Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Sunday’s album is #534:
New York City: Global Beat of the Boroughs
This 2001 Smithsonian Folkways release may be a long series of ludicrously bad segues, but multicultural party playlists don’t get much better than this. It’s predominantly latin and Balkan music played by obscure but frequently brilliant expatriate New York-based groups, although other immigrant cultures are represented. While the tracks by Irish group Cherish the Ladies and klezmer stars Andy Statman and the Klezmatics are all excellent, it’s surprising that the compilers couldn’t come up with the same kind of obscure treasures they unearthed from Puerto Rican plena groups Vienta de Agua and Los Pleneros de 21; or Albanian Besim Muriqi’s scorching dance tunes; or stately theatrical pieces by the prosaically titled traditional groups Music From China and the Korean Traditional Performing Arts Association. There are also rousing Greek and Bulgarian romps from Grigoris Maninakis and Yuri Yunakov, respectively; a soulful suite of Lebanese songs by crooner Naji Youssef; and even a spirited if roughhewn version of the Italian theme for the Williamsburg “Walking of the Giglio,” a big wooden tower paraded through the streets by a large troupe of hardworking men every August, among the 31 fascinating tracks here. Mysteriously AWOL from the usual sources for free music, it’s still available from the folks at the Smithsonian.
Here’s how it works in the blogosphere:we’ve got every PR agent on the planet hammering on our virtual door, pleading for some attention, but we like it best when we do a writeup on the Montreal Jazz Festival, a Quebecois band we’ve never heard of finds it, and then sends us a link to their stuff. And it turns out, they’re great! Canadian trio Swift Years’ most recent album goes back to 2005, and it’s a ton of fun. They’re sort of a north-of-the-border counterpart to Tribecastan. What guitarist Patrick Hutchinson, mandolinist Bob Cussen and bassist Suzanne Ungar have assembled here is an endlessly surprising, eclectic, genuinely amusing mix of cross-pollinated global sounds. They don’t have drums on the album, but it’s so tight that you don’t notice unless you listen closely.
Musically, the two real killer tracks here are The Exile and The Sand, both tricky, bitter, bracing, psychedelic Smyrnika rock instrumentals much in the style of Annabouboula, with layers of mandolin, guitar and soaring bass. The real classic here is Old Man Santo. See, Old Man Santo – think about that title for a minute – had a Farm, E-I-G-M-O. On the farm he had some pot, and some pigs, and some cows, really bloody pissed-off mad cows everywhere. We won’t spoil the plot because it’s as funny as it is unfortunately true.
A lot of the other tracks here add reggae to enhance the comedic factor. Beside Me’s protagonist doesn’t let his lack of money stop him from trying to pick up the girl: “After supper we could split a beer,” he tells her. He’s strictly oldschool: “I’m a rotary phone, I’m the last bus home…at home I drink out of glasses that I take home from bars, an old piggybank is my retirement plan, the clothes from my back are from the Sally Ann.” Rasta Puszta blends reggae, bluegrass and a happy Eastern European dance in there somewhere. And I Dreamed I Stopped Smoking is an amusing faux-country song, like a zeros update on what the Stones did with Dear Doctor.
They do a tongue-in-cheek speed-up and then do it all over again on the gypsy-flavored Hanko Hanko, and merge Quebecois with bluegrass on the equally sardonic Mon Vieux François. The title track, which sounds like the Boomtown Rats doing a creepy reggae tune, offers a view of the afterlife where everything is pretty much the same for these guys, everybody playing everyone else’s culture’s music in one big mashup, with a politically aware edge. In this particular world, right-wing politicians are reincarnated as single mothers. The album also includes a gorgeous, plaintive Belgian barroom waltz, a medley of the Eddystone Light and three jigs, and a lickety-split string band version of Ain’t Nobody’s Business. The whole thing is streaming at Swift Years’ bandcamp site – thanks for finding us, guys! Now it’s the rest of the world’s turn to discover this entertaining band.
