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Tag: Inna Barmash

Three Generations of a Russian Film Music Dynasty at Joe’s Pub

Sunday evening at Joe’s Pub, was pianist Alexander Zhurbin’s overture from the Russian musical Lips a pavane of lost souls, or a parody of a love song?

Both, actually. There are more optimal ways of recording a concert’s most memorable moments than scribbling in a darkened theatre and then trying to decipher those notes. And there was so much more, in almost two nonstop hours of music, than any hasty note-taking could cover. Shifting effortlessly through lush neoromantic themes, darkly gleaming art-song, bulgar punk and a few detours toward Brighton Beach piano-bar singalongs, Zhurbin and his singer wife Irena Ginzburg underscored their status as icons of Russian music over the past forty-plus years.

At this show, three generations of Zhurbins celebrated that legacy. Their son Ljova, the great violist, joined in on several numbers and contributed a couple of his own works. There was Garmoshka, a poignant, bittersweet theme whose title refers to a small Russian accordion. “Or anything you can squeeze – this song is almost about that,” he explained. The other was a stern, stripped-down take of By the Campfire, sung with bristling intensity by his wife, the riveting vocalist Inna Barmash. “The wisdom of our days teaches lies, deceit and hate,” she sang, in Russian, a perennially apt commentary from the 12th century Goliards which Ljova’s grandfather had translated.

The elder Zhubin has a vast body of work, both scoring and playing film and theatre music. Maybe because he’s been called on to write for so many different idioms, the songs and instrumentals on the bill evoked just about every emotion possible: depth and suspense and longing, but also sly wit and outright boisterous fun. Being set pieces, many of those numbers were tantalizingly brief. He built a swaying intensity using bell tones in a song from his 1975 rock opera Orpheus and Eurydice, the very first of its kind to somehow make it past the Soviet censors. Another theme, from the 1980 film Flying Hussars Squadron, had an even more ominously epic sweep. Often he’d begin a tune on a more lighthearted note before bringing in the clouds, as with many of the World War II-themed material from the popular Russian tv drama Moscow Saga.

Decked out as a punk cabaret star in a classy black top and leather pants, rocking a sharp blonde hairdo, Ginzburg channeled as just as broad a spectrum of feeling, unleashing her powerful yet often understated mezzo-soprano. The material ranged from the tender ballad Isn’t It Beautiful – a co-write with their husband – to more bittersweet, as in the Moscow Tram Song, dedicated to the popular Russian-Georgian poet and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava. After romping through a bouncy, theatrical medley of his songs, and then a similarly animated trio of tunes from Zhurbin’s 1987 musical Sunset, they closed with a reprise of their hit Life Is Like a Horse. At that point, everybody was onstage, the couple’s grandsons raising the vaudevillian factor a few notches at the end as the crowd clapped along.

Zhurbin and Ginzburg don’t have anything upcoming scheduled at the moment, although lately Joe’s Pub has been their home base. Ljova’s next New York appearance is with Barmash in their wild Romany/klezmer/rock string band Romashka at Flushing Town Hall on March 23 at 8 PM on a twinbill with similarly energetic western swing band Brain Cloud; tix are $16.

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.

Sometimes You Can’t Catch a Break, Sometimes You Can

The man in the long black coat stood alone, or so he thought, over the kitchen table, chomping on a plate of spicy Russian beet salad. He took a pull from a plastic cup of beaujolais nouveau. This year’s wasn’t anything special, nothing like the 2003, for that matter not even up to the level of 2008, at least this particular bottle. But enough of it still did the trick, just as it did in better years. In the living room, a pretty young mother played a Bach cello sonata, calmly and comfortably, to the small crowd of guests who remained at that late hour: her parents, a yoga girl and her dreadlocked white boyfriend, a petite, bookish brunette from Park Slope and her intense-faced, solidly built, bearded companion.

In the kitchen, the man in the long black coat turned around to see the woman’s reedy, bespectacled ten-year-old son staring at him. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you,” the boy urged him, the hint of a smile at the corners of his thin lips. He was small for his age, especially in profile against the fat, freckled, autistic girl who lingered in the doorway behind him.

The man in the long black coat took another pull from the cup and followed the children into an adjacent bedroom. Paint chips fell from the far wall, behind a leather reclining chair, a dartboard overhead. “Sit down,” encouraged the boy. “Everybody I do this to likes it.’

The man in the long black coat sat down slowly and leaned back. His head was driven further into the headrest when struck from behind, in the center of his forehead, with a sharp object. The man in the long black coat gasped and was just starting to pull himself out of the chair when struck a second time. This time the boy drew blood: for someone his size, he was strong, and on a mission to inflict pain. In the corner, the autistic girl began howling with laughter. The man in the long black coat pulled himself to his feet, but not in time to avoid being hit again, a glancing blow to the side of the head. That, too, drew blood.

Jarred from a red wine haze, the man in the long black coat moved out of the bedroom quickly, not looking back. The girl in the corner was still laughing, and by now the boy was giggling as well. The man in the long black coat saw a bathroom to his right and closed the door behind him. Droplets of blood trickled down the worn but now adrenalized face in the mirror. He reached for a piece of toilet paper, then thought better of it and pulled a napkin from his coat pocket. Gingerly, he blotted at his wounds.

