Aram Bajakian plays lead guitar in Lou Reed’s band (here’s a clip of him playing Waves of Fear – it’s hard to imagine a better showcase for his chops). Bajakian’s own project Kef has just put out a fascinatingly eclectic, completely original, often hauntingly beautiful album of guitar/violin/bass instrumentals, many of which imaginatively reinvent traditional Armenian melodies. There’s a raw, spontaneous feel here – for the most part, Bajakian doesn’t go for extensive multi-tracking. The album makes a good segue with cutting-edge Balkan and Middle Eastern-flavored bands like Ansambl Mastika or A Hawk and a Hacksaw. Here Bajakian joins forces with Tom Swafford on violin and Shanir Blumenkranz on bass.
They open with a warmly fingerpicked acoustic vignette and then launch into some pyrotechnics: over a circular bass motif, Bajakian’s Neil Young-ish psychedelic sunspots give way to gritty no wave funk and some understatedly searing tremolo-picking. It’s the high point of the album, volume-wise. Laz Bar is a gypsy dance on the waves of the Mediterranean until the guitar gets funkier and bites down hard with a Ribot-ish blues solo as the violin swirls in and envelopes everything. The felicitously titled Sumlinian (Hubert Sumlin being one of the godfathers of funk) again works a circular melody, first carried by pizzicato violin before being turned over to the bass, guitar and then violin slashing their way through a Chicago southside of the mind.
Wroclaw, a Balkan-flavored rock tune comes together stately and wary out of a tricky intro, and eventually they swing it with a nice, matter-of-factly crescendoing violin solo, Bajakian following with some sweet Balkan blues – it’s the best song on the album. An upbeat Greek-flavored dance gets followed by a more pensive one, Swafford wailing over a brooding minor-key progression, Bajakian adding some teeth-gnashing yet terse Jeff Beck-style fills. From there they segue to some variations on the theme that eventually go absolutely haywire, back into a chorus that they hammer again and again, 80s no wave style. The album closes with a pensive, flamenco-tinted acoustic taqsim, a bass-and-guitar duet that sounds like a jam that worked out well enough to throw on the album, a wonderfully minimalist, mournful dirge and an equally captivating psychedelic piece that contrasts watery and spiky textures for a creepy vibe similar to the darkest stuff on Country Joe & the Fish’s first album. It’s out today on Tzadik.
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.
Ben Syversen plays trumpet in two of New York’s best bands, Balkan juggernaut Raya Brass Band and also ferociously eclectic guitar-and-horn-driven “new Balkan uproar” outfit Ansambl Mastika. His new solo album Cracked Vessel is a masterpiece of warped, paint-peeling noise and spontaneous fun. Part noise-rock, part free jazz, with frequent Balkan and funk tinges, it screeches, squalls and rattles its way through one side of your cranium and out the other. Easy listening? Hardly, but it’s without question one of the most deliciously intense albums of the year (it’ll be on our Best of 2010 list at the end of December). Alongside Syversen’s alternately thoughtful atmospherics, blazing Gypsy sprints and tersely wary passages, Xander Naylor’s guitars do triple duty, serving as both bass and percussion along with providing some of the most memorably twisted sonics recently captured on disc. The beats can get even crazier when Jeremy Gustin’s drums are in the mix; otherwise, he holds this beast to the rails while it thrashes to break free and leap into the nearest abyss.
The album opens with the possibly sardonically titled Frontman, Syversen playing sort of a “charge” theme over percussive, trebly guitar skronk. As is the case frequently here, the drums crash in, the guitar goes nuts – and then it’s over. A staggered, off-kilter stomp with Balkan overtones, Weird Science sounds like a sketch that Slavic Soul Party might have abandoned because it was too crazy even for them, especially as the guitar careens and roars. Bad Idea contrasts pensive, terse trumpet against gingerly stumbling guitar underneath, finally exploding in a ball of chromatic fury and then back down again. Naylor cools the embers with sheets of reverb-drenched white noise.
