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Category: gypsy music

A Prescient, Indomitable Final Album From Jewlia Eisenberg’s Charming Hostess

“There was a doctor, there was a teacher, but the doctor didn’t care about illness, and the teacher didn’t care about teaching,” Charming Hostess frontwoman Jewlia Eisenberg sang, to open her radical circus rock band’s final album, The Ginzburg Geographies. In the context of 2022, the irony could not be more crushing.

Eisenberg died on 3/11 last year, four months after the Covid shot rollout. She’d been in precarious health for quite some time before. Nonetheless, the indomitable singer and musical polymath had continued to perform and work on a vast series of projects right up until the 2020 lockdown. It’s something of a miracle that she got as far as she did with the album, which her bandmates finished without her last year.

It’s collection of wildly original arrangements of Italian protest songs, an exploration of the territory that nurtured and eventually destroyed the marriage between World War II-era Italian antifascist activists and writers Natalia and Leone Ginzburg, Hounded and pursued by axis forces, the two managed to evade and outlive Mussolini, but Leone was murdered by the Nazis. His widow would go on to serve in the Italian parliament in the decades after the war.

If you count their college days, Charming Hostess enjoyed a career that lasted almost thirty years, on and off. They went through many incarnations, from proto Gogol Bordello punk to feminist klezmer. Here, they do a strikingly faithful evocation of an anarchic Italian street band from seventy years ago, while also putting their own spin on retro 70s Italian film music in a Tredici Bacci vein . Eisenberg took several of the couple’s texts and used them to create a playlist of brooding, accordion-fueled psychedelia, oom-pah blue-collar protest songs and skittishly subversive bedroom pop. A girl protests against household drudgery, over a swaying, accordion-fueled backdrop. “Authority has no value,” Eisenberg reminds. Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood jangles through some heartbreakingly beautiful interludes behind Eisenberg’s delicate multitracks. Much of this is on the phantasmagorical side, which makes plenty of sense considering the context. There’s also a ramshackle, bluegrass-flavored cover of a classic Woody Guthrie antifascist song.

The best number on the album is La Situazione, a slinky, shuffling, distantly creepy psychedelic rock shuffle fueled by Dan Cantrell’s roller-rink organ. The gist of Leone’s text is that it is Italians’ duty not to give in to alarmism and instead to dig in and fight while the Nazis roll into Rome. You want prophetic?

Eisenberg was outrageously funny, earthy and sometimes combative. Yet that feisty persona was a manifestation of her deeply liberational Jewish spirituality. She wrote film and theatre music, took a plunge into Babylonian mysticism and late in her career revisited her inner soul and blues sirens: she was a lot of those. Eisenberg didn’t just think outside the box: that box existed only as a target for her surrealist wit…or to be destroyed. How cruel that we’ll never know what else she might have had up her sleeve.

Whirlwind Violin Metal at a Favorite Uptown Spot Tonight

“Your prism is just a prison,” Stratospheerius frontman/violinist Joe Deninzon sings on the band’s latest single, Prism – streaming at Bandcamp – which they recorded live at the Progstock festival in New Jersey in 2019 . It’s surprisingly mellow for such a ferocious band, who dance through the tricky rhythms of this characteristically ambitious blend of 70s stadium rock and artsy metal with Andalucian violin flourishes. They survived the lockdown intact and are back tonight, May 12 at 11 PM at a favorite Manhattan spot, Shrine. The Harlem venue is a scruffy little place which is not known for being particularly organized. Considering the location, it’s highly unlikely that there are any apartheid door restrictions.

The band have another single from the Progstock show, Game of Chicken, which is also up at Bandcamp. Moving through clustering minor-key riffs, the band build to a ferocious guitar/violin duel on the way out. “Drowning in the false alarmers…Chicken Little is hungry for you, on your way to your alley of doom,” Deninzon sings: a prophetic statement from right around the time the Gates Foundation and Johns Hopkins were staging Event 201, the final rehearsal for the 2020 plandemic.

A third single, Cognitive Dissonance, could be the Alan Parsons Project at their heaviest and most complicated.

