New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: cabaret music

Withering Arabic Political Anthems and Swinging Noir Sounds at Youssra El Hawary’s US Debut at Lincoln Center

“We want our programming to be reflective of this city,” Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh said succinctly, introducing firebrand Egyptian singer/accordionist Youssra El Hawary this past evening for her North American debut. “She had an amazing song that went viral, part of the Arab Spring movement.” El Hawary has come a long way since her scathingly antiauthoritarian youtube hit The Wall six years ago.

She channels an angst and a noir psychedelic sensibility very similar to the French band Juniore. Yet she hasn’t lost any of the witheringly cynical political edge that brought her worldwide acclaim. ‘I can’t describe how emotional I am today,” she told the crowd, confiding that after her first show in Egypt, she thought she’d resign herself to going home and giving up on her dream. Sometimes good things happen to people who deserve them.

The blend of El Hawary’s chromatic accordion, Shadi El Hosseiny’s stalker electric piano and Sedky Sakhr’s wood flute in the night’s opening number, Kollo Yehoun, blended for an absolutely lurid mashup of late 60s French psychedelic pop and Egyptian classical songcraft. Tareq Abdelkawi’s buzuq added uneasily rippling intensity beneath El Hawary’s unselfconscious, airy Arabic-language vocals. She draws you in, whether understatedly moody or cool and collected.

Sakhr switched to harmonica for the second tune of the night, La Tesma Kalami, an anthemically strutting, shadowy Pigalle pop tune driven by Yamen El Gamal’s punchy bass and Loai (Luka) Gamal’s understaged drums. The anthemic, cabaret-tinged Kashkouli, as El Hawary described it, tackled issues of overthinking and fearlessness, Abdelkawi doubling the bandleader’s plaintive lead lines.

El Hawary rose gently out of El Hosseiny’s creepy, twinkling music box-like intro to a swaying, minor-key midtempo number, Mana Washi, Sakhr’s flute wafting and then bouncing as the band took the song further into straight-up rock territory. The title track to her album – which she translated as “We all go to sleep at night, wake up and forget” – swung through unexpected tempo shifts, torchy cabaret infused with Levantine energy. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last six, seven years,” she deadpanned.

Sakhr cynically went to great lengths to describe the noxiousness of Cairo bus exhaust in the city’s notoriously tangled rush hour traffic. Songs about things that literally smell like shit seldom have such a carefree bounce as Autobees, the jubilantly sarcastic number the band followed with. El Hawary didn’t hesitate to make the connection between the Cairo wall in her big hit and Trump’s proposed version on the Mexican border, which drew roars of applause as the band vamped and swung behind her: cosmopolitan elegance, pure punk rock energy.

Abdelkawi’s spirals and flickers lowlit the romantic angst of Baheb Aghib; then El Hawary brought the lights down with the bittersweetly lilting vocal-and-piano lament Bil Mazboot. The band went deep into swaying, crescendoing Cairo cafe land with the instrumental Sallem Zal Beit, a showcase for El Hawary’s accordion chops.

They reinvented the new wave-era French pop hit Maron Glacee with a droll calypso feel, then flipped the script with Jessica, a vindictively swinging kiss-off singalong directed at the ditzy French girl who stole her boyfriend. Despite differences in the band about how to translate Reehet El Fora, everybody agreed it was about the kind of sinking feeling that comes with having a Jessica around. With its neoromantic swirl, it was one of the night’s most stinging moments.

The band built a brooding, foggy behind her and then leapt into Hatoo Kteer, El Hawary skewering the Egyptian habit of stockpiling in case of crisis. She closed with Akbar Men El Gouda, the night’s most rock-oriented tune, then encored with a moodily catchy film theme that she credited as being a pivotal post-Wall moment in her career. 

You’ll see this show on the best concerts of 2018 page here at the end of the year. Lincoln Center’s mostly-weekly series of free concerts at the atrium space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. continues next Thurs, Oct 11 at 7:30 PM with a rare New York performance of South African jazz featuring reedman McCoy Mrubata and pianist Paul Hanmer. Get there early if you want a seat. 

