New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: rebetiko

Dark Enigmatic Mediterranean Alchemy from Xylouris White

Xylouris White’s new album Mother – streaming at Spotify – sounds like the Dirty Three, but more Middle Eastern. Swap out Mick Turner’s guitar and Warren Ellis’ violin for George Xylouris’ Cretan laouto, and it all makes sense. As usual, Jim White’s drumming is alternately orchestral, driving, and kaleidoscopic:  few drummers have his sheer musicality. Together the duo make music far more epic than you would think possible.

The album opens with In Medias Res, a nebulous one-chord jam, Xylouris building a rainy thicket of strums and washes as White creates calmly torrential eye-of-the-storm ambience behind him. Only Love opens with a buzzy motorik groove, Xylouris’ expressive baritone intoning over an uneasy rebetiko-tinged, distantly Middle Eastern melody.

Throughout the album, Xylouris’ multitracks deliver all sorts of textures. On Motorcycle Kondities, he uses a stark, lo-fi guitar reverb tone, blending the slightly warpy, bouzouki-like sound of the laouto as this big, enigmatic anthem pounces along, up to a series of machine-gun sniper riffs.

True to its title, Spud’s Garden has a more easygoing, verdant, Greek taverna terrace feel, violin and bagpipe sparely spicing the mix. White’s misterioso flickers on the toms and understatedly ominous beats keep Daphne slinking along behind Xylouris’ brooding vocals and elegantly brooding picking – how do you say Black Angel’s Death Song in Greek?

White’s sepulchral accents on rims and hardware flit above Xylouris’ resonance in the grimly elegaic Achilles Heel. Likewise, scratchy brushing and white noise on the snare drum contrast with Xylouris’ doubletracked thickets throughout Woman From Anogela, up to a final moody clang.

The album’s funniest track is Call and Response, White having a blast peeking out, shooting spitballs and poking holes int Xylouris’ resolute, oud-like ambience. The album’s final track is Lullaby, a muted, brooding modal levantine theme, White’s spare, echoey accents evoking a Middle Eastern goblet drum. Fans of postrock, rebetiko, Middle Eastern music and psychedelia have a lot to get lost in here. Xylouris White’s next show is on March 10 at 7 PM at the Loft at UC San Diego, Price Center East, 4th Floor, 9500 Gilman Drive in LaJolla, California; cover is $10; UCSD students get in free.

Brooklyn’s Creepiest Metal Band Hit Barbes Tomorrow Night, Golden Fest on the 13th.

Greek Judas have the creepiest, most twistedly psychedelic sound of any metal band in New York. They play electrified rebetiko music. Rebetiko was to Greece in the 1920s and 30s what metal was in the early 70s cinderblock slums of Europe: the default music of a disenfranchised criminal underworld. Rebetiko songs celebrate getting stoned, smuggling hash, running from the law and dealing with the consequences sometimes – what’s more metal than that, right? Greek Judas play those feral, frequently macabre, chromatically slashing anthems wearing animal masks, with their guitars turned up to eleven. Their debut album is streaming at Bandcamp; they’re playing Barbes tomorrow night, Jan 4 at 8 PM, then they’re at Golden Fest on the 13th where they will probably be louder than any of the blaring brass bands.

The album’s first track is Young Hash Smokers (the video is here). Adam Good’s sludgy growl anchors bandleader Wade Ripka’s nails-down-the-blackboard shrieks over the steady thud of bassist Nick Cudahy and drummer Chris Stromquist. Dressed in a monk’s robe, frontman Quince Marcum sings in Greek for a strong, expressive celebration of cannabis resin.

Ripka’s guitar prowls and slashes around the upper frets in How Long the Night, up to a sly trick ending. The band bookend the darkly sirening, slide guitar-fueled I’m a Junkie with ominously lingering pieces of the Beatles’ Within You and Without You, and the unexpectedly tasty addition of a string section.

Roma Girl comes across as a mashup of late Beatles clang and smoky Keith Richards riffage, with more darkness than either of those bands – suddenly it hits you that it’s a one-chord jam. The album’s high point and most recent number here, Kokkinia 1955, pulses like a desperately dying quasar, Ripka making evil tremolo metal out of what could have been a bagpipe tune in a past life.

The smugglers’ anthem Contrabandistas is both the album’s most broodingly catchy and epic track. Syndrofisses is a launching pad for the most hydroponically intertwining, Iron Maiden-style guitar here and an especially unhinged Ripka solo that Good leaps out of and takes the song into slyly sunbaked early 70s territory.

The most evocatively desperate number here is Why I Smoke Cocaine, a crack whore’s sad story – that stuff existed on the streets of Athens in the 20s. The final cut is I’ll Become a Monk, the closest thing to a poignant breakup anthem here. Best album of 2018 so far by a mile.

