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.
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.
Nice to see the organizers of New York’s version of La Fete de la Musique get their own site going this year. We went through it and cherrypicked the best shows we could find, just for you, if you’re feeling up for a little wandering around town during lunch, or after work – or if you’re one of the legions of the unemployed here, why not make a day out of it? As far as we can tell (last year’s master calendar only listed a fraction of the day’s actual performances), these are your best bets for all the free shows happening Monday, June 21. Note that many ambitious acts offer you more than one chance to see them. As far as locations are concerned, Monday’s best lineup is at the cube at Astor Place starting at a quarter to one with the Xylopholks, Electric Junkyard Gamelan at 1:45, Balthrop Alabama at 3:30, Black Sea Hotel at 4:30 and then Pearl and the Beard at 5:15. Also worth checking out later: the country/blues night at 68 Jay St. Bar, the all-day funk extravaganza at Rose Bar and the reggae night at SOB’s. Fortuitously, you can also go to the Punk Island show and not miss a thing because that’s on Sunday starting at 10 AM (early arrival advised) and going til five with DOA, Blanks 77, Hub City Stompers and all kinds of other excellent bands.
At noon fun and innovative latin soul/bugalu revivalists Spanglish Fly plays outside Rose Bar; at 6 they’re at the park at 2nd Ave. and E 10th St.
At noon French reggae/dub crew Dub. Inc. play City Winery; at 8 they’re at SOB’s
At noon powerpop guitar god Pete Galub plays Society Coffee, 2104 Frederick Douglass Blvd in Harlem.
At half past noon five-string Celtic fiddler Cady Finlayson and guitarist Vita Tanga play Irish music at 40 Wall St.; they move to the NYPL branch at 112 E 96th St. at 3 PM
Starting at 1 PM avant garde composer Iannis Xenakis’ trancey, intense percussion piece Oresteia will be performed at the Swedish Marionette Cottage Theatre in Central Park, enter on the west side at 79th St and follow the signs (or the noise). His Persephassa will be performed at the lake in Central Park (enter on the west side, 72nd St.) at 3:30 and 5:30
12:45 PM furry-suited vibraphone ragtime swing outfit the Xylopholks play the cube at Astor Place.
1 PM the Famous Accordion Orchestra play Brooklyn Bridge Park, Plymouth and Main St. in Dumbo – note that this is a state park so be careful if you’re drinking alcohol.
1:45 PM Electric Junkyard Gamelan – who played one of the most amazing shows we’ve seen all year – at the cube at Astor Place.
2 PM popular synth-pop dance duo Hank and Cupcakes play at the Loving Cup Cafe, 93 N 6th St. in Williamsburg; they seem to be doublebooked with funk mob Turkuaz, who are also playing outside Rose Bar on Grand St. at 6.
2 PM Mission on Mars plays psychedelic acoustic raga/rock/jazz hybrid stuff at the great hill in Central Park, enter on the west side at 103rd St.
2 PM Sukari play reggae and ska at Hunts Point Park, Lafayette Ave. and Edgewater Road in the Bronx
3 PM torchy, no-nonsense jazz/pop pianist Jeanne Marie Boes plays at Cafe Bar, 32-90 36th St. in Astoria; at 6 PM she’s at Brick Cafe at 30-95 33rd St. in Astoria.
3 PM literate, Springsteen-ish blue collar songwriter Al Lee Wyer plays Battery Park
3:30 PM Balthrop, Alabama plays at the cube at Astor Place followed by the wonderful, otherworldly Balkan vocal quartet Black Sea Hotel at 4:30 and then bracingly smart cello rockers Pearl & the Beard at 5:15
4 PM klezmer jazz crew Talat at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
4 PM Benny and the Ben-Ja-Min Band play reggae and ska at Beach 21st St. and the boardwalk in Far Rockaway; at 7 PM, they move to the Bushwick Project for the Arts, 304 Meserole St.
