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No New Abnormal

Tag: macedonian music

A Wild Dance Party to Kick Off Golden Fest 2019

“What else are you doing tonight?” the bartender at Barbes asked his friend early yesterday evening.

Golden Fest. I’m going both nights.”

“Tonight’s quiet night,” the bartender mused.

When there’s so much natural reverb in the room that Dimitrios Stefanides’ raw, leaping pontic lyra sounds like an entire Greek gangster orchestra from the 1930s, quiet is a relative concept. Quiet, maybe, by comparison to the rat-a-tat bursts from the trumpets and trubas and the rest of the brass in the mighty Zlatne Uste, New York’s original Balkan brass band, who created Golden Fest more than three decades ago and have kept it growing stronger throughout an era where the arts and live music scenes are contracting and vanishing at a record pace.

In fact, last night seemed to have a greater percentage of dancers on the floor, in proportion to viewers on the sideline, than at any time in the past ten years. While tonight’s big blowout has about seventy bands playing music from the Mediterranean to the Middle East and pretty much all points in between, spread throughout several rooms at Grand Prospect Hall, the south Park Slope mansion, last night was confined to the ballroom, the balcony and the kitchen.

Again, small by comparison. The night began with about an hour and a half worth of short sets of whirling, constantly shifting, upbeat material, the majority of it from Greece, while a couple of dance instructors led a concentric series of circles around the dancefloor. And these people were good! For most of them, it looked more like a refresher course or a warmup – although by the time the night really got cooking, there were plenty of newbies out there too.

Last year, the bands came out swinging right from the opening bell. This time, it felt more like past years when the dance lessons were just as much of a warmup for the musicians. But when Zlatne Uste hit, they came to slay. They may be American, but their original tunes could just as well be Serbian. Sharp staccato bursts from the horns matched the meticulous rattle and thwack of the tupan barrel drums, the seventeen-piece band situated smack in the middle of the floor as the dancers slowly undulated their way around. Minor keys subtly shifted to major, and back and forth; long, sinewy trumpet solos contrasted with momentary dips to just the volleys of beats. Zlatne Uste’s lineup may have shifted a bit over the course of three decades, but it’s hard to think of another band who can conjure up this much passion more than a quarter century after they started.

Drummer Jerry Kisslinger must own some sort of ironman record for number of sets played at Golden Fest: last night, he was in six all of them. How does this guy keep his chops sharp? He never stops playing! After a turn with Zlatne Uste, he joined Stefanides up on the big stage for the night’s longest set. Not only is Stefanides an incisive and often breathtaking string player; he’s also a powerful baritone crooner. In between long, sometimes achingly intense solos, his vocals would add an extra level of low lushness. In moments like that, it feels vicarious to the extreme to be drawn in by the music despite having absolutely no idea of what the lyrics are about. Then again, most of the audience probably weren’t Greek or Macedonian speakers either.

The shortest set of the night was by the trio Zurli Drustvo, who played bracingly trance-inducing Macedonian dances with zurla oboes and drum. In this case, the two zurla players alternated between playing unearthly drones and hauntingly keening melodies overhead, via visibly strenuous circular breathing, akin to a giant human bagpipe. The zurla is one of the most distinctively eerie – and loudest – reed instruments in the world, and these guys, holding fort in the middle of the floor, were as loud as the rest of the bands despite the lack of amplification.

Kavala – a slightly smaller spinoff of Zlatne Uste – ended the night at around half past midnight with a set loaded with greatest hits from the Aegean. A lot of people sang along. It was amazing to watch Catherine Foster switch effortlessly from trumpet, to clarinet, to flugelhorn and back, adding microtonal shiver over the fleet rivulets of Morgan Clark’s accordion as the songs bounced along. Amid the rhythmic complexity, hits by both the Skatalites and 80s new wavers the Boomtown Rats came to mind. Were Tommy McCook or Bob Geldof influenced by Balkan music? Borders may have been a lot more porous back then than conventional wisdom says they were.

See you tonight in the big ballroom at 6 for rising star brass band Cocek Nation!

Magic Microtones and Modal Menace at Barbes

Was the Barbes show on the first of the month by Greg Squared’s Great Circles going to turn into a Balkan power play? That’s the Eastern European version of a jazz power play. The great saxophonist Bryan Beninghove came up with that one: it’s when there are more people in the band than in the audience.

