New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: litvakus band

Golden Fest: Best New York Concert of Whatever Year You Can Remember

It was early, a little before six, upstairs in the Rainbow Room Saturday night at the big finale to this year’s Golden Fest. A young mom with bangs in a simple black top and pants swung her daughter by the wrists. The two pretty much had the whole dance floor to themselves, and the little kid was relishing the attention. A friend of her mom’s joined them and took over the swinging.

Then the little girl decided she wanted to show off her dance moves – and schooled the two adults in how to get down to an edgy minor-key Balkan tune, in 7/4 time. Over the course of the next eight hours or so, she wouldn”t be the only preschooler who had those kind of moves down cold.

Many of those kids’ parents, or the kids themselves, are alumni of the annual Balkan Camp immortalized as the idyllic setting of Josephine Decker’s horror film Butter on the Latch. It seems like a great place to learn Romany dances or sharpen your chops on the accordion, or zurla, or gadulka. But not everyone who goes to Golden Fest every year goes to Balkan Camp, or has roots in the old country, or in Eastern European music. They just like minor keys, and chromatics, and what a lot of western musicans would call weird tempos (and eating and drinking too – there’s lots of both). Over the course of two nights every January, this is New York’s most entertaining music festival, year after year. At the risk of being ridiculously redundant, you’ll see this on the best concerts of 2020 page here at the end of the year.

The little girl, her mom and her friend were dancing to the sounds of Rodyna (which, appropriately, means “family”). That particular song had a rustic northern Greek or Macedonian sound to it, the women in the band singing stark and low, bouzouki player Joseph Castelli adding a bristling edge. A floor below, the Navatman Music Collective were joining voices in leaping, precise harmony throughout an ancient Indian carnatic melody.

Indian choral music at a Balkan music festival – with harmonies, no less? Sure. Over the years, Golden Fest has expanded beyond Serbian and Romany sounds to embrace music from all over: Egypt, Spain, and now, India. That’s where Romany music started, anyway. As the members of New York’s original Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste – who originated the festival, and were the centerpiece of the Friday night edition – view it, it’s all just good music.

To hell with the overcrowded, touristy Copacabana – this is the real Globalfest.

When careening Russian Romany dance band Romashka took the stage at about half past six, the big ballroom was pretty empty. As frontwoman Inna Barmash and violinist Jake Shulman-Ment took a couple of breathtaking cadenzas, was this going to be the year nobody came to Golden Fest?

Ha. About half an hour later, just in time for everybody to hear guitarist Jay Vilnai slink his way through an eerie, pointillistic solo, it was as if the floodgates broke and half of Brooklyn busted through the doors. In what seemed like less than five minutes, it was impossible to get through the expanding circles of line dancers. This party had a plan.

To the extent that you can bring a plan to it, anyway. Much as Golden Fest is one-stop shopping, a way to discover a couple dozen great new bands every year, there comes a point where Plan A and Plan B go out the window and you just have to go with the flow. In an age where social media is atomizing and distancing everyone from their friends, it’s hard to think of a more crazily entertaining way to reconnect with people you haven’t seen in months.

So this year’s agenda – to hang on the dance floor and catch as many of the headliners as possible, like a lot of people do – didn’t last long. Until the first distractions came into view, it was a lot of fun to discover Orchester Praževica, their surfy guitar and shapeshifting dance tunes from the southern side of the Danube. After them, it seemed that Slavic Soul Party spent as much time off the stage, in the middle of the floor surrounded by the circling hordes, as they did onstage. This time they didn’t do the Ellington, or much of the hip-hop stuff, as they’ve played in years past here; this was as close to traditional as this untraditional brass band gets.

While the Elem All-Stars were keeping the dancers going with their tight, purposeful Romany tunes, the first of the distractions led to some drinking – at Golden Fest, you really have to pace yourself – and a side trip to the atrium to see Wind of Anatolia playing their achingly gorgeous, lush mix of Turkish folk themes and cinematic originals.

