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Tag: balkan music

A Hotrod of a Band Headlines This Year’s Greek Jewish Festival

More about today’s annual Greek Jewish Festival at the Kehila Kedosha Janina Synagogue and Museum at 280 Broome St. in Chinatown: the headliners, Pontic Firebird, hit the stage at 5 PM. Not only do they have one of the coolest bandnames ever, they’re also a party in a box. They play a wildly adrenalizing mix of traditional Greek Mediterranean dance tunes that sometimes echo the eerie chromatics of rembetiko gangster music, and the Smyrnika sounds that permeated the underworld in that part of the globe in the decades after World War I.

This blog most recently caught Pontic Firebird in action at the 2018 edition of Golden Fest, which for years has been arguably the most exciting annual concert in New York (the 2020 edition took place as usual. that January; there was also an abbreviated, outdoor 2021 edition, but none so far this year). You can download the band’s 2018 set there at the recently and unexpectedly restored Free Music Archive, as well as a longer show from four years earlier. Let’s give that one a spin, shall we?

Frontwoman/violinist Beth Bahia Cohen first leads the group through a raw, rustic, trickily rhythmic dance that veers from minor to major and back and sounds more like Greek hill country music than it does Mediterranean. The group members aren’t listed, but there’s also oud, boomy standup drums and bass in the mix.

Oud and violin double the melody line over pouncing syncopation in the next number, followed by a hypnotically loopy one where Cohen goes flying into some spine-tingling spirals when least expected. The fourth track starts starkly and auspiciously and suddenly cuts off – hey, it’s a field recording, that happens sometimes. The group wind up the set – or at least what’s here – with their edgiest, most chromatically bristling number.

The rest of the bands on today’s bill are also excellent. If you can get out of the house early enough, you can catch the whole lineup, which starts at noon with the bouncy Elias Ladino Ensemble, followed by the Greek American Folklore Society band, the Noga Group featuring brilliant oudist Avram Pengas, bellydancer Layla Isis and then psychedelic Middle Eastern oud player and bandleader Scott Wilson & Efendi at 4. Take the B or D to Grand St.

Haunting, Starkly Resonant Middle Eastern-Flavored Sounds From Singer Christiane Karam

Singer/percussionist Christiane Karam has built a unique and darkly captivating body of work that blends Middle Eastern and Balkan music, jazz and European art-song. Like Sarah Serpa, Karam gravitates toward subtly expressive, wordless vocals. She covers a deceptively impressive among of ground, from aching highs to somber lows. She’s good at surprise, pulling crescendos out of thin air. Her new album Nar – Arabic for “fire” – is streaming at Bandcamp.

A dramatic flurry of cymbals. whirring bendir, and haunting cello in the hijaz mode kick off the title track, Karam adding gently rhythmic vocalese, pianist Vadim Neselovskyi parsing spare chords over a lithe but slinky groove from bassist Peter Slavov and drummer Keita Ogawa. Karam rises to a defiant triumph, then dips to a a more muted, visceral sense of longing

The album’s second number is Halla Fayat, a catchy, pensive waltz punctuated by a brooding ,melismatic cello solo, a tersely elegant bass solo, somber reflecting-pool piano and the occasional big cymbal splash

In Last Snow, she runs spare variations on a three-note riff, then cuts loose with an unexpected crecendo, Neselovskyi building icy ambience over a steady, sparse sway. The group diverge and then regroup, only to fall away to an eerily dissociative ending.

Karam’s experience leading a Balkan choir informs her minutely nuanced ornamentation in Petlite Payat over a skeletal cello/bass intro and then a shivery, soberly resonant backdrop.

The album features two spoken-word interludes.. “Where I come from, everything is deadly, everything hurts…we revolt, we rebel, we try, we want to live,” the Beirut-born Karam asserts over a percussive, atmospheric tableau. In the second, she exchanges guardedly hopeful, simple riffs with the piano as it grows more rippling and intricate.

