New York Music Daily

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Category: brass band

An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

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A Fourth of July Show Worth Celebrating at Barbes

This was not a year to celebrate the Fourth of July with any kind of American pageantry. There were a few people in the crowd at Barbes who’d deliberately decided to opt out of visual fireworks for musical ones, but otherwise there was no political subtext to a wildly energetic triplebill of New Orleans swing and Balkan brass sounds that ran the gamut from the most trad to the craziest avant garde.

Saxophonist Aurora Nealand’s Royal Roses had played Central Park over the weekend with a couple of popular New York acts: from this performance, putting them first on that bill must have raised the bar impossibly high. Much as the hurricane and the forced exodus  out afterward did a number on the Crescent City’s indigenous jazz population – developers have been scheming to depopulate New Orleans’ working-class neighborhoods for years – it’s still a hotbed for jazz, if a lot less creole than it used to be. The Royal Roses represented that tradition and schooled us all, through two deliriously swinging sets.

Barbes tends to draw a lot of bands who are used to much bigger venues, and this group was no exception: it was impossible to get into the music room until very late in the second set. A lot of what they played could be called dixieland noir. There was volley after volley of soprano sax/trombone interplay and counterpoint, but it was dark and edgy, and tight beyond belief. Piano and guitar made spiky appearances out in front on a handful of numbers, and it wasn’t all just lickety-split dance music, either. As the band built steam in the second set, there were also a handful of clenched-teeth massed climbs up the scale, part Anthony Braxton largescale improvisation and part horror film soundtrack. This contrasted with Nealand’s close-to-the-vest charm on the mic: as much as she’s a pyrotechnic reed player, she sings with a lot of nuance.

Slavic Soul Party, who’ve mashed up Balkan brass music with everything from hip-hop to Ellington jazz suites over the years, weren’t available for their usual Tuesday night 9 PM residency, but there were members in the house. And it was awfully cool to be able to catch a rare appearance by Veveritse Brass Band. “I saw them on some random night at the Jalopy, years ago, and they blew me away,” enthused a brunette beauty at the bar.

She wasn’t kidding. An eight-piece version of the band shook off the rust and a rocky start to bring back fond memories of a Serbia of the mind circa 2009 or thereabouts, when the band was a regular draw on the Barbes/Jalopy circuit. Tricky tempos? Minor keys? Chromatics and microtones to rival seasoned Serbian or Egyptian brass players? Check, check, check. Alto saxophonist Jessica Lurie whirled in, unpacked her horn and fired off the most deliciously slithery solo of the night, not missing a beat. Finally, de facto bandleader and baritone horn player Quince Marcum took a similarly valve-twisting microtonal solo of his own.

The night came full circle with an enveloping, otherworldly and eventually feral set by the Mountain Lions, billed originally as the duo of baritone saxophonist Peter Hess and standup drummer Matt Moran. Maybe this was planned, maybe not, but it ended up with Hess playing achingly intense, minutely fluctuating melody over a slow, funereal beat, several horns massed behind him and playing a drone. The result was as psychedelic as anything played on any stage in New York this year – and a pretty spectacular display of circular breathing and extended technique. Then the group loosened up, Raya Brass Band’s Greg Squared lit into one of his supersonically precise, pyrotechnic solos and the band got their feet planted back in Sarajevo or Guca or somewhere like that, in the here and now.

Word on the street is that Slavic Soul Party will have everybody back in town by August for their Tuesday night Barbes residency. In the meantime, this month, their absence opens up the late slot for a lot of great music- check the Barbes calendar or just stop by the bar if you’re in the hood. This coming Tuesday, July 11 at 7 PM lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club open the night at 7, playing songs inspired by Steve Martin.

