New York Music Daily

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Tag: russian music

A Spicy Midsummer Taste of Golden Fest at Lincoln Center Out of Doors

It’s a fair bet that rustic Carpathian acoustic music-and-dance ensemble the Cheres Folk Orchestra, Malika Kalontarova’s otherworldly tar lute-driven Tajik group, explosive Georgian crew the Dancing Crane Ensemble, and exhilarating Albanian music stars Merita Halili & the Raif Hyseni Orchestra have played Golden Fest, the nation’s most electrifying Balkan music festival, which takes place every January in Brooklyn. So it’s no surprise that these four acts’ show Sunday afternoon turned out to be the highlight of this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival so far.

The Tirana-born Halili has a wide-angle vibrato that she engages like a high-speed guitar tremolo for a spine-tingling effect that sparkles with microtones along the sharpest edges. Hyseni, who hails from Kosovo, played the entire show with a big smile on his face: if you had his speed on the accordion, you’d be smiling too. He saved his two most supersonic, almost menacingly chromatic flights for one tantalizingly brief solo, and an intro anchored by Halili’s stark vocalese,\ where the rest of the band looked at each other, amazed and mystified about where they were expected to leap in.

When the moment came, they were ready, every bit as adrenalizing as the vocals and accordion. Their reedman doubled on clarinet and alto sax, often playing each during parts of the same song with a relentlessly volleying, microtonal, melismatic attack. Their Albanian bassist and guitarist held the center throughout the tricky changes, propelled by a jazz drummer with a playfully uneasy, boomy thump on his toms. They opened with a brisk ba-bump number that edged from blithely major-key to bracingly minor, then later bounced their way through a dance tune that had a happy-go-lucky Mexican feel. But the best numbers were the wild ones in 7/8 time, the whole band stampeding furiously as if to get out of the way of the Soviet tanks that drove this music underground for so long.

Turbocharged Albanian folk has made a big comeback since the fall of the Iron Curtain, but many indigenous musicians steeped in dancer/bandleader Malika Kalontarova’s spare, hypnotically insistent Tajik Jewish repertoire have emigrated to Israel. This group is one of the few in this country to play this magical material. The group’s three tar lute players would often triple the lines of an allusively modal melody line over similarly stark drumbeats that varied from a straight-up thump to more intricate metrics. The effect was as exotic as it was antique: tar music from Iran and Kurdistan are reference points, but both of those cultures use scales closer to Arabic modes. It was easy to get lost in.

Both Cheres and the Dancing Crane Ensemble often took a seat when their dancers cavorted across the stage to recorded music; considering how fast this show was pulled together, there may not have been enough time to rehearse all the material. When the two groups played, drums and accordions figured heavily through a mix of spare mountain melodies and more straight-ahead minor-key material that edged toward the Balkans in places. The Ukrainians put rippling, incisive cimbalom front and center. The Georgians, in particular, took advantage of their time onstage to showcase the allusive tonalities of their brooding choral music, and the high-voltage moves of their dancers, guys in quasi-military getup with bullet embroidery, women floating and fluttering across the stage in a series of colorful long dresses.

Lincoln Center Out of Doors continues tomorrow, August 12 with afternoon performances on the plaza: picturesque Americana songwriter/fiddler Amanda Shires at 2 is the highlight. Then out back in Damrosch Park popular, lustrously harmony-driven Americana rock veterans the Jayhawks hit the stage at about 8. Avoid the atrocious 6 PM opening act – the worst band ever to get booked for a Lincoln Center show – at all costs, even if that means you don’t get a seat.

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Wild, Crazy, Deep Danceable Sounds at Last Night’s Borscht Ball in Bushwick

The dancing crowd at last night’s second annual Borscht Ball at Paperbox in Bushwick got to watch singer Svetlana Shmulyian – who has a gig with her bittersweetly torchy, cosmopolitan swing jazz band the Delancey Five coming up at Lucille’s on June 24 at 8 – sing coyly quirky old Soviet pop songs from the 60s in her native tongue, with a knowing happy-hour gleam in her eye.

They got to hear klezmer firebrand Daniel Kahn – who’s got a gig tonight at Joe’s Pub at 9:30 – unveil an obscure old Russian tune he’d never played before, which he’d just translated on the way down from Utica with fellow singer Psoy Korolenko. The gist of it was, “If the devil won’t take me, how about your bed.” Kahn had matched his English rhyme scheme to the original, quite a feat.

They got to pogo and linedance and twirl around the room as the Klezmatics aired out a fiery, characteristically ambitious series of new songs from their long-awaited forthcoming album. They got to see a parade of some of the world’s most sought-after talent in Jewish roots music – irrepressible Litvakus clarinetist/singer Dmitri Zisl Slepvovitch and charismatic Golem bandleader Annette Ezekiel Kogan among them – beat a path on and off the stage as the music shifted from defiantly joyous, to wounded angst, to full-throttle klezmer punk.