Scrapy, droning low strings contrast with Karam’s plaintive, soaring vocals as the album’s most epic track, Beirut gets underway, Karam smacking a tapan standup drum for extra bite on the beats. Starkly echoing atmosphere falls apart violently, Karam tries to pull it up with simple, concise melody, but darkness pervades and descends, percussive metal flickering amid an increasingly torrential whirlpool. From there Neselovskyi amd Slavov rise to a staggered, insistent pulse as Alatrash swoops and wails. The shivery, macabre wartime tableau right before the end is absolutely chilling.

Karam sings the woundedly crescendoing ballad Peine in French, spare piano and bass triangulating subtly with the drums. The album’s most insistently haunting song is Paneen, a bitterly poetic escape anthem: it could be a late 60s Procol Harum cut with Arabic lyrics and a woman out front.

Karam goes back to vocalese in Voyage, gracefully lilting waltz with a punchy bass solo, starrily psychedelic piano and warily descending, snarling cello curlicues. Then she flips the script completely with the album’s airiest, most playful track, Btihi Ala Bali.

Karaam and Ogawa join forces for a percussive, flamenco-infused attack to open Faramdole, which quickly calms to a pensive minor-key ballad, then a darkly circling, turbulent interlude and an increasingly tongue-in-cheek drum break, The band wind up the album with a reprise of the opening theme. This gorgeous record is on the shortlist of the best and most original albums of 2022 so far.

High-Voltage Catalan Dances and Party Tunes From Fenya Rai

Fenya Rai play high-voltage Catalan folk and Romany dance tunes with a rock rhythm section. Their sound is more unscripted and less flamenco-oriented than the Gipsy Kings, less self-referential than Gogol Bordello, although in their own irrepressible way they’re every bit as punk. Their latest album Placa Major – meaning “town square” – is streaming at Spotify. It’s a party in a box. Jordi Jubany plays guitar, with Jaume Martínez on accordion, David Tudela on bass and on Roger Montalà on drums

The opening number, Pastor Cabrer is a gruffly bouncy, upbeat tune that could be the Pogues singing in Catalan – or a bluegrass tune, for that matter. Sometimes party music sounds a lot alike no matter where it comes from. Joan Reig is the boisterous guest vocalist.

Jaume Arnella sings the similarly upbeat Les Rondes del Vi with a gruff, wintry delivery, in contrast to the spritely acoustic guitar. Francesc Ribera a.k.a Titot takes over the mic on La Fonda de Cal Xai, a briskly pulsing minor-key Romany tune. He returns a bit later to sing El Rector de Collbató, a klezmer-tinged tune with moody, resonant clarinet from Aura Roca along with stabbing accordion. Playing electric guitar, Albert Ibarra trades off some biting riffage of his own.

Bat de Sol is where the flamenco comes simmering in, with the expressive Arturo Gaya on vocals and Clara Colom on diatonic accordion. Adrià Dilmé joins the vocal harmonies in the cheery, pastoral cumbia El Vi de la Terra. Ibarra’s spiky guitar adds a wild psychedelic tinge to Quin Enrenou, another cumbia bounce.

Baixeu al Carrer, a swaying accordion tune, has sly guy/girl harmonies: it could be the roots of a Venezuelan cumbia hit from the 60s. The band pick up the pace even more with Els Tres Xicots, a big scampering banjo anthem.

There are mariachi horns on El Gall Negre, which could be a Mexican banda hit with a lickety-split sprint out at the end. The band go back to cumbia for album’s final track, El Tiexidor, a singalong drinking song.

Etsuko Hirose Plays Thoughtful, Impressionistic Pancho Vladigerov Suites

If Pancho Vladigerov’s music is becoming a meme, so much the better. And if the recent release of two versions of his Impressions suite is only a coincidence, it’s a case of great minds thinking alike. Nadejda Vlaeva’s recording, reviewed here last month, reveled in the composer’s protean individualism, morphing from the High Romantic to the Balkans and portents of where artists like Chano Dominguez would take flamenco jazz. Etsuko Hirose‘s recording – streaming at Spotify – has somewhat more restraint, the advantage being that she focuses on different subtleties in the composer’s portrait of a love affair.

