New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: cumbia

Some Great December Shows Reprised This Month

Who says December is a slow month for live music in New York? The first three weeks were a nonstop barrage of good shows. And a lot of those artists will be out there this month for you to see.

Last summer, Innov Gnawa played a couple of pretty radical Barbes gigs. With bandleader Hassan Ben Jaafer’s hypnotically slinky sintir bass lute and the chorus of cast-iron qraqab players behind him, they went even further beyond the undulating, shapeshifting, ancient call-and-response of their usual traditional Moroccan repertoire. Those June and July shows both plunged more deeply into the edgy, chromatically-charged Middle Eastern sounds of hammadcha music, with even more jamming and turn-on-a-dime shifts in the rhythm. Innov – get it?

So their most recent show at Nublu 151 last month seemed like a crystallization of everything they’d been working on. The usual opening benediction of sorts when everybody comes to the stage, Ben Jaafer leading the parade with his big bass drum slung over his shoulder; a serpentine chant sending a shout out to ancient sub-Saharan spirits; and wave after wave of mesmerizing metallic mist fueled by Ben Jaafer’s catchy riffage and impassioned vocals.

Ben Jaafer’s protege and bandmate Samir LanGus opened the night with an even trippier show, playing sintir and leading a band including Innov’s  Nawfal Atiq and Amino Belyamani on qraqabs and vocals, along with Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion on drums, Dave Harrington on guitar, plus alto sax. Elements of dub, and funk, and acidic postrock filtered through the mix as the rhythms changed. Innov Gnawa are back at Nublu 151 on Jan 12 at around 6:30 with trumpeter Itamar Borochov for ten bucks; then the following night, Jan 13 they’re at Joe’s Pub at 7:45 PM for twice that, presumably for people who don’t want to dance.

The rest of last month’s shows that haven’t been mentioned here already were as eclectically fun as you would expect in this melting pot of ours. Slinky Middle Eastern band Sharq Attack played a mix of songs that could have been bellydance classics from Egypt or Lebanon, or originals – it was hard to tell. Oudist Brian Prunka had written one of the catchiest of the originals as a piece for beginners. “But as it turned out, it’s really hard,” violinist Marandi Hostetter laughed. The subtle shifts in the tune and the groove didn’t phase the all-star Brooklyn ensemble.

Another allstar Brooklyn group, Seyyah played an even more lavish set earlier in the month at the monthly Balkan night at Sisters Brooklyn in Fort Greene. With the reliably intense, often pyrotechnic Kane Mathis on oud behind Jenny Luna’s soaring, poignant microtonal vocals, you wouldn’t have expected the bass player to be the star of the show any more than you’d expect Adam Good to be playing bass. But there he was, not just pedaling root notes like most American bassists do with this kind of music, his slithery slides and hammer-ons intertwining with oud and violin. The eight-piece band offer a rare opportunity to see a group this size playing classic and original Turkish music at Cornelia St. Cafe at Jan 15, with sets at 8 and 9:30 PM. Cover is $10 plus a $10 minimum.

When Locobeach’s bassist hit an ominous minor-key cumbia riff and then the band edged its way into Sonido Amazonico midway through their midmonth set at Barbes, the crowd went nuts. The national anthem of cumbia was the title track to Chicha Libre’s classic debut album; as a founding member of that legendary Brooklyn psychedelic group, Locobeach keyboardist Josh Camp was crucial to their sound. This version rocked a little harder and went on for longer than Chicha Libre’s typically did – and Camp didn’t have his trebly, keening Electrovox accordion synth with him for it. This crew are more rock and dub-oriented than Chicha Libre, although they’re just as trippy – and funny. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 15 at 10. 