Neutral Milk Hotel made some good music but nothing this amazing. A Hawk and a Hacksaw were originally a solo project of that band’s drummer Jeremy Barnes, which grew both in members and diversity as he immersed himself in Eastern European music, including a noteworthy collaboration with Hungarian group Hun Hangar Ensemble. Their new album Cervantine is characteristically intense and eclectic, something of a cross between the “new Balkan uproar” of Ansambl Mastika and the hypnotic dancefloor string-band grooves of Copal.
The epic masterpiece here is No Rest for the Wicked, a blistering suite of what are essentially variations on a fiery Balkan brass piece: accordion and strings picking it up, a long, suspense-building crescendo, a couple of wildly adrenalizing accordion solos and a graceful march out. It’s nothing short of breathtaking. They don’t try to outdo themselves after that, instead following with a lushly clanging, hypnotic bouzouki vamp. Espanola Kolo is a deliciously ominous gypsy tune, morphing from a somber march to wild ensemble passages with a particularly artful section with the brass and accordion going doublespeed against the stately grandeur of the strings. The title track follows, quieter and more brooding but similarly tuneful, featuring a raw, intense, tremolo-picked saz lute solo.
They take the popular gypsy standard Uskudar and give it a lush, understated majesty and a bracing violin solo that throws off all sorts of otherworldly overtones. Laszlo Lassu is a tone poems of sorts with an unexpectedly effective gospel flavor; after that, they pick up the pace with another crazed Balkan dance, shifting from the delirium of a hook that they run again and again that builds to one of the most darkly memorable choruses here. The album winds up with a gorgeously plaintive bouzouki song playfully titled The Loser. The band will be on West Coast tour starting in March (check their site for tour dates).You’ll see this on our Best Albums of 2011 list at year’s end.
Combining the raw power of gypsy punk with the precision of jazz, Ansambl Mastika’s new album Songs and Dances for Life NONSTOP is literally the best of both worlds. They call their sound the “new Balkan uproar.” It’s got the same instrumentation as the pop music currently coming out of the Balkans, but without the wanky fusion sound or stiff, robotic, computerized rhythms that plague so much of it. Reedman Greg Squared leads the band on clarinet and tenor sax, with unearthly speed and relentless intensity: his formidable chops obviously draw deeply on legends like Ivo Papasov and Husnu Senlendirici. The rest of the band displays a similar blend of ferocity and virtuosity. Ben Syversen – whose unhinged, assaultive noiserock/jazz album with his band Cracked Vessel was one of 2010′s best – plays trumpet, along with Matthew Fass on accordion, Joey Weisenberg on electric guitar, Reuben Radding on bass and Matt Moran on percussion. These are long songs, typically clocking in at seven minutes or more – more than anything, Ansambl Mastika haven’t forgotten that what they play is dance music.
The opening track, Zurlaski Cocek (a Greg Squared original) sets the stage for what’s to come. It begins with a suspenseful clarinet solo into a long, burning vamp, a triumphant solo from Syversen, and a big reggae-tinged crescendo roaring with bass chords that the clarinet finally launches into whatever’s out there past the stratosphere. They bring it down a little bit afterward with a biting, Cypriot-flavored traditional Greek medley with some interesting flamenco rhythms, stately ambience from Fass and distant menace from the clarinet again. The Turkish-themed march Mahkum Efe is something of an Istanbul street scene through the mist, with a powerfully building trumpet solo from Syversen. And the Slovenian Memede Zlatna Ptica has the feel of a classic, anchored by fat, crescendoing bass and a long, smoldering sax interlude.
A collaboration with the innovative all-female Brooklyn Bulgarian folk choir Black Sea Hotel, Ispukav Poema sets Ruzica Apostolova’s Macedonian lyrics to lushly otherworldly four-part harmonies that soar over a catchy, jangly turbo-folk tune. Nova Zemja is a brilliantly bizarre, eclectic mash-up of surf music, psychedelic rock and Serbian brass with a raga undercurrent: it might be the best song on the album. A dramatic, dark duo of Macedonian songs features some neat harmonies between Greg and Rima Fand (who has an exciting new project setting Frederico Garcia Lorca poems to music); a couple of Turkish numbers veer from wry wah funk to scorching, melisma-driven exhilaration. The album ends with an irrepressible psychedelic rock arrangment (with cautionary English lyrics) of the old folk song Dafina – watch out, the girl’s dangerous! – and a hallucinatory, shapeshifting version of the Greek To Spiti kai o Dromos. All this is as exhilarating as it is eclectic. It may only be February, but right now it’s the frontrunner for best album of 2011. Watch this space and see where it lands in December.