He walked out into the hallway. The mother’s parents were there, glanced up and said nothing. The mother, behind them, did the same. No reaction, no offer of a band-aid, peroxide, even a simple “Are you ok?”

The man in the long black coat walked past them, toward the door, then stepped out into the cold Brighton Beach air. It was best to be out of this house of no empathy. Was this a ritual from the old country? A game to initiate outsiders? What would happen if he returned? Would he be skewered, eaten with beets and horseradish? Questions best left unanswered. He looked up, blinking the blood from his eyes as a B train rumbled into the station overhead.

The following night, the man in the long black coat reached the exit at the top of the stairs to the IRT local train at Broadway and 66th, the affectingly bittersweet, minor-key strains of what could have been an old Ukrainian Jewish song but was probably an original drifting from a couple of blocks south. Carefully, he adjusted the old black Mets hat over the wounds under the bandage.

A crowd of Jews were gathered in front of a Christmas tree near the point of the park where Columbus and Broadway cross at 63rd. The band onstage in front of them was fantastic: Alicia Svigals out front on violin, Patrick Farrell on accordion, Aaron Alexander on drums. The man in the long black coat didn’t recognize the bass player. Was this a comfortably typical New York moment or a subtle bit of subversion? What does it say about how far we’ve come that such a sight could be subversive in a city that at least on the surface seems to embrace so many cultures?

The man in the long black coat paused. This music was beautiful, and soul-stirring, a moment of comfort and warmth on an early winter night. But that’s not what he was there for. Halfheartedly, he moved ahead, south and west. Inside the Lincoln Center atrium space, with its desk for cheap day-of-show tickets and sandwich stand emanating smells of burnt cheese and sandwich meat, Fela cover band Chop & Quench were amassed onstage, ready to launch into a slinking, galloping set of Nigerian stoner dance grooves from the 1970s. An altogether different vibe from what was being played outside, notwithstanding that Afrobeat and Ukrainian Jewish music share a defiance and resilience.

Chop & Quench were the pit band for the Broadway musical Fela, arguably the most relevant production to appear on the Great White Way. The man in the long black coat was aware of this, but this show was all about the music. He leaned against the atrium wall, watching frontman Sahr Ngaujah, who starred as the Nigerian agitator bandleader in the theatrical run, spun and pounced across the stage, a trio of brightly skirted women to his right undulating along with the grooves spinning from Tim Allen’s bass and Greg Gonzalez’s drums. Guitarists Ricardo Quinones and Bryan Vargas clinked and jangled and mingled, trumpeter Jeff Pierce and tenor saxophonist Morgan Price taking the occasional long crescendo upward with a rapidfire solo.

Although the long rectangular room was pretty full, there weren’t many people dancing. After awhile, it was as if the band was playing a single, long song. After about forty minutes, they finally hit a snarling minor-key riff and launched into Water No Get Enemy, an aptly relevant number for this era. That was enough for the man in the long black coat, who exited back onto Broadway. Were the Jewish bands still playing? Yes!

Onstage now were trumpeter Frank London, accordionist Lorin Sklamberg and pianist Uri Caine, two thirds of the original New York punk klezmer band, the Klezmatics. “We may be in Manhattan, but this show is all about Brooklyn,” London grinned, explaining how much of their repertoire they’d discovered hanging with a Hasidic crowd there. Together they followed the rises and falls of a set of dances, a stately, cantorially-flavored hymn for peace and finally a droll, jazzed-up version of the dreydl song – it was Hanukkah season, after all. Violist Ljova Zhurbin came up onstage and added an acerbic edge for a couple of numbers; London encouraged him to stay for more, but he obviously had other places to be.

The man in the long black coat spotted Zhurbin’s wife, the great Yiddish singer Inna Barmash, in the audience. She smiled and waved; the man in the long black coat waved back. He looked up at the big evergreen behind the stage, festooned with ornaments, then at the lights twinkling down the avenue. In the austere washes of the accordion, London’s balmy trumpet and Caine’s careful, focused, sometimes darkly bluesy phrases, it was easy to call this home, good to be alone in the crowd.

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: ‘Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

Inna Barmash Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Wednesday night at Joe’s Pub, Inna Barmash led an excellent band  (clarinet, bass and cello plus the brilliant Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano) through a set of frequently spellbindinding, emotionally rich new arrangements of old Jewish folk tunes from the Ukraine and points further west. Fronting Romashka, her Russian Romany string band, Barmash is all about spine-tingling technique and big crescendos. In this somewhat more low-key performance, Barmash built a warmly personable rapport with the audience, sharing her passion and erudite knowledge of obscure treasures brought to light by both Dmitri Shostakovich as well as legendary pre-Holocaust archivist Moishe Beregovsky.