There were four other Barbes shows last month worth mentioning. “Stoner,” one individual in the know said succinctly as Dilemastronauta Y Los Sabrosos Cosmicos bounced their way through a pulsing set blending elements of psychedelic salsa, cumbia, Afrobeat and dub reggae. Their rhythm section is killer: the bass and drums really have a handle on classic Lee Scratch Perry style dub and roots, and the horns pull the sound out of the hydroponic murk. They’re back at Barbes on Jan 10 at around 10.

Also midmonth, resonator guitarist Zeke Healy and violist Karen Waltuch took an expansive excursion through a couple of sets of Appalachian classics and a dadrock tune or two, reinventing them as bucolic, psychedelic jams. For the third year in a row, the all-female Accord Treble Choir sang an alternately majestic and celestial mix of new choral works and others from decades and centuries past, with lively solos and tight counterpoint. And the Erik Satie Quartet treated an early Saturday evening crowd to stately new brass arrangements of pieces by obscure 1920s French composers, as well as some similar new material.

At the American Folk Art Museum on the first of the month, singer/guitarist Miriam Elhajli kept the crowd silent with her eclecticism, her soaring voice and mix of songs that spanned from Venezuela to the Appalachians, including one rapturous a-capella number. And at the Jalopy the following week, another singer, Queen Esther played a set of sharply lyrical, sardonic jazz songs by New York underground legend Lenny Molotov, her sometime bandmate in one of the city’s funnest swing bands, the Fascinators. She’s at the Yamaha Piano Salon at 689 5h Ave (enter on 54th St) on Jan 14, time tba.


Ladama Keep the Heat Simmering at Last Weekend’s Hot Pepper Festival in Brooklyn

Last weekend at the annual chile pepper festival at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, high-energy pan-latin band Ladama were charged with the thankless task of following Red Baraat , whose  brass-fueled bhangra vindaloo opened the festivities. That Ladama could hold their own, and hold the crowd gathered out of the sun and away from the long lines of chile heads in line waiting for a fix, attests to how refreshingly unpredictable and fun this group is.

Frontwoman/guitarist Sara Lucas gave that away during soundcheck. “Baile la cumbia,” she grinned, and although it wasn’t until later in their set that they hit a slinky cumbia groove, the party started pretty much right from the first bouncy beats of their opening tropical acoustic pop number. The mostly-female band’s not-so-secret weapon is Mafer Bandola, whose axe is the spiky Venezuelan bandola llanera. Throughout the show, she played with flash and fire and a purposeful focus: fast as her fingers are, she doesn’t waste notes. And she varied her textures, sometimes with a bachata-like ring, other times flicking her way through with a staccato attack, as if she was playing a mandolin. When she finally would cut loose with a furious flurry of tremolo-picking, or a slide up or down the scale, the effect was breathtaking.

The women in the band have contrasting voices that blend intriguingly. Lucas has a bright, soaring delivery, while drummer Lara Klaus – who finally emerged from behind the kit to take over lead vocals on a muted, suspenseful number – has a lower, calmer voice. Percussionist Daniela Serna comes across as the troublemaker in the band – taking a turn out in front, she rapped her way through the boisterously irrepressible Porro Maracatu, a rapidfire mashup of Brazilian rainforest rhythmic riffs and reggaeton from the band’s brand-new debut album. She also took a hypnotically rumbling solo on Colombian tambor alegre drum during a long, psychedelic take of the vamping, bossa-tinged Confesion as Lucas’ vocalese sailed overhead.

Bassist Pat Swoboda shifted elegantly from a funky pulse to starker, bowed lines, switching to Fender on one of the night’s most propulsive, Bahian-flavored numbers. Trombonist Alex Asher and trumpeter Andrew McGovern spiced a handful of the song with some rousing, punchy charts. The sardonic anger of Sin Ataduras (No Bandages) contrasted with the serpentine, joyous Cumbia Brasileira; given plenty of time onstage, the group jammed out intros and outros and left room for brief, tantalizing solos from throughout the band. Ladama’s current US tour continues:

