New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Category: middle eastern music

Brooklyn Rider and Kinan Azmeh Play a Transcendent Coda to a Popular Upper West Side Concert Series

Over the last few years, the mostly-monthly Music Mondays concert series has become an Upper West Side institution. The level of classical talent they’ve been able to lure up to the corner of 93rd and Broadway rivals the programming at Carnegie Hall or Lincoln Center. The final night of this season on May 6, with paradigm-shifting string quartet Brooklyn Rider and haunting clarinetist Kinan Azmeh, was as transcendent as any in recent memory here. And that includes two separate, equally shattering occasions where the East Coast Chamber Orchestra played their towering arrangement of Shostakovich’s harrowing anti-fascist masterpiece, the String Quartet No. 8.

As they’re likely to do , Brooklyn Rider opened the night with a New York premiere, in this case Caroline Shaw‘s Schisma. With equal parts meticulousness and unbridled joy, the quartet – violinists Johnny Gandelsman and Colin Jacobsen, violist Nicholas Cords and cellist Michael Nicolas – stood in a semicircle as they played. Maybe that configuration gave them a jolt of extra energy as they parsed the composer’s development of a series of cell-like phrases, spiced with fleetingly jaunty cadenzas and passages with an unselfconscious, neoromantic attractivness.

The world premiere of Jacobsen’s Starlighter, bolstered by Azmeh’s emphatic drive, was even more fun. The violinist explained to the sold-out crowd that it’s about photosynthesis, which came across as a genuinely miraculous, verdantly triumphant phenomenon. Its deft metamorphosis of riffs within a very traditional sonata architecture made a good pairing with Shaw’s work.

That the concert’s high point was not its centerpiece, a stunningly seamless perrformance of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 15 speaks to the power of the entire program. Brooklyn Rider’s recorded version has a legato and a stamina that’s remarkable even in the rarified world of those who can play it on that level. But seeing it live drove home just how much of a thrill, and a challenge, it is to play. The contrasts between all the interchanging leaps and bounds and the rapt atmospherics of the adagio third movement, became all the more dramatic.

The highlight of the night was the world premiere of The Fence, the Rooftop and the Distant Sea, Azmeh’s duo piece for clarinet and cello. The composert told the crowd how he’d been inspired to write it from the rooftop of a Beirut building after fleeing his native Syria with his wife. It’s about memory, how it can fade and be reinvented, how tricky those reimagining can be – and how they haunt. Azmeh would look out over the ocean and convince himself that he could see his home turf in the far distance. As most exiles would, he clearly misses it terribly. The introduction had plaintively fluttering echoes of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time;. Later passages, for both the duo and each solo instrument, followed a plaintive trajectory that dipped with a murky, almost macabre cello interlude laced with sepulchral harmonics and ended as a poignant Arabic ballad.

All five musicians closed the show with a deliroius romp through Kayhan Kalhor‘s Ascending Bird. On album, with Kalhor playing kamancheh and joined by Brooklyn Rider, it’s a bittersweet, furiously kinetic escape anthem. Here, Azmeh taking Kahor’s place, it was more stark and resonant, even as the piece’s bounding echo effects and sudden, warily intense riffage coalesced.

Music Mondays’ fall season of free concerts typically begins in late September or early October; watch this space. Brooklyn Rider’s next concert is on May 31 at the Oranjewoud Festival in the Netherlands with legendary singer Anne Sofie von Otter. Azmeh’s next show is May 19 at 2 PM at First Presbyterian Church,,201 S  21st Street at Walnut St in Philadelphia with pianist Jean Schneider.

 

Atlas Maior Bring Their Intoxicating Middle Eastern and Greek Jams to Fort Greene

Austin band Atlas Maior play an exhilarating blend of Middle Eastern and Greek music that often looks further north to the Balkans. With oud, violin, sax and a rock rhythm section, they play driving, rhythmic instrumentals which veer from rampaging Macedonian-tinged jams, to sunny Aegean grooves and haunting Turkish-laced themes. Their new album Riptide is streaming at Spotify. They like epics: imagine a more organic version of the New York Gypsy All-Stars and you wouldn’t be far off. Atlas Maior are playing Sisters Brooklyn at 900 Fulton St., just north of the Cinton-Washington stop on the C train on May 14 at 8 PM. Cover is $10.