The fourth track, Untitled, begins with a creepy minimalist Bill Frisell guitar taqsim and gets even weirder: even Syversen’s pensive, sostenuto trumpet can’t normalize this one. Krazzle works a long noise-funk crescendo up to a macabre trill, all the way down through a shower of amplifier sparks to virtual stillness – and suddenly they’re back at it. End of Time turns a playful trumpet-and-guitar conversation into a memorably nasty confrontation and another effective quiet/insane dialectic; From the Abyss has Syversen craftily dodging everything Naylor and Gustin can hurl at him, which is a lot, all the way down to a netherworld where a richly and unexpectedly beautiful minor-key art-rock song assembles itself and then eventually fades. It’s the most counterintuitive and richly satisfying passage in the entire album. There’s also the aptly titled Apparition, a study in percussion on all available instruments; Fried Fruit, a twisted funk tune, and the bonus track, Talk, which hints at minor-key janglerock before going completely off the rails with several blasts of guitar fury and finally a brutal, bodyslamming crescendo. The louder you play this, the more exhilarating it is. Definitely not for the faint of heart. Watch this space for upcoming shows.
Ansambl Mastika call themselves the “new Balkan uproar.” What they do is definitely new and different, they are indelibly Balkan (although they range a lot further, usually toward the east) and what they play could understatedly be called an uproar. They’re one of New York’s best bands in any style of music, and they reaffirmed that uptown on Saturday night.
Since the Europeans didn’t invent jazz, they took to fusion a lot more readily than Americans did, and unfortunately some of fusion’s most annoying attributes – cheesy settings, garish solos and a complete lack of communication between musicians – still haunt a lot of music coming out of the former Eastern Bloc. Ansambl Mastika are an antidote to that. While they use electric guitar and bass along with rhythms that veer from gypsy to jazz to rock, the chemistry between the band members was characteristically playful and gripping. Nobody stepped on anybody, there was all kinds of interplay and it was obvious that this crew has a blast playing together. Which they should. Bandleader/reedman Greg Squared (who also plays in seemingly half the good Balkan-inflected bands in town, notably Raya Brass Band) was in his usual high-intensity mode, firing off blistering clusters of chromatics on both clarinet and sax. Bassist Ruben Radding (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar and several jazz projects) felt the room, holding down a fat groove with an understatement that made his infrequent chords and slides all the more intense. This time out the group were in a particularly Greek/Macedonian mood, their leader taking a vocal on a handful of numbers.
They opened as a lot of gypsy bands do with what was basically a one-chord jam that gave their trumpeter a chance to cut loose with an ominous, chromatically-charged abandon. Accordion took centerstage on the next number as its introductory Greek waltz took a bitter, Middle Eastern-infused riff down to the lower registers, clarinet fueling the fire. The next looked like it was going to go totally fusion a la what the NY Gypsy All-Stars fall prey to sometimes, but it didn’t when the guitar and accordion turned it over to the horns, and then the guitar kicked in using almost a Fender Rhodes tone. After flailing around with some tricky time changes the band brought it back with a snarling, 4/4 stomp. The other tunes included a stripped-down, rustic, Macedonian-flavored number with the drummer on a standup bass drum and a wildly slinky, chromatic ride to the depths of the Adriatic on the wings of a long, triumphant trumpet solo where the guitar took over and then proceeded to make dark, unexpected janglerock out of it. They wrapped up the set with another Greek tune with a Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood feel on the chorus, incisively bluesy guitar teleporting to the Sahara in a split second. And then it was over. If you wish you’d been at this one, Ansambl Mastika play Drom at 9 on Dec 11 on an excellent doublebill with Ethiopian jazz group the Debo Band.
We do this every Tuesday. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our Best 100 songs of 2009 list at the end of December, along with maybe some of the rest of these too. This is strictly for fun – it’s Lucid Culture’s tribute to Kasey Kasem and a way to spread the word about some of the great music out there that’s too edgy for the corporate media and their imitators in the blogosphere. Every link here except for #1 will take you to each individual song.
1. Livia Hoffman – Friday
This is one of those great “finally the weekend’s here” numbers that manages not to be trite. Watch this space for upcoming live dates – this one’s unreleased.