The festival’s raison d’etre is to provide a snapshot of the many different flavors of klezmer punk from around the world. If you think that’s a little esoteric, consider that there are hundreds of bands who would have fit this bill. If the Klezmatics weren’t the first, they opened the floodgates and have since inspired more than a generation of musicians. Playing their thirtieth anniversary show, they drew on sounds as disparate as Romanian, Turkish, Ukrainian and Catalan folk traditions while adding their signature firepower and jazz sophistication. Trumpeter Frank London played his usual, alternately crystalline and ferociously elephantine trumpet with his right hand while doing catchy arpeggios and comping chords on organ with his left. Matt Darriau ripped through careening postbop jazz on tenor sax and spun off spirals on clarinet over the stampeding, sometimes vaudevillian pulse of drummer Richie Barshay and bassist Paul Morrissett while frontman/accordionist Lorin Sklamberg sang in Yiddish, Russian and English. At the end of their sizzling opening set, he told the crowd that they’d be back, and by the end they pretty much all were, joining the members of Opa in careening versions of well-loved classics like Limonchiki and Bei Mir Bist Du Shein.

Brooklyn supergroup Svetlana and the Eastern Blokhedz – Shmulyian backed by bandleader Wade Ripka on guitar, his Greek Judas bandmates Quince Marcum on horn and vocals and Nick Cudahy on bass, Isaak Mills on guitar, sax and glockenspiel, Choban Elektrik‘s Jordan Shapiro and Las Rubias Del Norte‘s Allyssa Lamb on keys, and Slavic Soul Party‘s Chris Stromquist on drums – kept the dancers on their feet, opening and eventually closing with psychedelic garage pop that sounded straight out of France, 1969. Who says the Russians ever outgrew their French fixation, anyway? From there Shmulyian led them nimbly and warmly through a Russian pop counterpart to Dancin’ in the Rain, to nostalgic salutes to motherhood and romance and eventually a Soviet equivalent of “Celebrate good times, c’mon!” True to form, their deadpan version of the Ventures’ Cold War instrumental classic Spudnik was irresistibly funny in context.

Making their U.S. debut, eclectic Russian band  Opa headlined and offered an unstoppably kinetic take on many of the directions klezmer continues to expand into. With tenor saxophone, trumpet, trombone, guitar, bass and drums going full force, they opened with a catchy old Russian riff that they built into straight-ahead oldschool disco. From there the band romped back and forth through time, vocally and instrumentally, flavored with acidic no wave guitar, Talking Heads funk and maybe a little Gang of Four. As the special guests made their way to the stage until there wasn’t much room left up there, the group took a detour into the tropics with some rocksteady, a couple of snaky klezmer cumbia mashups, a bit of Balkan reggae, hints of salsa and then a rousing return to the classics at the end of four nonstop hours of music. By then most of the oldsters – an impressive number, considering how deep in the ‘Shweck the venue is – had gone home, leaving the floor to the kids, many of them couples, who’d spent pretty much the entire time on their feet. By then it was as if the music itself had taken on a personality of its own, overjoyed to be brought back from death’s door in the nick of time.

The Yale Slavic Chorus Hold the Crowd Rapt at Barbes

A girl had a competition with a nightingale to determine who was the better singer. “If I win, I get to cut off your wings,” the girl tells the bird. And then the girl wins.

‘Please don’t cut off my wings,” the defeated bird pleads. “You can cut off my feet instead. I need my wings to fly.”

“You know what, I’ll let you keep your wings, and your feet too,” the girl replies. “I’ll be satisfied knowing that I sing better than a nightingale.”

That was one of the happier stories that the eight women of the Yale Slavic Chorus sang last night at Barbes, in Macedonian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, Georgian and other languages. But there were many even more colorful, and sinister narratives in the group’s two wild, feral yet meticulously arranged sets. For example, the tale about the five hundred Ukrainian construction workers who decide on a lark to wall in the first worker’s girlfriend to show up in the morning. So everybody who arrived at the worksite the next day did so alone…except for one unfortunate guy who forgot to tell his beloved not to bring him lunch. You can guess the rest. Did Edgar Allen Poe’s Cask of Amontillonado influence the song? It’s not likely that he ever heard it. Maybe the song and the story exist completely independent of each other. Music this cool poses questions like that.

Singers are expected to be able to shift on a dime between languages, and styles, but even so, this group is amazingly eclectic. The program was well-paced: they opened with a couple of the night’s more stately, stark numbers, then began introducing the eerie close harmonies, whoops and hollers and swoops and dives and “hey”s that recur throughout the Balkans and often filter into Russian and Ukrainian folk music. If memory serves right, they went as far east as Georgia and as far west as what is now the Czech Republic.

