New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: folk music

Haunting Klezmer Sounds and Protest Songs Outdoors in Park Slope This Week

One of the most powerful protest songs that’s been resurrected in recent years is Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them).

This old Jewish melody, reinvented by Brooklyn klezmer band Tsibele, is as indomitable an anthem as any freedom fighter could want. In this seven-minute live clip, the group lead a singalong in the deliciously Middle Eastern-flavored freygische mode. Midway through, they provide the grim backstory.

When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. The response was this song. As we all know, those Jews did not outlive their tormentors, but they raised the bar for defiance in the face of evil about as high as it can go.

As sadistic as the lockdowner regime has been, there’s special resonance in that song for us. Inevitability theories of history are full of holes, there’s no doubt that if the world is going to survive, we will outlive them. You can buy an embroidered patch for your coat which says exactly that, in Yiddish and English, from the band.

Half of the group – violinist Zoe Aqua and accordionist Ira Temple – are teaming up for an outdoor show with trumpeter Dan Blacksberg on July 29 at 4:30 PM at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, 58 7th Ave at Lincoln Pl in Park Slope. It’s about equidistant from the Grand Army Plaza and 7th Ave. B/Q stations.

Starting in the mid-teens, Tsibele became a fixture across several scenes here, and made some waves with their album It’s Dark Outside – Indroysn iz Finster, streaming at Bandcamp. Bassist Zoë Guigueno, flutist Eléonore Weill and trumpeter Eva Boodman focus intensely on Aqua’s dark arrangements of some well-known, politically resonant old songs.

Aqua’s slashing, low-register lines pierce the brooding ambience underneath in the first tune, Dem Nayntn Yanuar/Ninth of January, a dirge commemorating the 1905 massacre of freedom fighters in St. Petersburg, The band maintain a somber atmosphere in the blue-collar lament Di Svet Shop, based on a poem by Morris Rosenfeld.

They pick up the pace with a dead-serious take of Nifty’s Eigene, violin and trumpet taking turns with the original lead written by legendary klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. The album’s big, ominously atmospheric epic is a murder ballad, Tsvelef A Zeyger/Twelve O’clock, with a looming trumpet solo at the center.

Likewise, Boodman’s moody, soulful lines intertwine with the trills of the flute in the slow, darkly methodical Rosemont Terkisher. They close the record with the lilting, wistful title track, a love song.

Fun fact: tsibele is Yiddish for “onion.” Lots of layers to peel back here.

A Welcome, Outdoor Return Gig by a Familiar, Edgy New York Klezmer Powerhouse

Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer are the Parliament/Funkadelic of erudite Jewish party music. No, they don’t play funk – although they’re very danceable. And Isle of Klezbos are back in action, with a gig this July 22 at noon at St. Marks Park at Second Ave. and 10th St.

If not funkiness, what do the two klezmer bands have in common with P-Funk? Like George Clinton’s crew, they’re basically the same band. It didn’t start out that way. Clinton’s genius was in double-dipping a record label (albeit for double the studio work, so it was actually a fairer deal all around). Isle of Klezbos began as the all-female offshoot of the well-loved, theatrical, latin-tinged Metropolitan Klezmer, bolstered by a couple of ringers. They eventually became so popular and so good that at one point it looked like they’d eclipsed the original project. Then the Klezbos (would it be ridiculous to use Klezbo in the singular?) took a backseat to Met Klez again. Either way, both bands can absolutely sizzle onstage, and they were playing lots of outdoor shows years before the lockdown

Over the past decade or close to it, Met Klez earned plenty of coverage here, The last time anyone from this blog was in the house at one of their gigs, it was for a careening and tantalizingly abbreviated late-night set at Drom in January of 2020. Isle of Klezbos are also hardly strangers to the front page here. Their Live in Brooklyn album got the thumbs up in 2014, as did a subsequent Bryant Park gig. The show a little later that year at their frequent summertime haunt, the community garden on 12th Street in the East Village, was even more fun.

