Saturday night at Drom, Pascuala Ilabaca didn’t let the heavy accordion slung across her shoulder keep her from bounding and dancing across the stage in front of her tight but feral band, Fauna. The Chilean singer/multi-instrumentalist became the latest in a long, long list of international stars to make their New York debut at Drom: they’re the kind of high-voltage act typically found at the East Village club’s annual New York Gypsy Festival. That annual celebration starts this Oct 8 at 8 PM with a very rare NYC appearance by Macedonian brass band Prilepski Zvezdi, and also includes Zlatne Uste, NYC’s first and arguably most authentic, explosive Balkan brass unit. Advance tix are $15.
Singing mostly in Spanish with a bright, precise, sometimes dramatic flair, Ilabaca addressed the crowd mostly in English, explaining several of the lyrics for the linguistically challenged. She didn’t pick up her accordion until after the first number, a bouncy parlor pop tune with distant hints of Asian folk music, bassist Christian Chino Chiang playing flute on the intro. From there they picked up the pace with a carnivalesque intensity, part uneasy circus rock, part pan-latin dance band, part psychedelic outfit.
From a bolero-tinged ballad, they shifted gears with the first of their reimagined Violeta Parra ballads, this one a growling one-chord jam, their excellent acoustic guitarist Juan Nuñez switching to Strat for a hypnotic Brian Jonestown Massacre feel. Chiang and drummer Jaime Frez kept a tight focus as the rhythms changed from the hint of a bolero to a couple of cumbias where Nuñez channeled Los Destellos great Enrique Delgado with his spiky, spiraling phrases.
Meanwhile,clarinetist Miguel Razzouk added an ominous edge with his brooding, Middle Eastern-tinged melismas and chromatics. He kept that intensity going when he switched to alto sax: it was akin to Chicha Libre with a better singer and Kinan Azmeh sitting in on reeds – that good.
Midway through the set, Ilabaca moved to piano and built a similarly shadowy, moody ambience with her own edgy chromatics, neoromantic art-rock flourishes contrasting with low, lingering atmospherics. The high point of the night might have been when a big anthem hit peak velocity, the group cascading up and down on a biting Indian raga riff, over and over again.
Or it might have been the encore, which had to be the alltime most macabre version of the Parra classic El Gavilan. That one’s a metaphorically-charged tale of a woman who gets torn to pieces by hawk. The band opened it slowly and took their time building to a harrowing, frantic crescendo, Ilabaca wailing “Gavilan,” over and over again as the group rose to a terrified squall. As foreshadowing for both the festival at Drom and Halloween month, it was unbeatable.