After the fall of the Iron Curtain, neoliberals made their way into Bulgaria and convinced the new government to put the nation’s most popular export out of business. The renowned choral ensemble who were first known as the Bulgairian National Women’s Choir, then became a global sensation as Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, and are now known in the English-speaking world as the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, were stripped of their government funding. Without that, these extraordinary, legendarily otherworldly singers were forced to take dayjobs. It’s hard to think of a more apt example of how drastically neoliberal tax policies can slash the very fabric of a nation at the seams.
Happily, the group have kept going over the years. Their latest release, BooCheeMish – their first in two decades – is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a new direction for them. While the group have recorded with rock artists – Kate Bush, most famously – there’s more rock on this release than ever before. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance contributes her voice to four of the tracks.
With the first number, Mome Malenko, the group set the stage with their characteristically eerie close harmonies, shivery melismas and modal, microtonal lines. This song has more of an Arabic chromaticism; the balance of hushed lows against the keening highs of the women’s voices is especially rapturous.
The second track, Pora Sotunea has rock keys, bass and a tabla rhythm bolstering an Andalucian-tinged tune. Rano Ranila, with its pulsing bursts of counterpoint, is the rhythmically trickiest trip-hop tune ever recorded. By contrast, Mani Yanni has a sepulchral vastness and broodingly melismatic Asian spike fiddle.
Much as the many percussion elements in Yove don’t get in the way, it would be even more impressive to hear just the women’s voices leaping and trilling, keeping perfect time throughout this polyrhythmic dance. Sluntse has more of that stark fiddle along with precise, jazz-tinged, acoustic guitar: beyond a brief intro, it’s an instrumental.
Unison is a return to distantly Indian-tinged trip-hop, with a vocal solo from who. The majestic, solowly unfolding call-and-response of Zabekaya Agne have more traditionally uneasy shifts between major and minor modes, along with a rather imploring vocal solo and ney flute over a boomy Middle Eastern dirge beat. It’s the album’s most successfully eclectic stylistic mashup.
But Tropanitsa, an attempt to Bulgarianize (Mysterize?) a blithe tropical tune, is a mess. Happily, the ensemble return to enigmatic massed splendor in Ganka, then dance their way elegantly through the catchy Shandal Ya. The album’s final track is Stanka, moody strings replicating vocal harmonies beneath their soloist’s impassioned lead melody.
For continuity’s sake, let’s count this as today’s installment for Halloween month. These magical voices persist in evoking a strange, antique spirit world, notwithstanding the many additional touches which some listeners may find superfluous.
This past evening a sold-out crowd packed the dancefloor at Lincoln Center to see Kombilesa Mi play a defiant, catchy set of live hip-hop with organic beats – and lyrics in both Spanish and Palenquero, a rapidly disappearing coastal Colombian patois. That there would be as many kids in this city getting down to this music and singing along – in both languages – as there were tonight speaks to what the real New York is: young, immigrant, Spanish-fluent and socially aware.
Everybody in the nine-piece group has an individual look: Busta Rhymes-ish dude with lights in his dreads, flashy guy in a silver jacket with multicolor stars emblazoned into his buzzcut, and in the back the most modestly attired member, dreads pulled back into a tight ponytail and rocking a leopard bodysuit. She hammered on a mighty standup kit with three big bass drums. Two of them looked like big oil drums; the other was a slightly smaller double-headed llamador. The rest of the four-piece live percussion backline included tambora and tambor alegre – the smaller, more rapidfire instruments common to bullerengue, another coastal Colombian sound – and the magical marímbula, which looks like a cross between a Jamaican rhythm box and a big cajon. Lincoln Center’s Viviana Benitez, who programmed this show, described it with a wistful sigh: “It sounds like a big drop of water.” At other times, it could be a big, low-register tabla. Just the beats alone would have been enough for this concert, and this crowd.
But this group is all about the message. Solidarity, resistance, struggle and preservation of ancient Afro-Colombian traditions were persistent, insistent themes throughout the night – with some party rap included. Hailing from San Basilio de Palenque, one of the first free black towns in the Americas, they’re one of very few hip-hop acts anywhere in the world to rap in Palenquero, a mashup of Spanish with African Bantu, Portuguese, French and even a little English. In other words, pretty much everything you would have heard in a portside town south of the equator, two hundred years ago. As with innumerable other indigenous traditions, the conquistadors and their descendants did everything they could to obliterate it: even native speakers take care not to lapse into it in the big city since it’s considered lower-class.
