New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Category: middle eastern music

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.

Matt Darriau Brings One of His Edgy, Slinky Projects to a Bed-Stuy Gig

One New York artist who was ubiquitous before the lockdown, and whose presence was conspicuously absent during the last fifteen months, is eclectically edgy multi-reedman Matt Darriau. The longtime Klezmatics clarinetist did some outdoor gigs earlier this year; he’s back to the indoor circuit this July 19 at 9 PM at Bar Lunatico, where he’s leading his Yo Lateef project with Santiago Liebson on piano, Peck Almond on trumpet, Arthur Kell on bass and Steve Johns on drums, While the band was conceived to reinvent the work of distinctive jazz bassist Yusef Lateef, lately the group more closely resemble Darriau’s sometimes slashingly Balkan-tinged Paradox Trio.

There’s some pretty lo-fi audio of their most recent Brooklyn gig up at youtube (you’ll have to fast-forward through about the first ten minutes of the band bullshitting before it’s showtime). At this gig, Liebson’s piano got switched out for Max Kutner’s guitar, his unsettled chromatics echoing Brad Shepik’s work in the Paradox Trio. You can watch the group having fun with long, slinky, brooding quasi-boleros, a circling, soukous-tinged flute tune and a triptych where Darriau finally gets to cut loose, switching between Bulgarian gaida bagpipe, tenor sax and clarinet.

He’s gotten plenty of press here over the years, most recently with the Klezmatics, backing cantors Chaim David Berson and Yanky Lemmer at Central Park Summerstage in 2017. The time before that was for a Brooklyn Raga Massive event the previous November, where he spiraled and wafted through a series of Indian carnatic themes with oudist Brandon Terzic.

There was also a December, 2015 Brooklyn small-club gig with a serpentine, Middle Eastern-flavored group he called Du’ud since they had two oud players (Terzic and Brian Prunka). Yet some of the shows Darriau played before then, and didn’t get any press for here, were just as darkly sublime.

There was his Who Is Manny Blanc project, who play the sometimes eerily surfy, sometimes crazily cartoonish music of Manny Blanc, whose 1961 album Jewish Jazz is impossible to find and iconic among diehard crate-diggers. There were also a couple of more Balkan-flavored gigs with his Gaida Electrique band, where he focuses more on the chromatically slashing bagpipe tunes. That takes us all the way back to 2015. All this is to say that if you haven’t been watching the guy ripping it up onstage since then, there’s no time like the present,

You could also call this a long-overdue mea culpa for not having covered all those shows, That’s what happens sometimes when you go out intending to focus on the music, run into friends at the bar, and it’s all over. What a beautiful thing it is that here in New York, after sixteen months of hell and deprivation, we finally have that choice again. Let’s never lose it.

A Poignant, Broodingly Gorgeous Greek Psychedelic Album From Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis

You could make the argument that Greece has had a psychedelic music scene since the 1920s, when waves of refugees and exiles from Smyrna and Turkey brought their Middle Eastern-flavored hash-smoking songs with them. So it’s no surprise that psychedelic rock became a big thing there forty years later. Singer Kristi Stassinopoulou and Stathis Kalyviotis’ 2016 album NYN – streaming at Spotify – looks back to that era, with tastefully bulked-up 21st century production values.

The opening track, Ethertai Haimonas (Winter Is Coming) has a muted, wistful As Tears Go By vibe, set to a 90s trip-hop beat with layers of keys. The second track, Ouden Oida (I Know Nothing) is a gorgeously bristling, minor-key blend of brooding 60s Laurel Canyon psychedelic folk and chiming bouzouki janglerock.

The hypnotically droning, chromatically biting, syncopated Strati Strati (Step by Step) vividly echoes the dusky rembetiko sound from a hundred years ago, complete with a moody sax solo. Stassinopoulou’s poignantly misty mezzo-soprano takes centerstage in Gia Mia Stigmi (For a Moment), an unselfconsciously beautiful, swaying ballad with layers of clanging, ringing guitar and bouzouki.

They interrupt the pervasive melancholy for Mystic Rap, a whispery trip-hop number and then pick up the pace with Par Me Agea (Take Me, Wind), a starkly dancing, distantly Egyptian-tinged piano tune awash in trippy samples. The album’s most straight-up rock tune is the steady, darkly insistent Ah Athanate (Oh, You Century), bagpipes and backward-masked snippets fluttering in the background.