“Annabouboula” translates roughly from the Greek as “cacaphony,” or in common usage, “brouhaha.” Immortal water is a powerful liquor. So does Annabouboula’s new album sound like a drunken brouhaha? Not really. But it’s definitely a party. The trio of multi-instrumentalists George Sempepos, Chris Lawrence, and chanteuse Anna Paidoussi date back to 1986 when they were signed to Virgin Records and quickly established themselves as one of the era’s most interesting, esoteric bands. They went dormant in the early 90s just as the world-funk sound they’d pioneered began to gain traction. Fast forward to 2010 and a new album: this one sounds sort of like the Middle Eastern version of Chicha Libre, surfy, wryly clever and psychedelic, with Greek lyrics sung powerfully and often hauntingly by Paidoussi.
The opening track, Hello Sailor, is a tour de force: a slinky, haunting levantine vamp contrasting with gently sensual vocals, layers and layers of lead guitar, eerily pointillistic qanun and swooshy string synthesizer. Lilly (The Scandalous Girl) sets the riff from the Smiths’ How Soon Is Now to a Bo Diddley beat, resulting in what sounds like Nancy Sinatra gone to the Mediterranean. There are two versions of the title track: the Brooklyn mix, matching bristling guitar to clubby synthesizer and synth bass textures, and the funkier Smyrna mix. Come Sit on My Sofa, with its Middle Eastern snakecharmer chromatics and acoustic guitar slashing through some oud voicings, evokes Sempepos’ brilliant/obscure Mediterranean surf band the Byzan-Tones.
The most straightforward rock song here is May Day: underneath the 80s textures, there’s a wickedly catchy surf tune threatening to rise up and drench everything in its path. What Do You Care Where I’m From takes a hypnotic turn into dub reggae; The Boat from Turkey slyly blends 80s guitar and synthesized organ textures into a deliciously weird psychedelic web. There’s also the Cretan Hop, which with its bagpipe guitar riffage sounds like Big Country in Greek, the stately, understatedly ominous If You See the Mountains Burning, and a playful, silly introduction to Greek rhythms for western audiences. Oh yeah, did we mention that this is an eclectic band? In lieu of a new album from Chicha Libre, this one will do just fine: look for it on our Best Albums of 2010 list in about a week.
This is sort of our weekly, Kasey Kasem-inspired luddite DIY version of a podcast. Every week, we try to mix it up, offer a little something for everyone: sad songs, funny songs, upbeat songs, quieter stuff, you name it. We’ve designed this as something you can do on your lunch break if you work at a computer (and you have headphones – your boss won’t approve of a lot of this stuff). If you don’t like one of these songs, you can always go on to the next one: every link here (except for #1 this week) will take you to each individual song. As always, the #1 song here will appear on our Best Songs of 2010 list at the end of the year.
1. Klezwoods – Cuperlika
Centerpiece of the Balkan/klezmer/Middle Eastern band’s titanicallly good new cd Oy Yeah. Put it up on the web somewhere guys, you’ll sell a lot more records!
2. Serena Jost - Stay
Characteristically stark and compelling solo cello art-rock song from her forthcoming cd.
3. Band of Outsiders - Graveyard
Absolutely off the hook post-Velvets guitar madness, live at the Parkside this year. They’re at Bowery Electric on 9/23 at 10 opening for Richard Lloyd.
4. Ninth House – Down Beneath
Frontman Mark Sinnis was making this video in a cemetery in upstate New York when he noticed that the seemingly random grave he’d chosen to lie on belonged to one Mary Ann Larson, who died on Sinnis’ birthday in 1853. Coincidence? The band play the cd release show for their new one on 9/24 at at UC 87 Lounge, 87 Ludlow St. at 11.
