West Philly Orchestra (WPO) – Tour De Filli (Fly Bottle Records, 2016)
On Tour De Filli, the West Philly Orchestra Album plays fun, infectious Balkan dance music. The ensemble’s foundation is Eastern European brass band music, Gypsy melodies, American jazz improvisation and vocals by Bulgarian artist Petia Zamfirova who sings in English, Romani and Bulgarian.
Eastern Moon Rising showcases the multi-faceted music side of saxophonist and composer Boris Kovač and his band La Campanella.
On Eastern Moon Rising you’ll hear fascinating musical pieces where Serbian traditional music easily morphs into smoky lounge jazz, tango, blues, Romanian doina, avant-garde rock, French waltz, and unexpected twists and turns.
Yhr aslbum lineup includes Boris Kovač Boki on soprano and alto saxophones and vocals; Vukašin Mišković Vuki on acoustic and electric guitars; Goran Penić Gogi on accordion; Miloš Matić Miki on double bass; and Lav Kovač Laki on drums.
Hazmat Modine is a band of unconventional musical instruments and cultural combinations that reflect the origins of the American musical soul. Their debut CD was Bahamut (Barbes Records 2006).
The band is led by two harmonica-players rounded out with tuba drums guitars and trumpet and recruits guests appearing on lesser-known instruments such as the claviola (an unusual free-reed instrument), cimbalom (a large hammered dulcimer of Eastern European origin), the contra-bass, saxophone and the sheng (Chinese mouth organ).
The band plays an unexpected mix that may include Blues, Rocksteady or Gypsy music. “If you want to be faithful to the music forms that made American music great,” says Hazmat leader Wade Schuman. “You have to be faithful to what made it great not to the music forms themselves. American music is by its essence music that comes out of the so-called melting pot of different cultures banging up against each other. And that was the creative aspect.”
Schuman explains that the first real Blues hit ‘St. Louis Blues’ by W.C. Handy included a minor-key tango section. “That is one of the things that makes the song what it is,” says Schuman. He points to the significant influence of Latin and Caribbean music in the 1930s and the huge influx of immigrants into New York City. “There were few studios in Trinidad ‘ explains the harmonica-player vocalist and guitarist. ‘Most Calypso musicians were recording in New York so many of the early Calypso recordings were related in some way to America. The point is that we live in a nostalgic commodified world where we believe that Rock and Roll or Bluegrass or Dixieland are rigid music forms not influenced by outside factors. But that is not the history of how American music happened. It’s really quite dynamic and based on a phenomenal cultural shift in the early part of the 20th century.”
At the same time Schuman recognizes that regions of the United States each had their own local flavor. “Without television and with limited national radio things didn’t homogenize as fast,” said Schuman. “Things would gestate in a lot of creative ways in different locations. Here in New York there are these individual music scenes full of incredible musicians. And I do try to tap into all these different spheres.”
Hazmat’s band members come out of many backgrounds. Guitarist Pete Smith will often give a song a Cuban or Brazilian spin. Veteran tuba player Joseph Daley not only brings a wealth of knowledge from his work as an improvising artist but is also respected as one of the United States’most creative ‘lower brass specialists.’ Drummer Richard Huntley hops from Latin and Jazz to Klezmer while Pamela Fleming uses her vibrant trumpet to bridge everything from the Swing era to soulful Reggae. Guitarist Michael Gomez who plays every style from finger-picking to Swing-Jazz to Rock and Roll also plays the Banjitar and the lap steel guitar. While Schuman’s harmonica repertoire evolved out of Pre-War Blues and roots Randy Weinstein draws on Chicago Blues Jazz and World Music.
The small diatonic harmonica was popularized in Germany as a folk instrument, almost a toy. It was sold in massive quantities and was affordable to American Southerners, both African-American and European-American. “They pulled from it things it was never meant to do,” explains Schuman. “Bending a note is an accident of physics creating that glissando blue note. An instrument designed for one thing is used in a different way and a new music form is invented for it.” The harmonica pictured on the cover of the debut CD Bahamut is a real instrument from Schuman’s collection and offers a visual metaphor for the band.
Singer-songwriter Eugene Hutz arrived to the US from Ukraine after an epic seven-year trek through Eastern Europe refugee camps to escape the Chernobyl meltdown.
In 1996 Hutz landed in New York City and met the musicians who became Gogol Bordello. The band’s international underground reputation grew quickly due to their innovative blend of Eastern European Gypsy and Western culture and a stage show that resembles a three-ring circus of surreal stimuli.
