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
The Roots are the ultimate embodiment of form over substance; this hip hop 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.”
When it comes to outright vaudeville, though, Meredith Monk’s still tough to beat. After sustaining Masada’s Semitic theme with “Jew’s Harp” (1977), Monk clicked/panted/sang a pair of “duets for solo voice” that resembled ventriloquism minus a dummy. Would the song continue as she lifted a glass of water to her lips and partook? No dice. Instead she brought on longtime partner Katie Geissinger for some increasingly musical synchronized-vocal tomfoolery.
Reich, Monk, and Zorn all sounded positively old school beside vocal conjurer Shelley Hirsch, whose 1996 work “States” employed nostalgia as a radical surgeon’s instrument. Framing her work with a tape-enhanced deconstruction of the Tin Pan Alley chestnut “Blue Skies,” Hirsch explored the complex fantasy world of a Jewish woman living in midcentury Brooklyn. Equally specific and universal, “States” celebrated in the joy of song while conveying the chaos of everyday life through technical and emotional extremism. None of these works, however, approached the immediacy of William Parker’s “Elegy for Fred Hopkins,” an ambitious reaction to the former Air bassist’s death earlier last month. Parker eschewed his own bass in order to conduct the Little Huey Creative Music Orchestra through a spectrum of moods ranging from meditative plinking, to free-blowing jazz ecstasy, to the timeless, nostalgia-free rhythms of African percussion. It was a perfect way to end an evening devoted to the history of the future. — Richard Gehr
By 9 o’clock Sunday night, the Broncos were up 24-6 and the spooky sexy subculture that dare not speak its name was ready for some P-Mosh remixes and a night of bilingual buggin’. Ramon Nova (the Dominican Tricky), fronting his Latinelectronica trio called Om, announced to the crowd, “Tienes permiso para gritar!” (You have permission to scream!) While no one took him up on the offer, the undulating wahwah vibe Nova created on his ice-blue Gibson was tangible evidence that Latin Alternative had taken over the Elbow Room.
“Have you ever asked yourself/Just who you are?” Nova goaded the crowd, as if to challenge the Gen Equis mob on the dance floor to appraise the state of its fragile nation three years removed from the birth of King Chango. Well, for one thing, the drum’n’bass thing persists like freaky Frida Kahlo stigmata in bands like Om, Urbi et Orbi, and Si-Se. But Carol Cardenas of Si-Se proved much more than just a Latin triphop knockoff of Morcheeba’s Skye Edwards. In her riveting 20-minute set, she effortlessly conjured a meta-raga rock by scatting bossa nova over dreamy dub, Santería syncopation, and sinewy Art of Noise chords.
Sure, Latin percussion has a kicky effect when enmeshed in the rat-a-tat-tat of jungle, but the jangly three-chord chaos of Naranja just plain rocked. German Palacios playfully spearheaded an attack of distorted power riffs without resorting to knee-jerk appropriations from Argentine dinosaurs Soda Stereo. But the evening’s award for authenticity and swing went to headliners Conjunto Antibalas (Anti-Bullet Band), a 10-piece soul arkestra boasting three ex-members of King Chango. Fueled by funky Fela grooves, bugaloo beats, and a passion for the plight of the pueblo, Conjunto Antibalas sent everyone home knowing who they are and what they like to dance to. Introducing a song called “We Want Food but They Give Us Poison,” leader-saxophonist community activist Martin Antibalas proclaimed that “All that junk food in the barrios is part of a plan to kill poor people.” This time, everybody screamed. — Ed Morales
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 2, 1999