Tonight, Jan 13 starting at around 6 PM is when the charming, spacious old Grand Prospect Hall in south Park Slope turns into a mobscene, the dancefloor of the big ballroom a tsunami of line dancers, with about eighty Balkan bands in various rooms throughout the old mansion. But as opening night of this year’s Golden Fest proved, the kids have gotten wise to night one of the United States’ largest festival of Balkan music (Golden Fest is all-ages). Last night there were only six bands – a small lineup, by Golden Fest’s titanic standards – but the show was every bit as adrenalizing.
In general, there seemed to be more of a younger contingent than ever before. Some of that crowd has roots in the Balkan Camp summer phenomenon, but a lot of the high school age posse appeared to be there strictly for thrills. Oa night when trains out of Brooklyn were a mess, in an era when venues are closing one after the other and everybody’s working twice as many hours for half the money, that the festival’s attendance would be growing speaks for itself.
The most memorable song of the night appeared early, during the dance lesson. That’s right – show up late and you might miss the high point of the evening .Zlatne Uste, Golden Fest’s house band and one of the very first Serbian-style brass groups in this country, played that number, gathered on the dancefloor in a semicircle. If a rock band had been playing its gorgeously bittersweet changes as the horns pulsed through the chorus, it would have been Nashville gothic. Was Roy Orbison a Balkan music fan? Did he even have access to it?
Likewise, the night’s most entrancing song sounded like a more lush if less echoey version of the verse in the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now. With a misty mesh of tambura lutes, Zavaba played that one. Was Johnny Marr into Macedonian epics? It would seem so. Before that number, the six-piece group romped through tricky tempos and bouncy vamps that suddenly veered into darker territory and then back, with the same unpredictability. Their clarinetist doubled on trumpet, with similar edge and bite; bassist Adam Good gave the songs a sinewy slink often missing when American four-string guys tackle this kind of music.
Paul Brown’s basslines in the irresistibly named Pontic Firebird were much the same, a low-register counterpart to violinist/frontwoman Beth Bahia Cohen’s fearsome, microtonal leaps and whirls and volleys. Bulgarian band Cherven Traktor‘s gadulka fiddler Nikolai Kolev pushed even further into the badlands beckoning beyond the ordinary western scale while his wife, singer Donka Koleva sliced through the mix with a feral precision.
By now, the first-timers had pretty much left the dancefloor to the pros – and there were a lot of pros. People lined up for the buffet (food is included in the price of a ticket) and eventually returned with heaping plates of pickles and stewed vegetables and sausage. Singer Eva Salina and accordion sorcerer Peter Stan had played the first official set of the night, but Zlatna Uste, Cherven Traktor and Pontic Firebird had warmed up the dancers to the point that all the duo had to do was keep the festivities going, and they did. The two are best known for plaintive, moody, sometimes heartbreaking Romany songs, but this was the party set, anchored by Stan’s powerful lefthand while his right ran supersonic filigrees and rapidfire staccato phrases. Drinking and gambling featured prominently in the lyrics: Eva Salina coyly supplied the gist of the songs for the linguistically challenged.
Kavala Brass Band headlined. Night two of Golden Fest is where you can sample as many bands as you can handle, many of them from around the world. Night one is allstar night, the OG’s of the global Balkan scene. These people have been doing it for years and know every trick in the book. They make exotic beats sound completely natural (which they are, for cultures outside of the US) and can pull an adrenaline rush out of thin air. With electric bass supplying a fat bottom end and the accordion out front, Kavala Brass Band brought to mind Tipsy Oxcart, another recent Golden Fest standout. Blazing and then backing away, through a catchy, anthemic series of minor keys and chromatics, they were arguably the night’s most accessible act – or at least tied with Zlatne Uste – and sent the crowd home pumped up for night two. See you in the atrium, to the right of the big ballroom and past the kitchen, at about six!