New York Music Daily

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Category: klezmer

It’s a Great Summer for Middle Eastern Music in New York

While much of the New York City parks system is on the highway to privatized hell – both Central Park Summerstage and the Prospect Park Bandshell series are selling ticketed seats to free concerts now – we haven’t yet reached the point where free summer concerts here have been whitewashed and yuppified to the point of irrelevance. Meanwhile, serendipitously, there have been some new publicly accessible concert series popping up, keeping the hallowed tradition of free summer concerts here alive.

One public space that’s been flying more or less under the radar until recently is Bryant Park. It wouldn’t be fair to let the month go by without mentioning the transcendent performance by slinky Middle Eastern ensemble the Bil Afrah Project, who opened the final night of this year’s Accordions Around the World festival there. Obviously, it would have been fun to stick around for the whole night, which ended with a wall-to-wall sea of revelers celebrating Colombian Independence Day.

The park’s overseers had the good sense to put the festival in the hands of tireless, intrepid impresario Ariana Hellerman (publisher of the irreplaceable Ariana’s List of free summer events). Over the course of the month, she drew from her roster of two hundred of New York’s finest accordionists (yes, there are that many) for a series of performances that reinforced the instrument’s portability across cultures, a powerful if compact vehicle for musical cross-pollination. 

In barely a half hour onstage, the Bil Afrah Project – who dedicate themselves to recreating Ziad Rahbani’s iconic 1975 Bil Afrah suite of reinvented Lebanese and Egyptian love and love-gone-wrong ballads- raised the bar for the rest of the evening dauntingly high. Rahbani has since gone on to be called the Lebanese Bob Dylan, although many others, none of whom sound anything like the American Nobel Laureate, have been given that label. Rahbani – son of famous chanteuse Fairouz and songwriter Assi Rahbani – was nineteen when he pulled a band together to record it. The suite doesn’t have much of the acerbically fearless political sensibility that characterizes his later work: its populist message is much subtler, grounded in its achingly wistful, sometimes melancholic, sometimes bucolic themes.

Group members, notably oudist Brian Prunka, accordionist Simon Moushabeck, ney flutist Bridget Robbins and violinist Sami Abu Shumays took turns playing plaintive taqsims as segues between songs. The most incisive, intense of these was from buzuq player Josh Farrar, who remained very prominent in the mix. John Murchison, a connoisseur of Middle Eastern bass, made his debut concert on kanun a memorable one as well. And riq tambourinist Michel Merhej Baklouk, who played on the original album, was present and added an almost defiantly crescendoing solo toward the end of the suite as the edgy chromatics, uneasy microtonal modes and graceful sweep of the music rose and fell over the pulse of Sprocket Royer’s bass and Jeremy Smith’s darbouka. Then emcee Rachelle Garniez took the stage and treated the crowd to some similarly incisive banter and her own noir-tinged material.

The performances on the festival’s next-to-last night fit in perfectly with its eclectic sensibility as well. Over the course of the early part of the evening, Erica Mancini played jaunty oldtimey swing, then made noir mambo out of the old standard St. Louis Blues. Shoko Nagai began with airy, austere Japanese folk themes and then went deep into the dark, kinetic chromatics of the klezmer music she loves so much.

Will Holshouser, best known for his exhilarating speed and high-voltage solos, flipped the script with his own thoughtful, methodically shifting originals, occasionally alluding to Indian modes: as a pioneer of the pastoral jazz revival, he deserves far more credit than he’s been given. And a beautiful blue-eyed blonde in the crowd called out Eduardo de Carvalho for the masculinity of his playing. That’s not to say that the other performances weren’t strong, but there was plenty of muscle in his confident, impassioned, unselfconsciously soulful, rustic runs through a mini-set of forro and tango.

Circling back to the Middle Eastern theme, there are a couple of upcoming shows that shouldn’t be missed. On July 29 at 8 at the Lynch Theatre at 524 W 59th St., haunting Lebanese oud-playing brothers the Trio Joubran  perform a homage to their late collaborator, the incendiary Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish as part of this year’s Lincoln Center Festival; $30 tix are still available. And on August 10 at 10 PM, legendary, ageless Armenian-American jazz reedman Souren Baronian leads his amazing band at Barbes.

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An Insider Look at This Year’s Amazing Accordion Festival at Bryant Park

The annual accordion festival at Bryant Park continues with a couple of amazing shows tomorrow, July 19 at 6 PM and then the grand finale, which starts at 5 on Friday the 21st with the haunting Lebanese sounds of the Bil Afrah Project ,with Gregorio Uribe headlining and leading a wild celebration of Colombian Independence Day at 9 PM.