Each group member got to introduce a number or two and give the crowd the gist of the lyrics. “I am the fairest one of all” turned out to be a common theme, as was seduction: a couple of the songs were pretty racy. Often the group would pair off a duo or trio, who would later be joined by the rest of the ensemble. Otherwise, the stereo effect created by the exchange of phrases between individual voices was as fascinating to watch as it was difficult to pull off seamlessly – and this group made it look effortless. This music is difficult as it is, especially for those who haven’t grown up with it (meaning pretty much everyone, even in the regions where it originated), and on top of that, several chorus members were called on to belt from the lows to great heights. And they all delivered. While it’s probably not fair to single out any one member, considering the varying demands of the arrangements, steelcutter soprano Olivia Noble and her somewhat lower-pitched but no less dynamic bandmate Jola Pach are both scary-good. And soprano Claire Gottsegen, who seemed to project the most pure unrestrained power of anyone in the group, at least at this show, also happens to be their most petite member.

Being college students, this is a pretty young ensemble. It’s possible that some of these women, just like their counterparts in villages and towns across what was once Iron Curtain territory, will pursue other interests beyond singing. But let’s hope that all of them, and the three alums who joined them for the encore, decide to stick with it. The world’s a better place with voices as enchanting as theirs.

Litvakus Bring Their Rare, Deliriously Fun, Decades-Old Dance Tunes to the Upper West

On one hand, Litvakus’ latest album is kick-ass party music with lyrics – mostly in Yiddish – like “May you always have whiskey to fill your glasses.” On the other hand, it’s nothing short of amazing how frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Zisl Slepovitch’s band has rescued obscure songs hidden away, in some cases for more than a century, in dusty vaults that enterprising music students were very strongly discouraged from prowling around in. But Slepovitch doesn’t give up easily. Back in his native Belarus, his first band, Minsker Kapelye played their first-ever show across the street from KGB headquarters. And they got away with it. Litvakus’ new album Raysn may come across with a distinct, regional sound, but they have the fearless heart and soul of the Clash.

They’re playing Tuesday night, Feb 10 at 7:30 PM as part of one of New York’s most reliably exciting concert series in the basement of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W 68th St (Broadway/Columbus) where drummer Aaron Alexander puts on more-or-less weekly shows featuring the creme de la creme of Jewish music from around the globe: in the klezmer world, a gig here means you’ve arrived. Concertgoers have more than one option: if you just want a quick shot of adrenaline before you head home, you can see the show for $15. For musicians, there’s a pre-concert music class at 5:30, followed by a long jam session afterward, and all of that’s $35. And maybe there’s a nosh, or a drink, who knows – it’s a lively, multi-generational, quintessentially New York scene.

The album – streaming at Bandcamp – takes its name from the old Yiddish term for what is now Belarus, for centuries a multicultural melting pot that resulted in some unique cross-pollination. Slepovitch has collected songs with both Jewish and Belorussian origins as well as a couple of boisterous originals, one of which he wrote in an inspired moment on the Q train.

The album opens with its most otherworldly track, a droning yet kinetic instrumental featuring Slepovitch on the svirel, the Belorussian counterpart to the English shawm. From there the group – Craig Judelman on violin, Taylor Bergren-Crisman on bass, Josh Camp on accordion and Sam Weisenberg on standup drum – weave their way into a swaying, minor-key, chromatically charged dance. The segue between the next two songs, Judelman handing off elegantly to Slepovitch, is so seamless that it’s impossible to tell where one ends and the next begins unless you listen closely. They keep the bouncing, bustling drive going with a fond look back at a little country town where people really like to party.

Bergren-Crisman bows his bass furiously as the next medley, a couple of pulsing traditional Belorussian dances, gets underway and then subtly segues into the Middle Eastern-tinged freygish scale, equivalent to the Arabic hijaz mode. Then Slepovitch brings it down with an ancient, plaintive, lovelorn waltz, his clarinet stark against the dark washes of bass and accordion and Judelman’s poignant doublestops. From there the band picks it up again, Slepovitch’s clarinet bobbing and weaving with an unselfconscious joy through an original that fits perfectly with the traditional romp – based on a rare 1934 Soviet recording – that follows. The clarinetist dryly describes the slow, gorgeous original waltz after that as being in the tradition of music designed for listening at weddings…or on the subway.

There’s also a wry, hair-raising tale employing lyrics from a 1922 epic poem by Moyshe Kulbak, reinvented as a lively reel; a trio of circle dances rescued from the archives; a rivetingly Middle Eastern flavored mini-suite; a rare Belorussian version of an ancient Hasidic a-cappella nigun; a dirge, a drinking song and a rousing. surrealistic tribute to a pretty Jewish girl who also happens to be the best-loved bartender in town. The more things change, right? If you like minor keys, infectious dance grooves and eerie passing tones, you’ll love this album. The cd also comes with extensive liner notes which provide all kinds of interesting historical background, very useful for western listeners and music bloggers too!

