Lucid Culture


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: Kal at Joe’s Pub, NYC 10/19/08

Kal means black in Romanes, the language of the Roma (the nomadic people of Europe formerly known as gypsies). For the band, the word has several shades of meaning, not the least the sense that the Roma experience the same struggle that American blacks face. For example, the father of frontman/guitarist Dragan Ristic was the first openly ethnic Roma to graduate from teachers college in his native Serbia. Last night at Joe’s Pub, the band put on a fiery, pummeling show worthy of Gogol Bordello, somewhat incongruous considering the sedate confines of the club: while they had no trouble energizing the crowd, there was nowhere to dance, and what they played was most definitely dance music. They would have had an easier time connecting at Drom or Mehanata. Behind Ristic and sensational violinist Djordje Belkic were a hot rhythm section, percussion as well as drums, along with button accordion and key accordion. Like their Ukrainian-American counterparts (one of whom they invited onstage to deliver a boisterous rap in the middle of a frenetic dance number), most of what they play is lickety-split 2/4 minor-key dance-rock with Balkan melodies. On vocals, Ristic alternated between Romanes and Serbian (except for one tongue-in-cheek number about a young immigrant willing to marry a 45-year-old woman for a green card).


About 60% of the set was brief, barely three-minute instrumentals sprinting along on what was almost a ska beat (Kal would be HUGE on the Warped tour), sparks flying from the fingers of the accordionists and Belkic, whose searing violin runs seemed almost effortless. Watching them fan the flames, it made perfect sense that this band would have the #1 world music cd of the year in Europe a couple of years ago. After starting on the boisterous note that would dominate the night, Ristic brought things down with a beautifully contemplative, slow instrumental replete with innumerable false endings that bedeviled the crowd (and his bandmates), very evocative of the pensive, thoughtful side of Jimi Hendrix (think Little Wing or Castles Made of Sand). Then he brought the temperature back up again.  “There are eight intervals. And four halftones.” He paused for a second.  “That’s all. So what is the difference? Soul. Feeling. Blues.” He paused again. “We play for you halftones.” And they didn’t exactly (the song was another frenetic dance tune with some chromatics on the chorus), but in the vernacular of his fractured English, it was halftone.


Along with an uncompromising political awareness, there’s a lot of humor in Kal’s music, and the band did well to translate this for those who didn’t speak their language. The funniest song of the night, at least as far as a non-Serbian could understand, was a somewhat stagy number about a Serbian kid scheming to go to Vienna, where his rich uncle resides. The problem is that he doesn’t have a visa. So he makes one himself, manages to get to Vienna and then bangs on his uncle’s door. The uncle watches through the peephole…and doesn’t answer. 


The crowd, a motley mix of thrill-seekers, didn’t overturn any tables, but they did scream ferociously for an encore, which the band began without any violin until Belkic came stumbling out from backstage and in an instant had plugged in and was wailing away as if nothing had happened. Hard to imagine anything more exciting than this happening at this particular club all year long – and a pleasant distraction from watching the weary, battlescarred Red Sox collapse in the playoffs.

October 20, 2008 Posted by | Live Events, Music, New York City, Reviews | , , , , , | 1 Comment