New York Music Daily

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Category: gypsy music

Accordions From Literally Everywhere Around the World in Bryant Park This Week and Next

Last week’s kickoff of the annual Bryant Park accordion festival was a chance to revisit some favorites and make some new discoveries. Organizer Ariana Hellerman, who for years published the extremely useful summer concert and events calendar Ariana’s List, has booked every conceivable style of music that uses accordion (and ringers like the bandoneon, concertina and harmonium) into the series. With the rainout this week, next week’s installment begins on August 7 at 5:30 with a series of acts rotating around the park’s four corners and also the Sixth Avenue terrace. The lineup includes but is not limited to klezmer/Mediterranean shredder Ismail Butera, the wryly lyrical Susan Hwang, Mindra Sahadeo (the ringer here) on Indian harmonium and the bouncy, effervescent Nordic Smorgasbandet.

Last week’s lineup was typically eclectic. The irrepressible, timeless Phoebe Legere can still hit those operatic high notes, and engaged the crowd with her quirky sense of humor. She spent most of her show playing to various audience members, encouraging random people to ring the dinner bell on her accordion, and at one point, trailing a cop who was making his way through the crowd. Her funniest number made fun of the OKCupid dating service and had a spot-on punchline.

Romany song maven Eva Salina didn’t let being pregnant with her first child phase her a bit: “Gotta work til I can’t,” she grinned. Her first set of the evening was a little more low-key than usual, full of angst and longing for home and alienated anomie. Singing mostly in Romanes, relying on a forceful low register, she covered both older traditional tunes from Serbia and the Romany diaspora as well as a couple of numbers from the catalog of tragic heroine Vida Pavlovic. Eva’s longtime accordionist Peter Stan supplied his usual chromatic fireworks with lightning trills, uneasy close harmonies and turbulent rivers of minor-key arpeggios.

Foncho Castellar drew the biggest dancing crowd, no great surprise since the Colombian expat played so many oldschool cumbias. His two-man percussion section, on guiro and conga, kept a tightly swinging beat going as Castellar began with a brightly pulsing vallenato number. Then he kicked out the cumbia jams, and picked up the pace even further with some merengue toward the end.

In two hours at the park, you can either catch full half-hour sets from as many as four acts, or wander around and sample everybody. From this perspective, the evening’s coda – one of the most sublime sets by anyone who’s ever played this festival – was a slinky, rapturously microtonal set of bellydance themes by the Egyptian-born Nabawy. Rocking a formidable, sleek black quartertone model, he started out with a stark chromatic dance in the western minor scale and then brought in the Arabic tonalities. For a drum, he plugged his phone into the PA and ran a couple of loops of traditional beats. A concertgoer went up to him to thank him for playing: the fast-fingered guy wasn’t satisfied with the electroacoustic element. “I’ve got to get some kind of drum,” he mused, shaking his head. It was hard to argue with thirty nonstop minutes of the otherworldly torrents he’d fired off; then again, he has a long background playing for dancers. Let’s hope he comes back.

Lavish, Exhilarating New Klezmer Sounds and a Lincoln Center Gig From Clarinetist Michael Winograd

The cover of clarinetist Michael Winograd’s wildly adrenalizing new large-ensemble album Kosher Style – streaming at Bandcamp – captures him at Coney Island. It’’s winter. Facing north, just past the cantina, he raises his horn. The Thunderbolt and Parachute Jump loom in the background, sepia-toned. It’s retro, but look closely and it’s obviously in the here and now, just like the new vinyl record.

This album is all about thrills, and minor-key electicity, and sabretoothed chromatics, with all sorts of devious references that hardcore fans of the klezmer demimonde will get. Winograd worked up a lot of this material at a frequently spine-tingling weekly residency at Barbes a couple of years ago, and his bandmates sound like they’re jumping out of their shoes to play this stuff. His clarinet and Ben Holmes’ trumpet are the two main solo instruments, although the rest of the band blazes as well. Winograd is bringing this party to Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where he and the group will be playing on July 28 at 3 PM on the plaza in front of the Beaumont Theatre. Puerto Rican bomba crew Redobles de Cultura open the afternoon at 1; psychedelic Incan folk band Inkarayku close the show at around 4.

