New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: gypsy music

A Ubiquitous Habibi Pop Star Celebrates with a Career Retrospective

Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.

The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.

She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.

The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.

Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.

Energetic, Cinematic Grooves From the Reliably Uncategorizable Manteca

Manteca play a deliciously uncategorizable blend of cinematic instrumental jamband rock, with tinges of Balkan and Middle Eastern music. They’ve been around in one incarnation or another since the late 70s and are legends in their native Canada. Beyond a single clave soul song, there isn’t much of a latin influence on their latest album The Twelfth of Never, streaming at Spotify. It’s one of the most intriguingly unique records to come over the transom here in the last six months.

Nick Tateishi’s twangy guitar and Will Jarvis’ bass introduce an undulating peak-era Grateful Dead tune to kick off the album’s first track, Meanwhile Tomorrow. Multi-reedwoman Colleen Allen, trombonist Mark Ferguson and trumpeter Jason Logue sail in, Doug Wilde adding both spare piano and a Wurlitzer accordion patch. The three-man percussion section – co-founder Art Avalos, Charlie Cooley and Matt Zimbel – provide a cheerily hypnotic clip-clop groove. The Dead with horns, you say. Is that all there is to this?

Hardly. Tateishi’s noir reverberations kick off the darkly bluesy Illusionist over a cantering, boomy rhythm, the horns and keys joining the brooding atmosphere. Allen’s plaintive alto sax solo gives way to

Lowdown begins with a trickily pulsing Greek rhythm evocative of that famous Smiths hit, but with a Lynchian undercurrent. Logue’s rustic, muted trumpet contrasts with Ferguson’s smoky trombone, Tateishi peaking out with a long, flaring solo,

Ferguson switches to lingering vibraphone, paired with Allen’s uneasy alto flute over an altered qawwali rhythm for the similarly moody Smoke and Mirrors. There’s exploratory trombone against terse, resonant bass, then a return to a spare suspense theme.

Purple Theory comes across as a Greek-flavored midtempo Grateful Dead anthem, tightly circling horns behind an enigmatic guitar solo. Never Twelve, a lowrider latin soul tune, has balmy horns and spare, resonant guitar assembled around echoey Wurlitzer.

The band take a detour into syncopated funk with Five Alive and close the album with T’was Brillig, w which sounds like Jethro Tull taking a stab at an Acadian folk tune – que je puisse te porter des chansons du bois!

Cypriot Psychedelic Mastermind Perseveres With a New Solo Album

Of all the parts of the world where the lockdowner takeover has been the most sadistic, Cyprus has suffered as greatly as any nation outside of Communist China or Australia. As you would expect, multi-instrumentalist Antonis Antoniou‘s two psychedelic bands – Trio Tekke and Monsieur Doumani – have been put on ice until his home turf is liberated. In the meantime, he hasn’t stopped making music. His new solo album Kkismettin – streaming at Spotify – has the same edgy, chromatically-fueled drive and trippy textures as his full-band work, drawing on influences as diverse as classic Greek psychedelic rock, music from across the Balkans, and old rembetiko hash-smoking and revolutionary anthems. Here, he’s a one-man psychedelic band on lute, bass, keys and percussion.

In the opening track, Livarin, an electric lute melody rings out amid woozy synth multitracks and a mix of electronic and organic beats, some of which which Antoniou plays on the metal trashcans used as barriers on his native island (oldschool pre-lockdown divide-and-conquer mechanism).

The second tune, Ttappa Kato, has a deliciously loopy, shiveringly slinky chromatic bounce. The album’s title track has a whispery, conspiratorial ambience, built around a thicket of percussion, tremoloing bass and wah-wah textures.

Angali, an instrumental, has a loopy cheer and a sonic artichoke of dubwise layers. Antoniou picks up the pace with the ridiculously anthemic Ksimeroman, which brings to mind King Gizzard at their trippiest and most Turkish-influenced.

Gritty, jagged riffs pierce the echoey, ominously loopy atmosphere in the next track, Baris as Antoniou makes a big anthem out of it. Doulia has a groove that undulates somewhere between rai and cumbia, along with allusively chromatic hammer-on lute riffage. The swirl and boom hit a psychedelic peak in Varella, followed by Djinorkes Meres, the starkest and most distinctly rembetiko-ish number here.