Kombilesa Mi (Palenquero for “my friends”) say the hell with that. They have as many different kinds of flow as any rap group could have: fast-paced party rap, machinegunning verses and singalong choruses with big shouts back and forth between group members and the crowd, and singalongs that draw as much on Mayan as African influences. The beats ranged from a jump rhythm that got the crowd going early on, to a cumbia beat that went over just as well. In over an hour onstage, this crew spoke truth to power, celebrating blackness, local autonomy, community and their own individual identity. Toward the end of the set, they took a handful of slinky detours into bullerengue, with its endless volleys of call-and-response. The result was like New York group Bulla En El Barrio, with an even more thundering drum section and that marímbula, with its irresistible, subterranean “plunk.’
Along with Terraza 7 in Queens, the atrium space at Lincoln Center is one of the very few places in town – and the only Manhattan venue – that regularly has Afro-Colombian music. There are sounds here that represent many other diverse New York communities as well, and the more-or-less-weekly shows at the space on Broadway just north of 62nd St. are free. The next one is Nov 3 at 11 in the morning, a bill designed for families with preschoolers which features violinist Elena Moon Park leading a band playing children’s songs in Korean, Japanese, Mandarin, Tibetan, Taiwanese, Spanish, and also English. If you’re up that early, you ought to get the fam to the space early too since these programs tend to sell out fast.
Friday night at Drom, a crowd of women in brightly colored dresses twirled in front of the stage as the resonant clang of a couple of mandolas rang out from the stage above them. Newpoli percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo spun out a slinky clip-clop beat on his big round tamburello while violinist Karen Burciaga and multi-reed player Dan Meyers sent their contrasting textures wafting and bounding through the mix, bassist Jeff McAuliffe cutting through with a biting, trebly tone. The band’s two charismatic frontwomen, Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi left the stage and went down to join the fun. The only thing missing at the grand finale of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival was the pervasive smell of garlic and basil. Then again, the kitchen at Drom turns out cuisine from points further north and east.
Newpoli specialize in Italian folk music, but they play more originals than traditional material, and their influences are global. They’re as dynamic a jamband as they are a dance band. Meyers’ most electrifying solo was a long, otherworldly, tone-bending one on which he played zurla, the Balkan reed instrument that looks like a cornet but sounds like a lower-register oboe. By contrast, Reijonen’s most riveting moments onstage came during a suspenseful, Arabic-tinged, chromatic intro. Burciaga danced through an endless supply of punchy phrases, often in tandem with the mandolas, Bjorn Wennas often switching to acoustic guitar.
The two women who lead the band make a striking contrast. Petite and intense in a green tie-dyed print, Rossi often evoked the otherworldly microtones of the Balkans. Tall, blonde and swaying in her long linen summer dress, her eyes closed much of the time, Carmen Marsico has more of a classic American soul voice. Throughout the night, the two would often trade off verses as well as leading the dancers during two pouncing, edgy tarantellas, the first a shapeshifting original, the second a more rustic traditional number.
Their original material, many of the songs drawn from their most recent album Mediterraneo, has understatedly potent relevance. Marsico introduced the night’s most anthemic number. ‘Na Voce Sola (One Single Voice) as a revolutionary call to unite against fascism (something the Italians unfortunately knew as intimately as Americans do now). Other songs traced themes of displacement, whether in times of war or otherwise, the womens’ voices harmonizing with as much resilient elegance as fullscale minor-key angst.
Toward the end of the show, they tackled a traditional tune which on the new album is about ten minutes long and, for non-Italian speakers at least, becomes pretty interminable. Onstage, they made short work of it – literally – cutting it down to about half the time and keeping everybody, dancers and listeners, in the game as Meyers’ wood flutes punctured through the hypnotic bounce. Newpoli’s next gig is at 8 PM on Oct 12 at the Avalon Theatre,