Winograd opens the record – and a lot of his live shows – with the title track, built around a rapidfire two-bar clarinet riff. If there was such a thing as Jewish dixieland, this would be it. Dave Licht’s drums tumble and rustle up a storm, Ken Maltz’s bass clarinet smokes and then Holmes takes over the big hook right before the end. All this in less than two and a half breathless minutes.

The Bar Mitzvah Bulgar has a steady, almost stern pulse: clearly, the adults are in charge at this particular simcha. Is that wistful trumpet solo a signal that they might not be so happy to see their little one pass into adulthood? Winograd’s crystalline, meticulously trilling solo after that lifts the mood and the party really starts to cook.

Scenes From a Kosher Restaurant is a moody hora of sorts, swaying along with Carmen Staaf’s stately piano and Jordan Sand’s bass, Sanne Möricke’s accordion in tandem with the clarinet as a famous Beethoven riff peeks out from the background. The International Hora has the whole ensemble pulsing tensely behind the bandleader’s edgily precise articulation. The sober syncopation is the same in Dinner in Bay Ridge, a gorgeously wistful, crescendoing number, Holmes eventually taking over from Winograd, the group weaving around the melody as it winds out.

The triumphantly incisive Wedding Sher is just as catchy, a long, six-minute launching pad for bracing solos from Winograd and Holmes. Online Polka seems suspiciously close to a boisterous Italian opera theme, while Brooklyn Pursuit – a popular encore at shows – has a frantic noir bustle and some of Winograd’s most thrilling lines here.

The album’s most dynamic number, Manhattan Beach Doina shifts through a brassy, Andalucian-tinged intro to a spare jazz piano piano-and-clarinet interlude and a series of false starts: just when you think it’s going to explode, it’s over. Theme From David and Goliath bristles with contrasts: Winograd’s impetuous clarinet fanning the flames of a lush, stately backdrop over waves of cymbals.

Soulful clarinet-trumpet harmonies fuel the brief Kiddish Club. It Pays to Buy the Best has an opulent, pulsing hora sway; Winograd winds up the album with a crashing, loose-limbed diptych, South Brooklyn Bulgars. The icons of the American klezmer movement of the 50s – guys like Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, who brough their fearsome chops and improvisational flair to brooding melodies from the old country – would be proud of how far Winograd has taken the tradition. You’ll see this on the top ten albums of the year list here in December if Trump doesn’t blow us all up first.

Epic, Spine-Tingling Spanish Dances and a Queens Show by Fiery Violinist Maureen Choi

Violinst Maureen Choi found her muse when she immersed herself in Spanish music. She likes epics and big, explosive crescendos: her music is not for the timid or people with ADD. Her new kick-ass album Theia is streaming at her music page – and it’s one of the most unselfconsciously adrenalizing records of the year. Her slashing, often Romany and Arabic-tinged compositions rise and fall and leap all over the place, and the fun her band has with them is contagious. She’s playing Terraza 7 on June 29 at 9 PM; cover is $15.

Choi flurries and flares over drummer Michael Olivera’s suspenseful flickers throughout the dramatic intro to the album’s first cut, Dear Paco (Cepa Andaluza); then bassist Mario Carrillo joins the party, pianist Daniel Garcia Diego firing off fiery, Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics.

Phoenix Borealis is a diptych of sorts, hushed luminosity bookending a ferocious flamenco dance with a big explosion of drums and some of the most savagely bowed bass in recent memory. Choi follows the same trajectory in Dance of the Fallen, painting plaintively resonatn lines over Garcia Diego’s elegant chromatic ripples and graceful chordal work.

Canto Salamanchino is a cheery number that shifts in and out of waltz time, between major and minor, with a deliciously pointillistic, chromatic piano solo midway through and an unexpected detour into Chinese pastoralia afterward. Silverio O. Garcia has a hushed, elegaic quality, violin and piano echoing each other’s plaintive riffs. Steady pitchblende menace gives way to acerbic Andalucian flair and a series of crashing crescendos in Sinner’s Prayer

Love Is the Answer is a somewhat muted, almost wrenchingly bittersweet ballad: imagine Chano Dominguez taking a crack at Schubert. Choi kicks off Bok Choi Pajarillo with a big solo that shifts cleverly between Romany intensity and the baroque; from there, it’s a flamenco rollercoaster.