The last time this blog was in the house at a Stratospheerius show, it was in late May, 2018 at Gold Sounds in Bushwick on a killer twinbill with another tyrannosaurus of a band, Book of Harmony. Tragically, there is no field recording of the show in the archive here, although Book of Harmony did have the presence of mind to put several songs from a Drom show earlier that year up at youtube. Their band’s lone album is still up at Soundcloud: serendipitously, the oceanic first track is titled Echoes of Freedom. Less serendipitously, the band did not survive the lockdown.

That album features the band’s original singer, Leah Martin. By the time the group reached Bushwick, they had a new singer, an Asian woman with a dramatic intensity that may have been influenced by pansori or kabuki theatre. Bandleader/lead guitarist Anupam Shobhakar is also an accomplished sarod player and has a background in Indian music, which translated less in terms of riffage than long, labyrinthine, rhythmically impossible tone poems that seemed to go on for fifteen minutes at a clip.

If memory serves right, Stratospheerius headlined (the master concert list here isn’t clear on that). Deninzon was a whirlwind onstage, leaping down into the crowd and firing off lightning, Romany-flavored cascades of notes while the band pounced and roared behind him. The metal intensity grew as the show went on, the guitarist’s flurries of tapping entwined with Deninzon’s shivery, supersonic volleys. The crowd grew slowly, to the point where Deninzon actually had to dodge audience members as he spun across the floor in front of the stage. He may have to stay put at Shrine where there is less room for those kind of shenanigans.

Violinist Lily Henley Reinvents Haunting, Ironic Ancient Ladino Folk Tunes

Like most good violinists, Lily Henley has been called on to play all sorts of different styles of music. She got her start in New York playing bluegrass and front-porch folk, but also gravitated toward klezmer music. On her latest album Oras Dezaoradas – streaming at Bandcamp – she takes a deep dive into original Ladino songcraft.

There’s actually plenty of historical precedent for Henley’s decision to take a bunch of old ballads and set them to new melodies: until the advent of recording technology, folk musicians had been doing the same thing, largely uncredited, for thousands of years. One of the main themes that runs through the record is female empowerment, underscoring how important women musicians have been in keeping the tradition of Sephardic Spanish Jewish music alive since the terror of the Inquisition.

For the uninitiated, Ladino is to Spanish what ebonics are to English, more than what Yiddish is to German, so Spanish speakers won’t have a hard time getting the gist of these songs. Henley sings the first of several new versions of centuries-old lyrics with clarity and an airy understatement: the humor and irony in these songs is no less resonant today. The wistful, gently swaying tale that she opens the album with is a prime example, a mother confiding to her child that dad is sneaking home in the middle of the night from his girlfriend’s place. Henley fingerpicks a delicate lattice of guitar on this one; Duncan Wickel adds airy, atmospheric fiddle over the terse pulse of bassist Haggai Cohen-Milo.

Henley and Wickel swap instruments for a mashup of klezmer and Appalachia on the second track, jumping from a brightly waltzing intro to a biting, dancing escape anthem. Henley follows that with a defiant party-girl’s tale set to stark, bouncing minor-key tune with Wickel’s cello front and center.

There’s a cruel undercurrent to the broodingly fingerpicked, minor-key Alta Alta Va La Luna – “how high the moon,” basically. It’s a mother telling her child that they might be better off if they hadn’t been born. From there Henly goes back toward brisk, moody bluegrass for Arvoles Lloran Por Lluvia (Trees Cry For Rain), a bitter tale of exile common in much of diasporic Ladino music.

The album’s title track – meaning “Timeless Clock” – features the first of Henley’s original Ladino lyrics, a melancholy if energetically picked seaside tableau echoing a pervasive sense of abandonment. Esta Noche Te Amare, with equal hints of simmering flamenco drama and rustic Americana, is a fabulistic tale of a fair young maiden who sees her knight in shining armor revealed for what he really is.