If you’ve spent any time at the festival over the past couple of weeks, you may have noticed a tall blonde woman calmly making her way across the park, taking lots of pictures and getting lots of hugs from accordionists. She always seems to have a Mona Lisa smile on her face. Then again, you’d be smiling too, if you ran an accordion festival.

That irrepressible impresario is Ariana Hellerman, who’s also the publisher of the indispensable Ariana’s List of free summer concerts and events all over New York. Backstage Sunday night at the Innov Gnawa show on the Upper West Side, Hellerman shared some history and some secrets:

New York Music Daily: First, I just want to say thanks for finding so much sonic bliss, and sharing it with us. I think your festival should be a yearlong event. Any hope for making it longer this year?

Ariana Hellerman: I have ideas, but nothing is set in stone – yet. Stay tuned!

But in general, my work is around making arts accessible to people and I get most pleasure from producing in public space – parks, plazas, etcetera. Because of winter weather, it becomes more difficult to work in these places. I’m beginning to think about public spaces that exist indoors. If anyone has ideas, I’m always open.

NYMD: How do you find these people? Other than googling “accordionist NYC”?

AH: I have a few sources. Before I was invited to help design this series, Bryant Park had lone accordionists strolling around the park once a week. The Park had about fifteen people on their roster. When I came on board with the “Accordions Around the World” idea – and with the hopes of making the series more of a destination for the park -, I brainstormed all the local accordionists I knew in New York. Because my interest is mainly music from around the world, I tried to think of all the bands I knew who had accordion – and there were quite a few. In addition, I racked the brains of others and scanned the webpages of some of my favorite venues and festivals – Barbes in Brooklyn and the annual Balkan music festival, Golden Fest were amongst the lot.

In 2013, the first year of this incarnation of the series, I was able to find thirty additional accordionists. I continue to do this type of research regularly so that we can be more inclusive of new styles and musicians. But because the series is becoming more of a destination, many people have begun to reach out to me. Over the last five editions, my list has grown to 470 accordionists!

NYMD: Does you own personal taste in accordion music include tango, cumbia, klezmer, Middle Eastern, tarantella, Celtic, cajun and jazz?

AH: Yes. While I like some genres more than others, my priority is sharing culture. Even if my ears don’t agree with the sound, I continue to be inclusive because this is “Accordions Around the World” and we want as many styles of music represented in the series.

NYMD: I always find myself having to explain to people why I think the accordion is one of the three coolest instruments in the world – the oud and the church organ being the other two. Do you find yourself having to do the same sort of thing? What do you tell people?

AH: When I tell people I curate an accordion festival, I’m usually met with a “Really????,” followed by a surprised or disgusted look, and then a sheepish giggle. My usual spiel in response is: “You know, when Americans usually think of the accordion, they think of polka, Lawrence Welk, and yesteryear kitsch. But, in many parts of the world, it’s one of the most important instruments to convey the sound of the region. And in New York, we are lucky to have access to many of these cultures.” And then I outline the cultures.

I also think the accordion is cool because it’s an instrument of immigration, migration, and connections. You can hear similar sounds in Cajun music – which traveled from Quebec to Louisiana with obvious French influence prior – and forró from the northeast of Brazil. Many immigrants from all over Europe – Italian, German, Jewish, Polish, etcetera – came to the US in the late 19th/early 20th century and brought their music forms with them. This continues today with more recent immigrant communities such as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Mexico. Accordion usually sparks conversation and each week in the park, I almost always hear “You know, my grandfather/grandmother/father/mother/aunt/uncle played the accordion.” I like that many people of very different backgrounds have a personal connection to the instrument.

NYMD: Can you give us a capsule history of the Bryant Park Accordion Festival? How did it start? You’ve been doing it for four years now….

AH: Dan Biederman, the president of Bryant Park, took a trip to France and stumbled upon an accordionist in a park and was enchanted. Since Bryant Park has Parisian elements, the experience made him want to create a similar, serendipitous experience. For a few summers, a accordionist would stroll around for a few hours. It was nice, but people weren’t coming to chase after the lone musician.