That one involved beer. Their gig in the garden the following year, over the Labor Day Weekend, did not, but it was just as entertaining, maybe because moving toward the front of the space to watch the band instead of hanging in back with the brew crew meant trading up to a more sophisticated kind of entertainment.

Was this the year the PA blew out and the band had to play all-acoustic? See a band enough times and everything starts to conflate unless you write it all down…or make a field recording.

Some highlights that still resonate after all these years: sax player Deborah Kreisberg’s plaintive solo during one of her originals, a quasi-cumbia; an epic take of drummer and bandleader Eve Sicular’s towering triptych, East Hapsburg Waltz; and accordionist Shoko Nagai’s quiet, moody rivers of minor chords. Trumpeter Pam Fleming led the group through an undulating reggae tune (she used to play with Burning Spear) and later, if memory serves right, her chromatically edgy, Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz. Other players have filtered in and out of the band before and since: it will be fun to see who’s been engaged for the Second Avenue park show.

Aviva Chernick Mashes Up Haunting Old Ladino Songs With Americana

Aviva Chernick has an expressive, honeyed voice and leads an eclectic, sometimes psychedelically tinged band who reinvent old songs from across the Sephardic diaspora. Her album La Sirena, which also contains several of Chernick’s originals, is streaming at Bandcamp. If you think old Jewish songs and American country music have nothing in common, you haven’t heard this strangely beguiling record.

It begins with A Ti Espanya, a fond, gentle waltz.  Chernick sings Min Hametzar in Ladino and English, a brooding, metrically tricky psychedelic folk tune with Joel Schwartz’s moody washes of steel guitar over Justin Gray and Derek Gray’s rock rhythm section: “They call to you from an aeroplane,” is the refrain.

With Schwartz’s bluegrass-tinged leads Kol Dodi is the strangest old brooding medieval nigun you’ll ever hear, Likewise, the album’s title track, a muted bolero, has a simmering roadhouse blues undercurrent. And Arvoles Yorvan could be Dolly Parton…in Ladino, with National steel guitar and dobro swooping in the background.

The sad waltz Este Montanya de Enfrente has a delicate web of acoustic and Portuguese guitars. Notwithstanding her big crescendo on that one, Chernick’s alternately misty and acerbic delivery on a muted take of the traditional Adon Olam could be the album’s high point: the melody makes a good Balkan-tinged bounce. Chernick closes the record with the a-cappella miniature Rikondus de Mi Nona. The album also includes a couple of blithe tunes by Bosnian singer Flory Jagoda.

Feral, Catchy Guantanamo Party Music Captured For the First Time on Album

Imagine a world with no screens. Where after work, instead of obsessively spending an hour or two on Instagram, you went home and picked up an instrument. And when your neighbors across the way heard the song, instead of filming thirty seconds of it and posting it on Instagram, they joined you and started dancing. And then somebody brought a bottle of rum, and then even in the 110-degree, global warming-era heat, there was a party.

That’s what the new triple album Changüí: The Sound of Guantanamo – streaming at Bandcamp – sounds like, in Cuban Spanish. It’s a party in a box: three and a half hours of wild, rustic, funny, deviously innuendo-laced, historically rich music, played mostly by a bunch of jangly local acoustic pickup bands who have never been recorded before. Which is no surprise, considering that much of their part of the island didn’t have electric power before the 1990s – and explains why this material sounds as feral as it does.

Changui music has been appropriated by salsa bands for decades. In the wild, it sounds like son montuno with a more straightforwardly shuffling beat, although that rhythm is stretched to all kinds of new places here. Tres players show off their fretboard skills in long, careening, spiky solos. Singers trade battle rhymes, or endless rounds of call-and-response over an undulating groove from a simple marímbula rhythm box and bongo beats with a contrasting, labyrinthine, shamanic complexity.