The decision to give Danish klezmer band Mames Babagenush the main stage paid off mightily. They’d just played a bunch of relatively intimate Manhattan club dates the past weekend, so this was their chance to use the big PA and really rock the house, and their energy was through the roof, particularly frontman/clarinetist Emil Goldschmidt. Upstairs, legendary Armenian-American multi-reedman Souren Baronian and his band weren’t as loud but were just as mesmerizing, the bandleader’s burbling, microtonal sax and duduk matched by oudist Adam Good and bassist Michael Brown’s slinky riffage.

Gauging the most opportune moment to join the food line (Golden Fest has a buffet starting at around 10) was more of a challenge this year – but so what, that only opened up the door for more music. The first-floor Chopin Room is where most of the wildest bands on the bill play, whether onstage or, like more and more of them seem to do, under the big chandelier. Representing Brooklyn for the umpteenth year in a row, Raya Brass Band scorched and blasted through one pulsing, minor-key original after another. Greek Judas‘ set of searing heavy metal versions of classic Greek rembetiko gangster anthems from the 20s through the 50s had some people scratching their heads at first, but by the time they hit their second song, the room was packed once again. One of the security guys couldn’t resist giving the group the devils-horns salute and joined the dancers on the edge. Frontman Quince Marcum has never sung with more Athenian fury than he did at this show; Good, meanwhile, had put on a mask, put down his oud and strapped on a Strat.

By the time midnight struck, Lyuti Chushki – Bulgarian for “Red Hot Chili Peppers” – were keeping the dancers twirling in the ballroom, the food was down to babagenoush, pitas and an irresistible but short-lived spread of ajjar (a sort of Turkish red pepper hummous). In the top-floor room, Zisl Slepovitch (hotshot clarinetist the Yiddish Fiddler on the Roof) and his similarly sizzling klezmer band Litvakus were leaping to the top of their respective registers for a lickety-split, nonstop series of what could have been traditional Ukrainian tunes but were probably originals.

By one in the morning, if you’ve done things right, this is where the booze finally starts to kick in and the dilemma of where to go really hits home. The allstar Amerike Klezmer Brass in the ballroom, Klezmatics reedman Matt Darriau‘s five-piece Paradox Trio downstairs, or singer Jenny Luna’s haunting Turkish ensemble Dolunay? If you last any longer, you might discover that the calm, thoughtful-looking individual seated next to you during one of the early sets is actually a member of What Cheer? Brigade, the feral, gargantuan street band who took over both the stage and the dance floor to close the night. Meanwhile, there was a much quieter Turkish quintet still going strong on the topmost floor. You want to dance? Great. You want to chill? Golden Fest has you covered. Looking forward to 2021.

A Wild Night in Bushwick Thursday in Anticipation of This Year’s Golden Fest

Of all the accolades Ray Manzarek received, he was most proud of how Rolling Stone described his organ playing as “Balkan funeral music.” Manzarek was also proud of his heritage, and if he was still alive, no doubt he’d be a fan of Choban Elektrik. The Brooklyn band – Jordan Shapiro on organ, Jesse Kotansky on violin, Dave Johnson on bass and Phil Kester on drums – take folk music from across the Balkans and make psychedelic rock epics out of it. Sometimes they sound like the Doors, sometimes they bring to mind the Stranglers when the rhythms are more straight-up and Shapiro goes off on one of his long, spiraling tangents. They aren’t playing this weekend’s Golden Fest – New York’s single funnest musical weekend of the year – but they are in the middle of an amazing four-band pre-Golden Fest lineup this Thursday, Jan 12 at Sunnyvale in Bushwick. Cover is $12, music starts at 7 with the feral, intricate lickety-split, rare Polesian klezmer dances and grooves of Litvakus, then  Choban Elektrik, then epic, original, intense Raya Brass Band, with Greek Judas;, who play psychedelic metal versions of classic underground 1920s and 1930s Greek hash smoking music, headlining

Choban Elektrik earned a rave review here last year for a twinbill they played with Greek Judas at Barbes back in April. The group played an even more adrenalizing show show there three months later that didn’t get a writeup here – overkill, you know – but did earn a spot on the Best Shows of 2016 page. Here’s what happened.