Barmash was quick to remind the crowd that these songs weren’t originally concert music: they were sung unaccompanied, mostly by women who were all alone or with young children. Appropriately, she saved her most tender vocal for an a-cappella lullaby, which she delivered sweet and low as if she was singing to her own kids (come to think of it, that’s exactly how she might have practiced it before the show).The rest of songs ran the gamut from dark and heavy and unselfconsciously deep, to jaunty and lighthearted. Since this was the first day of Hannukah, Barmash came prepared. After lighting the menorah onstage, making an offering and getting a big “Amen” from the crowd, she led the band through a bittersweetly edgy, historically vivid Hannukah song that didn’t neglect to mention Jews fighting for their rights. Sing Me a Song in Yiddish translated loosely as “I’m gonna sing this so everybody gets it and that way we won’t fight;”  the surreal Over the Attic lamented a long-lost love, and by implication, someone who might just as likely have been taken away by the Cossacks as having left under his own power.

One of Barmash’s most plaintive moments of the night was when she sang an anxiously expectant number about a mother looking forward to the day when she and her children can be reunited with her husband, who’s gone of to work in America. Barmash’s irrepressible husband, Ljova Zhurbin came up and seemingly did the impossible, playing viola with a broken hand (he’d had a bicycle accident, ironically, on the way to Roosevelt Hospital, to play for patients there). Making the best of a bad situation (not to worry, he’ll be fine in a month or so), he played along on his open strings while the cellist aired out viola voicings in his upper registers

And as good as the band was – an absolutely sizzling, rapidfire clarinet solo was a late highlight, while Nagai’s lush, often haunting washes of chords and playfully prowling inside-the-piano work dominated the earlier part of the evening – the most wondrous instrument on the stage was Barmash’s voice. She sang in character, varying her approach depending on the lyric. She struck a jazzy, deviously fingersnapping chanteuse pose on a slyly petulant number titled something along the lines of “don’t you DARE go out with anybody else,” and cut loose joyously on the final song of the set, a gambling song for dreydl-spinners. But it was the quieter material that was the most stunning, possibly most vividly on a sad , characteristically minor-key tale of two lovers watching each other from across the river, contemplating how soom they might (or might not) see each other. As nuanced a singer as Barmash is in the studio – her new album Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies, many of which she played this evening – is fantastic, but live is where her heart is, so watching her inhabit these (mostly) troubled characters made a shlep out in the cold rain to hear it worth it many times over.

Haunting, Eclectic Jewish Songs from Romashka’s Inna Barmash

Inna Barmash is the intense, inscrutably charismatic frontwoman of fiery Russian Romany string band Romashka. She’s got one of those rare voices that comes along maybe once a generation: a bell-like, bolt-cutter soprano that’s so clear it’ll give you chills. In a city stocked to the brim with great vocalists, Barmash is one of New York’s most rivetling. Hailing originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, she cut her teeth singing music that these days falls under the broad rubric of klezmer. Her debut solo album, Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs, is a powerful and haunting return to those roots. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page; she and her band – including her husband, viola powerhouse and composer Ljova Zhurbin, along with along with Shoko Nagai on piano and accordion, Dmitri Slepovitch on clarinet and bass clarinet and Dmitry Ishenko on bass  – are playing the album release show on Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. $20 advance tickets are still available as of today but it’s likely that this show will sell out.

The songs here, spanning several centuries and drawing from across the Jewish diaspora, are short and to the point. Likewise, the band keep their solos short and sweet as well. The acerbic minor keys and haunting chromatics typical of Jewish music echo thoughout the album, although there are lighthearted moments as well. Barmash sings in character – she can sweep your off your feet one moment and then rip your face off the next. She further distinguishes herself with strikingly crisp if seemingly nonchalant diction, an enormous help for listeners trying to remember or come to grips with the language. This blog being in English, the titles used here are the English versions provided on the album.

Wake Up Dear Daughter, the opening track, is a potent example of Barmash at the top of her plaintive power, a brittle vibrato trailing off at the end of her phrases to enhance the song’s sense of longing and unease. She does that even more affectingly on the album’s longest song, Ever Since I Remember, lit up with glimmering solos from piano, viola and then clarinet as it reaches its moodiest peak. She pulls back a little, adding a sense of resignation, on the pensive waltz  If I Had Wings.

Don’t You Dare Go Out with Other Girls, with its menacingly shivery clarinet solo, has a tongue-in-cheek bounce, but Barmash leaves no doubt that she means business. She contrasts that with the sweetly hypnotic lullaby Sleep My Child and its gorgeous viola/piano harmonies.

Afn Boydem (Over the Attic) is a duet that takes on a droll, dancing quality as it moves along and then goes straight into vaudeville.  Barmash brings back the nocturnal mood with Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and Nagai’s surrealistic piano, equal parts Satie and blues. Oy Abram is a showstopper both for Barmash and the band, rapidfire counterpoint from the clarinet and viola leading to a rich interweave of instruments – to the uninitiated, it’s the most recognizably “klezmer” song here. The rest of the album includes By the Road Stands a Tree, a wistful, skeletal waltz; Reyzele, which sounds like it could either be a tale of seduction or seduction gone wrong; and the triumphantly soaring Play Me a Song in Yiddish.