The three musicians bounce darkly through the album’s lone instrumental, Muza de la Kozima: the acidic bite of the violin and cello is luscious. In La Galud, Henley paints an aching portrait of celebrations and traditions left behind, maybe for forever, set to a fast, steady waltz. She winds up the album, her anguished voice reaching for the rafters over a bass drone, a young woman recounting her boyfriend’s grim demise. It’s the most distinctly klezmer-adjacent melody here and a spine-tingling closer to this fascinating, imaginative record.

The Spy From Cairo Keeps Making Deliciously Serpentine Middle Eastern Dub Sounds

For more than a decade, one-man band Moreno “Zeb” Visini has been making wildly psychedelic dubwise Middle Eastern dance music under the name The Spy From Cairo. Oud and saz lute are his main axes, but he’s also adept at keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. As usual, he plays everything with expertise and a wry sense of humor on his new vinyl record Animamundi, streaming at Bandcamp.

He was able to record the album in his home country of Italy despite the fascist restrictions which are still in place there, since he does all the music himself with a little transcontinental input from talented vocalists on the web. The central message is freedom. If there are bouncy castles at the rallies in Rome, this is the kind of stuff that freedom fighters (and their kids) could re-energize with. There are a ton of flavors on this record, all held together by lusciously chromatic maqams.

He gets off to a strong start with the title track. a brisk Egyptian reggae tune built around a catchy, scampering, biting oud lead track. Daf frame drum booms in the background, “Information of creation is stored in our DNA,” a rasta explains in the voiceover at the end. No doubt!

Asssembled around a catchy chromatic riff, Beautiful Baraka, featuring Adil Smaali is a chaabi-reggae-rap mashup with a couple of keyboards trading off in a wry call-and-response. Black Sea comes across as a trebly dub plate with wah-wah oud. Visini balances another slithery, catchy oud riff against microtonal roller-rink organ in Cosmic Pasha, then takes a deep plunge into Middle Eastern cumbia in Criminal, with Mambe Rodriguez taking a coy turn on vocals.

Divination has a more enigmatic Balkan-flavored tune, but Visini works anthemic string synth riffs into it. He goes back to a brisk cumbia groove, adding layers of cifteli lute and a scrambling oud solo in Extraterrestre, featuring Andalucian vocalist Carmen Estevez. Hamsa Shuffle has lusciously microtonal violin and a blippy, hypnotic cumbia sway, while Mizmirized has otherworldly zurna oboe and a swaying rai beat.

Visini ripples and pings his way through Qanun in Dub, a reggae tune and one of the most unselfconsciously gorgeous tracks on the record. Seeds of Culture is a loopy Indian-flavored song with snakecharmer ney flute over a rai rhythm and an unexpectedly bristling oud outro (is there such a word as “oudtro?”). The final cut, Ya Wuldani features guests Fatou Gozlan & Duo Darbar and is arguably the most psychedelic, dubwise number. It’s awfully early in the year to be talking about the best albums of 2022, but this is one of them.

High-Voltage Catalan Dances and Party Tunes From Fenya Rai

Fenya Rai play high-voltage Catalan folk and Romany dance tunes with a rock rhythm section. Their sound is more unscripted and less flamenco-oriented than the Gipsy Kings, less self-referential than Gogol Bordello, although in their own irrepressible way they’re every bit as punk. Their latest album Placa Major – meaning “town square” – is streaming at Spotify. It’s a party in a box. Jordi Jubany plays guitar, with Jaume Martínez on accordion, David Tudela on bass and on Roger Montalà on drums

The opening number, Pastor Cabrer is a gruffly bouncy, upbeat tune that could be the Pogues singing in Catalan – or a bluegrass tune, for that matter. Sometimes party music sounds a lot alike no matter where it comes from. Joan Reig is the boisterous guest vocalist.

Jaume Arnella sings the similarly upbeat Les Rondes del Vi with a gruff, wintry delivery, in contrast to the spritely acoustic guitar. Francesc Ribera a.k.a Titot takes over the mic on La Fonda de Cal Xai, a briskly pulsing minor-key Romany tune. He returns a bit later to sing El Rector de Collbató, a klezmer-tinged tune with moody, resonant clarinet from Aura Roca along with stabbing accordion. Playing electric guitar, Albert Ibarra trades off some biting riffage of his own.

