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The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

A Rare New York Appearance by an Allstar Balkan Crew

This blog was in the building but not in the room when Loza played what in turned out to be a pretty spellbinding set at Golden Fest 2018 back in January. That’s because there are five or six separate shows going on at once in different parts of the lavish, old-world Grand Prospect Hall, all through the night during New York’s funnest annual concert. Golden Fest 2019 takes place next January 18 and 19 and although it’s not clear if the allstar Macedonian group Loza are on the bill, there will be dozens of others who are just as good.

Loza are making a rare non-Golden Fest appearance tomorrow night, Nov 20 at 7 PM at Barbes, opening for perennially entertaining, spectacular Balkan brass band Slavic Soul Party. Fortuitously, WFMU made a field recording of the band’s Golden Fest set, available as a free download at the Free Music Archive.

The first number is a slinky, Middle Eastern tinged number, Vedran Boshkovski’s snakecharmer wood flute soaring over Adam Good’s frenetically picked tanbura lute. Seido Salifoski supplies a rat-a-tat beat on his big tapan drum underneath Corinna Snyder’s stark vocals.

The second tune is a bouncy major-key dance that could pass for Neapolitan, aside from the Macedonian lyrics. Boshkovski switches to zurla – the haunting, otherworldly trumpet-like Balkan reed instrument that sounds like a less drony Scottish bagpipe – for the final two tunes. The first is a trickily syncopated, chromatically edgy instrumental; the second is a more hypnotic epic with an icepick solo from Good. In both instances, the zurla’s keening microtones are just a hair enough outside traditional western harmony to be truly scary. Download this and crank it up if you need a jolt of adrenaline.

A Few Detours and a New Sound From a Legendary, Haunting Vocal Ensemble

After the fall of the Iron Curtain, neoliberals made their way into Bulgaria and convinced the new government to put the nation’s most popular export out of business. The renowned choral ensemble who were first known as the Bulgairian National Women’s Choir, then became a global sensation as Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, and are now known in the English-speaking world as the Mystery of the Bulgarian Voices, were stripped of their government funding. Without that, these extraordinary, legendarily otherworldly singers were forced to take dayjobs. It’s hard to think of a more apt example of how drastically neoliberal tax policies can slash the very fabric of a nation at the seams.

Happily, the group have kept going over the years. Their latest release,  BooCheeMish – their first in two decades – is streaming at Bandcamp. It’s a new direction for them. While the group have recorded with rock artists – Kate Bush, most famously – there’s more rock on this release than ever before. Lisa Gerrard of Dead Can Dance contributes her voice to four of the tracks.

With the first number, Mome Malenko, the group set the stage with their characteristically eerie close harmonies, shivery melismas and modal, microtonal lines. This song has more of an Arabic chromaticism; the balance of hushed lows against the keening highs of the women’s voices is especially rapturous.

The second track, Pora Sotunea has rock keys, bass and a tabla rhythm bolstering an Andalucian-tinged tune. Rano Ranila, with its pulsing bursts of counterpoint, is the rhythmically trickiest trip-hop tune ever recorded. By contrast, Mani Yanni has a sepulchral vastness and broodingly melismatic Asian spike fiddle.

Much as the many percussion elements in Yove don’t get in the way, it would be even more impressive to hear just the women’s voices leaping and trilling, keeping perfect time throughout this polyrhythmic dance. Sluntse has more of that stark fiddle along with precise, jazz-tinged, acoustic guitar: beyond a brief intro, it’s an instrumental.

Unison is a return to distantly Indian-tinged trip-hop, with a vocal solo from who. The majestic, solowly unfolding call-and-response of Zabekaya Agne have more traditionally uneasy shifts between major and minor modes, along with a rather imploring vocal solo and ney flute over a boomy Middle Eastern dirge beat. It’s the album’s most successfully eclectic stylistic mashup.