Nimbly fingerpicked acoustic guitar and swooping electric slide work contrast in the pensive Allarokania (Change in the Weather). Stassinopoulou sings the haunting rembetiko-tinged Sabah Tuo Erota, a love song, with an understated, melismatic, microtonal angst. While it’s understandable that the band would want to do something to beef up the hypnotic one-chord jam Kyma To Kyma (Wave After Wave), loopy trip-hop is definitely not the answer.

Thela Na Mouna Nero (I Wish I Was Water) is the album’s sparest number, just gongs, chimes, vocals and clattering percussion. The title track is a mashup of loops, a minor-key bouzouki riff and swoopy P-Funk keyboards. They break out the distorted electric guitar to close the record with the trickily dancing Ola Pane Ki Erhondai (Everything Comes and Goes). What a delicious rediscovery.

The Nile Project Reinvent Undulating, Mesmerizing Nubian and Ethiopian Grooves

The Nile Project use Nubian traditional songs and proto-funk as a stepping-off point for lavishly colorful, frequently hypnotic jams. There are all kinds of influences here, from Egypt to Ethiopia, Mali and points further south, not to mention American psychedelic rock This blog gave their 2015 debut album Aswan a big thumbs-up. Their 2017 follow-up, Jinja – streaming at Bandcamp – picks up with much more of a darkly vivid Ethiopian tinge. With this band’s vast stash of instruments, they must have a huge tour van.

The first track, Inganji begins with Mohamed Abozekry’s skeletal, skittish oud riff, then Steven Sogo’s guitar kicks in over a circling, hypnotic Malian groove. There’s a very assertive call-and-response at one point between frontwoman Sophie Nzayisenga and the other women in the group.

Allah Bagy sounds like a mashup of a majestic Nile valley anthem and a briskly circling Malian theme, spiced with a rapidfire web of stringed instruments and Jorga Mesfin’s honking baritone sax. You want psychedelic? Ya Abi Wuha follows the same slow/fast formula, with more of an Ethiopian tinge and rippling proto-blues guitar riffage.

Dawit Seyoum’s krar harp delivers hypnotic, rapidfire volleys in Omwiga – it gets joyous when Ahmed Omar’s bass and Hany Bedair’s drums kick in, moving in more of an ellipse than a circle. With Nader Elshaer’s leaping flute over a percussive gallop, Unzi Nil could be a prototype for a brooding Bob Marley anthem. The more distinctly Egyptian-flavored epic Dil Mahbuby gets a long, percolating oud intro, a lithely slinky groove, a plaintively expressive Arabic vocal from Dina El Wedidi and yet another doublespeed romp.

Tenseo is even longer, more than twelve minutes of suspensefully fluttering fretwork, Selamnesh Zemene’s dramatic melismatic vocals, and an undulating, broodingly chromatic groove that could be Mulatu Astatke.

Swaying along over a spiky oud loop, Marigarita has a fervent Ethiopian tinge. Biwelewele is a big, catchy, undulating anthem over a bluesy minor-key bassline. The album’s final, benedictory cut is Mulungi Munange. To say that this careening ensemble are the sum of their parts is actually high praise.

A Mesmerizing, Haunting, Potently Relevant New Album From Turkish Singer Olcay Bayir

In March of last year, singer Olcay Bayir and her band were two days away from leaving on a tour – sponsored by the British government, no less. Then the lockdown crushed the performing arts in almost every country around the world.

In the days since, Bayir has not been idle. She made a name for herself with a rapturously beautiful album of traditional Turkish music back in 2015. Her new ep, Inside (İçerde) is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a showcase for her increasingly remarkable ability to shift gears stylistically, but at the same time it’s a portrait of anguish and frustration.

Conventional wisdom is that working over the web is seamlessly efficient, but in reality the reverse is true. Issues that could be ironed out in the company of musicians onstage or in the studio take hours or even days when they’re separated by continents. Which makes this achievement all the more impressive, considering how much adversity Bayir and her global supporting cast had to tackle.

The first track is Asude (At Peace), her voice wounded and imploring. She sings in Turkish: the last line of the chorus is “My last words are for you, but I can’t say them.” Behind her, guitarist Ignacio Lusardi Monteverde and bağlama player Huseyin Murat Sığırcı build flamenco intensity over Memed Mert Baycan’s percussion.

