, a gorgeously slinky, trickily rhythmic Turkish-inspired number, with a broodingly bowed solo, bringing a visceral sense of longing to the lyrics. Kretszchmar subtly builds his solo to a searing peak.

Pianist Lucas Delgado plays carefully articulated, somber lines in Flow My Tears, a moody, klezmer-esque ballad which Almalé sings in low-key, cadenced English. The group veer between brisk Romany-flavored jazz, a moody ballad and the baroque in the instrumental Blue Lamento. It makes a good bridge to Folias Gallegas, an upbeat, Celtic-tinged circle dance with an austere, baroque-flavored solo gamba break midway through.

La Patetica, a solo gamba piece, comes across as a stormy mashup of Tschaikovsky and a Bach cello suite. Almalé launches a-cappella into the album’s final cut, Los Guisados, a rousing, rustically waltzing anthem that rises out of an unexpected lull to a tantalizing white-knuckle restraint. It’s unlike anything else released in the last several months. Fans of music from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Black Sea will love this stuff.

Etsuko Hirose Plays Thoughtful, Impressionistic Pancho Vladigerov Suites

If Pancho Vladigerov’s music is becoming a meme, so much the better. And if the recent release of two versions of his Impressions suite is only a coincidence, it’s a case of great minds thinking alike. Nadejda Vlaeva’s recording, reviewed here last month, reveled in the composer’s protean individualism, morphing from the High Romantic to the Balkans and portents of where artists like Chano Dominguez would take flamenco jazz. Etsuko Hirose‘s recording – streaming at Spotify – has somewhat more restraint, the advantage being that she focuses on different subtleties in the composer’s portrait of a love affair.

The unhurried initial movement, if anything, is more circumspect than Vlaeva’s version. Likewise, Hirose’s take of the Embrace is a little more spacious but also reaches a triumphant plateau pretty early on and hangs there. The Waltz-Capriccio has more of a contrast between romping joy and reflective glitter, although Hirose also downplays the uneasy Saint-Saens-esque vampiness.

The Caress is very much that, while Elegance is matter-of-factly expressive High Romantic joy. Hirose holds back from dramatic overstatement in Confession, although she lets the jaunty ragtime loose in Laughter.

Ripe little crescendoing waves permeate Hirose’s interpretation of Passion: it’s a rewarding ride. The same for the pervasive darkness in Surprise, even when the rhythm picks up – Hirose draws a straight line back to nocturnal Janacek wanderings. The finale, Resignation has both muted distress and towering angst: what a story Hirose has to tell.

Vladigerov’s Suite Bulgare, Op.21 and the Prélude, Op.15. get a similarly insightful treatment here. The suite’s regally marching, colorfully ornamented, increasingly Middle Eastern-tinged first movement gives way to enticingly allusive, quintessentially Bulgarian tonalities in the misterioso second, Hirose opting to let it trail out with a ghostly menace.

The chromatically gleaming dance that follows seems on the muted side as well, until she launches into a stilleto attack to set up the cheerier if labyrinthine Ratschenitza coda. With the concluding prelude, Hirose reverts to a glistening, expressive Romanticism, arguably a more chromatic take on Rachmaninoff: her execution of those ratcheting climbs is breathtaking. This is a feast for fans of music from the Balkans as well as more harmonically predictable points further west.

Rapidfire Pyrotechnics From an Iconic Balkan Brass Band

Fanfare Ciocarlia, the iconic brass band, have represented Romania perhaps better than anyone for the past two decades. And they have a new album, It Wasn’t Hard To Love You streaming at Bandcamp. Interestingly, as much as these guys can blast along on a dance tune for minutes on end, most of the songs here are pretty short. And there are a lot of them, a grand total of sixteen jams to get you dancing in minor keys.

They open with a joke, a deadpan brass band cover of Just the Two Of Us, Grover Washington Jr.’s 80s cheeseball smooth jazz hit: it’s pure punk rock. Then the group get down to business. Babo Never Worked a Day has a steady but understated dancefloor thud from drummers Paul Benedikt Stehlescu and Costel “Gisniaca” Ursu and tantalizingly serpentine solos from clarinetist Costel Oprica Ivancea and alto saxophonist Dan Ionel Ivancea.

