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Feral, Carnivalesque Klezmer and Balkan Sounds From the Lemon Bucket Orkestra

The Lemon Bucket Orkestra distinguish themselves in a crowded field of high-voltage klezmer and Balkan bands with their feral, otherworldly sound and sizzling chops. They don’t just pillage the usual repertoire of freylekhs and bulgars: they go way back, blending the phantasmagorical elements of Ukrainian, Russian, Lithuanian and Jewish sounds that proliferated over a hundred years ago. The best musicians know no boundaries, and the Lemon Bucket Orkestra personify that sensibility. Their latest album If I Had the Strength is streaming at Bandcamp, and they’re playing the latest installment of this year’s New York Gypsy Festival tonight, Sept 26 at 8 PM at Drom. It’s $20 at the door and worth it.

The album opens with a brief, somberly chromatic march fueled by Michael Louis Johnson’s muted trumpet and a walking bassline and ends with a hushed folk tune. In between it’s a wild party. The lickety-split stomp of Crooked immediately sets the scene, with wildfire riffage from bagpipes and James McKie’s violin over a brisk sousaphone/drums pulse from Ian Tulloch and Jaash Singh, Mark Marczyk and Stephania Woloshyn taking turns on vocals. They take it out with a tantalizingly brief stampede that could have gone on as long as these guys could have physically been able to play it.

They follow Fate, a growly, tensely stalking miniature with Goodbye, the violin holding the down the bassline as the sousaphone takes a a coyly blithe solo, mingling with Woloshyn’s shivery vocals; then they pounce their way through a catchy series of chromatics and crescendos, with spiraling, wildfire solos from Julian Selody’s clarinet and Marichka Marczyk’s accordion.

They rip the riff from Whole Lotta Love for the bassline to Soldat, violin and clarinet in tandem delivering tight country dance riffage, Johnson’s trumpet holding the center. Freedom has a rat-a-tat Serbian-style brass band pulse, clever call-and-response riffs and a completely unexpected psychedelic bridge.

The album’s most rustically surreal track is When, a brief, majestically crescendoing number glimmering with eerily ornamented vocal harmonies. From there the band segue into Palinka, an equally surreal Balkan cumbia mashup with tasty, chromatically slashing solos from violin, accordion and bagpipes and a coyly chirping flute solo out.

Cocoon, a furtively jungly miniature for percussion, sets the stage for Heroes with its delirious unison riffage over a tight, tricky, Macedonian-flavored dance rhythm, up to a misterioso Bulgarian vocal interlude by guest soprano Measha Brueggergosman. You’ll see this on the best albums of 2018 page at the end of the year.

A Rare Appearance by Wild Romany Party Band Romashka at This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

At the peak of their late zeros popularity, Romashka were rivalled only by Gogol Bordello and maybe Luminescent Orchestrii among New York Romany party bands. Frontwoman Inna Barmash, one of the world’s greatest klezmer singers, has a diamond-cutter clarity that’s almost scary. Her husband Ljova Zhurbin is one of this era’s most eclectic and brilliant violists. They don’t play live as much as they used to, but when they reconvene it’s like they never left off and the party starts all over again. They’re bringing their signature blend of slashing minor keys, acerbic chromatics and fiery Russian Romany dances to the latest installment of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival at Drom this Sept 20 at 8 PM; adv tix are $15. It’s going to be a little taste of Golden Fest a few months before the annual Balkan blowout takes place next January 12 and 13 in Brooklyn.

Unless they’ve been keeping their gigs a big secret, the most recent Romashka gig was at Golden Fest 2018, and it was killer. Fortuitously, their set was recorded and is available as a free download at the Free Music Archive. They kick it off with Hochu Lyubit, a scampering, pulsing dance, Jeff Perlman’s clarinet bubbling, Zhurbin weaving through one ominous chromatic after another, then giving way to guest trumpeter Frank London’s triumphant solo as guitarist Jai Vilnai skanks and jangles. With her intense, melismatic delivery, Barmash gives it an extra shot of dramatic angst at the end – it was her birthday, so she was especially amped.