An Awesome New Album and an East Village Release Show by Ethio-Jazz Songstress Meklit

Multi-instrumentalist singer Meklit is one of brightest lights in Ethiopian jazz  But that’s just the starting point for the ex-Brooklynite songwriter, who springboards off that  into a high-voltage mix that also draws on classic soul, funk, rock and ancient Ethiopian folk music. Her Lincoln Center show back in April was off the hook. Now she’s got a new album, When the People Move, the Music Moves Too, soon to be streaming at Bandcamp, and a release show tomorrow night, June 21 at 8 PM at the old Nublu at 62 Ave. C.. Cover is $22.

Since she absconded for the west coast, she’s assembled a killer band. Their not-so-secret weapon is tenor saxophonist Howard Wiley. The rest of the vast cast on the album also comprises but is hardly limited to drummer Colin Douglas, percussionist Marco Peris Coppola and bassist Sam Bevan. The rest of the crew spans from Ethiopian masenko fiddler Endris Hassen to the Preservation Hall Horns.

The triumphantly bouncing, swaying opening track, This Was Made Here, celebrates a DIY esthetic, but there’s also a lot of defiance in the bandleader’s “I’m not gonna wait, no more!” as Tassew Wondem’s Ethiopian wood flute leaps and bounds overhead. The brightly circlingI Want to Sing For Them All also has a defiant undercurrent – on the surface, it sends shouts out to Meklit’s influences, from Prince to a litany of Ethio-jazz stars, but it’s also a reminder that pigeonholing is a big mistake. As Hannah Arendt liked to say, stereotyping is the worst thing in the world. Andrew Bird’s violin pairs with the masenko as the dance rises to fever pitch.

Meklit breaks out her krar harp for the album’s catchiest track, Supernova. Powerful low-register brass fuels a vast, pulsingly dramatic backdrop as Wiley goes into wary Ethiopian mode. The mantra is “Where did you come from,” the point being that everything we’re made of came in with a bang: don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep that going?

Likewise, the Preservation Hall Horns supply the bluster behind Kibrome Birhane’s spare, incisive piano in the funky anthem You Are My Luck. Bird brings his violin back to the subtly polyrhythmic, mutedly moody Yerakeh Yeresal. Then the band pucks up the pace with You Got Me: hearing the New Orleans brass sink their teeth into Meklit’s gorgeously biting, emphatic Ethiopian arrangement is a trip, and a revelation.

Yesterday Is a Tizita brings back the grey-sky atmosphere, a lament that rises to the point where the sky clears and Meklit announces that “Our mistakes became the sun” –  her loping triplet melody is one of the album’s most delicious moments.

Wiley’s catchy, ominous baritone sax riffage drives Human Animal, a straight-ahead mix of hard funk and Ethio-jazz, with hints of 80s new wave. Sweet or Salty maintains that balance of 80s British pop and rustic Ethiopian themes, with acidically swirling masenko against lushly enigmatic strings and understatedly jubilant rat-at-tat percussion.

Happy Birthday starts out as a cute attempt at a replacement for an all-too-familiar ditty that could really, REALLY use a replacement, then becomes an intricate thicket of melody, winding up with a jaunty conversation between Wiley’s tenor sax and one of the trombonists. The album closes with Memories of the Future, shifting back and forth between a majestic, distantly uneasy sway and a jubilant, cantering theme fueled by the New Orleans horns. Lots going on here, plenty to sink your ears into over and over again – one of the best albums of 2017, bar none.

An Epic, Explosively Catchy Balkan Brass Album from What Cheer? Brigade

What Cheer? Brigade headlined this year’s Golden Festival, the nation’s top gathering of Balkan bands. It was two in the morning in Brooklyn when they hit the stage, and by then, there were almost as many people playing as watching. Which meant more brass instruments and drums than could fit onstage, so what seemed like half the band were gathered around in front. It was an apt way to wind up what will probably prove to be the best party of the year.

Beyond the New York Philharmonic, there is no other band this size on the East Coast, and no brass band in the United States other than MarchFourth with as many members. Maybe that’s why they aren’t listed on the band’s webpage –  maybe there’s not enough bandwidth! Calling their sound titanic is beside the point.