But Tropanitsa, an attempt to Bulgarianize (Mysterize?) a blithe tropical tune, is a mess. Happily, the ensemble return to enigmatic massed splendor in Ganka, then dance their way elegantly through the catchy Shandal Ya. The album’s final track is Stanka, moody strings replicating vocal harmonies beneath their soloist’s impassioned lead melody.

For continuity’s sake, let’s count this as today’s installment for Halloween month. These magical voices persist in evoking a strange, antique spirit world, notwithstanding the many additional touches which some listeners may find superfluous.

Sold-Out Revelry With Balkan Brass Monsters Raya Brass Band at Symphony Space

There’s something refreshingly new and exciting happening in what might seem to be an unexpected space on the Upper West Side. This past evening, Raya Brass Band sold out Symphony Space, delivering a wickedly tight set that was just feral enough to seem like the six-piece Brooklyn Balkan collective were about to leave the rails at any second. They didn’t really do that until the end of the show, when they left the stage and went down into the crowd of dancers gathered at the front of the stage.

That’s right – dancers packing the floor at Symphony Space.

How did this neighborhood institution, best known for its annual classical music marathons and the NPR shows that tape there, suddenly get so cool? They’ve got a new series they call Revelry, where if you’re thirty or under, you can get in for twenty bucks – ten dollars less than older folks have to pay. Meanwhile, the downstairs bar stays open throughout the show and afterward. But you can get a drink at any club in town. What’s most exciting about this series is that Symphony Space is bringing in fresh talent that’s probably never played the Upper West Side before. They’ve imported some of the roster of bands from Barbes – Brooklyn’s best venue – and from other scenes as well.

Raya Brass Band packed Barbes back in January, but they always do that. It was dowmright inspiring to see them do the same in upper Manhattan in a space four or five times as big. Although they varied their tempos from funky to lickety-split, and their meters from a straight-up 4/4 to who knows what – some of these Balkan beats are impossible to count unless you have to play them – the show was more like one long jam with a thousand dynamic variations. There were a couple of Macedonian-style vamps where the group would shift back and forth between major and minor…an endlessly delicious series of sharp-fanged chromatic riffs…a klezmer-inflected number late in the set…and a final slinky, darkly glistening river of Ethiopian jazz after over an hour onstage.

Co-founder Greg Squared played the whole show on alto sax this time out, making it look effortless as he flickered between microtones, occasionally playing through an octave pedal for a spacy, techy effect. Trumpeter Ben Syversen didn’t spar with him as much as simply trading off long, goosebump-inducing volleys of chromatics – although he did a little jousting with accordionist Max Fass. Who is the band’s true anchor, providing rich washes of sound that were serendipitously up in the mix (sometimes the accordion gets lost at a place like Barbes) .

Nezih Antakli provided the boom on a big standup tapan drum, while fellow percussionist Kolja Gjoni played a standup kit: nobody could have asked for more cowbell. Tuba player Steven Duffy brought both slithery vintage Bootsy Collins basslines as well as pinpoint-precise oompah, and finally the kind of funny WAH-wah solo that every tuba player ends up having to take at some point.

The big takeaway here; if you live on the Upper West or points further north, Revelry at Symphony Space is the place to be on Thursdays nights. The next show is Oct 18 at 7:30 PM with the charming, female-fronted Avalon Jazz Band playing cosmopolitan European swing. And if you’re up for a shlep to Barbes, Greg Squared is playing there every Sunday night in October at 7 PM with a rotating cast of New York Balkan and Middle Eastern talent. Psychedelic Romany jazz guitarist Stephane Wrembel plays there afterward at about 9:30 with his band.

A Promising, Characteristically Eclectic Start to This Year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival

This year’s Bryant Park Accordion Festival runs through Sept 14 and promises to be as rapturously fun as last year’s was. On Wednesday evenings starting at 5:30 PM, a rotating cast of accordionists play half-hour sets of an amazingly eclectic range of music. This year there are five sets happening simultaneously, which created some dissonance on opening night when one group was going full steam while their neighbor played a quiet ballad. But the music was sublime.

