Brass Menazeri
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Brass Menazeri


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"All About Jazz: Songs in 7/8, Fat Bass Lines & High Speed Horn Antics (review)"

Sousaphones, Super Fly, and 7/8: Brass Menazeri’s Bumping Brass Party Grooves from Bosnia to Bollywood

Bosnian gems mingle with Bollywood bangles, while Rromani (Gypsy) hits mix with super-fly funk. Thanks to dreamed melodies and down-and-dirty bass lines, Brass Menazeri has been packing Mission bars with a heady mix of Balkan perfection and Bay Area eccentricity, of serious chops and serious joy, for years.

Now on Vranjski San (Porto Franco Records; August 10, 2010)¸ the brass band with attitude breaks out a fresh vision of how hip Balkan brass can be, while maintaining a rare depth of cultural knowledge. The group puts a new polish on favorite songs from Rromani, Greek, and Slavic masters, while shining light on unexpected sides of Balkan culture: the love of Bollywood, the funky production esthetics, the constant hunger for new sounds to try in old forms.

“We like to lay it down,” smiles Peter Jaques, Brass Menazeri director, clarinetist, and horn player. “We bring in elements of rock and funk, but subsume them into the tradition, something parallel to what’s going on in places like Serbia. They aren’t sticking to the sounds of the 1960s. They bring in whatever they hear as new color for their palettes.”

Witness “Opa Cupa Fly,” a funkified take on a classic by a popular Rromani singer and accordionist [Šaban Bajramovic]. After years of playing their brass band arrangement of the song-and starting a minor “Opa Cupa” craze among belly dancers-the band was seriously sick of their big hit. So they reimagined the track, throwing in a heavy Earth, Wind, and Fire-style backbeat and inviting friends from the Afrobeat group Aphrodesia to leap in. The result was “a funk remix of the song, with a nod to Super Fly,” Jaques explains.

Or “Lal Lal Hothon Pe,” a Bollywood number big in the 1990s that somehow lent itself perfectly to Balkan-style brass band, hinting at long-lost ties between the Rroma and their subcontinental kindred. Or “Hassan’s Dream,” a tune by jazz saxophonist Benny Golson that in Brass Menazeri’s hands suddenly intertwines with new modes and scales to become utterly Ottoman.

Yet all this quirky creativity and unbridled innovation rests on a firm foundation of cultural knowledge and strong musicianship that speaks of decades playing and partying to Balkan music.

Jaques, who got into Balkan brass through what he humorously calls “the gateway drug of klezmer,” was mesmerized early on by the complex time signatures characteristic of even the most straightforward Balkan dance music. Fascination led to several stints at a California Balkan music camp and finally to a community band of sorts, made up of fellow fans from camp.

To this strong base, Jaques and his bandmates have added deep musical and cultural knowledge gleaned on extensive trips around the former Yugoslavia, exploring brass festivals, and finding and composing new tunes. The traditions have sunk into Jaques’s bones-and even disturbed his sleep.

One night in the Serbia town of Vranje, after a day at a small brass festival, “I woke up in the middle of the night and I had this melody in head. I wrote it down by flashlight in my music book,” Jaques recalls. “I played through it the next day and was surprised; I didn’t have to change the melody at all.” That melody became “Vranjski San (Vranje’s Dream).”

Like the melody, Brass Menazeri’s big break came from an unexpected quarter: an invitation to play a small bar in San Francisco’s Mission thanks to an unexpectedly enthusiastic booker. They packed the place, and have been filling dance floors with delicious songs in 7/8, fat sousaphone bass lines, and high-speed horn antics ever since.
While many groups in the Bay Area focus on precise recreation of traditional sounds, Brass Menazeri insists on a new twist, even for their straight-ahead Balkan numbers. They often take a song that was originally Bosnian, and give it a Serbian or Macedonian treatment, reflecting the creative process once common in Yugoslavian music, now fraught with bitterness. Jaques muses, “In some tiny way, this is about peacemaking.”

To understand the subtleties, it helps to understand the peculiar lives of songs in the former Yugoslavia. Songs can be dividing lines between people, even for those who share and love another ethnic group’s songs in private. Jaques experienced this situation firsthand while camping with a friend and his father at one of the biggest brass festivals in the Balkans. Jaques had his horn, and his friend’s father kept urging him to play something. Next to them stood a grim group of very unfriendly Serbian nationalists.

“I played what I thought was everybody’s song. I’d heard Serbian bands play it, but it’s a Bosnian-sounding song. The Rroma like it, too. I even heard him singing it just the day before,” Jaques recounts. “He pretended he didn’t know it. He wouldn’t sing along and was stonewalling. I left really frustrated, and my friend said, ‘Sorry, that was a Bosnian song.’ That’s one of the reasons I got into approaching this music as if those boundaries weren’t there-or crossing them.”

