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Category: klezmer

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.

Ridiculous, Virtuosic, Outside-the-Box Fun From Joyride

It takes a lot of nerve to make music as amusing as Joyride‘s. Their irreverent reinventions of famous classical and jazz themes are as funny as they are outside-the-box. Whoever heard of an accordion-and-oboe arrangement of Bach’s Air on a G String, with a jazzy bridge? Throughout their debut album – streaming at Spotify – the duo of oboist Colin Maier and multi-keyboardist Charles Cozens have unrelenting, sometimes snarky fun and show off an impressive fluency throughout a wide variety of styles.

Maier cuts loose with his sizzling chops in what could be the most ridiculously over-the-top version of Tiger Rag ever recorded. Their Piazzolla-inspired piano-and-oboe version of Flight of the Bumblebee is pretty ridiculous, too – the punchline is way too good to give away.

Cozens goes back to accordion for Rhapsody in Light Blue, where the duo reinvent the Gershwin theme as a quasi-fugue before stretching it out. The most cynically spot-on track here is Isolation Blues, a ragtime-flavored reflection on endlessly exasperating plandemic restrictions.

Klezmer Fun is aptly titled, beginning with a brisk take of a famous hora, Maier adding subtle multitracks and shivery trills through an unexpectedly low-key interlude. Czardahora is a more harmonically adventurous take on the same formula. Tango de la Noche has Cozens on both piano and accordion, along with a similar mashup of popular nuevo tango riffs.

They close with La Fiesta, where Cozens and then Maier spin through supersonic riffage in what sounds like a loving spoof of flamenco jazz. One caveat: when you make a playlist out of this, ixnay on the little jokey skits in between some of the songs.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

Sizzling Noir Swing in the Black Hills on the First of the Month

Back in 2018, Minneapolis band Miss Myra & the Moonshiners put out one of the most darkly electrifying oldtime swing albums of the century. The band’s lineup has shifted a bit since then, but they’re still ripping up stages across the northern United States. That record, Sunday Sinning, is still streaming at their music page, and the band have a gig on Oct 1 at 7 PM at the Monument, 444 Mt Rushmore Rd. in Rapid City, South Dakota. Cover is $27.50, but students get in for ten bucks less.

If the creepy, hi-de-ho side of swing is your thing, don’t blink on this record like this blog did the first time around. The group have the chutzpah to start it with their own theme song, Miss Myra leading the sinister romp with her voice and Django-inspired, briskly percussive guitar attack, lead guitarist Zane Fitzgerald Palmer and clarinetist Sam Skavnak spicing the the doomy ambience from trumpeter Bobby J Marks and trombonist Nathan Berry. Tuba player Isaac Heath provides a fat pulse with nimble color from drummer Angie Frisk.

They play Sheik of Araby with a hint of noir bolero on the intro, then they go scrambling with a hearty jump blues-style call-and-response between Myra and the guys. The Kaiser, an ominously steady klezmer swing tune, has bowed bass and a sinister bass clarinet solo from Skavnak before Palmer goes spiraling up into the clouds.

Likewise, Miss Myra’s creepy downward chromatics in Egyptian Ella, Skavnak’s clarinet front and center. Everybody Loves My Baby is brassier – five songs in, and we’re still in a minor key. Sunday Sinning (Palmer’s Bar) features a sizzling tradeoff from the clarinet to Palmer’s guitar solo. They close the record with the stomping, brisk Red Hot & Blue Rhythm – the only major-key song on the record – the ending screams out for audience participation. South Dakotans are obviously in for a treat on the first of the month.

Trans-Global Entertainment With Accordion and Guitar in Downtown Brooklyn

Erica Mancini is an eclectically talented accordionist with a background equally informed by jazz, tango, cumbia and Americana, to name a few styles. She sings in a high, crystalline jazz voice and is a master of passing tones on the keys. Smokey Hormel was Johnny Cash’s last lead guitarist, but also has a thing for Brazilian music and jazz. The two make a good team. Playing a duo set at the little pedestrian mall where Willoughby meets Pearl Street in downtown Brooklyn on Tuesday afternoon, they treated a sunstruck lunchtime crowd to a major portion of the innumerable (some would say unlimited) styles suited to their two instruments.