Track two, Ela is completely different, an echoey, psychedelic art-rock collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Deniz Mahir Kartal, based on a love poem by iconic medieval Turkish bard Karacaoğlan. Bayir really reaches for the rafters here.

The album’s third song, Yalnizlik (Loneliness) is a somewhat more organic but equally dramatic strain of art-rock. Serdar Barçın – of Turkish psychedelic legends Yeni Turku – contributes pensively circling ney flute over a steady background from pianist Christian Prior, bassist Tom McCredie and percussionist Kostas Kopanaris.

The final cut is the key to the record. In Kayip Cocuk (Lost Child), Bayir draws the connection between the horrors of children orphaned by war, and the pandemic of child abuse that followed in the wake of the lockdown. She doesn’t address this head-on, but it’s going to take an enormous amount of therapy and compassion to heal the trauma of an entire generation who were terrorized into believing that proximity to other people is deadly.. Erdi Arslan’s moody düdük filters through Alistair MacSween’s tersely atmospheric keys as Bayir rises from gentle consolation to full-blown anguish. It’s an anthem for our time – and this is one of the best short albums of the year.

Lingering, Grey-Sky Turkish Psychedelia and Spacerock From Minor Empire

Minor Empire play a spare, psychedelic, electric rock take on Turkish music with occasional echoes of jazz. Their slowly unwinding songs tend to be on the overcast side. Their album Uprooted is streaming at Spotify – and there’s a very useful English ltranslation at the group’s lyric page.

The album’s first track, Istanbul dan Uskudar a Yol Gid, begins with a hypnotically pinwheeling baglama riff. From there the band ease their way into a slow, moody, chromatic sway behind Ozan Boz’s lingering electric guitar, frontwoman Ozgu Ozman’s voice wafting gently over a tricky, insistent rhythm from Chris Gartner on bass and Ben Riley on ominous, boomy drums.

Mendilimin Yesil is a spacious mashup of psychedelic rock and jazz, with Lina Allemano’s lingering trumpet, staccato wah-wah guitar and Ozman’s delicately ornamented, melismatic vocals. Gunes Turkusu builds from simmering layers of guitar, through drifting spacerock to a snarling coda, and then comes full circle. If U2 were Turkish (and had a good singer), Yutsuz, with its elegant bass descending to downtuned murk, could be an atmospheric tune from Tıkırtı ve Vızıltı (that’s Rattle and Hum in Turkish).

Awash in rising and falling pings, pulses, resonant guitars and chiming baglama, Ag Elime Mor Kinalar Yaktiar brings to mind Australian spacerock legends the Church. Ozman’s voice rises more insistently in Iki Kekik, one of the album’s more minimal numbers. At the end of Dunya, a hypnotically crescendoing instrumental, the guitar finally hits a mighty, surfy clang: it was worth the wait!

They follow that with Tohum, a brief, allusively anthemic tableau, and stay in moody, atmospheric mode with Bahar. The mini-suite concludes with the echoey wave motion of Babam.

With its web of kaleidoscopic textures, Selanik Turkusu is arguably the album’s trippiest and most enigmatic number. The starry, atmospheric Uyuttum Atlari has tinges of Asian folk music. The group wind up the record with Tutari Yar Elindem, the guitars taking over after Ozman’s finished with a circling, pensive theme. Turkish psychedelia has a long and rich history and this album is a welcome addition.

Haunting, Stunningly Individualistic, Exotic New Orchestral and Piano Works From Konstantia Gourzi

Anájikon, the new album from Konstantia Gourzi – streaming at Spotify – will blow your mind. Gourzi’s often haunting compositions bring to mind sounds from traditions as far-flung as her native Greece, Armenia, Iran and India as well as contemporary minimalism. The rhythms here are strong and prominent, with heavy use of percussion. There’s more of an emphasis on melody than harmony, and Gourzi’s tunes are rich with chromatics and implied melody. There’s a careening intensity to much of the orchestration.