Bat de Sol is where the flamenco comes simmering in, with the expressive Arturo Gaya on vocals and Clara Colom on diatonic accordion. Adrià Dilmé joins the vocal harmonies in the cheery, pastoral cumbia El Vi de la Terra. Ibarra’s spiky guitar adds a wild psychedelic tinge to Quin Enrenou, another cumbia bounce.

Baixeu al Carrer, a swaying accordion tune, has sly guy/girl harmonies: it could be the roots of a Venezuelan cumbia hit from the 60s. The band pick up the pace even more with Els Tres Xicots, a big scampering banjo anthem.

There are mariachi horns on El Gall Negre, which could be a Mexican banda hit with a lickety-split sprint out at the end. The band go back to cumbia for album’s final track, El Tiexidor, a singalong drinking song.

Poignant, Gorgeous New Songs For Viola Da Gamba on Almalé’s New Album

Pilar Almalé’s axe is the viola da gamba. It’s an unusual choice for an original songwriter, especially since most of the repertoire for the instrument is from the baroque era and before . Almalé has an expressive voice, uses the gamba for both cello-like sustain and basslines, writes strong melodies and reinvents older material with considerable flair. Her new album, Hixa Mia (My Daughter), released under her last name, is streaming at Spotify. She has a fantastic, similarly adventurous band. Violinist Thomas Kretszchmar and guitarist Alex Comín blend terse, imaginative jazz and Romany influences without cluttering the sound, percussionist Fran Gazol adding flamenco and Middle Eastern grooves.

Almalé opens the album with the title track, a catchy, Andalucian-flavored, poignant minor-key anthem with a swaying, levantine-tinged groove and a stark, jazz-inflected violin solo. You could call this folk-rock, or Romany music, or something fresh and new. The string harmonies on the slow, gently syncopated second track, simply titled Passacalle, are stark, rich and reedlike, a close approximation of an accordion. Comín bobs and weaves and chooses his spots, whether with feathery tremolo-picking, big lush chords or carefree single-note jazz lines.

She opens A la Luna, a gorgeously slinky, trickily rhythmic Turkish-inspired number, with a broodingly bowed solo, bringing a visceral sense of longing to the lyrics. Kretszchmar subtly builds his solo to a searing peak.

Pianist Lucas Delgado plays carefully articulated, somber lines in Flow My Tears, a moody, klezmer-esque ballad which Almalé sings in low-key, cadenced English. The group veer between brisk Romany-flavored jazz, a moody ballad and the baroque in the instrumental Blue Lamento. It makes a good bridge to Folias Gallegas, an upbeat, Celtic-tinged circle dance with an austere, baroque-flavored solo gamba break midway through.

La Patetica, a solo gamba piece, comes across as a stormy mashup of Tschaikovsky and a Bach cello suite. Almalé launches a-cappella into the album’s final cut, Los Guisados, a rousing, rustically waltzing anthem that rises out of an unexpected lull to a tantalizing white-knuckle restraint. It’s unlike anything else released in the last several months. Fans of music from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Black Sea will love this stuff.

Jeremiah Lockwood’s Gorgeous New All-Instrumental Album Takes Hanukah Music to the Next Level

Guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood‘s new solo acoustic instrumental album The Great Miracle – streaming at Bandcamp – is one of the most fascinatingly individualistic Hanukah records ever made. The leader of Malian and cantorially-inspired psychedelic rockers the Sway Machinery draws equally on his immersion in country blues as well as traditional Jewish music, for an often breathtakingly beautiful series of new versions of themes associated with the Festival of Lights.

He opens with the introspective Ritual, rising from a spacious intro to steady, spiky, rustic chords. It’s part cantorial melody, part Piedmont blues, part stately baroque theme.