The unhurried initial movement, if anything, is more circumspect than Vlaeva’s version. Likewise, Hirose’s take of the Embrace is a little more spacious but also reaches a triumphant plateau pretty early on and hangs there. The Waltz-Capriccio has more of a contrast between romping joy and reflective glitter, although Hirose also downplays the uneasy Saint-Saens-esque vampiness.

The Caress is very much that, while Elegance is matter-of-factly expressive High Romantic joy. Hirose holds back from dramatic overstatement in Confession, although she lets the jaunty ragtime loose in Laughter.

Ripe little crescendoing waves permeate Hirose’s interpretation of Passion: it’s a rewarding ride. The same for the pervasive darkness in Surprise, even when the rhythm picks up – Hirose draws a straight line back to nocturnal Janacek wanderings. The finale, Resignation has both muted distress and towering angst: what a story Hirose has to tell.

Vladigerov’s Suite Bulgare, Op.21 and the Prélude, Op.15. get a similarly insightful treatment here. The suite’s regally marching, colorfully ornamented, increasingly Middle Eastern-tinged first movement gives way to enticingly allusive, quintessentially Bulgarian tonalities in the misterioso second, Hirose opting to let it trail out with a ghostly menace.

The chromatically gleaming dance that follows seems on the muted side as well, until she launches into a stilleto attack to set up the cheerier if labyrinthine Ratschenitza coda. With the concluding prelude, Hirose reverts to a glistening, expressive Romanticism, arguably a more chromatic take on Rachmaninoff: her execution of those ratcheting climbs is breathtaking. This is a feast for fans of music from the Balkans as well as more harmonically predictable points further west.

Rapidfire Pyrotechnics From an Iconic Balkan Brass Band

Fanfare Ciocarlia, the iconic brass band, have represented Romania perhaps better than anyone for the past two decades. And they have a new album, It Wasn’t Hard To Love You streaming at Bandcamp. Interestingly, as much as these guys can blast along on a dance tune for minutes on end, most of the songs here are pretty short. And there are a lot of them, a grand total of sixteen jams to get you dancing in minor keys.

They open with a joke, a deadpan brass band cover of Just the Two Of Us, Grover Washington Jr.’s 80s cheeseball smooth jazz hit: it’s pure punk rock. Then the group get down to business. Babo Never Worked a Day has a steady but understated dancefloor thud from drummers Paul Benedikt Stehlescu and Costel “Gisniaca” Ursu and tantalizingly serpentine solos from clarinetist Costel Oprica Ivancea and alto saxophonist Dan Ionel Ivancea.

The Hungarian Wild Bunch features rapidfire staccato trumpets over icepick baritone horns: that’s Costica “Cimai”Trifan, Paul Marian Bulgaru, Craciun Ovidiu Trifan and Lazar Radulescu on trumpets, Laurentiu Mihai Ivancea and Constantin “Sulo” Calin on baritone horns, Mihaita Sergiu Nastase and Vasile Stangaciu on helikon.

The brief and indomitably cheery Pannonicated Polka has vocals. A rough translation from the Romanian:

And when the evening
Turns into an everyday life full of tears
Our younger days are gone
But we barely noticed

Escape From Baltimore turns out to be made via the railroad tracks: gotta love that kettledrum. The lickety-split Song For Noga will take your breath away. The group slow down just a little for the catchy chromatic sway of Hobo Kolo and then go into circus rock bolero territory with The Trumpeter’s Lament.

First Aid Klezmer has clarinet front and center, as you might expect. There are wry classical flourishes in Porsche Polka and spine-tingling microtonal sax in Gypsy Mambo No. 555.

Red Moon has a mix of latin and Balkan flair, and a surprisingly plaintive trumpet solo, while Busbus is packed with all kinds of slyly orchestrated tradeoffs. Demon Dance, predictably, is a springboard for sabretoothed precision but also suspensefully wafting trumpet. Then the band go Cruzzzando El Campooo with hints of cumbia and dixieland.