Gourzi conducts the Lucerne Academy Orchestra in the achingly lush, often utterly Lynchian Two Angels in the White Garden. A dramatically dancing percussion riff – and a hint of Richard Strauss – punctuate the mournfully tolling and then enigmatically swirling, allusively chromatic interludes of the first part, Eviction. The rhythms are more muted in Exodus, the brooding swirl of the orchestra receding for a hauntingly minimalist piano theme anchored by ominous bass and flickers throughout the ensemble. Part three, Longing has a dense, stormy pulse, akin to Alan Hovhaness in a blustery moment. The orchestra rise from stillness over looming, pianissimo drums to a bit of a Respighi-ish dance and then contented atmospherics in the conclusion, The White Garden.

The Minguet Quartett – violinists Ulrich Isfort and Annette Reisinger, violist Tony Nys and cellist Matthias Diener – first contribute Gourzi’s String Quartet No. 3, The Angel in the Blue Garden. The first movement, The Blue Rose begins with an insistent, staccato violin pulse anchoring achingly beautiful, lyrical cello and then a similarly melancholic, modal, Armenian-tinged viola line; it ends surprisingly calmly. Movement two, The Blue Bird pairs spare, broodingly soaring cello against fluttery echoes from the rest of the quartet – anxious wings, maybe?

The Blue Moon: The Bright Side is more minimal and hypnotic, high strings shimmering and weaving an otherworldly melody over a persistent cello pedal figure. The muted mystery of Turning, which follows, is over too soon. The Dark Side begins with a circling, distantly Balkan-tinged dance, pizzicato cello and viola answering each other beneath plaintive lustre.

Violist Nils Mönkemeyer and pianist William Youn close the record with a stunningly and starkly lyrical performance of Gourzi’s Three Dialogues For Viola and Piano, the most vividly Hovahaness-esque work here. Part one has variations on an allusive, poignant melody descending over simple, alternately lingering and insistently rhythmic piano accents. A catchy, circling bell-like interweave persists and finally rises in part two. Part three is at first shivery and otherworldly, then Youn runs a rippling riff beneath Mönkemeyer’s austerely looping, sailing lines. If this is your introduction to this brilliant and fascinatingly original composer, you are in for a treat: this might be the best album of the year so far.

Spot-On, Slinky Retro 70s Turkish Psychedelia From Umut Adan

Today’s album is Bahar (meaning “spring”), by Turkish psychedelic rocker Umut Adan., streaming at Spotify. He looks back to classic 70s Turkish psychedelic acts like Cem Karaca, Fikret Kızılok and Erkin Koray, both musically and lyrically, with slightly more digital 21st century production values. It’s hard to think of a catchier record released over the past year or so.

Authoritarian regimes have a history of crushing artists who make people think (USA, 2020, right?) and many of the acts Adan draws on paid a heavy price for their innovations and political fearlessness, even if they often cached their messages in metaphors, or allusions to classic poetry and mythology. Adan salutes that while remaining true to their distinctive sound: minor-key fuzztone guitar, trebly bass and keys, and scurrying drums, perfectly capsulized by the album’s allusively funky opening track, Bembeyaz Cananim.

The fuzztone goes way down, further than the bass in the swaying, dirgey Seytanin Aklini Celdim. Ortasindan Gel is a brisk. bouncy folk-rock song, a Turkish take on Rubber Soul era Beatles. Gunes has plinky sax lute behind the muted ba-bump rhythm and warpy fuzztone sway.

The album’s starkest track is the broodingly anthemic Zaman Zaman, just acoustic rhythm guitar, vocals and an ominous flange guitar riff. Dunyalardan Sen Bahar could be a low-key track from London Calling, a cheery tropically-tinged riff kicking off the verses. Sevdigimi Sectim gallops along with a dusky desert rock-style groove, while the lithely dancing, midtempo Bandirma Baskent Oldu could be a 21st century act like the Mystic Braves or Allah-Las with Turkish lyrics.

The mutedly pulsing Arabam Kaldi is the most musically stripped-down, and in that sense poppiest, tune here. Heavy drums and bass anchor Kadikoylu Kadikoylu, lo-fi synth oscillating way back in the mix. Adan closes the record with Ana Baba Baci Gardas, a darkly bristling, rhythmically tricky psych-folk tune, running his vocals through a watery Leslie speaker.