Like salsa and blues, the repertoire is self-referential and self-reverential. Innumerable stars from local scenes are remembered in these songs, along with their descendants, who play their songs now and big-up themselves. One of the most compelling bands on this album is an all-female crew haphazardly assembled when the bandleader’s regular lineup was unavailable – and her subs turned out to be incredibly amped for the performances.

It’s normal to be suspicious of westerners who go into formerly colonized parts of the world and emerge with what they claim is new evidence of a previously undiscovered tradition. What is not in doubt is that Italian musicologist Gianluca Tramontana went into Cuba in 2017, hoping to score enough found sounds for a NPR piece. Two years later, he came back to the US with hours and hours of field recordings, distilled into this box set with a 124-page booklet including Spanish lyrics, plus some pretty good English translations. For non-native Spanish speakers, the vocals are much easier to understand than you might assume: the cheat sheet is a welcome bonus.

It would take another 124-page book to chronicle all the sounds on the record. Typically, the tres clangs and pings, shedding overtones almost like a twelve-string or Portuguese guitar. The spirits are invoked, bandleaders assert themselves as kings of the mic and the party, as the groove pulses from stark to frenetic and back. The lyrics can be suggestive, or snide – one of the funniest songs here is a dis aimed at a real princess of a girl – and also political. Several numbers reference the freedom fighters battling Spanish conquistadors in the 1890s.

There’s a haunting, delicately slashing minor-key number accusing vintage salsa bandleader Juan Formell of stealing the Guantanamo sound: after all these years, the sting still seems fresh. Singer Francisco “Mikikí” Hernández Valiente distinguishes himself with his gritty, impassioned style. Tres player Yoemnis “Sensei” Tabernas lives up to his nickname, and then some. Likewise, fast-fingered Pedro Vera, leader of Grupo Familia Vera, validates his claim as “El rey del diapasón.”

Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo are the band best known outside of Cuba here: they’ve toured the US and played New Orleans Jazzfest. The all-female Las Flores del Changüí are represented mostly by ringers who are very good.

Grupo Estrellas Campesinas and their tragically, recently deceased founder Armando “Yu” Rey Leliebre contribute strongly here, along with Grupo El Guajiro Y Su Changüí, Mikikí y su Changüí, Mikiki’s brother Melquiades y su Changüí plus a multi-brother extravaganza and the unrelated Popó y su Changüí.

There are also a couple of playful lyrical battles between Celso Fernández Rojas a.k.a. El Guajiro and José Andrés Rodríguez Ramírez, better known as “El Sinsonte,” backed by Grupo Changüí de Guantánamo. One can only imagine how much more material there might be in Tramontana’s archive that didn’t make it onto this album.

A Look Back at an Imaginatively Crafted Balkan Folk Album

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Min Xiao-Fen Releases a Darkly Surreal New Score to a Classic Chinese Silent Film

Min Xiao-Fen is one of the world’s great adventurers on the magical Chinese pipa lute. She first made a name for herself with her spiky, incisive arrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes, but she has done immense cross-pollination with the instrument in the years since. She’s also a brilliant singer and a composer whose eclecticism is as vast as you would expect considering her background. Her songs can be spare and intimate, in keeping with tradition, or explosively symphonic. Her latest album White Lotus – streaming at Spotify – is an original score for Wu Yonggang’s 1934 silent film The Goddess, a tragic melodrama about a Shanghai hooker who battles an evil pimp as she struggles to provide for her son’s education. The soundtrack is a duo collaboration with a similarly adventurous, cinematic artist, guitarist Rez Abbasi, who plays both acoustic and electric here

The album opens with a stark, hypnotically circling pipa theme and ambient guitar effects, dialogue from the film and fragments of the bandleader’s operatic vocals floating through the mix. There are moments where the textural contrast between Abbasi’s acoustic guitar and the pipa are subtle but distinct, others where it’s harder to distinguish between them since he sometimes uses a pipa-style tremolo-picking attack.