Beyond sheer volume, what’s most impressive about their new album You Can’t See Inside of Me – streaming at Bandcamp – is how tight it is. Bands this size, let alone punk brass street bands like these people, tend to be unwieldy. Their Golden Fest set was pretty crazy, but it’s a good bet they’ll be extra tight since they just made the record – and maybe will be a little smaller in size too – when they play the album release show tonight, June 16 at around 10 at the new Littlefield at 635 Sackett St. in Gowanus, just around the corner from the old location. As a bonus, the similarly explosive if considerably more compact Raya Brass Band – arguably the best Balkan brass unit in the United States – open the night at 9. Cover is $10.

The album’s opening track, Iahabibi, is a Balkan cumbia. The way the lush wall of trumpets (and trubas, maybe) slithers and bends in unison to reach the highs on the chorus sounds effortless, but in reality it’s just the opposite. The chromatics and rat-a-tat attack get even more fearsome and catchy in the second track, Punk Gratitude, the band eventually dropping back to just the tubas and drums for a flamenco-edged trumpet solo and then an explosively flurrying drum break.

Ekremov Čoček has towering, expansive minor-key harmonies to match a big Renaissance choir. The song struts more than it careens, no small achievement. Then again, nothing about this band is small. Hora Din Petrosnitza is a mghty, bubbling punk klezmer number, like the Klezmatics turned up to eleven, with another big drum break. The epic, cinematic, funkified You Don’t Want to Go to War is packed with call-and-response and echo phrases; deep inside, it’s a soul song.

The diptych Ba Tu/Perin Čoček opens as a slow, gorgeously stormy anthem fueled by low brass chords and then picks up with an intensity that’s just short of frantic. Likewise, the breathtaking fanfare that kicks off the title track, a heavyweight, catchy Andalucian-flavored blast of brass with a tantalizingly brief, simmeringly chromatic trombone solo.. Reka Želja reaches for even greater heights, balancing flamenco fire with wry 80s new wave pop allusions and an artfully circling exchange of individual voices.

Black Cannon is sort of a swaying Balkan Hawaii 5-0; the stampeding doublespeed bridge and the breathless charge on the way out are the high points of the album. NBD is a brassy spoof of a popular early zeros rock hit, while the epically puffing, closing cover of Brian Eno’s Here Come the Warm Jets, complete with choir, is even more surreal.

The album also includes nine remixes: while it’s good to hear the songs, at least parts of them, a second time, around that’s hardly necessary considering how meticulously recorded the originals are. Big up to the folks at Pawtucker, Rhode Island’s Machines with Magnets studios for not simply lining these guys up inside McCoy Stadium and recording the album right there on the ballfield. Although it might have been just as difficult to fit everybody into the ballpark too. Count this among the top ten releases of 2017 so far.

Manhattan’s Best Venue Stages a Thunderous Benefit for Their Brooklyn Counterpart

The Barbes benefit concert at Drom Friday night wasn’t sold out, but the East Village venue was close to capacity. Big Lazy headlined. By then the dancers had been on their feet for the better part of four hours, yet didn’t seem the least bit worn out. So the shadowy, cinematic trio of guitarist Steve Ulrich, bassist Andrew Hall and drummer Yuval Lion played their slinkiest stuff. Ulrich shifted eerily between desolate big-sky tableaux, furtively chromatic crime jazz, a wryly strutting go-go theme or two and red-neon roadhouse scenes while Hall spun his bass, supplying a tight rubber-band low end in tandem with Lion’s thicket of textures from every part of his kit. Gato Loco trombonist Tim Vaughn and Balkan Beat Box baritone sax player Peter Hess added extra careening, elusive textures at the end of their tantalizingly brief set, whose centerpiece was the title track from the band’s latest album Don’t Cross Myrtle, a muted bump-in-the-night theme that turned completely savage in seconds flat.