10/7-8/2017- Shakori Hills Festival– Pittsboro, NC
10/20/2017- Columbus Theater– Providence, RI
10/24-25/2017- Dartmouth University– Hanover, NH
11/2-3/2017- Tedx Charlottesville– Charlottesville, VA

As far as hot pepper is concerned, the available samples – the ones with healthy ingredients, anyway – were a disappointment. Most of the sauces didn’t raise any real red flags – other than Hell’s Kitchen’s deliciously spiced Cinnamon Ghost Punch, that is. The westside Manhattan boutique’s sweet Rockin’ Rasta habanero sauce wasn’t quite as hot but just as flavorful and left most of the out-of-state contenders in the dirt. 

Psychedelic Peruvian Legends Los Wemblers Make a Historic Appearance in Red Hook on the 16th

A landmark event in New York music history is happening this Oct 16 at 9 PM at the Pioneer Arts Center in Red Hook, where the brain trust of Brooklyn hotspot Barbes have booked an extremely rare US show by Peruvian psychedelic cumbia legends Los Wemblers de Iquitos. Powerhouse singer Carolina Oliveros’ trippy tropicalia band Combo Chimbita – who mash up cumbia, salsa, chamame and a whole bunch of other south of the border styles – open the night. Cover is $25.

Even on their home turf, Los Wemblers had pretty much dropped out of sight until the past few years. It’s probably safe to say that if Olivier Conan and Vincent Douglas hadn’t started Chicha Libre, who brought the wild, surreal psychedelic cumbias of the 1960s and 70s out of the Amazonian jungle for the first time, staging this concert anywhere outside of a Peruvian expat community would have been absurd. But thanks in large part to their band – and Barbes Records’ two Roots of Chicha historical compilations – this trippy, intoxicatingly danceable music isn’t an obscure niche genre anymore. Maybe, as Conan once boasted, cumbia really is going to take over the world.

This family band of six guys from an isolated Amazonian oil boomtown, most of them in their sixties and seventies, played a wildly vigorous recent show that kept a mix of sweaty kids and curious oldsters on their feet for the better part of three hours. As one of the night’s emcees emphasized, Los Wemblers distinguish themselves from their innumerable countrymen who from the late 60s into the 80s mashed up American surf music, psychedelic rock, indigenous folk themes, sounds from Cuba to Argentina and pretty much all points in between.  But where so many of those bands went soft when synthesizers got popular, Los Wemblers sound exactly like they did in their hometown of Iquitos in 1969 – except louder.

The band’s patriarch, guitarist Salomon Sanchez sadly didn’t live to see the band’s resurgence, but his five sons did and now comprise most of the group. The star of the night was guitarist Alberto Sanchez, who played most of two long sets with his eyes closed, the trace of a smile on his face as his fast fingers fueled a magically clanging, twangy, undulating tropical time machine.

Behind him, the band’s two percussionists laid down a slinky, irresistible groove that boomed and rattled off the space’s bare walls to the point that there was an oscillation between the clave click of the woodblock and the thump of the congas, which raised the psychedelic factor several notches. Together they ran through a surreal mashup of snaky cumbia, sprightly Pervuian folk themes, twangy surf tunes, a couple of strikingly stark, minor-key, Cuban-tinged numbers, and many of their hits, segueing into one after another with hardly a single break.

The best one of the night was Sonido Amazonico, which they played twice. The first time around, they did the haunting, phantasmagorical “national anthem of chicha” as a sprawling ten-minute jam, a creepy cocktail of Satie-esque passing tones, like a warped tarantella to counter the effects of a lysergic spider bite. The second time around they hit it harder and more directly, like the original vinyl single, the guitarist capping off his solo with a sizzling, spiraling flight upward, then hitting his wah pedal and leaving it wide open, a murky pool of sound mingling with the echoey, cantering beats. What frontman/percussionist Jair Sanchez left no doubt about was that it was their song to mess with, notwithstanding that Lima band Los Mirlos‘ version was the bigger hit, and that Chicha Libre’s cover is what pretty much jumpstarted the Brooklyn cumbia cult.