The album closes with its two most towering epics. Septenber the First, the album’s most haunting number, has a persistently uneasy late-summer haziness, part Palestinian-flavored dirge and anguished string-jazz lament. Choi closes the record with Danza Ritual Del Fuego: from an allusive intro that could be Dave Brubeck, through a long Afro-Cuban-inflected interlude, it’s more simmer than fullscale inferno, with a coy false ending. Count this as one of the best albums of 2019 in any style of music.

Atlas Maior Bring Their Intoxicating Middle Eastern and Greek Jams to Fort Greene

Austin band Atlas Maior play an exhilarating blend of Middle Eastern and Greek music that often looks further north to the Balkans. With oud, violin, sax and a rock rhythm section, they play driving, rhythmic instrumentals which veer from rampaging Macedonian-tinged jams, to sunny Aegean grooves and haunting Turkish-laced themes. Their new album Riptide is streaming at Spotify. They like epics: imagine a more organic version of the New York Gypsy All-Stars and you wouldn’t be far off. Atlas Maior are playing Sisters Brooklyn at 900 Fulton St., just north of the Cinton-Washington stop on the C train on May 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $10.

The album opens with The Curse, Joshua Thomson’s blippy alto sax in tandem with Charlie Lockwood’s oud over drummer Ted Camat’s allusively rat-a-tat Balkan rhythms. The buzzy microtonal oud solo out is killer. The title track, Riptide, is a hypnotically vamping platform for a long sax solo; likewise, Cumbia Raposa, which turns out to be anything but a cumbia.

Nastaran begins with a quote from the surf classic Misirlou and stomps along from there with a tireless Macedonian pulse: the shift from major to minor is sudden and breathtaking. Chamber of Mirrors rises from a long, acerbically crescendoing chromatic violin solo from Roberto Riggio over a droning backdrop. Then the rhythm kicks in and the sax comes dancing in, and the band pounce up to a simmering roadhouse oud solo. If psychedelic Middle Eastern sounds are your thing, this is your jam.

Oryx, a suspenseful bluel-flame sax-and-buzuq intro, segues into Trata, a briskly pulsing, wickedly catchy Turkish-inspired number. If surf rock had existed on Cyprus in the 1920s, it might sound like Idda!!, the sax sailing over tight, catchy, minor-key buzuq/bass riffage.

Huzzam Hive, a diptych, begins with a tricky, dancing theme, some neat echo effects between sax and oud, and a tantalizing, careeningly haphazard Aegean solo from Lockwood. The second half is more distinctly Greek-sounding, carefree and hypnotic all at once.

The band give the album an epic coda, Osman Pehlivan, opening with an edgy Turkish hook and eventually take it breathlessly doublespeed,, a deliciously rapidfire oud solo bookending somewhat less ferocious chromatics from the sax. Speaking of which, sometimes that instrument seems superfluous:. Admittedly, it takes daunting technique to ride off the rails into microtonal territory, but if Thomson would go there, that would put some otherworldly (and regionally appropriate0 icing on this sonic confection.

Sizzling Klezmer Jamband Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Get a Head Start on This Year’s Festivities

Violinist Yale Strom is the frontman of a sizzling klezmer group called Hot Pstromi. His new album Shimmering Lights, with his Broken Consort – streaming at Rockpaperscissors – is even hotter, a spine-tingling, dynamic, chromatically delicious mix of new arrangements of classic, un-cheesy Hanukah themes from across the diaspora. The Middle East and Andalucia are well represented throughout an album of what could be called first-class acoustic Levantine jamband epics.

Amos Hoffman’s oud taqsim, beginning with a distinctly funky Moroccan flair and spiraling upward, introduces the album’s bracing, opening epic, O Mighty Stronghold. When the sttrings come sweeping in after the first verse, the effect is visceral. Likewise, Alexander Greenbaum’s stark, stygian cello solo midway through, and the big, exhililating violin/cello duel between the bandleader and Greenbaum afterward. It’s yet another reminder of how rich the mutual source of classic Arabic and Jewish music is.