I have a blog, arianaslist.com, where I share free cultural events in New York. Many people in the field read the blog since I write about their events and because I provide ideas on how to make the arts more accessible to audiences. In spring of 2013, Ethan Lercher, the executive producer of Bryant Park Presents, their cultural arm, contacted me. He had read one of my blog posts that described my experience at the Festival Vallenato in Valledupar, Colombia. I had just come back from living in Colombia and had attended a festival of Vallenato music, a Colombian genre that focuses on the accordion. He asked, “what do you know about accordion?” He wanted to make the accordion more prominent in the Park’s programming. My response was, “I don’t know that much but what fascinates me about the instrument is how it’s played in so many cultures.” From there, we began to explore the idea of “Accordions Around the World.”

NYMD: Are you happy with how the festival has gone this year, with rescheduling and all?

AH: It’s been wonderful. This is the first season that we’ve had our “Accordion Picnic” format for the entirety of the series. In the past, the audience and passer-bys were invited to stroll around to see accordionists play two-hour sets in different pockets of the park. This year, the accordionists come to the audiences: each accordionist plays a 15 minute set before another comes in. This way, if an audience member sets up shop in one location, they will hear eight styles of music over the two hour span. There are also six stations around the park so people can “chase” the music or artist they would like to hear.

Since we’re eager to provide a good experience for audience members, Bryant Park provides blankets to borrow, encourages picnics, and even sells alcoholic beverages that can be consumed on the lawn. It’s lovely and we’ve noticed an uptick in attendance.

NYMD: Yeah, I should say. Another thing I want to mention is that there’s no sonic competition with shrieking alarms on city buses. And it’s also a lot easier now that you don’t have to chase the accordionist.

AH: With this format, the artists are also able to engage with the other accordionists, and see other styles of music on the accordion. My secret hope is that I’m sparking relationships between accordionists ,and new, exciting projects will come from this!

NYMD: What highlights do you have to share? I’ve seen so many great acts – Rachelle Garniez, Simon Moushabeck ,Guillermo Vaisman,,Melissa Elledge , so many others. Who have you seen that really floored you this year?

AH: We have incredible artists in the series. I can’t choose one! They’re all near and dear to my heart. In this moment, the Brazilian artists in this series really stand out: I love Felipe Hostins who is from Santa Catarina, Brazil. He grew up playing polkas, which was the main accordion music in his hometown in the south of Brazil. Today he is helping to lead the forró movement in New York. Vitor Gonçalves has been playing choro, an instrumental genre which originated in 19th century Rio de Janeiro, his hometown. As a trained jazz musician, he also incorporates a lot jazz into his sets. Eduardo de Carvalho lives in Newark and has mainly played restaurant gigs to date. He is ready for a bigger stage with his incredibly strong sertanejo and forro. Rob Curto grew up in a Sicilian family but spent many years living in Brazil. Today he shares his blend of bluegrass and forró with us. These four players are so incredibly strong. But again, we have so many incredible artists in these series. If we had time, I would tell you about each and every one!

NYMD: Can I ask you, you’re a pianist. Why aren’t you an accordionist, you obviously love the instrument so much…and it’s a lot easier to take an accordion with you when you move. I realize also that this isn’t a fair question, you could ask me the same thing and I wouldn’t have a really good answer for you…

AH: Accordion never even seemed to be an option while I was studying classical piano. And now I’m a music appreciator more than a musician. Though because I know so many accordionists, it has crossed my mind to take up lessons and to become (or more likely, fail at becoming) the singer-songwriter-rockstar I am in my dreams. 

NYMD: You lived in Colombia and Argentina. To what degree did that influence your accordion fixation?

AH: Obviously living in Colombia became the inspiration for this series, as you know. And while I knew tango and the bandoneón – the free reed instrument played for tango – before living in Argentina, I was introduced to chamamé, a folk music genre from northeast Argentina, while living there. It is a fusion of Guaraní  – the indigenous population from this part of the world –  Spanish, German, Polish, and Ukrainian music. There were a lot of Eastern European immigrants to this region in the early 20th century. I’m thrilled that we have our first chamamé artist, Guillermo Vaisman in the series this season.

NYMD: Do you have a desert island accordion song? Or album? Or accordion song you’d want somebody to play at your wedding?

AH: No. Though I just stumbled upon a short clip I recorded of Felipe Hostins from last week’s edition and I’ve been listening to it on loop. He says its his original composition called “Minh’alma” (My Soul) and it’s chamamé – our artists are obviously inspired by all forms of music! It’s so good.

While I love accordion and I can identify when the music is really good, for me, this is about sharing culture with the people of New York. My work is all about creating live performance opportunities for artists and audiences alike. I get joy from seeing these connections made and the joy it brings others.

NYMD: What’s your alltime favorite accordion concert?