40 E Dover St. in Easton, Maryland; general admission is $25.
What’s more Halloweenish than a deadly spider? Newpoli earned their place on this page this month since the fiery Italian folk jamband play a lot of tarantella dances. Historically speaking, the tarantella has a lot more cultural resonance beyond its role as a folk remedy designed to help sweat out spider poison. It’s associated with women in particular, with madness and also heartbreak. The Boston-based band actually play many styles in addition to tarantellas, but they excel at them. Their new album Mediterraneo – streaming at rockpaperscissors – reaffirms how eclectic, and how electric they are: it sounds like a live show rather than a sterile, digital facsimile. They’re playing the latest installment of the ongoing NY Gypsy Festival this Friday night at 10 PM at Drom; advance tix are $15
The album cover is particularly apt: two crowds reaching with open arms toward each other across the Mediterranean: an embrace of commonalities, or outrage over immigrant crises? It opens with the title track, frontwomen Carmen Marsico and Angela Rossi harmonizing with an eerie, imploring intensity that reminds how much cross-pollination there’s been from Albania and the Balkans to points further west over the centuries. Karen Burciaga’s violin dances acerbically, Jussi Reijonen’s mandola lingers and jangles, much like a twelve-string guitar, over the groove of bassist Jeff McAuliffe and percussionist Fabio Pirozzolo.
So’ emigrant has subtle Middle Eastern tinges percolating amid its mandola swirl, violin soaring uneasily overhead. Lagr’m’ (Tears) is a woundedly swaying ballad with rich, acidic vocal harmonies that recall Bulgarian music, Reijonen multitracking a luscious mandola solo over an elegantly anthemic acoustic guitar pulse. The women’s voices reach even further toward the east with their harmonies in the intro to Lu Poveru Vicenzino (Poor Vincenzino), with a hypnotically booming, Egyptian-inflected beat and Reijonen’s delicately plaintive mandola.
Rossi takes over the lead vocals in ‘Na Voce Sola (A Single Voice) with a slashing, melismatic insistence: Dan Meyers’ psychedelic bagpipes and Reijonen’s flickering oud provide both bracing texture and cross-pollinated resonance. The band open Me Ne Vogghje Scenni ‘n Fintanella (rough unpoetic translation: I Don’t Want to Put Pictures in My Window) as a spare, pensive oud-and-vocal piece and rise to a mighty, angst-fueled sway on the wings of the violin.
Seven tracks in, we finally get a tarantella: a bouncy original titled Tarantella Avernetella. By contrast, the group work a witchy, circling theme in Tarantella Della Sciffra with an eerily looming Meyers recorder solo at the center.
The flamenco-ish Lu Jocu di la Palumbella may or may not be about a moth: Reijonen saves his most tersely memorable solo work here for acoustic guitar. The final cut is the plaintive, rustically trancey Iere Sera (Last Night). In addition to all these edgy minor-key numbers, the album has more than a quarter of an hour worth of hypnotically thumping, lighthearted peasant dances. Newpoli are reputedly a real whirlwind onstage: this show could be the highlight of this year’s festival.
The Lemon Bucket Orkestra distinguish themselves in a crowded field of high-voltage klezmer and Balkan bands with their feral, otherworldly sound and sizzling chops. They don’t just pillage the usual repertoire of freylekhs and bulgars: they go way back, blending the phantasmagorical elements of Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Jewish sounds that proliferated over a hundred years ago. The best musicians know no boundaries, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra personify that sensibility. Their latest album If I Had the Strength is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the latest installment of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival tonight, Sept 26 at 8 PM at Drom. It’s $20 at the door and worth it.
The album opens with a brief, somberly chromatic march fueled by Michael Louis Johnson’s muted trumpet and a walking bassline and ends with a hushed folk tune. In between it’s a wild party. The lickety-split stomp of Crooked immediately sets the scene, with wildfire riffage from bagpipes and James McKie’s violin over a brisk sousaphone/drums pulse from Ian Tulloch and Jaash Singh, Mark Marczyk and Stephania Woloshyn taking turns on vocals. They take it out with a tantalizingly brief stampede that could have gone on as long as these guys could have physically been able to play it.
They follow Fate, a growly, tensely stalking miniature with Goodbye, the violin holding the down the bassline as the sousaphone takes a a coyly blithe solo, mingling with Woloshyn’s shivery vocals; then they pounce their way through a catchy series of chromatics and crescendos, with spiraling, wildfire solos from Julian Selody’s clarinet and Marichka Marczyk’s accordion.
They rip the riff from Whole Lotta Love for the bassline to Soldat, violin and clarinet in tandem delivering tight country dance riffage, Johnson’s trumpet holding the center. Freedom has a rat-a-tat Serbian-style brass band pulse, clever call-and-response riffs and a completely unexpected psychedelic bridge.