The galloping, syncopated, darkly windswept third track is mostly Abbasi multitracks. A handful of drifting passages for vocals and solo guitar are more spare and pensive.

A tableau for vocals and solo guitar channels utter desolation. There’s a bristling chase scene with occasional flickers of Greek rembetiko music. Echoes of bluegrass music, a tense nocturne, and a distantly sinister blend of ba-bump cabaret and the blues follow in turn. Interestingly, the moments where Asian pentatonics are front and center are few and far between, heightening the exotic effect. Toward the end, there are a couple of themes that come across as acoustic Pat Metheny with Chinese tinges. This is a gripping, dynamically shifting mix of styles that fits right into both artists’ constantly growing and paradigm-shifting bodies of work.

Fighting Future Lockdowns with a Summer Solstice Celebration on Roosevelt Island

“There should be a thousand people here,” one spectator observed yesterday afternoon, trailing along the edge of a crowd of maybe a couple dozen folks making their way to the southern edge of Roosevelt Island. They’d come out for a walking tour led by healer and journalist Cat McGuire, who in a half hour under the trees in the park traced how Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “four freedoms” principle has been eroded in the recent past and over the years – beginning with the guy who created that shortlist.

No doubt, there should have been more people gathered here. But this is how paradigm shifts start, with a small group of people thinking outside the box. To paraphrase McGuire’s witheringly colorful observation, one person armed with the truth has more impact than sixty thousand who don’t. And this is happening all over the world.

McGuire has assembled a very sobering and enlightening presentation about the upcoming Cyber Polygon tabletop exercise scheduled for July 9, which you can watch here and download here. Considering what we know about false flag incidents coinciding with real-time military or police exercises – notably 9/11 and 7/7 – not to mention all the noise the World Economic Forum has been making about the threat of a global takedown of the power grid, this is a situation we need to keep our eye on.

Investigative journalist and singer Tessa Lena, whose poetically insightful news feed as well as her equally entertaining podcast Make Language Great Again have become two of the most reliable information sources over the past year, gave a short talk about the transhumanist component of the New Abnormal (a.k.a. Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset). Online avatars which supposedly keep all our memories alive in perpetuity? Internet-enabled nanobots injected under our skin to track our every movement and torture us to death if we say something critical about Facebook or Amazon? She doesn’t actually believe those nightmares will ever come true – as long as we make sure they don’t. According to the planned 2030 timetable, Ray Kurzweil’s bizarro “singularity” – where everyone except the world’s billionaires becomes a cyborg slave – is unfolding right on schedule.

Out behind the collapsing shell of the island’s long-vacant smallpox quarantine facility, psychologist Karin Burkhard reminded that over the years, an estimated fourteen thousand people were essentially abandoned and died inside the building. According to legend, the bodies were burned and the ashes scattered on the island: lost souls with lots unfinished business, right where everybody was standing, as Burkhard put it. She explained how even after mass vaccination campaigns had finally eradicated smallpox, those same vaccines continued to be available to members of the military for decades afterward…and that laboratory cultures of the virus were not destroyed until much more recently. One  hopes they were, anyway.

There was also music. Michael Jay used two huge gongs to build magical, immersive sheets of boomy lows and sepulchral high harmonics. He calls it a sound bath: this was more of a power shower of mystical calm. After more than half an hour of spine-tingling sonic refreshment, percussion trio Africa Forestdance picked up the pace  Led by Formoro Diabate, heir to a multi-generational Guinean balafon legacy, the group built rippling but similarly hypnotic volleys of sound.

And a pretty woman in a tan print dress, armed with a formidable walking stick, shared her entire container of watermelon with a thirsty (and very grateful) music reporter. What a sweet thing to do for someone on a sweltering day.