The Hanukah party anthem Khanike, Oh Khanike has a rustic, shapeshifting acoustic arrangement, frontwoman Elizabeth Schwartz’s assertive delivery over a spiky backdrop, mandolin contrasting with the rhythmic washes of the bass. Who except maybe Andy Statman would have expected the wry bluegrass breakdown midway through?

The ladino theme Bring Out the Tray is a stately processional: after seven more or less hypnotic minutes, the solos kick in, first the violin, then the oud, for a mighty payoff that winds up with another, slightly less ferocious duel for strings.

There’s a little guitar jazz from Hoffman to kick off Latkes, possibly the most exalted celebration of potato pancakes ever recorded: among the highlights are a doublespeed jam, biting cello giving way to bubbly electric guitar, a big violin crescendo, and some Eastern European flatpicking.

Azeremos la Merenda has a pouncing flamenco groove, wary echoes of Turkish music, and an adrenalizing cello solo. Beshir Mizmor gives Strom a stately backdrop for some stratospheric sizzle. Schwartz indulges in some scatting in Eight Little Brothers, a Djangoesque Romany jazz remake, while La Fiesta de la Hanukia has echoes of flamenco.

With a punchy bass solo, more searing violin and crackling oud, L’chod Chanukah mashes up a scampering shtetl party theme with Django Reinhardt and some newgrass. The final cut is The Fool Over Yonder, an antifascist anthem from a few hundred years ago reinvented as low-key guitar swing that’s just as relevant today as it was back when it was probably played on oud, and a lot more slowly. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year. By the way – if you’ve read this far, would you still be here if the first sentence was something like “Here’s an album of old Hanukah songs that’s fun all year long?”

 

Bittersweetly Soulful, Eclectic Portuguese Ballads at This Year’s Fado Festival

Saturday night just north of Battery Park City, the Manhattan portion of this year’s annual fado festival closed with a performance by two very different singers, who in many ways represent both the music’s romantic past and newly reinvigorated future. For those who haven’t been drawn into it yet, fado is to Portugal what tango is to Argentina, or what reggae is to Jamaica. Like swing jazz in this country in recent decades, new generations have reclaimed fado’s emotionally fraught balladry for their own, partly as a source of Portuguese national pride, partly in response to English-language corporate musical imperialism.

The Spanish have duende; the Portuguese have suadade. They’re essentially the same thing: the soulful maturity that comes with having your heart ripped out at the roots. Although as singer Maria Emilia took care to explain, even though heartbreak is still the most common thene in fado, it’s hardly all sad songs. She and her fantastic all-acoustic band put that issue to rest with a lilting, bouncy singalong that energized the Portuguese speakers in the house.

Which relates to experiencing this music on only a surface level. The Portuguese take their lyrics very seriously, and fado often utilizes texts by famous poets. Throughout the show, the band were fantastic and the vocals were individualistic and often transcended linguistic limitatations.

André Dias played sharp cadenzas, triumphantly spiky flourishes and elegant broken chords on a small, ringing Portuguese guitar, which looks like a small mandola but sounds like an American Rickenbacker twelve-string acoustic model. Classical guitarist André Ramos showed off chops that drew equally on Romany swing, flamenco and straight-up four-on-the-floor rock: being a coastal nation, Portugal has always had sounds from all over the world coming in from across the waves. And Rodrigo Serrão, on acoustic bass guitar, was subtle but brilliant. Somehow he found space in between his steady, rhythmic accents to spice the music with all sorts of glissandos, some slow and dramatic, others coy and puckish, indulging in as many deft downward spirals as climbs to the far reaches of his axe’s G string.

Now in her mid-twenties, the Brazilian-born Maria Emília represents the new generation of fadistas, with a nuanced, subtly emotive delivery that looks back to iconic mid-20th century singer Amalia Rodrigues without being derivative. Sticking mostly in the lower midrange of her clear, expressive mezzo-soprano, she channeled lovestruck awe, righteous anger and wounded vulnerability along with a sense of humor that had the guys in the band cracking up from time to time.

While fado is traditionally sung by women, guys sing it too. Hélder Moutinho, the younger brother of famous fado crooner Camané, represented for the men. His vocals were more heavily ornamented, to the point where his melismas and throaty blue notes took on an Andalucian tinge, almost like a muezzin. He also took care to explain several of the numbers. Fado can be very self-referential, and several of his songs followed those themes: what makes a person sing fado, what the fado makes you do, even famous places where fado is or was made – even Lisbon has been infested with gentrifcation – figured in the narrative.

