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The Best Concert of 2019 Is Just a Week Away

You don’t have to stay at Golden Fest until two in the morning. But pretty much everybody does. And an awful lot of those people are still dancing, eight hours after the festivities started. In terms of raw thrills, year after year, there is no other New York concert that can match this blissfully entertaining annual weekend festival of Balkan, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Slavic music and food. Golden Fest 2019 is this January 18 and 19 at the magnificent, old world Grand Prospect Hall on the south side of Park Slope, Brooklyn, just up the hill from the Prospect Ave. R station.

If doesn’t take much effort to discover a dozen or more acts you’ve never heard before, especially if you spend time in the smaller upstairs rooms rather than the big ballroom where most of the big brass bands play. You can also catch just as many of the best New York Balkan bands, or mix it up. At any moment, there’s always something worth seeing on at least four or five different stages spaced throughout all four floors of the mansion.

If the festival has one defining qualtiy, it’s that the earliest acts on the bill are just as good as the headliners, even if they tend to be little quieter. For this blog, the game plan for last year’s big Saturday night Golden Fest blowout as well as the year before was to see as many new acts as possible. Both times, the lure of some of this city’s most explosive bands proved too much to resist.

In their own quiet way, the Slaveya Women’s Choir – whose muted, otherworldly close harmonies spanned from Bulgaria to the Caucasus – were every bit as captivating as New York’s own Romashka. It was frontwoman Inna Barmash’s birthday, and she put on a party for the ages, with strings and guitar and tuba blasting behind her blissfully edgy wail, through one minor-key romp after another. That group had a great run back in the zeros; fifteen years or so later, they sill kick out the jams. Happily, their set was recorded; you can download it for free, and read a more detailed review here.

Where the Slaveya Women’s Choir had migrated so enigmatically between notes, the Istanbul Trio – fretless guitarist Ertugrul Erkisi, singer/percussionist Aslihan Erkisi and oudist Fatih Bayram – did the same, with even more edgy intensity and a classical Turkish focus. They would play an even more haunting show a couple of days later at Barbes under a different name.

The rest of the night was a crisscross between intended destinations and diversions. So many good bands, so little time. Here was where the hardcore triage set in. Kavala – a livewire Macedonian/Greek spinoff of Zlatne Uste, the festival’s founding icons – or Loza, a relatively rare meeting between the haunting oud of Adam Good and the similarly poignant vocals of Corinna Snyder? In this case, Loza won out.

How do you choose between the slinky, epic Dolunay and a rare New York appearance by the more cinematic Wind of Anatolia? In this case, the latter, a no less intense Turkish band won out. As the night went on, Egyptian film music revivalists Zikrayat wove plaintively undulating, trickily syncopated melodies, oudist Scott Wilson and Efendi put a twisted psychedelic rock spin on many of those same sounds and the nine-piece Novi Hitovi Brass Band made crazed jams out of searing minor-key Serbian riffs for the better part of an hour.

The loudest band to arguably ever play the festival was psychedelic rembetiko band Greek Judas, who reinvent the Middle Eastern-flavored sounds of the Greek gangster underworld and antifascist resistance movements in the 20s and 30s. The twin guitars of Adam Good and Wade Ripka (who doubled searingly on lapsteel) pummeled the crowd in one of the smaller side rooms, frontman Quince Marcum channeling a mad Dionysis in front of the band.

After midnight, the option to simmer down just a little with the elegant jazz of Tavcha Gravche – guitarist Dan Nadel, clarinetist Vasko Dukovski and bassist Daniel Ori – was a welcome chance to sit down and get lost in their improvisations, the night’s closest approximation of an American idiom. Zurli Drustvo -Tamberlaine and Drew Harris with percussionist Jerry Kisslinger – and Slavic Soul Party spinoff the Mountain Lions provided a surreal blast of fresh air with their microtonal zurla oboes

By the way, this is not how most people do Golden Fest. The big crowd hangs out by the big stage and gets down with a ferocious brass band lineup (clarinet wizard Michael Winograd’s titanic klezmer orchestra seemed to be the biggest hit – and largest ensemble – at this past year’s festival). And here’s a secret about the food: wait til midnight, you’ll be shocked by the quality and the quantity of what’s left over after the lines and lines of hungry dancers have finally satiated themselves. Although there are a lot of talented people circling the room and cutting a rug, there are no judgments if you’re a first-timer. Golden Fest 2019, here we come!

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.