5. Amy Bezunartea – Doubles
Hang with this – it’s worth your 3 minutes. Not your average girl with acoustic guitar, described by her label (Jennifer O’Connor’s project Kiam) as “kind of Joni meets Magnetic Fields” but better. Free download.
6. Zikrayat – Ish-Showq Mihayyarni
Classic obscure 50s Egyptian film music from the movie ‘Aziza’ starring Naima Akif, live at Galapagos last year. The song starts about 1:20 into the clip. They’re at Moustache (Lex and 102nd) at 8 PM on 9/24.
7. The Poludaktulos Orchestra – Rajkos
Brass band intensity – the missing link between Greece and Serbia, with Klezwoods’ amazing guitarist.
8. Gertrude Michael - Sweet Marijuana
Via night of the purple moon – precode movie music from 1934.
9. Amanda Thorpe – River Song
The dodgy sound reflects the crappy venue this was recorded at, but Thorpe’s voice transcends it – a classic that sounds as good as it did a couple of years ago.
10. Los Incas Modernos - Terremoto
An early Peruvian surf band – you can get lost in this stuff on youtube.
Billed as Strings of the Black Sea, yesterday’s show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art lived up to the boast made by the organizers’ emcee beforehand: it truly was a landmark concert. It was a New York Eastern European music summit, sort of the Black Sea equivalent of those early 60s Rolling Stones Revues with short sets from a nonstop parade of icons like Howlin’ Wolf, Ike & Tina Turner, Otis Redding et al. The emcee wished aloud for a series of full-length concerts by each of the individual performers here next year, a wish that deserves to come true. As with Debo Band at Joe’s Pub on Friday, there was incongruity in seeing most of them rip through one adrenalizing dance number after another in front of a relaxed, comfortably seated crowd in the museum’s sonically superb Rogers Auditorium. But the audience was energized; the ripple of excitement after it was finally over was impossible not to connect with..
Christos Tiktapanidis got the party started, solo on politiki lyra fiddle (also known as a kemence). What he casually introduced to the crowd as slow was fast and what was fast was lightning-fast, a bracing display of fingerboard wizardry, all split-second doublestops, through a crescendoing opening taqsim (improvisation), a stark levantine dance and a happier number that lept from 5/8 to 7/8 time. Beth Bahia Cohen and Ahmet Erdogdular followed with a brief duo set on the Turkish tanbur lute: she bowed hers, holding it upright like a fiddle while he played his guitar-style with a pick. The two doubled each others’ lines effortlessly through another opening taqsim, stately songs from the 18th and 19th centuries, a rapidfire dance by Cohen on kemence and then an inspired, chromatically charged dance number sung by Erdogdular, who’s rightfully earned acclaim as one of Turkey’s foremost exponents of highly ornamented traditional Ottoman singing.
Julian Kytasty brought the lights down with a somber, haunting solo performance on the wide-bodied Ukrainian bandura, a sort of cross between a concert harp and a lute that frequently took on the incisively pinging, staccato tone of a qanun or a cimbalom. He began with a rueful number sung from the point of view of a dying warrior, encouraging his young protege to pick up where he fell. He explained that the blind minstrels who’d traditionally played this repertoire had been brought to extinction in the Stalinist terror of the 1930s. “Singers are never popular with the powers that be,” Kytasty reminded, in a song that “could be straight out of today’s headlines,” a brutally cynical number detailing how truth gets trampled underfoot and thrown into prison while lies are held high for all to see, to be celebrated by the status quo. His dynamically-charged, virtuosic picking took on a flamenco edge on another lament that he managed to fingerpick while simultaneously tapping out a beat on the body of the instrument.