A bubbly, syncopated minor-key vamp slowly coalesced and then Shapiro hit his smoky, eerily tremoloing organ patch, pouncing his way through a brooding chromatic theme. Eventually, Kotansky took it skyward as Shapiro’s organ smoldered and pulsed. They followed that with the night’s first vocal number, a minor-key mashup of tango and surf rock with a long, majestically rising organ solo that Shapiro finally took spiraling down, then punched in some noisy, staccato washes like an unhinged Jimmy Smith.

Shapiro’s arrangement of the next tune was packed with shivery melismas and trills, wildfire clarinet lines transposed to funeral organ, echoed by Kotansky’s lightning volleys of triplets when he took a solo. Then he took the song down to the lowest, most austere place on his fingerboard. They took it out with a whirlwind doublespeed outro.

Kester suppplied a dancing rimshot beat as the bouncy next number got underway, the organ dancing overhead, Kotansky keeping the danse macabre going as Shapiro hit his wah pedal for some mean funk. They hit a staggered groove after that, Shapiro turning the roto way up to max out the menace and intensity of the tune’s Middle Eastern-tinged chromatics, adding an echoey dead-astronaut-adrift-in-space electric piano solo midway through. Kotansky’s solo was almost as macabre and veered toward bluesy metal. Then the band flipped the script with a joyously driving, syncopated anthem, both the folksiest and most ELP-inflected number of the night. They followed with one of their really epic numbers, sort of a mashup of Duke Ellington’s Caravan, the Doors’ Light My Fire and a bouncy Serbian theme. That was just the first set – and probably a close approximation of what you can expect Thursday night in Bushwick.

And the most recent moment that this blog and Greek Judas could be found in the same room was a few weeks ago on a cold Monday night at LIC Bar. Why on earth would someone not from Long Island City make the trip out there in bitter December wind, late on a work night – on an injured limb, no less – to a little Irish pub to see a loud metal band run through what was was basically a live rehearsal?

If you’re hanging out just over the Pulaski Bridge, a couple of stops away on the G, why the hell not? On one hand, the show was as experimental and sloppy as you would expect from a rehearsal, but by the third song in, the Monday Night Football crowd at the bar was drawn in by the group’s animal masks and macabre riffage, had their phones out and were gramming away. All that attention apparently earned Greek Judas a return engagement on another Monday night later this month. But what the bar really ought to give them is an early Saturday night slot during the warmer months when the back courtyard is open and the place is packed.

Dynamic Singer Lara Traum’s Debut Album Channels the Deep Jewish Influence in Decades of Russian Music

Too many artists conflate their own experiences with those of others, or their generation, or their fellow citizens. Singer Lara Traum, on the other hand, sees herself as one of many – and she’s right. Although vocally speaking, it wouln’t be an overstatement to call her one in a million. To get a sense of that, dial up her youtube channel and listen to her debut album Crypto Jewish Melodies: Semitic Sounds of Russian Extraction, one of the most beguiling and relevant releases of 2015.

Ir’s a concept album. As a second-generation Russian Jewish New Yorker, Traum noticed that Jewish expats from the former Soviet Union found themselves between two worlds: a Russian-speaking milieu where anti-Semitism was prevalent, and a Jewish world that, at best, was a demimonde there and, at times, just as or even more insular here. Let’s not forget that there was also a Holocaust under the Soviets.  Jews would seder away from the window so as not to incite nosy neighbors: “If you see something, say something” goes back a long, long way back before Dick Cheney. Traum’s album collects songs that illustrate that unease, yet also brings to light the deep Jewish influence in Russian music across the decades. It’s a celebration of a vast transcontinental legacy.

