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Tag: flamenco

Aigua Put a Gorgeous, Poignant New Spin on Traditional Spanish Songs

Aigua play counteriutuitive Spanish folk tunes.

It’s always validating to hear a song and imagine the perfect way to drive a verse or chorus home…and then hear the band playing that riff exactly as you had envisioned it. The Spanish duo’s electrifying yet subtle new album Nonino – streaming at Bandcamp – is full of moments like that. One of them happens about a couple of minutes into the first song, where guitarist Joan Peiró Aznar caps off a verse with an elegant descent into a minor sixth chord that you have to imagine, since he doesn’t actually hit it.

Pure magic.

Meanwhile, melodeon player Lies Hendrix is way up in the mix, supplying a turbulent river of immersive multi-reed nectar.

That song, Decimes de la Mara Tierra is an antiwar tango. The duo follow that with a similarly plaintive instrumental, Bruidsmazurka, Aznar again delivering the coups de grace amid Henrix’s swaying rivers of sound.

This is typical of the duo’s update on Spanish folk music. On one hand, it can be stately and antique. On the other, their sizzling chops and attention to poignant detail give their material an immediacy that transcends its ancient origins or influences.

Aznar sings Les Dones de L’Almacen with an expressive, wistful intensity, Hendrix picking up the pace as the guitar shifts from insistent chords to a playful intertwine. The minimalistic melodeon-and-vocal arrangement of L’Estrela del Vetlatori also ramps up the bittersweetness. Then they pick up the pace with a spirited dance, Ja Ve L’Horabaixa, equally infused with flamenco and Belgian musette.

Aznar lurks in the background in Borreiada as the rhythms and atmosphere morph from tricky and enigmatic to a wryly jaunty hornpipe dance. The most disarmingly attractive song on the album is Illa del Sal, a bolero with an unexpectedly jazz-tinged guitar solo.

There’s a practically stern flamenco pulse to Fandango de Aiora. Delicate Genius is ridiculously funny and the most modern-sounding, Django Reinhardt-influenced track here.

The two musicians follow that with the cosmopolitan, shapeshifting grey-sky musette L’Amelanchier and close with the sober, low-key title track.

Wild, Electrifying Flamenco and Balkan-Flavored Dances From Besarabia

One of the most feral, entertaining albums of the year is Spanish group Besarabia‘s Animal Republic, streaming at youtube. If adrenaline is your thing, this is your jam. Multitracking themselves for a kinetically ornate, Middle Eastern-infused flamenco sound, they make a lot of noise for a trio. Eva Domingo sings, plays davul, darbuka and other percussion. Jaume Pallardo’s primary axe is the Cretan lute, but he also plays oud and baglama, often in the same song. Violist and violinist Heidi Erbrich is not only the lead instrumentalist, more or less, but is also the group’s flamenco dancer.

The first track is The Real Royal Turkey – seemingly referring to the nation, but it’s actually about the bird. Pallardo’s tantalizingly brief lute and oud breaks punch in over Erbrich’s melismatic, modal viola and emphatically syncopated stomp. The group introduce Oroneta with eerie, Bulgarian-tinged vocal harmonies, then launch into a lush, slashingly chromatic, trickily rhythmic theme. The hushed interlude toward the end, with Pallardo’s mysterious, muted plucking, comes as a real surprise.

The group follow with the raw, rustic flamenco instrumental El Conte de Talp Que Volia Ser Acell. Giraffe by the Sea is next, an irresistibly picturesque, magic-realist narrative set to punchy syncopation, with incisive lute and more bracing, antique modalities from the viola.

Cants de Balena (Whale Song) is more austere and closer to jazz, with Erbrich’s airy string harmonies and a nimbly scrambling lute solo. The album’s most hypnotically circling number, La Dans de la Serp has allusively Egyptian-inflected modes, a scary false ending, a spacious, all-too-brief oud solo and some neat oud/viola tradeoffs.

Elefanta is a diptych. Part one, La Cacharreria is an absolutely gorgeous, bittersweet lute theme and variations, with another ridiculous, funny spoken-word break from Domingo. The second half, Altibajos begins with an enigmatic viola melody and takes on more Arabic tinges as the group pounce along.

