The 2006 Zlatne Uste Golden Festival

Once again a small army of amateur and semi-professional folk musicians, mostly from the New York City metropolitan area, converged for the 21st annual edition of Goldenfest in Manhattan this past weekend. Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band created this event, a two-day celebration of the music of the Balkans and beyond, to raise money for relief efforts in the Balkan region. As usual, this year's festival consisted of two events, with the smaller event taking place on Friday January 13 at Jan Hus Church on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and the large event, involving over fifty different acts, taking place the following day at the Good Shepherd School in Inwood on the northern tip of Manhattan. The Saturday event featured three floors of music starting at 6 pm and running several hours past midnight, with food and drink included in the price of admission. I attended the Saturday show; it has been the best party of the year for me for six years running, not just because it's great to be a spectator but because I've also had the pleasure to perform at it as well. This year's version featured the usual assortment of quality performances in a myriad of styles, but I was never truly blown away by anything I saw at Goldenfest until last Saturday.

The group I play with is called the NY Spelmanslag; spelmanslag is Swedish for "fiddler's group." My group is the house band for Scandia NY, an organization that promotes the traditional music and dance of Sweden and meets on Wednesdays in the East Village. I provide accompaniment on guitar and bouzouki. This year we were the first act in the "Golden Room" on the middle level, generally reserved for the quieter performances. We were worried that the early slot would kill our attendance, but happily we had a good-sized crowd and things went well. Naturally, the upside of performing early is that we had the rest of the night to enjoy all the other music going on.

Once I packed up the instruments after the set, I headed upstairs to the main floor and caught a fine set by the Bosco Stompers Cajun Band, from that region of the Balkans known as the Bayou. Goldenfest has always included several non-Balkan bands, actually, but this was the first time I had seen any American folk music performed at the festival. Judging by the number of attendees who were filing in and quickly taking to the dance floor, nobody had any complaints. Most of the rest of the music I caught originated in the Balkans and Asia Minor. Bogomila plays Balkan café music, Seido Salifoski's Romski Boji plays Macedonian and Turkish gypsy music, Hazmat plays Turkish classical music, and the Yasna Voices specialize in Bulgarian women's songs. Despite the close regional proximity, the styles differ significantly from each other, but each of them has something to recommend it.

The festival organizers have included an increasing amount of Middle Eastern performers over the years, and my girlfriend Donna's attention was drawn to a group listed in the program as playing "Middle Eastern Music heavy on the drumming." The band in question was Raquy and the Cavemen. Their 2:15 am time slot was prohibitive, but we noticed that Raquy would be performing twice with other groups. The first time was with the Dolomites, a cross-cultural group fronted by Romashka's half-Romanian, half-Japanese Brooklynite accordionist Stephen Iancu but also including Raquy and Aaron Goldsmith on guitarron (the giant mariachi bass guitar). I've seen Romashka on several occasions, but I had no idea that Iancu could "sing;" what his voice lacked in tonal quality, he made up for with personality and delivery. (Apparently Dolomites shows usually involve cooking and fire as well, but I guess I'll have to wait another day for that part of the Dolomites experience.)

Still, Iancu's performance was overshadowed by Raquy's innovative percussion, making Donna and I really look forward to her performance with the Messengers, consisting of Raquy and her drumming students. We weren't disappointed; in fact, they put on the most electric performance I've seen in my six years of going to Goldenfest. Few things can excite a crowd the way that great percussion can, and Raquy won over the festival crowd in a really big way. The response to Raquy's performance in the "quiet" Golden Room became steadily louder and more ecstatic as the set wore on, and people who had been on the other floors were lured in by the rapturous applause and increased the volume further. By the end of the set the Golden Room, normally a classroom in a Catholic elementary school, had taken on the atmosphere of a rock concert at a large arena.

Unfortunately, with so much going on, it was impossible to see everything. The Messengers' set overlapped with that of the host band Zlatne Uste (shown above from last year's festival), whose energetic Balkan brass music has always been a huge crowd pleaser. Romashka came on later than I could stay for, but they've been a great live band since their inception and I'm sure I'll catch them around town again pretty soon. Likewise, I won't have to wait long to catch Raquy and the Cavemen, who are playing this Saturday at something called the Jam4Peace, to be held at Martin Luther King Jr. High School on Amsterdam Ave. between 65th and 66th St. It's always good to have something new to look forward to.

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