From the Black Sea to Spanish Harlem in a Single Day at Lincoln Center

This year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors has been as reliably fun and eclectic as ever. And it’s more watchable than ever since many of the events are being simulcast (and promise to be archived for streaming later). As far as music from around the world is concerned, that’s been arguably better than ever. The previous weekend’s standout concert modeled itself on Globalfest, the dance-friendly annual spinoff of the January booking agents’ convention held at Webster Hall. Sunday’s show on the plaza mirrored the arguably even more deliriously fun, Middle Eastern-inspired Alwan-a-Thon conceived by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, held over the same weekend at downtown cultural mecca Alwan for the Arts.

The concert began with self-taught Afghani rubab lute player Quraishi leading a trio with twin dhol drums. His brief set of three traditional folk numbers and a bouncy original was considerably more lighthearted than his rather somber new album Mountain Melodies. Lilting pastoral themes that brought to mind more longscale Hindustani music rose and fell with a hypnotic pulse flavored with spiky, briskly fingerpicked improvisation. The lutenist explained that while some of his music reminds of styles from further east, many Indian ragas are based on Afghani melodies, and that the rubab is the ancestor of the Indian sarod. In a droll Q&A with the audience, Quraishi revealed the secret to keeping his instrument in tune with all the strings intact, no small achievement: he uses steel for the ringing, sympathetic strings and gut for the rest, with the exception of the bass string, which he’d liberated from a tennis racket. He didn’t specify whether that one was gut or nylon, but either way it didn’t break like others had.

Next on the bill were the haunting, exhilarating Ensemble Shashmaqam. As organizer Pete Rushefsky explained, the group originally came together in 1982 in Queens to play Bukharan Jewish repertoire but since has expanded to include Muslim folk material from Uzbekhistan and Tajikistan. In an otherworldly, passionately expressive bass-baritone, their powerful lead singer “Samarkandi,” a.k.a. Rustam Kojimamedov intoned and implored over an alternately haunting and bouncy backdrop fueled by the biting lines of David Davidov’s homemade tar lute. A trio of women dressed in colorful silk costumes took turns twirling and dancing gracefully across the stage throughout the show. A couple of elegaic waltzes, an anthem punctuated by anguished crescendos from Samarkandi that drew gasps of astonishment or solidarity from the crowd, as well as a jaunty, surprisingly lighthearted Jewish wedding dance mini-suite, vocals and tar set against a rather somber wash of minor-key accordion and backing vocals, made this the day’s most impactful set.

Turkish singer/composer Ahmet Erdogdular and his quartet – Peter Daverington on expressive, sailing ney flute, Elylen Basaldi on similarly lithe violin and meticulously precise, soulful oudist Mavrothi Kontanis (who has an alter ego as a darkly psychedelic rock bandleader) – maintained the serious mood. Maybe to differentiate his performance from the others, Erdogdular counterintuitively chose several songs in rather obscure maqam modes, rather than relying on the edgy chromatics and eerie microtones that make Turkish music both so haunting and so instantly identifiable. Erdogdular sang in a powerful, emotive baritone while accompanying himself on frame drum, and on one number, on tambur lute, contributing a long, plaintive solo that mirrored his pensive, brooding approach to the vocals.

The NY Crimean Tatar Ensemble continued the day’s theme of how the music of Turkik peoples has made such an impact from the Balkans through central Asia. Frontman Nariman Asimov spun adrenalizing, rapidfire violin lines balanced by the careful approach of virtuoso kanun player Tamer Pinarbasi (of the NY Gypsy All-Stars) while a succession of men and women dancers, in gold-embroidered silk costumers similar to those worn by Ensemble Shashmaqam’s dancers, moved with a jaunty precision in front of the quartet. This group’s set was the most eclectic and stylistically diverse, ranging from moody klezmer-infused romps, a stately waltz or two and joyously pogoing dances, all of them lit up with searing violin and pointillistic kanun work. Pinarbasi shadowed the melody, indicating that he might not have had much if any rehearsal for the set but nonetheless managed to infuse everything with his signature dynamics and intensity.

About an hour and a half after this show had ended, bandleader Cita Rodriguez and her Orchestra took the stage in Damrosch Park just to the south, leading an ecstatic, towering tribute to her late father, the great salsa singer Pete “El Conde” Rodriguez. Her brother, Pete, who happens to be one of the most potent, pyrotechnic trumpeters in all of jazz, got to take more of a turn on vocals this time, a role he grew into while still in his teens, singing choruses with his famous dad. The concert began with a hypnotic, otherworldly booming African drum interlude, then the orchestra kicked in with a mighty swell and kept the energy at redline well after the sun had finally gone down as a parade of El Conde’s colleagues, including but not limited to Johnny Pacheco, Willie Montalvo and others, took their turns on the mic. Through catchy, endless two-chord vamps punctuated by explosive brass swells, a couple of epically symphonic anthems and a suite of 70s hits, the party was in full effect and never relented. El Conde was a musician’s musician, a craftsman who was always looking for ways to take his art to the next level, through the last weeks of his life: as a celebration of Puerto Rican pride dating from the days when there was plenty of opposition to it in this city, he would have taken a lot of satisfaction from this.