The boundaries melt away in Brass Menazeri’s pumping bass and nimble solos, capturing the ethos of the open-minded Bay Area and its Eastern European emigre community that relishes the band’s shows. “We have pan-Balkan fans, and they all hang out together. I don’t know how much credit to take for that,” Jaques laughs. “People who were at war come hear us and realize that they have everything in common, that Serbian versus Bosnian versus Albanian doesn’t matter too much. They all speak the same language and share same tastes. And everybody loves to dance.” -

"Express Milwaukee reviews Vranjski San"

Balkan brass band music captivated California clarinetist Peter Jaques after he discovered the genre by exploring one of its cultural cousins, klezmer. Like his models in the Serbian Gypsy bands from the former Yugoslavia, Jaques’ group found the melancholic yet raucous Eastern sound elastic enough to embrace many influences without losing its soul. The rambling, funky rhythms of Brass Menazeri easily recall New Orleans, while Bollywood and jazz enter the repertoire without missing a beat. The musicianship is tight and soulful in ensemble arrangements that rely on the players to hear each other out. - Express Milwaukee

"Groove Magazine reviews “Vranjski San”"

Delivering a healthy dose of Balkan tunes to San Francisco’s Bay Area, Brass Menažeri have been swooning crowds into dance frenzies since forming in 2006. With an ensemble of nine seasoned musicians on sophomore albumVranjski San, Brass Menažeri continue their knack for updating traditional Balkan folk rhythms, a talent that won them the 2008 San Francisco Weeklyaward for Best International Band. Opener “Vranjski San,” an original arranged by band director Peter Jacques, starts with a whimsically trilling trumpet solo and takes a delectable turn as the percussion, clarinet, sax and trombone come in, weaving together complementing melodies, creating a full, rich sound. On “E Davulja,” vocalist Michele Simon’s singsong voice cuts through the thick, interlaced horns, giving the track an upbeat element. Simon (who’s been a Balkan vocalist for over 19 years) is singing a Rom-Macedonian tune about being a big bellied girl wanting to shake and dance. Other alluring tracks include the Bollywood-inspired “Lal Lal Hothon Pe” and clarinet-heavy Bulgarian number “Phirava, Daje.” (Port Franco) - Groove Magazine

"Balkan Brass by the Bay"

Brass Menazeri / Vranjski San (Porto Franco Records PFR018, 2010)

You never quite know how it’s going to turn out when a style of music closely identified with one particular region, Balkan brass band music in this case, is attempted by musicians whose home base isn’t even in the same hemisphere as the style they’re taking on.

Perhaps I’d have been better off not knowing, before slipping this disc into the player, that Brass Menazeri (pronounced “menagerie,” by the way) are from San Francisco. Then I would have simply marveled at how deft and spunky they can be on certain tracks and how melancholically moody they can be on others. Or how they can throw in shades of Bourbon Street, Bollywood or Iberia while still giving the impression that they just might be from Bosnia, Serbia or Romania.

While not as brashly brassy as, say, the Boban Markovic Orkestar or Fanfare Ciocarlia, Brass Menazeri can nonetheless tear expertly into Balkan standards and their own originals. Euphonium, sousaphone, trombone, trumpet, sax and clarinet majestically ride melodic hairpin turns atop strutting percussion and the occasional vocal, invoking Roma village dances, Macedonian wedding fetes, Ottoman military roots and shared musical connections with jazz, klezmer and funk.

Some of the band’s members have spent time soaking up local music in and around what used to be Yugoslavia, and what they absorbed is evident in Brass Menazeri’s finely honed, visionary version of Balkan brass delights.

"Brass Menazeri’s New Album is Gorgeously Intense"

Here in New York we have Slavic Soul Party, Raya Brass Band, Veveritse and of course the godfathers of East Coast Balkan brass, Zlatne Uste. The San Francisco Bay Area has gypsy brass band Brass Menazeri and they are equally awesome. Their new album Vranjski San is just out on Portofranco Records. As much as there’s plenty of cross-pollination in Eastern Europe, American gypsy bands really mix up their styles: there’s something to be said for the argument that the newly converted (or at least those who didn’t have the good fortune to grow up with this stuff) are more dedicated than those born into a religion. And as any fan of gypsy music or Balkan music knows, it’s sort of a religion. Brass Menazeri (pronounced “menagerie”) seize this passion and run with it, from from Serbia to Rajasthan. What’s most striking about the album is how long the songs are: most of them clock in at least five minutes or more, because what this is first and foremost is dance music. It’s a great album to wake up to if REALLY waking up is your game plan.

