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Category: gypsy music

A Triumphant Return For Gorgeous Accordion and Accordion-Adjacent Sounds at Bryant Park

Last night at Bryant Park marked the very welcome return of the annual accordion festival there. At its pre-2020 peak, the festival ran weekly over a month or more beginning in late summer. This year’s installment mirrored the wild eclecticism and thrills that organizer Ariana Hellerman programmed there until the fateful events of 2020.

“Ultimately this is about love,” she told the crowd before the show, acknowledging New York’s debt to the immigrant communities who share her appreciation for portable keyed reed instruments. She’d begun programming the festival ten years ago after returning from Colombia, where she’d fallen in love with vallenato. “I’d never seen the accordion as revered as it was in Colombia. People would play air accordion in the streets.”

Heart of Afghanistan opened this year’s mainstage concert with a brooding anthem, frontman/harmonium player Ahmad Fanoos singing with a simmering intensity over his pianist son Elham Fanoos’ glittering, neoromantic cascades. It came across as part Bollywood, part Egyptian classical, mirroring the ensemble’s home country’s role as a focal point over centuries of cultural cross-pollination.

They followed with an elegantly syncopated, crescendoing take of a traditional Afghani New Years theme, Mehran Fanoos’ violin soaring distantly over Hamid Habibzada’s tablā. A dramatic, heroic minor-key theme fueled by lickety-split, meticulously ornamented piano and plaintively interwoven violin was next, the bandleader finally rising to an impassioned, melismatic peak.

The central Asian passion continued with an insistently syncopated, chromatically charged number, then the group resurrected the pre-Taliban Afghani national anthem as quasi art-rock with a shivery violin solo: it sure blows away the old drinking song that Francis Scott Key appropriated.

They took a detour into a jaunty ghazal, bouncing along with call-and-response and microtonal violin cadenzas, then a return to pouncing Middle Eastern-inflected modal fire, peaking out with an angst-fueled anthem. Music this gorgeous deserves to be vastly better known.

The Ukrainian Village Voices were next on the bill with an abbreviated set. From their home in the East Village, the rotating cast of this accordion-driven chorale have been New York’s nexus for traditional sounds from that imperiled part of the world.

The multi-generational, dual-gendered ensemble opened with a goofy, rousing, simple tune about harvesting buckwheat and making pancakes which the babushkas they’d met on their 2018 Ukrainian tour had asked them to sing over and over, as one of the group explained to the crowd.

A drinking song with the somber theme of “drink up because we may be gone tomorrow” was next – it came across as more of a work song. Make of that what you will.

They picked up the pace with a bristling, chromatic traditional warrior’s circle dance with violin from one of the chorus and closed with a pulsing party anthem sung from the point of view of a girl who doesn’t want to go home.

Balaklava Blues – a spinoff of fiery Canadian Balkan band the Lemon Bucket Orkestra – were up next. One of the trio’s two violinists – each of whom doubled on drums – built a long, suspenseful, shivery solo over an ominous low drone before accordionist Marichka Marczyk took to the mic with a plaintive, increasingly vocal, in Ukrainian. Her violinist husband Mark’s mask – mouth and nose open, most of the rest of his face obscured – spoke as much truth to power as any of the music on the bill.

Finally, at the end, Marichka switched to English: “Don’t tell me what to do” was the mantra. They followed by making glitchy trip-hop out of a rousing, defiantly stomping, whooping folk tune, like a slightly less thunderous Dakhabrakha. Marichka switched to piano and sang “Give me money or something” in a venomous turbo-folk-trip-hop anthem, with a searing violin solo from her husband.

As she told the crowd, the band’s raison d’etre is “To fight for freedom not only in Ukraine but for democracy all around the world.” Meanwhile, her brother is somewhere on the Ukrainian frontline, fighting off Russian retaliation to the NATO-provoked conflict. No wonder the piercing, angst-fueled art-rock lament that followed was about going home – and the prospect of never being able to. Remaining at the piano, Marichka continued with a slowly crescendoing, eerily chromatic tableau. They built a singalong with the crowd on a similarly macabre-tinged coda, the band’s second violinist echoing Marichka’s shivery, harrowing, imploring voice.