The Hungarian Wild Bunch features rapidfire staccato trumpets over icepick baritone horns: that’s Costica “Cimai”Trifan, Paul Marian Bulgaru, Craciun Ovidiu Trifan and Lazar Radulescu on trumpets, Laurentiu Mihai Ivancea and Constantin “Sulo” Calin on baritone horns, Mihaita Sergiu Nastase and Vasile Stangaciu on helikon.

The brief and indomitably cheery Pannonicated Polka has vocals. A rough translation from the Romanian:

And when the evening
Turns into an everyday life full of tears
Our younger days are gone
But we barely noticed

Escape From Baltimore turns out to be made via the railroad tracks: gotta love that kettledrum. The lickety-split Song For Noga will take your breath away. The group slow down just a little for the catchy chromatic sway of Hobo Kolo and then go into circus rock bolero territory with The Trumpeter’s Lament.

First Aid Klezmer has clarinet front and center, as you might expect. There are wry classical flourishes in Porsche Polka and spine-tingling microtonal sax in Gypsy Mambo No. 555.

Red Moon has a mix of latin and Balkan flair, and a surprisingly plaintive trumpet solo, while Busbus is packed with all kinds of slyly orchestrated tradeoffs. Demon Dance, predictably, is a springboard for sabretoothed precision but also suspensefully wafting trumpet. Then the band go Cruzzzando El Campooo with hints of cumbia and dixieland.

The “digital bonus track” is Mosquito Swamp, where the horns are so liquid it’s almost as if they’re a giant accordion. It would be out of character for this band – and for this blog – if this wasn’t on the best albums of 2021 list at the end of the year.

The A.G.A. Trio Play Acerbic, Gorgeous, Austere Music For Accordion and Reeds

The A.G.A Trio‘s album Meeting – streaming at youtube – is an otherworldly, often haunting mix of windswept Near Eastern tableaux and lively, acerbic traditional dances. The group are a summit meeting of some of the region’s most individualistic musicians. Flutist Deniz Kartal represents for Anatolia; accordionist Mikail Yakut hails from the republic of Georgia, and duduk virtuoso Arsen Petrosyan is Armenian,

The first song is Erzumi Shoror, a slowly unwinding, plaintive melody. Kartal takes the first solo on kaval, joined for muted low harmonies by Petrosyan’s duduk, Yakut’s steady pulses pushing the song along. Then the two reedmen switch roles. The trio follow a similar, unhurried architecture throughout a handful of the record’s slower, more expressive numbers, most strikingly on the third track, which comes across as a more lively variation on this initial theme.

A sailing flute taqsim over a quiet accordion drone introduces Adayani Voghpe/Adana Agidi, then the trio join forces and follow a somber, stately trajectory. A brief, determined, trickily rhythmic circle dance serves as a bridge to a slightly longer Anatolian dance, Tamzara, with Kartal’s biting, trilling modal flute front and center.

Yakut has fun with the rapidfire triplets in a solo accordion version of another dance, Dzveku Kartuli Satsekvao. Petrosyan takes over the lead with his poignant, soulful ornamentation in the solemn Noubar-Noubar and Yare Vardu, by Leon Katerjian, followed by the mystical, enveloping traditional lament Siretsi Yars Taran.

Next there’s a trio of dances for kaval and accordion, and then duduk and accordion, spiced with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Kartal trills and thrills, solo, through the bounding, spiraling dance Kara Koyun.

The group shift elegantly from a joyously edgy, Romany-tinged dance to gentle suspense in Victor Dolidze’s Kartuli Keto da Kote. They close the record with the moody chromatics of the traditional Patara Gogo, descending to a spacious, desolate duduk interlude. It’s hard to think of another recent album with as much understated, breathtaking beauty as this one.

Colorful, Upbeat Spanish and Romany Dance Sounds From Caamaño & Ameixeiras

Accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras‘ debut album Aire – streaming at Spotify – is a high-energy, edgy mix of traditional Spanish and Balkan dances and imaginative originals. The duo are occasionally bolstered by mandolin, bass clarinet and trumpet. Most of the themes here are instrumentals, with Ameixeiras occasionally taking a turn on vocals. The duo like long launching pads that rise to explosive crescendos.

