New York Music Daily

Global Music With a New York Edge

Tag: ukrainian 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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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.

A World of Great Music at Globalfest, and the Crowd Is Clueless

“Shhhh,” Simon Shaheen gently told the boisterous, largely daydrunk crowd crammed into an impossibly small ground-floor space at Webster Hall last night. Then he motioned for his nine-piece pan-Andalucian ensemble, Zafir, to stop. “I think this is disrespect,” he explained somberly, “To the people who are listening.”

That shut up the roar emanating from the back of the room for a minute or two, but then they were back at it. Which perfectly capsulizes both the lure and limitations of Globalfest.

This was the thirteenth anniversary of the annual multiple-stage festival of sounds from around the world, a spinoff of the annual January booking agents’ convention. On one hand, those guys – an older bunch whose general overindulgence at this year’s concert suggested that they haven’t been getting out much lately, at least to tie one on – can be interesting to talk to. It was lovely to be able to get Wayne Shorter biographer and NPR correspondenent Michelle Mercer’s inspiringly un-jaded take on changes in how music is being staged around the world (in Korea, promoters turn a daylong jazz festival into a picnic and in the process create thousands of new fans for the genre). It was less so to have to deal with the noise, and the overcrowding, and the most hostile security staff of any venue in the five boroughs. You usually have to go to New Jersey or Long Island for this kind of hell. How much this city has changed since the festival promoters figured out that they could make a few extra bucks if they opened the doors to the public.

Let’s be clear that the artists who play the festival don’t book themselves into it: they’re all invited. Many of them can be seen – and have been covered here in the past – in the summer at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Wild expat Ukrainian chanteuse/keyboardist Mariana Sadovska, the even wilder New Orleans Russian folk-punk band Debauche, hypnotically kinetic Ethiopian krar harp-driven dance band Fendika and Shaheen himself have all made appearances there.

Fendika’s distinguishing characteristic among similar Ethio-folk acts is their heavy, insistent western dancefloor beat: they switch out the frequently intricate rhythmic latticework for a more straightforward approach for the sake of western audiences who don’t have a feel for those ancient and sometimes tricky beats. The crowd of dancers onstage grew as the music followed a slow trajectory upward toward fever pitch as the krar fired off simple, catchy, upbeat major-key riffs. The dancefloor was pretty empty when they started; by the time they’d finished, the club’s big main room was packed.

In the small basement studio space, Sadovska and her multi-instrumentalist bandmate – who switched in a split-second between drums, keys, what looked like a tsimbl dulcimer and a mixing board – treated the crowd to a phantasmagorical, otherworldly mashup of ancient Carpathian folk songs and eerie electroacoustic art-rock. Sadovska shifted between her trusty harmonium and an electric piano as her voice lept, soared, snarled, snorted and screamed, through a series of pretty wild old folk narratives and finally, a somberly lingering dirge that eventually rose to fullscale horror as a depiction of war in general, and in particular, ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Unsurprisingly, even the wildfire noir cabaret punk antics of Debauche couldn’t upstage Shaheen. Equally erudite and thrilling on both oud and violin, he’s simply one of the world’s greatest musicians (in context: it’s probably safe to say that Kayhan Kalhor, Richard Thompson and JD Allen are operating on his level). This ensemble included oud, kanun, strings, multiple percussion plus flamenco and classical Arabic singing and dancing. Matter-of-factly and expertly, they made their way seamlessly and rivetingly through themes from Arabic, Jewish, flamenco and possibly Romany music, interwoven with biting minor keys, ominously elegant Middle Eastern modes, slowly slinking rhythms and frequent, exhilarating peaks. At the end of the show, after having to shush a disinterested crowd (that a crowd could possibly find Shaheen disinteresting speaks for itself), how did he respond to a two-minute warning from the sound guy? With one of the most bittersweetly beautiful violin solos of his life. OK, maybe not the very best one, but it was awfully good, and Shaheen showed not the slightest interest in cutting it short, going on for at least five minutes as his fan base at the front of the room looked on raptly. If that’s not punk rock, nothing is.

Although the acoustic Gogol Bordello-esque Debauche downstairs were pretty close (memo to the frontguy – that incessant wolf whistle has got to go). Ultimately, where all this goes down best is in more spacious confines..like Lincoln Center Out of Doors, where everybody seems to be a lot happier and a lot less cynical, an emotion that at this festival gets contagious real fast and shouldn’t be considering the quality of the music. It’s too bad that the overall experience, year after year, doesn’t measure up.