The album’s most rustically surreal track is When, a brief, majestically crescendoing number glimmering with eerily ornamented vocal harmonies. From there the band segue into Palinka, an equally surreal Balkan cumbia mashup with tasty, chromatically slashing solos from violin, accordion and bagpipes and a coyly chirping flute solo out.
Cocoon, a furtively jungly miniature for percussion, sets the stage for Heroes with its delirious unison riffage over a tight, tricky, Macedonian-flavored dance rhythm, up to a misterioso Bulgarian vocal interlude by guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.
At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.
Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.
From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.
Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.
Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.
Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.
Boston band Grain Thief distinguish themselves from the legions of fresh-faced East Coast kids packing mandolins and banjos, in that they use vintage Americana rather than emo or corporate American Idol pop as a springboard for their songs. And they tell some great stories, and have serious bluegrass chops. The five-piece group also have a new album, Stardust Lodge streaming at Spotify and a New York gig on Sept 15 at 8:30 PM at the third stage at the Rockwood. Cover is $10
The swaying opening track, Colorado Freeze strongly evokes the Grateful Dead doing their acoustic act in the early 80s around the time of the Reckoning album. The merry band in the song lyrics are riding in an old car: it’s got both a cd player and a radio in case the the other doesn’t work!
The lively, swinging Lonesome Highway finds the narrator in front of a girl behind the bar who stares right through him – the conversation that ensues will resonate with anybody who’s spent time in front of a glass that’s half empty.
I Got a Flower is closer to Wilco than bluegrass, although the interweave between the guitars of Patrick Mulroy and Tom Farrell, with Zach Meyer’s mandolin and Alex Barstow’s fiddle rising over Michael Harmon’s snappy bass, is especially tasty. As is the “hell, I’d rather drink alone” message.
The Jigsaw Outlaw is a killer instrumental that brings to mind the old folk tune Jack-a-Roe, the whole band getting into the act with some deep blues and steely picking. Irish Rose is mutedly gorgeous, a bittersweetly picturesque anthem akin to the missing link between Matthew Grimm and early Richard Buckner. “Dragged me from the world inside my phone…I drank in a supernatural bliss,” the group harmonize.
Plough Man is a rousing singalong shout-out to the guys who pull in extra bucks with their trucks in the wee hours when the snow’s coming down hard: “The truck is freezing when the heater ain’t working, just pack a jacket…when I dream I see the white and green, I suck it up with my diesel machine!”
The syncopated, animated compulsive gambler’s lament Stateline Hills is a western gothic, steel guitar-fueled take on the grim milieu of Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Then the band pick up the pace with the Dylanesque hillbilly boogie Cookin’ and follow that with the album’s funniest track, The Bottom Shelf. In a 99 percenter’s world, desperate times call for desperate measures!
Barstow’s fiddle propels the album’s hardest-rocking track, Jealous Girl, along with the steel guitar. The band wind it up with the most epic number here, Let It Roll, nimble fingerpicking contrasting with big rock swells.
In addition to the Rockwood gig, Grain Thief play Wednesday nights at around 9 at the Burren in Davis Square at 247 Elm St. in Somerville, MA.
Delgrès are one of the most refreshingly unique and relevant bands around. Their sound is an often surreal, propulsively catchy mashup of amped-up French Caribbean folk, electric blues and New Orleans groove, with occasional detours into garage rock and even loping Saharan psychedelia. The trio play a mix of originals and allusive, sardonic traditional Guadeloupian freedom fighter songs from the 1920s and 30s…with guitar, drums and sousaphone. As hard-hitting as much of this music is, the lyrics can be surprisingly subtle and allusive, no surprise considering that the originators of many of these songs were living under an occupation. The group’s new album Mo Jodi (Die Today) is streaming at Spotify, and they’re playing Joe’s Pub on Sept 25 at 9:30 PM. General admission is $20.
The opening track, Respecte Nou is a romping garage rock tune, closer to the Yardbirds or the early Pretty Things covering Sonny Boy Williamson than, say, the White Stripes. In place of a bass, Rafgee’s sousaphone is more prominent here than it is on the other tracks. The lyrics address self-respect and the need to stand up to the boss. Here’s a rough translation from the original Kreyol:
We’ve been shifting wine
Today this all has to stop!
The album’s title track is a defiant revolutionary anthem inspired by the band’s namesake, 18th century Guadeloupian freedom fighter Louis Delgrès. Set to a Mississippi hill country blues stomp, the message is essentially “I’d rather die than slave for you.”
