New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: litvakus band

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.

Advertisements

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.