AH: Our Accordions Around the World Festival is always a highlight, obviously. But outside of the performances I curate… I always love Lila Downs and we’re lucky to have her accordionist, George Saenz in our series!

NYMD: Just saw her at Prospect Park at the end of last month. Amazing. Nice work getting him!

AH: Another experience that comes to mind – when I was in Argentina, one of my colleagues connected me to Chango Spasiuk, who is one of the most famous musicians down there, who is known for chamamé. He picked me up in a limo, along with his bandmates, and I got to watch his whole show from backstage. The experience was pretty cool!

NYMD: Tell me about closing night on the 21st, this Friday.Is this a bunch of debuts? Has the Bil Afrah project ever played anywhere elase before? How about Peter Stan’s new band? It’s gonna be amazing!

AH: The Bil Afrah Project has performed before but not in a setting that can yield this large of an audience – in past years, we’ve had about four thousand people. It’s very exciting. We’ve put the word out to the Lebanese and Arab community and we hope they will come out. Ziad Rahbani is one of the most important and known composers from the Arab World, son of the famous Fairuz.

Peter Stan’s Zlatni Balkan Zvuk is brand new and will be debuting at the Festival. In talking with Peter – of Slavic Soul Party fame – I asked him if he ever played traditional Serbian music since SSP is more of a jazz/funk Balkan brass group. He told me he didn’t think there would be a market for it. After he shared more information and shared examples of Balkan wedding music, I chose to disagree! All of the musicians in this group are from the Balkans  – including Peter’s son who is also an accordionist! – and have been rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing. I’m really excited to welcome them, and was happy to provide the opportunity to Peter to be a bandleader for the first time. Given how amazing Peter is, I know this is just the beginning for them. 

Powerful Singers and an Iconic Band Celebrate Global Yiddish Music in Central Park

What’s the likelihood of seeing the Klezmatics not only slink, and barrel, and slowly sway through a gorgeous and often haunting blend of minor keys and punk-klezmer romps…but also  getting to see them back two of New York’s most powerful singers? It happened Wednesday night at Central Park Summerstage, where cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer got to take tantalizingly short turns on the mic in front of the band, along with other entertainment on a night celebrating Yiddish music from around the world.

There was a time when being a cantor was just as competitive as, say, African-American gospel music, or a jazz cutting contest. The cantor was the treasure of the temple, the guy you’d send on tour to represent you and thrill the people with his powerful pipes. That tradition has sadly fallen into disrepair in recent years, but it is alive and well on the Upper West Side, at the Jewish Center on 86th St. and also the Lincoln Square Synagogue, where Berson and Lemmer, respectively, hold court.

Berson has a vibrato wide enough to drive a truck through, with Little Jimmy Scott nuance but also Johnny Cash intensity, if you buy those references. He also turned out to be a fluent guitarist as well, adding poignant, purposeful jangle to one of the set’s early numbers. Lemmer’s baritone has a tinge of grit and a similarly steely resonance, opera without the buffo.

He immediately made an impact, sending a shout-out to the 99-percenters in the crowd (which seemed to be pretty much everybody) with a stern march through We’ve Got to Make a Living, an anthem for solidarity in hard times. Then he led the band through an increasingly dynamic, lickety-split, sardonically funny medley of drinking songs. “Drinking songs?” Lemmer deadpanned, “Jews don’t drink. We’re too busy suffering.”

But a little l’chaim never hurt anybody – they did that one, too toward the end of the evening. Berson opened his own set with an impassioned, broodingly rapturous, melismatic improvisation while the band built an ominous wash of sustain behind him. From there, he worked the corners for every bit of chromatic mystery in a mix of numbers that looked forward to messianic redemption and sought worldly solace, either through transcendence or libations.

The Klezmatics finally got a set of their own and reveled in it with the energy of a group, well, thirty years younger. The original rebels of the 80s klezmer revival, they celebrated all things treyf, sexually and foodwise and otherwise in the high-voltage, Romanian-tinged dance numbers, and kept an eye on history with the slower ones. There’s no small irony in that the high point of the evening might have been the slow, subdued dirge The Yoke, a Yiddish translation of a Catalan protest song from the 1960s.