They open with Florencio, a jaunty waltz, Ameixeiras’ soaring chords and shivery ornamentation over Caamaño’s alternately precise and lush accordion. They begin the second track, Mercedes y Dolores with a stark, chromatic Romany pulse, then morph it into a circle dance that reaches a wild peak.

Alegria Dio’la Dea, another waltz, is more boisterous – is that a theremin lurking way up in the clouds?

Ameixeiras sings the ballad Se Souberas with an expressive, melismatic Romany-influenced delivery, beginning hazily and rising to unexpected intensity on the wings of her vocal multitracks. Then the two women tackle the tricky Serbian rhythms and shapeshifting themes of Buchimitsa, Carola Ortiz’s bass clarinet lurking on the perimeter.

They return to 3/4 time for La Bal de la Marine, moving between a brooding bolero melody and brighter, musette-esque terrain. The album’s high point is the bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz Maneo de Cambre, Ameixeiras taking a moody turn on vocals and then trading allusive, plaintive solos with Ortiz’s clarinet.

Maribel is a good segue, a biting, incisively strolling minor-key bounce. True to its title, Transatlantico has a blend of cosmopolitan nuevo tango, bluesy and 80s funk-pop in rustic acoustic disguise, along with one of Caamaño’s most expressive solos.

Valse de Pasmar comes across as a wistful lullaby with more than a hint of dixieland, a droll intro and a cheery muted trumpet solo. The duo wind up the album with the title track, its enigmatic Eastern European harmonies and vocal inflections. What a breath of fresh air this album is – you may be seeing this on a lot of best-of-2021 lists at the end of the year.

Slinky, Metaphorically Loaded, Ecstatic Psychedelia From the Isle of Cyprus

In the depths of the lockdown in his native Cyprus earlier this year, Monsieur Doumani frontman and tzouras lute player Antonis Antoniou persevered, became a one-man band and put out a serpentine, hypnotic solo album. Good news: his main band is back together, and has an ecstatically nocturnal new release, Pissourin streaming at Bandcamp.

This time out the group have switched guitarists, longtime touring member Andys Skordis replacing Angelos Ionas. Demetris Yiasemides returns on trombone, further enhancing the surreal atmosphere. The result is arguably the most enveloping and richly textured record of an already psychedelic career.

The opening number, Tiritichtas is a characteristically undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. Antoniou sings Giorgos Vlamis’ aphoristic lyrics in Greek:

Smile at the emerging shadow
The light gets in if it finds a crack
Break down the clock, enough
Count the minutes with your heart

The rhythms get trickier in Poúlia (Pleiades), trombone serving as bass under the glittering interweave of gritty guitar and icy, oscillating tzouras textures: the trick ending is irresistibly funny. Anchored by a tasty minor-key guitar/tzouras interweave, Kalikandjari is a launching pad for lyricist Marios Epaminondas’s Dionysan tableau: only a crazed joie de vivre can save us at this point.

The group keep the nocturnal elixirs flowing in Koukkoufkiaos (The Owl), its Balkan tinges fueled by the sputtering trombone. They straighten out that pouncing beat a little for the album’s title track (rough translation: Heart of the Night), slinky tzouras climbing to shivery peaks over an increasingly frenetic backdrop.

Martha Frintzila takes over the mic, adding subtle enticement to Thamata (Miracles), Antoniou’s tzouras rippling over the bubble of the trombone. It’s the album’s most epically psychedelic track.

Alavrostishiotis (Sprite) seems to be a New Orleans spirit at heart, Skordis’ keening slide guitar multitracks over a blippy, loopy fourth line of a pulse. Nichtopapparos (Night Bat) is a sinister tale, both the trickiest and most hypnotic number here. The band wind up the album with Astrahan, a bracing, edgy account of menacing mermaid seduction. What a thrill, all the way through. This may be a year that’s been starved for psychedelic sounds, but this is one of the best records of 2021.