The 2008 Zlatne Uste Golden Festival, Good Shepherd School, Inwood NY, January 19, 2008

Once again, swarms of people converged on Good Shepherd School on the northern tip of Manhattan on a cold night in January to play, dance, and listen to many hours of music at the edition of the Zlatne Uste Golden Festival. The Festival has reached a level of popularity that required the organizers to limit the number of people who could be in the building at a given moment. Still, all three levels were quite packed. The music began at six and ended well after midnight. The audience consisted of a well-blended mixture of veteran participants in the local folk dancing scene and younger people eager some of the many exciting Balkan and Eastern-influenced bands populating the City today. And as usual, everybody appeared to get what they came for.

The Golden Room, on the middle floor, is reserved for the performers who required only a small amount of amplification. My group, the NY Spelmanslag, has made a habit of opening the show in this room. It's not a high-profile slot to say the least, but we can then relax and enjoy the whole rest of the evening without any worries. Our set appeared to go over well.

Shortly following us was a sister act. The Rosen Sisters are ace young fiddlers and dancers whose repertoire stretches from Balkan to Irish to Swedish to Glen Miller. They also wore tap shoes and did some synchronized choreography while fiddling. Their talent and charm made them a hit with the audience, which was still only a fraction of its eventual size at this point.

The Golden Room turned out to be the room to camp out in for the early hours of Golden Fest. Most of the focus at Golden Fest is on music from the Balkan region. Like most of the Balkan countries, Hungary has a distinctive tradition in instrumental folk music, complete with fiddles heavy on the vibrato and coarse, scraping bass lines. NA Folk are a Brooklyn trio who play Hungarian village music, featuring Jake Shulman-Ment of the mighty Romashka (they played later) on fiddle. They played a solid set in the Golden Room as well; fans of bands like Muzsikás would be impressed by them.

Besides the generally aggressive instrumental traditions instrumentals, there are plenty of singing traditions in the Balkans as well, most notably Bulgarian women's singing. Plenty of
women's vocal groups perform at Golden Fest each year, but Svitanya from Philadelphia have generally been the best of these groups, and were so again this year. While primarily a capella, this year the group branched out a bit and played instruments on one of the songs in their set.

The highlight of my many years of attending Golden Fest came two years ago when I discovered the amazing percussionist Raquy Danziger, so when I found out that her group Raquy and the Cavemen were playing a fairly early slot in the Golden Room, I made sure to secure a good seat ahead of time. Indeed, I've never seen that room as packed as it was for her performance. And the crowd loved every minute.

Whether all four musicians were drumming, or Raquy was playing a melody on an Arabic fiddle called a kemenche, the band had the audience mesmerized. Raquy would already be a major star in a better world, but she's definitely a performer to be reckoned with, and you have to go see her if she's playing nearby.

The main auditorium was tightly packed for most of the night. At least it was while I was there. But with the host band Zlatne Uste just starting as I left close to midnight, and Romashka and Slavic Soul Party! following, the crowd wasn't going to disperse too quickly. As always, the floor of the auditorium was filled with people dancing in concentric rings, and generally having a good time regardless of who was playing on stage. Merita Halili & the Raif Hyseni Band, shown here, specialize in Albanian folk music. Despite the language difference, plenty of people in the audience were singing along with them, including plenty of young people.

And I think the ability to lure in young people in addition to the veterans of the City's folk-dancing scene has kept the Golden Festival a massive success for twenty-three years running, and arguably the major musical gathering event on the calendar for those who know about it. Like I said last year, there is definitely a scene for Balkan-flavored music in the City, especially coming out of Brooklyn. The music is fun and creative, and even exciting in some cases, and the scene has more than enough going for it to start spreading. I was definitely encouraged to see the Luminescent Orchestrii become the first of the Brooklyn bands, at least that I'm aware of, to make it out to Long Island just this past weekend when they played at Huntington's Last Licks Café. They definitely shouldn't be the last.

reviewed by Scott

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