Zlatne Uste Golden Festival 2003, Good Shepherd School, Inwood, New York, USA, January 18, 2003

For sixteen years, the New York City based Balkan brass band Zlatne Uste (Greek for "golden lips") has hosted an annual gathering of some of the best amateur and semi-professional world musicians on the eastern seaboard, with the profits going to relief organizations working in the Balkans. Band member Jerry Kisslinger, writing in the program given out at the entrance, described the Golden Festival as "part party, part showcase, part Balkan relief effort, part communal wedding."

This year's festival, as usual, took place over two consecutive nights. The first night featured extended sets from Zlatne Uste and a couple of other bands, while the second night (the one I'm reviewing) featured 43 different performances on three different stages, beginning at 6 in the evening and lasting past 3 in the morning. Good Shepherd School, a Catholic elementary school situated on the northern tip of Manhattan, served as the second night's venue for the second straight year.

Stylistically, most of the music featured in the Golden Festival comes from the Balkan region, although there were a handful of acts performing Italian, Middle Eastern, and Scandinavian music as well. I first found out about the Festival two years ago through my involvement with a Swedish folk group called the New York Spelmanslag ("spelmanslag" is Swedish for "fiddler's group"), which primarily plays polskas for a weekly dance held Wednesdays in a synagogue in Greenwich Village, and which has happily accepted the invitations to perform at this Festival for several years running. Despite my obligations to perform, I couldn't help feeling like a small child walking into Disneyland, or Rivendell for that matter, as I entered the building.

When I arrived at 7:00 p.m., I was welcomed by the uptempo, brassy sound of Orkestar performing on the main stage. Comprised of a clarinet player, a horn player, a saxophonist, two accordionists, and a drummer, Orkestar succeeded in grabbing the attention of the early arrivals. About 35 people were dancing in a circle on the floor in front of the stage, with some 50 more milling about.

Unfortunately, I had pressing business elsewhere, as my performance with the New York Spelmanslag was scheduled to begin at 8 in the Golden Room, on the middle level. First, I had to tune up my uitar and bouzouki in the Green Room, also on the middle level, which normally serves as the school's kitchen and pantry. The fiddlers from my group were all there as well, and we ran through a few tunes in our set. We managed to get a few of the other performers hanging out in the Green Room to start dancing a waltz, which was a very encouraging sign. I then went to check out the Golden Room, which most likely doubles as a classroom. It had an odd yellow light in the back, making its name not altogether inappropriate. We were the first scheduled performers in that room, but another group was warming up for their performance as I peeked in. The Asia Minorettes, as they called themselves, consisted of a half-dozen female singers, somebody playing a 10- string banjo-like instrument called a cumbus, another person playing a small 3-string violin called a politiki lyra, and a percussionist. Their leader had the very exotic sounding name of Carol Freeman. The harmonies evoked Le Mystère des Vois Bulgares and "Oi Dai" era Värttinä, and sounded quite lovely even in warm- ups.

Next, I took a quick run down to the Kafana on the bottom level, where Karen Whitman (vocals and violin) and Rick Pantel (guitar) were singing Balkan folk songs. The food had not yet been put out, but the kegs were already being tapped. Back on the middle level, I met the stage manager for the Golden Room, who told me that my band could come in and start playing as soon as we liked.

Naturally, I ran back to the Green Room, we gathered up all our gear, and within minutes, the New York Spelmanslag was on. Since we started about 15 minutes early, we thankfully no longer had to worry about cutting out any of our rehearsed tunes; in fact, we wound up adding a few. Our set featured polskas, a schottis, two waltzes, and a snoa (similar to a polka). People steadily filled in, and we peaked at about 30 dancers spinning around in a space ideally suited for 10. Plenty of other people grabbed up the available seats as well, including a friend of mine who later said that we sounded "tight." Personally, I was worried that my un- miked accompaniment would be overwhelmed by seven fiddles and a nyckelharpa, but everything worked out just fine.

Svitanje, a vocal group specializing in Croatian and Ukranian songs, followed us in the Golden Room at 8:30. Like the Asia Minorettes, Svitanje featured complex Balkan female harmonies, and the singers wore colorful folk dresses as well. After a few of their songs, I hopped back down to the Kafana, where Marie and Celeste were playing Italian polkas on accordion and guitar. Shortly thereafter I went back up to check out the main stage, where the growing crowd was being entertained by the electric Balkan folk of the Kolevi and friends, led by singer Donka Koleva. Donka's singing style reminded me of Marta Sebestyén; alas, her vocal mike was a bit overpowered by the electric guitar and bass, and it was therefore not clear if the comparison with Sebestyén would hold up to closer scrutiny. The audience did not care, however, as the circle of dancers now numbered close to 75. At 9 o'clock, I headed back downstairs, and poked my head into the Green Room to see if anybody was warming up or jamming. As it turned out, a group of young Middle Eastern musicians were playing around on saxophone, clarinet, and percussion. They were part of a bigger band called Romski Zvedzi, who had missed their very early time slot and were hoping to get penciled back in later in the evening.