For a connoisseur of accordion music – and who wouldn’t want to be one, right? – it’s always a triage. Forro or klezmer? Irish folk-punk or cumbia? The advantage of staggered sets is that you get multiple chances to see your favorite player or style of music. This week it was easy to choose a set by the brilliant and erudite Christina Crowder to begin the evening. Most of her numbers were minor-key Jewish wedding tunes, including a bouncy one about giving away the family’s youngest daughter, along with a mysterious, enveloping theme typically played early in the day for relatives of the betrothed. She romped through a jaunty bulgar and another, more somber tune, both of which contained the Twilight Zone riff. Late in the set, she treated the crowd to a Moldavian tune whose title translates roughly as “Freestyle Over This Groove.” Crowder didn’t rap; instead, she built an ambience that was as kinetic as it was hypnotic.

After that, it was time to head to the southeastern corner of the park for an even livelier set of oldschool cumbia and vallenato – “Colombian country music,” as accordionist Foncho Castellar termed it. Backed by a couple of percussionists, he played button accordion. The trio romped through some very brisk cumbias before the even more rustic stuff about peasants in the big city, or way out on the frontera, dancing, partying and chasing women.

After that, Susan Hwang – half of haunting literary art-rock duo Lusterlit – broke out her accordion for a deviously fun set. Backed by a djembe player, she opened with a coyly exasperated, new wave-flavored original, from her days with charming late zeros/early teens trio the Debutante Hour, concerning New York parking. Her funniest cover was a remake of the Willie Dixon/Muddy Waters blues classic, which she titled Hoochie Koochie Woman. Another fun one was an original from her lit-rock collective the Bushwick Book Club, a thoughtful, quirky bounce told from the point of view of physicist Richard Feynman.

Like Hwang, Dolunay frontwoman Jenny Luna is best known as a singer and percussionist. It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call her one of New York’s – and arguably the world’s – most riveting, shattering vocalists. She’s also a first-rate Balkan and Middle Eastern drummer. As it turns out, she’s a competent accordionist as well. Much as she got plenty of brooding, sometimes haunting atmospherics and chromatics wafting from her reeds, it was her voice that held the crowd spellbound,. She began with a moody tone  poem of sorts, then a couple of Rumeli (Balkan Turkish) laments that gave her a chance to air out both her soaring highs and haunting low register. She wound up the set with a jaunty if hardly blithe singalong, in Turkish – the chorus translated roughly as variations on “be my habibi.”

Next week’s installment of the festival, at 5:30 PM on Aug 22, features a similarly diverse lineup including but not limited to gothic Americana songwriter Sam Reider; the torchy, swinging Erica Mancini; edgy, avant garde-influenced chamber pop singer Mary Spencer Knapp; Argentine tango duo Tinta Roja and Mexican norteño crew Toro de la Sierra.

Brilliant Balkan Singer Eva Salina Channels Empowerment in the Face of Despair

Since her days in the previous decade as an underage teenager belting over brass bands in Brooklyn bars, Eva Salina has established herself as one of the most distinctive and haunting voices in Balkan music. Although that’s her specialty, she doesn’t limit herself stylistically as a singer: her 20010  collaboration with fellow singer Aurelia Shrenker is a riveting glimpse of how radically she can reinvent classic Americana. Salina’s previous album was a blazing, horn-spiced, hard-rocking full-band tribute to legendary, tragic Romany crooner Saban Bajramovic.

Her latest album, Sudbina – streaming at Bandcamp– is a radical shift, a spare, rivetingly intimate reinvention of songs from the catalog of another Romany legend, Vida Pavlovic. For the most part, the instrumentation is just Salina’s voice backed by the accordion of her longtime collaborator Peter Stan. The two are playing the album release show this March 29 at 7:30 PM at Greenwich House Music School; cover is $15 and includes a copy of the new album.

