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Wild Balkan Brass Icons Slavic Soul Party Stage a Queens Blowout

How cool is it when you find out you were in the crowd when one of your favorite bands was making a a live album? This blog was in the house on August 20, 2019 when Brooklyn’s best-loved Balkan brass band, Slavic Soul Party recorded a handful of tunes which appear on their latest concert record, streaming at Bandcamp.

What was the show like? Blurry. That was one wild night. If you missed it – or the mostly-weekly Tuesday night series in Park Slope that they played for the better part of sixteen years before the 2020 lockdown – you can hear them outdoors on August 2 at 7 PM at Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City. You can take the 7 to Vernon-Jackson, walk to 48th Ave. and take it straight to the river, or take the G to 21st/Van Alst, take 45th Ave. as far toward the water as you can and then make a left.

Back in 2016, Slavic Soul Party put out a deviously erudite Balkan brass remake of Duke Ellington’s Far East Suite, and the opening number, Amad opens this record. Accordionist Peter Stan provides an intro to this version, from March of the following year, launching a suspenseful river of sound, then torrents of chromatics, then the brass kick in over the clip-clip beat of Matt Moran’s bubanj. Tapan drummer Chris Stromquist keeps a slinky groove going on as the horns pulse closer and closer to New Orleans.

Nizo’s Merak, from one of the band’s last pre-lockdown shows there in November, 2019, begins as one of the Balkan/hip-hop mashups they made a name for themselves with and shifts into bracing, chromatic Serbian territory on the wings of a trumpet solo. For a band who had so many members who play in other projects, it’s remarkable how little the lineup has changed over the years. That’s John Carlson and Kenny Warren on trumpets, Peter Hess on sax, Tim Vaughn and Adam Dotson on trombones and Kenny Bentley on tuba.

Considering how much of a party the Tuesday night residency was, the split-second precision of the horns on this July, 2018 version of Balada is pretty amazing, Stan’s liquid accordion lines holding it together. Same with the rapidfire minor-key brass flurries over the subtle side-step rhythm in Romano Pravo, from the March 2017 gig. The tantalizingly brief accordion-and-drums breakdown was always a big audience hit, and this is a prime example.

Truth is one of their rarer, slower, more balmy numbers, Stan methodically working his way from choosing his spots to his usual supersonic pirouettes. The next number, 323 is a showcase for the band’s funkier side. The three tunes from the August 20, 2019 show – Romski Merak, Sing Sing Čoček, and Missy Sa-sa – appear here as an increasingly delirious, roughly seventeen-minute suite that covers pretty much all the bases. Steve Duffy plays tuba here as the band fire off biting doublestops, enigmatic whole-note solos, and a couple of hailstorm drum breaks.

After a brief rat-a-tat “Latino Band Medley,” the band close with FYC, a feast of disquieting Eastern European tonalities with a couple of careening trumpet and trombone solos recorded in July of 2018.

Since these are field recordings that the band released as merch during the time that disgraced ex-Governor Andrew Cuomo had criminalized live music in New York, the sound is on the trebly side, although there surprisingly isn’t a lot of audience noise. At the Queens show, you won’t be able to hear any of the “amazing music that Quince puts on at the end of the night” at the Park Slope gigs, as the group mention on the Bandcamp page. But all New Yorkers will be able to see the show since the bar was weaponized to discriminate against patrons who didn’t take the lethal Covid injection.

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.

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.

Wildly Diverse, Exhilarating Iranian and Balkan Sounds From Mamak Khadem

Mamak 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, 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.

Sweeping, Majestic Bosnian Noir From Amira Medunjanin and Trondheim Solistene

One of the most gorgeously haunting albums to come over the transom here in the last couple of years is Bosnian chanteuse Amira Medunjanin’s 2018 symphonic record Ascending with Norwegian string orchestra Trondheim Solistene, streaming at Spotify. A lot of these songs are popular staples of the Balkan repertoire, but they’ve seldom had as much towering, angst-fueled grandeur as Medunjanin and the ensemble give them here.

