New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: balkan music

Matt Darriau Brings One of His Edgy, Slinky Projects to a Bed-Stuy Gig

One New York artist who was ubiquitous before the lockdown, and whose presence was conspicuously absent during the last fifteen months, is eclectically edgy multi-reedman Matt Darriau. The longtime Klezmatics clarinetist did some outdoor gigs earlier this year; he’s back to the indoor circuit this July 19 at 9 PM at Bar Lunatico, where he’s leading his Yo Lateef project with Santiago Liebson on piano, Peck Almond on trumpet, Arthur Kell on bass and Steve Johns on drums, While the band was conceived to reinvent the work of distinctive jazz bassist Yusef Lateef, lately the group more closely resemble Darriau’s sometimes slashingly Balkan-tinged Paradox Trio.

There’s some pretty lo-fi audio of their most recent Brooklyn gig up at youtube (you’ll have to fast-forward through about the first ten minutes of the band bullshitting before it’s showtime). At this gig, Liebson’s piano got switched out for Max Kutner’s guitar, his unsettled chromatics echoing Brad Shepik’s work in the Paradox Trio. You can watch the group having fun with long, slinky, brooding quasi-boleros, a circling, soukous-tinged flute tune and a triptych where Darriau finally gets to cut loose, switching between Bulgarian gaida bagpipe, tenor sax and clarinet.

He’s gotten plenty of press here over the years, most recently with the Klezmatics, backing cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer at Central Park Summerstage in 2017. The time before that was for a Brooklyn Raga Massive event the previous November, where he spiraled and wafted through a series of Indian carnatic themes with oudist Brandon Terzic.

There was also a December, 2015 Brooklyn small-club gig with a serpentine, Middle Eastern-flavored group he called Du’ud since they had two oud players (Terzic and Brian Prunka). Yet some of the shows Darriau played before then, and didn’t get any press for here, were just as darkly sublime.

There was his Who Is Manny Blanc project, who play the sometimes eerily surfy, sometimes crazily cartoonish music of Manny Blanc, whose 1961 album Jewish Jazz is impossible to find and iconic among diehard crate-diggers. There were also a couple of more Balkan-flavored gigs with his Gaida Electrique band, where he focuses more on the chromatically slashing bagpipe tunes. That takes us all the way back to 2015. All this is to say that if you haven’t been watching the guy ripping it up onstage since then, there’s no time like the present,

You could also call this a long-overdue mea culpa for not having covered all those shows, That’s what happens sometimes when you go out intending to focus on the music, run into friends at the bar, and it’s all over. What a beautiful thing it is that here in New York, after sixteen months of hell and deprivation, we finally have that choice again. Let’s never lose it.

A Look Back at an Imaginatively Crafted Balkan Folk Album

Balkan singer Eugenia Georgieva’s album Po Drum Mome (A Girl on the Road) – streaming at Spotify – came out in the spring of 2018. It’s an original, captivating, cross-pollinated take on ancient folk tunes from Bulgaria and the Black Sea. The arrangements are elegant, yet not sterile.

Georgieva is the kind of international artist you would have expected to see at Golden Fest. She never made it to New York’s annual Balkan music extravaganza, but if all goes well we will get a Golden Fest 2022.

She sings the first song, Gyul Devoyche (A Girl Like a Rose) very tenderly over a spring-loaded backdrop of bandura, guitar, gadulka fiddle and a lushly flurrying, Egyptian-tinged string section.

The second track, Deno, Sreburno Vreteno (Silver Spindle) is a lilting waltz with dancing, chirping bagpipes over elegant guitar chords and simple bass. The album’s title track is a classic Bulgarian theme with bracing close harmonies, those signature whoops, and tightly clustering strings, bagpipe and bandura.

Then she completely slows things down with the hazily melancholy Podzim Sum, Male, Legnala, which could be a pastoral British rock ballad with Balkan instrumentation: in the song, a dying mother regrets leaving her children behind. Brayne Le Ivane (Hey, Brother Ivan) has a delicate lilt fueled by bagpipes and gadulka, and a rousing chorale at the end. The gist of the song is that a hardworking wife beats a beautiful one. 

Georgieva kicks off Sama Li Si Den Zhunala with imploring melismas over deliciously shivery gadulka, the group building suspense before they leap into this popular, acerbically catchy minor-key linedance tune. Likewise, Zmey Lyubi Moma (Dragon in Love), a beloved staple of the Bulgarian folk repertoire, gets reinvented with lots of spacious, improvisational interludes and suspense along with the expected quavery microtones and tricky rhythms.