Frontman Lorin Sklamberg played that one on piano rather than his usual accordion, like he did much of the rest of the material, and showed off similar chops: at one point, he hit an unexpectedly feral barrelhouse groove. Likewise, trumpeter Frank London spent much of the night behind an electric piano, constantly tweaking it to get the textures right when he wasn’t hitting ecstatic heights or firing off hundred-yard spirals on his horn. Bassist Paul Morrissett took a turn on tsimbl, the Ukrainian Jewish ancestor of the cimbalom, while violinist Deborah Strauss switched between icepick precision and stark, rustic, otherworldly sustain over Richie Barshay’s playful, jazz-inflected drums. When he wasn’t reaching the rafters on alto sax, Matt Darriau was adding ethereal flute textures or channeling grim Balkan tonalities on clarinet. 

As an encore, Daniel Kahn – star of the upcoming immigration-themed musical Amerike – came up to deliver a Yiddish version of Leonard Cohen song whose expiration date passed a long time, joined by the rest of the night’s performers, among them tongue-in-cheek a-cappella unit the Maccabeats. But then everybody segued into a rapidfire dance number every bit as fun as Man in a Hat, the title track from the Klezmatics’ cult classic 1995 Jews with Horns album, a wry salute to their home turf: “I’m a man in a hat, a Manhattan man,” Sklamberg reaffirmed.

The next Central Park Summerstage event of note starts at 5 PM on June 24, a night of Portuguese music with newschool fado star Sofia Ribeiro and assaultive goth/Stooges punk duo Dead Combo with special guest guitarslinger Marc Ribot. Get there early if you’re going. 

Edgy, Dynamic, Guitar-Fueled Klezmer Jangle and Clang from the Avi Fox-Rosen Electric Trio

The Jalopy in Red Hook isn’t just New York’s Americana Central. It’s home to all kinds of sounds beyond the  bluegrass, country blues and oldtime string band music that’s made the venue arguably Brooklyn’s best music club and inarguably New York’s best-looking and most welcoming concert space. This Thursday, May 4  at 8:30 PM, guitarist Avi Fox-Rosen leads his Electric Klezmer Trio through a set of chromatically sizzling, reinvented classics from the Dave Tarras catalog, across the years and the Jewish diaspora in the theatre’s lowlit, dusky confines with the church pews in the back and the Thomas Jefferson bust on the left side. Fox-Rosen might have a few issues with that guy’s personal ethics: who knows, that might raise the voltage of the performance a few notches.. Cover is $15; if you want a music or dance lesson beforehand, or the option of sitting in with the band afterward – holy smokes – other options are available.

To get an idea of how Fox-Rosen’s trio sounds, imagine Jim Campilongo playing Tarras’ incisively catchy Jewish jazz. Both Campilongo and Fox-Rosen play Telecasters and get their surfy tremolo by bending the neck of the guitar ever so slightly rather than with a wammy bar that throws the tuning out of wack. Bassist Zoe Guigueno plays with a bow, as klezmer bassists traditionally do, adding dark pulses of melody over drummer Dave Licht’s counterintuitive, playful rimshots and snare hits. Fox-Rosen carries the melody with lead lines that echo the original horn parts but range far beyond the limitations of oldschool klezmer instrumentation: this band rocks, hard, even if they don’t play through Marshall stacks or use distortion. The trio’s low-key, early-week show at Barbes back in February had all of this and more; it would have been fun to stick around for their whole set instead of rushing to catch that improvisational thing further north.

Fox-Rosen is a chameleonic presence in the New York music scene. In 2013, his marathon series of monthly releases vaulted his songwriting into the elite ranks of Elvis Costello and Steve Wynn. The only one of the dozen albums that wasn’t worth owning was a collection of covers. All the albums are still up at Bandcamp as name-your-price downloads. Fox-Rosen is unsurpassed at satire – some of the songs bring to mind a tougher Jonathan Coulton or a more guitarishly talented Walter Ego – and the songs span just about every style on the planet, from psychedelia to art-rock to funk.

How does all this figure into his approach to klezmer? Choosing his spots, wailing when there’s an opportunity, and generally jangling and clanging through a bunch of haunting old tunes that have never jangled and clanged before. How good it is to be alive to hear this music when the rest of the world is being deported and displaced – just like the Jews who invented it.

Go See Michael Winograd at Barbes Again Tonight

You have to hand it to Michael Winograd. For his April residency at Barbes, he had the chutzpah to wait for a month with five Saturdays in it. The supersonic, dynamic clarinetist and esteemed klezmer composer/bandleader has one night left in that residency, tonight at 6. Miss it and you miss being in on what could someday be considered a series of legendary performances.

They’ve been that good. This blog hasn’t been witness to a series of shows this adrenalizing since Steve Wynn’s residency at Lakeside Lounge, and that was in another decade. Although Jewish music is Winograd’s passion, his writing and his playing transcend genre. His body of work encompasses circus rock, flamenco, noir cabaret, psychedelia, otherworldly old ngunim and sounds from the Middle East.