The album opens with The Curse, Joshua Thomson’s blippy alto sax in tandem with Charlie Lockwood’s oud over drummer Ted Camat’s allusively rat-a-tat Balkan rhythms. The buzzy microtonal oud solo out is killer. The title track, Riptide, is a hypnotically vamping platform for a long sax solo; likewise, Cumbia Raposa, which turns out to be anything but a cumbia.

Nastaran begins with a quote from the surf classic Misirlou and stomps along from there with a tireless Macedonian pulse: the shift from major to minor is sudden and breathtaking. Chamber of Mirrors rises from a long, acerbically crescendoing chromatic violin solo from Roberto Riggio over a droning backdrop. Then the rhythm kicks in and the sax comes dancing in, and the band pounce up to a simmering roadhouse oud solo. If psychedelic Middle Eastern sounds are your thing, this is your jam.

Oryx, a suspenseful bluel-flame sax-and-buzuq intro, segues into Trata, a briskly pulsing, wickedly catchy Turkish-inspired number. If surf rock had existed on Cyprus in the 1920s, it might sound like Idda!!, the sax sailing over tight, catchy, minor-key buzuq/bass riffage.

Huzzam Hive, a diptych, begins with a tricky, dancing theme, some neat echo effects between sax and oud, and a tantalizing, careeningly haphazard Aegean solo from Lockwood. The second half is more distinctly Greek-sounding, carefree and hypnotic all at once.

The band give the album an epic coda, Osman Pehlivan, opening with an edgy Turkish hook and eventually take it breathlessly doublespeed,, a deliciously rapidfire oud solo bookending somewhat less ferocious chromatics from the sax. Speaking of which, sometimes that instrument seems superfluous:. Admittedly, it takes daunting technique to ride off the rails into microtonal territory, but if Thomson would go there, that would put some otherworldly (and regionally appropriate0 icing on this sonic confection.

Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian Play a Historic Concert at CUNY

About half an hour before their show last night, Kayhan Kalhor and Kiya Tabassian were chilling in the shade of a scaffold just north of 34th Street. Nobody seemed to recognize them. They may not be household names in this city, but they are elesewhere – and they should be

Kalhor is best known as this era’s great virtuoso of the kamancheh, the Iranian stringed instrument (he plays a custom-made model with the range of both a violin and a cello, called the Shah Kaman). He’s also one of the foremost composers of the past couple of decades. Whiile he also plays the setar lute, he’s very rarely played it onstage until recently. In fact, until yesterday evening’s engagement at CUNY’s Elebash Hall, he’d never played a full concert on the instrument in New York. A sold-out crowd gave him and his protege Tabassian a standing ovation before the show began – they knew they’d be witness to history.

Rather than a duel, the two setarists’ ninety or so uninterrupted minutes onstage turned out to be a clinic in how to build something transcendent. Although the show didn’t come across as a conversation between teacher and student, Tabassian’s ideas, in general, were more directly poignant, while Kalhor took his time.

The musicians’ individual styles complemented each other. For most of the show, Tabassian stuck to stinging, often heartbreakingly beautiful riffs which contrasted with rain-washed, lingering chords and deftly interpolated countermelodies: he has an amazing sense of harmony.Yet when he finally cut loose, toward the end of the show, he displayed blazing speed to match that poignancy

Kalhor’s atttack on the strings is more feathery than incisive, but that’s probably a good thing, considering how fast his fingers were flurrying on the strings. Consider: if you tried tremolo-picking a guitar, fingerstyle as these two were doing, your fingers would be a bloody mess in seconds flat.