Wild, Diverse Global Energy Overflows at Lincoln Center

Last night at Lincoln Center Out of Doors was an exhilarating if somewhat underappreciated mix of global sounds. Opening night of this year’s festival on the 20th of the month, a Pete Seeger tribute kicked off by none other than Judy Collins, was a mobscene rivaled here in recent years only by the overflow crowd at the 2010 staging of pianist Larry Harlow’s iconic salsa jazz suite, La Raza Latina.

A performance of some rather arch indie classical and contemporary ballet pieces this past Friday drew a smaller and less diverse crowd, but the diversity was back last night in epic force, at least musically speaking. Assembled by the prime movers of Globalfest, the evening had every bit of eclecticism and often delirious energy as their annual January Webster Hall celebration of mostly dance-oriented sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the APAP booking agents’ convention. Originating before the youtube era, the concert gives venue bookers and the public alike a chance to sample party music of pretty much every stripe throughout a series of what are essentially longform auditions. There’s literally something for everyone, as there was all over the Lincoln Center complex last night. Don’t like canned beats? Leave the underground parking garage (where the promoters had cleverly stashed that stuff away) and go to the park out back for a funky Indian jamband, or to the plaza for some Mexican brass music.

Around the corner from the opera hall, Colombian-American psychedelic cumbia band M.A.K.U. Soundsystem stole the show, and the crowd from Red Baraat – who were half a block south, in Damrosch Park – with their slinky, moodily triumphant grooves, reaffirming their status as one of New York’s best bands. And they left no doubt that at this point, cumbia has superseded reggae as this era’s default global party music. What’s coolest about cumbia is that a lot of it is pretty creepy, a quality underscored by keyboardist Felipe Quiroz’s sepulchrally tremoloing organ. Bassist/frontman Juan Ospina played bitingly catchy, hypnotically bouncy riffs and sang in tandem with multi-percussionist Liliana Conde, alongside guitar, conga, drums and a punchy two-trombone horn section (joined at the end by an esteemed Colombian tenor saxophonist whose introduction got lost in a flurry of applause). The band’s lyrics, mostly in Spanish, celebrate diversity and global unity in a surprisingly poetic way, without being either trite or saccharine, over loping, undulating minor-key vamps punctuated by animated percussion breaks and menacingly swirly keyboard riffs. One of the casually defiant tracks from the band’s latest vinyl ep, Musica Nunca Muere (The Music Never Dies) pretty much said it all. If the IWW had embraced cumbia instead of marching band music, maybe the Wobblies really would have taken over the world.

The evening’s single best performance – and funniest moment onstage – might have been from New Orleans “Russian mafia band” Debauche. Toward the end of their bristling, boisterous, hourlong set, given the “ten more minutes” sign from the sound booth, they responded by speeding up until they were going doublespeed and then even faster. More bands should do that! Frontman/acoustic guitarist Yegor Romantsov evoked another charismatic Slavic rock bandleader, Gogol Bordello’s Eugene Hutz, as he made his way through edgy minor-key Russian-language romps about duplicitous women, deals gone bad, a love song reinvented from a lesbian perspective, and a mashup of a Jewish wedding song and a happy-go-lucky Mexican folk tune. Their was a distinct klezmer influence in many of the songs, from a sarcastically swaying hi-de-ho anthem, to a series of bouncily brooding, clarinet-and-violin-fueled shuffles. An attempt to get the heavily Russian crowd to sing along on Bublichki, the opening track on the band’s album Cossacks on Prozac – which would be better titled Cossacks on Coke – met with mixed results. But there was a big crowd down front dancing. And somehow the bull fiddle survived being climbed on by both the the burly guy who was playing it, as well as the coyly energetic woman playing standup bass drum and tambourine.

Sandwiched in between the cumbia and the klezmer rock were an eight-piece edition of Brooklyn’s Banda de los Muertos, who do both original and traditional Sinaloa-style brass music with trombones, horns, trumpets, woodwinds and drums. Most of their set had a breezy, good-natured sway, through a mix of ranchera waltzes, a Los Tigres del Norte cover and Marty Robbins’ El Paso reinvented as a mariachi brass theme. Trumpets and trombones got most of the solos and made the most of them, Ben Holmes and Brian Drye getting the choicest parts. Mariachi Flor de Toloache frontwoman Mireya Ramos took the music in a strikingly intense, imploring direction with her powerful, angst-fueled, melismatic vocals on a bolero, Te Quiero Tanto, written by the band’s frontman/clarinetist’s aunt. And then Ramos led the group back onto more upbeat turf.