Antoniou winds up the record with Achtina, his darkly twangy, incisive electric lute awash in dense atmospherics. This isn’t just for fans of Aegean music: if psychedelic rock, Balkan or Middle Eastern music is your jam, crank this strange and surreal mix. May we all be able to find inspiration and hope for the future in the darkest of times just as Antoniou has here.

Frank London’s Latest Soulful Epic Commemorates Ghettoes Around the World

Frank London may be the foremost trumpeter in all of klezmer music. He’s without a doubt the most ambitious. His epic new album Ghetto Songs – streaming at Spotify – is just out today, the anniversary of the murderous Nazi invasion of the Warsaw ghetto. The album also commemorates the five hundredth anniversary of the founding of the first Jewish ghetto, in Venice in 1516. It’s a mix of familiar material, some of it reinvented, along with more obscure tunes.

As London acknowledges, ghettoes are complex institutions. They can be places of refuge, but historically have also mirrored the repression of the societies around them: after all, in an enlightened world, there is no need for ghettoes to exist.

Ghettoes can serve as centers of cultural continuity, but often at the price of losing contact with developments beyond their walls. This vast project underscores the kind of musical alchemy that can result when sounds from ghettoes around the world, from Eastern Europe, to South Africa, to South Central Los Angeles, are open to everyone.

Obviously, cultural cross-pollination like this flies in the face of the lockdowner divide-and-conquer agenda. The purpose of surveillance-based “health passports,” for example, is not only to kill off entire populations with the needle of death: it’s also meant to prevent those smart enough not to take it from escaping to free countries or states. Under the lockdown, the world truly is a ghetto.

That classic War hit is one of the songs on the album, reinvented with a Pink Floyd digital chill beneath London’s soulful one-man brass section and slinky organ work. He opens the record with a brief, carnivalesque, strutting take of the Italian folk tune Amore An, sung with coy glee by Karim Sulayman over the tongue-in-cheek pulse of bassist Gregg August and drummer Kenny Wollesen.

Accordionist Ilya Shneyveys and cellist Marika Hughes join as Sulayman and Sveta Kundish exchange Renaissance counterpoint in a stately madrigal by Venetian-Jewish composer Salomone Rossi. Then Kundish takes over the mic in Mordechai Gebirtig’s elegantly pulsing klezmer classic Minutn Fun Bitokn, London cutting loose with one of his signature, chromatically simmering solos.

Cantor Yanky Lemmer turns in a spine-tingling, dynamic take of the antiwar anthem Oseh Shalom over stately piano-based art-rock. Kundish brings an optimistic calm to an Indian carnatic theme, then Sulayman brings back the operatic drama over a somber backdrop in La Barcheta.

Sulayman and Kundish return to duet on the angst-fueled ballad Ve’etah El Shaddai. Shneyveys leads the charge in the lighthearted South African romp Accordion Jive. Then Sulayman and Kundish keep the party going in the flamenco-tinged dance tune Tahi Taha.

London’s pensive, sustained lines anchor Lemmer’s impassioned intensity in Retsey, the album’s biggest, most enveloping epic. Sulayman and Kundish close the album with with a benedictory duet on the Hanukah hymn Ma’Oz Tzur. As eclectically captivating as much of this is, nothing beats Sir Fank London in concert. Maybe there’s somewhere in Brooklyn’s Satmar community – who helped kickstart his lifelong plunge into global Jewish sounds – where we can see him play this summer.

Fun fact: Sir Frank London was knighted by the government of Hungary.

Darkly Diverse, Atmospherically Trippy Sounds From Georgian Singer Nainnoh

Singer Nainnoh hails from the nation of Georgia, which has one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive choral music traditions. Georgian music is often described as otherworldly: its stark modes aren’t quite western, yet they don’t sound Middle Eastern or Asian, either. Much of Nainnoh’s debut album – streaming at Bandcamp – comes across as the missing link between Enya and Nico. English is not her strong suit – song titles are a giveaway – but to her credit she really enunciates. Behind her, spare acoustic guitars and layers of keyboards build an atmosphere that’s sometimes gothic, sometimes psychedelic.

She likes long songs: some of these tracks go on for five or six minutes apiece. Skip the opening ballad, which is pretty generic. The second track, Colors, is trippy trip-hop with brooding minor-key changes and tremoloing layers of keys. Sample lyric: “I am pixels.”