By the time the quartet had wrapped up their set, there was a full house, who ended up being treated to one of the most exhilarating shows of 2018 so far. But things didn’t look promising at the start. Guitarist Adam Good sent a shout to his friend in the back, who was texting and looking pretty oblivious. Half of searing metal band Greek Judas – Good and drummer Chris Stromquist – were also onstage with bassist Reuben Radding and the bandleader. And that was pretty much it.

Great Circles is Greg Squared’s vehicle for his more expansive tunes that don’t fit with Raya Brass Band – the perennial star attraction at Golden Fest, New York’s legendary festival of Balkan and Middle Eastern music – or with the more vocally-oriented Sherita, who seem to be on hiatus at the moment. For most of the set, he ran through volley after volley of eerie microtones, edgy melismas and sharp-fanged chromatics. And he wasn’t even playing all that fast. Most of the tunes were slinky and upbeat – this is dance music after all – but for a guy who plays a ton of notes, this show was all about suspense and intensity stretched to breaking point.

Stromquist made all the tricky tempos look easy – a couple of numbers in 9/4 and one especially serpentine one with so much syncopation that it was impossible to count along. He does the same in Greek Judas,  but more subtly here, first with his rims and snare, then with a clave groove in a minor-key song that seemed like it was going to morph into a Russian tango but didn’t. He finally got to take a tumbling solo – something he doesn’t do in Greek Judas – trading eights with Good.

The guitarist also got to do the same with the sax for a bit, the two like a couple of wolves going at each other through a wire fence. Radding kept a fat, low-key end going for the first half of the set before cutting loose with a solo laced with horn voicings, then some booming chords and nifty slides to drive a chorus or a turnaround home. Most of the material was originals; at the end, the group did a couple of traditional Macedonian numbers, veering from tense and overcast to sunny and then back. A couple of the last tunes brought to mind the glory days of Ansambl Mastika, Greg Squared’s great Balkan guitar band from the late zeros, who put out two deliriously good albums. If you can, snag them.

A Tantalizing Taste of Golden Fest Last Night at Trans-Pecos

It’s not likely that the WNYU folks had Golden Fest in mind when they booked three of New York’s most exciting bands to play Trans-Pecos last night. But the triplebill of riveting Macedonian duo Glas, hotshot oudist Kane Mathis and haunting Turkish band Dolunay are all vets of the annual Brooklyn mecca for sounds from across the Balkans and the Middle East as well. Golden Fest 2018 takes place next January 12 and 13; this was a hint of the kind of wild intensity and stark rapture that will be in almost absurd abundance there that weekend.

Glas, the duo of tamburist/kaval player Vedran Boškovski and singer Corinna Snyder, opened the night. This was more a showcase for her elegance and subtlety than the floor-to-ceiling power and feral microtones of her vocals in pioneering Bulgarian choral trio Black Sea Hotel. Boškovski made it look easy, steadily strumming his open-tuned tambura, alternating between allusive, hypnotic modes and more ominous, acerbic Middle Eastern-flavored tonalities. He brought more of a stark, rustic touch to a couple of songs, backing Snyder’s wary cadences with stark, overtone-infused lines on the kaval, a wooden Balkan flute.

That Snyder speaks the language further enables her to channel the relentless grimness in these old songs. The road is treacherous, highwaymen are everywhere, war is omnipresent, all omens are bad and love is fleeting. Their most riveting number was a dirge, a guy kidnapped by the enemy giving his last goodbyes. They closed with a somewhat more upbeat number: so you’re already engaged? Let’s elope anyway!

Mathis is the not-so-secret weapon in Alsarah & the Nubatones, filling the enormous shoes left behind by the late, great oudist Haig Magnoukian. Leading a trio with a percussionist on boomy dumbek goblet drum and House of Waters’ Moto Fukushima on eight-string bass, he opened with a hypnotically circling, rippling West African-flavored number that sounded like a tune for the kora – an instrument Mathis also plays virtuosically. From the three went into a serpentine Middle Eastern theme, Mathis adding fiery chords to the mix early on, Fukushima’s solo going off into hard bop before finally making an emphatic, chromatic flourish of a landing. Mathis’ endless, machinegunning flurries in his closing epic left his rhythm section wide-eyed: it’s hard to think of anyone else in town who can play as hard and fast, yet as precisely, on any instrument.