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Irresistibly Quirky Ukulele Fun at the Jalopy

Ukulele bands are supposed to be funny. Saturday night at the Jalopy, the twinbill of Ukulele Scramble and the Ukuladies kept everybody chuckling and frequently laughing out loud for the better part of two hours. Name a comedian who can pull that off.

True to their name, Ukulele Scramble play a lot of mashups. When they’re not twisting styles from across the decades – and centuries – into knots, they’re playing ridiculous segues, and repertoire that was definitely never meant to be played on the uke. When’s the last time you heard ukulele versions of classical compositions by Charles Ives or Amy Beach? Ukulele Scramble did both, and well!

Six years ago, Robin Hoffman described herself as an aspiring uke player. Her main gig was visual art: her two coffee table books feature the illustrations she drew as a regular in the audience at the Jalopy. Last night, on the same stage where she captured a generation of New York Americana music talent in all sorts of revealing, kinetic poses, she played Bach. That was midway through a spiky, sparkling cover of Pink Floyd’s uneasy psychedelic pop classic See Emily Play.

Her sparring partner in this duo project, Richard Perlmutter sparred back and forth with the audience in an endless “name that tune” game when he wasn’t spinning precise spirals and nimbly plucking out complex classical chords. At least as complex as you can play on a uke, anyway

Hoffman sang the night’s funniest song, a version of the Brahms lullaby with new lyrics about being kept awake by a fly in the bedroom – the joke is too good to give away. They did Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue, which more than one uke player in the crowd agreed was the first tune that pretty much everybody learns to play on it. Throughout the set, Perlmutter’s flinty vocals contrasted with Hoffman’s cool torch-singer delivery throughout all sorts of clever syncopation and intricate harmony. The most dizzyingly impressive number was a tonguetwisting can-can remake of piece by Offenbach.

The Ukuladies used to be much more ubiquitous than they are now: ten years ago, you’d find them at Rodeo Bar one day, then at Barbes or Joe’s Pub the next. So it’s no surprise that their irrepressible, theatrical shtick was more about breaking the fourth wall this time out – and maybe especially fresh because of it. Tapdancer Heather Warfel a.k.a. Cousin Bunnie flashed a series of charmingly lo-fi props while uke players Katie Down and Mary Myers a.k.a. Genevieve and her Aunt Mary harmonized together through a mix of Andrews Sisters girl-group jazz numbers and sardonic originals.

Their funniest of those was Put Another Nickel in the Nickelodeon, interspersed with innumerable snippets of cheesy pop songs. They also treated the crowd to Asshole in a SUV – a classic Brooklyn song if there ever was one – and a tongue-in-cheek one about getting gaymarried that managed to poke fun at both those who do and those who object to it. Singing saw player Philippa Thompson a.k.a.  Jimmy Lu – who’d just played a set with another excellent Jalopy act, M Shanghai String Band at the Brooklyn Americana Festival earlier in the day – led the quartet through a witheringly cynical bossa nova parody. Warfel got a turn on lead vocals in a number where it was revealed that the Ukuladies aren’t really a family band: they’re her backing unit.

Ukulele Scramble, based in Massachusetts, are playing Sept 27 at 6:30 PM at the Merriam-Gilbert Public Library, 3 W Main St in West Brookfield, MA.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival: Like a Free, Weekly Midtown Golden Fest

The Bryant Park accordion festival is like a free Midtown version of Golden Fest – except without the food. It could also be said that Golden Fest is a two-night, Brooklyn version of the Bryant Park festival, without the blankets and the lawn chairs. Either way, each is a bucket-list experience for New Yorkers. You’ll have to wait til next January 12-13 for Golden Fest 2019, but starting at 5:30 PM every Wednesday through Sept 12, you can see pretty much every global style of accordion music in Bryant Park. The grand finale is on Friday the 14th starting a half hour earlier.