Ulrich dedicated the song to Barbes, the band’s embattled Park Slope home base, which serves the same purpose for many other artists, the rest of the night’s bill included. Considering the song’s title and its creepy themes (it’s an instrumental), on face value it seems to address deep Brooklyn nocturnal peril. But this time out, introducing the song, Ulrich alluded to a “changing Brooklyn,” and suddenly another meaning, 180 degrees the opposite, emerged: keep your wrecking balls and other weapons of mass destruction, your money-laundering, your swindler speculators and “luxury” condos, and the status-grubbing yuppies who move into them, out of our part of town. It may be sketchy, but it’s all we have left. There isn’t anyplace else in New York in 2017 where a working class person or an artist can survive.

The brain drain out of New York and the mass displacement of artists to the most remote fringes of the five boroughs aren’t the only reasons that Barbes is in trouble. Their building has been hit with a lien for city services, no fault of the venue; in the meantime, their Indiegogo campaign is almost eighty percent funded. “I can’t believe this place still exists,” marveled one patron under her breath at the bar Saturday night while Sean Cronin’s oldschool honkytonk band played in the back room. If there’s any Brooklyn venue that deserves support or patronage right now, it’s this one.

And they have a lot of overlap with Drom, their more spacious but similarly friendly Manhattan counterpart, where acts from around the world continue to make their North American debuts, month after month. It’s not clear whether MaracatuNY, who opened the benefit, had played there before; whatever the case, it’s probably safe to say that they’re the loudest band ever to play there. And they did it without amplification. Gathered in a semicircle on the floor in front of the stage, the roughly fifteen-piece drum troupe built a thunderous torrent of intricate Brazilian polyrhythms, turning on a dime as their conductor signaled changes with his whistle and hand signals in the eye of the storm. They’d return later on.

The Jazz Passengers were just as intricate and even more entrancing. Frontman Roy Nathanson played alto sax, soprano sax and on We’re All Jews, their most epic number, both at once, working his polytonal sorcery for extra overtones. Bass player Bradley Jones teamed with the drums for a serpentine groove and lowdown funk as vibraphone star Bill Ware took a rare turn on electric piano. Their first number was the most vividly murky exploration of the noir they’ve become known for; after that, Nathanson harmonized wryly with trombonist Curtis Fowlkes on a smoky take of the 70s soul standard Everybody Plays the Fool.

Romany chanteuse Sanda Weigl – who has a new album due out from Barbes Records this fall – went deep into her powerful alto for a couple of a-cappella Romanian songs. Then a three-piece version of the all-female Mariachi Flor de Toloache, New York’s only all-female mariachi band, joined their soaring voices for a harmony-fueled, all-too-brief set that began like a Mexican-flavored Dixie Chicks and then went deeper into the tricky tempos and clapalong vigor of classic south-of-the-border string band sounds, with intertwining violin, cuatro and bajo sexto.

The next two bands each put their own rustic, exhilarating spin on ancient African call-and-response chants. Charismatic singer Carolina Oliveros’ Bulla En El Barrio led her ten-piece choir-and-percussion ensemble through a mesmerizingly kaleidoscopic series of Colombian bullerengue, which sounded like a South American take on African-American field hollers, the guys and women in the band taking turns spiraling and cavorting in front of the upraised voices.

Then Innov Gnawa – who brought the biggest crowd of the night – got the crowd bouncing with their trance-inducing forest of click-clack cast-iron castanets and sintir bass lute, first played by Samir LanGus and then bandleader, Moroccan expat maalem Hassan Ben Jaafer. Their first number kicked off a rousing Arabic welcome-to-the-party jam, with sub-Saharan rhythms from what could be two thousand years ago welded to undulating North African acoustic funk, infused with bracing, sometimes moody allusions to both Arabic music and the roots of the blues.

To keep the dancers on their feet, the massive Fanfare Brooklyn – a mighty twenty-plus piece Balkan brass band comprising most of Slavic Soul Party and Red Baraat – blazed through careening jams packed with some pretty unhinged soloing, drawing from both band’s catalogs of hip-hop-inspired Eastern European brass music and Indian bhangra.