2. Curtis Eller – Sugar in My Coffin
One of the great NYC rockers of this era – it just happens that the banjo is his axe. “The drinks are getting weaker with every round they serve.” He’s at Banjo Jim’s on 7/30 at 10
3. The French Exit – Bones & Matches
Typically haunting, wrenching, eventually explosive lament from NYC’s best noir rock crew. They’re at Local 269, 269 E Houston at 9 on 7/29
4. The Brooklyn What – For the Best
Characteristically snarling, smart punkish song from their first album (their new ep Gentrification Rock is killer too). They’re at Don Pedro’s on 8/7 on an amazing bill with Escarioka, Palmyra Delran and others.
5. Rescue Bird – Montauk
Catchy, artsy country tune with an autoharp and glockenspiel! They’re at Spikehill on 7/30 at 8.
6. Carrie Clark – Josephine
Smartly soaring, Rachelle Garniez-esque oldtimey cabaret song. She’s at Spikehill on 7/30 at 9
7. Andrea Wittgens – Everything Is Relative to You
Clever, catchy, Greta Gertler-ish artsy piano pop tune. She’s at Spikehill on 7/30 at 11
8. Naomi Shelton & the Gospel Queens – What Have You Done
Killer minor-key oldschool gospel tune. They’re at Prospect Park Bandshell on 7/30 at 7:30 opening for Burning Spear
9. Rev. Vince Anderson – Don’t Think Jesus
Country music as liberation theology dating from the waning days of the Bush regime. He’s at at 55 Bar on 7/31 at 10.
10. Ansambl Mastika – Gde si Bre
Characteristicaly wild horn-diven Balkan dance. They’re at Mehanata on 7/30 at 9.
One of New York’s most unique and exciting musical acts, Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir. They’re releasing their debut album, a starkly beautiful, otherworldly cd of traditional Bulgarian and Macedonian choral music, much of which they’ve imaginatively adapted and arranged for four voices. The cd release show is June 4 at 9 PM at Union Pool. The group’s four women: Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder took the time out of their busy performance schedule to discuss their upcoming album with Lucid Culture:
Lucid Culture: What’s up with the scary black octopus on the cd cover?
Corinna Snyder: Joy had an encounter with a jellyfish in the Black Sea when we were all in Bulgaria a few years ago, and when we started thinking about images for our album, we kept thinking about unusual sea creatures, and kept coming back to the image of the octopus. We love our octopus. You know, they are insanely flexible, and they are very smart, very soulful animals. We want to stick pictures of octopi on everything Black Sea Hotel. We also like that octopi have 8 arms. And, in total, so do we. We like that the 4 of us are in one creature—the octopus.
LC: And how about the eerie horror-movie soft-focus pictures of the four of you on the cd booklet?
CS: Well we sometimes do have an otherworldly kind of sound, don’t you think? And we were going with an ethereal, watery feel for the album art, which makes some sense of a band named after a body of water…
LC: Let’s introduce the band. On your myspace page in the upper lefthand corner that’s – I think: left to right – Corinna, Joy, Willa and Sarah, right? –
CS: MMM…no. It’s Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa. And now we’re totally intrigued as to why you thought differently….
LC: I’ve seen you live a couple of times and one of you called Joy by name onstage so I know who she is – but the rest of you, I’m completely lost…
CS: But anyway I think the myspace changed. On the back of the cd it’s left to right Sarah, Corinna, Joy and Willa.
LC: My favorite album track that’s up on your myspace page is Vecheraj Angjo, which is the third cut from the new cd. Who’s doing the lead vocal?
CS: The song starts with Joy and myself sharing the lead vocal line, so it is actually two of us glued together on one part. Then we move the melody across the voices over the course of the song. We do that sometimes with our songs, maybe especially on the ones Joy arranges, now that we think about it. Sometimes we move songs back and forth between two lead singers too, trading verses, which is a traditional form for two voiced songs from the south west region of Bulgaria, so there’s something old embedded in that new arrangement.
LC: And what does the title mean? I think it’s a nocturne of some kind, right?
CS: You know, traditional titles of songs in Bulgaria are the first few words of the song – which means that sometimes you have many many different songs with the same name, because many songs start with the same opening images, like “They were gathering,” as in, they were gathering up a crop, which is also a very traditional way to start a song. It’s typical of oral poetry traditions, really – and that’s really what these songs are. When you talk to the great Balkan singers they really focus their emotional energy on the powerful stories that they’re telling.