The most haunting song of the entire night was an original by another oudist, Dolunay’s Adam Good, evoking the shadowy majesty of the Trio Joubran with his brooding resonance. Where Snyder had been all about distance and solemnity and mystery, Dolunay frontwoman/percussionist Jenny Luna went for the jugular with her plaintive, angst-fueled melismas. Violinist Eylem Basaldi echoed that poignancy, playing achingly beautiful, low-midrange, grey-sky washes of microtones, almost as if she was playing a cello.

Dolunay like diptychs and segues of all kinds; this time, they did sets of threes. Most of their material is on the slow and somber side, and this was typical. Most of their songs are about absence and longing: boyfriend goes off to war or over the mountains, never to be seen again, ad infinitum. Plus ça change, huh? What was new was getting to hear Luna sing in Ladino, the Sephardic Spanish dialect, in a couple of moody Andalucian-flavored numbers, something she’s especially suited to since she’s a native Spanish speaker. Dolunay’s next gig is on an amazing triplebill with feral yet supertight original Balkan group Raya Brass Band and hard-grooving Balkan/reggae/rock band Tipsy Oscart at Littlefield on Nov 30 at 9 PM; cover is $10.

Saturday Night at Golden Fest: Best Concert of 2017, Hands Down

Game plan for last night’s big blowout at this year’s Golden Fest was to see as many unfamiliar bands as possible. That wasn’t difficult, considering that there were more than sixty Balkan and Balkan-influenced acts playing five different spaces in about eight hours at Brooklyn’s magnificent Grand Prospect Hall. The way things turned out, it was fun to catch a few familiar favorites among a grand total of fifteen different groups. Consider: when the swaying chandelier hanging over Raya Brass Band looks like it could crash on top of them at any second, and sax player Greg Squared has launched into one of his signature, supersonic volleys of microtones and chromatics, and singer Brenna MacCrimmon is belting at full throttle over a machinegunning beat, there’s no resisting that. You just join the line of dancers, or step back, take a hit of tequila  – or whatever your poison is, this is a party – and thank the random chance that you’re alive to see this.

If you’re hell-bent on being a counterintuitive concertgoer, you can kick off the evening not with the fiery brass music that the festival is best known for, but with something along the lines of the brooding Romany and klezmer guitar folk of charismatic singer Zhenya Lopatnik’s four-piece acoustic band, Zapekanka. Their set of Romany laments, drinking songs, and a folk tune that foreshadowed Django Reinhardt turned out to be a lot more bittersweet than the Russian cheesecake whose name they’ve appropriated.

It was good to get a chance to see Niva – kaval player Bridget Robbins, tamburists Corinna Snyder and Kristina Vaskys and tapan drummer Emily Geller – since they don’t play out as much as they used to, considering their members are busy with other projects. This was a recurrent theme throughout the festival. A straw poll of informed participants picked percussionist Jerry Kisslinger as king of the night, so to speak: he was scheduled to play with seven different groups, jams not included. He wasn’t part of this band. The quartet joined voices for about a half an hour of ethereal close harmonies over hypnotically circling rhythms, a mix of Macedonian dances and tunes from just over the Bulgarian border, even more lavishly ornamented with bristling microtones. Meanwhile, the circle of dancers in the upstairs Rainbow Room – much smaller than the venue’s magnificent ballroom – had packed the space to almost capacity.

Driven by Gyorgy Kalan’s austerely cavorting, rustically ornamented fiddle, the trio Fenyes Banda kept the dancers going with a mix of Hungarian and Transylvanian numbers. As raw and bucolic (yet at the same time very musically sophisticated) as that group was, it’s hard to think of an ensemble on the bill more evocative of a get-together in a village square in some distant century than Ta Aidhonia. The mixed choir harmonized in a somewhat subdued, stately set of Thracian dances, backed only by bagpipe and standup drum. The dancers didn’t quite to know what to make of this in the early going, but by a couple of songs in they were back out on the floor.