From there the band take a detour into a couple of acerbic Romanian dance numbers. Veering in and out of the western scale, Rustemul sounds like the theme to a village that time really forgot, a rustically surreal, coyly bombastic theme pushed along by Ron Caswell’s tuba and Chris Stromquist’s drums. Tocul is a lot more lighthearted and lickety-split.

Ljova’s delicate incisions and London’s plaintive trumpet matched Barmash’s distant, nuanced poignancy throughout a muted Russian tango, Serdtse. Her insistent attack and ornamentation in Loli Phabay – “Red Apple,” a Russian Romany tune – is pretty wild, in contrast with Vilnai’s jaggedly precise, Middle Eastern tinged jangle and clang.

Perlman fires off triumphant trills while Holmes smolders throughout the old Romany hit Shimdiggy. Barmash goes to redline right off the bat as the band launch into the edgy bounce of Zarnobila, taking a careening segue into a rapidfire take of Baro Faro to end their show with a blistering stampede out.

Although Brooklyn’s Grand Prospect Hall wasn’t designed for electric bands, the sound quality is surprisingly clear and balanced. Get this set before it disappears (that happens sometimes at the Free Music Archive) – it’s one of this city’s great esoteric bands at the peak of their powers.

A Wild Night With Dobranotch to Kick Off This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival

Dobranotch means “good night” in Russian. It’s a very understated way of describing the crazy, exhilarating dance party they put on this past evening at Drom to open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival. The Russian klezmer band romped and blasted through a fiery set of originals and radical reinventions of more traditional material, showing off their virtuoso chops as well as an irrepressibly boisterous sense of humor.

Klezmer dance music is fun by definition, but these guys are beyond the pale. There was a point about midway through their set where their their guest dancer, Lea Elisha, went twirling across the floor in front of the stage, her mane of curly hair flying, an unstoppable human gyroscope. Meanwhile, frontman/violinist Mitya Khramtsov played behind his back, Hendrix style.

OK, that’s common enough. Next, he played with his bow behind his back and his violin tucked under his arm.

Then he stuck his bow down his pants and fiddled the violin on the bow – without missing a catchy minor-key riff. After bowing with his mouth, then sticking the bow in the dancer’s mouth and fiddling it, he finally handed the bow to a surprised audience member and had him do it.

Ilya Gindin, the band’s not-so-secret weapon, started the show on alto sax, then switched to oboe, firing off lickety-split spirals and slashing chromatic trills. Then he switched to clarinet. Slowly and methodically, he disassembled the instrument between verses, moving further and further up the scale until there was nothing left to play but the mouthpiece and then the reed. By then, it was all he could do to slowly bend a note up to where it was supposed to be, but nobody wanted the joke to stop.

Beyond the theatrics, this is an incredibly tight party band. More often than not, Khramtsov and the horn section would lock in on their harmonies while Gindin did his thing. Roman Shinder fired off fast flurries of banjo chords as Evgeny Lizin thumped out the groove on a big tapan bass drum and accordionist Ilya Shneyveys fleshed out the sound with rich washes of chords and elegant filigrees.

Khramtsov took a couple of stark, strikingly rustic departures into otherworldly weaves of microtones, veering away from the center before leaping back into the traditional western scale. The best original of the night was an epic, darkly Bessarabian-flavored anthem written by trombonist Grigory Spiridonov, who puffed out staccato basslines when he wasn’t harmonizing with tenor saxophonist Max Karpychev and the rest of the group.

They reinvented the iconic Algerian protest anthem Ya Rayyeh as a gruff but similarly sardonic Russian brass tune. Likewise, they turned a shapeshifting Macedonian bagpipe dance into what Khramtsov termed a “gypsy rhumba,” although it sounded more like a Turkish tango. They finally wound up the night with a third encore, gathered on the floor in front of the audience. An unexpectedly slow, lushly benedictory, moody concluding anthem with edgy solos all around couldn’t douse the crowd’s energy.

The New York Gypsy Festival continues at Drom on Sept 14 at  9:30 PM with the eclectic Underground Horns celebrating ten years of mashing up Balkan, New Orleans and latin brass sounds. You can get in for ten bucks in advance.