Mr. President opens with a hilarious Lyndon Johnson sample, then drummer Baptiste Brondy hits a hard-hitting sway and guitarist Pascal Danaë blends lingering jangle, keening slide licks and Pink Floyd resonance. The lyric is a plea directed at an unnamed authority figure instead of anyone specific.
Vivre Sur la Route (Life on the Road) is a lilting love song with echoes of Jamaican mento (the shuffling folk style that spawned calypso and then roots reggae). Séré Mwen Pli Fo (Hold Me Tighter) rises unexpectedly toward stadium-rock heft, with a vocal cameo from chanteuse Skye Edwards. Then the band add tinges of circling, hypnotic Malian desert rock over boisterous syncopation in Can’t Let You Go.
Ti Manmzel (slangy translation: My Sweetheart) could be the White Stripes taking a stab at reggae, a come-on from a musician onstage to a cute girl in the audience. Anko, a triumphant protest anthem, is a return to the north Mississippi/Mali blend. Set to the album’s most dynamic, bitingly majestic backdrop, Ramene Mwen (Take Me Back) is a characteristically sardonic example of the corrosively allusive lyrics that pervade much of Guadeloupian freedom-folk: if you don’t like how my rice and peas smell, let me go back to Africa, the narrator tells the slaver.
The album closes with the hypnotic riffs of Chak Jou Bon Di Fe (Every Single Day), a protest song, then the muted, spare Pardone Mwen (Forgive Me), which could be about familial angst or something more metaphorical. And just when you think the album’s over, wait! There’s more! At Lincoln Center back in July, the band put on a show every bit as energetic as this album, which bodes well for the Joe’s Pub gig.
Dobranotch means “good night” in Russian. It’s a very understated way of describing the crazy, exhilarating dance party they put on this past evening at Drom to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival. The Russian klezmer band romped and blasted through a fiery set of originals and radical reinventions of more traditional material, showing off their virtuoso chops as well as an irrepressibly boisterous sense of humor.
Klezmer dance music is fun by definition, but these guys are beyond the pale. There was a point about midway through their set where their their guest dancer, Lea Elisha, went twirling across the floor in front of the stage, her mane of curly hair flying, an unstoppable human gyroscope. Meanwhile, frontman/violinist Mitya Khramtsov played behind his back, Hendrix style.
OK, that’s common enough. Next, he played with his bow behind his back and his violin tucked under his arm.
Then he stuck his bow down his pants and fiddled the violin on the bow – without missing a catchy minor-key riff. After bowing with his mouth, then sticking the bow in the dancer’s mouth and fiddling it, he finally handed the bow to a surprised audience member and had him do it.
Ilya Gindin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, started the show on alto sax, then switched to oboe, firing off lickety-split spirals and slashing chromatic trills. Then he switched to clarinet. Slowly and methodically, he disassembled the instrument between verses, moving further and further up the scale until there was nothing left to play but the mouthpiece and then the reed. By then, it was all he could do to slowly bend a note up to where it was supposed to be, but nobody wanted the joke to stop.
Beyond the theatrics, this is an incredibly tight party band. More often than not, Khramtsov and the horn section would lock in on their harmonies while Gindin did his thing. Roman Shinder fired off fast flurries of banjo chords as Evgeny Lizin thumped out the groove on a big tapan bass drum and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys fleshed out the sound with rich washes of chords and elegant filigrees.
Khramtsov took a couple of stark, strikingly rustic departures into otherworldly weaves of microtones, veering away from the center before leaping back into the traditional western scale. The best original of the night was an epic, darkly Bessarabian-flavored anthem written by trombonist Grigory Spiridonov, who puffed out staccato basslines when he wasn’t harmonizing with tenor saxophonist Max Karpychev and the rest of the group.
They reinvented the iconic Algerian protest anthem Ya Rayyeh as a gruff but similarly sardonic Russian brass tune. Likewise, they turned a shapeshifting Macedonian bagpipe dance into what Khramtsov termed a “gypsy rhumba,” although it sounded more like a Turkish tango. They finally wound up the night with a third encore, gathered on the floor in front of the audience. An unexpectedly slow, lushly benedictory, moody concluding anthem with edgy solos all around couldn’t douse the crowd’s energy.
The New York Gypsy Festival continues at Drom on Sept 14 at 9:30 PM with the eclectic Underground Horns celebrating ten years of mashing up Balkan, New Orleans and latin brass sounds. You can get in for ten bucks in advance.