Throughout the show, the duo exchanged riffs, often echoing each other, other times developing subtle variations on a slowly shifting series of themes. Each player gave the other plenty of room to raise the electricity or shift into more shadowy emotional terrain. Taking a brooding, initial downward theme in an Iranian dastgah mode approximating the western minor scale, the two embellisehd it with a groove that grew to just short of a gallop. They then backed away and for a little while, midway through, they edged into a more resonantly chordal, sunnier tableau.

But that didn’t last, and Tabassian was the first to reintroduce a subtle variation on the plaintive initial theme. Kalhor took a turn on the mic, singing a practically imploring couple of verses in his resonant baritone, at one point putting down his setar and letting Tabassian play the changes. Finally, Kalhor let an enigmatic open chord linger, then looked at Tabassian, as if to say, ‘What if we’re both wrong?” They gently made their way out of that enigma and ended the show with an unexpectedly muted if angst-fueled minimalism.

The Elebash Hall concert series – programmed by Isabel Soffer of Live Sounds – is more or less monthly and features a lot of music like this that you’re unlikely to see anywhere else, watch this space.

Sizzling Klezmer Jamband Yale Strom’s Broken Consort Get a Head Start on This Year’s Festivities

Violinist Yale Strom is the frontman of a sizzling klezmer group called Hot Pstromi. His new album Shimmering Lights, with his Broken Consort – streaming at Rockpaperscissors – is even hotter, a spine-tingling, dynamic, chromatically delicious mix of new arrangements of classic, un-cheesy Hanukah themes from across the diaspora. The Middle East and Andalucia are well represented throughout an album of what could be called first-class acoustic Levantine jamband epics.

Amos Hoffman’s oud taqsim, beginning with a distinctly funky Moroccan flair and spiraling upward, introduces the album’s bracing, opening epic, O Mighty Stronghold. When the sttrings come sweeping in after the first verse, the effect is visceral. Likewise, Alexander Greenbaum’s stark, stygian cello solo midway through, and the big, exhililating violin/cello duel between the bandleader and Greenbaum afterward. It’s yet another reminder of how rich the mutual source of classic Arabic and Jewish music is.

The Hanukah party anthem Khanike, Oh Khanike has a rustic, shapeshifting acoustic arrangement, frontwoman Elizabeth Schwartz’s assertive delivery over a spiky backdrop, mandolin contrasting with the rhythmic washes of the bass. Who except maybe Andy Statman would have expected the wry bluegrass breakdown midway through?

The ladino theme Bring Out the Tray is a stately processional: after seven more or less hypnotic minutes, the solos kick in, first the violin, then the oud, for a mighty payoff that winds up with another, slightly less ferocious duel for strings.

There’s a little guitar jazz from Hoffman to kick off Latkes, possibly the most exalted celebration of potato pancakes ever recorded: among the highlights are a doublespeed jam, biting cello giving way to bubbly electric guitar, a big violin crescendo, and some Eastern European flatpicking.

Azeremos la Merenda has a pouncing flamenco groove, wary echoes of Turkish music, and an adrenalizing cello solo. Beshir Mizmor gives Strom a stately backdrop for some stratospheric sizzle. Schwartz indulges in some scatting in Eight Little Brothers, a Djangoesque Romany jazz remake, while La Fiesta de la Hanukia has echoes of flamenco.

With a punchy bass solo, more searing violin and crackling oud, L’chod Chanukah mashes up a scampering shtetl party theme with Django Reinhardt and some newgrass. The final cut is The Fool Over Yonder, an antifascist anthem from a few hundred years ago reinvented as low-key guitar swing that’s just as relevant today as it was back when it was probably played on oud, and a lot more slowly. Look for this on the best albums of 2019 page at the end of the year. By the way – if you’ve read this far, would you still be here if the first sentence was something like “Here’s an album of old Hanukah songs that’s fun all year long?”

 

A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the ripping santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music,, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated call-and-response, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound Her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.