From the opening track, an a-cappella version of the ancient nigun Av Harachamim,, it’s striking how much depth there is in Traum’s voice. It’s the sound of an old soul: knowing, bittersweet, wary yet ultimately optimistic. Traum’s background is in choral music, as both a conductor and soloist. Although she sings in character here and varies her delivery according to the demands of the lyric, there’s a consistent warmth, even a maternal quality to how she relates to a song and to an audience. That’s evident right off the bat, as she goes way up the scale on a lively take of Vasily Lebedev’s famous 1930s tango, Serdtse,. Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch shows off the same flair and incisive intensity on piano that he does on clarinet in his rambunctious klezmer party band Litvakus, film composer Ljova Zhurbin playijng stark viola against the terse bass of Jordan Morton.

Traum takes a turn into plaintive territory with the familiar klezmer hit Papirosen, Slepovitch firing off neoromantic glimmer underneath: back in those days, a hit of nicotine was sometimes the only pleasure you could look forward to. Likewise, an English-language take of Bei Bir Mist Du Schoen takes Molly Picon coyness back to its roots in late 1800s cosmopolitan parlor pop. Then Traum flips the script with a klezmer blues take of Ain’t Necessarily So, spiced with Alex Greenleaf’s rustic blues harmonica. Her take of the standard Blue Skies, counterintuively , looks forward jauntily to Jeff Lynne and ELO.

Traum sings the WWII era Soviet hit Dark Is the Night in Russian, as hybrid neoromantic swing: like so much of that era’s music, and before, it’s easy to hear a klezmer influence and vice versa. The patriiotic. i.e. anti-Nazi anthem Katyusha ventures even further toward proto art-rock territory, yet at heart, it’s shtetl soul music. By contrast, it’s harder to hear a distinctive Jewish flavor in Yan Frenkel’s 1968 Soviet art-pop hit Zhuravli (Cranes), a post-Hiroshima reflection on mortality, although Slepovitch and Traum team up with a quietly harrowing intensity. The same is true, on a more muted take of a vocal number based on a Tschaikovsky lullaby.

Perhaps the most telling number here is an elegant version of the theme to the Soviet cartoon Gena the Crocodile. Traum offers some dignity to the droll, accordion-wielding, rather stock character who plays klezmer music for the masses during an era when such a thing was not only samizdat but also possibly lethal for anyone who tried it. The album winds up with a lighthearted take of the klezmer standard A Glazele Yah and a bouncy dance that pairs Morton’s austere bowed bass against Slepovitch’s ebullient piano – the guy just cannot resist a glisando when he can squeeze one in. As insight into Jewish-Russian cross-pollination, this is an important musical document, yet ultimately it transcends that historical value: it packs an emotional wallop. Traum is currently in law school, so she’s busy; watch this space for upcoming gigs.

Litvakus Bring Their Rare, Deliriously Fun, Decades-Old Dance Tunes to the Upper West

On one hand, Litvakus’ latest album is kick-ass party music with lyrics – mostly in Yiddish – like “May you always have whiskey to fill your glasses.” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of amazing how frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s band has rescued obscure songs hidden away, in some cases for more than a century, in dusty vaults that enterprising music students were very strongly discouraged from prowling around in. But Slepovitch doesn’t give up easily. Back in his native Belarus, his first band, Minsker Kapelye played their first-ever show across the street from KGB headquarters. And they got away with it. Litvakus’ new album Raysn may come across with a distinct, regional sound, but they have the fearless heart and soul of the Clash.

They’re playing Tuesday night, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM as part of one of New York’s most reliably exciting concert series in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W 68th St (Broadway/Columbus) where drummer Aaron Alexander puts on more-or-less weekly shows featuring the creme de la creme of Jewish music from around the globe: in the klezmer world, a gig here means you’ve arrived. Concertgoers have more than one option: if you just want a quick shot of adrenaline before you head home, you can see the show for $15. For musicians, there’s a pre-concert music class at 5:30, followed by a long jam session afterward, and all of that’s $35. And maybe there’s a nosh, or a drink, who knows – it’s a lively, multi-generational, quintessentially New York scene.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its name from the old Yiddish term for what is now Belarus, for centuries a multicultural melting pot that resulted in some unique cross-pollination. Slepovitch has collected songs with both Jewish and Belorussian origins as well as a couple of boisterous originals, one of which he wrote in an inspired moment on the Q train.