Many of the tracks use the eerie Middle Eastern hijaz scale, sometimes the minor keys (and occasionally the happier major keys) of the west, sometimes all of them in the same song. When the music goes all the way down to a break with the tapan (bass drum), that’s usually a signal that something unexpected and fun is about to happen. As much as virtually of the tracks here are dance tunes, many of the melodies are quite haunting. Mejra Na Tabutu has a graceful bounce, but also a rivetingly wounded vocal from one of the band’s frontwomen, and an otherworldly ambience – which makes sense, considering that the title means “Mejra in the casket.” Likewise, Phirava Daje (I Traveled, Mother) moves along matter-of-factly on a riff that sounds straight out of an old African-American spiritual, with a distant whirlwind of horns featuring both swirling rotary horn and moody, austere clarinet by bandleader Peter Jaques.

The title track, a mini-suite of sorts, blurs the line betwen klezmer, the Balkans and the Middle East, bubbling horns behind the plaintive lead melody. Another aptly titled number, Cocekahedron works rich, shifting layers underneath fiery doublestops and a cleverly orchestrated handoff from clarinet to trumpet. Perhaps the most strikingly beautiful song here is E Davulja (The Drums) with its poignant vocals and brooding clarinet over the horns’ staccato insistence. The Greek numbers here share a blustery, breathless, rapidfire intensity. There’s also a Balkanized version of a big Bollywood hit from the 90s full of playful call-and-response; a handful of introspective solo horn taqsims, including a rewrite of a Benny Golson theme; and the jazzy complexity of the cover of Saban Bajramovic’s iconic Opa Cupa that closes the cd. Minor keys or not, most of this is pure bliss. Bay Area fans can see Brass Menazeri’s next gig at the bracingly early hour of 11 AM on 9/15 at the SF Summerfest at Embarcadero and Battery. - Lucid Culture

"Bands put their own spin on similar themes"

By Andrew Gilbert

Article Launched: 05/24/2007 03:21:02 AM PDT

Sometimes the Bay Area music scene feels like a giant greenhouse, with exotic new hybrids springing up unexpectedly next to carefully tended purer strains.

One unlikely bloom is Fishtank Ensemble, a six-piece band that brings together a thrilling blend of traditions, including the styles of flamenco and klezmer, Gypsy and Balkan. What's most arresting is the way that Fishtank juxtaposes a startling arsenal of instruments, with a hot fiddle break giving way to a solo on shamisen (a three-string Japanese instrument), followed by duet for saw and voice.

Fishtank Ensemble performs tonight at La Pena in Berkeley, and on May 31 as part of the opening program of the four-night DjangoFest Mill Valley at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre.

From jam to band

The band came together about four years ago, when French fiddler Fabrice Martinez came to the Bay Area to visit vocalist Ursula Knudson, who plays saw and violin. The Fishtank musicians met at a jam session, and were so pleased with the way they sounded that they decided to form a band.

But the group, which also features Aaron Seeman on accordion, Mike Penny on shamisen, Douglas Smolens on guitar and Serbian bassist Djordje Stijepovic, didn't get a chance to perform much at first because Martinez and Knudson moved to southeastern Italy, just across the Adriatic from Albania.

"The first year we were in Italy, Fabrice had a group Croque Mule, and we lived in Gypsy wagons and played music on the streets," said
Knudson, a Sacramento native who graduated from St. Mary's College in Moraga in 2001 with a degree in French literature. "It was the same idea as Fishtank, based on Gypsy swing."

When that band broke up, Martinez formed Opa Cupa, a wild 12-piece Balkan brass band. But after he and Knudson got married and had a son, they decided to relocate to California and devote themselves full time to Fishtank Ensemble.

Building a following

With most of the players now based in Southern California, the group is building a following with regular performances up and down the West Coast, and an impressive debut album "Super Raoul" that captures an early version of the band in all its eclectic glory.

The sound and personnel have evolved considerably since then. Fishtank has expanded its repertoire of traditional Gypsy tunes that Martinez learned while living in Romania with new pieces by Aaron Seeman, a gifted composer. In many ways, Fishtank has forged a group sound by highlighting the different sounds and styles contained within the group.

"The first pieces we did were mostly songs that Fabrice had taught us," Knudson said. "We've gotten into the idea of showcasing each of the musicians, either all at once or on particular tunes. Some groups are really ensemble-based, but we're all such different, weird talents, it's a real challenge trying to find music that fits all of our instruments."

Brass Menazeri combo

While Fishtank Ensemble takes Gypsy swing in new directions, the Bay Area band Brass Menazeri puts its own spin on the Balkan brass band sound by delving into the tradition.

The nine-piece combo celebrates the release of its debut album "Brazen" on Saturday at the Jewish Community Center of the East Bay in Berkeley on a double bill with the Gaucho Gypsy Jazz Band. It is also featured at the Berkeley World Music Festival on June 2.

