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Tag: balkan music

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 enigmagic, 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.

Prophetic, Hauntingly Gorgeous, Insightful New Music and Spoken Word From Tessa Lena

For the past several years, investigative journalist Tessa Lena has been one of the most prophetic and poetic observers of how digital technology has empowered creeping fascism on a global scale. With last year’s lockdown here in New York, her work gained traction exponentially. Her Substack feed quickly became a must-read for anyone trying to make sense of what’s happened since.

But she’s also a breathtakingly powerful singer and instrumentalist. Last summer, she took one of her most succinct and portentously accurate pieces, The Physical World Is the Only World We Have (a longer version of the lyrics appears here) and turned it into a gorgeous mosaic of spoken word and haunting, Armenian-tinged soundscape. Her wordless vocals as she reaches for the sky will give you chills. A good digital approximation of an electric mandolin, or a balalaika, maybe, adds spare bittersweetness. The whole piece is streaming at her podcast, Make Language Great Again. Tessa Lena’s commentary is as grimly funny as it is insightful and poignant:

Data’s rotten,
Tests are toast.
News is sullen,
Coast to coast.
Feudal darkness
Here and now!
To the masters
Peasants bow.
Facts are fiction,
Love is screen.
Gossip’s trending,
Trends are mean.
Hear, hear,
Where’s the joy
Ask Alexa.
She’ll annoy.

We are all losing our minds….I know that long-term stress is very effective in turning off human ability to think straight. Once we’ve been battered for a long enough time, our sensory patterns will be damaged sufficiently, and we’ll be so exhausted and hungry for any semblance of joy that we’ll accept anything to be allowed to do basic things in the world. To breathe. To laugh. To be a little bit alive, to be a little bit free, no matter how short the digital leash. We are like frogs in a pot of water that is warming up. We are getting used to it…we are at a major crossroads, and I am positive that the time to be fully human—not cyborg—is now….

Something terrible is happening to us, and it is not a drill. It is very complex and very trivial. It is imminent and cumulative. Every small fragment of the disaster can be explained in a respectable way, but the big picture is terrifying. We’ve given up our senses and our ancient instincts, but our leaders have no heads. We are not in good hands. We are shackled to a broken algorithm. We are on our own, and the sooner we realize it, the better our chance of surviving.

The Tiptons Sax Quartet Release the Funnest Jazz Album of the Year So Far

Since the zeros, the Tiptons Saxophone Quartet have been making some of the most lusciously irreverent music in jazz. Their deviously entertaining latest album Wabi Sabi is streaming at Bandcamp. Joined by their longtime drummer and ringer dude Robert Kainar, the four reedwomen fire off one catchy, harmonically rich number after another, drawing on styles from Romany brass to soca to dixieland and many points in between. Their music is picturesque, upbeat and occasionally cartoonish. Everybody in the band writes, and sings – or at least vocalises. This is one of the funnest and funniest albums of the year.

The album’s opening track is December’s Dance, by baritone player Tina Richerson. It’s an acerbically pulsing blend of Ellingtonian lustre and dusky Ethiopian chromatics, Kainar pushing the song deeper toward funk as the solos around the horn peak out with a wild crescendo from alto player Amy Denio.

Similarly, Denio’s El Gran Orinador is a Balkan/latin brass band mashup with a dixieland-like horn intertwine, Richerson playing the tuba bassline on her baritone. Tenor player Jessica Lurie’s friendly ghost of a solo as Kainar squirrels around is one of the album’s high points. The title track, by tenor player Sue Orfield balances lushly triumphant harmonies with a spare, camelwalking Afrobeat groove and a soaring, carefree vocalese solo.

A Sparkley Con, by Lurie has a lithely undulating New Orleans second-line rhythm, Richerson again playing the tuba role beneath the cheer overhead before cutting loose with a tersely bluesy solo. Root Dance, a second Denio tune has Serbian flair in the horns’ biting chromatics, dramatic vocalese and tricky rhythm: the precision of Orfield and Lurie’s tenors fluttering like a trumpet section is breathtaking.

