Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 9/7/11

Every day, pretty much that is, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Wednesday’s album is #510:

Esma Redzepova – Queen of the Gypsies

This 2007 album from the legendary Macedonian chanteuse includes both a disc of songs from her native land as well as the Roma songs she was brought up on, which earned her fame throughout Europe. The Macedonian stuff here tends to be more plaintive, Zosto Si Me Majko (Oh Mother Why Was I Born) being a prime example. Backed by a rustic, often haunting acoustic band, Rezdepova makes her way through anthems like Zapej Makedonijo (Macedonia Sings), Svadba Makedonska (Macedonian Wedding) and the wistful Grade Moj (My Town). The gypsy material is a lot more upbeat, often absolutely exhilarating,  a showcase for both her wild vocal ornamentation and also her minutely honed nuance, especially on dance numbers like Esma Cocek and Romano Horo, and the towering, dramatic Hajri Ma Te Dike. Pretty much everything she’s recorded is worth hearing; these 24 tracks are a good overview of her career. Here’s a random torrent. Redzepova makes a rare New York appearance at Drom on 9/24 at 8 PM with her band.

September 7, 2011 Posted by | lists, Music, music, concert, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ansambl Mastika’s Second Album is Raw Adrenaline

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.

February 11, 2011 Posted by | gypsy music, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Top Ten Songs of the Week 9/20/10

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.

September 21, 2010 Posted by | funk music, latin music, lists, middle eastern music, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Klezwoods Romp Through the Dark Corners of Eastern European Melody

Peter Jaques of Brass Menazeri describes klezmer as a “gateway drug” to the music of Eastern Europe. The same could be said for violinist Joe Kessler’s band Klezwoods,since that’s his background. Their debut album may be classified as klezmer, and many of its most exhilarating moments are on its Jewish songs, but the material here spans the entirety of what used to be the Ottoman Empire. Basically, it’s haunting minor-key dance music with Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and occasional latin tinges, and it pushes the envelope, its jazz-influenced, playful arrangements utilizing the whole band and giving them a richer, fuller sound than it would seem their nine members could create. The band is colossally good: Sam Dechenne on trumpet, Jim Gray on tuba, Jeremy Gustin on drums, Greg Loughman on bass, Michael McLaughlin (of Naftule’s Dream) on accordion, Brian O’Neill on percussion, Alec Spiegelman (of Miss Tess’ band the Bon Temps Parade) on clarinet and sax and Tev Stevig on electric guitar.

The opening track, a Yemenite Jewish number that Kessler learned from his father Jack (a highly regarded cantor), takes on a lush majesty, plaintive clarinet contrasting with muted trumpet, distant accordion and sweeping violin. The tricky Bulgarian dance Gankina Oro has the first of several bracingly rippling guitar solos by Stevig, this one sounding like a bouzouki but with better sustain. A Turkish folk melody, Bahar Dansi pulses along on a reggaeish beat, a playfully warped sax solo kicking off a boisterous game of hot potato between seemingly everybody in the band. They follow that with a somewhat deadpan, methodical take of Mache Teynista (The Mother-in-Law Dance), blippy tuba under tense, staccato accordion.

The highlight of the album is the slinky, hypnotic, absolutely gorgeous Cuperlika, from Macedonia, darkly pointillistic guitar giving way to the violin, accordion and finally a powerful, epic crescendo. Hey Lady sets levantine violin to a jaunty, altered tango beat with spiraling jazz guitar and a long, adrenalizing crescendo. Stevig takes his most intense solo of the night as the band vamps behind him on the Middle Eastern tune Nassam Aleyna. Syrtos is a Greek number which actually sounds more like traditional klezmer than anything else here other than the romping medley of hasidic dances that closes the album. And there’s also Giant Jew, a tongue-in-cheek klezmer take on Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Loughman’s solo bass tiptoeing deviously around the theme. The chemistry between band members makes Kessler’s split-second choreography work perfectly: as it should, considering how much fun this band is obviously having. The klezmer crowd will love this, as will anyone with a fondness for the dark, otherworldly singalong melodies and tricky rhythms of Eastern Europe. It’s out now on Either/Orchestra’s upstart label Accurate Records. Boston area fans can enjoy their cd release show on October 4 at Atwoods, 877 Cambridge St. in Cambridge.

September 17, 2010 Posted by | folk music, middle eastern music, Music, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Brass Menazeri’s New Album is Gorgeously Intense

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.

September 13, 2010 Posted by | folk music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Concert Review: Ansambl Mastika at Shrine, NYC 11/21/09

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.