"We also play Roma," said Menazeri director, clarinetist and trumpeter Peter Jaques, using the term with which Gypsies refer to themselves.

"But our influences are more Southern than Fishtank Ensemble. They're drawing more from the Romanian and Gypsy swing vibe."

Most of the Menazeri musicians met while studying with Michael Ginsburg at the Balkan Music and Dance Camp in Mendocino, an annual event produced by the East European Folklife Center.

Jaques, who comes from the klezmer tradition, was so taken with the kinetic Balkan brass sound that he corralled a group of players and gradually built Menazeri into one of the region's premiere Balkan ensembles.

With songs in Serbian, Romany and Bulgarian, the group captures the hurtling momentum, staggering rhythms and celebratory energy that define the tradition.

"We started with a core set of tunes we learned from Ginsburg," Jaques said. "There are a few of us who are avid recording collectors, and we picked up songs from Serbian, Macedonian and Greek bands. And we found some Bollywood tunes that actually fit within the tradition.

"For one thing, the Roma are proud of their connection to India," Jaques said," and Indian film tunes are very popular in the Serbian bands. People are always looking for new influences. Our favorite groups are the ones that stay rooted while coming up with something really new." - Contra Costa Tomes

"SF's Best International Band 2008"

Brass Menazeri was named "Best International Band" by SF Weekly Readers for 2008! - SF Weekly

"Brass Menazeri blow horns, minds"

By Todd Lavoie

They're brassy! They're sassy! Oakland's ambassadors of Balkan bump 'n' grind, Brass Menazeri's creds are massively impressive.

Every last one of (debut CD) Brazen's 11 songs is nothing short of dazzling, but allow me to gleam and glow away over a few highlights: "Ajde Chaje" offers a wild hip-swishing rhythm and quasi-Middle Eastern vocals (courtesy of MacFarlane, Briget Boyle, and Michele Simon) while Randy Trigg's churning accordion grinds underneath a barely contained crowd of clarinets and brass. "Leventikos", a Greek-Macedonian dancefloor-filler, surges with a trancelike quick-shuffle beat and urgent clarinet rallying cries weaving seductive patterns around the unstoppable percussion.

Crowd fave "Opa Cupa", however, is the surefire gateway-drug of Balkan sounds - once you've heard this traditional boot-stomper, you're likely to be hooked - and perhaps the best intro for getting a feel for Brass Menazeri's electrifying live shows. The phrase is often used by Balkan Rom as a call to dance, and I'd be inclined to have serious doubts about anyone who could possibly fail to heed the call upon hearing the band's take on this oft-covered little ditty.

excerpted from: - SF Bay Guardian


Brazen (2007)
Vranjski San (2010 re-release)



"Warning: listening to the Brass Menazeri is addictive—once they start, you can't stop." —Dina Maccabee, SF Bay Gaurdian

The Brass Menažeri (pronounced “Menagerie”) is the San Francisco Bay Area’s Balkan Romani (“Gypsy”) powerhouse Brass Band. We cascade through the music of the Serbian, Macedonian, Greek & Rajasthani Roma with wild rhythms, soulful vocals & hot improvisations. The energy is infectious—toes tap, bodies slam, sweat flies as vital energy radiates from the dance floor. The Brass Menažeri is a shining example of traditional Balkan repertoire combined with new sensibilities, innovative arrangements & original compositions at the hands & lips of American devotees.

Long before the current Balkan brass music craze was iconified by crossover artists like Beirut and NY’s Balkan Beat Box, the nine musicians of the San Francisco Bay Area’s powerhouse Brass Menažeri Balkan Brass Band were already getting deep into the tradition, developed over centuries by the Rom (Gypsy) communities of Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, which yields music as alive with ecstatic celebration as with despairing laments. The band draws on many of the characteristics common throughout the Balkans: brazen horn lines, odd-metered rhythms, riveting, close harmonies, soulful improvisations, and a mission to make people dance.

Now a wider audience is taking notice, as Brass Menažeri’s powerful performances drive some of the most fresh and exciting live shows in the Bay Area, including SF Weekly’s “Best Crazed Gypsy Brass Band Dance Party”, Kafana Balkan, that has packed most of San Francisco’s venues over its 3 year history.

The reissue of their 2008 album Vranjski San (Vranje Dream) showcases the collective’s exuberant, road-tightened sound and repertoire of traditional Balkan music with songs in Rromanes, Bosnian and Greek languages complemented by original compositions and Indian rhythms. Vranjski San is a piece of 21st century international music brought to you from the burgeoning Bay Area arts scene by Brass Menazeri and Porto Franco Records.