Since this happened to be Mexican independence day, a Selena cover band headlined. This pickup group of A-list New York musicians hail from the worlds of cumbia, Turkish music, klezmer and Americana, among other styles. Sure, it was a tr ip to see Michael Winograd – one of this era’s great klezmer clarinetists – step outside the box and take a turn on go-go sax. Unlike Selena, frontwoman Jenny Luna is a native Spanish speaker, and quickly revealed herself as an infinitely better and more seductive singer. The group were tighter than their debut before the lockdown at a crowded Brooklyn bar, but ultimately, the material wasn’t up to the level of the cast onstage. And that’s when it was time to call it a night.

The next concert at Bryant Park is tonight, Sept 17 at 7 PM with the the American Symphony Orchestra playing music by William Grant Still, Louise Talma and Mahler.

Wild Balkan Brass Icons Slavic Soul Party Stage a Queens Blowout

How cool is it when you find out you were in the crowd when one of your favorite bands was making a a live album? This blog was in the house on August 20, 2019 when Brooklyn’s best-loved Balkan brass band, Slavic Soul Party recorded a handful of tunes which appear on their latest concert record, streaming at Bandcamp.

What was the show like? Blurry. That was one wild night. If you missed it – or the mostly-weekly Tuesday night series in Park Slope that they played for the better part of sixteen years before the 2020 lockdown – you can hear them outdoors on August 2 at 7 PM at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. You can take the 7 to Vernon-Jackson, walk to 48th Ave. and take it straight to the river, or take the G to 21st/Van Alst, take 45th Ave. as far toward the water as you can and then make a left.

Back in 2016, Slavic Soul Party put out a deviously erudite Balkan brass remake of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, and the opening number, Amad opens this record. Accordionist Peter Stan provides an intro to this version, from March of the following year, launching a suspenseful river of sound, then torrents of chromatics, then the brass kick in over the clip-clip beat of Matt Moran’s bubanj. Tapan drummer Chris Stromquist keeps a slinky groove going on as the horns pulse closer and closer to New Orleans.

Nizo’s Merak, from one of the band’s last pre-lockdown shows there in November, 2019, begins as one of the Balkan/hip-hop mashups they made a name for themselves with and shifts into bracing, chromatic Serbian territory on the wings of a trumpet solo. For a band who had so many members who play in other projects, it’s remarkable how little the lineup has changed over the years. That’s John Carlson and Kenny Warren on trumpets, Peter Hess on sax, Tim Vaughn and Adam Dotson on trombones and Kenny Bentley on tuba.

Considering how much of a party the Tuesday night residency was, the split-second precision of the horns on this July, 2018 version of Balada is pretty amazing, Stan’s liquid accordion lines holding it together. Same with the rapidfire minor-key brass flurries over the subtle side-step rhythm in Romano Pravo, from the March 2017 gig. The tantalizingly brief accordion-and-drums breakdown was always a big audience hit, and this is a prime example.

Truth is one of their rarer, slower, more balmy numbers, Stan methodically working his way from choosing his spots to his usual supersonic pirouettes. The next number, 323 is a showcase for the band’s funkier side. The three tunes from the August 20, 2019 show – Romski Merak, Sing Sing Čoček, and Missy Sa-sa – appear here as an increasingly delirious, roughly seventeen-minute suite that covers pretty much all the bases. Steve Duffy plays tuba here as the band fire off biting doublestops, enigmatic whole-note solos, and a couple of hailstorm drum breaks.

After a brief rat-a-tat “Latino Band Medley,” the band close with FYC, a feast of disquieting Eastern European tonalities with a couple of careening trumpet and trombone solos recorded in July of 2018.

Since these are field recordings that the band released as merch during the time that disgraced ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo had criminalized live music in New York, the sound is on the trebly side, although there surprisingly isn’t a lot of audience noise. At the Queens show, you won’t be able to hear any of the “amazing music that Quince puts on at the end of the night” at the Park Slope gigs, as the group mention on the Bandcamp page. But all New Yorkers will be able to see the show since the bar was weaponized to discriminate against patrons who didn’t take the lethal Covid injection.