Out of Nations Add Global Spice to Their Kinetic Original Middle Eastern Sounds

Berlin-based group Out of Nations are yet another one of those fascinating bands who transcend their origins and defy categorization. The shapeshifting instrumentals of frontwoman/multi-instrumentalist Lety ElNaggar and composer Khalil Chahine – who also arranged and produced the album – move effortlessly from Middle Eastern grooves, to more tropical sounds, with a fat bottom end and influences from many other parts of the globe. Their debut album Quest is streaming at Spotify: it’s one of the most entertainingly eclectic releases of recent months.

Bassist Ahmed Nazmi’s atmospheric solo taqsim opens the album’s first song, Khafif, a funky, dancing new version of a late 1800s Egyptian classic by Said Darwish. Guest oudist Hazem Shaheen – of the Nile Project – adds rustic vocals as well as a spare, spiky solo over Nazmi’s bounce, ElNaggar providing atmosphere and ecstatically dancing riffs with her ney flute and soprano sax.

Shifting from smoky, to airy, to lively, she pulls the band up from a pensive intro to a jumping soukous-style dance and then eventually a jazz waltz in Tribute to a Time, awash in Jonas Cambien’s synth orchestration.

Juan Ospina of psychedelic tropical rock monsters MAKU Soundsystem sings the lushly orchestrated, coyly pulsing Fiebre, ElNaggar building to a big crescendo with her fiery soprano lines. The album’s fifth track, titled Out of Nations, is a lushly dubby waltz anchored by guitarist Charis Karantzas’ circling, jangly lines, up to a triumphant interweave reflecting the band’s multinational background. A spoken-word interlude juxtaposing of grim news headlines with even grimmer quotes from white supremacists puts the song in context.

ElNaggar switches to flute for the album’s title track, which kicks off as a lively take on 70s boudoir funk until Shaheen’s oud punches in, followed by a bubbly Nazmi solo and then a triumphant one from ElNaggar as the string section reaches for levantine ecstasy.

Her soaring alto sax and Karantzas’ grittty, sunbaked lines contrast in Kurdmajor, alternating between driivng hard funk and a gorgeous, trickily rhythmic Egyptian-tinged theme. Feluka is a more organic, instrumental take on irresistibly swaying Omar Souleyman-style microtonal dabke wedding anthem music, pulsing along on the wings of guest Islam Chipsy’s quavering synth.

The album’s reaches a peak with Sellem, a slinky vintage 50s Egyptian anthem bolstered by a funk rhythm section, complete with guy/girl chorus, an incisive oud solo and an affecting vocal by Dina El Wedidi. The simply titled Coda capsulizes this band’s appeal, a pensive but kinetic number fueled by ElNaggar’s darkly elegant clarinet, Cambien’s somber chromatic piano and Shaheen’s oud. It’s hard to find a playlist that works this well as party music as it does as headphone record.

Another Majestic, Darkly Eclectic Album and a Joe’s Pub Show by Pianist Guy Mintus

Pianist Guy Mintus’ 2017 album A Home In Between ranked high on the list of that year’s best releases here. His latest one, Connecting the Dots, with his trio, bassist Dan Pappalardo and drummer Philippe Lemm, is streaming at Soundcloud. It’s every bit as eclectic, and even more epic and playful. His next gig is on Feb 28 at 7 PM at Joe’s Pub with haunting, rapturous Palestinian singer Mira Awad; cover is $25.

That show says a lot about where he’s coming from: he’s also transcribed a lot of classic Moroccan gnawa music for piano. The new album’s first track is Koan, which in many ways is Mintus’ resume. It’s a clever, shapeshifting number that begins as a cinematic title theme of sorts, then shifts back and forth between a gospel/blues waltz and neoromantic grandeur punctuated by ominous, carnivalesque syncopation.

Although Little Italy also gets a bass-and-drums intro that offers even more of a hint of suspense, Mintus digs into this genial nocturne with jaunty flourishes offset with more of the glittering gravitas that’s become his signature sound – and finally as much of a pianistic explosion as anybody’s recorded in the last several years. Mintus must have had an especially epic San Genarro festival experience at some point.

