Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

MarchFourth Marching Band Is a Magnificent Beast

Where groups like Slavic Soul Party take brass band music to new places, Portland, Oregon’s MarchFourth Marching Band brings blazing brass flavor to funk, ska and occasionally hip-hop. Sometimes they’re sort of like a faster Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, but along with that band’s soul grooves, they also go into salsa and Afrobeat along with innumerable other global styles, with some neat dub tinges. Their latest album Magnificent Beast is party music to the extreme: catchy danceable grooves, big mighty hooks and tight, inspired playing: it’s a good approximation of the fullscale theatricality of the massive, sometimes 20+ piece band’s live show.

Interestingly, they open the album with a crunchy, guitar-driven heavy metal song set to a trip-hop beat. The second track, Soldiers of the Mind goes from funk, to reggae, to rap,with a nice soulful trombone solo and bubbly organ behind it. Delhi Belly slowly morphs into funk from a hypnotically rattling bhangra groove, with fat, noir solos from the trumpet and baritone sax. The tracks that most evoke the Hypnotic Brass guys are Fat Alberta, with its neat polyrhythms and shifting brass segments, and The Finger, a sweet, summery oldschool soul groove.

A lusciously sly oldschool salsa jam with a funny, tongue-in-cheek trombone solo, Sin Camiseta has the bari sax setting off a rousing arrangement that’s part second-line, part ska. The album’s best song, Cowbell, takes the sly, comedic factor to the next level with swirling Ethiopian horns, a smoky, sultry tenor sax solo and then finally a swirl of horns that unexpectedly go 3 on 4 on the outro. Rose City Strut reaches for lushly lurid noir swing ambience with reverb guitar and sometimes bubbly, sometimes apprehensive horns, muted trumpet and clarinet enhancing the late-night ambience in some random alley off a brightly lit avenue. A Luta Continua sets biting, syncopated salsa to an Afrobeat shuffle; Git It All, with its funky pop hook, was obviously designed for audience participation.

Another track full of unexpectedly fun changes, Fuzzy Lentil starts out like swaying, funky halfspeed ska, then takes a punk riff and funks it out with a biting brass arrangement. They end the album with the slowly crescendoing soul epic Skin Is Thin, the only real vocal track here, thoughtfully and poetically contemplating how to survive with “greedy nuts hatching evil plans” all around us – is this a time when “being a mutt is the only way to survive?” Maybe. As party music goes, it doesn’t much smarter or more entertaining than this. M4, as their fans call them, have a Dec 17 show in their hometown at Refuge,116 SE Yamhill; lucky partiers in the Bay Area can see them on New Year’s Eve at the Concourse Exhibition Center, 635 8th St. in San Francisco.

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December 3, 2011 Posted by | funk music, latin music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, ska music, soul music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Trouble in Tribeca, Part Two: Chicha Libre, the Cuban Cowboys and Slavic Soul Party at the 92YTribeca, NYC 1/8/10

Booking agency Trouble Worldwide’s night of showcases for the annual APAP booking agents’ convention continued with two New York institutions who call Brooklyn bar Barbes their home, sandwiched around comedic Bay Area Cuban/American retro rockers the Cuban Cowboys. We have reviewed shows by Chicha Libre a few times; we have seen them more times than we can count. Even by their standards, this one was deliriously fun, the high point of the night (and when you can upstage Slavic Soul Party, that’s pretty damn good). For those who don’t know the band, their style of music is chicha, which takes its name from a Peruvian corn liquor which is sort of that country’s equivalent of Olde English or Colt .45. Wildly popular on a regional basis in the 1970s, chicha music blends psychedelically-tinged American surf music, a Colombian cumbia beat and bits and pieces of just about every other latin style from Brazilian to salsa. Chicha Libre had been asked by the producers of the Simpsons to provide a chicha version of the show’s theme song in honor of the cartoon’s 25th anniversary, which aired Sunday (you can hulu it): the song very cleverly skirted the theme but didn’t tackle it head-on until a break midway through. Because chicha bands in the style’s heyday so frequently chichafied music from just about everywhere else on the globe, Chicha Libre do the same, with results that vary from haunting (the understated, swaying version of Erik Satie’s macabre Gymnopedie No. 1 that they used to open the set on a subdued note) to amusing, notably a cover of Hot Butter’s 70s novelty synth instrumental hit Popcorn (which the band uses as a tribute to corn liquor and weed). They also gave Vivaldi the chicha treatment (Spring, from the Four Seasons, retitled Primavera en la Selva i.e. Springtime in the Jungle), as well as running through tight covers of songs from the classic chicha era, from the hilarious El Borrachito (The Little Drunk Guy), an infectious version of a Juaneco classic and the scurrying Pato de Perro (Dog’s Paw). Josh Camp’s vintage Electrovox electric organ swirled and spun off a forest of eerie overtones and Vincent Douglas’ Telecaster provided the requisite noir twang and clang while Olivier Conan’s cuatro in tandem with the percussionists clattered like an old VW taxicab, confident in its knowledge of every rut and bump in the road.