Two Sides of Iconic Trumpeter Frank London, Live and on Record

It makes sense that Frank London’s Klezmer Brass All-Stars would headline the finale of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival, starting at 7:30 PM on October 4 at the Schimmel Center at Pace University on Spruce St. in the financial district. The iconic trumpeter had already established himself in Balkan music before co-founding the original New York klezmer punk band, the Klezmatics. Since then, London has lent his firepower, wit and erudition to innumerable projects. One of the most quietly impactful and historically rich ones is Italian-born singer Shulamit’s album For You the Sun Will Shine: Songs of Women in the Shoah, which came out late last year. It marks the first release of the work of four women songwriters who chronicled their harrowing experiences, imprisoned during the Holocaust. One survived, two others were murdered, and the fourth is assumed to have perished as well. As you would expect, this is one of the most surreal and chilling albums ever made.

London and pianist Shai Bachar co-produced the album – four of whose tracks are streaming at Shulamit’s music page – recasting these pieces as art-songs. Bachar brings both a neoromantic plaintiveness and also a sense of the macabre that he uses delicately to raise the surrealistic factor. Big Lazy’s Yuval Lion supplies spare, purposeful percussion on a handful of tracks. Shulamit sings in German and Czech with equal amounts expressivneess and restraint: the common link among these songs is a crushing hope against hope.

The songwriter whose work is featured most prominently here is Ilse Weber, a popular Czech broadcaster and children’s author murdered alongside one of her sons in the gas chamber at Auschwitz in 1944..What’s most striking, aside from the heartwrenching, plainspoken lyrical content, is how diverse her songwriting is. London’s bright, blue-sky lines and Bachar’s stately piano channel a distant parlor-pop charm that makes a crushing contrast with the songs’ theme; at times, the band will mirror the crushing sarcasm of her lyrics with a faux-celebratory, martial Teutonic beat. But the forced-march courage quickly gives way to a muted horror, through the twisted I Wander Through Thersienstadt, the Satie-esque lament And the Rain Keeps Falling and a couple of lullabies, one of them an attempt to marshal some calm amidst the horror, and one that doesn’t try to mute the reality of the circumstances under which it was written.

The Czech-born Ludmila Peskarova, who survived and lived to 97, is represented by two tracks. There’s a sad Christmas-day tableau from the Ravensbruck camp, and Moravia, Moravia, the most ghostly and otherworldly song here, evoking an ancient cantorial ambience.

The most savagely sarcastic, despairing number is The Auschwitz Song, attributed to one Camilla Mohaupt, whose fate is unclear. It’s a cover of a 1920 Dutch pop hit with new lyrics reflecting hopelessness and sheer horror amid the squalor. There’s also an ornately classically-tinged miniature with music by Polish composer Carlo Taube and lyrics by his wife Erika: “As long as you aren’t bound by the word ‘home,’ your heart will be free,” a mother explains to her child. These days, one can only wonder how many of the Syrian war refugees feel the same way.

London’s show on Sunday with his band and singer Eleanor Reissa wraps up a tremendous night of music that starts at 7:30 with the Underground Horns, who veer from the Balkans to the Mediterranean to New Orleans, then the similarly eclectic, Ellington and hip-hop-influenced Slavic Soul Party, then the punk-inspired Hungry March Band, the only group on this bill so far to play Madison Square Garden. Considering what you get, cover is a reasonable $20.

Cocek! Brass Band Put the Exclamation Point in Original Balkan Dance Music

The last time Cocek! Brass Band played New York, their set uptown at Shrine had barely gotten underway before a pretty girl in the crowd went to the bar and bought them a couple of rounds of shots. Which were gone by the next song. And the five-piece Boston Balkan group played like they’re used to that kind of stuff. Especially frontman/trumpeter Sam Dechenne, who’s also a member of innovative klezmer dance unit Klezwoods…and is best known as a regular member of long-running second-wave roots reggae band John Brown’s Body. Although JBB probably get offered stuff that’s smokier than what these guys were downing in between songs.