“Did you ever hear this guy back in the day, like, 2003?” the Magnetic Fields’ Quince Marcum asked the beer drinker to his right at the bar a couple of weeks ago.

‘No, I didn’t,” the drinker replied. The two sat silent, listening to Winograd and his large horn-and-piano-driven ensemble romp through a darkly vaudevillian melody. “I see what you mean, though. This reminds me of Luminescent Orchestrii.”

“Exactly,” replied Marcum. “Everybody was doing this back then.” And he’s right. The emergence of bands like World Inferno and Gogol Bordello opened up new opportunities for jazz musicians and players coming out of Balkan and klezmer music.

The first and third nights of Winograd’s residency here featured the big band. Opening night seemed like mostly original material – although with Winograd, it’s impossible to tell since he’s so deeply immersed in centuries’ worth of minor keys and slashing chromatics. Night three seemed to be more on the trad side.

Night two was a performance of a psychedelic, serpentine suite based on a Seder service. The clarinetist was joined on that one by keyboardist/singer Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Berkson channneled Laura Nyro blue-eyed soul and gritty Waitsian blues on her electric piano when she wasn’t venturing further into the avant garde. Fruchter wove a methodical, even darker tapestry of eerie Middle Eastern modes as Winograd shifted between conspiratorial volleys and a lustrous, ambered resonance. It was the quietest and most rapt of these shows so far.

Last week was arguably the best so far, which makes sense since a residency is supposed to be about concretizing and refining the music. For this one Winograd had a rhythm section and a not-so-secret weapon in pianist Carmen Staaf. Incisive, meticulous yet purposeful and unselfconsciously powerful, she brought a Spanish tinge to several of Winograd’s tunes – notably the angst-fueled waltz that opened the show – that brought to mind Chano Dominguez. Meanwhile, Winograd played with equal parts clarity and breathtaking, practically Ivo Papasov-class speed. It was one of the most thrilling shows of the year so far, something that Winograd could easily replicate tonight. See you at the bar at six:  Kate and Kat will be working and it’s going to be a wild night. The Dirty Waltz Project play oldtime Americana in 3/4 time afterward at 8.

Charan-Po-Rantan’s Accordion Intensity Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Monday night at Joe’s Pub, any perception that Japanese sister duo Charan-Po-Rantan were merely cute, adorable, kooky real-life anime characters vanished the second that accordionist Koharu cut loose a vast, deep river of minor-key melody. Dressed in almost-but-not-quite-matching pastel cartoon pastiche outfits and matching headpieces, she and her singer sister Momo delivered a dynamic and often ferocious set of mostly original Romany and klezmer songs…in Japanese. But their charisma and tunesmithing transcended any linguistic limitation. It’s a fair guess that less than half the crowd spoke that language, or Romanes for that matter.

Momo spent the entirety of the show with a pretty hefty stuffed pig under her arm. Was it actually attached to her outfit? As it turned out, no, but that didn’t become clear until more than halfway through the two’s tantalizingly brief hour onstage. The show started beguilingly but slowly, the sisters seemingly taking their time on getting a handle on how to approach this refreshingly multicultural, demographically diverse downtown New York audience. Quickly, the energy went to redline when they brought up Alicia Svigals for an absolutely feral rip through a familiar Romany folk dance number (it wasn’t Djelem Djelem, but if you’re a fan of Balkan music, you’ve definitely heard it). Svigals, a founding member of the Klezmatics, possessed with chops as spine-tingling as they are elegant, seized the opportunity to revel in volley after volley of microtones and scrapes and glissandos. She would return late in the set for a Charan-Po-Rantan original that was only slightly less intense.

The two built momentum as the show went on, then dipped to what ironically might have been its high point, a gorgeously bittersweet, waltzing lament. Momo briefly left the stage to Koharu, who took her time building a darkly bouncy loopmusic instrumental, eventually capping it off with wistful vocalese over a playfullly offcenter beat. Although the duo’s originals were the most ornate and rawly exhilarating of the material in the set, they also played a handful of covers. A popular video game theme and variations drew chuckles from the crowd, as did a cover of the old 50s hit Sukiyaki. The only miss was a cheesy Neil Diamond song that’s been done before as J-pop – and only about half the crowd seemed to recognize it.