Back in the Kafana, the food had been served, buffet style as usual, and featured a number of Mediterranean dishes. In addition to standard fare like hummus, baba ganouj, and stuffed grape leaves, people could choose from among a red pepper and eggplant dish called ajvar, a bean dish called fassolia, and a beef dish called soujouk, in addition to bread, cheese, vegetables and dip, and beef and pork sausage. I wasn't hungry enough yet to stand in the very long lines that had formed almost instantaneously, but I stuck around to hear the host band Zlatne Uste serenade the diners for a brief interlude. By 9:15, I was back up to the Golden Room, where I sat in on the performance of Yaren, a Turkish duo based in Philadelphia. One man played a large round drum called a tarabuka, while the other sang and played the saz, which is something of a cross between an oud and a dulcimer. Yaren played songs from all around Turkey, and even one from northern Iraq. Their music was quieter and more meditative than any of the other performers I caught, almost all of whom were dance-oriented. I was very grateful for the change of pace, however, as by this time I needed to sit down and catch my breath.

At 9:30, I returned to the main stage expecting to see the Ivan Milev Balkan Folk Band, but the previously scheduled performer, Jew's harpist John Parrish, was just getting started. Whoever was scheduled for after 2:00 a.m. was in for a long, long night. Even a solo Jew's harp provided sufficient music to get people spinning and stomping their feet on the dance floor. By 9:45, I was hungry enough to brave the food lines down in the Kafana. Carol Freeman was singing Greek folk songs, this time without harmonies but with a sizeable backing band. The ajvar was a little spicy, but not bad. I strongly recommend the fassolia, however. While on line, I overheard somebody from the school, presumably a teacher or janitor, talking to the person in front of me. "It's not the usual crowd playing basketball here," he said. No, indeed it wasn't.

After getting the food, I went to grab a seat in the Golden Room. Accordionist Jesse Kotansky was playing lively Greek Pontic music, which to me sounded a bit like Cajun in a minor key. He was followed at 10:30 by the night's other Scandinavian act, Toby Weinberg, who played an assortment of tunes on his Norwegian hardanger fiddle. The hardanger differs from a regular fiddle in that it has a series of strings, underneath the strings which get bowed, which resonate when the right note gets played. The tunes Weinberg performed alternated between springars, which have an uneven triple rhytm, and gangars, which sounded like slow jigs. As was the case with the New York Spelmanslag, about 30 dancers managed to fit into the tight space, but nobody seemed to mind.

At 11, the Balkan folk/rock fusion band Sheqer was keeping everyone warm up on the main stage. I'm not sure if playing Balkan melodies on the electric guitar really worked, but Sheqer also had a sax player who added a welcome element of soul to the band's sound. By 11:15, only 20 minutes later than scheduled, Zlatne Uste emerged for their bill-topping performance. The host band eschewed the stage, instead aggregating in the middle of the dance floor while the dancers, whose numbers by now exceeded 100, encircled them in three different rings. The opening tune began with a slow, dramatic intro, but after that the multitude of horns just kept pumping out the grooves, to everyone's delight.

Performances continued on the other stages, however. The Bodo Band played a straightforward set of Hungarian tunes in the Golden Room. Anyone familiar with Muzsikás would recognize their style, with mournful, tremolo-heavy fiddling and deep, scraping bass lines. In the Green Room, the tap dance and percussion act Rhythmutation were getting ready for their set. Dancer Chikako Iwahori was, to my knowledge, the only Oriental performer of the evening.

By this time, it was midnight, and I was getting tired. I decided to make the rounds one last time before calling it an evening. Zlatne Uste continued to rock the main floor upstairs. Neither they, nor the dancers around them, looked ready to slow down any time soon. In the Kafana, where desserts were being served, Romski Zvedzi had finally gotten to perform. Their music incorporated quite a bit of electronics, which seemed to appeal particularly to the younger portion of the audience. Passing the Green Room one last time, I heard the sound of Swedish fiddling. A few members of the New York Spelmanslag were in the mood to jam, and suddenly I found some more energy. Our jam lasted about a half hour. Unfortunately, we didn't have much of an audience; it is my hope that at one of these festivals, I'll get the chance to play with some of the other performers. After our jam ended, we were all ready to call it a night.

As usual, the Golden Festival was a lot of fun, if a bit draining. Perhaps too many things went on at once, and it was easy to feel overwhelmed at times, but I still would have to say that Zlatne Uste really knows how to throw a party. At least several hundred people came to the Good Shepherd School that evening. While I wouldn't claim with confidence that the total attendance exceeded 1000, I can safely say that everybody I saw enjoyed themselves and got way more than their money's worth in one evening of music.

[Scott Gianelli]