Before the advent of the European Union and its open borders, long before Germany had been invaded by the Turks and France by the North Africans, two groups vied for the distinction of being the most despised people in Europe: Gypsies and Jews.
More often than not, the Gypsies — or Roma, as they prefer to be known — were the unfortunate winners of this grim competition. Indeed, the Roma were once so reviled that wealthy Hungarians hired Jewish klezmer musicians to play Romani music rather than have the Roma do it themselves, believing, it seems, that Jewish riff-raff were preferable to Romani riff-raff.
That Jewish musicians were able to fill in rather competently for their even-more-oppressed brethren testifies to the rich musical history that the two groups shared. In the 17th century, Jewish musicians fleeing the wars and pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe joined forces with itinerant Romani performers to tour the southern reaches of the old Ottoman Empire, sharing melodies and musical techniques along the way. Ultimately the Greco-Turkish and Romani dance music these klezmorim encountered helped shape the klezmer style in Eastern Romania (today’s Moldova), just as traditional Russian and Slovakian music influenced Ukrainian and Polish klezmer. Romani musicians, meanwhile, became valued members of many klezmer ensembles.
The Brooklyn-based band Romashka capitalizes on those various interconnections to produce music that is deliciously distinctive yet strangely familiar. The name Romashka, which means “daisy” in Russian, is derived from both “Roma” and “mashke,” the latter being Yiddish for “liquor.” And in matters of repertoire, instrumentation and playing style, the group draws equally on Romani and klezmer traditions. Fans of Balkan wedding music will appreciate the wildly kinetic rhythms of “Mariana,” while “Moldovan Batuta” could have sprung from the book of any Bessarabian klezmer outfit. The Russian tango “Tanya” drips with the kind of bittersweet, sepia-toned nostalgia for which both traditional klezmer and Romani music have become aural tropes. And “Shimdiggy” — a freewheeling original that merges New Orleans rhythms with Central European melodies — sounds like what you might get if you mated the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Ivo Papasov’s Bulgarian Wedding Band.
Romashka owes its irresistible rhythmic drive to drummer Timothy Quigley and tubist Ron Caswell, who slyly funkify even the most traditional of the group’s arrangements. But much of the band’s visceral punch comes from Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash. With her wide, throaty vibrato and ringing delivery, Barmash has an uncommon gift for communicating the emotional valence of a song, even when its lyrics are in a foreign tongue. On the Russian Gypsy tunes “Loli Phaboy” and “Zoznobila,” the impact of her voice is almost tactile. She’s the kind of singer with whom you could fall in love.
So, too, is Russian-born vocalist Ksenia Vidyaykina of Barbez, yet another great Brooklyn-based ensemble. Named for the multiethnic Paris neighborhood where founder and guitarist Dan Kaufman once lived, Barbez — which will hold a CD release party at Manhattan’s Tonic on September 10 — also draws on traditional Russian material, but to far different effect.
Vidyaykina and drummer Shahzad Ismaily transform the Russian tune “As for the Little Grey Rabbit” into a driving duet for voice and percussion that resembles nothing so much as traditional Native American music. On one glorious stretch of “The Sea Spread Wide,” which tells the story of a doomed Russian sailor, Vidyaykina alternates between stoic resolve and spittle-spewing rage. Elsewhere, as on Erik Satie’s “Gnossienne #3,” she sounds as ethereal as Pamelia Kurstin’s theremin, an exotic sort of synthesis whose notes rise like a specter above the thrash-punk thrown down by Kaufman, drummer John Bollinger and vibraphonist Danny Tunick.
Satie? Theremin? Thrash-punk? These are not words one would expect to find in the same sentence, let alone the same review. But Barbez is no ordinary band. In its willingness to combine classical rigor with a broad pop sensibility (“broad” here encompassing everything from Kurt Weill to The Residents), in its theatricality and willful eclecticism, Barbez most closely resembles such cutting-edge avant-garde chamber ensembles as Ethel and Bang on a Can. But while those groups reach out toward pop and rock from the stern shores of contemporary classical music, Barbez sounds as if it’s trying to move in the opposite direction, imbuing vernacular forms such as cabaret and punk with the austere formality of “serious” music. The results are sometimes comic, sometimes violent, and always fascinating.
“Strange,” a Kaufman original, veers wildly between a melancholy waltz for theremin, banjo and drums, and a full-out onslaught by the entire ensemble, each section in the variegated whole executed with more precision and intensity than most bands can summon over an entire album. As on many tracks, the dominant emotions are pathos, anger and postmodern irony; though there are times, as on Kaufman’s “Fear of Commitment” and Alfred Schnittke’s “The Portrait” (the latter an instrumental arrangement whose demented waltz rhythms make it sound like the world’s eeriest carnival theme, music fit for a tiny car full of evil clowns), when the urge to dance is strong and clear. But nothing stays the same for long in this music. Moments of calm — a keening theremin melody, a gentle guitar arpeggio — are punctured by atonal freak-outs, which in turn dissolve back into darkly lyrical ensemble passages.
Most tracks defy easy description. “Song of the Moldau,” the Hatikvah-themed classic by the radical German composer Hanns Eisler, is given a spooky, spacey groove, shot through with eerie theremin and organ sounds — the theme from “Forbidden Planet” as interpreted by The Doors. And the scritchy-scratchy electronic effects that bassist Dan Coates produces with his modified Palm Pilot at the beginning of the title track, along with the space-gun sounds he conjures at the end, are just highlights in an ongoing pageant of the weirdly alluring. If any of this sounds laughable, it isn’t — though it is sometimes genuinely funny.
Like Romashka, Barbez is a band with both brains and brawn, as well as the good sense not to take itself too seriously. You don’t really need to know anything about where its music comes from, or how it is made, in order to appreciate its dark humor, its uniqueness and the skill with which it is performed. Just sit back and marvel at the strange beauty of it all.
Alexander Gelfand is a writer and musician living in New York.