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The best kept secret in music


By Alexander Gelfand
July 29, 2005

Before the advent of the European Union and its open borders, long before Germany had been invaded by the Turks and France by the North Africans, two groups vied for the distinction of being the most despised people in Europe: Gypsies and Jews.

More often than not, the Gypsies — or Roma, as they prefer to be known — were the unfortunate winners of this grim competition. Indeed, the Roma were once so reviled that wealthy Hungarians hired Jewish klezmer musicians to play Romani music rather than have the Roma do it themselves, believing, it seems, that Jewish riff-raff were preferable to Romani riff-raff.

That Jewish musicians were able to fill in rather competently for their even-more-oppressed brethren testifies to the rich musical history that the two groups shared. In the 17th century, Jewish musicians fleeing the wars and pogroms of Central and Eastern Europe joined forces with itinerant Romani performers to tour the southern reaches of the old Ottoman Empire, sharing melodies and musical techniques along the way. Ultimately the Greco-Turkish and Romani dance music these klezmorim encountered helped shape the klezmer style in Eastern Romania (today's Moldova), just as traditional Russian and Slovakian music influenced Ukrainian and Polish klezmer. Romani musicians, meanwhile, became valued members of many klezmer ensembles.

The Brooklyn-based band Romashka capitalizes on those various interconnections to produce music that is deliciously distinctive yet strangely familiar. The name Romashka, which means "daisy" in Russian, is derived from both "Roma" and "mashke," the latter being Yiddish for "liquor." And in matters of repertoire, instrumentation and playing style, the group draws equally on Romani and klezmer traditions. Fans of Balkan wedding music will appreciate the wildly kinetic rhythms of "Mariana," while "Moldovan Batuta" could have sprung from the book of any Bessarabian klezmer outfit. The Russian tango "Tanya" drips with the kind of bittersweet, sepia-toned nostalgia for which both traditional klezmer and Romani music have become aural tropes. And "Shimdiggy" — a freewheeling original that merges New Orleans rhythms with Central European melodies — sounds like what you might get if you mated the Dirty Dozen Brass Band with Ivo Papasov's Bulgarian Wedding Band.

Romashka owes its irresistible rhythmic drive to drummer Timothy Quigley and tubist Ron Caswell, who slyly funkify even the most traditional of the group's arrangements. But much of the band's visceral punch comes from Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash. With her wide, throaty vibrato and ringing delivery, Barmash has an uncommon gift for communicating the emotional valence of a song, even when its lyrics are in a foreign tongue. On the Russian Gypsy tunes "Loli Phaboy" and "Zoznobila," the impact of her voice is almost tactile. She's the kind of singer with whom you could fall in love. - The Forward

I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Any band that uses a tuba for their bass lines is already halfway into my CD library, whether it's New Orleans funk, Balkan speed brass, or, as in the case of Romashka, Gypsy tunes. Part of a burgeoning NYC Balkan/Gypsy scene, Romashka's self-titled CD is a quick romp (just under 30 minutes) through the Gypsy part of town, with mostly traditional songs. The lack of song notes/lyrics may leave you wondering whether to dance or cry...but why not do both? The sax-led instrumental groove of the original "Shimdiggy" is irresistible, and the beat threatens to spin out of control as you near the end of "La Cîrcuma De La Drum (The Tavern On The Road)." Inna Barmash's voice brings things back to earth, injecting raw emotion and power into every note she sings. In addition to Barmash's voice and Ron Caswell's lip-busting tuba lines, Romashka includes Jake Shulman-Ment (violin), Jeff Perlman (clarinet & sax), Ben Holmes (trumpet), Stevhen Iancu (accordion), and Timothy Quigley (drums & percussion). Be sure to listen after the last listed track, the raucous "Moldovan Batuta," and you'll be rewarded with a "hidden" reprise of "Tayna" compressed to sound like an old phonograph recording. - Spin the Globe

In a little over a year, Romashka have built a reputation as one of the most exciting and energetic bands in New York City's world music scene. Before converging on Brooklyn, the band's eight members cut their musical teeth in different locations, including a number of Ivy League institutions. Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash co-founded the Princeton-based outfit the Klez Dispensers, wind player Jeff Perlman spent four years with the Yale Klezmer Band, and guitarist Joey Weisenberg served as musical director of the Columbia Klezmer Band. Tuba player Ron Caswell, trumpeter Ben Holmes, accordionist Steven Iancu, percussionist Timothy Quigley, and fiddler Jake Shulman-Ment have likewise built up impressive musical resums with backgrounds in Gypsy, klezmer and Balkan musical traditions, with hints of jazz and rock thrown in as well.

The diversity of ethnic backgrounds and emotions that comprise Romashka's music are reflected in the band's name; "Roma" is the Gypsy word for the Gypsy people, "Mashke" is Yiddish for "liquor," and "Romashka" is the Russian word for "daisy."

Romashka formed in late 2003 with the primary purpose of celebrating the musical traditions of the Gypsy people. In their live performances, and now with their self-titled debut album, they explore the depths of these traditions by combining superior musicianship with relentless energy and a Brooklyn attitude. Produced by Perlman, the new CD adds some subtlety and depth to Romashka's live sound, although at the expense of a little of the band's on-stage energy. Given that, Romashka ably represents a fresh young band at the beginning of what will hopefully be a long and productive career.