The Cuban Cowboys brought a stagy, occasionally campy, over-the-top sensibility to their Cuban-inflected mix of reverb-soaked surf and garage rock songs. A tongue-in-cheek number about a gay sailor bounced along on a ska beat; by contrast, a dark, minor-key tango reflected on the Obama adminstration’s failure so far to normalize Cuban-American relations. Another serious number, Dance with the Devil touched on the band’s disastrous experience with a big record label. They closed with the side-splitting Senor Balaban, a nonstop, rapidfire Spanish-language narrative about a kid getting a sex education talk from a bunch of old Cuban geezers. “It helps if she’s drunk,” one of them soberly asserts.

Slavic Soul Party have earned themselves a reputation as just about the most exciting thing happening in original Balkan brass music, and reaffirmed that with a characteristically blazing set to end the evening on an high note. The eleven-piece band has toned down the hip-hop attitude a little bit, concentrating on the music, from the joyous, spot-on James Brown funk tune they opened with, standing in the middle of the crowd in front of the stage, to the playfully satirical faux-techno of the title track from their previous album Technochek Collision that closed the night. Playing every Tuesday night at Barbes has made them incredibly tight – watching all the horns play one rapidfire cluster of eerie chromatics after the other, in perfect unison, was intense. Several of the songs were partitas, sometimes leaping into warpspeed, sometimes shifting with seeming effortlessness from a slinky, quasi-latin groove to fullscale stomp, accordion, trumpets and trombones all getting the chance to bring the songs to redline with breakneck solo crescendos. The title track to their latest cd was the high point, suddenly dropping to a Balkan trip-hop vamp taken up again on the wings of a blazing bop trumpet solo, all lightning doublestops and glissandos. It’s impossible to imagine that there could have been a better show anywhere in town that night.

January 11, 2010 Posted by | concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Concert Review: The Fourth Annual Main Squeeze Accordion Festival

Forget All Points West or Lolapalooza if it should ever get here again: diehard fans with sufficient stamina (and water supply- it was overcast but pretty hot most of the day over by the river) to hang in through all seven acts on the bill at Pier One on the Hudson were treated to what might be the year’s best single-day outdoor New York music festival. Considering how much of a comeback the small but mighty accordion has made over the years here in the US, there was a sense of defiance and triumph in the air.

The opening act, Musette Explosion is a tremendously good side project from accordionist Will Holshouser and guitarist Matt Munisteri – they do this gig a few times a year when there’s time, and given how much fun everybody onstage was having, it’s something of a surprise they don’t do it more often. Backed by bass saxophonist Scott Robinson, they ran through an alternately haunting and bouncy mix of swing-inflected French and Belgian instrumentals from mostly the 1930s and 40s. The highlight of the set, as usual, was Jo Privat’s eerie La Sorciere (The Witch), Munisteri weaving his way into a ferocious tremolo-picked solo on banjo. A Holshouser original, Chanson Pop built to a lushly plaintive, unaffectedly dramatic Baroque-inflected anthem. This group usually plays with a tuba, but Robinson made a great fit: blazing solos aren’t something you expect from a bass sax, but this guy delivered, particularly on the opening number, Gus Viseur’s swaying Swing Valse.