Pavlovic was sort of a Balkan counterpart to Billie Holiday. She was unlucky in love; profound sadness and a sense of abandonment pervade her music. Yet there’s also a defiant, resolute joie de vivre, a quality that Salina explores deeply. In an era of global women’s marches and the Metoo movement, Pavlovic’s aching ballads are more relevant than ever. Which makes it all the more odd that it’s fallen to the American-born Salina to revive interest in her music.

The album opens with Pusti Me Da Zivim, an embittered born-to-lose theme, more or less. There’s despondency but also defiance in Salina’s slightly breathy delivery as Stan spirals and trills elegantly behind her: “Leave me to live my life alone,” is the main message; the moody minor-key melody has subtle bolero echoes.

E Laute Bašalen Taj Roven has a more brisk, marching rhythm, Stan a one-man accordion army as Salina’s voice chronicles the grim realities and constant displacement faced by Romany populations over the decades. The stark arrangement of Ostala Je Pesma Moja, Pavlovic’s signature song, underscores its theme. It’s a self-penned eulogy of sorts, the world-weary chanteuse addressing a new generation: “Remember, your mother gave you everything she had.”

Ćerma Devla Crikli is a lively dance number whose irrepressible bounce mutes an ever-present unease, a metaphorical perspective on the struggle to escape rural poverty. That dispersion comes into stark focus in the gently poignant Aven, Aven Romalen, a plea to men who’ve gone off to earn a living to come back to their families. It’s another study in contrasts, Salina’s brittle, vulnerable vocals against Stan’s balletesque leaps and pulses.

E Dadeći Cajori/Dema Miro is one of Pavlovic’s biggest hits:  the gist is “Give me peace, because you are eating my heart.” Salina’s wintry, ghostly vocals are arguably the album’s quietest yet most riveting moments.

The album winds up with Ostala, a final instrumental sendoff to Pavlovic featuring the simmering doublestops of popular Serbian trumpeter Demiran Ćerimović. Throughout the album, Salina maintains a meticulous focus on ornamentation and accents – she genuinely could pass for a Romany song diva. Which makes sense, considering she’s been singing this repertoire practically her whole life. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of this year.

A Wild, Astonishing Show in an Uptown Crypt by Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz

By the time Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz had finished their first number – an unpredictably serpentine Macedonian cocek dance arranged by Milica Paranosic – the violinist had already broken a sweat and was out of breath. That St. John and her pianist bandmate could maintain the kind of feral intensity they’d begun with, throughout a concert that lasted almost two hours in a stone-lined Harlem church crypt, was astounding to witness: a feast of raw adrenaline and sizzling chops.

There are probably half a dozen other violinists in the world who can play as fast and furious as St. John, but it’s hard to imagine anyone with more passion. A story from her early years as a seventeen-year-old Canadian girl studying in Moscow, right before the fall of the Soviet Union, spoke for itself. Determined to hear Armenian music in an indigenous setting, she and a couple of friends made the nonstop 36-hour drive through a series of checkpoints. “I’m Estonian,” she she told the guards: the ruse worked.

Although she’s made a career of playing classical music with many famous ensembles, her favorite repertoire comes from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. This program drew mostly from the duo’s 2015 album, sardonically titled Shiksa, new arrangements of music from across the Jewish diaspora. The night’s most adrenalizing moment might have been St. John’s searing downward cascade in John Kameel Farah’s arrangement of the Lebanese lullaby Ah Ya Zayn, from aching tenderness to a sandstorm whirl. That song wasn’t about to put anybody to sleep!

Or it might have been Herskowitz’s endless series of icepick chords in Ca La Breaza, a Romanian cimbalom tune set to a duo arrangement by Michael Atkinson. Herskowitz is the rare pianist who can keep up with St. John’s pyrotechnics, and seemed only a little less winded after the show was over. But he had a bench to sit on – St. John played the entire concert in a red velvet dress and heels, standing and swaying on a 19th century cobblestone floor.