The album opens with its most otherworldly track, a droning yet kinetic instrumental featuring Slepovitch on the svirel, the Belorussian counterpart to the English shawm. From there the group – Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Crisman on bass, Josh Camp on accordion and Sam Weisenberg on standup drum – weave their way into a swaying, minor-key, chromatically charged dance. The segue between the next two songs, Judelman handing off elegantly to Slepovitch, is so seamless that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins unless you listen closely. They keep the bouncing, bustling drive going with a fond look back at a little country town where people really like to party.

Bergren-Crisman bows his bass furiously as the next medley, a couple of pulsing traditional Belorussian dances, gets underway and then subtly segues into the Middle Eastern-tinged freygish scale, equivalent to the Arabic hijaz mode. Then Slepovitch brings it down with an ancient, plaintive, lovelorn waltz, his clarinet stark against the dark washes of bass and accordion and Judelman’s poignant doublestops. From there the band picks it up again, Slepovitch’s clarinet bobbing and weaving with an unselfconscious joy through an original that fits perfectly with the traditional romp – based on a rare 1934 Soviet recording – that follows. The clarinetist dryly describes the slow, gorgeous original waltz after that as being in the tradition of music designed for listening at weddings…or on the subway.

There’s also a wry, hair-raising tale employing lyrics from a 1922 epic poem by Moyshe Kulbak, reinvented as a lively reel; a trio of circle dances rescued from the archives; a rivetingly Middle Eastern flavored mini-suite; a rare Belorussian version of an ancient Hasidic a-cappella nigun; a dirge, a drinking song and a rousing. surrealistic tribute to a pretty Jewish girl who also happens to be the best-loved bartender in town. The more things change, right? If you like minor keys, infectious dance grooves and eerie passing tones, you’ll love this album. The cd also comes with extensive liner notes which provide all kinds of interesting historical background, very useful for western listeners and music bloggers too!

Litvakus Rescue Some of the Funnest Songs Ever Written

Onstage at the Center for Jewish Culture last week, Litvakus came across as a sort of acoustic Gogol Bordello, playing an exhilarating and frequently haunting mix of feral dances and haunting dirges. Frontman Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch bobbed and weaved and bounced as he played, firing off frenetic volleys or mournfully sustained notes on a series of clarinets, svirel – the Belorussian equivalent of a shawm – and dudka. As ambassador for the lost Jewish sounds of his native Belarus and also Polesia – the mysterious, rustic area bordering Belarus, Ukraine, Poland and what is now Lithuania – he held the crowd rapt. His mission to rescue decades-old and sometimes centuries-old songs led him to buck the authorities as he earned his doctorate in musicology in his hometown of Minsk, where he founded the city’s first klezmer revival band, Minsker Kapelye. With a gleam in his eye, he related that the band’s first gig, at a street fair, had been across the street from the local KGB headquarters. That group managed to get through the set without being hassled: New York is not the only city where that’s likely to happen to musicians on the street.

Sam Weisenberg played marching-band style, his bass drum strapped around his shoulders, a cymbal on top. Bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman bowed his lines much of the time, adding a dark undercurrent to the lushness of much of the music in tandem with violinist Craig Judelman and once-and-future Chicha Libre accordiionist Josh Camp. The songs bristled with stark minor keys, eerie chromatics and the occasional odd meters (5/4 seemed to be a favorite of this band). They opened with a bracing reel with a Celtic tinge to it and closed on an unexpectedly pensive note. A handful of the songs in their roughly hourlong set juxtaposed brightly dancing verses with more moody, intense choruses. Slepovitch sang a couple of numbers drawing on the lyrics of celebrated Belorussian poet Hersh Reles. There were plenty of solos from everybody, including a handful of slowly unwinding improvisations to begin a small handful of songs and plenty of clapalongs from the audience, a mix of emigres and an energized younger crowd.