Impresario Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds gets credit for staging the festival, and has also done an impressively eclectic job booking CUNY’s Elebash Hall at 365 Fifth Ave. just north of 34th St., where the transcendent Kurdish kamancheh fiddle virtuoso and composer Kayhan Kalhor is playing a sold-out show tomorrow night.

Barbes: Home Base For NYC’s Best Bands

The problem with Barbes – and if you run a music blog, this can be a problem – is that the hang is as good as the bands. If you’re trying to make your way into the music room and run into friends, always a hazard here, you might not make it past the bar. Which speaks to a couple of reasons why this well-loved Park Slope boite has won this blog’s Best Brooklyn Venue award three times in the past ten years or so.

A Monday night before Thanksgiving week last year was classic. The scheduled act had cancelled, but there was still a good crowd in the house. What to do? Somebody called somebody, and by eleven there was a pickup band – guitar, keys, bass and drums – onstage, playing better-than-serviceable covers of Peruvian psychedelic cumbia hits form the 60s and 70s. The best was a slinky, offhandedly sinister take of Sonido Amazonico, the chromatic classic which has become the national anthem of chicha, as psychedelic cumbia is called in Peru. Where else in New York could you possibly hear something like this…on a Monday night?

On Thanksgiving night, the two Guinean expat guitarists who lead the Mandingo Ambassadors played a rapturously intertwining set that drew a more-or-less straight line back to the spiky acoustic kora music that preceded the state-sponsored negritude movement of the 1960s. Without the horns that sometimes play with the band, the delicious starriness of the music resonated more than ever.

The night after that, there was a solid klezmer pickup band in the house. The night after that – yeah, it was a Barbes weekend – started with pianist Anthony Coleman going as far out into free jazz as he ever does, followed by a psychedelic take on nostalgic 60s and 70s Soviet pop by the Eastern Blokhedz and then an even more psychedelic set by Bombay Rickey, who switched from spaghetti western to sick jamband versions of Yma Symac cumbias to surf rock, Bollywood and finally an ominous shout-out to a prehistoric leviathan that’s been dead for twenty thousand years.

Sets in late November and January left no doubt that Slavic Soul Party are still this city’s #1 Balkan brass party band, whether they’re playing twisted Ellington covers, percolating Serbian Romany hits or their own hip-hop influenced tunes. A pit stop here early before opening night of Golden Fest to catch the Crooked Trio playing postbop jazz standards was a potent reminder that bandleader Oscar Noriega is just as brilliant a drummer as he is playing his many reed instruments.

Who knew that trumpeter Ben Holmes’ plaintive, bittersweet, sometimes klezmer, sometimes Balkan tinged themes would blend so well with Kyle Sanna’s lingering guitar jangle, as they did in their debut duo performance in December? Who expected this era’s darkest jamband, Big Lazy, to take their sultry noir cinematic themes and crime jazz tableaux further into the dub they were exploring twenty years ago, like they did right before the new year? Who would have guessed that the best song of the show by trombonist Bryan Drye’s Love Call Trio would be exactly that, a mutedly lurid come-on?

Where else can you hear a western swing band, with an allstar lineup to match Brain Cloud’s personnel, swaying their way through a knowingly ominous take of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s Look Down that Lonesome Road? Notwithstanding this embarrassment of riches, the best show of all here over the past few months might have been by Turkish ensemble Alhambra, featuring most of haunting singer Jenny Luna’s band Dolunay. Back in mid-December, they spun moody, serpentine themes of lost love, abandonment and desolation over Adam Good’s incisive, brooding oud and Ramy El Asser’s hynoptic, pointillistic percussion. Whether singing ancient Andalucian laments in Ladino, or similar fare in Turkish, Luna’s wounded nuance transcended any linguistic limitations.