Fun fact: before they were Greek Judas, the core of the band were in a stately, more traditionally-oriented rebetiko trio, Que Vlo-ve. You can still get their singles as free downloads from Bandcamp.

A Night of Haunting, Adrenalizing, Poignant Sounds From the Greek Underground

University of Illinois music professor Yona Stamatis, a native New Yorker, was on a mission to find the real rebetika, the so-called “Greek blues.” The music actually doesn’t sound the least bit bluesy. Popularized by ethnic Greek refugees from Turkey and Cyprus, much of it bristles with the eerie microtones and slinky rhythms of Middle Eastern music. At its peak in the 1920s and 30s, it was the sound of the criminal underworld as well as the pro-democracy underground fighting a brutal dictatorship. Rebetika is still played in tavernas and on Greek tv, but all too often it’s watered down, sentimental or downright cheesy.

Acting on a tip, Stamatis tracked down a band playing it raw and oldschool in an Athens dive bar. The lead singer was the bar owner, Pavlos Vasileiou. The tavern is gone now – even Athens is under siege in a blitzkrieg of gentrification that may have triggered the deadly floods there last week – but the band lives on. Stamatis picked up her bouzouki and violin and has since taken the group, Rebetika Istoria – named after the saloon – on several North American tours. Saturday night at Roulette, they had the crowd dancing in the aisles throughout two dynamic sets of boisterous drinking songs, grim anthems and mournful ballads.

When she wasn’t blazing through fast, spiky thickets of notes on her bouzouki, Stamatis was shading the music with uneasy, often microtonal midrange washes on her violin. Bouzouki player Nikolaus Menegas took several edgy solos of his own and sang in a measured baritone. Intense, impassioned singer Eleni Lazarou also took several turns on lead vocals and played a mean baglama on several of the more Middle Eastern-flavored numbers while guitarist Vangelis Nikolaidis anchored the music with his steady acoustic guitar riffage. And group founder/crooner Vasileiou brought plenty of gravitas to the lyrics, playing stark, incisive lines on his tzoura, a smaller counterpart to the bouzouki.

Stamatis explained that much of the setlist comprised the classics most requested by crowds at the old Athens boite. What was most fascinating about this show was that while a lot of the material was iconic, much of it was not, with more obscure songwriters featured alongside big names like Yiorgos Mitsakis and Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Booze factored into pretty much every narrative beyond the usual breakup scenario, whether looking to find the party in the American west in one surreal travelogue, or just running around the Greek isles. There were wry, funny relationship-gone-awry numbers like Apostolis Hatzichristos’ The Bum’s Complaint, Mitsakis’ The Beautiful Gypsy Girl – covered by Brooklyn metal band Greek Judas – and a harrowing closer to the second set, a haunting Mitsakis dirge commemorating a 1917 massacre of striking workers.

There were also recurring allusions to political troubles and repression but not much that was specifically revolutionary, a common trope in music made under repressive regimes. The long series of encores – the band must have played six or seven of them – was where the biting minor keys and influence of music from Turkey and points further east took centerstage, and the band reveled in them. Some consider rebetika the Greek national music, but that’s not a universal opinion considering its association with the Ottomans.

This concert was staged by Robert Browning Associates, who for the past few years have been bringing a spectacular variety of acts from around the world to this city. The next one is at their home base, the refreshingly laid-back and sonically welcoming Roulette, on December 2 at 8 PM with Gamelan Kusuma Laras, who are joined by Javanese gamelan luminaries Darsono Hadiraharjo, Midiyanto and Heni Savitri. Cover is $25.

Que Vlo-Ve Bring Haunting, Edgy Greek Crime Rhymes and Revolutionary Anthems to Barbes

Que Vlo-Ve aren’t the only band in town who play haunting, Turkish-influenced Greek revolutionary songs and hash-smoking anthems from the 20s and 30s, but they’re one of the best. Right now they’ve got three singles up at Bandcamp as free downloads, which offer an intriguing glimpse of the kind of material they’re likely to air out at their upcoming show at Barbes on Nov 26 at 8 PM. The first song, O Psilos, shows off the lively, upbeat side of their music. The second, Ferte Preza Na Prezaro, dances along with forceful Greek vocals from frontman/percussionist Quince Marcum and biting chromatics from violinist Maya Shanker and guitarists Wade Ripka and Izaak Mills. The most recent one, To Baglamadaki Spase is slower and more brooding.