The actual title means Eat up, Angjo. It’s not really a nocturne: it’s a dance song. It’s a mother urging her son to eat up and get going – they have a long way to go with their bride, and on the way she’s afraid of passing Gjorgija, who will be standing in a doorway, bottle of rakija in hand – in that rakija there’s magic, and she’s afraid it will ensorcell the bride. Rakija is the brandy they make in the Balkans. And it does have its own kind of magic, it’s true.
LC: Did you ever in your wildest dreams imagine that Black Sea Hotel would ever exist?
CS: We all have such wild dreams I guess we could imagine anything.
LC: Is it possible that New York is the only place – other than, say, Sofia – where this group could have actually come together?
CS: Actually, it’s probably more likely to find a group like ours outside of Bulgaria. One of the things that distinguishes us from a lot of other groups is that we create most of our own arrangements. Many other groups mostly stick to singing arrangements composed for the official Bulgarian choirs, a compositional practice that started in the 50s. I don’t know of any other vocal group in Bulgaria where the singers get to be the arrangers too – that’s also a little different.
LC: Do any of you have Balkan ancestry, a connection to the area?
CS: None of us have any Balkan background, which many Bulgarians find completely fascinating and flummoxing.
LC: Is there a cute backstory to how Black Sea Hotel got started? Something like, Joy hears Corinna swearing under her breath in Macedonian on the subway and says to herself, “That’s just the girl I want to start a band with!”
CS: That would have been so cool. But it was way more pedestrian. We met in another Bulgarian singing group – that group disbanded, and we four started singing together as Black Sea Hotel almost two years ago.
LC: Obviously – educated guess – the Bulgarian Voices aka Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares are an influence, right? Was that the first exposure that you had to Balkan music, or specifically to Bulgarian choral music?
CS: Each of us has a different “first time'”story. I heard the Music of Bulgaria album by Nonesuch when I was about 10 years old and was totally taken. I grew up in Cambridge where I was lucky enough to join a Balkan choir when I was 12 – it continues to be the most physical music I have ever made, I think that’s what first connected me to it, and what keeps me connected.
Sarah Small: I grew up with musician parents who played in opposingly different musical traditions – an atonal/modern piano player/composer, and a Renaissance lutenist mother. Those were my first musical influences. But it was not til college when I heard Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares while listening to music at the Providence Public Library and fell madly in love with Bulgarian music. Then, after moving to New York in 2001, while looking on craigslist for a goth-rock band to sing and play cello with, I came across auditions for start-up Bulgarian women’s choir. I ran right over to audition immediately.
Willa Roberts: I’ve always had a serious love of ethnic and folk music from all over the world. My mother was a bellydancer when I was born (in fact, it’s my earliest memory), and I grew up with Middle Eastern music in the house, which had a profound effect on my musical tastes. She also plays piano and sings, and my whole family is musical. I heard Le Mystere at some point in high school and fell in love. Eventually I found my way into playing violin in the Mid East/Balkan ensemble at the College of Santa Fe, and the moment I had the opportunity to sing this music with them, I was totally hooked. It was like a dream come true.
LC: How long did you study it before you started Black Sea Hotel?
CS: We all come from different backgrounds, but all of us have been musicians of some kind since we were kids. And we had worked together on this music in our previous group for almost two years.
LC: What were you singing before then?
CS: Joy was a big musical theater kid. Sarah studied classical cello. Willa studied Turkish violin and sang in a rock band. I studied classical voice and played standup bass. We continue to do other music as well – Sarah writes trippy goth rock on Logic; Willa plays and sings with a Turkish band and a Balinese gamelan; Joy has a kirtan band; I sing with a Macedonian wedding band – we all do different things.
LC: I described the music on the cd as otherworldly. Do you agree with that, is that an accurate assessment?
CS: We think the otherworldliness of our sound comes about for a few different reasons. One is that if you don’t speak Bulgarian, you have no lyrics to latch on to. Another is that we do work hard to blend our voices really tightly. The melodies themselves can also be undeniably haunting. And lastly, the timbre of the voice is different in Balkan music – as are the intervals and the rhythm. All together that does create a more otherworldly feel.