The “digital bonus track” is Mosquito Swamp, where the horns are so liquid it’s almost as if they’re a giant accordion. It would be out of character for this band – and for this blog – if this wasn’t on the best albums of 2021 list at the end of the year.

Colorful, Upbeat Spanish and Romany Dance Sounds From Caamaño & Ameixeiras

Accordionist Sabela Caamaño and violinist Antía Ameixeiras‘ debut album Aire – streaming at Spotify – is a high-energy, edgy mix of traditional Spanish and Balkan dances and imaginative originals. The duo are occasionally bolstered by mandolin, bass clarinet and trumpet. Most of the themes here are instrumentals, with Ameixeiras occasionally taking a turn on vocals. The duo like long launching pads that rise to explosive crescendos.

They open with Florencio, a jaunty waltz, Ameixeiras’ soaring chords and shivery ornamentation over Caamaño’s alternately precise and lush accordion. They begin the second track, Mercedes y Dolores with a stark, chromatic Romany pulse, then morph it into a circle dance that reaches a wild peak.

Alegria Dio’la Dea, another waltz, is more boisterous – is that a theremin lurking way up in the clouds?

Ameixeiras sings the ballad Se Souberas with an expressive, melismatic Romany-influenced delivery, beginning hazily and rising to unexpected intensity on the wings of her vocal multitracks. Then the two women tackle the tricky Serbian rhythms and shapeshifting themes of Buchimitsa, Carola Ortiz’s bass clarinet lurking on the perimeter.

They return to 3/4 time for La Bal de la Marine, moving between a brooding bolero melody and brighter, musette-esque terrain. The album’s high point is the bracing, Andalucian-tinged waltz Maneo de Cambre, Ameixeiras taking a moody turn on vocals and then trading allusive, plaintive solos with Ortiz’s clarinet.

Maribel is a good segue, a biting, incisively strolling minor-key bounce. True to its title, Transatlantico has a blend of cosmopolitan nuevo tango, bluesy and 80s funk-pop in rustic acoustic disguise, along with one of Caamaño’s most expressive solos.

Valse de Pasmar comes across as a wistful lullaby with more than a hint of dixieland, a droll intro and a cheery muted trumpet solo. The duo wind up the album with the title track, its enigmatic Eastern European harmonies and vocal inflections. What a breath of fresh air this album is – you may be seeing this on a lot of best-of-2021 lists at the end of the year.

Slinky, Metaphorically Loaded, Ecstatic Psychedelia From the Isle of Cyprus

In the depths of the lockdown in his native Cyprus earlier this year, Monsieur Doumani frontman and tzouras lute player Antonis Antoniou persevered, became a one-man band and put out a serpentine, hypnotic solo album. Good news: his main band is back together, and has an ecstatically nocturnal new release, Pissourin streaming at Bandcamp.

This time out the group have switched guitarists, longtime touring member Andys Skordis replacing Angelos Ionas. Demetris Yiasemides returns on trombone, further enhancing the surreal atmosphere. The result is arguably the most enveloping and richly textured record of an already psychedelic career.

The opening number, Tiritichtas is a characteristically undulating, loopy, rembetiko-inspired chromatic theme with half-whispered lyrics about a trickster archetype. Antoniou sings Giorgos Vlamis’ aphoristic lyrics in Greek:

Smile at the emerging shadow
The light gets in if it finds a crack
Break down the clock, enough
Count the minutes with your heart

The rhythms get trickier in Poúlia (Pleiades), trombone serving as bass under the glittering interweave of gritty guitar and icy, oscillating tzouras textures: the trick ending is irresistibly funny. Anchored by a tasty minor-key guitar/tzouras interweave, Kalikandjari is a launching pad for lyricist Marios Epaminondas’s Dionysan tableau: only a crazed joie de vivre can save us at this point.