Pappalardo and Mintus joust amiably as the distantly Indian-flavored Samarkand gets underway, then suddenly they’re in waltzing neoromantic territory again. For awhile, it’s more spare and kinetic than most of the other tracks…but then Mintus brings in the storm.

The lone number from the standard jazz repertoire here, Horace Silver’s Yeah has strong echoes of Monk as well as Frank Carlberg in particular phantasmagorical mode. Hunt Music, a setting of a Rumi text as a brief, nocturnal tone poem, features guest vocals from chanteuse Sivan Arbel. The trio dance through the folksy intro to Dalb, Pappalardo adding a sott-voce solo: it’s the album’s most lighthearted number.

The elegantly incisive Asfour brings to mind the groundbreaking work of Lebanese pianist Tarek Yamani: this dusky gem is over too soon. Nothing New Under the Sun, a deviously Monkish blues, has a subtly altered swing. Mintus closes the album with two tunes drawing on his Israeli heritage. The first, Avenu Malkelnu is a tone poem with a muted, somber opening centered around guest Dave Liebman’s brooding alto sax solo; then Mintus builds a thorny thicket around it, his crushing lefthand attack driving it home. Mintus sing the second, Haperach Begani, a catchy, anthemic, chromatically edgy bounce from the catalog of the late Israeli Yemenite singer, Zohar Argov.

The East West Trio Deliver a Stunning, Haunting, Armenian-Inspired Performance at St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Witnessing organist Marina Omelchenko slowly work her way up through the eerie chromatics of an ancient Armenian lament last night at St. Patrick’s Cathedral was nothing short of sublime. It became even more so when duduk player Oganes Kazarian, situated at the opposite end of the church, joined the somber majesty with his meticulously modulated, mournful phrasing. Throughout the concert, whether playing against the organ, with soprano Tehmine Zaryan, or with both, he employed such a wide-angle vibrato that no matter how horizontal or enveloping the melody got at times, his inflections were always adding an otherworldly sparkle of overtones.

What’s the likelihood of seeing a duduk – the rustic, plaintively woody-toned Armenian oboe – paired with a church organ? Just the premise of the concert was impossible to resist, and for the most part the three individualists of the East West Trio delivered on the promise of such a deliciously textured sound. Kazarian kept his modes muted and reserved throughout a rapt duet with Zaryan toward the end of the performance. When paired with Omelchenko, especially in her arrangements of a handful of Armenian hymns and traditional numbers, he was much more forceful, a brand-new stop in an almighty beast, the church’s Kilgen organ.

Zaryan hit a spine-tingling crescendo at the end of a Schubert aria early on; a concluding Andrew Lloyd Webber ditty was impossible to redeem. But getting there was an often breathtaking rollercoaster ride. Omelchenko began with cinematic and then cantabile Bach and then worked her way to triumph with all the stops out, through the stately power of a Tcherepnin overture. Yet despite all the fireworks, the quieter Armenian melodies were the most hauntingly resonant.

St. Patrick’s has not only a very eclectic series of free organ concerts, typically at 3:15 PM on Sundays, but also an intriguing series of classical performances that often involve the organ in some way. The next one is this Sunday the 27th at the usual time with organist Heitor Caballero playing a diverse program of works by Bruhns, Guilmant, Sebastian Duron and Flor Peeters.

A Gorgeously Kinetic, Restless New Album by Haunting, Dynamic Violinist Layale Chaker

It may be early in the year, but the leading contender for best album of 2019 so far is Lebanese violinist Layale Chaker’s hauntingly kinetic Inner Rhyme, which hasn’t hit her music page yet but is due out momentarily. Chaker is equally at home in the worlds of Middle Eastern and western classical music. A member of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra – co-founded by Daniel Barenboim and the late, great pianist Edward Said – she’s also the only composer ever commissioned by the Bayreuther Philharmonike Orchestra, who premiered her Violin Concerto No. 1 last year. Bayreuth: Beirut – makes sense right? She’s playing the album release show tomorrow night, Jan 22 at 8 PM at the Stone (now located in the Glass Box Theatre on the first floor at the New School at 55 W 13th St). Cover is $20.

