Last week’s kickoff of the annual Bryant Park accordion festival was a chance to revisit some favorites and make some new discoveries. Organizer Ariana Hellerman, who for years published the extremely useful summer concert and events calendar Ariana’s List, has booked every conceivable style of music that uses accordion (and ringers like the bandoneon, concertina and harmonium) into the series. With the rainout this week, next week’s installment begins on August 7 at 5:30 with a series of acts rotating around the park’s four corners and also the Sixth Avenue terrace. The lineup includes but is not limited to klezmer/Mediterranean shredder Ismail Butera, the wryly lyrical Susan Hwang, Mindra Sahadeo (the ringer here) on Indian harmonium and the bouncy, effervescent Nordic Smorgasbandet.
Last week’s lineup was typically eclectic. The irrepressible, timeless Phoebe Legere can still hit those operatic high notes, and engaged the crowd with her quirky sense of humor. She spent most of her show playing to various audience members, encouraging random people to ring the dinner bell on her accordion, and at one point, trailing a cop who was making his way through the crowd. Her funniest number made fun of the OKCupid dating service and had a spot-on punchline.
Romany song maven Eva Salina didn’t let being pregnant with her first child phase her a bit: “Gotta work til I can’t,” she grinned. Her first set of the evening was a little more low-key than usual, full of angst and longing for home and alienated anomie. Singing mostly in Romanes, relying on a forceful low register, she covered both older traditional tunes from Serbia and the Romany diaspora as well as a couple of numbers from the catalog of tragic heroine Vida Pavlovic. Eva’s longtime accordionist Peter Stan supplied his usual chromatic fireworks with lightning trills, uneasy close harmonies and turbulent rivers of minor-key arpeggios.
Foncho Castellar drew the biggest dancing crowd, no great surprise since the Colombian expat played so many oldschool cumbias. His two-man percussion section, on guiro and conga, kept a tightly swinging beat going as Castellar began with a brightly pulsing vallenato number. Then he kicked out the cumbia jams, and picked up the pace even further with some merengue toward the end.
In two hours at the park, you can either catch full half-hour sets from as many as four acts, or wander around and sample everybody. From this perspective, the evening’s coda – one of the most sublime sets by anyone who’s ever played this festival – was a slinky, rapturously microtonal set of bellydance themes by the Egyptian-born Nabawy. Rocking a formidable, sleek black quartertone model, he started out with a stark chromatic dance in the western minor scale and then brought in the Arabic tonalities. For a drum, he plugged his phone into the PA and ran a couple of loops of traditional beats. A concertgoer went up to him to thank him for playing: the fast-fingered guy wasn’t satisfied with the electroacoustic element. “I’ve got to get some kind of drum,” he mused, shaking his head. It was hard to argue with thirty nonstop minutes of the otherworldly torrents he’d fired off; then again, he has a long background playing for dancers. Let’s hope he comes back.