While Golden Fest is a marathon feast that lasts into the wee hours, you can pop into Bryant Park after work and hang out for however long you want. Five different performers play short sets starting on the half hour at five different stations throughout the park until 7:30. Golden Fest is this country’s big celebration of music from across the Balkans and to some extent, the Middle East. While styles from those parts of the world are also part of the Bryant Park festival, so far there’s been a lot of music from south of the border.

It was fun to stop in by a couple of weeks ago to catch a set by Erica Mancini, who pretty much embodies what the festival is all about, considering how vast her stylistic range is. Last year she did blues and swing; her show last week was a slinky mix of cumbia, tango and a bolero. Playing both instrumentals and sad ballads and and singing in nuanced, plaintively modulated Spanish, she was backed by a sensationally good mandolinist who ran through a pedalboard for icy, watery textures, trippy delays and gritty noise loops.It was as if Chicha Libre got back together…with an even better singer out front.

Last week’s show was on the hottest day of the year. That Rachelle Garniez managed to get through four sets without sitting down, with that big box strapped to her back, was impressive enough. That she sang as soaringly and powerfully as she ever has, in that heat, was even more so. She’s probably the best songwriter of the past twenty years, bar none – and that’s not meant as a dis to Steve Wynn, or Hannah Fairchild, or Aimee Mann. Methodically and even energetically, Garniez made her way through Tourmaline, a wistful yet forcefully determined individualist’s waltz, then worked her way up from a suspenseful, atmospheric intro into the strutting, coy hokum blues innuendos of Medicine Man.

She flipped the script on Aesop by reimagining the tale of the ant and the grasshopper in a fairer world where a bon vivant shouldn’t have to choose antlike drudgery to survive. She also treated the crowd on the terrace on the Sixth Avenue side to a deadpan verse or two of the Stones’ Paint It Black – which in its own surreal way was just as twistedly fun as the Avengers’ cover – and also the lilting, pre-apocalyptic tropicalia of Silly Me, from her 2000 album Crazy Blood.

And playing button accordion, fiery Venezuelan Harold Rodriguez really worked up a sweat, backed by supple bass and percussion in a literally volcanic set of rapidfire cumbias, a merengue tune and a handful of vallenato standards that got the expat crew singing along. He’s at Barbes with the group on Sept 17 at 9:30 PM

This week’s installment of the festival, on Sept 5 starting at 5:30 PM features singer Eva Salina and accordionist Peter Stan playing haunting Romany ballads,  Cordeone doing Portuguese fado laments, bandoneonist Laura Vilche playing tango, and Romany swing accordionist Albert Behar, among many others.

Anne Carrere Reinvents Edith Piaf Classics and Rarities with Flair and Imagination in Midtown This Week

In her lavish, colorful, poignant tribute Piaf: The Show – currently running through April 21 at 7:30 PM at the French Institute/Alliance Française at 55 E 59th St. – French singer Anne Carrere absolutely gets what the iconic little sparrow was all about. On one hand, Carrere has assimilated an astonishing amount of Piaf’s performance style, extending well beyond vocals to costumes, stage patter and even her hand gestures.

There’s a moment during the angst-ridden ballad La Foule where the narrator is dancing. Last night, while Carrere sang the final verse, a vintage 1950s video of Piaf singing it played over the back of the stage. Synched to a split-second, the song’s originator and re-interpreter each swayed without a partner in their arms, sixty years apart, absolutely alone in the crowd. The effect packed a wallop.

Yet for all the verisimilitude, this isn’t mimicry. Carrere can hold those low notes with any other Piaf interpreter, but her voice is a little higher. Serendipitously, for those who didn’t grow up speaking French, her diction is much clearer than Piaf’s rapidfire 1930s Parisian slang. That helps enormously during the early part of the show, which follows Piaf’s early years singing the torrential lyrics of her hardscrabble street urchin tales in the streets of Montmartre and in sleazy Pigalle boîtes.

The imaginative, playful new arrangements of the songs hold true to lyrical content. Carrere doesn’t try to make garage rock out of Jezebel, like the Lyres did – instead, she reinvents it as third-generation, klezmer-inflected Vegas noir. She singe Autumn Leaves in competent English. And the sad tale of Mon Legionnaire, infused with Philippe Villa’s bittersweetly glittering, neoromantic piano, left no doubt as to the fateful consequences of one country stirring up trouble in another’s desert.