At their previous Barbes show, Marcum told the audience that although it would be overly reductionistic to explain this music as something created by a clash between stoners and drunks, there’s some truth to that. The backstory is that when the Turkish dictatorship kicked its indigenous Greek population out of Smyrna right before World War I, those people once again found themselves outcasts once they’d made it to Greece since their expatriate culture differed in many ways from what was the rule on the mainland. As a soundtrack to their demimonde, which helped fuel the Greek underground resistance to their own repressive dictatorship, they invented rembetiko, the so-called “Greek gangster blues” that draws heavily on ominous, Middle Eastern sounds from Turkey and points further east.

Marcum intoned in an expressive baritone as Shanker and Ripka passed a spiky baglama lute back and forth. One airy song concerned a guy trying to impress a hot girl with how cunning a linguist he is – he speaks both Greek and Turkish, plus, since she’s Jewish, a little Ladino. Another, The Knife Fight offered a tale of death and retribution in the criminal underworld: hip-hop themes go back a lot further than Biggie Smalls. The chorus of one murky, hypnotic tune reminded how it takes a stoner to know a stoner: a Greek take on When You’re a Viper, more or less. A little later they played an even more hypnotic tune, a drug smuggler’s sea chantey of sorts.

Ripka opened a couple of numbers with slowly unfolding, mysterious guitar improvisations, one on baglama. Shanker’s soaring violin carried most of the big crescendos and the occasional departure into otherworldly Arabic microtones. The funniest number was The Flea, a deviously dancing tune: Marcum explained that its gist is, “I will penetrate you and keep you awake, just like you keep me awake all night.” For the sake of the non-Greek speakers in the crowd, that context added a dimension too often missing at performances of this kind of esoterica.

What does Que Vlo-Ve mean? That’s not clear. However, there once was a scholarly journal of Apollinaire studies with that same name.

Cigdem Aslan Revisits the 1920s Aegean Underground with a Riveting Intensity

Istanbul-born singer Cigdem Aslan’s album Mortissa is a shout-out to the strong women and freedom fighters in Turkey and Greece in the 1920s and 30s, when the music of the underground, rembetiko, was banned on both sides for being too Arabic. If that doesn’t grab you, nothing will. It’s haunting, plaintive, rivetingly emotional stuff, with echoes of both klezmer and Egyptian melodies along with its obvious Greek and Turkish roots. This so-called “Anatolian blues,” with its bitter ironies and double meanings, was the stoner soundtrack to the revolutionary underworld that rose up in Smyrna, and Istanbul, and port cities on the Aegean almost a century ago. Aslan is an aptly cosmopolitan choice to revisit these songs, a woman of Kurdish descent who’s made a name for herself in the UK singing klezmer music from across the Jewish diaspora. To paraphrase Edward Said: orientalism, the ultimate source of all good musical things.

Aslan sings in both Greek and Turkish, although you don’t have to speak either to enjoy this music, and Aslan’s delivery often transcends any linguistic limitations: it’s not hard to figure out where the songs are coming from. Is the haunting, dirgelike Ferece (Veil) about a funeral, or a wedding? Actually, neither. It’s sung from the point of view of a Muslim woman who wants to tear off her oppressive burqa, Nikos Angousis-Doitsidis‘ searing clarinet lines mirroring the vocals‘ simmering rage. Likewise, Bir Allah (One God), Aslan’s imploring melismatics mingling with Pavlos Carvalho’s biting bouzouki. Aslan shifts in a split second from jaunty to pensive, especially on the shapeshifting To Dervisaki (Little Dervish), with its fiery succession of solos from the bouzouki to Makis Baklatzis’s violin to the clarinet. Aslan does the same on the album’s towering, angst-ridden final cut, S’agapo (I Love You), Nikolaos Baimpas’ kanun rippling over the gusty swells of the orchestra.

Aslan sings with a nonchalantly crystalline tone over a bouncy minor-key pulse on Aman Katerina Mou (Oh My Katerina), then she veers between coy and inquisitive on the rhythmically tricky, chromatically edgy Vale Me Stin Agalia Sou (Take Me In Your Arms). Pane Gia To Praso (Going Out For Leeks – 1920s Greek slang for hashish) spirals downward on the wings of some of the album’s most gorgeous bouzouki riffage beneath Aslan’s eerily glimmering microtones. The catchy Trava Vre Manga Kai Alani (Go Away, Manga) has echoes of klezmer,while the stark bouzouki and vocal lines added a surreal, crepuscular creepinesss to Nenni (Lullaby). There’s also a slinky levantine ensemble piece, a lush pastorale, a bitterly anthemic barroom scenario where Aslan tells her suitors to take a hike, and the enigmatic Girl from Usak, sort of a Turkish circus rock shuffle with a kanun solo that might be the album’s most exhilarating moment.  Where can you hear this masterpiece online? It’s not at Grooveshark or Bandcamp but it is on Spotify, and there are a couple of tracks up at Asphalt Tango Records’ Soundcloud page.