LC: There’s a lot of longing in those songs: one girl misses her home and family, another really wants a husband – or a boyfriend – another woman cries because she’s been having trouble conceiving. Is this a representative cross-section of your typical Bulgarian and Macedonian folk music, or did you deliberately go out looking for sad, beautiful songs?
CS: There really are a lot of sad songs in this tradition. There are of course more light hearted songs out there, but the soulful old stuff usually tells a hard and heartbreaking story.
LC: How old are these songs? Do they still resonate culturally in Bulgaria or Macedonia, or are you reviving them?
CS: Our source melodies come from all over. Many of our arrangements are based on melodies from Shopluk, in the southwest of Bulgaria, which is one of the few places where women sing melodies and drones together, and where there is a very rich tradition of work and field songs. Some songs in our repertoire are very obscure – Vardar Muten is based on a ritual melody that was collected by an ethnomusicologist in the 70s — and some are extremely well known – the melody for Makedonsko Devoiche [on the cd] was written in the 20th century and every Macedonian knows it. Our arrangement, though, is totally different than the arrangement that usually accompanies this song – it’s as if a Macedonian completely rearranged the Star Spangled Banner. This song is our most popular download, too.
LC: I understand you’ve arranged a lot of these yourself. Sarah in particular gets credit on the cd for a lot of the arrangements. Are all of you arrangers?
CS: Sarah was the first to start arranging, and I’m the last – I’m in the middle of my first piece now.
LC: How did you learn the songs? From albums, from hearing the songs live? I assume all of you read music. Anybody in the group with conservatory training?
CS: OK, so only one of us really reads music. But this is an oral tradition – the old songs are almost never transcribed. The complex ornamentation, microtones and rhythms don’t really lend themselves to transcription. So almost all the melodies we learned from other singers, or from recordings. When it is an existing arrangement, we either search long and hard for the sheet music, or we try to figure it out from the recordings that we have.
LC: Wow! On the cd, I hear all of you taking what in rock music would be called a “lead vocal.” In addition to your own parts, do you ever swap, for example, Willa and Sarah take over the other’s part?
CS: Not sure what you mean – we sometimes trade the melody, like in Ja Izlezni, or Spava Mi Se, when the two pairs sing back and forth, or two voices trade verses, or in Momche and Vecheraj Agnjo, where the melody moves across our voices
LC: How about trying your hand, your hands at songwriting? You’re so good at the traditional stuff, have you ever thought of trying your hand at creating something new, adding to the canon?
CS: We are working on a new arrangement now that will be mostly in English. It’s been really challenging, though, as the tradition of storytelling in American and English songs is totally different than in the Balkan tradition – the way stories work, the way phrases are repeated, the impact of certain images. It’s hard to sing Balkan in English.
LC: How about improvisation? Does that factor at all into what you do, or into Bulgarian choral music in general?
CS: OK, I’m gonna get pedantic for a sec. Bulgarian choral music was created by a cadre of very talented, classically trained composers in Bulgaria starting in the 50s. They found extremely talented traditional singers from every musical region in Bulgaria and formed the national Radio choir, and they were the first to perform the multipart choral works. A classic example of that compositional style is Dragana I Slavej. With a composed piece, the only room that there might be for improvisation is in something like Bezrodna Nevesta, another example of the “classical” folk pieces. There the lead voice, when establishing the melody, might vary the way she ornaments and stretches the melody – but beyond that, there’s no room for anything more.
There’s not much room for improvisation in this choral form, but there is lots of room for it in the old songs, especially the ballads, which are usually sung by one singer, and are unmetered. Our arrangement of Mome Stoje is based on that kind of ballad. There a singer will work with ornamentation, she’ll create tension by stretching lines and tones, she’ll work back and forth across fast and slow phrases, and every singer will have her own interpretation.
LC: Can we be upfront about this: none of you are native Bulgarian or Macedonian speakers, right? I can tell right off the bat if somebody is speaking Spanglish, or bad French, or mangling one of the romance languages, but I haven’t got a clue how good your accents and your pronunciation are…
CS: Apparently we kick ass in the pronunciation department. This spring we performed in Philadelphia and a Bulgarian singer came to the show, and she said that usually, when she hears Americans singing in Bulgarian, there are always little give-aways – the pronunciation of the letters T, D, and L, in particular – but that we didn’t have any. We’ve even been told that our regional accents in songs are dead-on. A couple of times we’ve had Bulgarians come up to us after shows and just start talking Bulgarian – they assume we must be fluent given our pronunciation. That’s really gratifying, because we work hard on that part of our work. We don’t get caught up in maintaining authenticity in much of what we do – it would be ridiculous for us to do so, as contemporary American singers – but we do want to speak the language correctly.