All of these bands play all over town when they’re not at Barbes. Mariachi Flor de Toloache are playing an album release weekend for their new one, with shows on June 16 at 10 and the following night, June 17 at midnight at Joe’s Pub; cover is $25. Bulla En El Barrio are back at Barbes on June 26 at around 9:30. Innov Gnawa’s next big show is at Prospect Park Bandshell at 7:30 PM on July 21, where they open for intense, psychedelic Malian microtonal guitar band Amadou and Mariam. And Big Lazy return to their monthly Friday night residency at Barbes on July 7 at 10 PM.

Funkrust Brass Band Release Their Mighty Debut Album on the Year’s Best Triplebill in Brooklyn

Funkrust Brass Band are one of the relatively newer bands in New York’s surprisingly vital Balkan music demimonde. Venues keep closing and working class people keep getting priced out of town, but it seems that at least half of the good horn players who are still here are in this band. They’re definitely the largest one of the bunch, sort of a Brooklyn counterpart to MarchFourth.

Ellia Bisker, who leads the lyrically excellent soul/chamber pop band Sweet Soubrette and is also half of menacing murder ballad duo Charming Disaster – who also have an excellent new album out – fronts this mighty crew. Their debut album Dark City – streaming at Bandcamp – is a party in a box, and a good approximation of the band’s explosive live show. For a release party, they’re headlining at around 10 PM on what might be the best triplebill of the year. It starts at 8 PM on May 19 at Matchless with guitar band Greek Judas – who make careening heavy psychedelia out of crime rhymes and hash-smoking anthems from the Greek resistance underworld of the 1920s and 30s – followed by the similarly explosive Raya Brass Band, who would probably be the best band in town most anywhere between the Danube and the Black Sea. Cover is $10.

Funkrust Brass Band waste no time opening the album with their signature song, Funkrust. Catchy tuba bassline underpinning its rat-a-tat trombones, cinematically rising trumpets and undulating groove, this mashup of Balkan brass and American funk sounds like an even more epic version of iconic Brooklyn band Slavic Soul Party.

Elevator begins as a vintage soul strut with an enigmatically bubbling trombone section; then Bisker gets on her bullhorn and all of a sudden it’s a hip-hop brass number that brings to mind the Hypnotic Brass Ensemble. Zoology opens with a little latin percussion, a catchy tuba-funk bassline and some high-voltage call-and-response from high and low brass; then Bisker gets on the bullhorn again to encourage everybody to find their inner animal.

The title track, with its uneasy chromatics and tightly crescendoing swells, is the album’s most cinematic and distinctively Balkan number. Swamp Samba is the most original of the tunes here, an unexpected mashup of Balkan brass and Brazilian frevo. As with many of the cuts, Bisker has a good time poking fun at obsessions with technology.

The album’s most incongruously successful mashup is Catch Yr Death, which blends Balkan and Motown dance sounds: “They say it’s not gonna kill you, but they don’t feel like you do,” Bisker wails through a wall of trebly distortion. They wind up the album on a high note with Riptide, a blazing, ominously cinematic Hawaii 5-0 style theme with global warming allusions.

Like many of the Brooklyn Balkan contingent, Funkrust Brass Band has a revolving cast of characters. Co-leader and composer Phil Andrews plays trumpet along with Eva Arce, Andrew Schwartz and John Waters. Their all-female sax section comprises Cassandra Burrows, Anya Combs, Perrine Iannacchione, Danielle Kolker and Melissa Williams. Trombonists include Elizabeth Arce, Sherri Cohen, Phillip Mayer and Cecil Scheib. Matthew Cain and John Lynd play tuba; the percussion section includes Allison Heim, Francesca Hoffman, Monica Hunken, Alex Jung, Seth White and Josh Bisker.