Mexican norteno band Suspenso del Norte were next, seemingly a project of the Javier family of Queens: father Pablo on guitar and lead vocals with his twelve-year-old son on button accordion along with a second guitar and rhythm section. What they play is essentially Mexican country music, with the same kind of swinging backbeat as what used to come out of Nashville before it became the hometown of lame pop-rock about fifteen years ago. Mixing popular hits along with originals, they connected with the small expat contingent who’d come out to see them, the powerfully built young accordionist supplying effortlessly fast, soulfully bubbling leads.

Hector Del Curto’s Eternal Tango Quintet took the dance vibe into intense, wrenchingly passionate territory. With Del Curto on bandoneon, Gustavo Casenave on piano, Pedro Giraudo on upright bass along with an inspired cellist and violinist, they mixed originals and classics, from a stately, haunting version of the traditional Argentinian tango El Choclo to a fast yet lush take of the Piazzolla classic Libertango. Another Piazzolla composition, Michaelangelo #17 bristled with stormy bandoneon and string flourishes; an original, Emancipacion built suspense with a martial beat and some vivid interplay between piano and bandoneon, a device that Del Curto employed very effectively and evocatively through the set’s brooding ebbs and aching swells.

The Main Squeeze Orchestra were next: being the pet project of Walter Kuhr, proprietor of the Main Squeeze accordion center on Essex St., this is an annual event for the all-female twelve-accordion group. It was a characteristically playful, tongue-in-cheek yet also virtuosic and fascinatingly arranged performance. They got the schlock out of the way first – no matter how much you polish a turd, there’s not much you can do with the Eurythmics or Michael Jackson. “This is a happy song about love,” announced one of the women, taking a turn on vocals on an oompah version of the Joy Division classic Love Will Tear Us Apart. They reinvented Misirlou as a tango and Hava Nagila as a hora, seguing into a happy, upbeat wedding dance. The Kinks’ Demon Alcohol was as amusingly over-the-top as usual; they closed with their deliciously deadpan, full-length version of Bohemian Rhapsody. Maybe if we get lucky they’ll do Freebird next year.

Italian composer/accordionist Roberto Cassan and classical guitarist John Muratore followed with a fascinating, cutting-edge program that spanned from a couple of swinging yet pensive Piazzolla compositions originally written for guitar and flute, to a darkly expansive instrumental by a contemporary Cuban composer, two rousing Italian tarantellas and a long opening number with echoes of both Celtic music and bluesy Hot Tuna-style improvisation.

The big hit of the festival was Liony Parra y la Mega Mafia Tipica, who absolutely slayed with a wildly danceable set of merengue. Parra delivered lightning-fast rivulets on his button accordion, sometimes trading off with the band’s excellent sax player, who matched him note for note on some pretty crazy trills. Along with a harmony singer,  they had a rhythm section including congas, cajon and bass drum along with a five-string bassist who stole the show, punching in booming chords to bring a phrase to a crescendo, adding eerie atonal accents, liquid arpeggios and even some laid-back, unpretentious two-handed tapping when things got really sick. They took their time working in with a long intro, just accordion and the drums, then the bass hit a tritone and they went flying. La Mega Mafia Tipica’s merengue is party music, first and foremost: they don’t sing much except on the choruses. This set had a bunch of deliriously hypnotic two-chord jams, bass behind the beat for a fat, seductive groove. They’d shake up the rhythm in places, accordion and sometimes the bass playing three on four for an extended vamp. The last song of the set had a trick ending that took pretty much everybody by surprise: of all the bands on the schedule, only la Mega Mafia Tipica got an encore because nobody wanted the party to stop.

That Slavic Soul Party accordionist Peter Stan and his four-piece backing band weren’t anticlimactic speaks for itself. Stan is something of the Balkan Rick Wakeman, blessed with unearthly speed and fond of playing a lot of notes. This time out he had his son Peter Jr. on chromatic button accordion, playing much like his dad, along with violin, synthesizer usually supplying the basslines and somewhat minimalist drums. By now, it was late, the rain was picking up and everybody except the growing line of dancers in front of the stage seemed pretty exhausted. But it was impossible to leave. Stan plays the kind of modern Balkan dance music you hear at Mehanata, a slick feel made slicker by the artificial bass sound of the synth. But the tunes are relentless and often haunting. He soloed his way from country to country, from Romanian gypsy to klezmer. The band mixed it up, from the happy, upbeat Serbian pop song Nishka Banya to the stately, sweepingly ornate original instrumental Gypsy Soul Fantasy to several edgy dance numbers sung by guest vocalist Bato the Yugo. It was an appropriately bracing way to wind up the evening. Watch this space for upcoming NYC dates by all these bands.