Mancini sang the opening number, a torchy Brazilian tune, in Portuguese. Later on, she spun counterintuitive cascades through a couple of rustic Colombian coastal cumbia instrumentals.

Hormel was especially at home, both voicewise and fingerpicking his vintage National Steel model, on a couple of Hank Williams songs and a jaunty, bittersweet duet with Mancini on the old Lefty Frizzell country hit Cigarettes and Coffee Blues. But he also had fun with an English translation of what he called a Brazilian cowboy tune.

Mancini invited up a friend to sing fetching Carter Family-style harmonies on I’ll Fly Away and then an extended, playful version of Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen. Mancini’s version of another klezmer favorite, Comes Love, was just as wryly cheery. The two didn’t do any Romany swing, or tango, or Mexican banda music, but this was just the first set. It’s anybody’s guess how many other cultures they dipped their voices into in the next hour.

The next lunchtime show on the little plaza is Aug 17 at noon with acoustic fingerstyle delta blues guitarist Noe Socha. Mancini’s next gig is tomorrow night, Aug 13 at 8 PM at Sunny’s in Red Hook, her usual home base these days. Hormel is also at Sunny’s on Aug 18 at 8 with his western swing band.

Ariana Hellerman, the onetime publisher of Ariana’s List, a fantastic guide to live music and summer festivals, runs the series here. In addition to advocating for live music, she also has a passion for dance and is especially proud of the dance series she’s booking further down the Fulton Mall at Albee Square, a series of performances featuring styles from around the world that continues into the fall.

Haunting Klezmer Sounds and Protest Songs Outdoors in Park Slope This Week

One of the most powerful protest songs that’s been resurrected in recent years is Mir Veln Zey Iberlebn (We Will Outlive Them).

This old Jewish melody, reinvented by Brooklyn klezmer band Tsibele, is as indomitable an anthem as any freedom fighter could want. In this seven-minute live clip, the group lead a singalong in the deliciously Middle Eastern-flavored freygische mode. Midway through, they provide the grim backstory.

When the Nazis marched into Lublin, Poland in 1941 and rounded up the Jews there, they were as sadistic as usual. Driving the population out into the fields, they commanded the captives to dance. The response was this song. As we all know, those Jews did not outlive their tormentors, but they raised the bar for defiance in the face of evil about as high as it can go.

As sadistic as the lockdowner regime has been, there’s special resonance in that song for us. Inevitability theories of history are full of holes, there’s no doubt that if the world is going to survive, we will outlive them. You can buy an embroidered patch for your coat which says exactly that, in Yiddish and English, from the band.

Half of the group – violinist Zoe Aqua and accordionist Ira Temple – are teaming up for an outdoor show with trumpeter Dan Blacksberg on July 29 at 4:30 PM at the Brooklyn Conservatory of Music, 58 7th Ave at Lincoln Pl in Park Slope. It’s about equidistant from the Grand Army Plaza and 7th Ave. B/Q stations.

Starting in the mid-teens, Tsibele became a fixture across several scenes here, and made some waves with their album It’s Dark Outside – Indroysn iz Finster, streaming at Bandcamp. Bassist Zoë Guigueno, flutist Eléonore Weill and trumpeter Eva Boodman focus intensely on Aqua’s dark arrangements of some well-known, politically resonant old songs.

Aqua’s slashing, low-register lines pierce the brooding ambience underneath in the first tune, Dem Nayntn Yanuar/Ninth of January, a dirge commemorating the 1905 massacre of freedom fighters in St. Petersburg, The band maintain a somber atmosphere in the blue-collar lament Di Svet Shop, based on a poem by Morris Rosenfeld.

They pick up the pace with a dead-serious take of Nifty’s Eigene, violin and trumpet taking turns with the original lead written by legendary klezmer clarinetist Naftule Brandwein. The album’s big, ominously atmospheric epic is a murder ballad, Tsvelef A Zeyger/Twelve O’clock, with a looming trumpet solo at the center.

Likewise, Boodman’s moody, soulful lines intertwine with the trills of the flute in the slow, darkly methodical Rosemont Terkisher. They close the record with the lilting, wistful title track, a love song.