Perdut has a sparse, wistful lullaby quality. El Gato Rubato – a song that needed to be written, right? – turns out to be an amusing, high-voltage flamenco number. This cat does what he damn well pleases. The band wind up the album with the austere, elegaic counterpoint of Spider Tears. This is a lock for one of the best albums of 2021.

Francesc Sans Takes Gorgeous, Blissfully Energetic Spanish Bagpipe Music to New Places

Spanish bagpiper Francesc Sans’s debut album as a bandleader, L’Infinit – streaming at Spotify – is wildly dynamic, often suspenseful, blissful music. As Dr. Pam Popper likes to remind us, we need to bolster our sense of joy and fun more than ever in times like these. This album is an especially exhilarating way to reconnect and recharge.

Sans plays with a breathtaking clarity, an unwavering wind-tunnel tone and a spun-silk legato. What’s just as delicious is that there are sometimes as many as three accordions at once on many of the songs here. They’re rooted in traditional styles – a lot of circle dances, a lot of waltzes – but the musicianship is way outside the box.

Sanz rises out of a murky pool of sound to a suspenseful march, then leads the group in a cheery waltz in the opening number, Tres Tocs Un Cant. After another portentous lull, they take it out triumphantly. There’s a small army of musicians on this record: Rafalito Salazar on guitar; Guillem Anguera, Josep Aparicio and Carles Belda on accordion; Pep Mateu on keys; Artemi Agràs on bass; Albert Carbonell on violin; Alexis Lanza on cello; Josep Maria Ribelles on harp; Pep Toni Rubio on flute; Iris Gayete and Pere Joan Martorell on percussion; and Ester G. Llop, Heura Gaya and Mariona Escoda on vocals,

The second track, Jnavarro is another waltz, rising to a delirious minor-key intensity. And it’s over too soon: the group could have gone on for another ten minutes and it wouldn’t be been boring. Then Sans totally flips the script with the piano ballad Les Quintes, first tenderly, then rising to symphonic proportions on the wings of the bagpipe against Mateu’s angst-fueled, neoromantic piano.

The band bring the party back with Amoretes, a rousing circle dance: Sans’ sirening glissando before the pouncing rhythm returns will give you goosebumps. After that, Tres Niuetes has rippling piano and a briskly bouncing beat that’s almost funk.

Sans stays with that number’s allusive chromatics on the airy introduction to Lo Meu Sud before the group launch into a Gipsy Kings-style romp. A La Nit De Nadal has a resonant bagpipe melody that’s just a wary hair off from a big Scottish air…plus somber Renaissance vocal harmonies.

L’Horizon begins as a cheerfully ambling theme, then shifts to a bracingly chromatic Andalucian trajectory before a wildly careening outro. Sans’ piercing clarity is stunning in A Les Fosques Pel Call, an irresistibly edgy acoustic cumbia tune.

Dolors Gegants is aptly titled, Lanza’s cello starkly aloft over Mateu’s spare, glittering piano, but then the group return to a boisterous circle dance: there’s no stopping this crew. They close the album with L’Aloseta. a rapturously unsettled cumbia lowlit with Gaya’s expressive, poignantly bittersweet vocals. What a disarmingly beautiful record for a time when we really need music like this.

Sarah Aroeste Brings a Vanished Balkan Hub of Sephardic Culture Back to Life

Ladino singer Sarah Aroeste‘s cousin Rachel Nahmias survived the Holocaust, smuggled across the border from Macedonia to Albania in the trunk of a car. A Muslim family there hid her from the Nazis for the duration of the war. At 103, she’s still with us.

Her family wasn’t so lucky. After the Nazis took them off to Treblinka, a neighbor pulled the mezuzah (a religious home-sweet-home totem) off the door of their home, planning on giving it back to them when they were liberated. Along with more than seven thousand, mostly Sephardic Macedonian Jews, they never made it back. At times like this we need to remember the Holocaust. Evil was in full bloom then, and it’s in full bloom now: ask an Israeli or an Australian.

Aroeste’s latest album Monastir -streaming at Bandcamp – celebrates the rich history of the Macedonian city now known as Bitola, where her ancestors had roots before leaving for the US in 1913. There’s a small army of Israeli and Macedonian musicians on this, playing a mix of Sephardic and Macedonian folk songs and originals.

