A Greek bassist ducked into a little bar in New York’s Alphabet City and heard the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Balkans pouring across the packed room. The clarinet was keening and singing, and he knew every tune.
From this blown-away moment of discovery, the New York Gypsy All-Stars sprang, uniting bi-musical virtuosi raised on the lush sounds of Macedonian, Greek, Turkish, and American roots and forged in the halls of the world’s best music schools. With composerly ears and a madcap relish for ill and crunky sounds, the quintet of crack musicians tears through the tollgates separating the region’s interlocking roots on the long-awaited album of original pieces, Romantech (Traditional Crossroads).
“We cover all the Balkans melodically,” explains classically trained, traditionally raised Macedonian clarinet wonder and band headman Ismail Lumanovski, “and we cover the world rhythmically and harmonically.” Zooming with Roma-inspired zeal from swinging salsa to pulsing bhangra, the group never loses its sharp musical focus, astounding chops, and true spirit their Gypsy namesakes.
“We use lots of musical elements in our original compositions that are typically Balkan Romany in style but aren’t necessarily in your face, like the 9/8 rhythm on tracks like ‘NY9’ or the way we use musical ornaments throughout the songs,” Lumanovski muses. “But more important than that is how we use the Gypsy term in a broader sense. We are taking what the Gypsies did, traveling from India to the Balkans and on to Western Europe and putting together the best musical ideas from every nation along the way. We’re open to the world, and we just take everything we like and make it one.”
The All Stars come by this impulse and skill naturally. It’s a rare thing, even in music-rich Southeastern Europe and in musician-packed New York, to find conservatory-caliber musicians who grew up playing weddings or rocking a čoček or a çiftetelli with local masters. Yet that’s exactly what the All Stars are: Alongside degrees from places like Juilliard and Berklee, they grew up jamming with local roots musicians or defiantly attacking traditional zithers with their bare fingers, getting into Latin jazz or bringing the funk.