The album’s premise is ambitious: to create a purely musical suite encompassing the rhythmic cycles of classical Arabic poetry, in the process developing a new instrumental style incorporating the lyrical accents of the words which have been part and parcel of classical Middle Eastern music for the better part of the past thousand years.

Return to Jaykur, the album’s opening track, has a brooding sway, pianist Phillip Golub and bassist Nick Dunston building a tersely dancing interchange beneath Chaker’s imploring upward circles as cellist Jake Charkey scorches the lows. After the fire, the music recedes to a resonant but propulsive elegance in the same vein as Marcel Khalife’s orchestral works.

Ushaq is a stark, intense, chromatically haunting number set to an increasingly fluttering beat and a bass drone. Relentless, true to its title, gets a stabbing, insistently catchy,  minor-key pulse, its restlessness as much a function of percussionist Adam Maalouf’s rhythm, which hints at bolero but never quite goes there. Dunston’s pitchblende melismas signal a spare, plaintive Chaker solo.

A bracing, suspenseful early-morning miniature for violin, bass and percussion sets the stage for the Mikhammas Suite, rising from a strikingly minimalist, emphatic syncopation to an energetic dance. The second part follows the same path, fueled by Charkey’s slashing low-register riffs. The conclusion is much slower, just short of a dirge, opening with Golub’s gleaming chords, then gaining momentum as Chaker develops moody variations on a biting chromatic melody.

The picturesque Alight Here has wry humor – why can’t this bird make up its mind? – before a flamenco-ish drive kicks in, Golub’s spare piano contrasting with persistent staccato from the bass. The album’s most epic number, On the Trunk of an Olive Tree is the one place where the band expand into jazz: the lush yet highly rhythmic work of Tarek Yamani comes to mind. The group conclude with a brief, hazy postlude.

Chaker explains her mission with characteristic eloquence: “Much like our free-spirited Bedouins, our music does not know of the disintegration of the Fertile Crescent into several little states, nor of the dividing of land and history. It does not know anything either about the birth of crisis and striving for existence, identity and domination in between those freshly pencil-drawn frontiers. It testifies of the forever-intertwined, common destiny shared by every grain of soil and water, every soul living in the different lines of that newly-decided map. From the cradle to the grave, in nuptial festivals as in funerals, the very same rhythms and melodies trace and mark every stage of life for Assyrians, Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and Gypsies. What could transcend geopolitical deals and whirlwinds more than that thought?”

Golden Fest 2019: Still New York’s Wildest Concert Weekend After More Than 30 Years

The chandeliers at the gilded age wedding mansion were shaking. People were bodysurfing. As usual, the lines to all-you-can-eat buffet were insane. A lot of famliies brought their kids. How lucky those gradeschoolers were to be able to indulge their wildest inner animals at an evening of sounds that were “Alternately lyrical, mournful, ecstatic and spooky, that used to be the soundtrack of everyday life back in the day,” as one band playing Golden Fest last night put it.

Macedonian quartet Niva (reviewed here at the 2017 edition of the annual weekend festival of Balkan and Balkan-adjacent music) get credit for that description, which pretty much speaks for the other seventy or so bands on the bill. Every January, many of the best groups from across the US and around the world bring everything from Serbian brass music to Ukrainian choral repertoire, Romany dances and Black Sea songs to Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope.

How does last night’s show compare with previous festivals? Same old. The big ballroom was a human kaleidoscope of linedancers, but people were cutting a rug in the somewhat smaller rooms too. The buffet was delicious (that garlicky skordalia – yum) and there were plenty of opportunities to grab a plate after the big lines had finally subsided. And the music was sublime.