The Battle of Santiago Bring Their Wild, Hard-Rocking Latin Dancefloor Jams to Red Hook

The Battle of Santiago sound like no other group on the planet. Ostensibly, they’re an Afro-Cuban dance band, but that’s just for starters. They also bring elements of Afrobeat, dub, south Asian sounds and even a little stadium rock to their undulating, serpentine dancefloor jams. They’re bringing their wild live show to Pioneer Works in Red Hook at 8 PM on May 14; the show is free.

Maybe more than anything, the Battle of Santiago are all about contrasts. They fill the sonic picture from boomy lows to airy highs over a clattering, hypnotic beat from Sty Larocque’s drums in tandem with the congas and percussion of Reimundo Sosa and Magdelys Savigne. Their album La Migra – an obvious reference to the terror facing displaced persons and immigrants these days – is streaming at Bandcamp.

It opens with the stormy, seven-minute jam Aguanileo, part shamanistic call-and-response chant, part Afrobeat and part dub, awash in ominous low brass and Lyle Crilly’s resonant guitar as bright alto sax flutters overhead. The second number, Rumba Libre sets distantly fiery, tremolo-picked guitar and a hypnotic interweave of horns over a circling, qawwali-like groove. In Pa’ Bailar, the band sticks with that pulse but picks up the energy, burning electric guitar anchoring the sax and Elizabeth Rodriguez’s violin. Congo is much the same, centered around a bright, anthemic Hawaii 5-0 brass hook.

After the music box-like miniature El Viajes del Bata, a balafon solo, the band brings back the bluster with Asi Vengo Yo, a blazing, galloping, cinematic theme awash in nebulous atmospherics, spiced with guitar, sax and a little reggaeton. Barasu-Ayo is a diptych, opening with a lively santeria chant over bubbly balafon, then picking up with a brisk Afrobeat drive and a scurrying Jason Hay baritone sax solo. With cloudbanks of synth slowly turning overhead, it’s the album’s most hypnotic number.

Se Me Complica, a big, dramatic Afrobeat jam, bounces along with clip-clop percussion. The album winds up with Bomba Grande,  a launching pad for a long, treetop-brushing bari sax solo. For those who like like Radiohead and Pink Floyd but wish that you could dance to them – or who would like Fela better if his music was more focused and heftier – this is your jam.

Insanely Eclectic Psychedelic Brass Band Intensity from the Dirty Bourbon River Show

Considering the Butcher Knives’ and Dirty Bourbon River Show’s output on record so far, you might think that their twinbill tonight at the Knitting Factory – which starts at 8:30 PM for a $12 cover – would be a bad segue. But it isn’t.  The openers’ guitar-driven, minor-key Gogol Bordello-style Romany rock makes a good setup for the New Orleans band’s more rustically raucous, canivalesque sound.

The Dirty Bourbon River Show’s latest album, The Flying Musical Circus, is aptly titled and streaming at Bandcamp. To sum things up, the brass-fueled five-piece group tackles Balkan and circus rock, reggae, Beatlesque psychedelia, soca, mariachi, oldtimey swing and gospel and pulls it off. If there’s a style of music that they can’t play, it probably hasn’t been invented yet. The opening track, Passion, is a brassy Balkan reggae tune, the bassline held down by Jimmy Williams’ sousaphone. Waltzing along with Noah Adams’ strutting electric piano and a dixieland-flavored horn chart, The Cruel and Hollow Fate of Time Travel takes an unexpected detour down a wormhole into Sergeant Pepper-era Beatles psychedelia.

“Everybody’s coming to my party, but I’m not fucking going to that party,” Adams insists in the funky All My Friends Are Dead. Matt Thomas overdubs cheery soca sax harmonies in Knockin’ on Your Headboard: it’s about watching out for “your crazy-ass dad and your crazy-ass mama,” who’d spoil the party if they could. My Name Is Soul is a scampering, surreal turn back to Balkan circus rock: “I’m in your mouth, I’m on your tongue, but you don’t know me,” you get the picture.