Al Hanisim is an absolutely gorgeous, chromatically-spiced theme with shadowy echoes of Greek rembetiko music. Lockwood reinvents Mi Yamalel as a similarly celestial tableau with a cheery, strolling blues undercurrent. There’s more than a hint of flamenco, and Morricone, in the striking changes and tumbling Middle Eastern-tinged runs in Izhar Cohen’s Al Hanisim: it would make a great surf song.

Lockwood also follows a plaintive Spanish-tinged trajectory in Maoz Tzur, with some of the album’s most incisive fingerpicking. Little Dreydl is a change of pace, a ragtime attempt to rescue one of the season’s most cloying melodies from its usual home in the dairy fridge.

Drey Dreydl is the most bucolic, blues-infused track here, but it’s also a showcase for Lockwood’s skills as a picker. He closes the record with Chanuka Oy Chanuka – since it’s Hebrew, you can transliterate it any number of ways in English. It’s the most enigmatic, jazz-oriented number here, many times removed from its humble origins.

Could a Hanukah record ever make it to the best albums of the year list here? Stay tuned for when that page goes live next month!

Fire Up the Menorah, It’s Party Time With Sarah Aroeste

When it comes to year-end holiday music, there are no Chosen People. Everybody suffers. A cynic could say that at this time of year, we’re all Jews.

There isn’t quite the glut of cheesy Hanukah music that there is for Christmas, but beyond the joke songs and the reggae records, it’s usually pretty awful. That’s why it’s cool that singer Sarah Aroeste, one of the world’s great advocates for Ladino music, has released what she calls the first-ever all-Ladino Hanukah record, streaming at Bandcamp.

This is refreshingly edgy music, with flamenco, and Andalucian, and Middle Eastern influences, as you would expect from the Sephardic tradition. Aroeste has really gone deep into the repertoire and unearthed a playlist of material from past decades as well as past centuries. Aroeste’s vocals are also remarkably easy to sing along to: if you know Spanish, Ladino is a lot less challenging than, say, Yiddish or Hebrew.

And the band are killer. Who would have expected a biting, brass-fueled shamstep Hanukah song? Or for a Hanukah album to open with a sizzling oud taqsim? That’s Yaniv Taichman spiraling around before Aroeste raises her voice in celebration, with a melody that seems to owe more to the Holy Land than to anywhere in Europe.

Israeli crooner Shuky Shveiky sings and plays fierce flamenco guitar on a Gipsy Kings-style take of Ocho Kandelikas, one of the best-known Ladino Hanukah songs. The first of two Aroeste originals is the acoustic guitar-driven minor-key singalong Fiesta de Hanuka. The second, Vayehi Mikets is a bouncy number based on an ancient parody: in this version, Joseph is contemplating pastries rather than the raw materials that Pharaoh put him in charge of.

Aroeste duets with songwriter Gloria Joyce Ascher on a sly reggae version of her joyous Ya Viene Hanuká! The family-friendly take of Flory Jagoda’s Hanuka, Hanuka is closer to dhaanto than reggae – but, hey, Ethiopia and Eritrea are the original Jewish stomping ground.

There’s also a cheery classical guitar-and-vocal tune by contemporary Israeli Ladino poet Medi Koen-Malki; a soaring Ladino version of Ma’oz Tzur set to a stately melody by eighteenth century Venetian composer Benedetto Giacomo Marcello; and a version of Dak il Tas with some spiky santoor from Eitan Refua. You get some history and culture with this album too.

Rapidfire Pyrotechnics From an Iconic Balkan Brass Band

Fanfare Ciocarlia, the iconic brass band, have represented Romania perhaps better than anyone for the past two decades. And they have a new album, It Wasn’t Hard To Love You streaming at Bandcamp. Interestingly, as much as these guys can blast along on a dance tune for minutes on end, most of the songs here are pretty short. And there are a lot of them, a grand total of sixteen jams to get you dancing in minor keys.

