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Tag: Miklós Lukács

Miklos Lukacs’ Bewitching Cimbalom Unlimited Play an Epic Album Release Show at Drom

The mysterious, bewitchingly rippling cimbalom is the national instrument of Hungary, more or less. While it’s best known to American audiences as a staple of Romany music, rock acts from Judy Henske to Hazmat Modine have used it. It looks like a harpsichord without the keys; like its oldest descendant, the Egyptian kanun, it’s played with mallets. Miklos Lukacs is the Jimi Hendrix of the instrument. In his hands, it doesn’t just ring and resonate: it whirs and purrs, and flickers, and sometimes roars. Last night at Drom, Lukacs took the cimbalom to places it’s never gone before, in a magical album release show for his new one, Cimbalom Unlimited, joined by Harish Raghavan on bass and Eric Harland on drums.

Lukacs’ stately, spaciously suspenseful, allusively modal intro set the tone for the night: after awhile, his epic songs became part of an even more epic tapestry that stretched from India, to the Middle East, to Harlem in the 1950s. As the rhythm crept in, the trio built to a pulsing, leapfrogging, relentlessly pouncing drive, Lukacs waves’ of melody shifting toward the blues rather than the Middle East, but again, not going there directly. Raghavan added the first of more than one bubbling cauldron of a solo as Harland deftly syncopated the torrents of beats. Lukacs’ axe is a percussion instrument, so it was no surprise to see his rapidfire attack on the strings echoed by his bandmates. The only surprise was the cold ending. a playfully recurrent trope all night.

Raghavan began the next number just as the bandleader had opened the first one, Lukacs lurking on the perimeter with an icy glimmer. Slowly and enigmatically, the two exchanged places as Lukacs developed a plaintive, elegaic theme, Harland spicing the swaying rhythm with the occasional snowshower of cymbals or ominous snare hit. Spaciously clustered spirals rippled and pinged against Harland’s increasingly propulsive, circular phrases as momentum grew, up to a deceptively simple Kashmiri-inflected theme. Each instrument pulled against the center, seemingly hoping to break completely free, then Lukacs picked one of the eeriest chromatic phrases of the night to loop unwaveringly, for what seemed minutes on end as Harland navigated a vortex of his own.

A bass solo over Lukacs’ lingering, menacing tritones opened the next number, the cimbalom edging toward melancholy ballad territory and then pouncing but never quite hitting it head-on: the suspense was unrelenting. Lukacs doesn’t just use mallets; he uses his hands for a muted inside-the-piano-style approach, at one point using the handles instead when he wanted to get really spiky. From its starry, solo cimbalom intro, the third song of the night was arguably the best, a twisted, labyrinthine Balkan jazz lounge theme – a Black Lodge of Sarajevo.

From there, menacing tritone-laced pavanes alternated with long, majestic Harland crescendos, Raghavan alternating between mournful, low bowed washes and ominously percolating cadenzas. Along the way, Lukacs alluded to the moody maqams of the Middle East, the hypnotic hooks of India and the occasional flicker of postbop piano jazz but never completely let any of those ideas coalesce and define the music. Clearly, he’s invented something the world has never heard before and wants to keep it that way.

Lukacs’ next gig is in Athens at the Technopolis Jazz Festival on May 27 at 10. Another enticingly syncretic, esoteric show a little closer to home – the kind that Drom specializes in – is happening there on June 9. It’s a benefit for Drom’s Brooklyn soulmate venue, Barbes featuring an unbeatable lineup including mystical Moroccan trance-dance band Innov Gnawa, allstar brass pickup group Fanfare Barbès, (with members of Red Baraat, Slavic Soul Party and Banda de los Muertos), elegantly  menacing film noir instrumental icons Big Lazy, Colombian folk reinventors Bulla en el Barrio and torrential Bahian drum orchestra Maracatu NY, Who plays when is still up in the air, but it really doesn’t matter since all of these acts are a lot of fun. Advance tix are a bargain at $20 and still available as of today.

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Darkly Hypnotic, Intense, Cross-Pollinated Hungarian Sounds at Drom Last Night

Last night’s concert at Drom hit a harrowing peak with Hungarian trance-dance band Meszecsinka‘s frontwoman Annamaria Olah hidden behind her mane of long, flowing hair, wailing and flailing and crying out on the beat as her own voice echoed low and ominously in response, through a loop pedal. Guitarist/keyboardist Emil Biljarszki had explained beforehand that the song addressed an ancient Christian theme that he didn’t bother to elaborate on any further. “You’ll get it,” Olah told the crowd with an enigmatically wistful smile before bassist Árpád Vajdovich and drummer Dávid Krolikowski kicked off the big, crescendoing minor-key anthem with a hypnotic, insistently swaying pulse. Although this was an intimate club gig with pristine sound, it was easy to imagine a hundred thousand people at some European summer festival flailing and swaying in unison in response to Olah’s passion onstage. Whatever awestruck terror the song was meant to evoke – the apocalypse? A martyr meeting a particularly grisly fate? – it was impossible to turn away from

