Les Yeux Noirs, Catch ’em if you can

Les Yeux Noirs
Les Yeux Noirs
Les Yeux Noirs
Seattle performance
Century Ballroom
February 24, 2004

The French group, Les
Yeux Noirs
came to my attention during the summer of 2002 around the time when I decided to immerse myself in world music. At the time, the group was touring North America promoting their studio recording, Balamouk (a heavy dose of Gypsy jazz, klezmer & Russian folk songs). While I did pen a review ofBalamouk, I turned down an invite to see the group’s first Seattle appearance. I do regret that decision.Since that time, an in-concert recording, simply entitled Live was produced and the group sans their accordionist embarked on another North American tour, including a date in Seattle. While it might seem a bit odd to market a live album with a tour, Les Yeux Noirs are one of two bands that I know of that did just that this year. Malian guitar sensation Habib Koité also released his live album, Foly on World Village and followed up with a North American tour. Unfortunately, Habib’s tour did not include a Seattle appearance. However, similar to Les Yeux Noirs, I imagine that Habib’s concert appearances put smiles on a lot of people’s faces.

Les Yeux Noirs’ Live features an octet led by violin-virtuoso brothers, Èric and Olivier Slabiak. The other musicians included on this live disc are Francois Perchat (cello), Constantin Bitica (accordion), Pascal Rondeau (guitar, vocals), Aidje Tafial (percussion), Franck Anastasio (bass) and Marian Miu (cimbalom). Each of the musicians in their own right could be considered masters
of their instruments and it is amazing to hear or see the musicians switch gears between a Russian lament to a frenzied klezmer number. Often times, this group seems to be involved in a high-speed chase through a rural village with chickens and feathers fluttering about and then when you least expect it, they participate in an extremely solemn event tinged with weeping strings that would bring tears to anyone’s eyes.

This disc highlights an intimate relationship between the musicians and their audience. Towards the end of the concert, you can hear the audience participating with the group. They sing along on the traditional Russian song, Guene Roma and Tchaye (the song which ends the concert). And enthusiastic
responses pepper this recording adding to the excitement of this group’s repertoire. In fact, I find Live to be a more enjoyable listen than the studio recording, Balamouk because of the way the musicians feed off the energy created by the audience. A beautiful exchange occurs that can only come through in a live recording and a concert.

Live features 9 of the 12 tracks that appear on Balamouk. Other tracks include Sanie Cu Zurgale (one of those high-speed romps), Calusul, Hora Ca La Caval, Cymbalum (featuring cimbalom), Ot Azoi, Djelem, the children’s song, L’Alouette (which sounds nothing like the original) and Danse Du Sabre (recalls Fellini’s 8 1/2 soundtrack). I find all of the tracks pleasurable with the exception of L’Alouette because that track sounds like violins on acid or the type of high-pitch sounds that pleasures cats and cause dogs to howl in pain. Fortunately, the musicians follow up with the playful Danse Du Sabre and the participatory Guene Roma and Tchaye. Live ends with a bonus track of Lluba, delicately weaving cello, violin, guitar and children’s choir.

Les Yeux Noirs’ Seattle appearance almost mirrored the live recording. Although many of the tracks were performed live with two new ones added the Seattle audience didn’t even come close to matching the enthusiasm found on the live disc. This isn’t to say that the French musicians didn’t receive a warm response, it just seemed like some of the audience members had never heard the group before and an intimate connection between the seven musicians and the audience was sorely missing.

However, that didn’t stop the septet from setting musical fire to the stage. Opening with Balamouk, I could see why this group has collected kudos from the press. And it was interesting to hear twin violins bouncing off of Pascal Rondeau’s wah wah guitar. Having warmed up a bit, the musicians set loose with their frenzied, Ot Zoi. Following that a new song called Ai Le Le and then the musicians returned to performing familiar repertoire off of their 2 recordings.

Half way through their set, the band introduced another new song entitled Routhania that resembled American bluegrass music. As the evening wore on, the band ignited one song after another while building on their energy and passion for Gypsy jazz, klezmer, and other genres while switching from Yiddish to Russian to French languages with ease. While I enjoyed the groups faster pace songs, my favorites were the slow numbers such as Lluba with its mournful cello and violins as well as, Yiddishe Mame. Oddly those two songs were not written down on the set list that was handed to me at the end of the concert. Perhaps that’s what I get in return for my bad French. (When I am at home practicing
French, it comes out so eloquent, but when I actually try to speak French to a native, my tongue ties in a knot and I might as well just say, “pardon moi, I’m an idiot.”)

Having said that, one doesn’t need to speak a foreign language to enjoy Les Yeux Noirs’ recordings or concerts because passion and virtuosity translates into any language. For those individuals who did witness this band in concert, think of the Live CD as a souvenir from a pleasant excursion. And for those folks who were not fortunate enough to see this band in concert pick up the disc and introduce your self to Les Yeux Noirs’ rambunctious music.