They open with a joke, a deadpan brass band cover of Just the Two Of Us, Grover Washington Jr.’s 80s cheeseball smooth jazz hit: it’s pure punk rock. Then the group get down to business. Babo Never Worked a Day has a steady but understated dancefloor thud from drummers Paul Benedikt Stehlescu and Costel “Gisniaca” Ursu and tantalizingly serpentine solos from clarinetist Costel Oprica Ivancea and alto saxophonist Dan Ionel Ivancea.

The Hungarian Wild Bunch features rapidfire staccato trumpets over icepick baritone horns: that’s Costica “Cimai”Trifan, Paul Marian Bulgaru, Craciun Ovidiu Trifan and Lazar Radulescu on trumpets, Laurentiu Mihai Ivancea and Constantin “Sulo” Calin on baritone horns, Mihaita Sergiu Nastase and Vasile Stangaciu on helikon.

The brief and indomitably cheery Pannonicated Polka has vocals. A rough translation from the Romanian:

And when the evening
Turns into an everyday life full of tears
Our younger days are gone
But we barely noticed

Escape From Baltimore turns out to be made via the railroad tracks: gotta love that kettledrum. The lickety-split Song For Noga will take your breath away. The group slow down just a little for the catchy chromatic sway of Hobo Kolo and then go into circus rock bolero territory with The Trumpeter’s Lament.

First Aid Klezmer has clarinet front and center, as you might expect. There are wry classical flourishes in Porsche Polka and spine-tingling microtonal sax in Gypsy Mambo No. 555.

Red Moon has a mix of latin and Balkan flair, and a surprisingly plaintive trumpet solo, while Busbus is packed with all kinds of slyly orchestrated tradeoffs. Demon Dance, predictably, is a springboard for sabretoothed precision but also suspensefully wafting trumpet. Then the band go Cruzzzando El Campooo with hints of cumbia and dixieland.

The “digital bonus track” is Mosquito Swamp, where the horns are so liquid it’s almost as if they’re a giant accordion. It would be out of character for this band – and for this blog – if this wasn’t on the best albums of 2021 list at the end of the year.

The A.G.A. Trio Play Acerbic, Gorgeous, Austere Music For Accordion and Reeds

The A.G.A Trio‘s album Meeting – streaming at youtube – is an otherworldly, often haunting mix of windswept Near Eastern tableaux and lively, acerbic traditional dances. The group are a summit meeting of some of the region’s most individualistic musicians. Flutist Deniz Kartal represents for Anatolia; accordionist Mikail Yakut hails from the republic of Georgia, and duduk virtuoso Arsen Petrosyan is Armenian,

The first song is Erzumi Shoror, a slowly unwinding, plaintive melody. Kartal takes the first solo on kaval, joined for muted low harmonies by Petrosyan’s duduk, Yakut’s steady pulses pushing the song along. Then the two reedmen switch roles. The trio follow a similar, unhurried architecture throughout a handful of the record’s slower, more expressive numbers, most strikingly on the third track, which comes across as a more lively variation on this initial theme.

A sailing flute taqsim over a quiet accordion drone introduces Adayani Voghpe/Adana Agidi, then the trio join forces and follow a somber, stately trajectory. A brief, determined, trickily rhythmic circle dance serves as a bridge to a slightly longer Anatolian dance, Tamzara, with Kartal’s biting, trilling modal flute front and center.

Yakut has fun with the rapidfire triplets in a solo accordion version of another dance, Dzveku Kartuli Satsekvao. Petrosyan takes over the lead with his poignant, soulful ornamentation in the solemn Noubar-Noubar and Yare Vardu, by Leon Katerjian, followed by the mystical, enveloping traditional lament Siretsi Yars Taran.

Next there’s a trio of dances for kaval and accordion, and then duduk and accordion, spiced with Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics. Kartal trills and thrills, solo, through the bounding, spiraling dance Kara Koyun.

The group shift elegantly from a joyously edgy, Romany-tinged dance to gentle suspense in Victor Dolidze’s Kartuli Keto da Kote. They close the record with the moody chromatics of the traditional Patara Gogo, descending to a spacious, desolate duduk interlude. It’s hard to think of another recent album with as much understated, breathtaking beauty as this one.