Kainar’s keening cymbal harmonics gently launch a spacey intro to Torquing of the Spheres, an especially resonant Lurie composition, goes slinking along in 10/8, the composer taking a tersely spiraling solo on soprano. The band head to Trinidad, with some New Orleans mixed into Richerson’s lively but enveloping Jouissance.

Memory Bait, by Orfield is part punchy go-go tune, part action movie theme and a launching pad for some of the album’s most ambitiously adrenalizing solos. Denio’s final composition here is Moadl Joadl, a Balkan tune with a broodingly atmospheric intro that lightens when the dancing rhythm comes in.

Lurie manages to build the album’s lushest brass band evocation in 3x Heather’s 17, maintaining the tricky Balkan rhythm around a wryly suspenseful drum break. The album winds up with Orfield’s Working Song, shifting from a rather somber oldtime gospel theme to echoes of a 19th century field holler mashed up with Afrobeat and reggae, This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Fun fact: the band take their name from Billy Tipton, a well-known saxophonist and bandleader who was born biologically female but managed to live and perform as a man for decades, at a time when it was almost as daunting to be a woman in jazz as it was to dress as a member of the opposite sex. How far we’ve come – one hopes, anyway.

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 Look Back at an Imaginatively Crafted Balkan Folk Album

Balkan singer Eugenia Georgieva’s album Po Drum Mome (A Girl on the Road) – streaming at Spotify – came out in the spring of 2018. It’s an original, captivating, cross-pollinated take on ancient folk tunes from Bulgaria and the Black Sea. The arrangements are elegant, yet not sterile.

Georgieva is the kind of international artist you would have expected to see at Golden Fest. She never made it to New York’s annual Balkan music extravaganza, but if all goes well we will get a Golden Fest 2022.

She sings the first song, Gyul Devoyche (A Girl Like a Rose) very tenderly over a spring-loaded backdrop of bandura, guitar, gadulka fiddle and a lushly flurrying, Egyptian-tinged string section.

The second track, Deno, Sreburno Vreteno (Silver Spindle) is a lilting waltz with dancing, chirping bagpipes over elegant guitar chords and simple bass. The album’s title track is a classic Bulgarian theme with bracing close harmonies, those signature whoops, and tightly clustering strings, bagpipe and bandura.

Then she completely slows things down with the hazily melancholy Podzim Sum, Male, Legnala, which could be a pastoral British rock ballad with Balkan instrumentation: in the song, a dying mother regrets leaving her children behind. Brayne Le Ivane (Hey, Brother Ivan) has a delicate lilt fueled by bagpipes and gadulka, and a rousing chorale at the end. The gist of the song is that a hardworking wife beats a beautiful one. 

Georgieva kicks off Sama Li Si Den Zhunala with imploring melismas over deliciously shivery gadulka, the group building suspense before they leap into this popular, acerbically catchy minor-key linedance tune. Likewise, Zmey Lyubi Moma (Dragon in Love), a beloved staple of the Bulgarian folk repertoire, gets reinvented with lots of spacious, improvisational interludes and suspense along with the expected quavery microtones and tricky rhythms.

Buenek (translated on the album as Lazar at the Gates) has a bouncy Greek feel. Georgieva returns to the Bulgarian canon for the thorny rhythms and minor keys of Ivan Bulya Si Dumashe.

She delivers Trugnala Rada (Rada and the Night) –  a tale of resistance against the tyranny of the Ottoman empire – mostly a-cappella with a wary, melismatic intensity, exchanging occasional riffs with the chirps of the kaval flute. She closes the record with the rather stark, delicately pulsing Oy, Toyne, Toyne, a road song. On one hand, this album doesn’t have the unhinged wildness of a lot of music from this part of the world; on the other, the arrangements are fresh and as unpredictable as the music itself even if they are somewhat more polished.