The group keep the nocturnal elixirs flowing in Koukkoufkiaos (The Owl), its Balkan tinges fueled by the sputtering trombone. They straighten out that pouncing beat a little for the album’s title track (rough translation: Heart of the Night), slinky tzouras climbing to shivery peaks over an increasingly frenetic backdrop.

Martha Frintzila takes over the mic, adding subtle enticement to Thamata (Miracles), Antoniou’s tzouras rippling over the bubble of the trombone. It’s the album’s most epically psychedelic track.

Alavrostishiotis (Sprite) seems to be a New Orleans spirit at heart, Skordis’ keening slide guitar multitracks over a blippy, loopy fourth line of a pulse. Nichtopapparos (Night Bat) is a sinister tale, both the trickiest and most hypnotic number here. The band wind up the album with Astrahan, a bracing, edgy account of menacing mermaid seduction. What a thrill, all the way through. This may be a year that’s been starved for psychedelic sounds, but this is one of the best records of 2021.

Wild, Electrifying Flamenco and Balkan-Flavored Dances From Besarabia

One of the most feral, entertaining albums of the year is Spanish group Besarabia‘s Animal Republic, streaming at youtube. If adrenaline is your thing, this is your jam. Multitracking themselves for a kinetically ornate, Middle Eastern-infused flamenco sound, they make a lot of noise for a trio. Eva Domingo sings, plays davul, darbuka and other percussion. Jaume Pallardo’s primary axe is the Cretan lute, but he also plays oud and baglama, often in the same song. Violist and violinist Heidi Erbrich is not only the lead instrumentalist, more or less, but is also the group’s flamenco dancer.

The first track is The Real Royal Turkey – seemingly referring to the nation, but it’s actually about the bird. Pallardo’s tantalizingly brief lute and oud breaks punch in over Erbrich’s melismatic, modal viola and emphatically syncopated stomp. The group introduce Oroneta with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, then launch into a lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic theme. The hushed interlude toward the end, with Pallardo’s mysterious, muted plucking, comes as a real surprise.

The group follow with the raw, rustic flamenco instrumental El Conte de Talp Que Volia Ser Acell. Giraffe by the Sea is next, an irresistibly picturesque, magic-realist narrative set to punchy syncopation, with incisive lute and more bracing, antique modalities from the viola.

Cants de Balena (Whale Song) is more austere and closer to jazz, with Erbrich’s airy string harmonies and a nimbly scrambling lute solo. The album’s most hypnotically circling number, La Dans de la Serp has allusively Egyptian-inflected modes, a scary false ending, a spacious, all-too-brief oud solo and some neat oud/viola tradeoffs.

Elefanta is a diptych. Part one, La Cacharreria is an absolutely gorgeous, bittersweet lute theme and variations, with another ridiculous, funny spoken-word break from Domingo. The second half, Altibajos begins with an enigmatic viola melody and takes on more Arabic tinges as the group pounce along.

Perdut has a sparse, wistful lullaby quality. El Gato Rubato – a song that needed to be written, right? – turns out to be an amusing, high-voltage flamenco number. This cat does what he damn well pleases. The band wind up the album with the austere, elegaic counterpoint of Spider Tears. This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Acoustic Reggae and Similar Rarities by a Fixture of the NYC Parks Concert Circuit on the Upper East

Other than Bob Marley’s iconic Redemption Song – “How long must they kill our brothers while we stand aside and look?” – there’s hardly any acoustic reggae. In fourteen and a half years of concerts in what was once the live music capitol of North America, this blog and its predecessor covered exactly one acoustic reggae show, by Jamaican toaster I-Wayne. And that was a private performance for media, in the fall of 2011 in a west side studio with ganja smoke seeping out through cracks in the door.

But if you’re in Manhattan on Oct 29 and you can get to Second Avenue and 90th St. by 3 PM, you might see some acoustic reggae when ukulele player Dahlia Dumont and her group the Blue Dahlia play Ruppert Park.