Nainnoh has fun with her pitch pedal in Water, building warpy ambience over spare, reverbtoned acoustic guitar. She follows Run, a starkly marching goth ballad with Threads, which sounds like Goldfrapp underwater.

Seasons could be late 90s Missy Elliott taking a stab at tropicalia. Nainnoh goes back toward gothic ambience in Reasons, pushing the bottom of her low register with mixed results. Angst rises in Break Apart, its loopy metal guitar shred half-buried in the mix: “Confrontation is a work of art,” Nainnoh muses.

The wafty keys, drum machine and ka-chunk sway return in Vital Illusions. Words is not a BeeGees cover but a catchy, surreal Gipsy Kings-style faux-flamenco tune. The airily gothic closing cut, Velvet Mode makes a good segue.

Frank London and Adeena Karasick’s Darkly Gorgeous New Album Salutes a Feminist Archetype

“You are bringing in the big guns, opening the sluicegates with your hyperdramatic extra sex, a swishy riff, pithy swift grifters…like a feisty zeitgeist, a forever Riviera,” poet Adeena Karasick freestyles, saluting her title character in one of the early tracks on the new album Salome: Woman of Valor, her new collaboration with iconic trumpeter Frank London., streaming at his music page. It’s a psychedelic, globally-inspired, feminist reclamation of the Salome archetype, recasting her as a fearless, indomitable, multi-faceted persona rather than uber-slut. Typically, Karasick’s intricate, wickedly playful, erudite solo spoken world interludes are spaced in between the individual songs here.

The enticement builds over an echoey wash from Shai Bachar’s electric piano, Deep Singh’s tabla and London’s lyrically pensive trumpet in the album’s first musical number, Song of Salome. As it goes on, London channels more of the acerbic, chromatic edge and meticulous melismas that have characterized his sound as one of this era’s great klezmer and Balkan brass players.

Playing with a mute, he introduces a bracing, suspenseful Ethiopian theme over a chilly, techy haze in Garden of Eros, Karasick celebrating the pleasures of the flesh amid the “cinders of avarice.” London shifts to a hypnotic mashup of Ethiopiques, qawwali and Romany psychedelia in Drown Me, exchanging terse, soulful trumpet riffs with a swirly synth as the tabla holds down the groove.

Dance of Desire has a darkly slinky trip-hop ambience, Karasick deviously referencing a half century or more worth of lyrics, from Wilson Pickett to Leonard Cohen as London’s trumpet teases the listener. Bind Me has a gorgeously brooding, contrapuntal Hasidic melody and a metaphorically loaded lyric: this Salome doesn’t like being restrained.

To introduce Johnny, Karasick sends a shout out to Jean Genet and other bad-boy figures before London’s balmy trumpet and tersely circling, uneasy piano enter the picture. Martyrology, a grisly chronicle of Jewish mystics tortured and murdered over the years, makes a chilling contrast, followed by a haunting, Middle Eastern and Indian-tinged interlude from London that brings to mind Ibrahim Maalouf.

London returns to an anthemic mix of murky Ethiopiques and woozy psychedelia in Yes I Will Yes Say Yes. He shifts to the Middle Eastern freygish mode for the undulating Dance of the Seven Veils, part klezmer, part Palestinian shamstep, featuring an imploring vocal cameo by Manu Narayan . The group return to dusky, forlorn Ethiopian ambience to wind up the record with Kiss Thy Myth. Look for this one on the best albums of 2020 list here, scheduled for the end of the year.

Revisiting Fiery Violinist Briga’s Wildly Eclectic Balkan Album

Quebecoise violinist Brigitte Dajczer, who performs under the name Briga for branding’s sake, put out a 2017 album, Femme, which made the best albums of year page here, Then it disappeared into the abyss known as this blog’s hard drive. If you missed it then, you missed a deliciously entertaining mix of songs from across the Balkans along with several similarly diverse originals. Looking at the international cast of special guests on it, it’s obvious that they knew she was on to something good. She sings in French and several Eastern European languages as well. The album is still up at Bandcamp.