The Eva Quartet Take Ancient, Otherworldly Bulgarian Choral Music to New Places

Bulgarian choral quartet the Eva Quartet’s new album Minka – streaming at Spotify – is a lot more eclectic than most collections of centuries-old, otherworldly music from the Balkans. In the same vein as the original popularizers of the tradition, Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares – with whom all four members of the quartet have sung – they take their otherworldly close harmonies, surreal whoops and shivery ornamentation to more recent places.

On this album, that means hints of Indian rhythms and melody, plus more modern songs by Stefan Dragostinov, Ivan Spassov and Dimitar Hristov, leader of the Bulgarian National Radio Folk Orchestra. As you would expect, most of the numbers here are on the short side, under three minutes, sometimes much less, occasionally bolstered by percussion or gadulka. This recording is often balanced by the high harmonies in one channel, the lower ones in the other, which actually works against the tension created by the harmonic adjacencies and microtones common to Bulgarian music. On the other hand, if you’re looking to isolate your own harmony when singing this, it makes your job a lot easier.

Sometimes the innovations – doot-doot rhythms in the fourth track, for example – add a humorous touch. Elsewhere, the four women – Gergana Dimitrova, Sofia Kovacheva, Evelina Christova and Daniela Stoichkova – ]energetically walk the maze of tricky rhythms, melismas and the occasional thicket of tonguetwisting syllables. By contrast, slow overlays of melody shift through the sonic picture in Spassov’s austere Balno Li Ti E Sinjo Ljo….only to give way to rapidfire operatics.

The aching, muted lustre of Razvivay, Dobro Povivay (Let’s Go, Get Your Clothes On) contrasts with the vocal acrobatics of the miniature after that, as well as Hristov’s Leme Dreme, with its playful tug-of-war between gadulka and vocals. And the drones of the album’s final cut are stunningly unwavering. Folk music never stands still: it’s always evolving, and this album is a good idea of where one of the world’s edgiest, most popular flavors is going.

Hard-Rocking Balkan Brass, Romany and Indian-Flavored Sounds From Black Masala

Black Masala‘s 2016 album I Love You Madly made the best albums of the year list here; at the time, this blog equated them to a Washington, DC counterpart to Slavic Soul Party. The Washington DC group’s most recent album, Trains and Moonlight Destinies – streaming at Bandcamp – rocks harder, with more of a roaring punk edge, through a typically diverse mix of Balkan, Indian and hard funk themes.

The album’s title track is closer to Gogol Bordello than the Slavic Soul guys, layers of guitars beneath the blazing brass of trumpeter Steven C and trombonist Kirsten Warfield, pushed along by Monty Montgomery’s oompahing Balkan ska sousaphone. The band’s axeman Duff Davis contributes a slashing doubletracked guitar solo.

Percussionist Kristen Long takes over the mic, adding a sultry edge to the dramatically pouncing Midnight Bhangra. Again, there’s as much guitar roar as biting brass here, like Red Baraat at their most rock-oriented. Above the Clouds could be a majestic early 70s Earth Wind & Fire hit…with a sousaphone.

Drummer Mike Ounallah hits a strutting minor-key Balkan reggae groove with Tell Me Again, Davis slashing through the mix when he isn’t doing droll chicken-scratch accents. The party anthem Empty Bottles shifts between brassy rocksteady and ska; then the band mash up New Orleans with Bo Diddley in Whatcha Gonna Do,

The kiss-off anthem Big Man is a mix of Balkan brass, hip-hop and punk rock, trumpet and trombone duking it out from opposite channels. The band wind up the album with the deliriously blasting Romany dancefloor stomp Chaje Shukarije.

Vividly Nuanced Rainy-Day Balkan Songs From Amira Medunjanin

Amira Medunjanin is a very subtle singer. The Bosnian chanteuse doesn’t overdo it: she draws you into her poignant Balkan songs. Her darkly thoughtful, jazz-tinged 2015 album Damar is streaming at Spotify.

