One line of thirsty listeners made its way toward kegs of dark beer. Another longer line followed the contours of Upper Manhattan’s Good Shepherd School gymnasium toward several tables bearing cheese, sausages, hummus, grape leaves and other meze snacks. And a third, even longer, line of folk dancers snaked through the crowded gym, stepping and kicking hand-in-hand to the fulsome sounds of the Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band, hosts of the 24th annual night-long Golden Festival of Balkan music held each Martin Luther King Day weekend. And that was just the scene downstairs.
More than four dozen bands played during the ten-hour Saturday-night hoedown, which expanded into the Good Shepherd School’s auditorium, large enough for hundreds of more dancers to dance counterclockwise in ever diminishing concentric circles, and a smaller room devoted mainly to listening. (A shorter Friday-night dance party serves as a warm-up.) I arrived in the auditorium just as Bulgarian wedding-music star Yuri Yunakov began wailing on his saxophone in brisk 9/8 time alongside a clarinetist and keyboardist. Their brash, hurtling, sometimes electronic sound suggested the next dimension of Balkan folk music — while the multigenerational crowd of dancers kept on keeping up throughout.
Yunakov, a Turkish-Bulgarian Roma currently residing in the New York area, earned his reputation during a ten-year stint, beginning in 1983, in a band led by the remarkable clarinetist Ivo Papasov. His career began earlier, however, when he was “discovered” playing clarinet with his brother by a great accordionist-bandleader, Ivan Milev. The accordionist’s own Golden Festival performance was a revelation for anyone who hadn’t seen him in prior years. Another Bulgarian expat who’s found a new home in the Tri-State area, Milev jousted with his violinist bandmate, Entcho Todorov, on Bulgarian and Balkan tunes from the group’s highly recommended 2007 album, The Flight Of Krali Marco.
Where both Yunakov and Milev look and play tough, the fourteen-member Zlatne Uste (meanin “golden lips”) brass group offers a kinder, gentler, gender-equalized version of Slavic heavy metal, as heard on their 2000 album, In The Center Of The Village. They’re also one of the few outsider ensembles to receive multiple invites to Serbia’s prestigious annual Dragacevo Assembly of brass bands held near town of Guca. Gracious hosts themselves, the brass group was joined by the Kavala Brass Band, Raya Brass Band, Veveritse Brass Band, and Providence, Rhode Island’s masked and becostumed annual contribution to Burning Man, the What Cheer? Brigade.
Like many of the festival’s performers, Druzina abandoned the stage in order to commune directly with dancers, who circled around the group on the dancefloor. Ivan Milev, their mentor, sat in as the band spun out a set of tunes from Macedonia, Serbia, and Bulgaria that, like their album Tragare, enticingly echoed exemplars of contemporary art-folk such as Beirut and The Decembrists. Groups like Druzina and Romashka have no qualms about mixing traditions, as the latter group does with Roma and klezmer, so long as the resulting sound remains kinetic, vital, and fun.
Jazz met Eastern European traditions in groups such as Sheqer, Grupa Pubeski, and, most notably, ethnic-woodwind wizard Matt Darriau’s Paradox Trio. The trio’s Gambit makes a fine introduction to a band that also includes Brad Shepik (guitar), Rufus Cappadocia (cello), and Seido Salifoski (percussion). The Paradox Trio makes the most of the fine line separating the odd-metered rhythms of so much traditional Gypsy music from King Crimson’s progressive rock or the rhythmically knotted experiments of jazz-rock fusion groups like Return to Forever.
While dance music was the festival’s focus, quieter and quirkier music could also be enjoyed, especially as knees and back began to give out. The festival’s Golden Room was the place to relax and take in the a cappella Bulgarian vocals of Brooklyn’s Black Sea Hotel or dig polyphonic singing from Georgia and Greek island music. I was lured there by Raquy and the Cavemen, a percussion trio led by Middle Eastern drummer Raquy Danziger, who roamed rhythmically from Brazil to Persia to a Phish parking lot (as heard on Mischief). Raquy also played dumbek in a Middle Eastern bellydance group led by veteran oud player Scott Wilson, as the dancer Aysha undulated sympathetically.
As the night wears on, it becomes increasingly clear that the Golden Festival is nothing less than a grassroots folk rave. And after factoring in the karmic righteousness of an event where all the labor is donated and everybody plays for free to benefit Bulgarian not-for-profit organizations, who wouldn’t want to dance?