Another hit the crowd got to twice was the careening, aptly gritty La Danza Del Petrolero – and happily, unlike the popular Los Mirlos cover, the guitar was in tune this time. The rest of the set was a fascinating look at how psychedelic cumbias are just as diverse as American psychedelic rock. Without blinking an eye, the band made their way expertly through a couple of bright, cheery vamps that more than hinted at Veracruz folk tunes, eventually hit a brooding, Cuban-flavored number, made cumbia out of a stately, dramatic tango anthem, sped up, slowed down and took a couple of frantically pulsing detours toward merengue.

One of the night’s best numbers was also the most ornate and ominously elegant – but no less danceable. Devious references to the Ventures, Duke Ellington and the Richard Strauss theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey bubbled to the surface. By the time the old guys finally called it quits, it was almost midnight. Fresh off their first ever European tour, they’re reputedly every bit as incendiary as they were this time out. The Pioneer Works show ought to be at the top of the bucket list of every New Yorker who’s into psychedelic sounds.

Pascuala Ilabaca y Fauna Foreshadow This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Saturday night at Drom, Pascuala Ilabaca didn’t let the heavy accordion slung across her shoulder keep her from bounding and dancing across the stage in front of her tight but feral band, Fauna. The Chilean singer/multi-instrumentalist became the latest in a long, long list of international stars to make their New York debut at Drom: they’re the kind of high-voltage act typically found at the East Village club’s annual New York Gypsy Festival. That annual celebration starts this Oct 8 at 8 PM with a very rare NYC appearance by Macedonian brass band Prilepski Zvezdi, and also includes Zlatne Uste, NYC’s first and arguably most authentic, explosive Balkan brass unit. Advance tix are $15.

Singing mostly in Spanish with a bright, precise, sometimes dramatic flair, Ilabaca addressed the crowd mostly in English, explaining several of the lyrics for the linguistically challenged. She didn’t pick up her accordion until after the first number, a bouncy parlor pop tune with distant hints of Asian folk music, bassist Christian Chino Chiang playing flute on the intro. From there they picked up the pace with a carnivalesque intensity, part uneasy circus rock, part pan-latin dance band, part psychedelic outfit.

From a bolero-tinged ballad, they shifted gears with the first of their reimagined Violeta Parra ballads, this one a growling one-chord jam, their excellent acoustic guitarist Juan Nuñez switching to Strat for a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre feel. Chiang and drummer Jaime Frez kept a tight focus as the rhythms changed from the hint of a bolero to a couple of cumbias where Nuñez channeled Los Destellos great Enrique Delgado with his spiky, spiraling phrases.

Meanwhile,clarinetist Miguel Razzouk added an ominous edge with his brooding, Middle Eastern-tinged melismas and chromatics. He kept that intensity going when he switched to alto sax: it was akin to Chicha Libre with a better singer and Kinan Azmeh sitting in on reeds – that good.

Midway through the set, Ilabaca moved to piano and built a similarly shadowy, moody ambience with her own edgy chromatics, neoromantic art-rock flourishes contrasting with low, lingering atmospherics. The high point of the night might have been when a big anthem hit peak velocity, the group cascading up and down on a biting Indian raga riff, over and over again.

Or it might have been the encore, which had to be the alltime most macabre version of the Parra classic El Gavilan. That one’s a metaphorically-charged tale of a woman who gets torn to pieces by hawk. The band opened it slowly and took their time building to a harrowing, frantic crescendo, Ilabaca wailing “Gavilan,” over and over again as the group rose to a terrified squall. As foreshadowing for both the festival at Drom and Halloween month, it was unbeatable.

Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta Join New York’s Best Psychedelic Tropicalia Bill this August 31

New York’s best psychedelic cumbia show of the year so far is happening this August 31 at the Bell House at 10 PM, where Chicago’s Dos Santos Anti-Beat Orquesta and Austin’s Money Chicha are playing a twinbill. Advance tix are a ridiculously good $12 and still available at the venue as of today. It’s not clear who’s playing first, but that doesn’t matter because both bands are reputedly amazing live.

Money Chicha’s wildly trippy debut album got a feverish thumbs-up here recently. Dos Santos’ latest album, Fonografic –  streaming at Spotify – is a party in a box.  The opening cut, playfully titled Epilogue, begins as a boomy, dub-inflected, staggered waltz fueled by woozy low-register wah guitar, then the twangy chicha melody comes in and gets spun through a funhouse mirror of effects. All of a sudden, Alex Chavez’s blippy organ hits a brisk, minor-key cumbia shuffle!

The tropicalia funk of El Puerto de Animas echoes their tourmates’ heavy cumbia sound, Daniel Villarreal-Carrillo’s drums and Jaime Garza’s bass building to a dizzying, polyrhythmic slink, the twin wah guitars of Chavez and Nathan Karagianis echoing in the mix, Peter Vale’s congas anchoring the otherworldly groove. By contrast, Cafeteando! puts a brass-spiced update on vampy, salsa-influenced late 60s/early 70s jungle cumbia, in the same vein as Juaneco Y Su Combo.

The bittersweet exchange of wah-wah and guitar clang in Santa Clara will remind chicha purists of Los Destellos at their most expansive, classic early 70s best, with a long jaunty trombone solo that takes the song into psychedelic salsa territory. Then the ominously galloping Camino Infernal/Phantom Weight mashes up spaghetti western, surf rock, chicha and Led Zep. 

The band save the best and most straightforward chicha track, Red, for last. Built around a gleefully creepy organ riff, it could be a vintage Los Mirlos number, at least until the band make psychedelic Chicano Batman soul out of it. If a wild, brain-altering dance party is your thing, get your ass to the Bell House on the last day of the month.

Austin’s Best Band Comes to Brooklyn’s Best Venue This Saturday Night

Is Money Chicha’s album Echo en Mexico the heaviest cumbia ever made? Decide for yourself – it’s streaming at Soundcloud.  Just listen, for example, to the string-torturing axe-murderer guitar solo at the end of their version of Juaneco Y Su Combo’s classic, wordless elegy for a plane crash,  Lamento En La Selva, which opens the album. If psychedelic music, the magically trebly, trippy sounds of 1970s Peru, or the idea of dancing your ass off are your thing, get that ass down to Barbes this Saturday night, July 30 at 10 PM where this Austin band – a Grupo Fantasma spinoff – are headlining. A near-capacity crowd crammed into the place last night to see Locobeach – another spinoff of a famous band, in this case cumbia icons Chicha Libre – and they were playing mostly covers. So you’d better get there early.

What’s coolest about this band is how they cycle through just about every kind of psychedelic cumbia ever made: the brisk vamps of Juaneco’s cumbia selvetica; the allusive menace of Lima bands like Los Mirlos; the eclectic sparkle of Los Destellos and the outside-the-box surrealism of Chicha Libre, probably the band they ultimately resemble the most.

The album’s  second track, Level One Sound’s Quieren Efectos, has everything you could want from a classic cumbia jam: catchy minor-key tune, woozy wah guitar, a slinky groove, bright rat-tail organ riffs, trippy dub echoes and a suspenseful timbale beat that threatens to break completely loose but never does.

The title cut shuffles along briskly toward the graveyard, awash in reverb, haunted roller-rink organ and evil flangey guitar. The majestic, metallic guitar solo midway through reminds that the core of this band also play in Black Sabbath reinventors Brownout. Then they completely flip the script with the playful, cartoonish Animalitos: tiny elephants made from sweet crunchy dough = gourmet stoner munchies, no?