There’s good music just about every night at Barbes, something no other venue in New York, or maybe the world, can boast.  Tomorrrow’s show, Feb 18 at Barbes is Brain Cloud at 7 followed at 9:30ish by ex-Chicha Libre keyboard sorcerer Josh Camp’s wryly psychedelic cumbia/tropicalia/dub band Locobeach. Slavic Soul Party are here the day after, Feb 19 at 9; Noriega and the Crooked Trio play most Fridays starting at 5:30. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year. 

A Wild Dance Party to Kick Off Golden Fest 2019

“What else are you doing tonight?” the bartender at Barbes asked his friend early yesterday evening.

Golden Fest. I’m going both nights.”

“Tonight’s quiet night,” the bartender mused.

When there’s so much natural reverb in the room that Dimitrios Stefanides’ raw, leaping pontic lyra sounds like an entire Greek gangster orchestra from the 1930s, quiet is a relative concept. Quiet, maybe, by comparison to the rat-a-tat bursts from the trumpets and trubas and the rest of the brass in the mighty Zlatne Uste, New York’s original Balkan brass band, who created Golden Fest more than three decades ago and have kept it growing stronger throughout an era where the arts and live music scenes are contracting and vanishing at a record pace.

In fact, last night seemed to have a greater percentage of dancers on the floor, in proportion to viewers on the sideline, than at any time in the past ten years. While tonight’s big blowout has about seventy bands playing music from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and pretty much all points in between, spread throughout several rooms at Grand Prospect Hall, the south Park Slope mansion, last night was confined to the ballroom, the balcony and the kitchen.

Again, small by comparison. The night began with about an hour and a half worth of short sets of whirling, constantly shifting, upbeat material, the majority of it from Greece, while a couple of dance instructors led a concentric series of circles around the dancefloor. And these people were good! For most of them, it looked more like a refresher course or a warmup – although by the time the night really got cooking, there were plenty of newbies out there too.

Last year, the bands came out swinging right from the opening bell. This time, it felt more like past years when the dance lessons were just as much of a warmup for the musicians. But when Zlatne Uste hit, they came to slay. They may be American, but their original tunes could just as well be Serbian. Sharp staccato bursts from the horns matched the meticulous rattle and thwack of the tupan barrel drums, the seventeen-piece band situated smack in the middle of the floor as the dancers slowly undulated their way around. Minor keys subtly shifted to major, and back and forth; long, sinewy trumpet solos contrasted with momentary dips to just the volleys of beats. Zlatne Uste’s lineup may have shifted a bit over the course of three decades, but it’s hard to think of another band who can conjure up this much passion more than a quarter century after they started.

Drummer Jerry Kisslinger must own some sort of ironman record for number of sets played at Golden Fest: last night, he was in six all of them. How does this guy keep his chops sharp? He never stops playing! After a turn with Zlatne Uste, he joined Stefanides up on the big stage for the night’s longest set. Not only is Stefanides an incisive and often breathtaking string player; he’s also a powerful baritone crooner. In between long, sometimes achingly intense solos, his vocals would add an extra level of low lushness. In moments like that, it feels vicarious to the extreme to be drawn in by the music despite having absolutely no idea of what the lyrics are about. Then again, most of the audience probably weren’t Greek or Macedonian speakers either.

The shortest set of the night was by the trio Zurli Drustvo, who played bracingly trance-inducing Macedonian dances with zurla oboes and drum. In this case, the two zurla players alternated between playing unearthly drones and hauntingly keening melodies overhead, via visibly strenuous circular breathing, akin to a giant human bagpipe. The zurla is one of the most distinctively eerie – and loudest – reed instruments in the world, and these guys, holding fort in the middle of the floor, were as loud as the rest of the bands despite the lack of amplification.

Kavala – a slightly smaller spinoff of Zlatne Uste – ended the night at around half past midnight with a set loaded with greatest hits from the Aegean. A lot of people sang along. It was amazing to watch Catherine Foster switch effortlessly from trumpet, to clarinet, to flugelhorn and back, adding microtonal shiver over the fleet rivulets of Morgan Clark’s accordion as the songs bounced along. Amid the rhythmic complexity, hits by both the Skatalites and 80s new wavers the Boomtown Rats came to mind. Were Tommy McCook or Bob Geldof influenced by Balkan music? Borders may have been a lot more porous back then than conventional wisdom says they were.

See you tonight in the big ballroom at 6 for rising star brass band Cocek Nation!