The album’s first track, Pjevat Cemo Sta Nam Srce Zna (We’ll Sing What the Heart Knows) is a calmly syncopated, elegant blend of pensive minor-key Mitteleuropean folk and jazz. Likewise, Tvojte Oci Leno Mori is a spare, hushed, balletesque take on what could be a boisterous fiddle-driven Balkan dance.

Medunjanin’s quiet, loomingly plaintive vocals over moody cello and guitar as the rubato ballad Vjetar Nuzu Poloikuje gets underway transcends any linguistic limitation; then Bojan Zulfikarpašić’s slightly out-of-tune piano adds Chopinesque ripples to the mix

Delicate echo phrases from the acoustic guitars – Boško Jović and Ante Gelo -introduce the trickily rhythmic Romany song More Izgrejala Sjajna Mesecina (rough translation: Moonlight on the Ocean), livened by rippling piano over the nimble rhythm section (bassist Zvonimir Šestak and Zulfikarpašić doing double duty on percussion).

With its spare, fingerpicked guitar-and-vocal intro and a ringing Portuguese guitar solo midway through, Kad Ja Podoh Na Bentbasu has echoes of fado music. Medunjanin’s tenderly ornamented vocals mingle with spare, spacious, echoing piano in Moj Golube, Moj Golube (My Love, My Love).

Passion simmers but never quite spills over the edge of the pot in Moj Dilbere, a pulsingly suspenseful, chromatically charged Romany love song: Jenny Luna’s work with magical Turkish band Dolunay comes to mind. The album’s hypnotic, almost conspiratorial title cut has bolero, blues and surreal doubletracked piano and organ cached within its minimalist jazz pulse. Medunjanin saves her most impassioned, imploring vocal for the album’s final cut, Aj Sto Cemo Ljubav Kriti, over a pensive expanse of low-key flamenco-esque guitar.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamaki Khadem

Mamaki Khadem and her band play a frequently psychedelic-tinged take on most of what you can hear at Golden Fest, New York’s funnest annual concert weekend, a celebration of music from across Iran, the Balkans, Mediterranean and Middle East. What a blessing that Golden Fest 2020 took place before the lockdown! For those who missed it, Mamaki Khadem’s absolutely gorgeous, haunting 2016 album The Road is streaming at Spotify.

The first track, A Thousand Strings, is a well-known Bulgarian choral piece, with the usual otherworldly close harmonies from the women in the band, but also chilly synthesized orchestration…and sizzling flamenco guitars exchanging solos. The second cut, Romance, is completely different, a one-chord jam with warmer harmonies over a trip-hop groove, shards of overtones flying from bagpipes and violin.

Do, Don’t is a briskly strutting, slyly jubilant, chromatic Balkan brass number with a potently raw, melismatic lead vocal. Flaming Sun, a brooding soundscape, has imploring vocals. microtonal clarinet and spare bandura lute over a low, looming drone. The group segue into High Sea, a determined, bouncy, Turkish-tinged tune, its calm vocals contrasting with the edgy chromatics of the accordion, fiddle and setar lute.

One of the album’s most strangely psychedelic numbers Little Gem has gamelanesque chimes, tender vocals and a stark breakdown for the string section midway through. Stardust, the album’s most distinctly Middle Eastern flavored track, has spiky oud, echoey piano and viscerally imploring vocals over steady syncopation.

Navaii, a moody soundscape for vocals, bagpipe and synthy backdrop, segues into Pledge, a low-key one-chord jam which for one reason or another evokes ancient English folk music more than it does Iran or the Balkans.

The band elegantly assemble a ghostly choir, chimes, tremoloing lead vocals, flute and strings in Huntsman, an only slightly restrained, gorgeous Balkan anthem. They close the album with the fiery, trumpet-fueled, rat-a-tat brass tune Those Eyes. It’s hard to think of another band who’ve been able to negotiate so many incredibly diverse styles with as much expertise and unrestrained fun as this crew.