At the end of the set, Momo finally left the stage with what seemed to be a fifty-foot mic cable and went into the crowd, teasing the guys, standing on chairs and holding the audience rapt with her powerful, melismatic delivery. Where Koharu gave everybody chills with her rapidfire rivulets and stormy cloudbanks, her sister proved every bit as powerful with a similarly expansive range from the very top to the darkest lows in her register. Charan-Po-Rantan are playing a live score to the original Godzilla at the Japan Society tomorrow night, April 28 at 8 but the show is sold out. For fans of awe-inspiring accordion music and low-budget monster movies, there’ll be a waitlist at the box office at 333 E 47th St. starting an hour before the show.

Clarinet Titan Michael Winograd Plays a Full-Throttle Saturday Residency at Barbes This Month

If adrenaline is your thing, go see Michael Winograd this Saturday at Barbes. Even if you don’t know much about klezmer music, it’s worth the gamble. There is no Coney Island ride, with the possibility of the Cyclone, that can deliver thrills on the level of Winograd’s clarinet. And he makes it look easy. He’s got a silken, steady wind-tunnel tone, in the same vein as Rudresh Mahanthappa’s approach on the alto sax, and a Saturday 6 PM Barbes residency this month where he’s airing out a lot of new material. This Saturday, April 8 he’s doing “Order: A Musical Seder,” with singer/pianist Judith Berkson and Sandcatchers guitarist Yoshie Fruchter. Then Winograd plays with a large ensemble on the 15th and 29th, and with a quartet on the 22nd.

Last week’s show was packed with a mix of oldsters and kids who’d come out to see Winograd deliver an eclectic, dynamic set of new material from a forthcoming album, backed by a pretty sizeable group including accordion, piano, rhythm section (Zoe Guigueno on bass and Dave Licht on drums), plus Avi Fox-Rosen on banjo. The addition of that instrument turned out to be more of an extra textural treat than an attempt to be old-fashioned or go in a bluegrass direction like Andy Statman.

The new material is killer. The dark stuff came first, along with the biggest crescendos and slinkiest, rapidfire volleys of sixteenth notes from Winograd. Since these tunes are getting their first workouts from the band, he took most of the solos. They opened with a handful of chromatically bristling, Russian and Ukrainian-flavored numbers. There was a point early on where the flutter of the banjo against the steady chords of the piano amid the swells of the rest of the group had a bittersweet, achingly beautiful, Ellingtonian lushness.

Later in the set, they did a hora that started out all mysterious and then picked up with a bang, true to form. There was a doina that turned out to be the most exploratory number – some would say it was the the jazziest moment of the night. As the show went on, the songs got bouncier and sunnier. They closed with a catchy, anthemic tune that sounded like a classic from the Russian Jewish folk tradition but could have been an original: Winograd can be like that. And even back at the bar, the sound was good: hanging with friends, away from the crowd didn’t turn out to be an obstacle as far as listening was concerned. See you Saturday. 

Plaintive Dirges and Slyly Funny Klezmer Mashups at the Jalopy This Thursday

More or less every Thursday night, drummer Aaron Alexander books a series of some of the world’s foremost talent from across the vast, global expanse of Jewish traditional music into the Jalopy. The show starts at 8:30 PM, cover is $15, or you can show up early for a dance lesson and/or stay late and jam with the band for extra.

Sometimes the music is more jazz-oriented, no surprise considering that Alexander is a jazz drummer whose background is as eclectic as the artists he books. The Art Blakey-inspired leader of the Klez Messengers was also the propulsive force behind one of New York’s most adrenalizing large jazz ensembles, the Ayn Sof Big Band for several years.

This week’s attraction, the Big Galut(e) number among the more folk-oriented acts to play the series. This allstar band mix edgy originals into their repertoire of folk dances and laments from across the centuries and around the world. Clarinetist Robin Seletsky fronts the unit, with Sasha Margolis on violin, Michael Leopold on theorbo and baroque guitar, Mark Rubinstein on accordion and Richard Sosinsky on bass and mandolin. Their wide-ranging debut album is streaming at Spotify.

They open it with a couple of brisk minor-key romps, the first one by Seletsky’s dad Harold – a pioneer in original klezmer – and follow it with one of her own. The second track, Levant is more allusively Middle Eastern, with a mournfully melismatic opening clarinet taqsim echoed by the violin over a mysterious staccato pulse.

Margolis sings an expressive, stagy take of Papirosin, the Yiddish theatre ancestor of Little Match Girl songs. Then the band picks up the pace with Seletsky’s Kalkutta Klezmer and its lithe Indian inflections, followed by a mounfully rubato take of the old African-American spiritual Go Down Moses.

