Saturday, September 22, 2007

Diverse bands of 'Gypsies' bring their music to NY

by Martylipp @ hotmail . com)
Copyright © 2007, Newsday Inc.

An ever-widening variety of bands are being labeled as "Gypsy" music: Is it a case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, or is it a modern-day version of performing in blackface?

For many Americans, it is probably a bit of a revelation to know that there really are Gypsies (though they call themselves Roma). The sad truth is that Roma across Europe are still poor, undereducated and disenfranchised.

Although the growing popularity of Roma music - from The Gipsy Kings to Romania's Taraf de Haïdouks - has increased awareness of the larger community, they are still mostly second-class citizens.

Some recent releases and the upcoming New York Gypsy Music Festival (visit show how diverse the field has become.

New York in particular has developed a strong network of young non-Roma musicians adapting Eastern European music, particularly Roma music, which itself has a long history of giving and taking with the cultures around it. Groups such as New York's Luminescent Orchestrii and Berlin's 17 Hippies, both at the Knitting Factory Wednesday, are remaking old tunes for new audiences. They're making great music that is fun to move to, even if it sounds thoroughly different than mainstream dance music.

While most of the musicians are sincere in their appreciation of the music, some marketing types are separating the music from its context. The word "Gypsy" starts to connote wildness or the exotic, rather than a real cultural heritage. It's a slippery slope and it begs the question of whether musicians - particularly playing the ecstatic dance music of Eastern European Roma - should be doing more than entertaining their sweaty, swirling audiences. Romani communities have endured lots worse than being misunderstood, but it certainly doesn't help to be stereotyped or fictionalized.

Eugene Hutz and his group Gogol Bordello are the center of (and possibly the entire) "Gypsy punk" scene. Ukrainian-born Hutz is a maniacal showman, but Gogol Bordello's latest, "Super Taranta" (SideOneDummy), is much more punk than Gypsy. Hutz regularly DJs at the Manhattan club Mehanata and will do so as part of the second part of the festival in November. Expect anarchy and energy.

As part of the Joe's Pub series at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, there will be a three-part bill Wednesday. The New York Gypsy All-Stars bring together Roma and non-Roma instrumentalists showcasing styles from their various homelands. Also on the bill is New York's Balkan Beat Box, whose recent Nu Med (JDub) is huge fun, but doesn't hold itself out as Roma music as much as a mash-up of anything they can get their hands on.

Also playing is Beirut, led by 21-year-old Zach Condon. His Balkan-influenced Gulag Orkestar (BaDaBing), self-produced in his parents' Albuquerque home when he was a teen, created an unlikely buzz on the Internet. He said he was attracted to Balkan and Gypsy music because of "the bittersweet melodies - played with such a ferocity. Pure joy and anguish played with such honesty and humanity."

"We're getting much closer as a band," he continued, "meaning we're getting much sloppier. I'm hoping it will all fall apart in a beautiful way."

Stretching the music in a different direction is Shantel (German producer/DJ Stefan Hantel), famous for his movable party called Bukovina Club, which remixed Balkan music for the dance floor. On Disko Partizani (Crammed), he successfully creates a transnational party album, fusing electronica sounds and beats with Roma and other live musicians.

Not unlike the electro-borrowers, several classical composers, most notably Béla Bartók, used Roma and other folk music as the basis for some of their compositions. Now, the multi-generational Taraf de Haïdouks are cashing in that debt, making the brilliant Maškarada (Crammed), reclaiming these classical compositions, playing them in their own hyperactive style.

The Haïdouks - none of whom read music - seem to have the last word: turning rarefied art music on its head, showing Romani inventiveness and that the give and take among musicians never stops.


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