Ensemble Hilka Bring a World Wiped Out by a Nuclear Disaster Back to Life at the Ukrainian Museum

Say you record an album, and for all intents and purposes, the band goes on hiatus the moment the session is done. Three and a half years later, you regroup and perform those songs for the first time since then. And what you’re singing isn’t the music you grew up with – it’s an idiom from a country in another time zone, in an ancient dialect of a foreign language with a different alphabet and a completely alien system of harmony. That’s the challenge that the roughly fifteen-piece choir Ensemble Hilka rose to meet Saturday night at their sold-out show at the Ukrainian Museum in the East Village.

The group – comprising some of the foremost musicians playing Balkan and Slavic music west of the Danube – first came together when singer Maria Sonevytsky enlisted legendary Ukrainian singer and archivist Yefim Yefremov to come to New York to conduct a series of master classes in some of the most ancient, otherworldly folk music from throughout his travels. One of Yefremov’s many areas of expertise turned out to be music from the irreparably toxic region surrounding the Chornobyl [spelling transliterated from Ukrainian] nuclear power plant, largely depopulated since the 1986 disaster there. The New York pickup group’s enthusiasm and aptitude for this largely forgotten repertoire was such that it resulted in the recording of the just-released Chornobyl Songs Project: Living Culture from a Lost World album for Smithsonian Folkways. Since many of the performers on the album are busy with their own projects, the choir members went their separate ways after recording it (although more than one new group, including the lustrous vocal trio Zozulka, first assembled as a result of the session).

Throughout the first half of the concert, the men and women of the choir alternated between songs, opening with boisterous numbers puncuated by animated call-and-response and triumphant swoops and dives as a phrase would reach the end. As the show went on, the full group would assemble, then regroup in subsets. The songs on the program, loosely assembled to trace the rituals and festivities through a year of village life to the immediate east of Kiev, had largely disappeared from the area by the time Yefremov went out to collect them back in the 70s. Their content is pretty universal: guys cajoling girls to come out…and striking out; a musician gone off to war and missing his collection of instruments; and various harvest, marriage and work songs. The melodies varied from simple, anthemic and largely minor-key to more complex, with occasional use of the eerie close harmonies common to Balkan music. Yefremov, now in his seventies, projected strongly as he led the group – which also comprises members of the folk ensembles Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Village Voices – through a couple of numbers, and then delivered a spare, pensive number solo, a-cappella.

The second half of the show featured individual band members performing traditional repertoire from their own projects. Hearing Eva Salina – the Romany music diva and leader of a wild, psychedelic, jazz and reggae-tinged brass group – and Bulgarian music reinventors Black Sea Hotel‘s Willa Roberts work every mighty inch of their spectacular vocal ranges out in front of the group was spine-tingling, They’d later regroup with Shelley Thomas (also of Black Sea Hotel) as Zozulka, for more Ukrainian songs. And although Black Sea Hotel’s shapeshifting, microtonally-spiced new arrangements of ancient Bulgarian songs are a completely different idiom, the crowd, heavy with Ukrainian expats, responded vigorously to the stylings of Roberts, Thomas and recently acclaimed indie actress/songwriter Sarah Small.

Another singer who wowed the crowd with her visceral power and spectacular vocal range was alto Nadia Tarnawsky, in a duo performance accompanied by long-necked lute. Eva Salina picked up her accordion and treated the audience to a handful of wrenchingly plaintive songs from her amazing recent solo album. Bandura virtuoso Julian Kytasty – who has a reputedly sensational new album of his own due out this June – drew just as much applause for his stately, elegant, stark solo songs. And it was kind of a trip to see Sonevytsky, who for several years co-led the elaborately or not-so-elaborately costumed, irresistibly quirky lit-rock trio the Debutante Hour, decked out in a simple black suit and singing these haunting numbers alongside a veteran expert from a previous era, the CTMD’s Ethel Raim (who can still belt!).

Veveritse Brass Band, a rotating cast of New York Balkan brass talent who specialize in Romany party anthems, serenaded the crowd afterward at a reception downstairs. One wonders how many if any of these musicians would have even come to New York, let alone met each other and shared their passion for this magical music, if ten or fifteen years ago this city had been gentrified to the extent it is now.

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.