November 26, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

CD Review: Black Sea Hotel’s Debut Album

Using only their voices, no autotune, synthesizers or computerized effects, Black Sea Hotel’s four singers – Joy Radish, Willa Roberts, Sarah Small and Corinna Snyder – have created the most haunting and beautiful cd of the year so far. Black Sea Hotel are Brooklyn’s own Bulgarian vocal choir, taking both ancient and more modern Bulgarian folk music to a lot of very otherworldly places. It would be easy to say that since they play most of their shows at rock clubs,  they’re sort of the punk rock version of le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares, but that wouldn’t be giving them enough credit. Not only are the group extraordinary singers, they’re also arrangers. As the four members revealed in an enlightening interview here recently, they’re doing new things with an impressive repertoire of haunting old songs, paring down large-scale pieces for just their four voices, embellishing works for solo voice as well as folksongs typically played with instrumentation. The result ranges from chilling or hypnotic to downright psychedelic, gorgeous washes of sound panning across the spectrum, moving in and out of the mix, from one harmony to another in places. Sometimes all four voices harmonize. Sometimes they work in pairs, or a single voice against two or three in counterpoint. Between them, they cover the sonic spectrum from contralto to high soprano with an astonishing ability to go from the lowest to highest registers and vice versa in a split second, using Balkan and Middle Eastern scales, eerie microtones, magically precise melismas or sometimes just a pure, crystalline, fullscale wail. But rather than always going for the jugular with the wild whoops and embellishments for which le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares are best known, they choose theirs spots judiciously, saving the most elaborate and ostentatious ornamentation for when they really need it.

The cd mixes sixteen songs in both Bulgarian and Macedonian from literally across the centuries. There’s a polyrhythmic dance; a mysterious number about witchcraft with a quite operatic bridge; a dirge about a girl swept away in the river; a Middle Eastern-inflected cautionary tale; the sad story of a drunken pasha; a wistful, Celtic-tinged waltz; the suspenseful account of a singing competition between a young girl and nightingale; and an insistent taunt that with all four voices going full steam becomes practically a sonic lynching. If this album doesn’t end up making the top ten in our Best Albums of the Year list at the end of December, 2009 will have been the best year for music in recorded history. Not bad for a quartet of American women who probably never heard a word of Bulgarian until they were in their teens. Black Sea Hotel play the cd release show at Union Pool at 9 on June 4 on an excellent bill with Sxip Shirey, Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

June 3, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Lucid Culture Interview – Black Sea Hotel

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.

Black Sea Hotel play the cd release for their debut album on a great bill starting at 9 PM at Union Pool on Thurs, June 4 with Sxip Shirey opening, then BSH, then Veveritse and Stumblebum Brass Band.

May 30, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Concert Review: Goran Alachki at Drom, NYC 1/20/09

If people in New York were celebrating the Obama inaugural, they were doing it in private. Tuesday night downtown was dead. You know you’re in a depression when a cult artist like Goran Alachki plays a rare New York show at one of the best clubs in town and the place isn’t sold out: it may have been a cold night, but the Macedonian accordionist/composer is a star on the Balkan circuit, and for his fan base here, a live gig is a big deal. But Alachki didn’t let it phase him. He was here to celebrate, and if the club had let him, he would have played all night, turning the crowd who did show up into a sea (ok, a little pond) of bouncing, twirling bodies and ripping through one devilishly tricky dance after another until the pickup rhythm section assembled for this gig was clearly out of gas.

 

Alachki plays with sensational speed and a crisp, staccato attack much more like a horn player than a keyboardist. It’s a unique style, and he’s made it his drawing card, firing off volley after volley of perfectly articulated notes rather than (with the exception of the twenty-minute partita that began the set) any lengthy chordal excursions. Most of his exhausting, almost two-hour set was dance material, the songs typically beginning with a bright major-key interlude before descending in a split second into darker, Middle Eastern timbres. The Balkans are where a multitude of compelling styles, with Spain beckoning in the distance on one end and Asia minor on the other, came together over the centuries, the eerie glimmer of Turkey and the Middle East sometimes in the background, sometimes completely taking over the melody. Some of what Alachki and his remarkably tight, talented backing unit – clarinetist Bajsa Arifovska, Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar bassist Reuben Radding, and percussionist Seido Salifoski – played would have been perfectly at home in an Egyptian movie from the 50s. Other songs had a mournful, deliberatedly paced klezmer feel. Still others had a Mediterranean sunniness, if only til the tempo shifted and suddenly the sky darkened.

 

As aggressive and adrenalizing a player as Alachki is, the night’s biggest crescendos all belonged to Arifovska. Although what they were playing was obviously composed through, there was a great deal of improvisation going on. As a clarinetist, she plays with a dark, wary, full tone, very often doubling the accordion lines. But when she got the chance to go out on her own, she brought the sound to redline. On several occasions, she rode out an insistent wail until the rest of the band could only play along and wait for the fever pitch to subside, for her to come down out of the stratosphere. She also played electric piano on a few songs, as well as bass drum. Alachki also impressed with a song he played on four-string lute (another big star turn for Arifovska).

 

After about an hour of instrumentals (including a marvelously witty cameo by Stagger Back Brass Band accordionist/bandleader Patrick Farrell), Alachki brought his wife Adrijana up to do vocals and it wasn’t long before she had the crowd line-dancing in perfect time: while many in the audience were clearly not Macedonian speakers, she went for a few singalongs and managed to pull in the crowd at every turn. Then she went out for a smoke, and the band went back to instrumentals. For those who might regret missing this show, no worries, this same band is playing Hungarian House, 213 E 82nd St. on 1/23 at 8 for $12.

January 21, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment