Les Yeux Noirs (French for “Those Black Eyes”) drew their name from the title of a gypsy tune made famous by Django Reinhardt. That hints at that kind of music they make, which is Gypsy (and Yiddish laced with Manouche or French Gypsy jazz). France, like most of Europe and the US, is in the midst of a klezmer revival. The band was founded ten years ago by two Paris-based brothers classically trained in violin. Since then, the ensemble has fluidly expanded its configuration. The ensemble was already well known by the time they grew to a sextet (even heralded as “the boy band of a lost era” by the Bangkok Post). Here, they have enlarged here to include eight players. Les Yeux Noirs are renown on world music stages for their colorful high-energy performances, and Live, of course, is just that. Those familiar with Balamouk, their 2002 release, will find nearly that entire album presented again here in live performance. Fully ten numbers out of Balamouk‘s dozen were carried over to this 18 as stage repertoire, but that likely won’t dissuade too many because the public plea was to hear them live. Your wish was their command.
The music takes center stage on Live. Because there are seldom programs (certainly not booklet style liner notes) provided for any music performance onstage, that showtime philosophy may account for only a jacket track listing and the absence of any other defining notes. No matter, as the first track settles into play, the brush and pluck of the cimbalom, the throb of tabla, and an audience looking forward to being utterly engaged and otherwise swept completely away clapping and whistling straight away are the first sounds. The pair of Gypsy-style fiddles sweep in playing several steps apart and a jazzy drummer on a standard kit keeps double-fast time. Then strange modern vocal affects slip in as brief accents—droning noises, made by human voice that are later imitated by electric fiddle. And that’s how Les Yeux Noirs kicks out their original and energetic “Cioara”.
Hardly time to take a breath before another dizzying rhythm breaks out. “Sanie Cu Zurgale” gallops on a fast-clipped vocal with a cimbalom riding at full speed, frantic and furious violins and a bass that sometimes sounds distorted, like it is melting from the very heat generated by the song.
“Yiddishe Mame”, an old Yiddish (well, this is so famous that “standard” can’t be the word, and “favorite” isn’t strong enough) tune so ingrained that it’s not even requested but fully expected to be played. Usually the song drips with sentimentality and lends understanding to the emotional zeitgeist carried by the word “yiddishkeit”. “Yiddishe Mame”... redone!! But reinvented and you’ve never heard a version like it before. The song now in the able hands of Les Yeux Noirs becomes a modern slow tango, with low accents of kettledrum, electronic lightning strikes, and heavily reverbed guitar that will make everyone in the room sway in time. And you’ve heard fuzzed-out electric guitar, but fuzzed-out electric cello? Well, this is just a brilliant arrangement!
For all you circle dancers, spinners, and contradancers out there, or those solitary types who are dancing by themselves, “Yiddishe Mame” begins a trio of unique dance pieces that will be hard to resist. Immediately following is the slinky instrumental “Balamouk” (which is variously translated as “House of Fools” or “Insane Asylum”). Heavy on Eastern European circling repetitions, played on twin violins moving synchronously barely a note apart and sometimes keening like clarinets, the breathy wheeze of an accordion, the whining of a hard pumped wah-wah pedal on guitar, and the howling of a molten plastic bass, this tune borders on madness or the crazy sounds of confused genres. Or perhaps this is a representation of being driven wild from a life on the road or a life lived out in the ghetto. The staggered rhythms of “Ot Azoi” (“That’s the Way”) are out next. This is another of those overplayed klezmer (some songs are just too well known); many once recognizing the opening bars immediately feel they should never have to hear this ever again. It’s obvious Les Yeux Noirs are playing a bit with everyone here, and laughing at themselves for being who they are as well—they immediately bring in musical accents that lend an offbeat and almost comedic air to the song. The cimbalom is a bit off-kilter, the bass huffs and puffs, and a violin squeals like an off-key clarinet. During the accordion riff, they ham it up with over-exuberant whistles and shouts. Man, they are knocking themselves dead with this one. But as it ends up, this version is pretty easy to take and works well as the closing dose for the dance fever.
This record just grows on you the more you hear it. The only time the absence of notes or lyrics became frustrating was when hearing “Lluba”. This song is so important to Les Yeux Noirs as to have been included twice—the first, accompanied by acoustic guitar and soft drums and carried by paired voices of the brothers Slabiak before their violins take voice. This slow paced traditional song is haunting, tinged as it is with a subdued melancholy that ends up sounding mysterious. If this is a story or a lament, what could have happened to make people feel this way? This is important enough message to close the album as well. This version of “Lluba” is sung by the children of the Municipal School of Music Joulès les Tours. Is this story something the children are bound to inherit? I can’t help but wonder.