What sets Cocek! Brass Band apart from so many of their colleagues in the thriving American Balkan demimonde, other than that exclamation point, is that Dechenne writes the songs. Beyond the bristling chromatics, tricky rat-a-tat rhythms and rapidfire, redline solos is a cheery but dynamically shapeshifting sensibility and a surprisingly wry sense of humor that looks back to Eastern European dance music while taking it to new places. The band are bringing their high-octane show back to New York on what might be the year’s single best night of music, at Drom tomorrow night, September 25, as part of the New York Gypsy Festival. The Coceks open the night at 8:30 followed by explosive, theatrical Balkan punk rock band Bad Buka at 10, then Raya Brass Band – the tightest and most epic among all the great Eastern European acts in New York – and then similarly fiery if somewhat more traditional Baltimore Romany dance band Balti Mare, whose name means “big pond” in Romanian, hitting the stage at 1 AM the morning of the 26th. Advance tix are $15 and are still available at the club as of today.

Cocek! Brass Band’s debut album Here Comes Shlomo came out last year. It’s always fun to see a prediction come true, but they more than validated what this blog said about it, “ A good indication of the blend of virtuosity and raw power that this crew brings to the stage.” One of that night’s many high points was a minor-key number with a beat that veered between what could be reggae and could be disco – which, when you think about it, is disco in Serbia. Jaunty broken chords lept from the end of the band’s phrases, trumpet, trombone, tuba and standup drum all in sync.

A loopy, catchy, downwardly spirailng trombone riff contrasted with Dechenne’s calm, sailing lines on the next tune; then they slowed things down with a blazingly resonant, undulating  9/4 groove, Dechenne switching from intense to jaunty and carefree with a long solo against the rest of the band’s percolating harmonies. Then they switched to an edgy, circling, minor-key Ethiopiques drive! And a doomy waltz after that. There was a lot more material in the set which made it neither onto the tape nor into longterm memory.. Considering that the show was on a sketchy block in Harlem and it was late on a work night, and that there was still a decent crowd in the house, the Drom show will undoubtedly draw a lot more people: there will be line dancing.

Fanfarai Bring Their Edgy, Fun Mashups of Balkan Music, Funk and the Middle East to Drom

Fanfarai is a pun, a mashup of “fanfare” and “rai,” as in the slinky groove music from North Africa. What does this multicultural, Algerian-born, now Paris-based brass band sound like? Like Balkan brass music, with some occasionally different if similarly tricky tempos and frequent detours into both Middle Eastern and western grooves. Which makes sense, considering that the roots of a lot of Balkan music can be traced back to Turkey and from there to Egypt and what’s now Algeria and Tunisia. The group’s latest bitingly edgy, chromatically-infused, surprisingly elegant album Tani is streaming at soundcloud, and they’re playing a New York Gypsy Festival gig at Drom on Sept 23 at 9 PM, $15 advance tix are available at the club.

The opening track, Goulou L’rim has one of those classic, pouncing two-chord Balkan minor-key vamps, over which the band layers both a balmy trumpet arrangement as well as an eerie, otherworldly Ethiopian fiddle break. The second number, Raba El Haraba is a real trip, kicking off as a snaky rai groove before morphing into roots reggae with elements of both Balkan music and deep dub: the influence of Mahala Rai Banda immediately comes to mind.

The briskly strolling Achdah a Taous, built around a classic Egyptian maqam riff, features some nimble oud-and-percussion flurries along with the precisely soaring, hefty horns. There’s a similarly dynamic pairing between tuba and flute throughout Saissi, a pulsing early 70s psychedelic funk tune. Touchia Zidane reimagines an ancient Andalusian classical piece as a distant, darkly microtonal dirge, violin and flute taking turns leading the slow procession as it gathers steam up to a majestic peak – and then goes for a sprint. It’s the most stunning track on the album.

Waye Lahbib El Ghali brings back a wry psychedelic soul strut, with North African syncopation and the tuba’s dancing lines taking the place of, say, a clavinova or funk bass. Metrics aside, it’s not hard to imagine this in the Ramsey Lewis or Isaac Hayes catalog. They hit a hypnotically dancing gnawa pulse with sintir lute, flute and bright horns in Elmima, then a scampering clip-clop beat on the upbeat Zwit Rwit, equally informed by New Orleans brass, Mexican banda music and American funk. The album’s last track is Zina Hlima, a steady, bouncing number that’s equal parts funk and vintage Khaled rai, with an unexpected detour into Ethiopiques. If you love Balkan music, or Middle Eastern music, or just dance music in general, you can’t go wrong with these guys.