Dumont has been plugged into the municipal concert circuit for the past several years, and her passion for reggae and ska matches her fondness for playing outdoors. She writes in English and her native French, in lots of other styles ranging from French varietés pop to Balkan music. Her most recent, characteristically eclectic album La Tradition Américaine got the thumbs up here in 2018.

She’s put out more material since that record, streaming at her music page. At the top, there’s Betty, a characteristically bouncy, horn-spiced quasi-ska song encouraging everybody to stop complaining about the status quo and police brutality, and go out and vote. En Dehors du Temps (Outside of Time) is a lot quieter, a wistfully waltzing familial reminiscence. Dumont recorded The Walls during the 2020 lockdown, an understatedly angst-fueled piano ballad about a relationship interrupted by fascist travel restrictions. “If we make it to the other side, will you be much changed?” she asks, speaking for as many people as Marley did with Redemption Song.

Nobody at this blog has ever caught a full set by Dumont. The closest was about the last twenty minutes of a show where she squeezed a good-sized band, including guitar, accordion and rhythm section, into an intimate Park Slope space a few months before the album came out. Dumont has also been a fixture at the annual late-November outdoor music festival that ran down Broadway from Dante Park across from Lincoln Center down to Columbus Circle. She brought a stripped-down trio to those shows, as she most likely will do at the Upper East Side park gig. She has an expressive voice, boundless energy and a sense of humor, all things we all could use right now.

Becca Stevens and the Secret Trio Team Up For Balkan and Middle Eastern-Tinged Magic

Since the zeros, songwriter Becca Stevens has built a distinctive and often brilliant body of work, playing shapeshifting art-rock and chamber pop with a rotating cast who typically draw on a jazz background. She’s also an aptly quirky and brilliant reinterpreter of Bjork.

The Secret Trio are one of the world’s foremost Near Eastern ensembles. Stevens’ decision to collaborate with them has paid off with the best album she has ever made, streaming at Spotify. It’s unlike anything else that’s ever been recorded.

The album opens with Flow in My Tears, a catchy, loopily rhythmic, vaguely Indian-tinged tone poem of sorts. Ismail Lumanovski’s clarinet looms broodingly within the lattice of Ara Dinkjian’s oud and Tamer Pınarbaşı’s kanun. Is the line “flow in my tears,” or “flow in my beer?” Both? Either one works.

Pınarbaşı’s elegant ripples prove to make a perfect background, Dinkjian adding magical textures in Bring It Back, a simple, lilting trip-hop tune. The tantalizingly brief, achingly melismatic clarinet solo toward the end is the icing on the cake.

Stevens builds enigmatic, misty multitracks over more Indian-flavored trip-hop in We Were Wrong. Sometimes Dinkjian plays a simple bassline, sometimes breaking the surface, Lumanovski adding mysterious accents. Stevens’ guitar mingles with the ripples from the kanun from the oud in California, an uneasy, enigmatic nocturne with what seem to be references to the refugee crisis.

Lumanovski’s otherworldly dipping, floating lines introduce Stevens’ mighty, wordless one-woman choir in Eleven Roses, a gorgeously Armenian-flavored tableau. Her ripe, moody vocals echo Jenifer Jackson in Lucian, a trickily rhythmic, equally gorgeous tune, Dinkjian anchoring the soaring, flurrying lines of the clarinet and kanun: Pınarbaşı’s solo will give you goosebumps.

Stevens contemplates a refuge “away from the noisy crowd, where I can see the pale stars rising” in Pathways, a magical blend of the Balkans and catchy American janglerock. Lush layers of vocals float over spare, loopy phrases throughout the next track, Maria

Lullaby For the Sun is a cheerfully lilting pre-dusk theme that gives way to a brief, poignant oud solo before Stevens picks up the pace again. The group imaginatively recast a very Beatlesque riff as incisive Balkan music in The Eye, a metaphorically loaded view of individual powers of perception. The four musicians close this magically cross-pollinated collaboration with a swaying, optimistic, soaring anthem, For You the Night Is Still.

This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.