Lavish Golden-Age Passion From Mariachi Herencia de Mexico

If memory serves right, Mariachi Herencia de Mexico were scheduled to make a relatively rare New York appearance in what turned out to be the most draconian early days of the lockdown last year. Which was tragic. Considering the familiar circuit of restaurants and neighborhood bars, New York mariachi bands tend to be on the small side. Mariachi Herencia de Mexico’s lavish orchestral sound harkens back to a musical golden age when all sorts of innovations were happening in a style that was innovative to begin with.

Case in point: the opening number, Tres Consejos, on the orchestra’s latest album Esencia – streaming at Spotify – the lushness of the strings and brass shifting seamlessly between a lilting European waltz and a traditional Mexican huapanga beat. Or El Gallo de Oro, with its plushly jazzy horns and the joyous harmonies of the women out in front of the ensemble. Many of these songs became standards for a reason: they were ahead of their time.

Frontwoman Alda Cuevas’ often achingly vivid, dynamic vocals burst into a ripe vibrato when she reaches for the rafters, a passion echoed by the band. When the guys get on the mic, they tend to be a little more low-key. On one hand, this is party music – some of the lyrics, as in the elegantly pulsing Los Mandados, can be outrageously funny. On the other hand, the music is just as sophisticated, with accordion, cuatro and guitars rising up amid the lustre and the dizzying rhythmic shifts.

This is a long album, sixteen songs including an unabashedly romantic, trumpet-fueled bonus version of Wendy. There are ballads like Yerba Mala, with Cuevas’ impassioned presence awash in misty orchestration. There’s a version of Besame Mucho, supposedly the most covered song of all time, with a sweeping intro that’s barely recognizable, along with punchy horns and more unexpected tempo shiftts.

It’s hardly a stretch to imagine the more sophisticated Nashville assembly-line songwriters of the 50s hearing a song like the balmy Cucuucucu Paloma and thinking, “I can steal this.” Look no further than the instrumental La Cantera for the roots of Burt Bacharach. Tschaikovskian string flourishes mingle with German accordion over a stately Mexican beat in Te Traigo Estas Flores. Isn’t cross-pollination fun?

Frigging in the Rigging With the Kings Pond Shantymen

Louis was the King of France before the Revolution
And he got his head chopped off and spoiled his constitution

That’s from the old sea shanty Haul Away Joe, the second track on the Kings Pond Shantymen‘s new album Take a Turn Around the Capstan, streaming at Spotify. The name of the record is actually not a 1970s reference: before the age of cassettes, a capstan was a rope-winding spool typically found onboard ships. This nine-piece group are a throwback to the era of the original device. This is a fun singalong record.

Once in a blue moon a publicist’s press release perfectly nails what a group are all about. “The Kings Pond Shantymen sing out mainly in Hampshire and West Surrey, England. They perform shanties and other seafaring songs, interspersed with a few drinking songs and odd ditties. At Christmas they also sing carols and on Old Twelfth Night they sing wassailing songs. They aim for an authentic shanty style – unaccompanied male voices singing in harmony – on a good day. Folk style nose-singing or ear-fingering is actively repressed and barbershop perfection is certainly not their aim. What they like is to sing and drink a pint or two of beer, but not at the same time as it tends to waste the beer.”

There are eighteen tracks on the album. Most of the nine men in this merry crew eventually take a turn out in front. The material runs the gamut from bawdy drinking songs, to cynical work songs, a morose Irish ballad, and a hilarious number about basically shoveling shit on the high seas.

You might recognize a few of these tunes from later Appalachian folk versions. Otherwise, the material isn’t just the same old standards everybody knows. The most obvious number here is What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor, but the group put their own devious stamp on it. If you listen closely, there’s a lot of history on this record.

A dollar a day is a hoosier’s pay
Roll the cotton down!
And screw four more is what they say
Roll the cotton down!

A note to American readers: the Shantymen presumably do not live in a one-room shack, they just use the British spelling. Here on this side of the pond we typically use the more pretentiously spelled “chantey,” which comes from the French “chanter,” meaning “to sing.”