Hidalgo’s Lament is an unexpectedly biting, bittersweet, slowly swaying mariachi tune with a tantalizingly brief Adams accordion solo midway through. The steamboat soul tune Poor Boy, Rich Girl is as funny as you would expect: “Every leperchaun loves gold…you’re a circus, cartwheeling with no purpose.” Shark Belly, a pulsing Romany rock anthem, is even funnier: unleash your inner ten-year-old and laugh along with Adams’ litany of obscenities, echoed by the band, on the second verse.

Nick Garrison’s snaky trombone and Scott Graves’ tumbling drums anchor Roll It Around, a high-voltage stoner Balkan brass number. The album winds up with the gospel-infused title track, awash in mighty tasty horn harmonies, Adams’ accordion swirling amidst the storm. Definitely one of the ten best and most consistently fun albums to come over the transom here this year.

Wild Brass-Fueled Indian Bhangra Band Red Baraat Release Their Most Dynamic, Epic Album

Red Baraat are New York’s best-loved and probably loudest party band. They play original brass-fueled Indian bhangra music, taking an exuberantly explosive sound to new levels of eclecticism and sheer volume. Intense, hypnotic Indian modes follow tidal waves of dynamics up and down, the band’s signature, blazing brass section anchored by the intricately stampeding beats of their three drummers. If you can’t dance to this stuff, you can’t dance to anything.

They’re bringing the party to two release shows for their most diverse and arguably best album, the brand-new Bhangra Pirates, available on vinyl and streaming at Spotify. On March 9 at they’re at the comfortable auditorium at Bric Arts in downtown Brooklyn for $15 in advance. Then on March 18 they’re at the Poisson Rouge at 10:30 PM for five bucks more. That’s the advance ticket price for standing room, it’ll set you back more if you just show up at the door or if you want a seat. Although going to see Red Baraat and not being on your feet would be pretty bizarre…

The album’s opening track, Horizon Line is a blazing mashup of new wave and bhangra, with a little New Orleans spice; John Altieri’s sousaphone plays the big hook as a bassline. Jonathan Goldberger’s ominous Middle Eastern taqsim kicks off Zindabad, a slinky, epic fanfare of sorts, the high brass – Jonathon Haffner’s soprano sax and Sonny Singh’s trumpet – against the formidable lows from Altieri and trombonist Ernest Stuart, with a wildly sailing Haffner solo midway through. Likewise, on the title track, Golderger’s guitar matches the mighty majesty of the horns; it’s an Indian take on the kind of hip-hop brass mashup that the group’s Barbes colleagues Slavic Soul Party were pioneering ten years ago.

Underneath Haffner’s soaring sax, bandleader/dhol drummer Sunny Jain teams up with twin drummers Chris Eddleton and Rohin Khemani for a scrambling and then titanically swaying groove throughout white-knuckle intense modalities of Tunak Tunak Tun. The brooding exchange of instrumental voices as Rang Barse gets underway only hint at the vast, cinematic panorama the band will build to as they reach escape velocity, stirring in elements of both peak 70s-era Burning Spear roots reggae as well as Serbian brass music.

Bhangale follows a similarly moody tangent upward, but with more punchy rhythm and melody; Goldberger leads the charge with a bluesmetal-tinged attack. With its hip hop-inspired chorus, swaying spirals of beats, biting chromatics and searing, noisy Goldberger solo, Gaadi of Truth has the feel of a big audience-participation number. Then with Se Hace Camino, the band takes a catchy minor-key salsa tune and sets it to a bhangra beat.

Imagine the Hawaii 5-0 theme set to a deliriously clattering but steady groove and you have part of Akhiyan Udeek Diyan; it gets warmer and sunnier as it goes along, with a serpentine trombone solo where Stuart hands off to Haffner, who leads everybody to a wild crescendo at the end . The album’s final cut, Layers is as surprisingly lighthearted as it is wickedly catchy. It’s amazing how many flavors the band have added to their arsenal over the years; count this as an instant contender for best release of 2017. 

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.