Les Yeux Noirs, Center for Cultural Exchange, Portland, Maine, U.S.A., (April 22, 2005)

There is nothing better to get the blood flowing than a hot evening of gypsy music, especially on a cold, damp New England night. Founded by brothers Erik and Olivier Slabiak (violins, vocals), Les Yeux Noirs has been performing for twelve years. In 2001 they made their first trip to the United States and now return on a regular basis.

The group's membership totals eight, though for this Portland concert accordionist Constantin Bitica was not traveling with them. The rest of the lineup is Francois Perchat (cello), Pascal Rondeau (guitar, vocals), Aidje Tafial (drums), Franck Anastasio (bass, vocals). Marian Miu (cimbalom). This French band brews Eastern European gypsy themes with a good dose of Klezmer, a little jazz and reggae, and tops it off with good old fashioned rock & roll.

Knowing it would be hard for some folks in the audience to sit still, room was made for dancing in the back of the hall. Indeed, the speed with which the tunes were being thrown from the stage made it very difficult to simply sit and listen. There is no room for tentativeness when it comes to playing gypsy music, and these players live up to the standards one expects: lightning-speed melodies backed by an incredibly tight rhythm section, all running through time signature and mood changes faster than you could take your next breath.

Their performance is as much about the show as it is about the music. Erik Slabiak leads the way by taking on an "Elvis" attitude, strutting around as the stereotype of a charming, dark, handsome, gypsy man making the women swoon and the men shout. Really. If he wasn't such an accomplished player, the Las Vegas act might have been more annoying. There was grumbling during intermission from some musicians in the audience that there was "too much show and not enough soul" to Les Yeux Noirs' performance.

I suppose that argument could be made. On the other hand, isn't part of gypsy culture about being showy? And isn't it also about getting the crowd excited and worked up? It was also very electric and loud. This was not a recital. All the stringed instruments were plugged in. The cello, bass and guitar were totally electric instruments. The violins and cimbalom (a type of hammer dulcimer) had pick-ups, and the violins were patched through a series of effects such as wah-wah pedals. There was even a drum machine (used sparingly, thankfully, as the drummer was more than talented).

In this rock band setting, they presented a wide variety of traditional, contemporary and original tunes that included songs with great humor, seriousness, and even acrobatics. No matter what pace the music, drummer Aidje Tafial remained the cool cucumber throughout the evening. His movements were very economical and he never worked up a visible sweat even during the most intense moments. Likewise, his playing was very economical and very tasteful. Cimbalom player Marian Miu happily scanned the audience with a relaxed smile while his hands carried on, whipping out notes like peas in a sling shot and daring the listeners to either catch them or duck -- again, no signs of sweat.

There were a few calmer, darker tunes scattered here and there, and they were a welcome relief from the frenetic pace of most of the evening. Toward the end of the first set they played a beautiful Russian gypsy song. There was an interlude in the piece with the violins and cello forming a string trio that was supported by Tafial using soft mallets on the drums and lovely use of the cymbals. Sometimes musicians who are adept at playing quickly cannot redirect their energy effectively in slow pieces, but I didn't get that impression with Les Yeux Noirs. I heard real soul in those songs both vocally and instrumentally. More of them would have pleased me, but then I wasn't writing the program.

The final display of the evening was a tune that started in the fast lane with the whole band, then slowed to a squeaky conversation between the violins of the Slabiaks. It was very funny. The cimbalom and cello each added their comments from time to time in the same "spoken word" fashion. Finally, after a series of increasingly tricky moves, Erik and Olivier ended up on one violin together -- one bowing, the other fingering. Suddenly the melody loomed in over the group from Miu on the cimbalom, prompting everyone to join in for the grand finale that was faster, louder, bigger, and peaked with one of those long, drawn out rock and roll endings. How could you not insist on an encore after that? They obliged, of course.

I'm only familiar with one of their recordings, Balamouk (Odéon/EMI 2000). As is true with many groups, the live show is, well, more lively. You would enjoy the recordings, but if you want to see the group's true colors, go see a live show. Put on your dancing shoes, lightweight clothing and be prepared to swoon and shout.

[Barbara Truex]

Please that the Center for Cultural Exchange is no more
but the venue space lives as One Longfellow Square.