Thursday, October 27, 2005

New York City's Balkan music scene

One of the least-expected waves to hit New York City is the current Balkan gypsy music fad, led by Gogol Bordello and its illuminated frontman Eugene Hütz.

The scene started slowly at Mehanata, on the second floor of an unassuming building on the corner of Broadway and Canal Street in Chinatown. Hütz started out there as a DJ and quickly built a following. Gogol Bordello quickly followed, forming in 2000. The band performs what it calls "punk cabaret" music, influenced by Hutsul, Ukrainian, Romanian and Gypsy music. Hütz's rise recently culminated in a starring role in the movie Everything is Illuminated.

There are easily a dozen bands in the five boroughs playing one sort of Balkan music or another. Among the current favorites are Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar, Romashka, Hungry March Band and Luminescent Orchestrii. The most established are Zlatne Uste and Slavic Soul Party!, and one old favorite we'd love to see make a comeback is Pectopah.

You can catch these bands at shows all over town, particularly at Mehanata, Hungarian House, Barbes and Maia Meyhane. Other venues that frequently feature these bands include the Knitting Factory, Nublu and Satalla.

For anyone interested in learning the traditional dances that accompany the music, there's NYC Folk Dance. Each year, they schedule two seasons of low-key dance lessons as part of their Folk Dance Fridays, Family Dance and Balkan Cafe series at Hungarian House on the Upper East Side. They also run a Wednesday night Balkan dance class in Chelsea.

The high point of the Balkan music year in the city is definitely the Golden Festival, which next takes place on 13 and 14 January 2006. In its 21st year, the annual gathering is organized by Zlatne Uste and features countless performers on multiple stages, Balkan and Middle Eastern delicacies and art vendors.

But before that comes the first New York Gypsy Festival, which opens on Saturday and runs through 6 November. The festival, like most of the bands and events, does not feature music from Slavic lands exclusively, but covers a wider cultural area that includes Romania, Turkey and the Middle East. The highlight will be an eight-hour marathon of performances on 6 November at the Roxy.

And if you can't attend any of the events, or just want a souvenier, check out the new double CD produced by Mehanata. Tracks were provided by many bands that have performed at Mehanata, including Balkan Beat Box, the Dolomites, Gogol Bordello, Guignol, the Hungry March Band, J.U.F., Luminescent Orchestrii, Romashka, Shaat’nez, Slavic Soul Party!, Yuri Yunakov and Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar.

But why the sudden craze? Inna Barmash, the singer of Romashka, told the Times of London in May that “There is something about gypsy music that people just respond to, whether it’s flamenco, Hungarian gypsy or Russian gypsy — it catches people’s souls in a very immediate way. People seem to know how to dance to it intuitively” (check out The Gypsies pitch up in the New York Times). Matt Moran of Slavic Soul Party! told the Times that he thinks part of the reason is the opening up of the Eastern Bloc and the floods of new immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe and the Balkans. But the music and the passion behind it are the real pull - who could resist it?

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