The choice of songs will satisfy longtime Piaf fans, and also serves as a solid introduction to the legendary chanteuse’s career. Obviously, the program includes  La Vie en Rose, and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and Milord: each of them are more stark and spare than you would expect, which enhances the lyrical effect, whether resolute and indomitable, hazy and lovestruck or bittersweet.

The early material is choice: hardcore Piaf fans will not be disappointed. Not to spoil anything, but you get the expected – an absolutely defiant take of the workingwoman’s anthem Je M’en Fous Pas Mal and  a wistful C’est un Gars – along with less frequently performed numbers, from a Waitsian interpretation of La Java de Cézigue to a deliciously phantasmagorical version of Bravo Pour le Clown.

Carrere’s four-piece backing band are fantastic, creating a backdrop that is by turns lush or intimate, depending on context – there’s never a moment where the lavish orchestration of so many of the originals is missed. Drummer Laurent Sarrien colors several of the songs with pointillistic vibraphone. Bassist and musical director Daniel Fabricant stays lowdown and in the pocket, with a deadpan camaraderie that sets up a couple of Carrere punchlines. And accordionist Guy Guiliano’s vast, plaintive washes and occasional stormy cascades are as breathtaking as Carrere’s presence.

Gil Marsalla’s direction is inventive and full of surprises. He keeps Carrere on the move nonstop throughout the first half of the program, leaving no doubt as to how hard Piaf had to work in her early days. Band members play along with the vaudevillian moments goodnaturedly; there are costume changes and several droll instances where the fourth wall comes down. The video montages are insightful, packed with rare footage of Piaf offstage with the many, many members of her circle. You will eventually be asked to sing along: there will be supertitles to guide you.

Parisian Flair and Subtlety with Chloe Perrier and Her Fantastic Band at the Winter Cabaret Festival

It wouldn’t be fair to let the week go by without mentioning the irrepressibly charming show by chanteuse Chloe Perrier and the French Heart Jazz Band last weekend at the Winter Cabaret Festival. Working every subtle corner of her supple soprano and backed by a slinky, similarly nuanced trio – Aki Ishiguro on guitar, Jim Robertson on bass and Rodrigo Recabarren on drums – she sang an intriguing mix of jazz, chanson, Brazilian and occasionally Romany-tinged numbers in French as well as impressively competent English.

The best song of the evening was an American number, an unexpected treat. The group reinvented the old chestnut My Heart Belongs to Daddy as a bolero-tinged Twin Peaks theme, radiating danger and just enough seduction to ramp up the menace. Ishiguro’s lingering, eerily tremoloing lines channeled Jim Campilongo at his most shadowy; by the time Ishiguro hit his solo, he’d shifted the ambience toward vintage, terse Jim Hall postbop purism. Meanwhile, Perrier wore her cards close to the vest: the teasing in her voice trailed off enigmatically with just a tinge of vibrato. She wasn’t about to give anything away, just like the vintage black lace dress she was wearing.

The rest of the set was just as eclectic. The night’s most obscure, and upbeat number was a 20s hot jazz tune that Perrier had found in a history book. The most obvious, but least obviously arranged number, was La Vie En Rose. The languid, rubato intro gave it away, but then the band punched in and took it in a tropical direction, lowlit by Recabarren’s surprise rimshots and boomy flourishes on the toms. He would do that all night, just as Robertson would hang on a chord for looming ambience as a song would move down the runway.

For the rest of the set, Perrier and her band shifted back and forth between bossa nova, cabaret, lively swing and at least one wry original. She brought the torrents of lyrics in Menilmontant to life with the bittersweetness but also the informed gravitas of a Parisienne who’s been there. Exes were dissed, relationships gone wrong were dissected and remembered through glasses that weren’t exactly rose-colored. “I’m trying to take it easy up here,” Perrier grinned; no one would have guessed how hard she was actually working if she hadn’t acknowledged it. Her next gig is on Feb 1 at 10 PM at the McKittrick Hotel.