That there would still be an audience in New York in 2019 large enough to fill a space the size of the Mercury Lounge to see multi-instrumentalist Amir Vahab play his haunting Iranian sufi songs goes against conventional thinking. But it’s further proof that if you give people good music, they’ll come out.

Likewise, watching the crowd converge on the stage and then the center of the ballroom like a giant accordion during whirlwind clarinetist Michael Winograd’s dynamically sizzling romp through a series of klezmer dances was viscerally breathtaking.

The other bands’ tightness and intensity were pretty much unrelenting, on the kind of daunting level that any musician would want to reach when playing to an audience full of icons from the worlds of microtones, minor keys and weird time signatures. Multi-reedman Greg Squared and trumpeter Ben Syversen matched meticulous articulation to raw redline power throughout Raya Brass Band’s torrentially bouncy attack – that’s where the bodysurfing started. Three flights up, a little earlier in the evening, the larger, more undulating Veveritse Brass Band played what also could have been the tightest set of their career – and they’ve been doing this for the better part of ten years as well.

The accordionist in the night’s first band, Cocek Nation – a motley assemblage of up-and-coming student musicians – took a solo that could have been Ray Manzarek. That’s cool in itself – what’s even cooler is that there are  kids in the group who haven’t yet made it to middle school who are expected to improvise, schooled by some of the best in the business.

Upstairs in the Mercury-sized room, singer Eva Salina parsed the most poignant corners of a tantalizingly brief set of reinvented Romany ballads and dance tunes, her longtime accordionist Peter Stan exchanging cascades and flitting riffs with her. It could well have been the night’s most conversational performance. No matter how many times you see so many of these bands, they never play anything exactly the same way.

Armenian jazz sage Souren Baronian may be best known for deep soul and long, mesmerizing solos, but this time out he was hilarious. After a characteristically serpentine, poignant soprano sax number, he picked up his duduk, then bubbled and burbled through a wry series of variations that just would not stop. These days more than ever, everybody wants to play with him: oudist Adam Good eventually relinquished his seat to another first-rate Middle Eastern lutenist. 

Slavic Soul Party’s weekly Tuesday residency at Barbes is a Brooklyn institution, and it gets loud there. As much as fun as those shows have been over the years, they don’t compare with last night’s constantly morphing, deviously funk-tinged, explosive performance in the big ballroom where they could really play to the rafters. A floor below, Szikra channeled otherworldly, rather stately centuries-old Hungarian themes, maxing out the moody lows with both cello and gardon (a percussion instrument that looks like a cello but functions more like a muted bass drum).

Back in the ballroom, Eva Salina took a rockstar turn on the mic front of Balkan organ band Choban Elektrik, a sleekly swaying presence: they were in more trad mode than usual, compared to their usual epically psychedelic sound. Saxophonist Ariane Morin of Amerike Klezmer Brass stunned the crowd with her poignant microtones, especially in the quartet’s opening number, over the pulse of accordionist  Ilya Shneyveys. And the bodysurfing reached critical mass with the night’s gargantuan headliners, What Cheer? Brigade. That the Providence street band were able to be so searingly tight as balloons bounced off their trumpets and tubas and the crowd around them squeezed closer and closer speaks to their fearlessness as much as their chops.

Watching from a comfortable balcony seat, nibbling on a choice morsel of salty kashkaval cheese, having switched by now from whiskey to coffee, it was impossible to think of a better way to end the best concert of 2019.

Except maybe by being down on the floor with the band. See you at Golden Fest 2020.

For those who want to brave tonight’s sinking temperatures, there’s a post Golden Fest Balkan blowout at the Jalopy starting at 6:30 with Cocek Nation followed at 7 by dynamic, subtle all-female klezmer band Tsibele, at 8 by the Romany-flavoed Sarma Brass Band and at 8 by the ferocious Novi Hitovi Brass Band, Cover is $10, there’ll be “nobody turned away,”and all  proceeds will benefit the Cocek Nation’s trip to the Balkans later this year.