And much as the songs had a distinctly Jewish character, Slepovitch was quick to acknowledge how much cross-pollination there’s been over the decades in ethnic music from his part of the world – and how Jews were so often the catalyst. And he introduced a little controversy via a jaunty, pulsing Belorussian folk song, Khayka-Zhydouka, whose title translates in Russian as a slur against Jewish women. In an interesting Q&A after the show with the CTMD‘s Pete Rushefsky, Slepovitch revealed that in Belorussian, the word simply means “Jewish girl,” (or in the context of the song, “hot Jewish girl”). And he reminded that throughout the Soviet Union, Belorussian was repressed just as cruelly as Yiddish and other ethnic languages. People were literally killed for speaking them. No wonder so many of the evening’s songs were left on wax cylinders in archives, waiting for guys like Slepovitch to discover them. Litvakus are at Barbes tomorrow night, Nov 4 at around 7 if you’d like to hear the acoustic Gogol Bordello in a small club; the larger, horn-driven but similarly fun Slavic Soul Party play afterward at 9.

Litvakus Turns a Sedate Museum Space Into a Party

Litvakus plays deliriously fun minor-key party music. To cultures east of the Danube, minor keys don’t necessarily imply sadness: instead, they’re just as likely to equate to excitement (which, admitttedly, could cut either way: Look out, Moishe, cossacks coming over the bridge!). Did the rain and the gloom keep the five-piece band’s fans away from their Friday evening concert at the American Folk Art Museum? Nope. The place was packed, and the crowd clapped and sang along. With clarinet, violin, accordion, bass and standup drum, the group romped and ripped through a spine-tingling mix of old Jewish folk songs from Belarus and the Ukraine as well as a bunch of edgy originals in the same vein. Frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Slepovitch explained that he’d written the night’s first song, a swirling, rapidfire waltz, on the Q train.  He reached for an explanation and couldn’t find one: “That’s what musicians do,” he grinned, sheepish but succinct.

Drummer Sam Weisenberg kept a muted thud that was perfect for the room underneath bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman’s catchy, melodic, rock-flavored lines, which he played with a bow for extra resonance. Slepovitch’s slow, panoramic clarinet solo made an elegant handoff to Craig Judelman’s violin over accordionist Josh Camp’s rich chordal washes on the second song  of the night; it was cool to see him playing a real accordion after having seen him countless times with an electrified one in Chicha Libre. Slepovitch was a ball of energy, bouncing and swaying and inspiring spontaneous clapalongs with his slashing, pointillistic, melismatic runs. And without using a mic, he sang several numbers in a strong baritone that resonated throughout the boomy space: a bittersweet Yiddish theatre tune from the late 30s looking back on the author’s Belarus hometown;  a rousing violin-driven anthem; a jaunty, accordion-fueled dance whose gist was “party at the rabbi’s place,” and a bleakly amusing one about a girl coming up with one excuse after another for why she won’t go out with a guy.

A couple of instrumentals were horas: slow, dirgey intros followed by explosive dances, dynamics rising and falling as the band sped up and then backed off, only to pick up the pace again and rip through the final choruses. A couple of others had a more Bulgarian feel, galloping through simple, hypnotic, bucolic barn-dance vamps. But as much as the songs had a centuries-old feel, they also had jazzy interplay and a sense of surprise, with trick endings, suspenseful interludes and abrupt changes that deviated from the standard verse/chorus format. Although the crowd responded boisterously, it was weird to see people sitting still and watching them, rather than dancing (although the kids were). Litvakus are at the Jalopy on Dec 18 at 10:30 as part of Feral Foster’s Roots & Ruckus night.