4 PM Chink Floyd at Tompkins Square Park – gotta love that name
4 PM violinist Karen Lee Larson and jam-oriented friends are at Society Coffee, 2104 Frederick Douglass Blvd in Harlem.
4:30 PM Gamelan Son of Lion plays Pier One at Brooklyn Bridge Park, Columbia Heights and Cranberry St. in Dumbo
5 PM the Hsu-Nami play ferocious, Asian-tinged metal/art-rock instrumentals with guitars and a Chinese erhu fiddle at the Peach Frog Companies (?), 136 N 10th St. in Williamsburg
6 PM tuneful, smart avant garde cellist/songwriter Jody Redhage & Fire in July at the Dumbo Arts Center, 30 Washington St. in Dumbo
7 PM the Voxare String Quartet at Bargemusic in Dumbo, program TBA
7 PM blazing, dark Balkan dance music from across the centuries with Raya Brass Band at Bubby’s at 1 Main St. in Dumbo
7 PM the satirical, playful, ageless Remy de Laroque plays Roosevelt Park in Chinatown, Houston and Christie.
7 PM artsy, clever accordion pop with Cassis & the Sympathies at Battery Park, moving to the Fulton Ferry Landing in Dumbo at 9
7 PM oldschool Brooklyn rock vet John Hovorka and his band at McGoldrick Park, Driggs Ave and Russell St. in Greenpoint
7 PM Num & Nu Afrika Project play roots reggae at Drastadub Studio, 58 W. 127th St.
7 PM the Old Rugged Sauce play deviously virtuosic guitar jazz standards at Mousey Brown Salon, 732 Lorimer St. in Williamsburg
7 PM punkish rockers Diabolique play Barretto Point Park, Tiffany St. and Viele Ave. in the Bronx – we saw them a couple of years ago and thought that by now they’d be even more interesting.
7:30 PM scathingly literate noir rocker LJ Murphy (completely mischaracterized on the MMNY site as “folk”) at 136 Milton St. in Greenpoint
7:30 PM Hungry March Band play Balkan brass music at Jackson Square, Horatio St. and 8th Ave. in the west village
8 PM lyrically dazzling, fiery art-rock band Changing Modes play Cafe Bar, 32-90 36th St. in Astoria
8 PM the phantasmagorical Carol Lipnik & Spookarama play the community garden at 346 E Houston between B and C
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.
Big party at Dracula’s castle last night, were you there? Alone in a darkened room, The Count? Not exactly. While not quite the mobscene that the NY Gypsy Festival’s show at le Poisson Rouge was last month, the big Balkan brass band concert last night was well-attended and deliriously fun. It was something of a juxtaposition of the old guard and the young lions of the thriving but still largely under-the-radar New York Balkan underground. The dancing started before the bands did, the dj spinning an auspiciously diverse, pan-global mix of Mehanata-style stuff while a line formed and circled the room, growing longer by the minute. Then Zlatne Uste took the stage. The nine-piece Balkan brass juggernaut – four horns, trumpet, tuba, drum and two saxes – were the first of the New York Balkan brass bands, dating from way back in 1983. Their name means “golden lips,” definitely a boast, but they back it up. “Most of us are older than you are,” their trumpeter somewhat proudly told the crowd. A guy in the crowd kept yelling for them to play his favorite song, the Goran Bregovic hit Kalasjnikov. “Not now!” a fellow partyer grinningly advised. “They always do that later.”
They opened with their darkest number of the night, basically a murky two-chord chromatic dance vamp and then another that was even simpler, serving as a chassis for some darkly intense soloing from the trumpet and sax. Most of the songs were instrumentals, although several band members sang on the vocal numbers, sometimes sharing a line or trading off. A few were marked by a noticeable shift, opening somewhat wary, the staccato pulse of the horns then growing bouncier and more carefree. As their long, exuberant set went on, the sea of dancers grew, through a bouncy, happy number in 4/4, a bracingly soulful cocek dance and several with far trickier, syncopated rhythms that didn’t phase the dancers a bit. One of the guys in the band sang a drinking song (rakia, the potent Balkan apple brandy featured prominently). The crowd – a diverse mix of expats and Americans – was clearly psyched to hear what were obviously some old favorites. As predicted, they finally did Kalasjnikov, a lickety-split vocal number, one of the horn players leading the crowd in an exuberant “one, two, three, OPA!” to wind up the chorus.