Earlier in the evening, two darkly psychedelic, Balkan-tinged folk-jazz acts – accordionist David Yengibarian and his trio, and Borbély Mihály Polygon – followed their respective opening jams with similarly captivating, disquieting numbers, albeit much more slowly and quietly. The opening trio’s was a mournful dirge that imbued a stark Hungarian folk theme with a haunted they-burned-down-my-shtetl resonance straight out of klezmer music. Saxophonist Mihály Borbély’s three-piece unit with pyrotechnic cimbalom player Miklós Lukács and drummer András Dés built shadowy noir cinematics that they slowly took in a slightly brighter, more improvisational direction. That they’d begun their set with a mashup of wild downtown John Zorn-style New York jazz and surf rock is just one example of how wildly eclectic the night was.

That a concert like this could be staged at at moment where nationalist extremists threaten to wall off the kind of transnational cross-pollination responsible for such  riveting musical hybridization speaks to the potential power of resistance. Millions of people resonate to these sounds far more than to strident racist rhetoric or Twitter demagoguery. It’s up to us to mobilize and create an opposition to ensure that this kind of artistry, and the hope it represents, has the opportunity to move forward.

Because it would be a crime not to be able to witness Lukacs playing elegant blues, or channeling Carla Bley with a feral attack on the low strings of his of his ringing, overtone-laden Hungarian zither. What a shame it would have been to miss being able to enjoy the endlessly clever, tongue-in-cheek volleys of deadpan humor that Yengibarian’s drummer, Mark Badics, engaged in throughout the group’s tantalizingly short set – he’s ever bit as formidable as any of his American jazz counterparts, Tain Watts and Rudy Royston included. Or for that matter, to miss out on the chance to get lost in Meszecsinka’s mesmerizing mashups of otherworldly Bulgarian folk and lush European art-rock over irresistibly undulating beats.

This concert was staged by Music Export Budapest along with the Hungarian National Trading House, and the Balassi Institute, one of New York’s most vital cultural organizations, who champion Hungarian music, film, visual art and more. If you’re a true cosmopolitan New Yorker and you’re not on their email list, you’re missing out. In addition, this weekend’s slate of shows at Drom – Manhattan’s global music mecca – continues tonight and tomorrow with everything from darkly slinky psychedelic boleros, to Moroccan trance grooves, to classical Indian sitar music. Cover is only $10 each night; music starts at 7 and goes til past midnight.

Celebrating the World’s Most Famous Suicide Song

What’s more appropriate for Halloween than the world’s most famous suicide song? The truth about Gloomy Sunday is a lot less lurid than the legend. The song’s composer, Rezso Seress, actually did commit suicide more than three decades after he wrote it in the early 1930s. It’s a sad tune, although the same could be said about thousands of other melodies from across the centuries, none of whose writers ended up killing themselves. Nor did Laszlo Javor, author of the lyrics to the first recorded version, by Pal Kalmor, in 1935. That reality didn’t stop the BBC and other radio networks from succumbing to an urban myth and banning the song until just a few years ago.

You can hear Kalmor’s wonderful dead-calm performance – complete with funeral bells and heart-wrenching strings –  on the new compilation album Hungarian Noir, streaming at Spotify. The playlist also includes the more famous and considerably subtler 1941 recording by Billie Holiday with the Teddy Wilson Orchestra along with recordings from the past few years, some of which are more Halloweenish than others.

A handful are ludicrous to the point of being funny. A breezy African pop version? How about a Brazilian rap version? There’s also a talented Cuban chanteuse whose phonetic command of English falls short of what a singer needs in order to channel much of any emotion, happy or sad, in addition to an instrumental arrangement by Cuban salsa orchestra Manolito Simonet y su Trabuco, whose icy precision speaks to the group’s professionalism more than their commitment to encouraging mass suicide.

But some of the new reinterpretations of the song are very creative. Matuto contribute a moodily psychedelic, cumbia-tinged version, guitarist Clay Ross’ Lynchian, chromatic reverb guitar mingling with Rob Curto’s accordion. Accordionist Chango Spasiuk approaches the song as a vividly spare, Romany jazz-tinged instrumental. Polish art-rock songbird Kayah’s spacious trip-hop take looks back to the original with stark vocals over lushly crescendoing orchestration. And unsurprisingly, the best of the reinventions here is by Cimbalomduo, a collaboration between two of the world’s most exhilarating virtuosos of the Hungarian zither: Kálmán Balogh and Miklós Lukács. Obviously, their take isn’t about pyrotechnics but slow, brooding ripples and lingering despair.