LC: In addition to singing the part, you also look the part. Where do you get your stagewear, and are your outfits really Bulgarian?
CS: We do have some seriously heavy and heatstroke-inducing old costumes that we bought in Bulgaria, but we don’t wear them that often because they often fit weird, they weigh as much as two sheep and are hard to wash. But they are cool looking. We’re thinking of reconstructing them at some point, so that we can wear them without passing out.
LC: As a lot, but I think not enough people know, there’s a very active Balkan music scene, a sort of Balkan underground here in NYC. I know you’ve played with Ansambl Mastika, a great band who you mention in your shout-outs in the cd package. Who else are you fans of? Here’s your chance to plug all your friends…
CS: Oh – so many! Raya Brass Band, Slavic Soul Party, Veveritse, Kadife, Zlatne Uste, Luminescent Orchestrii, AE, the Kolevi Family, Merita Halili and Raif Hyseni, Which Way East, Ivan Milev, Ansambl Mastika, Ljova and Inna’s various bands – Ljova and the Kontraband, Romashka, Barmaljova, etc. Also we love Stagger Back Brass Band..I’m sure I’ve forgotten some already.
LC: This happens to me once in awhile: somebody hears something I’m listening to, makes a face and says it’s quote-unquote weird. Has this happened to you, and how do you respond to that?
CS: When people see us live it’s harder to call it weird because we look normal. But it does wig people out sometimes when we’ll do a really old-style song that’s totally dissonant and arrythmic and has lots of yipping and shaking sounds. I guess we’re lucky so far that the audience who sees and hears us is usually one that’s open to this, or knows something about it. But we want to branch out. We’re waiting for the first gig we do where the audience just doesn’t get it – and seeing how we deal with that.
LC: Where do you want to go with this? It seems to me that you have an extremely high ceiling. I mean, you could dump the dajyobs and support yourself by touring cultural centers across the country. Maybe around the world. Especially since le Mystere des Voix Bulgares don’t tour much anymore…
CS: We talk about doing a college road show, leading workshops and doing concerts. It would be lucrative…but it might not be the most interesting thing for us to do musically. I guess touring never is. We’re talking a lot now about what to do next – thinking a lot about collaborating with other sounds, traditions, styles, to see what happens.
LC: Besides Balkan music, what else are you four listening to these days? I know for example, Willa, you’re also into gamelan music from Bali, being a member of Gamelan Dharma Swara, New York’s very own gamelan. How about the rest of you?
CS: The other day in practice, Joy exclaimed how much she’s been loving listening to Moroccan desert blues. Then Willa concurred – and she’s into Mauritanian desert blues as well. So apparently half the group’s obsessed with desert blues.
LC: So am I! I just saw Tinariwen at le Poisson Rouge, they were great!
CS: Sarah tends to listen to a lot of beat driven heavy rock with blankets of vocal harmonies and likes listening to Philip Glass when editing photos. Willa’s been discovering more rock bands that have interesting harmonies, like Panda Bear and Dirty Projectors – she always wondered why there weren’t more bands that had dense and complex vocal harmonies, and recently there seem to be more emerging. I am obsessively listening to this cd of Greek festival processions where men wear enormous sheep bells. You gotta hear it!
LC: You’ll probably laugh when you hear this, but has anybody suggested, “Hey you should try out for American Idol?” You’ve got the chops, there’s no doubt about it…
CS: Um, that would probably be the gig where the audience doesn’t get it. Actually we HAVE thought of this and it has been mentioned before. NOT kidding. It would be pretty wild and maybe stir things up.
LC: You’re all fully capable of fronting pretty much any band you might want to sing for. Any interest in doing that – obviously while keeping Black Sea Hotel together of course!