The first track is Ibrahim, a bouncingly bittersweet love song with a break for a wildfire solo by kanun player Didem Bagar. New York’s own Eva Salina supplies otherworly harmonies on the tightly pulsing Albanian song Dada Do Ta Shes, the bandleader opening it with a stark solo over accordionist Alix Noel’s drone. As the song goes on, he switches to synth for wry P-Funk textures, bassist Gregoire Carrier-Bonneau hitting a nimbly syncopated groove in tandem with drummer Marton Maderspach and percussionist Tacfarinas Kichou.

Accordionist Sergiu Popa duets with Dajczer on the fleetingly joyful Romanian song Dragoi. Svetulka Rachenitsa, a breathless south Serbian-flavored dance tune, features alto saxophonist Ariane Morin matching Dajcer’s ferocity; Noel’s eerily blipping keys add an unexpected psychedelic edge.

Guest chanteuse Tamar Ilana opens the slow, haunting epic Pour Pelin – inspired by Marcel Khalife’s Asfour – with a sharply plaintive solo over another accordion drone. Again, Bagar’s kanun ripples and pounces, then hands off to the string section (which also includes cellist Gael Huard) and the music grows more lushly orchestral.

Elfassi is a rai hip-hop tune with an amusing stoner rap in French from Giselle Numba One. The album’s itle track is an icepick-precise mashup of Balkan brass and salsa, Briga’s violin leaping over an undulating, tumbling groove featuring trombonist Rachel Lemisch. Briga and singer/violinist Iva Bittova duet on the stark, stripped-down dance tune Mama Irena.

Cafe Sarajevo is a fond, trippy, North African-flavored disco portait of a party spot there, inspired by rai music legend Cheika Rimitti. Briga really picks up the pace and cuts loose on the rapidfire, strutting minor-key Chanson Moldave…and then they speed it up some more! Eva Salina and Popa close the album with a calmly passionate, benedictory duet. From a New York perspective, this is Golden Fest in a box. May we get a Golden Fest in 2021.

Klezmer-Ish Put a Playful, Eclectic Spin on Gorgeous Old Jewish Melodies

There are plenty of bands who put a darkly improvisational spin on old Jewish folk songs, but Klezmer-ish are different. Take the version of the popular Klezmer Freilach, which opens their new album Dusty Road, streaming at Spotify. There isn’t just romping clarinet – that’s Thomas Verity on bass clarinet. There’s also cello, and bouzouki, and hints of Romany jazz, and a nebulous, suspenseful interlude midway through. Among other klezmer groups, Mames Babegenush are the obvious comparison, but Klezmer-ish are more lavishly textured.

The group strut in unison through the album’s second number, Padelasol Fetalor: what a commitment to staccato. They build an elegant, moody web of counterpoint in Volver, Marcel Becker’s bass anchoring the clarinet, Rob Shepley’s  imploring violin and Concettina Del Vecchio’s accordion weaving a veil and then piercing it.

September Sun comes across as a more hi-de-ho take on Django Reinhardt, with a spare, jaunty bass-and-guitar conversation. Becker’s wistfully bowed bass solo opens Kicho, eventually pairing up with lush, majestic accordion. A broodingly crescendoing bass-carinet-and- bass duet opens another popular standard, Hershel, kicking off a catchy minor-key romp by the whole band and then a ridiculous cartoon-horse interlude.

Spare bass clarinet and guitar pair off in Amud Ha’Esch, then pensively sweeping strings take over. I’m Confessin’ isn’t a klezmer tune, but this slowly simmering swing arrangement fits the instrumentation well. Django Reinhardt’s  Blue Drag works even better in this context, Shepley firing off the album’s most lusciously spiky guitar solo.

With its steady, ambling groove and unexpectedly psychedelic guitar, Give Me a Lift to Tzfat is the most chromatically tasty track on the record. The group pair a searchingly clarinet-fueled doina with a similarly moody, bluesy sher and close with the title cut, underscoring the fact that they excel the most with instrumentals.

A Broodingly Gorgeous New Album From Klezmer Innovators Shtreiml

Shtreiml have been taking the klezmer tradition to unexpected and interesting new places for a long time. Their latest album Har Meron is just out and streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a suite of sorts, a dynamic, often pensive theme and variations that draws on many styles from across the Jewish diaspora, jazz, Balkan and latin music.