A Richly Haunting New Tango Album and a Harlem Release Show by Sofia Tosello

Great singers are used to getting called on to sing all sorts of widely different styles, and Sofia Tosello is no exception. She’s just as comfortable fronting experimental trance-folk duo Chuño as she is with classic and nuevo tango. Her latest album, Lluvia Fue – streaming at her music page – is a real cloudburst of intensity, a mix of iconic and lesser known tango ballads from across the decades. She’s playing the album release show on Dec 8, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30 PM at the newly reopened and remodeled Minton’s uptown. Cover is $15; as far as minimums, a seat at the bar is your most cost-effective move.

The sonics on the album match the unaffected, raw power of Tosello’s vocals, thanks to Fernando Otero’s brilliantly stark, uncluttered production. He plays piano, joined by Pedro Giraudo on bass, Nick Danielsonon on violin, Yuri Juarez on guitar, Adam Fischer on cello and Omar Massa on bandoneon. It opens with the stormy angst of Piazzolla’s Siempre Se Vuelve a Buenos Aires, the slashing string arrangement underscoring the longing and regret in Tosello’s narrative. In a sense, it’s the key to the album: tango may be a Spanish rhythm, but it was fermented and transformed in Argentina.

Likewise, the strings shift from nebulosity to a moody fugue in the Roberto Calvo title track, Tosello rising from misty acerbity to a full-throttle wail and back. She brings a coy cabaret rusticity to the torrential narrative in the first of the vintage Juan Carlos Cobián pieces here, Hambre. The other, Nostalgias, gets a strikingly spare, vivid treatment with just the strings and guitar behind Tosello’s dynamic, dramatic delivery.

Guest guitarist Adam Tully adds spiky flamenco flavor to another number from the guardia vieja, Jose Razzano’s colorful Tortazos, while Otero teams with Tosello for a lingering, stunningly nuanced piano-and-vocal take of José Dames’ Fuimos, adding jazz color and hints of Debussy that would no doubt strike a chord with Piazzolla. Sebastian Piana’s De Barro is a return to sardonically lyrical, pulsing milonga-room flavor, fueled by the strings and Juarez’s incisive guitar.

Tosello maxes out the cabaret theatrics in José Maria Aguilar’s Al Mundo Le Falta un Tornillo, matched by the tongue-in-cheek, strutting strings; the sad waltz Tu Pálida Voz, a 1943 hit for Charlo-Homero Manzi, follows a similar blueprint.

Osvaldo and Emilio Fresedo’a Vida Mia, popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, gets a glimmering, spaciously expansive piano-and-vocal treatment underscoring the solitude and abandonment in Tosello’s voice. The group follows the enigmatic tropicalia of Nestor Basurto’s Conjuro del Alba with the alternately marionettish and sweeping pulse of Eladia Blazquez’s Contame una Historia. The album closes aptly with Anibal Troilo’s La Ultima Curda, arguably the most haunting of Otero’s many brooding, clenched-teeth string arrangements here. 

A Creepy, Tasty Treat From Orphan Jane’s Enigmatic Accordionist

Today’s Halloween album – streaming at Bandcamp – is The Sugar Man, the debut release by Timatim Fitfit, the mostly-solo side project by multi-keyboardist Montana Slim, a.k.a. Tim Cluff of creepy noir cabaret band Orphan Jane. It’s a good, weird, disturbing ride.

The opening track is a quavery romp through Walking Stick, a Freudian hokum blues. Cluff takes the album title from the lyric, a sardonic 1920s reference to a guy left out in the cold, literally speaking. Irving Berlin appropriated the song and made it much more coyly funny: this one’s disquieting in a C.W. Stoneking vein. Orphan Jane guitarist Old Man Shorty, a.k.a. Dave Zydallis guests on it; Cluff plays accordion and saloon piano.

