Wild, polyglot eight-piece British band She’Koyokh blast through music from across the global Jewish diaspora with the same fiery intensity they bring to feral old folk songs from the Balkans. Fronted by haunting Kurdish-Turkish chanteuse Cigdem Aslan – who recently earned a rave review here for her otherworldly solo album, Mortissa, a collection of Turkish and Greek rembetiko anthems – the band also includes members from the US, UK, Greece and Serbia. They may play big European concert halls now, but they got their start busking, and that jamband energy still resonates throughout their latest album Wild Goats & Unmarried Women, just out from World Music Network and streaming at their album page.
Too many recordings of folk music are overproduced and sterile; others drown the melodies in elaborate arrangements, or add schlocky pop elements like synths and drum machines. She’Koyokh are all about big crescendos and blistering solos. Mandolinist Ben Samuels tremolo-picks for a suspensefully flurrying sound like a balalaika. Clarinetist Susi Evans rips through lightning-fast chromatic runs with a stiletto precision alongside Zivorad Nikoli’s equally adrenalizing accordion, Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton’s sharp-fanged violin and Matt Bacon’s similarly incisive, Djangoesque guitar. Nimble bassist Paul Tkachenko doubles on tuba, and percussionist Vasilis Sarikis lays down a snaky, slinky beat utilizing a large collection of Balkan and Middle Eastern hand drums.
The album’s title track is a Turkish billy goat dance – you can guess what that’s about. It’s arguably the most exciting song here, Aslan and the band winding their way through a firestorm of microtones up to a hard-hitting, chromatically-fueled chorus. They take Esmera Min with its darkly catchy South Serbian inflections and give it a sly cumbia groove. Then a trio of tunes that give a shout out to – A) legendary pre-WWII Soviet song-gatherer Moishe Beregovsky, B) Hungarian country shtetls and C) klezmer clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein – serves as a launching pad for high-voltage solos from guitar and clarinet.
Bacon’s icepick, Djangoesque precision fuels the Moldavian dance Hora del Munte. The band scampers tightly together through the traditional Romanian Romany shuffle Tiganeasca De La Pogoanele and then turns the clarinet and guitar loose on the flamenco-tinged diptych Poco Le Das La Mi Consuegra/ Scottishe ‘Saint Julien,’ a tale of warring Sephardic mothers-in-law. Bacon choose his spots and then Evans ramps up the suspense on the swaying Greek overnight-ferry theme Argitikos Kalamatianos. They keep the flame burning low on the expansively jazzy Greek lament Selanik Turkusu. a groom pleading for more time with his cholera-stricken fiancee.
You wait for the blithely trilling Bulgarian dance Kopano Horo to go creepy and chromatic, and the waiting pays off – then it gets all happy and bouncy again. The band does the same thing, but really makes you wait for the payoff, with the Serbian tune Jasenièko Kolo/Miloševka Kolo. An ancient Bosian love song, Moj Dilbere gets a bittersweet treatment, a deliciously shivery accordion solo and an angst-fueled coda from Aslan as she takes it up and out.
Der Filsof /Flatbush Waltz pairs a satirical inside joke about warring rabbis in the Hasidic community with a sad, lushly pensive theme. The long medley Svatbarska Rachenitsa/Yavuz Geliyor & La Comida La Mañana vamps and burns through Bulgaria, Turkey and Spain over a clattering, boomy groove, through searing violin and clarinet solos – it seems designed as a big crowd-pleaser. The Greek Amarantos/Tsamikos is a showcase for the band’s moody side, Evans and Aslan leading the way. There’s also Limonchiki, popularized by Soviet crooner Leonid Utyosov in the 1930s, a distinctly Russian take on Cab Calloway-style hi-de-ho noir. You like esoterica? Adrenaline? This one’s for you.