Eugene Hutz – vocals, acoustic guitar
Sergey Rjabtzev – violin, vocals
Oren Kaplan – guitar, vocals
Eliot Ferguson – drums
Yuri Lemeshev – accordion
Rea Mochiach – bass
Voi-La Intruder (Rubric Records, 1999)
Multi Kontra Culti vs. Irony (Rubric Records, 2002)
Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike (SideOneDummy Records, 2005)
Super Taranta! (SideOneDummy Records, 2007)
Live from Axis Mundi (SideOneDummy Records, 2009),
Trans-Continental Hustle (American Recordings, 2010)
Pura Vida Conspiracy (2013)
Saxophonist Yuri Yunakov was born in Haskovo, southeastern Bulgaria, of Turkish Romani (Gypsy) ancestry and currently lives in the New York City area. He comes from a long line of musicians in his extended family, including his father and grandfather and his uncles and brother. Yuri’s career began with the band Mladost and he later started a 10-year collaboration with Ivo Papazov and Trakija.
Yuri is Bulgaria’s most famous saxophonist. Together with the Trakija orchestra Yunakov played at hundreds of weddings in his native Bulgaria, and toured extensively in Europe and North America.
In 1989 he was featured on NBC TV with saxophonist David Sanborn. Yuri appears on the recording “Gypsy Fire”, a CD of Turkish music on Traditional Crossroads.
In 1994, Yunakov moved to the United States. He is the director of the Yuri Yunakov Ensemble, and is in great demand among the Bulgarian, Macedonian, Albanian, Turkish, Armenian and Romani communities in the New York City area.
In 2011, Yunakov received a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship.
A term like “Eastern European music” gets bandied about by many, including me. It’s one of those convenient generalizations used to cover a category that’s more than a category. From folkloric traditions and age-old ballads to mighty brass bands and fusions that were free to happen in post-communist societies, there’s a lot to take in.
Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra offer up Svod: Traditional Songs from Serbia and The Balkans (ARC Music, 2016). I remain unclear as to how many pieces constitutes an orchestra, but this outfit’s 9-strong lineup (plus guest players) proceeds with delightful zest through a set of mainly traditional tunes that retain the heartfelt sevdah (Balkan blues) intent and add enough rhythmic swing to lift the spirits and stir the hips.
Krstic’s soaring (but never overbearing) vocals are a marvel in settings of both sparse accompaniment that lets the emotional content sink in and full band buildups often jazz-like in the way they flow. At times sporting a serenity that seems to stop all else before breaking into a dance-inducing left turn, this highly satisfying collection succeeds on those levels and more, including one spine-tingling a capella track.
In rather stark contrast stands Put (Geenger Records, 2016) by the Zagreb-based trio of Franolic, Jovanovic and Culap. The three play oud (Arabic lute), harmonica and percussion respectively, and while there’s a Balkan sensibility running through their rhythms and melodies, influences from Turkey, India and anywhere blues and jazz have permeated are evident as well.
The oud and harmonica shadow each other with a symbiosis that lets them both take turns slinking or springing forward to take the lead as the percussion (primarily frame drum and ceramic udu) marks changes in time and mood and does some leading of its own. Put has got atmosphere to spare, but there’s a core to this music that’s covertly fierce and passionate. Consider it essential listening.
Of course, klezmer -that celebratory brand of Jewish music rooted in the 19th century and well able to get the heart pounding here in the 21st- is one sort of Eastern European music that’s immediately identified with the region and the people who created it. The Klezmatics have been foremost in keeping the sound alive for 30 years and they’re unlikely to stop anytime soon, which is good news for all of us. On Apikorsim/Heretics (World Village, 2016) the band is as crazy cool and ingeniously mad as ever, harnessing their arsenal of brass, reeds, violin, viola, accordion, guitar, bass, piano, organ, harmonium, kaval, tsimbl, drums, percussion and vocals (dang, that’s a lot of instruments when you consider there’s only 6 people in the band) to create Yiddish songs that are lively and infectious almost beyond belief.
Just as important, they see to it that klezmer’s roots as music of an enduring, vibrant culture are not overlooked in serious or humorous terms. So while songs like “May Redemption Come” and “Who Guides the Ships?” are sincere in their spiritual perspective and “My Mother’s Mirror” pulls no punches on the reality of aging, there’s room for a gastronomically indulgent “Party in Odessa” and a close examination on the title track of exactly what makes happy heretics happy. The Klezmatics are in prime form, playing music they’ve not only mastered but obviously continue to love very deeply.
headline photo: Bilja Krstic and the Bistrik Orchestra
Jaakko Laitinen & Väärä Raha – Näennäinen (Playground Music, 2016)
Jaakko Laitinen and his band Väärä Raha hail from Lapland in northern Finland and they have a fascination with nostalgic Roma and Balkan music, brass band music, and other musical traditions such as Finnish tango and humppa, as well as Russian and Greek love songs.
Most of the material performed by Jaakko Laitinen & Väärä Raha is original, ranging from old fashioned love songs to progressively fast brass music.
The lineup includes Jaakko Laitinen on vocals; Marko Roininen on accordion; Jarkko Niemelä on trumpet, bouzouki and altohorn; Tuomo Kuure on double bass; and Janne Hast on drums.
Guests featured: Bjonko Stoisic on clarinet; Morgan Nickolay on balalaika; Matti Pitkänen on violin; Tuomas Timonen on percussion; Valtteri Bruun on guitar, mandolin, ukulele and synthesizer.