Opening the night in Damrosch Park, Moroccan/Israeli crooner Emil Zrihan delivered an often riveting, impassioned performance worthy of a headliner, backed by his regular accordionist and an inspired pickup band who played seamlessly despite having been assembled at the last minute (the rest of the singer’s band were back in Israel, having been unable to get visas). Zrihan blends sounds from a millenium worth of Andalucian music as well as Sephardic cantorial themes, with an occasional detour toward klezmer or rai. His smartly dynamic, nonchalantly crescendoing take of the classic protest song Ya Rayyeh was well-received by the small but electrified crowd gathered in the shade toward the front of the stage. Zrihan and the accordion slowly jammed their way into many of the numbers, climbing to melismatic peaks that sometimes took on operatic exuberance or angst against a tightly swaying, rhythmically tricky backdrop of acoustic guitar, violin and twin hand drums.

And it was too bad that there weren’t more people in the park to catch Brazilian dub band BaianaSystem. Although a lot of what they had was on tape (or in the mixing board, or coming from somebody’s phone), their slow, slinky pulse made for an aptly nocturnal sendoff to the few who remained, ending the night with fat, tersely emphatic bass, long, ominously chromatic solos from electric guitarra baiana player Robertinho Barreto and rapidfire, reggaeton-style Portuguese lyrics from frontman Russo Passapusso.

Some Shows That Worked and Some That Didn’t

To follow up the piece here a few days ago about catching up on concerts from the past few months, there’ve been some shows this year that were slated for coverage here but fell off the agenda for various reasons. Pensive Norwegian cellist/chanteuse Linnea Olsson got so little time onstage at her most recent solo show at Highline Ballroom that there wasn’t a lot to say about her. “Anna Paquin does Edgar Allan Poe,” was the reaction from one of New York’s best songwriters, referring to Paquin’s film debut in The Piano. Olsson did one thing and did it well: simple, catchy vocal melodies over long, moody, minimalist washes of cello punctuated by rhythmic accents amplified with tons of slapback reverb. She began with a long, swaying instrumental, brought the energy up with a lilting, dancing number and went in a more anthemic direction from there.

Likewise, it was good to catch some of Isle of Klezbos‘ afterwork show at Bryant Park right after Memorial Day. Deborah Kreisberg’s alternatingly haunting and wildly robust clarinet (and alto sax) fueled the mostly-female klezmer jamband’s dynamic set alongside accordionist Shoko Nagai, who added austere, otherworldly washes that alluded to her background at the far frontiers of jazz and the avant garde. Bassist Dave Hofstra was the ringer, anchoring the music in tandem with drummer Eve Sicular, who is a lot of fun to watch and was having a great, vaudeville-tinged time behind the kit when she wasn’t bursting out from behind it to breathlessly explain the music and its origins from across the decades and the global Jewish diaspora. Singer Melissa Fogarty shares Sicular’s taste for subtle irony, and brought that to the forefront through a couple of numbers including a winking take of the old Molly Picon film tune Abi Gezunt.

A couple weeks after that, energetic Moscow-based Russian folk quartet Russkaya Krasa made a New York stop at the American Folk Art Museum. Like Olsson, they played a very short set (actually two of them, one for early arrivals and one for latecomers). With three and sometimes four female singers, they were joined by a guitarist/singer named Ilya who added his resonant baritone to the mix of eerie close harmonies that some Russian folk music shares with its Balkan neighbors. They began with a couple of hypnotic numbers dating from the 14th and 15th century, the first supposedly a call used by women who in the spring would strip naked, run off into the woods and then entice the village men in to share the fun. Then they worked their way from the 19th to the 20th century with a handful of dancing minor-key tunes (and one that sounded Mexican – the La Bamba chord progression is a pretty universal thing). Tatiana, their alto singer, raised the roof with a wailing, intense a-cappella song, magnified by the natural reverb of the museum atrium.

Cheetah Chrome and Paul Burch made a swing through town in May for what were supposed to be three shows. Given the choice of seeing the punk guitar icon and his Nashville gothic pal at Manitoba’s – which with its punk roots was probably packed (Richie from the Dictators owns the place) – or, upstairs at 2A on a Sunday night, which one would you choose? Picking Sunday turned out to be a mistake since Cheetah and pal didn’t play til much later than advertised – and the Irish Americana girl who opened didn’t do anything that rose above the level of generic. Sorry to miss this show, guys – hopefully next time!

The noir-inclined downtown guitarslinger from a postpunk cult band that also dates from the CB’s era has been doing gigs at a bunch of midtown bars. On one level, this is punk to the core: it’s a free rehearsal. But inviting the public to gigs like that can be a mistake, which this turned out to be. Playing through a facsimile of a PA to a handful of homeless guys can’t really be much fun, can it? In this guy’s case it didn’t sound like it.

There was also a drummer-led group whose recent shot at reviving the sound of early Can onstage missed the mark – it wasn’t that the musicians were bad, but they were definitely underrehearsed. And if you’ve read this far, you deserve some comic relief. You’d go see this singer, right? She sounds like she’d be really good live. Well, she was supposedly playing a restaurant in the garment district. The band that showed up to back her was decent, in a generically bluesy way – but as it turned out, the singer wasn’t her. It was somebody with a similar name, and this particular vocalist (to call her a singer wouldn’t be accurate) turned out to have missed her exit at Bleecker Street, rasping and braying her way through a Janis Joplin cover or two and a couple of even more floridly campy originals. After wasting half an hour and being harrassed by the bartendress to buy expensive drinks (this is after being invited to review the show by the venue’s publicist, mind you), it was obvious that this was a big mistake. No mistake about this – you’ll never have to read about any more restaurant gigs here. And as the summer goes on, there’ll be a lot more on the live front, starting here. Guess which ones!