Together the two spiraled and swirled from Armenia – Serouj Kradjian’s version of the bittersweet, gorgeously folk tune Sari Siroun Yar – to Herskowitz’s murky, suspenseful, dauntingly polyrhythmic and utterly psychedelic rearrangement of Hava Nagila, all the way into a bracingly conversational free jazz interlude. They also ripped through the klezmer classic Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Reben, a Martin Kennedy mashup of the Hungarian czardash and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody, and an elegant Kreisler waltz as the icing on the cake.

These Crypt Sessions, as they’re called, have a devoted following and sell out very quickly. Email subscribers get first dibs, and invariably scoop up the tickets. So it’s no surprise that next month’s concert, featuring countertenor John Holiday singing Italian Baroque arias, French chansons and a song cycle by African-American composer Margaret Bonds, is already sold out. But there is a waitlist, you can subscribe to the email list anytime, and the latest news is that the series will be adding dates in another crypt in Green-Wood Cemetery in the near future.

For anyone who might be intimidated by the ticket price – these shows aren’t cheap – there’s also abundant food and wine beforehand. This time it was delicious, subtly spiced, puffy Syrian-style spinach pies and vino from both Italy and France, a pairing that matched the music perfectly. Although to be truthful, barolo and spinach pies go with just about everything musical or otherwise.

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

Lara St. John and Matt Herskowitz Bring Their Dynamic Reinventions of Songs From Across the Jewish Diaspora Uptown Next Week

Violinist Lara St. John is the kind of musician whose presence alone will inspire her bandmates to take their game up a notch. Case in point: last summer in Central Park, where she played a picturesque, lyrical, alternately tender and soaring version of Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending. And this wasn’t with the kind of big-name ensemble St. John is accustomed to playing with: it was a pickup group. St. John’s dynamic focus may well have jumpstarted the group’s harrowing interpretation of Matthew Hindson’s Maralinga suite, a narrative about a 1950s British nuclear experiment in Australia gone horribly wrong.

St. John and pianist Matt Herskowitz revisit that intensity and relevance with their program this March 14 and 15 in the crypt at the Church of the Intercession at 550 W 155th St in Harlem. The show is sold out – in order to get tickets to this popular uptown attraction, you need to get on their mailing list, who get first dibs before the general public and will often gobble them up. This isn’t a cheap experience, but if you look at it as dinner and a concert, it’s a great date night (it’s big with young couples). There’s an amuse-bouche and wines paired with the program: supplies are generous, there’s always a vegetarian choice and the choices of vintage can be a real knockout. And the sonics in the intimate but high-ceilinged stone space are as magical as you would expect.

Next week’s program is drawn from St. John’s most recent album with Herskowitz, wryly titled Shiksa, streaming at Spotify. It’s a collection of imaginative and sometimes radical reinterpretations of haunting melodies from across the Jewish diaspora and Eastern Europe by a wide variety of composers, as well as by the musicians themselves.

Among the album’s fourteen tracks, the Hungarian folk tune Czardas is reinvented as a scampering mashup with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. Variaiuni (Bar Fight) is an old Romanian cimbalom tune as St. John imagines someone careening through it in the Old West. St. John learned the lickety-split klezmer dance Naftule Shpilt Far Dem Rebn from iconic violinist Alicia Svigals, while composer Michael Atkinson’s arrangement of the wildfire Romany dance Ca La Breaza is based on Toni Iardoche’s cimbalom version. And St. John picked up the elegant Romany jazz tune Kolo in a bar in Belgrade.

The most poignant track is the Armenian ballad Sari Siroun Yar, which gave solace to composer Serouj Kradjian and his family growing up in war-torn Lebanon. The most wryly clever one is Herskowitz’s jazz version of Hava Nagila, in 7/4 time. St. John also plays an expressive suite of solo ladino songs arranged by David Ludwig, along with material from Greece, Macedonia, Russia and Hungary. It will be fascinating to witness how closely she replicates the material – or flips the script with it – at the show next week.

Don’t Sleep on Opening Night of Golden Fest

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!