Arifa Opens This Year’s New York Gypsy Festival on a Haunting, Eclectic Note

Arifa take austere, often haunting Turkish folk themes and build them into sweeping instrumentals with elements of classical and film music and jazz as well. They open this year’s New York Gypsy Festival auspiciously at around 7:30 PM on Sept 19 at Drom. If their new ep Anatolian Alchemy is any indication, this individualistic acoustic instrumental ensemble threatens to upstage the reliably exhilarating New York Gypsy All-Stars, who follow them on the bill. Cover is just $10; it’s an inexpensive and potentially spine-tingling way to kick off one of New York’s most reliably eclectic and exciting annual music festivals.

The ep opens auspiciously with Maktub, rising out of ominously lingering clarinet to a thicket of polyrhythms and then alternates with droning, murky atmospherics lowlit with eerily glimmering piano. Red Ink is the catchiest and most cinematic piece here, a hauntingly bittersweet melody that rises to a sweeping, enigmatic theme that winds down to plaintive piano and oud solos. The title track has an epic sweep, the piano rippling behind a spacious oud theme to open it, followed by a gorgeously brooding clarinet melody that alternates with pulsing, dancing interludes and a sizzling, spiraling piano solo to bring it to a peak right before the end. If this is any indication, the concert should be amazing.

Fanfare Ciocarlia Bring Their Volcanic Live Show to NYC

The highlight of many highlights of this year’s NY Gypsy Festival is this Saturday night, the 22nd at 7:30 PM when Romanian gypsy brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia play their first New York concert of the decade – and their first in almost a decade – at the Schimmel Center at Pace University downtown on Spruce St. It’s expensive – $35 – but it’ll be worth it: tix are available at the box office and also online.

Fanfare Ciocarlia have a reputation for an explosive live show to rival Gogol Bordello. They’re the kind of band who battle other bands, talking trash and playing faster than anybody else. Their two most recent albums are a scorching live set from 2009 and a 2011 Balkan Brass Battle with the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar. And although both records are intense to the extreme, they’re also surprisingly subtle, musically diverse, and have a viciously sarcastic edge. The Brass Battle album’s most adrenalizing number is Suita a la Coibanas, where the horns play at warp speed – metal guitar shredders would be jealous of how fast, and how tightly they do it. And then they speed up, again and again – and with literally pinpoint precision, without hitting any clams! It’s a hardcore polka, which is what the groove turns into as it spins closer to going out of control but never does.

Serbian brass father-and-son team Boban and Marko Markovic add another level of slashing chromatic wildness, throughout a funky Balkan brass version of the James Bond theme, a noir cabaret take on Duke Ellington’s Caravan, lickety-split, bloodthirsty “Dances from the Monastery Hills” and couple of cruelly satirical spoofs of dance music, Disco Dzumbus and I Am Your Gummy Bear. The album ends with the menacing cumbia slink of Asfalt Tango – the song that launched a label.

The live record is just as intense. They vary the moods – it isn’t all just murderous chromatic vamps with one sizzling solo after another (although that’s a big part of the picture). And they also give the band a break with several quieter interludes, most of them humorous to some extent, whether a faux Cab Calloway take on Gershwin’s Summertime, or an irresistibly amusing version of Nicoleta, where they take a silly vaudevillian riff and use that as the basis for the entire jam. The interplay between the horns is intricate beyond belief, and the alto saxophonist – who swoops down out of nowhere and absolutely destroys an entire brass section on the second track, Ruseasca Lui Filon – has a slashing power to rival anyone in jazz. The band trades birdcalls on their signature anthem, Ciocarlia and wows the crowd with a series of dragstrip accelerations on the wryly titled Hurichestra. But the best part of the album is when they really hit their groove with a series of raw, snarling Balkan numbers and the intensity simply doesn’t let up, with plenty of room for soloing – even the band intros serve as a launching pad for pyrotechnics. This music isn’t for the faint of heart, but if adrenaline is your thing, Fanfare Ciocarlia are unsurpassed.