Globalfest 2014: Esoterica Rules

Globalfest, the annual celebration of high-energy, danceable music from around the world, grew out of the yearly booking agents’ convention. Youtube may have made live auditions obsolete, but every year the talent buyers for cultural centers across the country, along with the agents for a seemingly nonstop onslaught of global acts, still get together for an all-expenses-paid Manhattan party on the company tab. What’s most auspicious about this past Sunday’s edition of the festival at Webster Hall was the number of kids and random New Yorkers of all ages in the crowd. The booking agents drank hard and schmoozed: none of them seemed to be the least bit interested in the music. The kids, on the other hand, packed the main room for dramatic Bollywood pop revivalist orchestra the Bombay Royale, explosive Kiev folk-punk ensemble DakhaBrakha and even more explosive Romany brass band legends Fanfare Ciocarlia before cramming the downstairs space for darkly fiery Arizona desert rockers Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta.

What’s happened is that there’s been a sea change among audiences, and among young people. Hard to believe as this may seem, thirty years ago it was considered weird for an American to like reggae – unless you were of Jamaican heritage. Forget about the kind of ridicule you might have faced if, perish the thought, a classmate discovered that you’d been sending oodles of money through the mail for limited-edition, low-budget vinyl pressings of Ukrainian folk or Romany brass music – or, if you were really lucky, you’d found a fellow weirdo who’d let you make cassette copies from his or her secret stash. People were troglodytes back then, weren’t they?

The Bombay Royale’s 2012 album You Me Bullets Love is a psychedelic blend of classic 60s-style Bollywood dance numbers spiced with surf and garage rock. This show  – the dramatic eleven-piece Melbourne, Australia band’s New York debut – found them taking their sound forward another ten years into the disco era with a lot of new material. Period-perfect as they sound, all their songs are originals. Singers Shourav Bhattacharya and Parvyn Kaur Singh – decked out in snakeskin suit and sari, respectively – slunk and spun, traded coy glances and wry pouts while the four-piece horn section, led by alto saxophonist Andy Williamson, blasted behind them.

They opened with a cinematically marching blend of Bollywood and spaghetti western, with the first of pyrotechnic keyboardist Matt Vehl’s many surreal, woozy synthesizer solos. Bhattacharya and Singh duetted on a surfy minor-key number, showed off some dance moves to a swaying bhangra beat and then went deep into anthemic funk. They followed that with Bobbywood, a number that sounded a bit like an Indian disco version of the Rocky theme mingled with brooding cinematics. Trumpeter Ros Jones ended up taking the first of many of the night’s chilling, chromatic solos; a little later, Williamson animatedly traded licks with Singh’s vocals on a creepy downtempo ballad.

It’s hard to think of another band writing songs that mix chromatic Dick Dale surf with Indian-spiced go-go vamps. Their sitar player wasn’t audible for much of the show, but ended up adding a surreal, bluesy solo on one of the later songs. Bass player Bob Knob’s chords loomed ominously underneath a couple of the harder-edged, surf-oriented tunes,  guitarist Tom Martin switching in a split-second from a twangy, reverb-toned attack to scratchy funk lines. The crowd roared for an encore; they didn’t get one.

Word was that it had taken the intervention of a U.S. Senator to assure visas for all four members of DakhaBrakha (Ukraininan for “give-and-take”), but the effort was worth it. They drew the most applause of all the bands on the bill. Their percussion-heavy sound is balanced by the eerie, high, close-harmony vocals of drummer/singer Olena Tsibulska, keyboardist/percussionist Iryna Kovalenko and cellist Nina Garenetska. The band’s lone male member, Marko Halanevych, also sang and contributed on both percussion and garmoshka (a small Ukrainian accordion). Garenetska started by plucking out funky pizzicato bass but before long she was firing off long, growling, raspy, sustained lines punctuated by macabre swoops and dives. Likewise, their set followed an up-and down trajectory, beginning with a wary marching feel with apprehensively insistent vocals, then a trio of creepy dirges before growing louder and more assaultive. Their funniest moments had a tongue-in-cheek hip-hop flavor. The most intense song in their set built explosive give-and-take interludes between ominous drums, ghostly vocals and snarling cello, sinking to a rapt, sepulchral interlude before rising to a pummeling outro. They wound up with a silly but very well-received spoof of cheesy electronic dancefloor beats.

The pride of Romania, eleven-piece Fanfare Ciocarlia were tight and fast beyond belief. The world’s most exhilarating Romany brass band has a precision to match their outrageous tempos, and chops that most American jazz players can only dream of. The four-man backline of a tuba and three slightly higher-pitched trubas played a looming, ominous introduction for their clarinetist, who then launched into wild volleys of shivery chromatics before the rest of the band came on to join in the hailstorms of rat-a-tat riffage.