The second track is Living in the City, a stabbing parlor pop tune, John Cale mashed up with the Handsome Family:

Taxidermies in your basement
Smell of borax fills the room
I wish I could be resurrected
Like a little grey loon
There are pigeons all around me
They don’t give a shit
If I survive
Or if I drown in it

Feelin’ Good is a twisted, phantasmagorical stroll with echoes of Thelonious Monk. With its funereal organ, glockenspiel and cynical, politically spot-on narrative, the tiptoeing waltz Arctic of Men could be a Tom Warnick tune. Cluff follows that with the even more sarcastic, ragtime-tinged War Machine, Zydallis’ ominously tremoloing guitar soaring overhead. Then Seeders and Leachers reaches for the phantasmagorical scamper of their main band.

Down the Fells is a lush, Celtic-tinged ballad as John Cale might have done  it on Paris 1919. The surreal tale Flowers By the Door has some deliciously wistful accordion. The album’s funniest and strangest track is Dog in a Manger, a slowly waltzing robot’s dilemma: in a dystopian nightmare, humans aren’t the only ones who suffer.

The album winds up with the morosely oldtimey Another Shitty Day, and then Low Batteries, a desperate escape anthem that’s the album’s least stylized and most genuinely creepy track.

Fun fact: if you’re wondering what the band name means, it’s sort of the Ethiopian equivalent of fattoush. 

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

The Spellbinding Rachelle Garniez Tops the Bill at This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

What’s the likelihood of being able to get what amounts to an intimate, personal show from the world’s greatest English-language songwriter? A handful of New Yorkers got to experience that at last night’s edition of the ongoing Bryant Park Accordion Festival, following Rachelle Garniez across the park to various stations for tantalizingly brief fifteen-minute mini-sets.

Even though there were two dozen other accordionists playing in the park’s four corners and next to the fountain on the Sixth Avenue side, it was impossible to resist taking in two sets from Garniez. What was most fascinating was to watch her mash up elements of latin, klezmer, zydeco, classical, punk rock and even a bit of opera, banging out one song after another without the hilariously surreal, politically-charged stream-of-consciousness intros and jams that have made her legendary among New York performers.

The best song of the night was Tourmaline, a bittersweet waltz that works on innumerable levels: ultimately, it’s about rugged individuality triumphing against all odds. Without any more fanfare, Garniez let the rest of her songs speak for themselves.

The funniest moment was during Jean-Claude Van Damme, a tongue-in-cheek shout-out to a pitchman for antidepressants. She got everybody laughing when she reached the part about certain personality traits that have to be brought under control – then hammered that word again, and again, until everybody within earshot got the message. The faux-operatic outro, where she took a flying leap to the very top of her formidable four-octave vocal range, was pretty funny too.

She also played the jaunty, cabaret-infused Just Because You Can (Doesn’t Mean You Should), whose corollary is “just because you should doesn’t mean you can,” along with the slyly strutting, seductive Medicine Man, packed with all kinds of coy double entendres. She’s emceeing the festival’s closing night a week from today on June 21 at 6 PM, which might be the single best concert of the year, a bill that includes the Bil Afrah Project, who recreate iconic Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani’s legendary 1975 Bil Afrah album; pyrotechnic Romany accordionist Peter Stan’s new band Zlatni Balkan Zvuk, Brazilian accordionist Felipe Hostins’ new forro group Osnelda; and cumbia accordionist/crooner Gregorio Uribe leading his slinky big band in celebration of Colombian Independence Day.

The festival’s only drawback is that it’s such a feast that there isn’t time to see everybody on the bill. It was awfully cool last night to watch accordionist Simon Moushabeck make his way through Arabic modes with all sorts of enigmatic passing tones, in two abbreviated duo sets with oudist Brian Prunka, mixing up steady, serpentine originals with a Fairouz cover or two.

Further to the west, Sadys Rodrigo Espitia played equally slinky, catchy cumbia and vallenato numbers. When he forgot the words to the hit Cumbia Del Oriente, a woman in the crowd sauntered over to the mic: and sang them with serious Colombian pride.