Buenek (translated on the album as Lazar at the Gates) has a bouncy Greek feel. Georgieva returns to the Bulgarian canon for the thorny rhythms and minor keys of Ivan Bulya Si Dumashe.

She delivers Trugnala Rada (Rada and the Night) –  a tale of resistance against the tyranny of the Ottoman empire – mostly a-cappella with a wary, melismatic intensity, exchanging occasional riffs with the chirps of the kaval flute. She closes the record with the rather stark, delicately pulsing Oy, Toyne, Toyne, a road song. On one hand, this album doesn’t have the unhinged wildness of a lot of music from this part of the world; on the other, the arrangements are fresh and as unpredictable as the music itself even if they are somewhat more polished.

The Eva Quartet Take Ancient, Otherworldly Bulgarian Choral Music to New Places

Bulgarian choral quartet the Eva Quartet’s new album Minka – streaming at Spotify – is a lot more eclectic than most collections of centuries-old, otherworldly music from the Balkans. In the same vein as the original popularizers of the tradition, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – with whom all four members of the quartet have sung – they take their otherworldly close harmonies, surreal whoops and shivery ornamentation to more recent places.

On this album, that means hints of Indian rhythms and melody, plus more modern songs by Stefan Dragostinov, Ivan Spassov and Dimitar Hristov, leader of the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra. As you would expect, most of the numbers here are on the short side, under three minutes, sometimes much less, occasionally bolstered by percussion or gadulka. This recording is often balanced by the high harmonies in one channel, the lower ones in the other, which actually works against the tension created by the harmonic adjacencies and microtones common to Bulgarian music. On the other hand, if you’re looking to isolate your own harmony when singing this, it makes your job a lot easier.

Sometimes the innovations – doot-doot rhythms in the fourth track, for example – add a humorous touch. Elsewhere, the four women – Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Christova and Daniela Stoichkova – ]energetically walk the maze of tricky rhythms, melismas and the occasional thicket of tonguetwisting syllables. By contrast, slow overlays of melody shift through the sonic picture in Spassov’s austere Balno Li Ti E Sinjo Ljo….only to give way to rapidfire operatics.

The aching, muted lustre of Razvivay, Dobro Povivay (Let’s Go, Get Your Clothes On) contrasts with the vocal acrobatics of the miniature after that, as well as Hristov’s Leme Dreme, with its playful tug-of-war between gadulka and vocals. And the drones of the album’s final cut are stunningly unwavering. Folk music never stands still: it’s always evolving, and this album is a good idea of where one of the world’s edgiest, most popular flavors is going.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Vividly Nuanced Rainy-Day Balkan Songs From Amira Medunjanin

Amira Medunjanin is a very subtle singer. The Bosnian chanteuse doesn’t overdo it: she draws you into her poignant Balkan songs. Her darkly thoughtful, jazz-tinged 2015 album Damar is streaming at Spotify.

The album’s first track, Pjevat Cemo Sta Nam Srce Zna (We’ll Sing What the Heart Knows) is a calmly syncopated, elegant blend of pensive minor-key Mitteleuropean folk and jazz. Likewise, Tvojte Oci Leno Mori is a spare, hushed, balletesque take on what could be a boisterous fiddle-driven Balkan dance.

Medunjanin’s quiet, loomingly plaintive vocals over moody cello and guitar as the rubato ballad Vjetar Nuzu Poloikuje gets underway transcends any linguistic limitation; then Bojan Zulfikarpašić’s slightly out-of-tune piano adds Chopinesque ripples to the mix

Delicate echo phrases from the acoustic guitars – Boško Jović and Ante Gelo -introduce the trickily rhythmic Romany song More Izgrejala Sjajna Mesecina (rough translation: Moonlight on the Ocean), livened by rippling piano over the nimble rhythm section (bassist Zvonimir Šestak and Zulfikarpašić doing double duty on percussion).

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar-and-vocal intro and a ringing Portuguese guitar solo midway through, Kad Ja Podoh Na Bentbasu has echoes of fado music. Medunjanin’s tenderly ornamented vocals mingle with spare, spacious, echoing piano in Moj Golube, Moj Golube (My Love, My Love).