The first track, Gde Si Duso Gde Si Rano (Where Are You, Love) begins with a well-known, haunting blues riff from the strings. Medunjanin has never sung better, utilizing a plaintive rubato as the orchestra hold a mutedly fluttering minor-key resonance behind her. What a way to start the record.

Sve Pticice Zapjevale (All the Birds Were Singing) is just as haunting, Medunjanin’s tender, almost whispery voice over pizzicato violins and a velvety lushness behind that. The orchestra and piano pick up the pace dramatically and then hit a suspenseful lull in Oj Meglica (The Mist), a pillowy, bouncy, cabaret-tinged ballad.

Snijeg Pade Na Behar Na Voce is a dynamic, imaginatively orchestrated Romany  winter dance…with prepared piano and orchestra, and an epic sweep, and an elegantly fanged piano solo that put the many other versions out there to shame. The angst-fueled ballad Si Zaljubiv Edno Momce has a spare, windswept, moodily expectant atmosphere, with eerily tinkling piano, spare guitar and distant airiness.

Medunjanin’s version of Moj Dilbere has a slinky, Egyptian-tinged chromatic sweep anchored by the low strings. She and the ensemble begin Ja Izlezi Gjurgjo (Get Out, Gjurgjo) with a gentle, drifting ambience and shift toward more emphatic, joyously dancing territory.

They keep the sweep going in Êto Te Nema (Since You’ve Gone), rising back and forth longingly out of a terse acoustic guitar melody. Hearing the ecstatic Romany brass tune Ajde Jano Kolo Da Igramo done with a genteel pulse, a piano and a string section is a trip, but it works.

The album’s shortest number is Tiho Noci Moje Zlato Spava, a pensive guitar-and-strings instrumental lullaby. They bring the album full circle with Nestaces Iz Mog Ivota (You’re Going to Leave Me), with a conspiratorial, wee-hours piano ambience. Nobody knows the poignancy of living in the shadows like the Eastern Europeans.

So where the hell was this blog when the album came out? Back in 2018, New York Music Daily’s focus was live music in New York. Waiting for the moment Medunjanin would come back to town at a price the general public could afford proved to be futile. But we still have this record.

Revisiting Fiery Violinist Briga’s Wildly Eclectic Balkan Album

Quebecoise violinist Brigitte Dajczer, who performs under the name Briga for branding’s sake, put out a 2017 album, Femme, which made the best albums of year page here, Then it disappeared into the abyss known as this blog’s hard drive. If you missed it then, you missed a deliciously entertaining mix of songs from across the Balkans along with several similarly diverse originals. Looking at the international cast of special guests on it, it’s obvious that they knew she was on to something good. She sings in French and several Eastern European languages as well. The album is still up at Bandcamp.

The first track is Ibrahim, a bouncingly bittersweet love song with a break for a wildfire solo by kanun player Didem Bagar. New York’s own Eva Salina supplies otherworly harmonies on the tightly pulsing Albanian song Dada Do Ta Shes, the bandleader opening it with a stark solo over accordionist Alix Noel’s drone. As the song goes on, he switches to synth for wry P-Funk textures, bassist Gregoire Carrier-Bonneau hitting a nimbly syncopated groove in tandem with drummer Marton Maderspach and percussionist Tacfarinas Kichou.

Accordionist Sergiu Popa duets with Dajczer on the fleetingly joyful Romanian song Dragoi. Svetulka Rachenitsa, a breathless south Serbian-flavored dance tune, features alto saxophonist Ariane Morin matching Dajcer’s ferocity; Noel’s eerily blipping keys add an unexpected psychedelic edge.

Guest chanteuse Tamar Ilana opens the slow, haunting epic Pour Pelin – inspired by Marcel Khalife’s Asfour – with a sharply plaintive solo over another accordion drone. Again, Bagar’s kanun ripples and pounces, then hands off to the string section (which also includes cellist Gael Huard) and the music grows more lushly orchestral.

