A Bulgar Display

Time was when a crowd of people circle dancing at 2 a.m., guzzling slivovitz, and showering greenbacks on a clarinetist would not have occasioned comment on Delancey Street. My ancestors did it. The five bucks Tonic charged for the slivovitz (blech!) was for them a week's take wielding scissors. So it was déjà vu, but weirder, when Matt Moran's Balkan Party advanced through Arto Lindsay's dissipating crowd like a funeral band through the French Quarter. Next to the Balkan Party, Arto is as slick as Sinatra. But this is no ethnoise hybrid à la Radical Jewish Music. This is just folklore— horns, drums, accordion, a Turkish banjo called a columbusol— and you can dance to it.

Matt Moran usually plays the vibes. Here's what happened (artist's reconstruction): Earnest jazz geek hardly out of high school turns on the TV late one night around 1990 and is transfixed by Ivo Papasov and His Bulgarian Wedding Band on Nightmusic; they play like a runaway train and never move or change expression. All through New England Conservatory, he dreams unhummable melodies in satanic time signatures and practices the tapan, a double-headed bass drum, in secret. With Vlado Mahovlich on clarinet and Rossen Zahariev on trumpet, he puts together the Balkan Party. They march in from the front of Tonic and march out at the end (nothing so assimilated as an encore) and in between run through the usual ruchenitsas and horos, multipart numbers with polyphonic melodies and mesmeric accordion drones— "Slavic soul." Some dancers are down from the Hungarian House scene (they're the ones who look convincingly over the drinking age), and I ask them to ID a bit of footwork that reminds me of the Mashed Potato. They consult on whether it's a stadia or a berancole, Greek or Macedonian— did we ever get a war over that?— then decide it's "Yugoslavian." Let it go. The berancole is a step, Moran tells me, that counts in pulses of two and three to 12, or 13, or 16, 17, or 18. Uh . . . ? "It's better not to concentrate too hard while you play it." Oh, but they do. Once, watching Papasov's band, I hypothesized a Bulgarian custom that if the band had fun, the host would stiff them. Or that Papasov was meaner than John Lurie. Now I know: they're counting to 17 by twos and threes. — David Krasnow

Déjà vu, but weirder: Matt Moran's Balkan Party at Tonic
Michael Sofronski
Déjà vu, but weirder: Matt Moran's Balkan Party at Tonic

Taking Roots

The Roots are the ultimate embodiment of form over substance; this hiphop group, led by a drummer, ?uestlove, who never met a beat he couldn't re-create, and a rapper, Black Thought, unembarrassed to break out into "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday," extend the organic interplay of the music as far as anyone without actually writing memorable songs. But the band's weekly jam sessions at Wetlands— last Wednesday was the final one, as attention turns to their February 23 release, Things Fall Apart— spread those Roots deeper and wider: this was musicking as communal dream.

Early on, other musicians maintained on bass, drums, and keyboards while would-be rappers lined up for a turn, shepherded by a female MC in the older sense. The gender balance was surprisingly even, with two black women confidently shouting out to the Earths and Gods, a white lady leading her bit with a joke about a sinus infection, and a neophyte, up from months of earnest journal scribbling, getting lost and apologizing. When ?uestlove sat down, the beats got thicker and the rappers more A-list; a guy named Big L brought down the house with his tumbling spew. There was no pushing and shoving in the sold-out Wetlands, just a thoroughly interracial crowd studded with aspiring performers and devotees.

Very little repeated over the four hours. Black Thought reworked "Billie Jean" into an ace tale of he, Billie, and Michael J. Two kids from the Roots's home base of Philadelphia rapped fiercely with a nails-on-chalkboard screech. A singer came on, broke into gospel, and the music sped up for her. There was a human beatbox section, the great Rahzel solo, then scraping and scratching off friends, then several voices plus drums. A horn section; a mean bass solo answered by ?uestlove's meaner drum solo, after which he turned the drums over to his friend Bianca, who'd been bugging him— she was perfectly fine. More newbies, including a guy with a huge wingspan rapping in French. Black Thought sang blues and Bobby Darin, ?uestlove broke into some Armstrong-ian scatting, and a third friend grandly vocalized Dizzy-ish horn bleats. Another unknown delivered a political rap about Killadelphia with the rhetorical precision of Canibus. Build it and the place will hum. — Eric Weisbard

Wheel of Fortune

The nostalgia level was a tad higher than expected when the venerable and venturesome (Downtown) new-music space Roulette celebrated its 20th anniversary with a benefit concert Saturday night at (Uptown) Alice Tully Hall. So Steve Reich was on hand— literally— to perform his seminal 1972 duet, "Clapping Music," with Thad Wheeler. It's still a neat parlor trick of a work, and reminded me of something a friend observed as we grooved to Reich's even more influential "Music for Eighteen Musicians" at BAM recently: "Man, those cats can count!" And the numbers add up. After a thousand edgy evenings, Roulette, now in the process of raising money for a larger space, has definitely earned the right to mount a greatest-hits compilation. So there was saxophonist John Zorn, several pounds closer to— and one "Die, yuppie scum" T-shirt further away from— resembling Cannonball Adderly playing Fiddler on the Roof. Zorn was in full laser-beam avant-bop effect as he led his impeccable Masada quartet through a handful of 250 Jewish-tinged tunes generated (according to master of ceremonies David Garland) over a two-year period — a factoid that suggested the old punch line to comedian Steve Allen's fabled songwriting prowess: "OK, then name two."

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