Elegantly Exhilarating Klezmer Band Mames Babegenush Make a Welcome Return to Manhattan

Danish klezmer band Mames Babegenush made New York music history a couple of years ago for being part of what appears to have been the final installment of Golden Fest, the annual mega-concert of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music that ran uninterrupted for more than three decades and was arguably the most exhilarating annual New York music event. The previous weekend, the band had played a marathon series of shows, from the Lower East Side to Curry Hill, chronicled in part here after a wild night at the Carlton Arms Hotel.

For those who can’t get enough of bracing minor keys and sizzling solos, Mames Babegenush are on the road for their “COVID Can’t Keep Klezmer Down” tour, with a gig at Drom on July 20 at 8 PM; you can get in for $20 in advance. And an advance listen to two new tunes the band have recently recorded proves this irrepressible bunch of party animal virtuosos are no worse for the layoff during the global totalitarian takeover. The first song, Elvermose Cocek reminds how much fun they can have with tunes from outside the klezmer demimonce, in this case a pouncing Balkan dance with a gorgeous, soaring solo from clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt.

The second is Night Flight, a gorgeous nocturne which their drummer Morten Aero opens with a mysterious cimbalom solo before bassist Andreas Mollerhoj introduces a tiptoeing pulse, setting the stage for a deep-sky solo from flugelhorn player Bo Rande. That’s the loud and soft of what you can expect from a band whose nine-album output of originals and imaginative takes on klezmer classics includes one titled Klezmer Killed the Radio Star.

Klezmer Music For a Chinatown Street Fair and the Horror Show in Canada

One of New York’s most unusual and enjoyable street festivals is happening today in Chinatown. That neighborhood doesn’t have many, because pretty much every day is a street fair down there. This one is on Eldridge between Division and Canal, outside the Eldridge Street Synagogue. The music starts at noon with iconic klezmer trumpeter  Frank London‘s Klezmer Brass All Stars, followed by the  Klezmographers with violinist Eleonore Biezunski and tsimbl player Pete Rushefsky, and then flutist Chen Tao and his Melody of the Dragon  Chinese traditional ensemble playing lively, verdant pentatonic folk songs. This blog was in the house (or more accurately. under the eaves across the street) to catch their set here four years ago and it was a lot of fun.

The Klezmographers, who specialize in obscure Ukrainian klezmer repertoire, are also fun. The last time anyone from this blog was at one of Rushefsky’s shows, it was at a gig at the now-discontinued Friday night concert series at the American Folk Art Museum back in 2014. Memory is a little hazy on whether it was an actual Klezmographers gig, or Rushefsky with his flutist wife: that night turned out to be a pretty wild one.

Rushefsky put out a handful of records back in the zeros with his Ternkova Ensemble. The most recent album he appears on is Toronto group KlezFactor‘s new Songs From a Pandemic Winter, streaming at Bandcamp.

The first song is Mardi Gras Fever Dream, with Mike Anklewicz’s soaring tenor sax, Jarek Dabrowski’s chicken-scratch guitar, Paul Georgiou’s clip-clop hand drum and Ali Berkok’s roller-rink organ fueling a playfully surreal mashup of Balkan cumbia, New Orleans second-line jazz and Eastern European Jewish folk music.

Rushefsky’s somberly rippling tsimbl opens Lake Michigan Klezmer Fantasy, Anklewicz switching to clarinet alongside Kousha Nakhaei’s violin for this wistful theme: Canadians have had an awful lot to mourn lately. Third Wave Lockdown opens with a twisted sample of Fidel Jr. reading from his World Economic Forum handler Chrystia Freedland’s script. Then Graham Smith’s snappy bass kicks in, Anklewicz launches into a peppy clarinet tune, and Jarek Dabrowski channels David Gilmour at his most majestic. Just like the truckers, these guys aren’t going to let fascism get them down!