Nikolay Kolev played solo on the Bulgarian gadulka fiddle, an instrument which has grown many additional strings over the last century: his has fourteen, including the resonating, sympathetic ones. He immediately took the intensity to redline, on a couple of wild, hypnotic, rhythmically tricky minor-key dance tunes, a ruthlessly, fluidly efficient romp in the Middle Eastern hijaz mode that began with yet another taqsim and an anthemic tune in 6/8 that vividly and uneasily bridged major and minor without quite being either. The final act paired violinist Nariman Asanov, one of the foremost (and few) Crimean Tatar fiddlers in the US, with ubiquitous and characteristically energetic, witty accordionist Patrick Farrell (who seems to pop up on practically every first-rate Balkan music bill in town, and leads the absolutely hilarious, unique Stagger Back Brass Band). With a singlemindedness that made it seem as if they’d played together for years, they slowly fanned the embers of a violin taqsim over an accordion drone until they were blazing and then romped through a brief series of fiery, minor-key dances, one with a wickedly catchy klezmer feel. Farrell finally got to solo as Asanov held the rhythm down and made the most of it. The entire crew, minus Kytasty (who needed a chair and mysteriously wasn’t provided with one) encored with a simple, memorable Anatolian folk tune, seemingly a tea drinking anthem, Erdogdular’s unamplified vocals soaring over the song’s darkly tinged, chromatic four-bar hook. The next concert in this series is at the Ukrainian National Home on September 25 at 7 PM featuring the North American debut of Ukrainian sensations Tecsoi Banda.
Here in New York we have Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, Veveritse and of course the godfathers of East Coast Balkan brass, Zlatne Uste. The San Francisco Bay Area has gypsy brass band Brass Menazeri and they are equally awesome. Their new album Vranjski San is just out on Portofranco Records. As much as there’s plenty of cross-pollination in Eastern Europe, American gypsy bands really mix up their styles: there’s something to be said for the argument that the newly converted (or at least those who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with this stuff) are more dedicated than those born into a religion. And as any fan of gypsy music or Balkan music knows, it’s sort of a religion. Brass Menazeri (pronounced “menagerie”) seize this passion and run with it, from from Serbia to Rajasthan. What’s most striking about the album is how long the songs are: most of them clock in at least five minutes or more, because what this is first and foremost is dance music. It’s a great album to wake up to if REALLY waking up is your game plan.
Many of the tracks use the eerie Middle Eastern hijaz scale, sometimes the minor keys (and occasionally the happier major keys) of the west, sometimes all of them in the same song. When the music goes all the way down to a break with the tapan (bass drum), that’s usually a signal that something unexpected and fun is about to happen. As much as virtually of the tracks here are dance tunes, many of the melodies are quite haunting. Mejra Na Tabutu has a graceful bounce, but also a rivetingly wounded vocal from one of the band’s frontwomen, and an otherworldly ambience – which makes sense, considering that the title means “Mejra in the casket.” Likewise, Phirava Daje (I Traveled, Mother) moves along matter-of-factly on a riff that sounds straight out of an old African-American spiritual, with a distant whirlwind of horns featuring both swirling rotary horn and moody, austere clarinet by bandleader Peter Jaques.
The title track, a mini-suite of sorts, blurs the line betwen klezmer, the Balkans and the Middle East, bubbling horns behind the plaintive lead melody. Another aptly titled number, Cocekahedron works rich, shifting layers underneath fiery doublestops and a cleverly orchestrated handoff from clarinet to trumpet. Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful song here is E Davulja (The Drums) with its poignant vocals and brooding clarinet over the horns’ staccato insistence. The Greek numbers here share a blustery, breathless, rapidfire intensity. There’s also a Balkanized version of a big Bollywood hit from the 90s full of playful call-and-response; a handful of introspective solo horn taqsims, including a rewrite of a Benny Golson theme; and the jazzy complexity of the cover of Saban Bajramovic’s iconic Opa Cupa that closes the cd. Minor keys or not, most of this is pure bliss. Bay Area fans can see Brass Menazeri’s next gig at the bracingly early hour of 11 AM on 9/15 at the SF Summerfest at Embarcadero and Battery.
Fishtank Ensemble boast that they’re the “leading American gypsy band.” Their third album, Woman in Sin goes a long way to back up that claim: they just might be right. Energetically speaking, they raise the bar for pretty much everybody else. Frontwoman Ursula Knudson’s dramatic four-octave voice soars to the stratosphere along with Fabrice Martinez’ violin over Doug Smolens’ fleet, nimble acoustic guitar and Djordje Stijepovic’s incisive bass, frequently augmented by accordion or Knudson’s singing saw. Their previous album Samurai Over Serbia mixed Asian melodies into a wide range of gypsy and Eastern European styles; the melodies on this one run from Spanish flamenco to a Greek ouzo anthem to the shores of Tripoli. It’s an excellent approximation of their high-energy live show.