Elfassi is a rai hip-hop tune with an amusing stoner rap in French from Giselle Numba One. The album’s itle track is an icepick-precise mashup of Balkan brass and salsa, Briga’s violin leaping over an undulating, tumbling groove featuring trombonist Rachel Lemisch. Briga and singer/violinist Iva Bittova duet on the stark, stripped-down dance tune Mama Irena.

Cafe Sarajevo is a fond, trippy, North African-flavored disco portait of a party spot there, inspired by rai music legend Cheika Rimitti. Briga really picks up the pace and cuts loose on the rapidfire, strutting minor-key Chanson Moldave…and then they speed it up some more! Eva Salina and Popa close the album with a calmly passionate, benedictory duet. From a New York perspective, this is Golden Fest in a box. May we get a Golden Fest in 2021.

A Long-Awaited, Darkly Brilliant Gem of a Debut Album From Ben Holmes’ Naked Lore

Over the past couple of years, trumpeter Ben HolmesNaked Lore trio became one of the most consistently edgy, entertaining bands in the Barbes scene. Considering how many dozens of other great artists rotate through Brooklyn’s best (and currently shuttered) music venue, that’s a major achievement.

But Holmes has been a mainstay, playing everything from klezmer to ska there since the zeros, and guitarist Brad Shepik and multi-percussionist Shane Shanahan have long resumes in jazz that slinks toward the Middle East. With this group, the goal is to reinvent old klezmer themes and introduce new ones. If you’re a fan of old Jewish folk tunes from across the diaspora, you’ll hear a lot of familiar minor-key riffs here, beamed down to a completely new planet. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp.

They open the album with a diptych, Invocation 1/Snake Money, an airy, spacious, allusively chromatic trumpet solo leading into a suspensefully pulsing, flamenco-tinged groove. From there Shepik’s fleet-fingered flurries and Shanahan’s snakecharmer beats underpin the bandleader’s lively, spacious, klezmer-infused phrasing. Ibrahim Maalouf’s most upbeat work comes to mind.

The second track is titled 543, a Smile, and Bullshit, reflecting Holmes wry stage presence as well as the whole group’s immersion in Balkan music. This one has a tricky groove that seems Macedonian, deliciously biting upper-register chords from Shepik, trumpet floating and trilling uneasily overhead..

Shepik plays clanging, overtone-laden Portuguese twelve-string guitar in the steady, jauntily strolling, tantalizingly gorgeous Swamplands Chusidl and sticks with it in the hypnotically circling Interlude on Avenue J, a throwback to the more postbop jazz-inflected style Holmes mined on his Balkan jazz record Gold Dust.

Another crystalline, unsettled trumpet taqsim, Invocation II leaps and bounds, introducing The Dust of Unremembering; Shepik runs a moody acoustic guitar loop as Shanahan fires off machinegunning riffs and Holmes hangs low and ominous, a stormcloud above all the scampering.

The Sunbeast Emerges, with its moody bolero tinges, is another killer track: it sounds like a Serbian take what could be a catchy, incisive Michael Winograd tune, no surprise considering how much time Holmes has spent in the clarinetist’s band. Shepik’s spiraling, spine-tingling solo is one of the album’s high points.

Two Oh No’s and an Oh! no No! is not a Yoko Ono paraphrase: it’s a dusky, Indian-flavored theme built around a Shepik chromatic loop, Holmes moodily choosing his spots over Shanahan’s clip-clop attack, the guitarist adding a wickedly Middle Eastern solo.

First We Were Sad, Then We Danced is a pretty self-explanatory hora, a high-voltage concert favorite: the trio add smoldering flamenco flavor and then an absolutely surreal new wave rock pulse. They wind up the album with the unselfconsciously poignant waltz All Together, a subtle mix of klezmer, pastoral American jazz and the Balkans.