Nakhaei plays what sounds like a stark chinese erhu in the polyrhythmic Winter’s Groove, as the band shift from cumbia to a bit of what sounds like a bulgar dance, to dub reggae. Singer Melanie Gall brings somberness but also a soaring, hopeful vibe to a final waltz, Oyfn Veg Shteyt a Boym, a spare, vivid arrangement of a chilling parable of exile and improbable escape. In 2022, this song couldn’t be more relevant. May we all fare better than that withered tree in the Yiddish lyrics.

A Haunter of the New York City Subway Emerges From the Underground

It was past eleven on a raw, gloomy, pretty desolate Thursday night on the Lower East Side of New York in the fall of 2014. Waiting impatiently for the F train, a daily New York music blog owner leaned against a pole on the Second Avenue subway platform after a show by My Brighest Diamond. Across the way, a petite, black-clad woman wearing raccoon-eye mascara played instrumentals on an accordion.

The concert had been underwhelming. Shara Nova’s crystalline voice had soared as high as anyone could have wanted, but the band was a lot more stripped-down, compared to the symphonic lineup she’d had at an outdoor festival the year before. And the swirl and lushness of that performance was conspicuously absent. To the publicist who hooked up that show, this is a mea culpa, eight years late.

But the best was yet to come that night. Stationed in her usual spot on the platform, Melissa Elledge slowly worked her way into an absolutely chilling, gorgeously rubato take of Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1. And then followed it with an even more spacious, haunting version of Gymnopedie No. 2! For those who have no idea how beautiful Satie sounds on accordion, fast forward to 2:30 of this video of Elledge in her element, five years later. In a split second, that whole night was redeemed.

Elledge also plays the occasional above-ground show, and she’s doing an official outdoor performance on the water behind Battery Park tomorrow, June 21 starting at 4:30. As a bonus, you can catch a more theatrically-inclined, accordion-wielding artist, Mary Spencer Knapp, beforehand starting at around 2 if you have some time in the middle of the day.

Elledge has recorded with groups including folk noir band Thee Shambels but not much as a solo artist. Her Bandcamp page has a single, For Beethoven, with Love and Distortion, a wry rearrangement of a famous theme which she jams out on the platform a lot and is too funny to spoil.

She also has a Soundcloud page. The first track is a steady, ominously pulsing, uber-gothic solo accordion version of Clint Mansell’s Luz Aeterna, from the Requiem For a Dream score. She echoes that ambience a little later on with Radiohead’s Exit Music For a Film.

The rest of the page is eclectic to the extreme, and a lot of fun. Most of this is live. Elledge takes Duke Elington’s Shout ‘Em, Aunt Tillie and basically makes noir cabaret out of it – at least until a train rumbles into the station. She fires off a strutting backing track to the Coolio hit Gangsta’s Paradise, along with a cleverly reharmonized standard that she calls You Must Take the A Train…It Doesn’t Stop Here, Though. That’s a reference to how, for years, the F was constantly rerouted at night, away from Elledge’s regular busking space. Little did we know how that was just a part of a slow lead-up to the divide-and-conquer of 2020.

Elledge comes out of a classical piano background, so the Soundcloud tracks also include a Romantically-tinged take of Philip Glass’ Wichita Vortex Sutra, complete with a voiceover of the Allen Ginsberg text. And if you have the time, there’s an irresistibly fun and unexpectedly tight accordion orchestra version of Terry Riley’s In C, with Elledge leading the ensemble.

Playful Cosmopolitan Songs and a Falafel Hill Album Release Show From Eclectic Chanteuse Ourida

Algerian-French-American singer Ourida was making tracks in the small-club scene in New York before the 2020 lockdown crushed the arts here. The good news is that this irrepressible, genre-defying songwriter is back in action, with a new album, Wings, which hasn’t hit her Bandcamp page yet. She’s playing the album release show on June 21 at 7:30 at a new venue, Atlantic Brooklyn at 333 Atlantic Ave. just off Hoyt. Cover is $15; it’s about equidistant from the Atlantic Ave. station and the F at Bergen St.

On the album, she sings in expressive English and French, and plays both keys and ukulele, joined by Jonathan Levy on guitar and bass, Eli Crews (who also produced) on EWI, theremin and optigon, and Joe Hertenstein on drums.