By half past eight, it was finally time to make a move downstairs for the mighty Kavala, who played a considerably more contemporary update on late 20th century Macedonian brass music, propelled by electric bass and drums. Trubas bubbled and blazed through fiery chromatic changes until finally, practically at the end of the set, star tenor sax player Lefteris Bournias took one of his signature, wildfire, shivery solos. Back upstairs, Ornamatik took a similarly electric sound further into the 21st century, the music’s fat low end anchored by nimble five-string bassist Ben Roston and frontwoman/trombonist Bethanni Grecynski. Their slinky, shapeshifting originals brought to mind Brooklynites Tipsy Oxcart (who were also on the bill, and deserve a shout for their incendiary, stomping set of mostly new material at Barbes Thursday night).

While the Roma Stars entertained the dancers in the big ballroom with woozy P-Funk synth in addition to the brass, ageless Armenian-American jazz sage Souren Baronian held the Rainbow Room crowd rapt. The octogenarian reedman’s most mesmerizing moment came during a long, undulating modal vamp where he took his clarinet and opened the floodgates of a somberly simmering river of low-register, uneasily warping microtones. And then suddenly lept out of it with a hilariously surreal quote – and the band behind him hit the chorus head-on without missing a beat. As far as dynamics and judiciously placed ideas and unselfconscious soul go, it would be unfair to expect other musicians to channel such a depth of feeling.

Although two of the acts afterward, Eva Salina and Peter Stan, and tar lute player Amir Vahab’s quartet, came awfully close. While his singer bandmate reached gracefully for angst and longing and also unrestrained joy, Stan was his usual virtuoso self. At one point, the accordionist was playing big chords, a rapidfire, slithery melody and a catchy bassline all at the same time. Was he using a loop pedal? No. It was all live. That’s how the duo are recording their forthcoming studio album, reason alone to look forward to it. Vahab’s wary, panoramic take on classic Persian and Turkish sufi themes, and his gracefully intense volleys of notes over twin percussion and otherworldly, rippling kanun, continued to the hold the crowd spellbound

By this time in the evening, many of the dancers had migrated to an even higher floor for the blazing, often completely unhinged and highly improvisational South Serbian sounds of the Novi Hitovi Brass Band. By contrast, Boston’s Cocek! Brass Band rose to the challenge of following Raya Brass Band’s volcanic set with a precise, wickedly intricate performance of their own all-original material, complete with their shoutalong theme song to close on a high note. Trumpeter/bandleader Sam Dechenne’s command of microtones and moody Balkan modes matched Greg Squared’s devastating displays of technique, if in a somewhat more low-key vein.

Hanging in the smaller rooms for most of the night while the biggest names on the bill – organizers Zlatne Uste and trumpeter Frank London’s klezmer ensemble on the top end – entertained a packed house in the ballroom, reached a haunting peak with  a vivid, hauntingly serpentine, all-too-brief set of Syrian exile anthems and lost-love ballads by levantine ensemble Zikrayat. Frontman/violinist Sami Abu Shumays led the group through this alternately poignant and biting material, the night’s furthest divergence from the Balkans into the Middle East, with his usual sardonic sense of humor and acerbic chops.

Finally, at almost two in the morning, it was time to head down to the main floor for the night’s pounding coda, from the night’s most epic act, massive street band What Cheer? Brigade. At one point, it seemed as if there were as many people in the group, gathered onstage and on the main floor as there were dancers, all romping together through a handful of swaying brass anthems that were as hypnotic as they were loud. The group’s explosive drumline had a lot to do with that. By now, the tequila was gone; so was a pocketful of Turkish taffy and Lebanese sesame crunch filched from one of the innumerable candy bowls placed around the venue by the organizers. Although everybody had been on their feet all night long, the remaining crowd looked like they really could have gone until dawn if the music had kept going. As the party did: a couple of rounds of ouzo and Souren Baronian classics on the stereo at a friends’ place up the block turned out to be the perfect way to wind down the best night of the year, musically speaking.

Black Sea Hotel Delivers Hauntingly Innovative Versions of Classic Balkan Songs

This blog’s predecessor affectionately dubbed Black Sea Hotel “a punk rock version of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares.” The Brooklyn a-cappella trio sing haunting, bracingly intense folk songs from the Balkans, specializing in Bulgarian and Macedonian tunes. That they were invited to perform at the Bulgarian Consulate attests to their cred and grasp of Balkan languages (none of the trio are native speakers). That it’s impossible to tell from the album who’s singing what testifies to the meticulously nuanced, otherworldly vocal sorcery of Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder (who has since left the ensemble). Their second cd, The Forest Is Shaking and Swaying, might well be the most magical album put out by any New York group in the past several years, let alone 2013.  The three women swoop and dive from stratospheric highs to resonant lows, with eerie close harmonies, ornamented trills, the occasional whoop of delight or dread suddenly cut off cold.