Fun fact: tsibele is Yiddish for “onion.” Lots of layers to peel back here.

A Welcome, Outdoor Return Gig by a Familiar, Edgy New York Klezmer Powerhouse

Isle of Klezbos and Metropolitan Klezmer are the Parliament/Funkadelic of erudite Jewish party music. No, they don’t play funk – although they’re very danceable. And Isle of Klezbos are back in action, with a gig this July 22 at noon at St. Marks Park at Second Ave. and 10th St.

If not funkiness, what do the two klezmer bands have in common with P-Funk? Like George Clinton’s crew, they’re basically the same band. It didn’t start out that way. Clinton’s genius was in double-dipping a record label (albeit for double the studio work, so it was actually a fairer deal all around). Isle of Klezbos began as the all-female offshoot of the well-loved, theatrical, latin-tinged Metropolitan Klezmer, bolstered by a couple of ringers. They eventually became so popular and so good that at one point it looked like they’d eclipsed the original project. Then the Klezbos (would it be ridiculous to use Klezbo in the singular?) took a backseat to Met Klez again. Either way, both bands can absolutely sizzle onstage, and they were playing lots of outdoor shows years before the lockdown

Over the past decade or close to it, Met Klez earned plenty of coverage here, The last time anyone from this blog was in the house at one of their gigs, it was for a careening and tantalizingly abbreviated late-night set at Drom in January of 2020. Isle of Klezbos are also hardly strangers to the front page here. Their Live in Brooklyn album got the thumbs up in 2014, as did a subsequent Bryant Park gig. The show a little later that year at their frequent summertime haunt, the community garden on 12th Street in the East Village, was even more fun.

That one involved beer. Their gig in the garden the following year, over the Labor Day Weekend, did not, but it was just as entertaining, maybe because moving toward the front of the space to watch the band instead of hanging in back with the brew crew meant trading up to a more sophisticated kind of entertainment.

Was this the year the PA blew out and the band had to play all-acoustic? See a band enough times and everything starts to conflate unless you write it all down…or make a field recording.

Some highlights that still resonate after all these years: sax player Deborah Kreisberg’s plaintive solo during one of her originals, a quasi-cumbia; an epic take of drummer and bandleader Eve Sicular’s towering triptych, East Hapsburg Waltz; and accordionist Shoko Nagai’s quiet, moody rivers of minor chords. Trumpeter Pam Fleming led the group through an undulating reggae tune (she used to play with Burning Spear) and later, if memory serves right, her chromatically edgy, Middle Eastern-flavored Revery in Hijaz. Other players have filtered in and out of the band before and since: it will be fun to see who’s been engaged for the Second Avenue park show.

Aviva Chernick Mashes Up Haunting Old Ladino Songs With Americana

Aviva Chernick has an expressive, honeyed voice and leads an eclectic, sometimes psychedelically tinged band who reinvent old songs from across the Sephardic diaspora. Her album La Sirena, which also contains several of Chernick’s originals, is streaming at Bandcamp. If you think old Jewish songs and American country music have nothing in common, you haven’t heard this strangely beguiling record.

It begins with A Ti Espanya, a fond, gentle waltz.  Chernick sings Min Hametzar in Ladino and English, a brooding, metrically tricky psychedelic folk tune with Joel Schwartz’s moody washes of steel guitar over Justin Gray and Derek Gray’s rock rhythm section: “They call to you from an aeroplane,” is the refrain.

With Schwartz’s bluegrass-tinged leads Kol Dodi is the strangest old brooding medieval nigun you’ll ever hear, Likewise, the album’s title track, a muted bolero, has a simmering roadhouse blues undercurrent. And Arvoles Yorvan could be Dolly Parton…in Ladino, with National steel guitar and dobro swooping in the background.

The sad waltz Este Montanya de Enfrente has a delicate web of acoustic and Portuguese guitars. Notwithstanding her big crescendo on that one, Chernick’s alternately misty and acerbic delivery on a muted take of the traditional Adon Olam could be the album’s high point: the melody makes a good Balkan-tinged bounce. Chernick closes the record with the a-cappella miniature Rikondus de Mi Nona. The album also includes a couple of blithe tunes by Bosnian singer Flory Jagoda.