The first song, simply titled Blues, is a more psychedelic, dubwise take on dark Amy Winehouse soul that draws a line straight back to Nina Simone. Ourida and band go for a cheerily minimalist trip-hop vibe in the second track, Don’t Talk. She sticks to a similar 90s groove, switching to French for track three, Deux Guitares, lightly spiced with violin from Ernesto Llorens.

Kane Mathis adds warily spare oud in Berlin, a surreal, shadowy rai-cabaret number with an unexpectedly towering, intense coda. Ourida returns to the piano for the hypnotically vampy Bees and follows that with G Train, a catchy, stomping uke-rock salute to the lure of deep-Brooklyn nightlife.

Siren Song, a coyly swaying nocturne, has two basses on it: that’s Panagiotis Andreou on electric and Or Bareket on acoustic. Levy’s film-noir reverb guitar trades off eerily with Mathis’ oud in Porte de la Chapelle, a shout-out to the Paris neighborhood. She stays in broodingly catchy North African/Parisian mode for the next track, Joker.

Ourida and the band rise from a brisk hip-hop groove to a whirling circus rock atmosphere in L’emeute (“Uprising”). The longest and trippiest number here is a mysteriously cut-and-pasted, dubby take of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love. The album’s final cut is Home. a benedictory gospel tune that wouldn’t be out of place in the Rachelle Garniez catalog. This record grows on you: the arrangements are stark and imaginative and Ourida’s joie de vivre is infectious.

A High-Voltage Klezmer Twinbill in the East Village on the 15th.

For those outside of New York, Midwood is a comfortable tree-lined Brooklyn neighborhood full of single-family woodframe homes (and unfortunately now, McMansions where some of those homes once stood). It has a robust Jewish population. This blog’s owner used to live there.

There was also a band called Midwood, led by a prime mover in the New York klezmer scene, violinist Jake Shulman-Ment. He’s playing on a killer twinbill on June 15 at 7 PM at Drom, leading his Fidl Kapelye with a global cast of klezmer singers: Zhenya Lopatnik, Sarah Gordon, Margot Leverett and Lorin Sklamberg, Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London‘s Klezmer Brass Allstars, who have become epically symphonic in recent years, headline; you can get in for $20 in advance.

Midwood’s mostly-instrumental album of electrified klezmer art-rock , Out of the Narrows came out in 2018 and is still streaming at Bandcamp. Guitarist Yoshie Fruchter machete-chops acidic, clanging chords as Shulman-Ment blasts through a thornily ornamented chromatic dance melody over drummer Richie Barshay’s scampering forward drive in the first tune, Isaac. Then it’s Fruchter’s turn to wail, scream and peel the paint off the walls

Anxiously allusive violin dances over a spiky, loopy guitar phrase and creepy glockenspiel as the group make their way into the second track, Ansky, Fruchter alternating between jangle and crunch as Barshay supplies a lithely boomy groove. It has a very late zeros/early teens Tzadik feel.

The group follow a slow, broodingly resonant trajectory in Ahava Raba: it sounds like Big Lazy with a violin, no great surprise considering that Fruchter would eventually work with that group’s mastermind, Steve Ulrich. They takes it out with a growling, bluesy Fruchter solo and a splash on Barshay’s gong.

Eléonore Weill sings the bittersweet love ballad Dortn over Fruchter’s starry, wide-angle tremolo guitar. The group reinvent Bughici Nign, a famous Romanian Jewish theme, with a lingering spaciousness but also an expectant unease. From there they segue into the similarly stately Bughici Khusidl: it’s cool to hear a distorted guitar behind Shulman-Ment’s meticulous melismas.

The next track, simply titled Waltz has a familiar minor-key feel, in the same vein as another hyphenated guy, Avi Fox-Rosen‘s work, reaching a scorching klezmer-metal peak. It’s the high point of the album.

Weill reaches for a stern intensity as the band sway precariously behind her in Az in Droysn. The closing cut, Gute Nakht is a gorgeously slow waltz and a good closer to this underrated gem of a record.

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.