It was also cool to get to watch popular busker and Thee Shambels accordionist Melissa Elledge jam out cinematic themes and a Johnny Cash classic, then make noir blues out of Beethoven. Late one night a couple of years ago in the Second Avenue F train station, after a Bowery Ballroom show, Elledge played what had to be the most heartwrenchingly gorgeous version of Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 ever. So it was refreshing to be able to just chill on the grass and hear her think outside the box without the usual subway stresses. Garniez may be the world’s most brilliantly eclectic songwriter, but as an instrumentalist, Elledge is on the same page.

Before the big blowout on the 21st, there’s another night of mini-sets from another amazing cast of accordionists at Bryant Park on July 19 starting at 6 PM, with a lineup including avant garde and klezmer player Shoko Nagai, pan-Mediterranean wizard Ismail Butera, jazz luminary Will Holshouser and Ed Goldberg & the Odessa Klezmer Band.

The Bryant Park Accordion Festival – Pure Sonic Bliss

Wednesday night, the four corners of Bryant Park were awash in the blissful, plaintive, bittersweet and sometimes boisterously pulsing tones of many of New York’s most captivating accordionists. Booked by Ariana Hellerman, publisher of the irreplaceable free events and concert guide Ariana’s List – a primary source for a lot of what you find on the monthly NYC concert calendar here – opening night of this year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival featured music from France, Russia, Colombia, Ireland, Brazil, many other countries and all over the US as well. Hellerman’s setup – a single accordionist or small group situated in every corner of the park, as well as over by the fountain on the west side, works out perfectly since each act is far enough away from the others to ensure that there’s no sonic competition.

Performances are staggered, Golden Fest style, with brief fifteen minute sets and virtually no time lost between acts. Some of the accordionists rotate, so that you can catch more of them if fifteen minutes isn’t enough for you  – seriously, is fifteen minutes of accordion music ever enough?

A tour of the festival’s first hour was as rapturously good as expected. It was tempting to pull up a seat in the shade to be serenaded by the Wisterians’ poignant French musettes, or the great Ismail Butera’s edgy, supersonic take on Middle Eastern and Mediterranean sounds, or Phil Passantino‘s wildly spiraling Cajun songs. But just like Golden Fest, it’s like being a kid in a candy store here, a great way to discover dozens of new artists. For starters, Mindra Sahadeo played calmly lustrousIndian carnatic music, singing in a sonorous baritone and accompanied by his mom on mridangam, another woman to his right adding vocals. He was a ringer, considering that he was playing harmonium (there were also a couple of others on the bill playing the concertina).

Next, in the northeast corner, the charismatic Alan Morrow entertained the crowd. Is there anything this guy can’t play? Segueing breathlessly between styles, he fired off bits and pieces of songs across pretty much every conceivable genre. About a minute after Dave Brubeck, we got James Brown: “Say it loud, I’m a New Yorker and I’m proud,” Morrow grinned, and the audience agreed. By then he’d already made his way through classical, ragtime, jazz, hints of klezmer and finally the longest number of his set, the Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin, which turned out perfect for the accordion – and for a second seemed that he was going to do the whole album version, complete with hazy string-and-poetry interlude.

The highlight of the hour – at least from this perspective – turned out to be Guillermo Vaisman, who played a tantalizingly brief set of chamame tunes. It’s a popular folk style that’s common on the Uruguay-Brazil border, like tango but less classically-tinged, or a more lively counterpart to candombe. And it’s hard to find in New York. Vaisman’s elegance and dynamics throughout a mix of waltzes and more upbeat material put him on the map as someone who would be even more enjoyable to see stretching out with a longer set.

The festival continues for the next two Wednesdays, starting at 6 PM. The July 5 show features, among others, the haunting and amazingly eclectic Melissa Elledge, playful avant garde jazz and Romany accordionist Shoko Nagai, and Jordan Shapiro, better known as the organist in Choban Elektrik, the Balkan Doors. Closing night is Friday, July 21 at 8, hosted by the mesmerizing Rachelle Garniez, featuring Middle Eastern, Brazilian and Colombian music, to name just three styles. And it’s free.