They’d stop and start, sometimes taking a song doublespeed and then doublespeed after that, other times switching between soloists in a split second. One of the truba players came to the front about midway through the show and added a rapidfire solo of his own. They began with a single standup drummer, then added another for extra firepower. One of the more senior of the four trumpeters sang a couple of ballads, or at least parts of them, before the rest of the orchestra blasted them into the ozone. Hurichestra, true to its name, became a launching pad for a series of abrupt accelerations that were almost exponential: that any horn player can play so fast yet so fluidly defies the laws of physics. They traded birdcalls on a relatively brief take of their signature anthem, Ciocarlia, then teased the audience with droll Balkanized versions of Duke Ellington’s Caravan (which they probably learned from the Ventures) and St. James Infirmary.

Downstairs, Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan, backed by bass, drums, keyboards and a lot of pre-recorded stuff, played simple, low-key darkwave that, she said, was influenced by Siouxsie & the Banshees as well as Egyptian pop. The night ended with the feral southwestern gothic energy of Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, who put pretty much every other desert rock band to shame. The brass-fueled Tucson group pounced on a couple of noir-tinged, ska-punk flavored songs to open the show, then Mendoza put down his acoustic guitar and played surreal, macabre organ over a funereal bolero sway. From there they hit a lively, upbeat Tex-Mex groove that took a turn in a much more menacing spaghetti western direction when least expected, followed by an early Santana-esque psychedelic rock epic with long, space-reverb interludes for both organ and slide guitar.

The lead guitarist took an even longer, more murky, echo-drenched solo later on, then lit up a couple of more familiar southwestern gothic themes with some chilling slide work as memorable as anything Friends of Dean Martinez ever recorded. A long, slinky, pitchblende cumbia groove might have been the highlight of the night, although a similarly brooding, low-key bolero that might have been Mendoza‘s version of Besame Mucho was right behind. Addressing the audience in Spanish, singer/percussionist Salvador Duran explained that out in Tucson, or Nogales, where Mendoza comes from, everything is up for grabs: banda music, rancheras, cumbia, rock, you name it. They closed the set with a rapidfire return to a darkly shuffling border rock theme. This was Mendoza’s first New York show as a bandleader, hopefully the first of many.

Litvakus Turns a Sedate Museum Space Into a Party

Litvakus plays deliriously fun minor-key party music. To cultures east of the Danube, minor keys don’t necessarily imply sadness: instead, they’re just as likely to equate to excitement (which, admitttedly, could cut either way: Look out, Moishe, cossacks coming over the bridge!). Did the rain and the gloom keep the five-piece band’s fans away from their Friday evening concert at the American Folk Art Museum? Nope. The place was packed, and the crowd clapped and sang along. With clarinet, violin, accordion, bass and standup drum, the group romped and ripped through a spine-tingling mix of old Jewish folk songs from Belarus and the Ukraine as well as a bunch of edgy originals in the same vein. Frontman/clarinetist Dmitri Slepovitch explained that he’d written the night’s first song, a swirling, rapidfire waltz, on the Q train.  He reached for an explanation and couldn’t find one: “That’s what musicians do,” he grinned, sheepish but succinct.

Drummer Sam Weisenberg kept a muted thud that was perfect for the room underneath bassist Taylor Bergren-Crisman’s catchy, melodic, rock-flavored lines, which he played with a bow for extra resonance. Slepovitch’s slow, panoramic clarinet solo made an elegant handoff to Craig Judelman’s violin over accordionist Josh Camp’s rich chordal washes on the second song  of the night; it was cool to see him playing a real accordion after having seen him countless times with an electrified one in Chicha Libre. Slepovitch was a ball of energy, bouncing and swaying and inspiring spontaneous clapalongs with his slashing, pointillistic, melismatic runs. And without using a mic, he sang several numbers in a strong baritone that resonated throughout the boomy space: a bittersweet Yiddish theatre tune from the late 30s looking back on the author’s Belarus hometown;  a rousing violin-driven anthem; a jaunty, accordion-fueled dance whose gist was “party at the rabbi’s place,” and a bleakly amusing one about a girl coming up with one excuse after another for why she won’t go out with a guy.

