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Published: 2006/03/15
by Brian Ferdman

tChorba – Les Yeux Noirs

tChorba – Les Yeux Noirs, World Village 468046

Carnival Conspiracy – Frank London’s Klezmer Brass Allstars, Piranha CD-PIR1902

Queens County in New York State is the most ethnically diverse county in America, and my neighborhood of Astoria may very well be the most ethnically diverse neighborhood within Queens County. What once contained the largest population of Greeks outside of Greece, Astoria is now home to scores of Italians, Russians, Croats, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indonesians, Indians, Pakistanis, Egyptians, Moroccans, Koreans, Brazilians, Columbians, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and many more ethnic groups. Walking down 30th Avenue in Astoria is akin to taking a stroll around the world. There are so many rich sights, smells, and of course, sounds.

Many a night has passed when I've stumbled into a random Bulgarian bar to hear wildly psychedelic but nonetheless authentic music being played by a duo or trio of native musicians. As a lover of music, my own neighborhood often serves as a phenomenal teacher, exposing me to a vast new palette of musical stripes. Through these experiences, I have learned much about my Eastern European gypsy heritage. My ancestors were Jews who moved from town to town, often running afoul of the law but also picking up bits and pieces of culture in every place they lived. These experiences certainly influenced their music, which was a unique blend of styles and idioms. Recently, I was pleased to learn that the notion of Jewish gypsy music is far from dead, as two very global groups are again recapturing that gypsy spirit by drawing on a wealth of cultures to form albums that are incredibly diverse in nature.

Les Yeux Noirs is a French group who has taken their name from an old Django Reinhart hit, which roughly translates to “The Black Eyes.” The septet was formed in the early '90s when classically trained violinist brothers Eric and Olivier Slabiak began exploring the music of their Yiddish heritage. Finding parallels and intersections between gypsy life and Eastern European Jewish culture, Les Yeux Noirs has been exploring music that draws upon multiple influences.

Their latest album, tChorba, is named after a Turkish stew that features a wide array of ingredients. It’s a fitting title for an album that combines so many different styles of music. Nowhere is this more evident than on the opening title track. What starts as a tight jazz-funk groove suddenly drops into an obtuse prog fugue before reveling in an Eastern European country dance. A twisted swing quickly evolves and eventually the song becomes a strange and simultaneous combination of all the previous genres.

It’s a sign of things to come, as Les Yeux Noirs creates an Old World European travelogue, featuring gypsy swing (“La Belle Amour”), French tango (“R”), Yiddish lullaby (“Yankele”), and Romanian country ballad (“Trado Trado”). Of course, tChorba also includes the startling combinations of Romanian salsa (“O’Djila”) and hard rock Kosher ho-down (“Hora de M”), as well as the 1970s California ballad-meets-Eastern European pop of “Drs Dsoires.” Perhaps the most intriguing track on tChorba is the instrumental cartoonish chase of “Do Si Joc de Marian.” Taking its lead from the percussive sounds of the 125-string cimbalom, the song chases its tail repeatedly, ramping up the tempo to a ridiculous level before abruptly concluding. It’s the kind of jovial effort that is reminiscent of those four guys from Vermont, which is ironic considering that Les Yeux Noirs is home to a vocalist/double bassist with the last name of Anastasio.

Sometimes we need artists to make connections and conclusions that we cannot make for ourselves. Enter trumpeter Frank London, who, with the aid of his Klezmer Brass Allstars (sic) and about thirty guest musicians, finds the tie that binds the traditions of Yiddish, New Orleans Brass Band, Brazilian Carnival, and Tex-Mex music. Not seeing London’s vision? I wasn’t either until I heard his wonderfully unique Carnival Conspiracy.

The opening notes of "In Your Garden Twenty Fecund Fruit Trees" lay the groundwork for this madcap album. A racing oompah beat bubbles while flittering trumpets mingle with sliding trombones and the crazed rhythmic shouts and squeaks of a foreign female vocalist to create a maddening blend. This is the kind of invigorating start every album should have, virtually shoving the listener's fingers into an open electrical socket. Now that your attention has been grabbed, you're about to be taken on a strange trip through the worlds of Brazilian military polka ("Another Glass of Wine To Give Succor To My Ailing Existence"), Yiddish tango ("Midnight Banda Jud#34;), and a tune that seems to have plucked from a version of Fiddler on The Roof set in New Orleans [“In the Marketplace All Is Subterfuge (Podolye, Podolye)"]. Of particular note is the haunting Old World melody of "Who Knows One?" Sarah Mina Gordon’s heart-melting Ashkenazic Hebrew vocal is backed up by several other fertile females and rumbles with hypnotic intensity. In a stroke of producing genius, as soon as the transfixing number ends, we immediately start into the klezmer samba Tex-Mex free-for-all of "Pantagruel, Shiker Hindert Prozent,” and the previous angst is soon forgotten. This sudden transition is symbolic of the bittersweet nature of Jewish culture, as free spirited optimism often springs forth from tragedy.

The music of both Les Yeux Noirs and Frank London has a distinct Jewish sensibility. The former features the somber strings and lighthearted musings of the gypsy oeuvre, while the latter employs the swirling clarinet and boisterous flamboyance of klezmer. In addition, both outfits revel in the Jewish tradition of incorporating new influences into their culture. The Jews have long been a wandering people who have continually assimilated and absorbed local customs in all of their travels, resulting in art that is consistently adding new and interesting colors. But beyond everything else, the music of Les Yeux Noirs and Frank London has the most vital ingredient to the Jewish experience: a sense of humor. From the Marx Brothers to Lenny Bruce to Woody Allen to Jerry Seinfeld to Ali G, there has always been a self-deprecating sense of humor that has been synonymous with Judaism, a coping mechanism for a perpetually oppressed people. Les Yeux Noirs and Frank London understand where this humor comes from, which is why both tChorba and Carnival Conspiracy are albums that genuinely reflect the Jewish experience: a culturally diverse life that is filled with both sorrow and boundless joy.

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