CS: We are working on ways to take what we do best – sing close strange harmonies in weird rhythms — and do it in other genres, outside the confines of Balkan music. It would be a dream come true to be involved in something with a group like the Kronos Quartet, or collaborate with a composer like Tod Machover, or work with a rock band.
LC: Here’s a conundrum that I hear all the time from all the promoters and publicists trying to get their world music acts some press. How do you cross over, out of a niche market? “If we could only find a way to get all the Lucinda Williams fans to listen to Angelique Kidjo,” etc. etc. Do you have any thoughts about building a following with what you do, considering how radically different it is from American music, especially the pop music coming out of the corporations these days?
CS: We struggle with this like many of our compatriots in that awfully named “world music” genre. We get told that we could get booked more if we were more accessible. One of the challenges is the lyrics, and we’re actually working on a piece now that will combine English and Macedonian. But we’re not really sure what ‘more accessible’ really means – and how much we would have to change to get there. You could say if we sang in English we’d be more accessible, but I’m not sure that’s really honest either. Maybe more, but not a whole lot more.
LC: Have you ever wondered what might happen if girls were exposed to what you do early in life? What I mean is obviously what you’ve achieved is a result of talent and brains rather than simply looking good. Would you consider yourselves role models in that sense?
CS: Yow! Never thought about it that way. The music industry production mill for girl singers sucks, but at this point it’s just about as bad for boys too.
LC: Since you started doing this, have Bulgarian guys started hitting on you?
CS: Not particularly. We have yet to meet the enormous émigré Bulgarian guy population that is into Bulgarian roots music.
Exciting stuff. In addition to playing guitar in boisterous NYC gypsy dance hellraisers Romashka, Jay Vilnai also leads this adventurous, innovative group. Its underpinnings are gypsy and Balkan music, but there’s a lot more to it than that: Ljova and the Kontraband, with their Russian, classical and jazz influences are a good comparison, although Vilnai’s songs are all instrumentals and with the guitar have more of a jagged, careening feel. Another good comparison is pan-Balkan juggernaut Ansambl Mastika, although Vilnai’s music has a less improvisational focus. This stuff is all about crescendos: pretty much everything eventually builds to some kind of big coda or whirling cauldron of sound, but it’s about how they get there, the fanning of the flames as much as the inevitable big blaze. Like many of the great blues guitarists (Matt Murphy particularly comes to mind), Vilnai plays a lot of horn lines and with the distortion on, giving him an incisive edge that stays just thisfar from total Balkan savagery, the effect is intense. While many of the songs here are very fast and fiery, nobody’s wasting any notes, a welcome touch.
The title track jumps in, dizzying and polyrhythmic, ominous washes of distorted guitar building to a biting solo replete with evil chromatic percussive intensity. That feel recurs dramatically from time to time throughout the cd. The second cut, Serpent Dance is authentically serpentine, winding, twisting and jazzy. The sarcastically titled Lento evokes Ljova & the Kontraband, pretty pastoral violin from the reliably excellent Skye Steele followed by edgy rumbling guitar into a jazzily expansive solo that gets all pretty and anything but lento!
The bouncily stark Jasmine kicks off with cello and resolute 8th-note guitar, growing darker as Vilnai goes up the scale. And then there’s a frenetic, out of breath clarinet solo from the band’s reed man, Greg Pickard. Tabur, with its tricky, rattling rhythm under ambient strings builds to a typical crescendo and a nice bass solo as the string section goes crazy in a whirling cauldron of noise. The cinematically-tinged Marketplace morphs from a pretty much straight up Bulgarian dance, casual and midtempo into a sizzling Balkan guitar solo followed by a more astringent one by Steele. The most overtly jazzy number here, Circe features Vilnai getting all frenetic yet precise in something of an Allan Holdsworth mode followed by some playful eeriness from Pickard, the spaces between the notes just as ominous as what’s being played. Arguably the best song on the cd, Shelter Me Beneath Thy Pinion gets going with an ominous buildup, whirling strings, cymbals and some understatedly slashing chordal work from Vilnai into a completely savage Middle Eastern jazz/metal solo, another wild crescendo with the strings screaming and then a long, strange, atmospheric outro. If the band is half as good live as they are on this cd they must be amazing in concert. Watch this space for NY area live dates.