After a lengthy break, Raya Brass Band came out of the back room and secured a spot on the floor, quickly encircled by not one but two lines of dancers. There’s been a buzz about this band lately and it’s well-deserved. Where Zlatne Uste got the party going, these guys took it up a notch. Their sound is looser, far darker and they threaten to fly off the hinges at any second: this band is all about adrenaline, taking the intensity as high as it can go and then adding something on top of that. Clarinetist and sax player Greg Squared – also of the equally intense, somewhat more diverse Ansambl Mastika - is a pyrotechnic player in the Ivo Papasov mold, delivering an endless series of long, careening, wildly flurrying clarinet solos packed with lightning-fast melismas. On the sax, he backed off only a little. Yet it was his achingly terse, minimalist clarinet solo toward the end of the set that was the most intense of all. Trumpeter Ben Syversen is a kindred spirit, blazing through the songs’ eerie Middle Eastern scales while accordionist Matthew Fass (also of Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar) held things together as much as he could, ominously and atmospherically. Sometimes the band would all blast through the same repetitive riff as an ensemble, otherwise barrelling along with the fat, undulating groove of the tuba and drum as trumpet, sax or clarinet cut loose, the songs going on for minutes on end without respite. Eventually, two of the women from the Brooklyn Balkan a-capella quartet Black Sea Hotel (who have a sensationally good debut album just out) joined in and belted a few choruses
By 2 AM, the drunk munchies were kicking in, and the kitchen was still serving food. By the way, these NY Gypsy Festival events are a surefire way to get away from tourists and trendoids. Tourists, if they knew this stuff existed, would think it’s weird and scary (a lot of it is); trendoids, if they knew anything about it, would ridicule it as declasse. There’s nothing more populist than when the band is on the dancefloor and either you’re in the band or you’re unable to escape being drawn into the joyous vortex of dancers around them.
Raya Brass Band is at Mehanata on 6/25 at 9; the 6/27 Turkish Woodstock at Central Park Summerstage at 3 featuring Mazhar-Fuat-Özkan, Painted on Water with Sertab Erener & Demir Demirkan plus the NY Gypsy All-Stars with iconic clarinetist Hüsnü Senlendirici is not to be missed, and afterward the organizers have kept things going with an afterparty at City Winery, Senlendirici playing with the Brooklyn Funk Essentials and more from the Gypsy All-Stars. Is this turning out to be a good summer or what?
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.
We do this every week. You’ll see this week’s #1 song on our 100 Best Songs of 2009 list when we finalize it 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. Each link here will take you to the song.
1. Jang Sa-ik - Wild Rose
The haunting, soulful “Voice of Korea”‘s big, noir, Orbison-esque hit. This is a characteristically gripping live version. He’ll be at NY City Center on 4/18.
2. Raya Brass Band – Karsilamas
Wild delirious minor-key Balkan brass band madness by this allstar NYC crew. They’re at Mehanata on 4/16 at 9.
3. Easy Star’s Lonely Hearts Dub Band – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Arguably better than the original!?! Roots reggae, funny but also really good! From the new album.
4. Jan Bell – Carpenter’s Arms
Absolutely haunting stuff from the British expat relocated to Brooklyn.
5. Kerry Kennedy – Because You’re Gone
If memory serves right this is a Little Annie/Paul Wallfisch collaboration, done with characteristic dark panache by this excellent noir rocker. She’s at Small Beast at the Delancey upstairs on 4/16.
6. Dub Proof - Ocean Avenue
Woozy instrumental dub reggae with a nice funky groove.
7.Sari Schorr - Come Around
Artsy atmospheric ballad with bite.
8. Reigns – Everything Beyond These Walls Has Been Razed
Ambient, minimalist, atmospheric, gothy. This is the video.
9. Alana Amram & the Rough Gems – Take a Drink
Great party anthem from the NYC country/Americana chanteuse.
10. Michelle Citrin & William Levin – 20 Things to Do with Matzah
Now that Passover week is over, we’re looking forward to 50 cent matzoh in the supermarket! This isn’t new, some of you doubtlessly know it already but it is really funny.