A couple of instrumentals were horas: slow, dirgey intros followed by explosive dances, dynamics rising and falling as the band sped up and then backed off, only to pick up the pace again and rip through the final choruses. A couple of others had a more Bulgarian feel, galloping through simple, hypnotic, bucolic barn-dance vamps. But as much as the songs had a centuries-old feel, they also had jazzy interplay and a sense of surprise, with trick endings, suspenseful interludes and abrupt changes that deviated from the standard verse/chorus format. Although the crowd responded boisterously, it was weird to see people sitting still and watching them, rather than dancing (although the kids were). Litvakus are at the Jalopy on Dec 18 at 10:30 as part of Feral Foster’s Roots & Ruckus night.

Inna Barmash Stuns the Crowd at Joe’s Pub

Wednesday night at Joe’s Pub, Inna Barmash led an excellent band  (clarinet, bass and cello plus the brilliant Shoko Nagai on accordion and piano) through a set of frequently spellbindinding, emotionally rich new arrangements of old Jewish folk tunes from the Ukraine and points further west. Fronting Romashka, her Russian Romany string band, Barmash is all about spine-tingling technique and big crescendos. In this somewhat more low-key performance, Barmash built a warmly personable rapport with the audience, sharing her passion and erudite knowledge of obscure treasures brought to light by both Dmitri Shostakovich as well as legendary pre-Holocaust archivist Moishe Beregovsky.

Barmash was quick to remind the crowd that these songs weren’t originally concert music: they were sung unaccompanied, mostly by women who were all alone or with young children. Appropriately, she saved her most tender vocal for an a-cappella lullaby, which she delivered sweet and low as if she was singing to her own kids (come to think of it, that’s exactly how she might have practiced it before the show).The rest of songs ran the gamut from dark and heavy and unselfconsciously deep, to jaunty and lighthearted. Since this was the first day of Hannukah, Barmash came prepared. After lighting the menorah onstage, making an offering and getting a big “Amen” from the crowd, she led the band through a bittersweetly edgy, historically vivid Hannukah song that didn’t neglect to mention Jews fighting for their rights. Sing Me a Song in Yiddish translated loosely as “I’m gonna sing this so everybody gets it and that way we won’t fight;”  the surreal Over the Attic lamented a long-lost love, and by implication, someone who might just as likely have been taken away by the Cossacks as having left under his own power.

One of Barmash’s most plaintive moments of the night was when she sang an anxiously expectant number about a mother looking forward to the day when she and her children can be reunited with her husband, who’s gone of to work in America. Barmash’s irrepressible husband, Ljova Zhurbin came up and seemingly did the impossible, playing viola with a broken hand (he’d had a bicycle accident, ironically, on the way to Roosevelt Hospital, to play for patients there). Making the best of a bad situation (not to worry, he’ll be fine in a month or so), he played along on his open strings while the cellist aired out viola voicings in his upper registers

And as good as the band was – an absolutely sizzling, rapidfire clarinet solo was a late highlight, while Nagai’s lush, often haunting washes of chords and playfully prowling inside-the-piano work dominated the earlier part of the evening – the most wondrous instrument on the stage was Barmash’s voice. She sang in character, varying her approach depending on the lyric. She struck a jazzy, deviously fingersnapping chanteuse pose on a slyly petulant number titled something along the lines of “don’t you DARE go out with anybody else,” and cut loose joyously on the final song of the set, a gambling song for dreydl-spinners. But it was the quieter material that was the most stunning, possibly most vividly on a sad , characteristically minor-key tale of two lovers watching each other from across the river, contemplating how soom they might (or might not) see each other. As nuanced a singer as Barmash is in the studio – her new album Yiddish Love Songs and Lullabies, many of which she played this evening – is fantastic, but live is where her heart is, so watching her inhabit these (mostly) troubled characters made a shlep out in the cold rain to hear it worth it many times over.

An Explosive Debut by Ukrainian Sensation DakhaBrakha at CUNY

Last night Kiev band DakhaBrakha made their US debut at CUNY’s Elebash Hall to a sold-out crowd that screamed for more and practically wouldn’t let them leave the stage. Word is out: this four-piece punk-folk-circus-rock band makes Gogol Bordello look like slow, lazy slugs by comparison. They began and ended the set with wailing, explosively percussive arrangements of Ukrainian folk songs driven by the heavy-artillery thud of singer Olena Tsibulska’s bass drum. Considering how they managed to fill the hall with just their searing, otherworldly four-part harmonies and lots of percussion on several of the songs was impressive, to say the least.

Given the band’s origins in subversive Ukrainian theatre, it’s no surprise that humor is a big part of their act. Singer/percussionist/accordionist Marko Halanevych had the audience in stitches with Baby, his falsetto, half-English, half-Ukrainian parody of schlocky “r&b” radio pop. They put a hip-hop beat on a handful of ancient songs, the surrealism of those mashups enhanced by the keening close harmonies of the vocals and the frequently droning melodies, which gave the songs a menacing edge. Their more lighthearted numbers brought to mind quirk-rockers the Debutante Hour (which might be less unlikely a comparison than you might first think, considering that Maria Sonevytsky from that band is of Ukrainian descent). Cellist Nina Garenetska ran her cello through a series of effects, beginning with a growly distorted tone, then adding delay and reverb for an echoey resonance as she swooped up the scale into witchy, stratospheric harmonics. A couple of long anthems slunk along on a Middle Eastern snakecharmer groove as the voices built to a dark, carnivalesque counterpoint. A couple of other numbers had the repetitive dancefloor thud of Eastern European turbo-folk – but with a heavier bottom end, and real swing from the murky depths of Tsibulska’s drum!

And they’re great musicians. Halanevych and singer Iryna Kovalenko – who also played accordion, piano, jaw harp, and an evilly trilling reed instrument – passed a garmoshka (sort of the Ukrainian equivalent of a bandoneon) back and forth. Everybody drummed at one point or another, an effect that was often as mysterious as it was hypnotically energizing. DakhaBrakha translates from the Ukraininan as “give-and-take,” with all that phrase implies, a good name for a band that works dynamics as artfully as they do. For all the fireworks, there was a lot of subtlety in how they brought their simple, catchy but harmonically-rich melodies up gently and then set them alight with a gleeful grin.

This CUNY concert series is fantastic. They’ve got Malian guitar shredder Vieux Farka Toure (Ali’s kid) here on Oct 29 at 7, then an otherwordly but invigorating bill of music from across the Sephardic diaspora featuring the NY Andalus Ensemble on Nov 5.

Eastern European Wildness from Harmonia

Cleveland “trans-Balkan” band Harmonia’s new album Hidden Legacy has an oldschool, no-frills look. And prosaic titles like Romanian Ritual Dances and Ukrainian Mountain Music offer not the slightest hint of how intense and exhilarating the music is- although Moldavian Stomp does. If you want to do the Moldavian Stomp – which turns out to be a flute-driven dance number, similar to an English sailor’s hornpipe – head over to the back room at the Ukrainian National Home, through the restaurant at 140 Second Ave. just north of St. Mark’s, on May 19 around 8 to see the band, who will show you how. Some of the rustic, often haunting old melodies here sound like the roots of noir cabaret music, not to mention Chopin and Haydn. Cross-pollination seems to be everywhere, intentional or not. There’s a Ukrainian polka that could pass for Irish, and that whirlwind suite of biting Romanian dances which serve as a perfect illustration of the convergence of Balkan and traditional American roots music that Eva Salina Primack has championed recently. Alexander Fedoriouk’s plaintively resonant cimbalom and the split-second precision of the twin fiddles of Steven Greenman and Jozef Janis soar over the frequently lush backdrop of Walt Mahlovich’s accordion and bass from either Branislav Brinarsky or Ken Javor. It’s blue-collar party music from a community that still celebrates its roots – and there’s a lot to celebrate here, fifteen tracks’ worth .

Chanteuse Beata Begeniova adds a dramatic intensity on several of the tracks, especially In the High Pasture, a darkly lush anthem that would make a great rock song, and a surprisingly fresh remake of the old gypsy standard Djelem Djelem which they do as a tango. Fedoriouk’s most high-powered moment out of many is a lusciously suspenseful, anticipatory solo on a suite of songs from the Vojvodina region in Serbia, Benegiova taking the crescendo to its logical, powerful conclusion. Many of the tracks start out slowly with what sounds like an improvisational intro before locking into a groove in a split second and speeding off from there. Tempos switch in a split second, moody melodies employing brooding, bracing, often apprehensive chromatics, notably the tiptoeing, rather creepy Seven Step Hora (not to be confused with the twelve step one which is only played when liquor is not available). There are also a couple of long, slowly unwinding vocal-and-cimbalom ballads; the album ends with an absolutely ferocious series of dances from Hungary and then some furtively scurrying ones from the Ukraine. You want adrenaline? This album is for you.

Update: Harmonia is also doing a NYC show this month at Hungarian House, 213 E 82nd St. on May 18.