All of these guys have done great work over the years but this is a high point for everybody in the band. No wonder they’ve stuck together so long. If it makes sense to put up a best albums of 2020 page at the end of the year – if New York still exists at the end of the year, if we all exist – this will be on it.

Calmly Yet Adventurously Exploring Slavic Vocal Traditions with Kitka

All-female Bay Area choral ensemble Kitka love exploring vocal traditions from Eastern Europe to parts of the former Soviet Union. Beyond that eclecticism, they distinguish themselves with their collective vocal range: this unit has strong contraltos to balance out all the soaring highs. Their vast twenty-two track album Evening Star is streaming at Bandcamp. Although a lot of their material is very rhythmically sophisticated, there’s a mystical, reassuring calm to much of it, a welcome antidote to the terror of the coronavirus scare.

The opening medley of Bulgarian carols is a lot of fun, with a very cool contrast between an increasingly complex, stately web of counterpoint and a triumphant “wheeee” bursting from every corner of the stereo picture. That contrapuntal complexity returns again in songs from Romania and Latvia.

They have just as much fun with the eerie close harmonies and swooping, melismatic ornamentation of several more Bulgarian and Serbian tunes. They spice a Latvian round with strange, surreal, looming percussion. In one of the Ukrainian tunes, a couple of the group’s most distinctive voices add striking timbres over an increasingly delirious backdrop anchored by boomy bass drum. The group interpolate a a Greek tune – with a swooping, melismatic Indian flavor- within a brooding Appalachian-tinged folk song, the only one from these shores here.

The album also includes a calm, Renaissance-tinged Russian hymn; a spare, hypnotic Georgian piece and a triptych of Yiddish lullabies over a wafting midrange drone. There are love songs, laments and a peasant work song. Among all the solos, the single mightiest one is at the end of a steady, swaying Ukrainian number. They wind up the album with a Yiddish tune and finally break out the accordion, memorably. In the centuries before the magic rectangle took over the collective imagination, this is what people used to do with their time.

A Brooklyn Brass Legend Keeps on Blasting at Barbes

It was so much fun to just sit and actually listen for once to Slavic Soul Party on a Tuesday night.

That’s the trouble with Barbes. The original Brooklyn Balkan brass band’s weekly residency there goes back to the bar’s second year, fifteen years ago. If you’ve seen them since then, you inevitably run into friends, who give you the choice of either dissing them or not paying attention to the band. And you can’t dis your friends.

Slavic Soul Party’s Golden Fest time slot a couple of weeks ago was on the early side: usually they play the big ballroom, late. That show turned out to be more of a jam, the group eventually forsaking the stage for the center of a shifting morasss of circling dancers. The band’s second set of their final January Barbes installment was more straight-up minor-key intensity than Balkan chromatics,, at least for the first few songs.

The catchy tuba basslines are key. The first number had a simple four-chord progression that’s been used in a million rock songs: you wouldn’t normally associate Neil Young with music from Eastern Europe, but some riffs are catchy no matter where you come from.

As usual, the place was packed. Was that Matt Moran who took that almost venomously crescendoing trumpet solo toward the end of the set? It was hard to see. As usual, the band took over the center of the room at one point, forcing anybody who wasn’t already either dancing or intent on the music to get into it, or get out.

The difference this particular night, and maybe what ultimately differentiates the band from their Eastern European influences is that there was less rat-a-tat and more straight-up blast – other than from the two standup tapan drums, at least. The second song had more of a bite; from there they edged their way toward a funky strut and eventually a WONK-wonk tuba bassline that got everybody chuckling. Finally, they hit a crackling, stairstepping pulse that, in the hands of a rock band, would have been close to Black Sabbath. Then they went back to the syncopated minor-key bounce.

Slavic Soul Party play Barbes just about every Tuesday; their next gig is tomorrow night, Feb 4. Officially, the show starts at 9; sometimes they hit at the stroke of nine, other times not til about 9:30. Cover is $10; as with all shows at Barbes, all the money goes to the band.

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.