Aroeste sings the opening track, a hypnotic, mantra-like anthem celebrating a newborn’s arrival, with a restrained joy, Yonnie Dror getting his shofar to channel dusky digeridoo lows. Vevki Amedov’s magically microtonal Balkan clarinet joins with an animated choir in the irrepressibly jaunty Od Bitola Pojdov (Bitola Girls). Crooner Yehoram Gaon sings an elegantly bolero-flavored take of the Ladino lost-love ballad Jo La Keria over producer Shai Bachar’s elegant piano and Dan Ben Lior’s acoustic guitar.

Odelia Dahan Kehila and Gilan Shahaf join voices on a gorgeous, bittersweetly undulating new Hebrew take of the popular Balkan folk song Jovanke, Jovanke, reinvented as a glittering piano-based ballad. Sefedin Bajramov takes over the mic on Edno Vreme Si Bev Ergen, a lilting, carefree Macedonian folk tune about a guy on the prowl who meets a cute Jewish girl – and wants to be Fyedka to her Chava.

A Bitola children’s choir sing Estreja Mara, a popular post-WWII tribute to a freedom fighter killed by the Nazis at 21. Macedonian opera star Helena Susha sings En Frente de Mi Te Tengo, a brass-fueled ranchera-style ballad.

One of the album’s most dramatic, flamenco-tinged numbers is Aroeste’s original version of Espinelo, a medieval tale of an infant thrown into the ocean as a newborn since he was one of a pair of twins, considered at the time to be bad luck. He survives and goes on to Balkan fame. Baglama player Shay Hamani and kanun player Yael Lavie enhance the brooding Middle Eastern ambience.

The album’s final two tracks pay homage to Aroeste’s ancestral city. She leads a rousing, plaintive choir over an intricate web of acoustic guitars in an original, Mi Monastir, then soars over a bouncy backdrop in Bitola, Moj Roden Kraj, an early 50s hit for Macedonian folk-pop singer Ajri Demirovski. This an all-too-rare work of musicological sleuthing that’s just as fun to listen to as it is politically important.

Sparely Powerful, Lyrical Catalan Songcraft From Singer Lia Sampai

One of the most stunningly direct, potently lyrical albums of the year is Lia Sampai’s latest release Amagatalls de Llum (rough unpoetic translation from Catalan: Hidden in Plain Sight), streaming at youtube. Sampai sings with a disarmingly intimate, nuanced delivery and writes striking, imagistic lyrics, with a fearless political sensibility. Her images can be charming and quirky one second and venomous the next. While there’s a definite flamenco influence in her music, there are also elements of Portuguese fado, pan-Mediterranean balladry, art-rock and tinges of jazz, nimbly negotiated by acoustic guitarist Adrià Pagès. Some of the songs are simply guitar and vocals, others feature terse strings in places.

She opens with La Caixeta (The Box), a stately, romantic waltz that’s part fado, part flamenco and part vintage Parisian chanson. The doll imagery in the sparse, angst-fueled second track, La Nina comes across as more of a reflection on reconnecting with an inner conscience than with an inner child, Lia Manchón’s violin and Ester Trilla’s cello adding pensive ambience.

La Nit del Foc (Night of Fire) is a coy mashup of a dramatic Spanish waltz and a Dylanesque talking blues. Sampai follows a suspenseful trail of eerie, allusive images, up to a duende-fueled peak in Pinyols de Gel (Hailstorm), Pagès’ attack growing more unhinged along with her.

The shapeshifting political broadside Una Llum (A Light) is a real stunner, a slap upside the head of a petty tyrant whose insatiable desire for control backfires and ignites a revolution. Sampai wrote this in 2019, but it has infinite more resonance in the year where the World Economic Forum terrorists are throwing everything they have at us to try to keep their global takeover attempt from going off the rails.