July 12, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, 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

CD Review: The Rough Guide to Gypsy Music

Like the books, the Rough Guide albums can send the unsuspecting adventurer careening down the wrong path, but this one’s a keeper. As an introduction, it’s smashingly addictive, a pathway drug leading ultimately to the delirium and ecstasy that comes with discovering the entirety of the gypsy music spectrum. It must have been a blast to put together. For the more experienced fan, it still makes a great anthology. With the music business in disarray, the smarter labels are doing all they can to make their products attractive and World Music Network, no dummies, have included with this a free, first-rate bonus cd by Bela Lakatos & the Gypsy Youth Project.

 

What’s most impressive is how broad a net the compilers have cast. Gypsy music has become a truly global phenomenon, and this does as well as anything else as a snapshot of some of the best acts out there at the moment. For purists, there’s Taraf de Haidouks’ Waltz from Masquerade, a swaying, orchestrated string-driven theme and variations, winding up with whispery violins boiling over into a big crescendo. For fans of Balkan brass, there’s the intricately arranged Voz by Boban I Markovic Orkestar, and representing the new generation, Ya-Ya by Slavic Soul Party, kicking off with an amusing old doo-wop melody before going all dark and haunting. The Bosnian Mostar Sevah Reunion are represented by the hypnotic, horn-driven Guglo Kafava. Biav by Austrian “urban gypsies” Dela Dap reminds of Manu Chao with its bouncy, catchy minimalism (speaking of which, where’s Manu Chao? Nowhere to be found).

 

There’s also a roughhewn track by Acquaragia Drom that reminds of acoustic Gogol Bordello (no Gogol Bordello either), the stomping, latin-flavored More Love! Money Mate! by Czechs Terne Chave, a big bright Romanian dance vamp by Fanfare Ciocarlia feat. Kaloome and a haunting, cimbalom-and-vocalese-driven number credited to gypsy film director Toni Gatliff along with genre-bending cuts by Son de la Frontera, Musafir, Bela Lakatos and Stochelo Rosemberg. Gypsy music fans being what we are, there’s bound to be plenty of debate about what’s missing here, but taken for what it is, it’s as good a place to start as any.

 

The Lakatos/Gypsy Youth Project would be worth owning as a stand-alone album. Their expertise is the rustic, guitar-based acoustic style found in rural Hungary, rich with vocal harmonies, stomping along on a dance beat. Lakatos, founder of the popular Kalyi Jag, started this band both to preserve the traditional repertoire as well as to find a younger generation of musicians to play it and the results are predictably bracing and fun. It’s amazing how far and wide these sounds have spread. The bouncy, catchy Del O Brishind reminds of Brooklyn Peruvian plunderers Chicha Libre; Bilako Na Zhuvau and Muro Shavo have the kind of snarky melody you’d find in an American ragtime hit around 1900; Autar Manca plinks along like a Mexican border ballad. This is the raw material that the other bands here have taken and run with and it’s absolutely essential to get to know if this is your music. 

April 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Las Rubias Del Norte, Cordero, Hazmat Modine, Karsh Kale and Slavic Soul Party at 92YTribeca, NYC 1/9/09

In a nice diversion from the blizzardy conditions outside, this was a whole summer festival compressed into an evening featuring relatively brief sets from some of the creme de la creme of the New York scene, put together for the booking agents’ convention by upstart Brooklyn label Barbes Records and adventurous San Francisco booking agency Trouble Worldwide.