The disc consists of four songs and four instrumentals, and opens with the peppy minor-key dance instrumental "Mariana," a Romanian Gypsy standard. Romashka performs this piece primarily in a Balkan brass band style, but Perlman and Holmes also trade some jazzy improvisations, and Shulman-Ment adds a fiddle flourish near the end. Barmash then leads the band through the soulful Russian Gypsy tango, "Loli Phabay (The Red Apple)," with a very distinctive "hop, hop, hop" in the chorus. Quigley's castanets add a touch of subtlety to this recording that would escape notice in Romashka's live performances. "Shimdiggy," composed by Perlman, differs a bit from the traditional pieces on the disc in that the tonic chord is major instead of minor, but maintains the same high energy level as the other tunes. Like the previous song, the recording of "Shimdiggy" includes a few background effects that require the listener to pay attention. Barmash then sings in Russian on "Tayna (A Secret)," another sad tango. The instrumental accompaniment is dominated here by Iancu's chords on the accordion and some fine picking on the guitar by Weisenberg.

"La Crcuma De La Drum (The Tavern On The Road)," a Romanian Gypsy song, is the most energetic of the four songs on this disc. Barmash's vocals are overshadowed somewhat here by the frenzied bass line played by Caswell on the tuba. The band mixes genres and influences on the short instrumental "Rustemul," with Weisenberg playing a bluesy riff on guitar while the horns and fiddle play the melody for a traditional Romanian folk dance. The band next performs a medley of "Zaznobila & Baro Faro (She Messed With My Head In The Great City)," a pair of Russian oompah Gypsy songs. As is common for Gypsy songs, this piece starts out slowly but then steadily gets much faster. The bouncy instrumental "Moldovan Batuta," a traditional Moldovan tune frequently performed by klezmer bands, completes the disc officially. However, Romashka includes as a bonus track a scaled-down remix of "Tayna," minus the drums and altered to sound like a grainy old vinyl recording.

Having seen Romashka perform on several occasions, I could discern a slight difference in the approach the band took to making this disc relative to their concert performances. The album focuses more on the musical details, and less on the feverish intensity that characterizes a Romashka concert. For the most part, Romashka reveals the strong collective musicianship of the band, particularly the rhythm section, to a degree that the more frenetic live shows cannot match. I would make an exception, though, for Jake Shulman-Ment, whose fiddling compares well to that of the Hungarian fiddlers of Muzsiks; the disc would have benefited from more of his solo playing. Inna Barmash holds her end of the bargain as well, effortlessly singing in several languages with a maturity that belies her age. Excepting a few high notes on "Zaznobila & Baro Faro" that sound a bit beyond her comfortable range, Barmash's vocals magnify Romashka's emotional power and remain solid throughout the disc. One could debate whether Romashka's performance in the recording studio matches what they regularly do on stage, but the band has much to recommend them either live or on disc. Romashka will command the att - Greenman Review


Available at -

Romashka detonates its signature Gypsy bacchanalia into this debut album. Count down for music with deep roots and fierce vitality, showcasing both technique and attitude, pulsing between seventh heaven and the nine circles of hell:

8. Moldovan Batuta, from the hellish little nation between Romania and Ukraine.
7. A Russian Gypsy medley of Zaznobila - a heart-wrenching tale of lost love,
and Baro Faro (Great City) - in which love is found again.
6. Rustemul - a grungy purgatorial Romanian dance.
5. Sinfully jolly Romanian bar song La Circuma de la Drum.
4. Confessional Russian tango Tayna in which the Secret is you.
3. Shimdiggy -an original mixing moist New Orleans with dusty Romanian roads.
2. Seductively Eden-esque Russian Gypsy ballad Loli Phabay (The Red Apple).
1. A jazzed-up version of Fanfare Ciocarlia's Romanian classic Mariana.


Feeling a bit camera shy


Romashka, the NYC Gypsy Dance Party Band was born in fits and torrents in the fall of 2003. Roaming from cafes and all-night jams, to apartment parties and subway stops, the band quickly catapulted to pulsating clubs and underground parties, drawing a loyal - and swiftly growing - following from downtown party revellers and outer-borough-dwelling ethnic communities alike.

Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash fronts a band of multifaceted American musicians and one half-Romanian madcap accordionist, who bring years of Klezmer, jazz and rock experience to their Gypsy music journey.

Roma is the Gypsy term for the Gypsy people. The complex rhythms and odd harmonics in Gypsy music are enough to enthrall musicologists, but to understand it, all you need are ears, a heart, and... a soul. Romashka draws its repertoire primarily from Romanian and Russian Gypsies - with hints from Spain, Turkey and beyond. The musicians have traipsed around Eastern Europe and the Eastern European enclaves of NYC collecting and imbibing local folk music and culture.

Mashke is Yiddish for "liquor." This is party music that burns in the belly. Romashka has roused crowds from BAM Café to the Bulgarian Bar, from weddings to late-night house parties that have shaken the walls and drawn the cops. "If you really want a challenge, try sitting still while Romashka plays!" (Michael Ginsburg, Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band).

Romashka is Russian for "daisy." Next to raucous dance numbers you will also find aching, world-weary love songs, as sweet and unexpected as a flower in a parking lot.