Terse, Tuneful Cinematics from Ljova & the Kontraband

Is there a more cinematic composer working today than Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin? It would seem not. Like all film composers, he’s called on to portray every emotion and every possible scenario within a very short time frame, which informs his writing beyond the world of film as well. His latest album, No Refund on Flowers, with his string ensemble the Kontraband is considerably more stripped-down and a lot closer to those shapeshifting cinematics than the group’s boisterous, lushly orchestrated, absolutely brilliant 2008 debut, Mnemosyne. Which is to say that its charms are somewhat more subtle. Its title is a wry reference to a sign in the window at Ljova’s corner deli, Sing & Sing Market at 96th and Columbus Ave. He distinguishes himself with a devious wit along with his nonchalantly sizzling chops on the viola and fadolin along with accordionist Patrick Farrell, bassist Mike Savino and percussionist Mathias Kunzli. Vocals are  by Ljova’s wife, the crystalline, brilliant singer Inna Barmash. What’s most obvious from the first few bars of the dancing opening track, Sam I Am, is how much fun this band is having. Who would have expected the tangoesque (Ljova is a GREAT tango composer) interlude, or the Russian chromatics thrown in for good measure, or the way the band lets the suspense linger without any resolution?

The Blaine Game, a tightly wound, shapeshifting romp centered around a fluid accordion riff was written in a Blaine, Washington coffeeshop between jazz workshops, Kunzli’s rattle doing a fair impersonation of an espresso machine. Barmash – frontwoman of the deliriously fun Russian/Romany band Romashka – sings the John Jacob Niles version of Black Is the Colour, with a tender, crystalline resonance and some spine-tingling high notes, maxing out the torch factor over what’s essentially a tone poem until it goes all psychedelic and eerie. It has very little in common with the old English folk song.

The swaying nocturne Yossik’s Lullaby portrays one of Zhurbin’s sons as the more serious of the two; his brother Benjy gets a joyous bounce with operatic echoes and a big crescendo. Likewise, Mad Sketchbook, a NYC subway tableau, grows cleverly from a catchy circular theme to frenetic clusters and then back. The centerpiece of the album is By the Campfire, a sadly pulsing, chromatically-charged waltz, with a creepy, explosive, crashingly noisy interlude, Barmash sliding up and leading the band into a raging march. The lyrics – which Barmash translated from a 12th century German poem – echo a sadly universal theme: ‘Lies and spite rule the world, law is dead, truth is poisoned – the wisdom of our age teaches theft, deceit and hate. ” The album winds up with a pulsing waltz that builds on a riff from Mahler.

She’Koyokh’s Wild Goats & Unmarried Women Runs Wild

Wild, polyglot eight-piece British band She’Koyokh blast through music from across the global Jewish diaspora with the same fiery intensity they bring to feral old folk songs from the Balkans. Fronted by haunting Kurdish-Turkish chanteuse Cigdem Aslan – who recently earned a rave review here for her otherworldly solo album, Mortissa, a collection of Turkish and Greek rembetiko anthems – the band also includes members from the US, UK, Greece and Serbia. They may play big European concert halls now, but they got their start busking, and that jamband energy still resonates throughout their latest album Wild Goats & Unmarried Women, just out from World Music Network and streaming at their album page.

Too many recordings of folk music are overproduced and sterile; others drown the melodies in elaborate arrangements, or add schlocky pop elements like synths and drum machines. She’Koyokh are all about big crescendos and blistering solos. Mandolinist Ben Samuels tremolo-picks for a suspensefully flurrying sound like a balalaika. Clarinetist Susi Evans rips through lightning-fast chromatic runs with a stiletto precision alongside Zivorad Nikoli’s equally adrenalizing accordion, Meg-Rosaleen Hamilton’s sharp-fanged violin and Matt Bacon’s similarly incisive, Djangoesque guitar. Nimble bassist Paul Tkachenko doubles on tuba, and percussionist Vasilis Sarikis lays down a snaky, slinky beat utilizing a large collection of Balkan and Middle Eastern hand drums.

The album’s title track is a Turkish billy goat dance – you can guess what that’s about. It’s arguably the most exciting song here, Aslan and the band winding their way through a firestorm of microtones up to a hard-hitting, chromatically-fueled chorus. They take Esmera Min with its darkly catchy South Serbian inflections and give it a sly cumbia groove. Then a trio of tunes that give a shout out to – A) legendary pre-WWII Soviet song-gatherer Moishe Beregovsky, B) Hungarian country shtetls and C) klezmer clarinet legend Naftule Brandwein – serves as a launching pad for high-voltage solos from guitar and clarinet.