Frontman Jason Rosenblatt builds minor-key suspense and majesty at the piano in the overture, trombonist Rachel Lemisch’s vivid, brooding resonance over Josh Fink’s bass and Thierry Arsenault’s flurrrying drums. Trumpeter Alexis French and saxophonist Tevet Sela take lyrical turns out in front of the band in the rather stern, pulsing variation that follows

Rosenblatt breaks out his signature instrument (shtreiml is the Yiddish word for harmonica) in the understatedly stark nigun that follows, percussionist Bertil Schulrabe providing a slinky Middle Eastern-tinged undercurrent. Then they pick up the pace with a lively, southern Balkan-flavored linedance tune, a hazy, hypnotic bridge at the center.

Rosenblatt keeps that misty, bucolic ambience going in the next number as the horns play an elegant, ancient-sounding theme spiced with doublestops. Lemisch leads the group with a melismatic grace through a variation on the title theme, Rosenblatt’s piano adding eerie glitter, up to a rapturous intertwine between the horns. Then Sela takes a turn out front as the group strut and swing with an allusively chromatic, Serbian tinge.

There’s barely suppressed joy in the pulsing horn piece afterward. Rosenblatt’s gracefully ornamented harmonica lines sail over the muted, slinky groove that follows. The album’s most epic track is also its most enigmatic and lithely jazz-oriented, Sela taking the album’s most intricately energetic solo.

They wind up the record with a trickily rhythmic, cleverly voiced dance, the sax finallly reaching for the rafters, and a  brisk, brassy sirba to close on a high note. It’s an apt coda for an album marked by reserve and thoughtful, dusky tunesmithing rather than the unleashed wildness of so many klezmer party bands.

Riveting, Haunting Flamenco-Tinged Armenian Sounds From Vigen Hovsepyan

Imagine you’re in Paris the first weekend of October, 2017. You’re in the midst of a crowd gathered on a barge docked alongside the Seine.

Nobody’s wearing a mask.

On the stage in the back, a man sings in a powerful, expressive baritone, in Armenian, wailing on an acoustic guitar and, occasionally, on a cajon. He’s backed by a slinky rock rhythm section, plus a pianist with an inclination toward minor keys and slashing chromatics. The music has a simmering intensity with flashes of flamenco. The crowd roar in appreciation after every song.

You can experience the highlights of the two concerts guitarist/bandleader Vigen Hovsepyan played at the intimate quayside venue Peniche Anako – the rive droite counterpart to Brooklyn’s Bargemusic – on his album Live in Paris 2017, streaming at Spotify. Fans of the iconic Souren Baronian’s work with guitarist Adam Good will love this music, especially since brilliant duduk player Harutyun Chkolyan is on it.

Electric pianist Havard Enstad introduces his gorgeous, allusively chromatic opening number, The Immigrant, then the woody, reedy microtones of the duduk float and stab overhead. Hovsepyan picks up his acoustic guitar for the suddenly crescendoing second number, Zepyuri Nman, with sabretoothed piano and shadowy duduk over a punchy groove.

The night really explodes when Hovsepyan delivers the starkly dancing anthem Habrban as Enstad switches to cello. Then he goes back to play angst-fueled, glittering piano alongside Hovsepyan’s melismatic intensity in the first slow ballad of the night, Gulo.

The group ramp up the suspense throughout Kanchum Em Ari Ani, bass and duduk rising mournfully above the slow, dirgey sway. Chkolyan’s aching upper-register crescendo over Enstad’s neoromantic angst in the towering anthem Zulo is absolutely transcendent.

The duduk gets subsumed in the percussive drive of Dikranagerd: as the band speed it up at the end, the connection to Palestinian shamstep is just a step away. From there they edge toward skeletal Balkan funk with Mairyam and then get a singalong going with the women in the crowd with an epic, ecstatic take of Ertank Mer Yegir Moush Hanina Koshari. Chkolyan adds hypnotic sorcery with his long, otherworldly trilling solo out.

Hovsepian sings a low-key solo version of Charles Aznavour’s La Boheme in Spanish, setting up the wounded chromatics of the album’s final, darkly majestic ballad, Lusnyak Gisher. Midway through the record, there’s a long drum solo – a break for the band, maybe? – that could have been left on the cutting room floor. Otherwise, this is a souvenir of what was obviously an amazing weekend. How serendipitous that we can listen to it now – and let’s resolve to never, never, let politicians create another situation where crowds can’t gather for transcendent moments like this.