Balval: Blizzard Boheme
(Whaling City Sound)
buy CD/hear samples
There's nothing new about Gypsy music, right? Since the Romani people left Punjab and Rajasthan a thousand years ago, they've been mixing and blending their culture with that of the lands in which they've settled. Their music is having a major resurgence now; jumping on the Gypsy caravan are modern groups across the globe and others rediscovering their own Romani roots. Which is to say that I've heard a lot of Roma/Gypsy music. But when I popped in this modest disc by Balval (their name means "the wind"), I was blown away.
Paris-based Balval are at once thoroughly modern and deeply rooted. Awena Burgess's voice is perfect and compelling, whether digging her reedy tones into a melody, scatting wordless syllables (what's Roma for "niggun"?), or injecting vocal percussion to urge the band to play faster, sweeter, deeper. And the rest of the group -- Rosalie Hartog (violin & voice), Daniel Mizrahi (guitar), Benjamin Body (double bass), and particularly guest percussionist Bachar Khalife -- play tight arrangements that put one in the mind of a late-night port-city Balkan bar where strangers and misfits gather. Strangers and misfits with serious musical chops.
The songs on Blizzard Boheme hail from many cultures --Hungary, Serbia, Russia, Moldavia, and beyond -- and many styles. Translated into English, the Romani lyrics read like sweet and enigmatic haiku about romance, love, flowers, death, poverty, and dancing. "Dumbala Dumba" for example, is rendered in part as "Balalau has a shop at the Intercontinental / He sells meat with no bones / to pretty girls / and three-cent chewing gum."
The focus isn't on the lyrics, or even the superb musicianship, but on the emotion that Balval creates. The feisty "Sude Phabaj" commands your feet to dance; the somber "Keren, Chavorale, Drom" is the soundtrack to an old man's bittersweet dance; and the soaring ghazal-like vocals that start the Hungarian tune "Blues" blend to a teetering dance number and a stunning dumbek solo (at least I think it's a dumbek; Khalife is so good, he gives his instrument new voices).
This is the last song on the album, the lyrics of which are translated: "My wife never sleeps / When she sees me she cries / In the morning she comes home / And gives me marks and dollars / A red dress, a red dress / I'll buy for you."
World music fans, I implore you to buy this stunning album right now, both for your own sake and to encourage this amazing group keep playing their heart-stoppingly great Romani music.
Label website (with more song samples)