Iris is a delicately waltzing, enigmatic, metaphorically loaded narrative about a dancer (or maybe a stripper). Weeping willow metaphors take centerstage in the stark, grim Salze Vell:

Que dins de tant de vent lo plor és silenci,
Com una paraula que interdiu algú.
I les fulles se revolten encriptades
D’una música que sols entenem junts
Plorem per amunt!
Plorem per amunt!
Alcem un crit de pena i llibertat

[rough translation]

A scream drowned by the wind
Like a forbidden word
And the leaves spin, encrypted
With a music that only we understand
Let’s scream it!
Let’s scream it!
Scream from sadness, for freedom

The catchy, lilting Joc de Miralls (Game of Mirrors) seems to an examination of how recognizing your shadow in someone else can be liberating, if a little scary.

Pagès’ starry electric guitar rings out over Emili Bosch’s synth in Astronautes, a playful outer-space love song. Sampai winds up the album with the understatedly haunting L’Endemà (The Day After), the strings lush and moody as Gerard Morató’s piano mingles with Lluís Pérez-Villegas’ glockenspiel. Sampai’s Christmas party narrative is joyous and not a little defiant, but there’s a sinister undercurrent. What a perfect song for a year when dictators are trying to tell us how many people we can invite to our private holiday celebrations.

Carola Ortiz’s Picturesque, Edgy New Album Celebrates Vivid New Catalan Poetry

Catalan singer and clarinetist Carola Ortiz‘s new album Pecata Beata – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous, defiantly feminist collection that sets poems by Catalan women authors to an electrifying blend of Mediterranean balladry, Romany and flamenco music, and fado, with classical gravitas and the occasional jazz flourish. It’s her first album where she sings all the compositions in Catalan, her first language. Not only is the music here colorful, and often haunting, but the lyrics are fantastic, even from the limited perspective of an English-speaking linguistic tourist.

From the hair-raising werewolf intro of Corro per la Nit to its leaping, Balkan-inspired rhythms and suspenseful lulls, it’s a wild opener, propelled by guitarist Bartolomeo Barenghi, bassist Pau Lligadas and percussionist Aleix Tobias. Ortiz’s dramatic intensity, bringing Anna Gual’s harrowing chase scene to life, contrasts with her spare, jaggedly incisive clarinet.

She overdubs a small choir of voices on the tricky, syncopated introduction to the grim folk song El Testament d’Amèlia. From there she hits a more melancholy, melismatic delivery, much like a fadista, with poignant, resonant clarinet joined at the end by violinist Heloïse Lefebvre, violist John King and cellist Sandrine Robilliard. Ortiz’s concluding wail will give you goosebumps.

Sirena, with lyrics by Mercè Rodoreda, is a surreal, shapeshiftingly alluring mix of cabaret, along with what could be fado and a Mexican ranchera ballad. Ortiz channels hope against hope amid relentless angst in Monserrat Abello’s poem Visc Por No Morir – L’Exiliada, over a bittersweetly lilting, guitar-driven Belgian musette-style waltz.

A broodingly crecendoing setting of a Rosa Pou text, Ala, Bat! Yes, Adeu is a mashup of fado and bolero, Ortiz’s impassioned melismas channeling ache and despair. Carme Guasch’s clever wordplay in Amat I Amic gets the album’s most hypnotically circling melody, with elegantly rising and falling violin from Robilliard.

Avui les Fades i les Bruixes S’estimen, with a lyric by Maria Mercè Marçal, has a similarly circular, syncopated string quartet arrangement, Ortiz finally sailing up to the top of her vocal register. The playfully strutting Cant de Juliol, by Catarina Albert (pseudonymously, ,as Víctor Català) is the album’s most comedic, carnivalesque number.

Ortiz’s bass clarinet dips to gritty, noirish lows in Carmeta, an instrumental, shifting from a shamanic musette of sorts to a slinky, tricky Bakkan groove. She sticks with the big licorice for the album’s lush, tantalizingly brief love ballad La Rosa Als Llavis, with text by Joan Salvat Papasseit.

A Ubiquitous Habibi Pop Star Celebrates with a Career Retrospective

Twenty years ago in New York, you couldn’t buy a falafel without hearing Ishtar Alabina‘s slinky songs blasting from somebody’s speakers or boombox. The Moroccan-Jewish queen of Romany and Andalucian-tinged habibi pop is still out there: she played here in 2019, touring behind a greatest-hits album simply titled Alabina and streaming at Spotify.