 

With the angelic, effortlessly graceful harmonies of frontwomen Allyssa Lamb and Emily Hurst, las Rubias del Norte’s all-too-brief set was uncommonly dark and haunting, playing most of their material in minor keys. The band has been characterized here before as the latin Moonlighters, which is true both in the sense that both groups share an effervescent, romantic sensibility defined by their harmonies and a love of diverse styles from earlier eras. Las Rubias used what time they had onstage to explore several of them: bouncy cumbias from Colombia, romantic Mexican baladas and an eerie number that made frequent use of the Asian scale, propelled by Hurst’s agile work on bells. They closed the set with a fast, scurrying Mexican traditional number in 6/8 time.

 

Cordero frontwoman Ani Cordero has an impressively diverse resume, ranging from surf music to the dark atmospherics of Bee & Flower, the ranchera rock of Pistolera and this, her main project, a warmly melodic, catchy rock en Espanol quartet. She’s also become a terrifically compelling singer: the strength and sultry insistence of her low register was particularly striking in contrast with her characteristically warm, airy high notes. Playing her Strat without any effects and just a hint of natural distortion, she led the group through an eight-song set of terse, smartly crafted, upbeat, major-key janglerock with an incisive, thoughtful lyricism. On a couple of tunes she put down her guitar and played tom-tom while the group’s organist provided a minimalist dance groove, which actually got some bodies in the crowd twirling.

 

With so many bands scheduled to fill a relatively brief block of time, it was perhaps inevitable that one of the bands would get shafted and that band turned out to be Hazmat Modine. Which was too bad: in three songs and less than 25 minutes, they actually managed to energize the crowd. Frontman Wade Schuman – one of the most charismatic bandleaders around – began the show with a harmonica solo, then stopped cold. “You came here to hear music, didn’t you,” he reminded the chatty, restless audience, and suddenly got everyone’s attention. Schuman then resumed his solo, using an effects pedal for an organ tone, perhaps as a nod to the great blues harpist Carey Bell who typically played through a Leslie speaker from a Hammond organ. Then the band – this time including Pete Smith and Michael Gomez on guitars along with Fearless Dreamer’s Pam Fleming on trumpet plus sax, tuba and drums – launched into the fat reggae groove of So Glad, Fleming taking the intensity to redline in a matter of seconds with one of her trademark instant crescendos.

 

Their second song was a hypnotic one-chord oldtimey-style blues that they’d recorded with Tuvan throat singers Huun Huur Tu, a showcase for interplay between the wind instruments and then the guitars, Gomez and Smith interlocking like the gears in some infernal machine, gnashing and grinding everything in their path. The band closed with a surprisingly fast take of the title track to their most recent cd Bahamut, a surreal, calypso-flavored epic featuring a lot of agile baton-passing as the band members each took a brief solo turn. World music personality Karsh Kale’s set was also brief, and happily so: his qawwali-rock hybrid started snoozy, then became oppressive with pointlessly garish heavy metal guitar.

 

Slavic Soul Party’s upcoming Carnegie Hall gig has been sold out for quite awhile, and the nine-piece brass band left no doubt as to why, opening their wild, intense set with a march through the audience, pounding the drums and blasting out a fiery Balkan melody. Their first song onstage was a blistering instrumental romp through a two-chord, chromatically-fueled jam, accordion and then trumpet each taking deftly jazzy solos. The next number started suspensefully, building on a single chord to a march, and then a dance beat, the best solo of the entire evening delivered with unleashed, murderous fury by sax player Greg Squared (who also fronts the terrific pan-Balkan group Ansambl Mastika). They then brought up guest singer Eva Salina Primack, who added dramatic, contralto lead vocals along with plenty of ominous, wailing vocalese. They wrapped up the evening with the title track to their cd Teknochek Collision, an amusing spoof of computerized dance music that bore more than a little resemblance to similarly devious instrumentalists Brooklyn instrumentalists Moisturizer, tuba and horns working in lockstep staccato to mimic the cliched, broken-cd effect so widely used in electronica. Since time was up, the band played their encore the way they’d come in, marching off the stage and back through the crowd with plenty of stops along the way to make sure the party wasn’t over until they were really through. They’ve been playing Barbes every Tuesday at around 9 since god knows when; now’s the time to catch them while they’re still there.

January 11, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment