Folk Bass Amped Up

by danielgoode

April 29, 2013 10:14:03 AM EDT

Two Macedonian/roma bands played at Le Poisson Rouge last night, sponsored by the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, and each over emphasized their bass instruments to the detriment of the intricate lovingly played treble lines. The opening band was twice diaspora, first a younger generation, now American, then leaving New York for Pennsylvania. Their synth was their bass, pounding the lower end like a rock band’s guitar section. Their clarinet/saxophone duo strained beautifully against their own bass lines. But I was exhausted on their behalf.

The main event was the brass band, Koçani Orkestar with a solo clarinet/sax, accordionist, male vocalist, and the traditional Balkan tupan/bass-drum. The whole lower end of three euphoniums and tuba were amplified. I’m not sure if the three trumpets were also, but it didn’t matter: the floor shook with amplified tuba.

I noticed this because I’m a long-time amateur folk dancer, and have heard and danced to scores of traditional Balkan folk bands. I was struck last night, as I often am by the way the amplification of non-electronic instruments is used: to theatricalize some aspect of the playing by making it “larger than life.” There are new music groups, too, that do this with acoustic instruments! About this—another time.

The evening opened with a fast-paced workshop led by a well-known New York folk-dance instructor, to teach some circle-dance steps to the audience so they could more authentically dance to the music. He used his forty-five minutes to teach four different dances with some very difficult style added in—more difficult for me, because thinking I was at a bar, I already had my drink in hand while negotiating grape-vine steps and other hops and skips.

What was strangely unanticipated by the dance instructor: this was a Roma or Gypsy brass band, scorchingly hot, with fast-double-triple tongued melodic and accompaniment figures, trance-inducing, totally ecstatic music that roused the audience as I’ve hardly ever seen. Money was pasted to the players’ foreheads, bundles of dollars thrown in the air, spontaneous movement by almost all in the room. Yet hardly any authentic Balkan circle dancing emerged from this appreciative crowd, many of whom I’ve seen for years at folk-dance evenings. Why? Well, the non-Roma folk culture is the source of the circle-dance as I understand it. This was music and dance that transcended those local customs, referencing, but not limited by that repertoire, trying and reaching a more universal idea of ecstasis through music and movement.

And finally the over-amplified bass line was over. How? The audience would not let them go, so the whole band, minus the accordion, left their amplified stage positions, and wandered, as they would at home, among the audience, playing and collecting ever more tips, surrounded by mesmerized, happy people. Now the balance of high and low instruments was perfect, and perfectly memorable.

Thumbnail review. April 28th.