The string synth swooshes mightily as the opening track, also titled Alabina – her signature song, more or less – kicks in with a little Spanish guitar flourish and clip-clop percussion. The guys in the band sing the first verse in Spanish before their frontwoman swoops in, singing in Arabic and bending her way to a stark crescendo. If you’ve been listening to Middle Eastern music over the past couple of decades, you know this song.

She and the band played a lot of Spanish and Latin music over the years. This album has a lot of those songs. There’s the spiky, Gipsy Kings-influenced Baile Maria, as well as La Cubanita, a salsa song with a steady dancefloor thud and a fleeting flamenco guitar solo. The group’s male contingent sing most of Ya Mama, a pretty straight-up salsa tune, as well as the bouncy Tierra Santa, the closest thing to the Gipsy Kings here. The only cover here, Lolole is a habibi pop version of the Animals’ Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood.

Sawash was an early attempt to blend some reggaeton into the sound. There are also a trio of tunes, Lolai, Salaama and Salaam la Paz – which mash up flamenco pop and what would morph into dabke music.

The group’s biggest hits on their home turf were the most distinctly Middle Eastern ones, where they were more likely to use an oud and a kanun rather than guitars to spice all that lush synthesized orchestration. They’re all in minor keys and catchy as hell. Venga, a bitingly irresistible duet, is one of the best of the bunch, while Lamouni has microtonal violin and a rippling kanun solo on the intro.

Purists may hear this and laugh, but Alabina was a gateway drug to a better world for thousands of non-Arabic speakers. One summer day in the late 90s, a future daily New York music blog owner walked out of Rashid Sales on Court Street in downtown Brooklyn with a Umm Kulthuum concert cassette and an Alabina album much like this. In the months afterward, they would get plenty of time on an old walkman. Those cassettes still exist; the walkman sadly does not.

Soprano Meets Bass Reinvent Sephardic Treasures with Passion and Elegance

The new Sephardic Treasures album by the Soprano Meets Bass project – streaming at Spotify – is a gorgeous and expansive take on a very old idea. Classical ensembles have been appropriating ancient Jewish themes for centuries; this album is more eclectic, drawing on tango, flamenco and jazz as well. In general, the music is sleeker than you would expect from a klezmer or tango band playing this material. For those of us who don’t speak Ladino, singer Ana María Ruimonte gives the material much more clarity than most operatically-trained vocalists typically deliver. And she maintains power and edge through many of the melodies’ challenging, rapidfire melismas and ornaments.

This is a long, rewarding album: fifteen songs. Most of them are sad; kings typically do not fare well in them. Minor keys are everywhere, along with the occasional slashing Middle Eastern mode. Bandleader/bassist Alan Lewine puts on a master class in terse, purposeful solos, notably a triumphantly churning facsimile of flamenco guitar playing in a Romany-flavored anthem toward the end of the record.

Some of the songs have a full rhythm section, with Shai Wetzer on drums; others feature lighter percussion by Víctor Monge. Pianist Chano Domínguez, trumpeter Duane Eubanks, flutist Hadar Noiber,  Spanish guitarist Julián Vaquero and violinist Alicia Svigals all punch in purposefully, often with echoes of flamenco or the Balkans, when the vocals drop out, or in response to Ruimonte’s lyrical phrasing. She sings in character, whethe plaintive, pensive – or simply unable to keep a straight face, in a goofy nursery rhyme about a cat. That’s the album’s lone moment of comic relief.

In a handful of songs, she reaches for the rafters with arioso power, especially in a dancing, subtly shifting North African-influenced ballad. There are quieter songs and laments here as well, including one with a spare, hypnotic, almost Indian atmosphere, an almost completely rubato tableau, and a welcome departure into flamenco jazz. What a feast for fans of flamenco, klezmer and classical music alike

Chano Dominguez Brings His Saturnine Flamenco Piano Brilliance to Joe’s Pub Friday Night

The annual flamenco festival is happening around town next weekend, and as usual, fiery Spanish pianist Chano Dominguez is part of it. Perhaps better than any musician alive, he blends American jazz with flamenco for all the dark acerbity he can channel – which is a lot. He’s at Joe’s Pub this Friday, March 6 at 7 PM; cover is a little steep, $30, but he’s worth it. In fact, the show actually might sell out, so advance tix are a good idea.