Cosa Verde, built around a simple, emphatic riff, looks back to the harder-rocking, classic Lima bands of the late 60s and early 70s like Los Diablo Rojos: the warpy tremoloing guitars really nail that era’s tinny studio sonics, beefed up with fat current-era low end and an unexpectedly dark bridge.

Cumbia Familiar is a very thinly disguised remake of a famous island tv theme first surfed out by the Ventures; this one has all kinds of spacy dub touches wafting through the mix. The album’s best track, Chicha Negra is also is darkest, simmering and swooshing with evil chromatics, serpentine organ and warptone guitar. Its mirror image is the Chicha Libre classic Papageno Electrico, a picture that completes itself when the organ joins the guitar duel at the end.

Yo No Soy Turku is a mashup of the blippy Mediterranean psychedelia of bands like Annabouboula and the macabre Turkish surf rock of Beninghove’s Hangmen. Likewise, the tricky, constantly shifting metrics and horror movie organ of 3 Balls continue the sinister tangent through a strange, dubby outro.

Cumbia Del Tamborcito is the album’s most dubwise and epic track, veering from a staggering intro, back and forth through gritty guitar-fueled intensity and lushly enveloping, nebulously smoky sonics. The final cut is La Cordillera, a deliciously doomy flamenco-metal song in cumbia disguise. Is the coolest album of the last several months or what?

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,, 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. 

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.

An Improbable, Magic Comeback Album From Psychedelic Cumbia Legends Los Wembler’s

The best short album of 2017 is by a band from the 1960s who until now have never released a record outside Peru. Los Wembler’s de Iquitos play chicha, the surfy, reverb-drenched psychedelic cumbias that were all the rage from Lima to the Amazon from the late 60s til the early 80s, and thanks to Chicha Libre have become arguably the world’s default party music. But unlike so many of their more urban colleagues, Los Wembler’s (the apostrophe is probably just bad English) never got soft with synthesizers or drum machines. Their new ep Ikaro Del Amor – streaming at Spotify  – captures the band pretty much as feral and surreal as they were almost fifty years ago, except with good production values. And producer/Chicha Lilbre bandleader Olivier Conan gives the band a chance to tune their guitars, something they didn’t get to do when recording their big Amazonian hit La Danza Del Petrolero, which first reached a global audience via the first of Barbes’ Records’ two indispensable Roots of Chicha compilations.

The only band member who didn’t live to see this is family patriarch and bounder Salomon Sanchez Casanova. Otherwise, this is most of the original members, on guitars, bass and multi-percussion. The opening title track, a chicha standard, comes across as a bizarrely catchy mashup of ska rhythm, tropical mosquito guitar, Ventures surf twang and a little C&W. There’s a mysterious shout-out to Brooklyn in there too.

The centerpiece is a sprawling, phantasmagorical take of Sonido Amazonico, later simplified into a one-chord jam (and a big hit) by Lima band Los Mirlos, then recorded almost forty years later by Chicha Libre as the title track to their first album. Over time, the song has become as iconic as Pipeline is to surf rock fans, or Anarchy in the UK is to punks. Awash in resonant jangle, wah-wah riffs and endless permutations on an ominous chromatic melody, it’s the creepiest, slinkiest, trippiest jam of the year.

There are two other tracks. The epic La Mentecata has a wryly expanding, Twelve Days of Xmas style series of verses, a bubbly, almost Cuban guitar hook and a steady clave on the woodblock. The final cut is Dos Amores, lead guitarist Alberto Sanchez Casanova airing out every sound in his effects boxes, from a fair approximation of an electric accordion to the kind of low-budget electric piano one might have found in a ramshackle recording studio in the band’s halcyon days.

That this album exists at all boggles the mind; until being rediscovered in the early part of this decade the band would regroup for the occasional block party, but that’s about it. And now they’re wrapping up their first European tour. Big up to Conan and Barbes Records for having the foresight to bring them to the mass audience they deserve.

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.