NY Gypsy Festival All-Access Passes Now Half-Price

If you’re a promoter, how do you move a bunch of festival passes if the festival is already underway and they aren’t sold out? Sell ’em at half price. Which turns out to be an absurdly good deal, if music in dark minor keys is your thing. With four shows remaining this year, all of them at Drom, the $22.50 NY Gypsy Festival half-price pass comes to a little more than $5 a show. Remaining concerts include the NY Gypsy All-Stars with guest guitarist Marco Calliari on 9/20 at 8; Quebecois gypsy powerhouse Roma Carnivale on 9/22 at 11:30; flamenco dancer Elena Andujar with her ensemble on 9/28 at 11; and luminous Spanish flamenco-jazz pianist Ariadna Castellanos on 9/30 at 7:15. Assuming you bought advance tix for all four, cover without the pass would be $55.

This year’s remaining NY Gypsy Festival show that’s not at Drom (and sadly not part of the pass package) is on 9/22 with scorching Romanian gypsy brass orchestra Fanfare Ciocarlia at the Schimmel Center at Pace University downtown, 3 Spruce St. between Park Row and Gold St. Full-price tix are pricy – $35 – but the band’s offering a free album download with all advance ticket purchases; tix are available online and at the box office.

Which Way East at the New York Gypsy Festival

It’s likely that most of the people who wrote the songs that Which Way East played last night at Drom died young and forgotten, along with their contemporaries, the only people who might have been able to maintain some record of composer credits. Adding their own improvisational, sometimes jazzy, sometimes Middle Eastern-tinged edge, the New York-based Balkan group did justice to the depth and power of those old songs, as part of the ongoing New York Gypsy Festival. This particular version of the band featured Jesse Kotansky on violin, Adam Good (of the Berlin-based Ljuti Hora) on several stringed instruments, Uri Sharlin on accordion and Eva Salina Primack on vocals.

Primack’s initials pretty much explain her approach to music. There are other singers who can learn perfect enunciation in Romanes, Macedonian and Turkish, as she demonstrated during the show, but she doesn’t simply have the mechanics down cold: she inhabits the songs. Death and despair were not always front and center during the set – in fact, just the opposite – but they were always lurking around the corner, and Primack’s wary, nuanced modulations were a constant reminder. She may be best known for power and drive – it’s something of an athletic feat to be able to sing over the blasting brass of a band like Slavic Soul Party – but this show was not about pyrotechnics, it was about soul. That she didn’t upstage the other musicians testifies to the equally subtle power they brought to the music. Kotansky typically served as the lead player, building crescendos to the breaking point, sliding, swooping and diving, adding swirls of otherworldly microtones to bring a crescendo to critical mass. Good began on guitar, with an agile, precise gypsy jazz attack, then switched to the clanky yet hypnotic tambura and then oud, the instrument that gave him the opportunity to induce the most goosebumps with a couple of slowly swelling, brooding solos. Sharlin held the rhythm steady, sometimes with a blippy staccato, sometimes with raw sheets of sustain: it would have been fun to have seen him cut loose more than he did because like his bandmates, he typically goes for plaintiveness over flash.

Together they made their way, judiciously but not particularly cautiously, through a Turkish wedding song, a couple of acidically rustic Macedonian tunes and the gypsy anthem Song of the Romanes.They finally let the clouds lift with a cover of the iconic gypsy pop tune Marushka, Primack going down into her low register for a sardonic come-hither vibe. They ended the set with a completely unexpected cover of Jolene. You might think that a Dolly Parton hit would make a bizarre segue with gypsy music, but this band made it work (Primack’s AE duo project with another A-list singer, Aurelia Shrenker, explores the Appalachian-Balkan connection even more deeply). Primack teased the crowd, waiting until the third chorus until she finally went all the way up the scale for “Jo-LEE-ee-een,” unable to resist a grin as she brought the song back down. And she made it absolutely clear how sad a song it was. It’s not a happy karaoke singalong: it’s a plea to a hot mama who can get whatever she wants to refrain from breaking up someone else’s home (although there should be a sequel where the protagonist gets to kick Jolene’s ass, then her man’s ass, and then run off with Jolene’s husband for good measure. Maybe Primack can write that one someday).

Which Way East play Oct 13 at the Jalopy at 9 with Veveritse Brass Band.