The album’s most surreal track, Charlemos, is a 1940 Argentinian alienation tale, sort of the tango counterpart to Jim Croce’s Operator, at least thematically. From there they mash up fiery Romanian Jewish sounds with bluegrass, then take a stately detour through a couple of darkly catchy baroque sonatinas by Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi, Seletsky drawing on her classical background.

They go back to the shadowlands of tango for a familiar Kurt Weill theme, followed by a Belgian barroom musette version of a Sophie Tucker musical theatre hit which they call La Yiddishe Mama. They mine the catalog of Mordechai Gebirtig – purveyor of crime rhymes and folk-punk broadsides in 1920s Poland and further east – for a brooding instrumental medley, which make a good segue with the slowly crescendoing Hasidic dance afterward. The album hits a peak with a trio of minor-key dances, the first bringing to mind New York individualists Metropolitan Klezmer, the second and the final one a portrait of a Thai bagel place (such things exist). Throughout the album, the strings and accordion pulse elegantly behind Seletsky’s liquid-crystal melodies. It’s soulful, and unselfconsciously poignant, and a lot of this you can dance to.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Darkly Hypnotic, Intense, Cross-Pollinated Hungarian Sounds at Drom Last Night

Last night’s concert at Drom hit a harrowing peak with Hungarian trance-dance band Meszecsinka‘s frontwoman Annamaria Olah hidden behind her mane of long, flowing hair, wailing and flailing and crying out on the beat as her own voice echoed low and ominously in response, through a loop pedal. Guitarist/keyboardist Emil Biljarszki had explained beforehand that the song addressed an ancient Christian theme that he didn’t bother to elaborate on any further. “You’ll get it,” Olah told the crowd with an enigmatically wistful smile before bassist Árpád Vajdovich and drummer Dávid Krolikowski kicked off the big, crescendoing minor-key anthem with a hypnotic, insistently swaying pulse. Although this was an intimate club gig with pristine sound, it was easy to imagine a hundred thousand people at some European summer festival flailing and swaying in unison in response to Olah’s passion onstage. Whatever awestruck terror the song was meant to evoke – the apocalypse? A martyr meeting a particularly grisly fate? – it was impossible to turn away from

Earlier in the evening, two darkly psychedelic, Balkan-tinged folk-jazz acts – accordionist David Yengibarian and his trio, and Borbély Mihály Polygon – followed their respective opening jams with similarly captivating, disquieting numbers, albeit much more slowly and quietly. The opening trio’s was a mournful dirge that imbued a stark Hungarian folk theme with a haunted they-burned-down-my-shtetl resonance straight out of klezmer music. Saxophonist Mihály Borbély’s three-piece unit with pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés built shadowy noir cinematics that they slowly took in a slightly brighter, more improvisational direction. That they’d begun their set with a mashup of wild downtown John Zorn-style New York jazz and surf rock is just one example of how wildly eclectic the night was.

That a concert like this could be staged at at moment where nationalist extremists threaten to wall off the kind of transnational cross-pollination responsible for such  riveting musical hybridization speaks to the potential power of resistance. Millions of people resonate to these sounds far more than to strident racist rhetoric or Twitter demagoguery. It’s up to us to mobilize and create an opposition to ensure that this kind of artistry, and the hope it represents, has the opportunity to move forward.

Because it would be a crime not to be able to witness Lukacs playing elegant blues, or channeling Carla Bley with a feral attack on the low strings of his of his ringing, overtone-laden Hungarian zither. What a shame it would have been to miss being able to enjoy the endlessly clever, tongue-in-cheek volleys of deadpan humor that Yengibarian’s drummer, Mark Badics, engaged in throughout the group’s tantalizingly short set – he’s ever bit as formidable as any of his American jazz counterparts, Tain Watts and Rudy Royston included. Or for that matter, to miss out on the chance to get lost in Meszecsinka’s mesmerizing mashups of otherworldly Bulgarian folk and lush European art-rock over irresistibly undulating beats.

This concert was staged by Music Export Budapest along with the Hungarian National Trading House, and the Balassi Institute, one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, who champion Hungarian music, film, visual art and more. If you’re a true cosmopolitan New Yorker and you’re not on their email list, you’re missing out. In addition, this weekend’s slate of shows at Drom – Manhattan’s global music mecca – continues tonight and tomorrow with everything from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to Moroccan trance grooves, to classical Indian sitar music. Cover is only $10 each night; music starts at 7 and goes til past midnight.