If their music sounds troubled, that’s because times were hard back when these songs were a central part of village life. Yet the themes are universal: girls want their guys to buy them stuff (and they like to strut it), neighbors are nosy, and everybody wants someone and something they can’t have. Much of the album was recorded at Temple Beth Emeth in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, whose rich natural reverb adds to the songs’ lingering mystery. The group’s favorite harmony is A-Bflat-B – can anything possibly be any cooler than that? And not to dis founding member Joy Radish, who left the group in around 2010, but these trio arrangements, most of them by the members themselves, are just as inventive as the charts sung by the quartet on their 2009 debut album. Some are beefed-up folk melodies, others are scaled-down versions of works typically sung by large choirs.

If you’re not Bulgarian. you’d probably never guess that the gist of the tricky metrics, pinpoint staccato and acidic harmonies of the opening track describes a guy promising to buy shoes and a dress for his sweetheart. Likewise, Small’s conspiratorial arrangement of a Macedonian song, where a guy asks for a bunch of basil from a girl’s garden and she basically tells him to get lost…unless he’s single. But a lot of the melodies and arrangements deliver a message that transcends language. There’s a wartime ache and longing in a brooding, atmospheric Macedonian tune whose message is essentially, “Come meet the rebels, they’re coming down from the mountain.” A Snyder arrangement of a song about a surreal dream concerning (symbolism alert) two doves being killed by bullets has the livewire intensity of a brass band. Roberts’ arrangement of a Bulgarian song about a woman asking a cuckoo where her lost love might be has a distantly imploring quality, as well as a sense of flight vividly captured in the vocals’ slides and atmospherics. There are eight other tracks here dealing with supernatural dragonmen, nobles greedily awaiting the death of a rival, flirtatious guys and their consequences in, maybe, the 17th century, a bitter contemplation of old age, and one song partially in tersely poetic English translation.  All of these have a similarly crystalline beauty and persistent unease. For non Bulgarian and Macedonian speakers, the album comes with a helpful digest of song meanings.

What is the future for these three edgy singers? Snyder has a career in academia; Roberts is also an accomplished violinist; and Small – daughter of acclaimed, individualistic pianist/composer Haskell Small – may actually be better known as a photographer. Her elegant largescale tableaux are sort of a classier counterpart to Spencer Tunick’s work.

Rare, Raw, Intense Field Recordings From Across the Balkans Newly Digitized and Back in Print

Back in the old country, folk dancing was a step along the way to marriage (arranged by the ‘rents, of course). It was a way to get the guys to meet the girls, but under controlled circumstances. Since the whole village was involved, often under the pretext of a saintly festival of some sort, you couldn’t get toooo crazy. It was the musicians who got to go crazy, which might explain why, for centuries on end, so many country folk played an instrument or two – that, and the fact that music as spectacle rather than communal activity hadn’t yet filtered down from the upper classes. Martin Koenig, one of the founders of the organization now known as the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, had the extraordinary foresight and good luck to capture some of this music in its feral, original state in the late 60s, traveling throughout the Balkans and Greece. Although often recorded outdoors, the sound quality of what he managed to get his hands on is surprisingly good, and the music is wild and exhilarating. It’s not an exaggeration to say what Koenig found in the Balkans ranks with Alan Lomax’s archival recordings from the southern US. And not only is it available now in digital form, it’s also streaming at Bandcamp, AND, the CTMD is selling their remaining stock of original vinyl at absurdly low prices. Fans of bands like Gogol Bordello, Mucca Pazza and even Beirut will devour this stuff, especially since it often makes those bands look tame by comparison.

True to their origins as serious efforts in ethnomusicology, all of the releases – generally ep-length, four or five songs at the most, some of them 45 RPM singles – have prosaic titles like the debut release in the series (which when reissued last February, received a rave review here), Balkan Arts 701: Folk Dances of Bulgaria. Throughout the thirteen-record set, accordions blast and pulse, bagpipes wail, flutes shriek, drums rumble, fiddles fire off supernatural overtones, voices raising with what seems like a defiant exuberance, as if to say, so the American guy with the tape machine thinks we’re exotic? Let’s sing so hard we break his gizmo! Musicians and pickup groups represent for Bulgaria, East Serbia (three volumes worth), Macedonia, Greece, and Romania. While some of the players achieved regional fame, most were unsung locals, adding to the collection’s historical value. You want to know who the Bulgarian equivalent of a Dock Boggs or a Skip James was? The answer could be here. What’s most striking about everything here is that as raw and roughhewn as the playing is, it’s often spectacularly good: these dirt farmers somehow found the time to keep their chops in top condition.

Because most of the collection is dance music, the majority of the songs are upbeat. Biting chromatic riffage alternates with sunnier passages and the occasional droning interlude. Interestingly, while some of the music (particularly the Macedonian stuff) employs eerie, Middle Eastern-flavored microtones, the majorify of it does not. Those scales are more common in the music of the Romany people, some of whom may be represented among the musicians even though their own musical heritage is not.

The best of the series is probably the initial release of Bulgarian songs. The most otherworldly might be the second volume of Macedonian folk tunes. If you dial up Balkan Arts 713: Folk Dances of Romania, be careful to keep the volume down because it’s an audience recording and there’s a whistler in the crowd (or maybe the band) who’s damned if he’s not going to drown everybody else out. In addition to this treasure trove, the CTMD has an even more vast, historic archive of recordings streaming at their site much in the same vein as the collection of live shows at Roulette. Among the goodies which will be uploaded in the weeks ahead: the only known footage of klezmer clarinet great Dave Tarras.

There’s a sad backstory here as well: most of the sons and daughters of the men and women who played and sang this music left for the cities to find work, which pretty much stopped these traditions in their tracks not long after these recordings were made. But just as Americana roots music has made a big comeback in recent years, the same has happened in the Balkans: that it was an American who first saw the need to immortalize this music is more than a little ironic.

A Subtle, Knockout Solo Album from Eva Salina Primack

All the greatest singers have a distinctive style: Aretha’s take-charge, centerstage fearlessness; Piaf’s blend of streetwise sass and brittle vulnerability; the Wolf’s mix of clenched-teeth angst and gleeful menace. Eva Salina Primack is more eclectic: while she has the power to belt over a blaring brass band, ultimately, nuance is her forte. Where Neko Case’s wounded wail will avenge you in song and Johnny Cash shoulders your burden with a grim grin, Primack delivers solace. She’s there for you in your most desolate moments. It makes sense that she would  understand that, because travelers know solitude well. Niche as her audience may be at this point in time, it’s global, as are her collaborators: contemporary accordionist Merima Kljuco, klezmer jazz maven Frank London and chanteuse Milena Kartowski among them. Considering how highly sought after Primack is, it’s not an overstatement to say that she’s one of this era’s most captivating and distinctive voices.

Much as she’s a band person at heart, her new album Eva Salina Solo is just vocals and accordion. While her game plan with this was to challenge herself, she makes it sound easy, which of course it wasn’t. What’s particularly impressive is that most of the takes are live. She reinvents the Macedonian Romani E Davujla (The Drums), about a girl who loves to dance, as a simmering, hypnotically seductive ballad. She goes light on the vocal ornamentation on that one as well as on the opening song, Stani Mi Majcu (Bulgarian for “get up, mother and bring me my baglama”), letting her notes linger with a distant longing, waiting until almost the end to come in with a simple accordion line. The haunting, chromatically-charged Sar Cirikli – a Macedonian Romani song about a mother’s pain after losing her two sons – makes a showcase for Primack at her most subtle, gentle but guarded, raising her voice with a melismatic unease as it goes on: these songs transcend the limitations of language. And her elegant, darkly swaying accordion matches the vibrato-fueled nocturnal suspense of Jano Janke.

By contrast, another Bulgarian song, Tudoro Ljube Tudorke gets a tender, low-key treatment, completely solo without any instrumentation. Primack brings a high-powered, Appalachian-tinged blue-sky tone to Bela Sum, Bela Junace, a connection she’s made before with equally eye-opening results with her Æ duo vocal project with Aurelia Shrenker. Beno Mes T’abeli, a Greek track that Primack originally recorded on that group’s album, has a coy, lighthearted charm, while Kemano Basal, another Macedonian Romani number, gets a dramatic urgency underscored by tersely potent minor-key accordion. And another Bulgarian tune, Avliga Pee V Gradinka (“the oriole sings”) might be the most gripping song on the album, resolute yet fragile and sung completely a-cappella. Not bad for a native English speaker from Santa Cruz, California. Primack plays a rare solo show at the American Folk Art Museum on the upper west at 5:30 on May 3. And WNYC just today aired a feature on her which you can hear here.