Passion simmers but never quite spills over the edge of the pot in Moj Dilbere, a pulsingly suspenseful, chromatically charged Romany love song: Jenny Luna’s work with magical Turkish band Dolunay comes to mind. The album’s hypnotic, almost conspiratorial title cut has bolero, blues and surreal doubletracked piano and organ cached within its minimalist jazz pulse. Medunjanin saves her most impassioned, imploring vocal for the album’s final cut, Aj Sto Cemo Ljubav Kriti, over a pensive expanse of low-key flamenco-esque guitar.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

Dive into a Middle Eastern Treasure From Duo Sabîl

Palestinian oudist Ahmad Al Kathib and percussionist Youssef Hbeisch – better known as Duo Sabîl, meaning “on the way” in Arabic – are a major force in the Middle Eastern music scene in Europe. Their 2017 album Zabad, Twilight Tide – streaming at Spotify – is much more hauntingly lush than their previous work since they double the size of the band, adding buzuq player Elie Khoury and bassist Hubert Dupont. Pretty much every song here is a launching pad for sizzling solos from both Al Kathib and Khoury: they’re great sparring partners.

The opening number, Samal is a diptych. As the fretted instruments intertwine, the uneasy swells. flurrying chords and brooding modes of the first section bring to mind fellow expatriate and oud virtuoso Marcel Khalife’s small-ensemble work. They sprint through the clenched-teeth intensity of the second part, with long, biting solos from buzuq and oud over a lithely syncopated 9/4 beat. When Dupont’s bass finally leaves the pocket and rises, the effect is visceral.

Khoury spirals with a brooding intensity over a dancing groove in the album’s title track, Al Kathib’s machete chords and spare riffs adding a bittersweet poignancy. The two exchange biting, dynamically shifting solos throughout a prelude in the enigmatic maqam rast; then the rhythm section join them for Awalem, which has a southern Balkan feel, alternating between coy jauntiness and stinging acerbity.

Khoury chooses his spots opening a second prelude in maqam nahawand – which is closer to a minor key in the western scale – Kathib raising the suspense. It offers no hint of what’s to come with Nothern Breeze, which begins with a slow, warmly nostalgic sway; then the band leap into warpspeed.

The group build the album’s big epic Marakeb (Ships) around a simple, insistent major third riff and then exchange pensive solos: the waters are choppy but not yet perilous. They wind up the album with the simply titled Afternoon Jam, beginning with an ominously chromatic oud taqsim and picking up with edgy solos all around. If this is what they sound like during the day, just wait til the sun goes down. Never again will this blog hide an album of this kind of music away on the hard drive for so long!

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamaki Khadem

Mamaki Khadem and her band play a frequently psychedelic-tinged take on most of what you can hear at Golden Fest, New York’s funnest annual concert weekend, a celebration of music from across Iran, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East. What a blessing that Golden Fest 2020 took place before the lockdown! For those who missed it, Mamaki Khadem’s absolutely gorgeous, haunting 2016 album The Road is streaming at Spotify.

The first track, A Thousand Strings, is a well-known Bulgarian choral piece, with the usual otherworldly close harmonies from the women in the band, but also chilly synthesized orchestration…and sizzling flamenco guitars exchanging solos. The second cut, Romance, is completely different, a one-chord jam with warmer harmonies over a trip-hop groove, shards of overtones flying from bagpipes and violin.

Do, Don’t is a briskly strutting, slyly jubilant, chromatic Balkan brass number with a potently raw, melismatic lead vocal. Flaming Sun, a brooding soundscape, has imploring vocals. microtonal clarinet and spare bandura lute over a low, looming drone. The group segue into High Sea, a determined, bouncy, Turkish-tinged tune, its calm vocals contrasting with the edgy chromatics of the accordion, fiddle and setar lute.

One of the album’s most strangely psychedelic numbers Little Gem has gamelanesque chimes, tender vocals and a stark breakdown for the string section midway through. Stardust, the album’s most distinctly Middle Eastern flavored track, has spiky oud, echoey piano and viscerally imploring vocals over steady syncopation.

Navaii, a moody soundscape for vocals, bagpipe and synthy backdrop, segues into Pledge, a low-key one-chord jam which for one reason or another evokes ancient English folk music more than it does Iran or the Balkans.

The band elegantly assemble a ghostly choir, chimes, tremoloing lead vocals, flute and strings in Huntsman, an only slightly restrained, gorgeous Balkan anthem. They close the album with the fiery, trumpet-fueled, rat-a-tat brass tune Those Eyes. It’s hard to think of another band who’ve been able to negotiate so many incredibly diverse styles with as much expertise and unrestrained fun as this crew.

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.