Looking Back at Olcay Bayir’s Plaintive Reinventions of Silk Road Songs

Turkish singer Olcay Bayir put out her poignantly energetic album Neva/Harmony – streaming at Spotify  in 2014. It’s songs of the silk road, essentially. Much of the music is from Anatolia, the country’s easternmost region, alongside traditional material from across the surrounding area. Improvisation is such a big part of music from this part of the world that every interpretation is bound to be different; Bayir’s own style is informed by her training as a western classical singer. Her band is just as multicultural as the music; it’s less rustic than you might expect.

The opening number, Jarnana is an Albanian love song with an upbeat sway and a catchy, vamping minor-key tune, Aurel Qirjo’s incisive violin over a pretty straight-up rock groove from bassist George Tsiaousidis and percussionist Elizabeth Nott. Bayir’s plaintive vocals soar over tricky Greek rhythms with biting harmonies from the violin and Nicki Maher’s clarinet in the second track, Mia Smyrnia Sto Parathiri.

Bayir’s vocals on Mer Dan, a slowly waltzing Aremenian dirge, are much the same, clarinet and violin wafting broodingly through the mix, Erdal Yapıcı supplying an elegantly rippling solo on his ten-string kopuz lute. Maher’s low, melismatic, Arabic-tinged clarinet in the bouncy, Romany-flavored Benim Yarim is breathtaking, Likewise, Min Bêriya Te Kiriye has a brisk, almost reggae groove lit up with Meg Hamilton’s stark violin and a spiky web of textures from Yapıcı and classical guitarist Charlie Cawood.

Durme, a moody Sephardic lullaby, has rippling classical guitar, Yapıcı’s eerie fretless guitar and an aptly tender vocal by Bayir: in this part of the world, moms sing to their kids in minor keys and it’s not considered scary. The album’s big, hypnotic, nocturnal epic is Melamet Hırkas. Clarinet and violin loom over a starry, loopy backdrop from the kopuz, guitar and Erdogan Bayir’s baglama, minging with the frontwoman’s gentle, resonant delivery.

Qirjo’s somber taqsim to open Penceresi Yola Karşı doesn’t hint at the scampering energy this Balkan dance tune will hit just a few seconds later, lit up with Maher’s joyous klezmer inflections, They close the record with Lay Lay, a somber Kurdish waltz with more of those gorgeously tremoloing clarinet-violin lines that permeate this gorgeous record.

A Gorgeously Dark Album of Adventurous, Psychedelic Afghani Rubab Music From Quais Essar

Today’s album is on the shortlist of the best this blog has received over the past couple of years that were patiently waiting their turn on the hard drive here. Qais Essar, whose axe is the Afghani rubab lute, may not be a household word, but he’s attracted the attention of a whole slew of western musicians. His latest album The Ghost You Love Most is streaming at Bandcamp. On one hand, it’s pretty exotic compared to the bands whose artists play on it. On the other, it’s not that far removed from the Turkish psychedelia or, for that matter, some of the rock-ish sounds that came out of Iran in the 1960s and early 70s.

He opens it with The Culmination of a Sorrowful Life, a spare, slow, haunting anthem that’s practically a Nashville gothic ballad. Christopher Votek’s cello and Arc Iris keyboardist Zach Tenorio–Miller’s organ add elegaic lustre behind the stately rhythm section of Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s Thierry Amar on bass and Ray Belli on drums. The ending is even more surreal: they take it doublespeed, making quasi-bluegrass out of a lick seemingly ripped straight from lite-jazz guy Grover Washington Jr.

Essar’s rubab ripples, weaves and flurries frantically throughout the album’s swaying title track, spiced by delicate textures from Kamaljeet Alhuwalia on santoor and Cenk Erodgan on fretless guitar.

Journey to Qaf begins as a chilling, Lynchian dirge, Sheela Bringi’s harp contrasting with the resonance of the cello and Essar’s spare, broodingly emphatic phrasing. They eventually pick up the pace, but never so much that they manage to leave the shadows behind.  Rhitom Sarkar contributes a lingering alap (improvisation) on Indian slide guitar to open Sohini Surf, then Essar takes over and they motor along with a muted surf beat.

The group slow down again for The Simurgh, Essar’s steady, banjo-like lines, echoed by Erodgan’s shivery melismatics over Justin Gray’s stately, rising bass veena. They end the album with a gorgeously bittersweet, pastorally-tinged wordless ballad. It’s music to get completely lost in.