Meet Jordan Kostov

Jordan Kostov isn’t pushing a new album at the moment, but he makes brilliant music. The Macedonian-born accordionist and composer is a big part of clarinet virtuoso Vasko Dukovski’s deliciously diverse Amniotic Fluid album reviewed here earlier this year, and the songs on Kostov’s Revebnation page are just as smart and eclectic. There’s over an hour worth of music there from throughout his career – haunting film pieces, accordion jazz, Balkan songs, and works for choir and orchestra that typically go on for eight minutes or more. He writes surreal, cerebral, uncanny, dark stuff.

Farina, swaying and pulsing with clattering percussion, alternates accordion and many clarinet voices into a hypnotically psychedelic, lively stew: wheat flour has never been so much fun. Salsa’s Truck, from Kostov’s 2010 album Salsa’s Journeys with his Ensemble Moderne, is a strange epic, its big choruses carried first by an oud and then a big choir, Kostov’s accordion moving between swirling, rapidfire righthand lines and rich, haunting washes of chords. The nine-minute In the Guest House works its way slowly from rainy day ambience to sheer horror.

Unpredictable as the jazzier stuff here is, Kostov still grounds it in the otherworldly chromatic roots of his native region. Cveta, a piece for accordion, bass, drums and brass alternates between a spacious, suspenseful dirge and a jaunty shuffle. Friendship features lots of wryly noisy improvisation from Kostov and a delicious stereo mix that separates his accordion’s many voicings.

There’s also a gorgeously lush, Middle Eastern-tinged, orchestrated theme for accordion, choir and percussion; a moody, windswept ballad with stark cello and bubbly clarinet; an apprehensive nocturne that sets accordion and trumpet over pillowy strings; an uneasy Balkan James Bond theme of sorts (Kostov gets a lot of film work); a tango-tinged piece for accordion and bassoon; a brief, bustling Keystone Kops theme that morphs into a surreal waltz; and a spacy miniature for solo accordion titled Univers. If we ever needed a reminder that some of the world’s most exciting music is coming out of the Balkans, this is it. Check out his bio page for all the projects he’s played with. And for what it’s worth, Reverbnation ranks Kostov and his ensembles as #2 among bands in Kavadarci, Macedonia, raising the intriguing question: who’s #1?

Magical Eastern European Sounds from Vasko Dukovski’s Amniotic Fluid

Vasko Dukovski is one of the world’s most highly sought-after clarinetists. He usually plays concert halls with orchestras and chamber ensembles. But the Macedonian-born reedman also has a passion for music from his native land, as well as Balkan and gypsy tunes. Earlier this year, he put out a deviously entertaining collection of droll folk-flavored themes under the name Amniotic Fluid, with eclectic percussionist Krume Stefanovski and powerhouse accordionist Jordan Kostov. It’s a pretty radical change from the classical and indie classical sounds that Dukovski is usually associated with, less of a display of sensational chops than imagination and wit.

The songs are a mix of moody vamps and less serious ones: the titles, like Sta-Me-Na and China Express Around the World, pretty much give them away. On the lighter side, there’s the carefree groove Svirci Iz Kavadarci (The Bulgarian in Honolulu), a sarcastic Jimmy Buffett lost-in-the-Balkans tune. There’s Salsa’s Journey, which takes a sassy ready-get-set-go riff and develops it into a psychedelic thicket of multitracked clarinet and accordion, capped off with a long, brightly sailing Dukovski solo. And Bace Don’t Kraj is no relation to the Cure: it’s a live trip-hop theme that builds to an allusive noir jazz atmosphere, Kostov blazing through a rapidfire staccato solo over an endless series of tricky rhythmic changes.

The cinematic Cabaret Bombay begins with foghorn clarinet and then morphs from a march into jazzy trip-hop, while Chobarium is more ambient and suspenseful. Vatashkata interchanges brooding gypsy-flavored interludes with a long, lively Macedonian dance. Slinky as it is, Sloga Sarajevo (Peace Sarajevo) has an inescapably apprehensive undercurrent. Muv Let- Melburnshka Tresenica mingles a series of rapidfire clusters with nimble, echoey vibraphone, while the trio turn the traditional Flying Bulgar into a jaunty tango.