His 2017 solo album Over the Rainbow  – streaming at Bandcamp – is a good introduction. It’s a mix of live and studio takes including both originals and classics from across the Americas. John Lewis’ Django proves to be a perfect opener, Dominguez building a lingering intro until he he adds subtle Spanish rhythm, a series of tasty, slithery cascades and finally some deviously muted syncopation. Likewise, he takes his time with Cuban composer Eliseo Grenet’s Drume Negrita, reinventing it as a balletesque strut rather than playing it as salsa, with a meticulous, downwardly ratcheting coda.

There are a couple of Monk tunes here. Evidence is amusingly tricky, switching back and forth between “gotcha!” pauses and a sagely bluesy insistence that swings just enough to keep it from being a march. Interesingly, Dominguez plays the more phantasmagorical Monk’s Dream a lot more straightforwardly, at the exact same tempo, with spiraling exactitude.

From its spring-loaded intro, to the clenched-teeth intensity of Dominguez’s drive through the first verse, to a bracing blend of cascade and pounce, the real showstopper here is an epic take of Violeta Parra’s Gracias A La Vida. He brings a similar, majestically circling intensity and then some trickily rhythmic fun to Cuban composer and frequent collaborator Marta Valdés’s Hacia Dónde.

The gorgeous take of Los Ejes De Mi Carreta, by Argentinean songwriter Atahualpa Yupanqui, simmers over catchy lefthand riffage, then grows more austere until Dominguez takes it out with a stampede.

His two originals here are dedicated to his kids. Mantreria shifts through intricate spirals, clever echo effects to saturnine, anthemic proportions and then back again. Marcel has a striking, steady, wistful yearning before Dominguez indulges in some boogie-woogie before shifting in a triumphantly gospel-flavored direction.

There’s also a ditty from the Wizard of Oz – no, it’s not If I Only Had a Brain.

The Maureen Choi Quartet Bring Their Dynamic Flamenco String Sounds to Queen

Violinist Maureen Choi began her career as a singer; as the story goes, she switched to violin after a brush with death. She lives in Spain now, where she and her quartet play a passionate, dynamic blend of Andalucian, flamenco, Romany and South American sounds. The band’s latest album Ida y Vuelta (Round Trip) is streaming at Spotify; they’ve got a show coming up tomorrow night, July 1 at 8 at Terrazza 7, 40-19 Gleane St. just off Baxter in Elmhurst; cover is $10.  Take the 7 to 82nd St.

Choi plays the album’s Django-influenced opening, title track with a lingering restraint echoed by pianist Daniel Garcia Diego’s elegantly climbing lines until drummer Michael Olivera picks up the pace, and they wind their way up to a big crescendo….then they’re off again,

Bassist Mario Carrillo grounds the neoromantically biting waltz Vals O Vienes with a gritty pulse, Diego glimmering uneasily and then adding a little blues, Choi growing starker and more kinetic as the band takes it deeper into flamenco. The catchy, folk-tinged tango Valentia grows both more lush and propusive as Choi leaps and bounds, with a playful salsa interlude midway through, Choi’s plaintively sailing melody contasts with the low-key but balletesque elegance of Bolero Del Alba. A tightly wound remake of Besame Mucho, Elizabeth eventually diverges into flamenco jazz, Diego gracefully handing off to Choi’s achingly melismatic attack.

Choi’s remake of Mercedes Sosa’s Alfonsina y El Mar is a sweepingly dancing duet with guest bassist Javier Colina. Choi’s steely resonance and Carrillo’s growling, prowling drive pair off in Negra Presuntuosa, a trickily rhythmic Peruvian lando. Pianist Pepe Rivero gives the bolero Dama De Noche and understated bounce while Choi digs in hard, up to a wry trick ending that’s 180 degrees from the rest of the song

The album’s most lighthearted cut is Bilongo, a cha-cha. The quartet reinvent Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol as a martial shuffle and then fllamenco jazz;. They close the album with Gracias A La Vida, the Violeta Parra ballad made famous by Sosa, Choi’s spare, prayerful lead paired with Diego’s delicate, wistful piano. If flamenco fire, south-of-the-border melancholy or Romany rambunctiousness are your thing, you can’t go wrong with this band.