New York Music Daily

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Tag: maria sonevytsky

Ensemble Hilka Bring a World Wiped Out by a Nuclear Disaster Back to Life at the Ukrainian Museum

Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.

The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).

Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.

The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.

Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).

Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.

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An Explosive Debut by Ukrainian Sensation DakhaBrakha at CUNY

Last night Kiev band DakhaBrakha made their US debut at CUNY’s Elebash Hall to a sold-out crowd that screamed for more and practically wouldn’t let them leave the stage. Word is out: this four-piece punk-folk-circus-rock band makes Gogol Bordello look like slow, lazy slugs by comparison. They began and ended the set with wailing, explosively percussive arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs driven by the heavy-artillery thud of singer Olena Tsibulska’s bass drum. Considering how they managed to fill the hall with just their searing, otherworldly four-part harmonies and lots of percussion on several of the songs was impressive, to say the least.

Given the band’s origins in subversive Ukrainian theatre, it’s no surprise that humor is a big part of their act. Singer/percussionist/accordionist Marko Halanevych had the audience in stitches with Baby, his falsetto, half-English, half-Ukrainian parody of schlocky “r&b” radio pop. They put a hip-hop beat on a handful of ancient songs, the surrealism of those mashups enhanced by the keening close harmonies of the vocals and the frequently droning melodies, which gave the songs a menacing edge. Their more lighthearted numbers brought to mind quirk-rockers the Debutante Hour (which might be less unlikely a comparison than you might first think, considering that Maria Sonevytsky from that band is of Ukrainian descent). Cellist Nina Garenetska ran her cello through a series of effects, beginning with a growly distorted tone, then adding delay and reverb for an echoey resonance as she swooped up the scale into witchy, stratospheric harmonics. A couple of long anthems slunk along on a Middle Eastern snakecharmer groove as the voices built to a dark, carnivalesque counterpoint. A couple of other numbers had the repetitive dancefloor thud of Eastern European turbo-folk – but with a heavier bottom end, and real swing from the murky depths of Tsibulska’s drum!

And they’re great musicians. Halanevych and singer Iryna Kovalenko – who also played accordion, piano, jaw harp, and an evilly trilling reed instrument – passed a garmoshka (sort of the Ukrainian equivalent of a bandoneon) back and forth. Everybody drummed at one point or another, an effect that was often as mysterious as it was hypnotically energizing. DakhaBrakha translates from the Ukraininan as “give-and-take,” with all that phrase implies, a good name for a band that works dynamics as artfully as they do. For all the fireworks, there was a lot of subtlety in how they brought their simple, catchy but harmonically-rich melodies up gently and then set them alight with a gleeful grin.

This CUNY concert series is fantastic. They’ve got Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure (Ali’s kid) here on Oct 29 at 7, then an otherwordly but invigorating bill of music from across the Sephardic diaspora featuring the NY Andalus Ensemble on Nov 5.

More Fun with the Debutante Hour

The Debutante Hour are an irrepressibly fun, irreverent, occasionally satirical hyper-literate harmony trio from Brooklyn with a theatrical stage show and a love of costumes. Their brand-new third studio album, An Awkward Time with the Debutante Hour is streaming at their Bandcamp site; they’re doing the album release show this Thursday March 15th at Littlefield at around 9:30, with the amazing Choban Elektrik and their psychedelic Balkan music opening the night at 7:30, followed by Schwervon.

Some of the Debutante Hour’s songs are satirical, but they can also be disarmingly serious. Sometimes quirky, sometimes coy, sometimes unexpectedly poignant, there’s no other band on the planet that remotely resembles them. Susan Hwang is typically the drummer in the group, but she also plays keyboards, as does Maria Sonevytsky, who also contributes baritone ukulele and drums. Cellist Mia Pixley usually plays the basslines but also gets to add the occasional austere string part or take a plaintive solo. Everybody in the band writes, takes a turn on lead vocals and contributes to the charming three-part harmonies which have become the band’s signature sound. If you have to hang a name on what the Debutante Hour does – which isn’t really fair, given the diversity of the styles they explore – you could call it new wave. They’re better musicians than, say, the Slits or the Raincoats, but they have a similar blend of edgy humor and bouncy melodies.

In case you’re wondering, the new album is too much fun to be awkward. The quirkiest song is the opening track, Doo Wop Girl, a catchy, surreal girlgroup soul tune with producer Peter Hess (who is sort of the fifth Beatle here) flavoring the mix with roto organ and a wry baritone sax bassline. Parking finds the noir cabaret lurking in the adventure that every urban driver knows by heart (c’mon peeps, give it up and take the train!). With its scampering Celtic accordion, Milestone is an inscrutable story told from the point of view of a country girl who can’t wait to get out: “The light that shines on the horizon is just another pair of headlights coming on strong,” she grouses.

The funniest song here is Sexy Sister, one of the more theatrical numbers. “She was quiet and melancholic and awkward when she was small…but magic things can happen thanks to puberty!” The ending is too spot-on to give away. Another track that’s almost as funny is Everybody Thinks I’m a Spy (But I’m Not), a creepy hypnotic ukulele trip-hop soul song – this band’s fearlessness about mixing up musical styles is one of the coolest things about them. “There is no camera taping you from my hat, I just like this hat and it’s cold, that’s what hats are made for,” the girl in the song explains emphatically: after all, she’s just an innocuous musicology student. Or not.

Illusions (Madame Bovary’s) is the most cynical song here, messing with the fourth wall: “I’ve got illusions, I’ve gotta lose them, that’s what they’re there for,” the doomed woman insists. There’s another song about her right afterward, a lush piano ballad that explores how she’s “never been good at being happy.” The album ends on an unexpectedly bitter note with another cabaret-flavored tune, A Book You’ll Never Read, whose author took seven years to finish it just as Michaelangelo, “possessed by either God or greed took seven years to paint the Sistine Chapel.” The rest of the songs include a torchy, dreamy country ballad and a tango [a Chabuca Granda cover?] with a whirlwind of cool contrapuntal vocals.