But maybe in keeping with the intensity that defines Dukovski’s work, the two best songs on the album are its darkest. Veseliot Oktopod (Cheerful Octopus) starts out with a series of tongue-in-cheek, cartoonish motifs and then turns surprisingly plaintive: clearly, this octopus has issues. And the absolutely creepy, phantasmagorical carnival theme Be Careful Children packs more menace in its barely two minutes than most horror-movie soundtracks. All this goes to show what kind of magic can happen when you put three of the most original players in Eastern European music together and see what they come up with from basically just messing around.

The New York Gypsy All-Stars Bottle Their Magic

The New York Gypsy All-Stars’ new album Romantech was worth the wait: it’s been a good five years since they did a studio recording. As you might expect, this is a good approximation of their incomparable, sizzling live show: in a city full of exciting bands, they are one of the best. As you might also expect from a band with members from Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Manhattan and Brooklyn, what they play is modern-day gypsy music, like what you’d hear in a club in Sofia or Istanbul, with electric bass and keys behind the lightning-fast, adrenaline-rush attack of clarinetist Ismail Lumanovski and kanun (Middle Eastern dulcimer) player Tamer Pinarbasi. Who knew that this project, originally put together as a house band for the first New York Gypsy Festival by impresario Serdar Ilhan, would still be thrilling crowds almost ten years later?

The title track takes a bouncy traditional tune and after a lusciously ringing Pinarbasi intro, fills it with spicy, lickety-split clusters of chromatics. Rather than indulging in Dave Matthews-style funkdaddy cliches, bassist Panagiotis Andreou swoops up elegantly and holds the notes, anchoring the song as Lumanovski spins and dives acrobatically, rising to a warily shimmering microtonal crescendo at the end of a verse. They segue into the steady, swinging Smiles, by Lumanovski, Jason Lindner’s distorted keys mimicking an electric guitar, Lumanovski sailing apprehensively over elegant kanun until the two join forces. Lumanovski’s blistering solo here is just one of many: to say this is a feast of scorching reedwork is an understatement.

Pinarbasi’s Cross Winds is more balmy yet also more moody, Lumanovski negotiating the thicket of tricky rhythm with uncanny ease, Pinarbasi adding suspense as they take it down to just the kanun and up again. Another one of his compositions, Revival is a darkly swaying, polyrhythmic anthem juxtaposing biting kanun with drummer Engin Gunaydin’s steady groove and Lindner’s lush Dr Dre. synth textures. A Lumanovski original, Balkan Bollywood is basically a hypnotic two-chord jam, banjolike kanun against a swaying backbeat and an elegant conversation with Lumanovski as it winds out.

The album’s only cover, Orhan Gencebay’s Sen Sev Beni (Ciftetelli) manages to be laid-back and biting all at once, with a murderously fast, unhinged solo by Lumanovski (one of the world’s most effortlessly exhilarating players on any instrument) contrasting with the precision of the kanun and Lindner’s Bernie Worrell-ish synth. Live in concert, it’s a real showstopper and even more intense than this version. Another big audience hit is the traditional Macedonian tune Butchers, this version including an unexpected salsa piano solo, Lumanovski reaching for heights that eventually deliver stinging layers of overtones as he takes it to a sudden false ending. Pinarbasi’s funky NY9 features Lumanovski at his most aching, packed with circular breathing, ominous atmospherics and a torrential rainstorm of a kanun solo. Outcry, another Pinarbasi tune, builds from a wary, Middle Eastern flavored solo clarinet improvisation to a slinky groove anchored by Andreou’s smartly boomy chromatics, Lindner matter-of-factly buildling a long launching pad for the kanun and clarinet to spiral away from deliriously, ending on an unexpectedly majestic note. The album ends winds up with Lumanovski’s EZ-Pass, a vivid motorway scenario. A cynic might say that the band made this because they needed more merch to sell at shows: if that’s the case, they’ll run out of these sooner than later. In the meantime, this is your chance to grab it before it ends up on every music blog’s best-of-2012 list. The New York Gypsy All-Stars make Drom their home base: watch this space for upcoming shows.