When music listeners and explorers gather formally to further their fascination, there are always two or three performers too intense for most ears. One hears whispers in the listening space as those who recognize the act about to begin caution those around them that this may be a time to visit the lobby or concession stand, to go outside to smoke or check messages. “Oh God, this guy will put you to sleep,” or “They’re saying something, but I don’t know what,” one hears from the row ahead or behind. These are the acts that are overwhelming for many.
The truly musically curious, however, remain in the concert space and pay all the more attention, both to the stage and to the other attendees who have remained in their seats. The acts that elicit this preliminary response in the audience are those who separate the fans from the ethnomusicologists. Meet Serbian composer Srdjan Beronja. His label’s press release explains that he “travel[s] to remote locations and records unusual local sounds from desert townships, coastal villages and the dawn chorus high up in trees.” On this CD, these field recordings “from the geographical triangle between India, the Middle East and the Balkans” are used to introduce and provide audio beds for some of the cuts, thus merging the artist’s fascination with natural sounds and his musicianship.
He works with a number of renowned players of instruments typifying tour stops along the way from the Balkans through the Middle East to India and back, with expressive results. This is not a consistent album to be played as background music at a cocktail party or curry house, but more akin to a visit to a good art gallery where a broad spectrum of visual artists is on display.
“Sounds of the East Music from The Balkans, India & The Middle East” is a beautiful collection for collectors.
Ara Dinkjian is an Armenian born in the United States in 1958. His earliest professional musical experience was accompanying his father Onnik Dinkjian, a renowned Armenian folk and liturgical singer.
Ara learned several western and eastern instruments (piano, guitar, darbuka, clarinet) and in 1980 graduated from the Hartt College of Music, earning the country’s first and only special degree in the instrument for which he has become most well-known, the oud. For the past 35 years, he has continued his post as organist in the Armenian Apostolic Church.
Throughout his musical life, Ara has continued to develop his highly personal compositional style which blends his eastern and western roots. In 1985, to help realize these compositions and musical concepts, Ara formed his instrumental quartet, Night Ark, which recorded four CDs for RCA/BMG and Universal/PolyGram.
Night Ark’s recordings and concert tours were highly influential for musicians and music lovers throughout the world because they demonstrated how music can move forward while still retaining the dignity and soul of one’s culture.
These compositions have had a universal appeal; his songs have been recorded by world famous instrumentalists and singers in thirteen different languages, demonstrating that music does indeed unite people and cultures. His hit song “Dinata, Dinata” was performed at the closing ceremonies of the 2004 Athens Olympics. Many of his compositions have appeared in movie and television soundtracks.
Ara is also considered one of the best oud players in the world, with a very personal style that emphasizes his uniquely beautiful tone. He has appeared throughout the world on concert stages, oud festivals, seminars, and master classes.
His CDs ‘An Armenian In America’, ‘Voice Of Armenians’, and ‘Peace On Earth’ were recorded live at the 2005, 2006, and 2007 Jerusalem International Oud Festivals.
In 2010, Ara Dinkjian formed The Secret Trio, along with clariner virtuoso Ismail Lumanovski (New York Gypsy All-Stars) and qanun maestro Tamer Pinarbasi. The ensemble performs Turkish, Balkan Roma (Gypsy) and Armenian music.
He continues to compose, perform, record, and teach, while creating his own unique musical landscape.
Balkan Beat Box (BBB) blends electronic music, hip hop beats, and hard-edged folk music from the Balkans, North Africa, and the Middle East.
BBB is a natural reaction of musicians who wanted to erase political borders (our ears don’t have them, why should we, as one band member put it). A band of New Yorkers, Israelis, Africans, and Bulgarians, led by ex-Gogol Bordello member Ori Kaplan and Firewater / Big Lazy’s Tamir Muskat, BBB brings together music, video projections, and a rotating cast of guests including the Bulgarian Chicks, Victoria Hannah, Jeremiah Lockwood, gnawa player Hasan Ben Nafar, Israeli MC Tomer Yosef, and more.
Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat have lived in New York City for over ten years, where they led a new scene of underground immigrant-based music (J.U.F Jewish Ukrainian Friendship and Gogol Bordello), which was based on the idea of taking ethnic music and modernizing it for contemporary audiences. Balkan Beat Box is a progression of this style of music, taking a worldly approach to the music of their ancestors, and evolving it to include not only the region of the world that they personally emigrated from, but also to incorporate the musical styles from their parents and grandparents birthplaces.
As Israelis born to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Ori and Tamir learned their ancestors’ Eastern European music while surrounded by the music of the Middle East. Through their own migration to the United States, the blend of Eastern European and Middle Eastern music was transformed again. What emerged was a blend of musical cultures; traditional sounds from two distinct parts of the world have been melded together with modern instruments and beats, to create a musical genre displaying their multinational roots.
The band’s fifth studio album, Shout It Out, was recorded in Vibromonk in East Tel Aviv. New influences include ‘ghettotech’, bluegrass, and pop.