Bacon’s icepick, Djangoesque precision fuels the Moldavian dance Hora del Munte. The band scampers tightly together through the traditional Romanian Romany shuffle Tiganeasca De La Pogoanele and then turns the clarinet and guitar loose on the flamenco-tinged diptych Poco Le Das La Mi Consuegra/ Scottishe ‘Saint Julien,’ a tale of warring Sephardic mothers-in-law. Bacon choose his spots and then Evans ramps up the suspense on the swaying Greek overnight-ferry theme Argitikos Kalamatianos. They keep the flame burning low on the expansively jazzy Greek lament Selanik Turkusu. a groom pleading for more time with his cholera-stricken fiancee.

You wait for the blithely trilling Bulgarian dance Kopano Horo to go creepy and chromatic, and the waiting pays off – then it gets all happy and bouncy again. The band does the same thing, but really makes you wait for the payoff, with the Serbian tune Jasenièko Kolo/Miloševka Kolo. An ancient Bosian love song, Moj Dilbere gets a bittersweet treatment, a deliciously shivery accordion solo and an angst-fueled coda from Aslan as she takes it up and out.

Der Filsof /Flatbush Waltz pairs a satirical inside joke about warring rabbis in the Hasidic community with a sad, lushly pensive theme. The long medley Svatbarska Rachenitsa/Yavuz Geliyor & La Comida La Mañana vamps and burns through Bulgaria, Turkey and Spain over a clattering, boomy groove, through searing violin and clarinet solos – it seems designed as a big crowd-pleaser. The Greek Amarantos/Tsamikos is a showcase for the band’s moody side, Evans and Aslan leading the way. There’s also Limonchiki, popularized by Soviet crooner Leonid Utyosov in the 1930s, a distinctly Russian take on Cab Calloway-style hi-de-ho noir. You like esoterica? Adrenaline? This one’s for you.

Haunting, Eclectic Jewish Songs from Romashka’s Inna Barmash

Inna Barmash is the intense, inscrutably charismatic frontwoman of fiery Russian Romany string band Romashka. She’s got one of those rare voices that comes along maybe once a generation: a bell-like, bolt-cutter soprano that’s so clear it’ll give you chills. In a city stocked to the brim with great vocalists, Barmash is one of New York’s most rivetling. Hailing originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, she cut her teeth singing music that these days falls under the broad rubric of klezmer. Her debut solo album, Yiddish Lullabies & Love Songs, is a powerful and haunting return to those roots. The whole thing is streaming at her Bandcamp page; she and her band – including her husband, viola powerhouse and composer Ljova Zhurbin, along with along with Shoko Nagai on piano and accordion, Dmitri Slepovitch on clarinet and bass clarinet and Dmitry Ishenko on bass  – are playing the album release show on Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Joe’s Pub. $20 advance tickets are still available as of today but it’s likely that this show will sell out.

The songs here, spanning several centuries and drawing from across the Jewish diaspora, are short and to the point. Likewise, the band keep their solos short and sweet as well. The acerbic minor keys and haunting chromatics typical of Jewish music echo thoughout the album, although there are lighthearted moments as well. Barmash sings in character – she can sweep your off your feet one moment and then rip your face off the next. She further distinguishes herself with strikingly crisp if seemingly nonchalant diction, an enormous help for listeners trying to remember or come to grips with the language. This blog being in English, the titles used here are the English versions provided on the album.

Wake Up Dear Daughter, the opening track, is a potent example of Barmash at the top of her plaintive power, a brittle vibrato trailing off at the end of her phrases to enhance the song’s sense of longing and unease. She does that even more affectingly on the album’s longest song, Ever Since I Remember, lit up with glimmering solos from piano, viola and then clarinet as it reaches its moodiest peak. She pulls back a little, adding a sense of resignation, on the pensive waltz  If I Had Wings.

Don’t You Dare Go Out with Other Girls, with its menacingly shivery clarinet solo, has a tongue-in-cheek bounce, but Barmash leaves no doubt that she means business. She contrasts that with the sweetly hypnotic lullaby Sleep My Child and its gorgeous viola/piano harmonies.

Afn Boydem (Over the Attic) is a duet that takes on a droll, dancing quality as it moves along and then goes straight into vaudeville.  Barmash brings back the nocturnal mood with Sleep, Sleep, Sleep and Nagai’s surrealistic piano, equal parts Satie and blues. Oy Abram is a showstopper both for Barmash and the band, rapidfire counterpoint from the clarinet and viola leading to a rich interweave of instruments – to the uninitiated, it’s the most recognizably “klezmer” song here. The rest of the album includes By the Road Stands a Tree, a wistful, skeletal waltz; Reyzele, which sounds like it could either be a tale of seduction or seduction gone wrong; and the triumphantly soaring Play Me a Song in Yiddish.