The best new version of the song didn’t make the cut – or the album’s compilers didn’t have it on their radar. Nashville gothic songwriter Mark Sinnis recorded it on his 2010 album The Night’s Last Tomorrow, and gave New York audiences plenty of chills with it before he headed for the hills and, ultimately, to North Carolina. Speaking of which, Sinnis returns to New York State for a cd release show for his latest album, One Red Rose Among the Dying Leaves on October 30 at 6 PM at Sue’s Sunset House,  137 N Water St in Peekskill. There’s no cover; the baritone crooner and his band will be playing two long sets. The venue is just steps from the Peekskill Metro-North station, and trains will be running for a couple of hours after festivities end at 11 PM.

The Glass House Ensemble and Muzsikas Play One of the Most Haunting, Exhilarating Shows of the Year

For one reason or another, this has been an amazing year for doublebills. Arguably the best one so far was last night at NYU, where the trans-continental Glass House Ensemble teamed up with iconic Hungarian Jewish string band Muzsikas for a sizzling show that offered both homage and reinvention to themes that, without some heavy lifting on the archival side, would have disappeared forever.

The Glass House Ensemble, led by soulful polymath trumpeter Frank London and his Hungarian multi-instrumentalist pal Béla Ágoston, opened. This blog was there when the Hungarian-American collaboration made their sensational debut performance at Drom last year – without having rehearsed together! London always manages to have his fingers in a whole bunch of good projects simultaneously. Lately he can be found on chanteuse Shulamit‘s poignant, historically rich Women in the Shoah album, as well on the reputedly amazing forthcoming album by Romany song reinventor and singer Eva Salina and her band.

The Glass House Ensemble – named after a legendary Hungarian safe house for Jews in World War II – opened with the same wild suite they played in Budapest this past winter.  Miklós Lukács’ machinegun cimbalom riffage led the pack through lushly dynamic rises and falls, Agoston’s soprano sax trading riffage with London, violinist Edina Szirtes Mókus’ powerful alto voice building to a rapidfire crescendo in a rampaging, eerily chromatic call-and-response with the rest of the band. That was just the first number.

Throughout the rest of the set, drummer Yoni Halevy jumped at the opportunity to surprise the crowd with trick endings. Pablo Aslan, a major force in nuevo tango, provided a slinky, slithering low end when he wasn’t taking acrobatic leaps or providing stygian washes of sound with his bow. Guitarist Aram Bajakian channeled Jimi Hendrix on one intro, otherwise hanging back with a judiciously jangly approach that filled out the dips and swells beneath the lushness of the violins, Mokus in tandem or exchanging hooks with Jake Shulman-Ment. London imbued one lustrous, cinematic theme with a wrenching sense of longing, awash in plaintive harmonies, like an unanswered cantorial call. Later he led the band into a one of several fiery, bristling, minor-key romps where Lukacs took the wildest yet most meticulously intricate, rapidfire solo of the night. At the end of the concert, they joined forces with Muzsikas for a similarly jaunty yet bittersweet theme, a mighty dozen-piece ensemble intertwining with a triumphant expertise as the audience clapped and stomped along. Bands like this live for moments like this.

Where the Glass House Ensemble were an elegantly stampeding, slashingly artsy orchestra, Muzsikas’ set was feral and ferocious – but also brooding, wounded and often otherworldly. Charismatic violinist Laszlo Portleki explained in impressively good English that they’d often had to learn their repertoire of Jewish themes from Romany musicians, considering that the Hungarian Romany population hadn’t been quite as decimated by the Holocaust (maybe a hundred thousand Romany people, maybe half a million Jews – what’s that to Hitler?).

Singer Maria Petras matched Mokus’ role with her dramatic, often riveting delivery of several numbers, in a potent mezzo-soprano. Violinist Mihaly Sipos took many of the night’s most adrenalizing solos, when he wasn’t switching to gardon, the Transylvanian percussion instrument with a cello-like body that produces an ominous hum when you beat it with a stick (that’s how it’s supposed to be played).  They opened with a pulsing, almost frantic, rustic two-step dance, seemingly closer to southern Balkan music than Hungarian folk…but that’s why Jewish music is so rich, because it’s so syncretic.

In about an hour onstage, with insightful song introductions from Porteleki, Muzsikas gave the crowd a fascinating tour of prewar Hungarian Jewish music in all its deliriously fun, and ironic, haunting glory. One stark number drew on the gorgeous Middle Eastern freygish mode, but a rather sentimental number from close to the Austrian border bordered on German schmaltz. Like the opening band, Muzsikas worked the dynamics up and down, the tempos leaping to warp speed and then back, or dropping out completely for a mysterious, melismatic violin intro, a swoopily shapeshifting crescendo against a low drone, or a sad, steadily stomping march. Underscoring all these amazing songs was that if the group hadn’t searched for them high and low, among old musicians and archives, none of this music would exist anymore.