The title track is a scurrying oldtimey swing number, a feel replicated on the gypsy jazz version of Bessie Smith’s After You’ve Gone and, later, the Betty Boop flapper vibe of CouCou, both punctuated by inspired, spikily virtuosic Smolens solos. The instrumental Espagnolette, a live showstopper, is basically a Belgian barroom dance featuring some wild singing saw and vocalese. The somewhat epic Amfurat de la Haidouck kicks off with the gypsy equivalent of a heavy metal intro, a tricky sway with furious, rapidfire chromatic accordion and a long, methodical buildup to a wild, frenzied, swirling coda. They follow that on a smaller scale with the shapeshifting dance Djordje’s Rachenitza and then Pena Andalouz, which sounds like an acoustic Alabina song. The album also includes another crazily metamorphosizing dance tune, a stately waltz that gives Knudson and Martinez a chance to show off a more introspective side, an ecstatic Greek drinking song and another dance that interpolates dark Middle Eastern passages within a more upbeat gypsy framework. It’s another winner from one of this era’s most adrenalizing, captivating bands in any style of music.
Imagine if your favorite world music band made a straight-up rock record. It would probably have some interesting rhythms – American beats are not the world’s most exciting – and probably fewer chord changes, considering that changing keys doesn’t happen very often, or at all, once you get past the Gulf of Suez. Tribecastan’s new cd 5 Star Cave could easily be that album. Their first album Strange Cousin, from last year, will probably prove to be a cult classic, a dizzying range of styles from around the world (with distinct Balkan/Asian overtones) played on a museum’s worth of stringed and wind instruments. This is the instruments from that same museum being used for rock instrumentals. As before, multi-instrumentalists John Kruth and Jeff Greene are joined by a like-minded, devious cast: Mike Duclos on upright and electric bass; world beat mastermind Todd Isler on a small army of percussion instruments, with cameos by Charlie Burnham on violin, Al Kooper on organ and guitar, Samantha Parton of the Be Good Tanyas on vocalese and Steve Turre on trombone and shells, to name a few. If there’s one band they resemble – not that such a richly diverse band could ever be approximated anywhere else – it’s similarly devious, more Balkan-and-blues-minded New York band Hazmat Modine.
If the fictional, tongue-in-cheek republic (principality?) of Tribecastan really existed, it would be the last stop on the Silk Road. As much as the crew here appropriate a ridiculous variety of traditional global styles, this is an indelibly New York album – a fearless, sometimes gruff, sometimes completely punk rock sense of humor pervades a lot of these songs, whether the silly, “surf sarod” shuffle of the Violent Femmes ripoff that opens the album, the acoustic wah funk of Ghetto Garbo, the tongue-in-cheek Afrobeat blues of From Bamako to Malibu, a showcase for Turre to jump into and be as funny as the rest of the crew, or the shamelessly psychedelic faux gamelan soundscape He Hears the Ants. There’s also a calypso number, several adventures into funk and blues, and a boogie driven by slide mandolin and a forest of acoustic fretted instruments like something Roy Wood might have done in 1970 if he’d had an even greater attention span.
Yet as with their first album, it’s the darker material that really stands out. Starry Stari Grad and Hemlock Falls are arrestingly sad waltzes with Greek/Macedonian overtones. Bachir’s Blues (a reference, no doubt, to their joujouka pal Bachir Attar) has Kruth playing saz, Greene on boomy yayli tambur lute and even some Jew’s harp – the original wah-wah instrument. And the lone cover here is a darkly rustic Afghan traditional song, Kabul Hill. Tribecastan plays the cd release for this one at Joe’s Pub on May 8 at 8:30 PM with the whole cast of characters, celebrities included. Let’s hope the Tribecastan Concert Bureau has a big WWII-surplus 6X6 truck to get all those instruments to the club and then back home across the border in one piece.
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