I recently saw Les Yeux Noirs playing to a sold-out enthusiastic crowd at Henflings, a little biker bar in the Santa Cruz Mountains. My first thought at the concert was that having to sit down during a Les Yeux Noirs performance was pure torture. At home, as soon as I pop their most current CD Balamouk into the CD player, the infectious rhythms have me up cocek-ing and waltzing around the living room. The title Balamouk translates as "house of the insane" in Romanian; but, really, the only insane part of the CD is the manic pace the group sometimes keeps. Many of the tunes begin slowly, but build up to a wild pace before they end. Others stay slow and a little bit nostalgic and tender, typical of many Yiddish songs.
Balamouk opens with the driving beat of the drum on the instrumental title track signaling the invitation to the dance. Then the dueling violins come in. Those violins are played by brothers, Erik and Olivier Slabiak. The Slabiaks are two young classically trained virtuosos who started playing music when they were about five years old. Later, they studied at the Conservatoire in Brussels. During the concert, I had this vision of them as children driving their parents crazy with friendly sibling competition and inventiveness. "Look at me mommy! Listen to what I can do!" "No, no, mommy, look at me . . .", etc. They share not only a musical heritage, but also a dynamic stage presence that is carried over into the recording studio.
The brothers began to play their particular brand of gypsy/klezmer music as teenagers, finding in this music the same energy and freshness that most young people find in rock 'n' roll. The name Les Yeux Noirs, which translates as "the dark eyes", is actually taken from a tune by the great French gypsy guitarist, Django Reinhart.
Not only do they play violin very well, they are both good vocalists, singing in Rom, Yiddish, Romanian, and French with equal ease. (They learned many of their Yiddish songs as children from their Polish grandparents and Yiddish was the language they spoke at home). Actually all the members of the band are virtuoso musicians and all join in on the singing. Of particular note is Pascal Rondeau, the acoustic and electric guitarist in the band, who takes the singing lead occasionally and does an excellent job.
In performances, they invite the audience to share in the singing too, teaching the chorus to some of the songs. They obviously have fun on stage and in return, the audience has a great time too. Their all out energy doesn't come across nearly as well on their CD, but nonetheless, the recording is a good example of their repertoire from that opening cocek to a campy version of "Yiddishe Mame" and on to a Romanian/gypsy dance medley "Joc De Loop".
When I listen to them, I hear the influence of Klezmer, Roma, Macedonia, and Romania in their music -- from Esma Redzepova and Kálmán Balogh to Gheorghe Zamfir -- and a bit of Goran Bregovic thrown in for good measure. They mix it all up and add a dash of their own panache making it all sound fresh and highly original. Besides the songs their grandparents taught them, they learn tunes directly from gypsy musicians and their large collection of vinyl recordings.
Although in the past most of the band's material has been traditional, the group is more and more composing music based on the traditional sounds and rhythms that they love. The Slabiak brothers do not feel the need to play this music as it was played a hundred years ago; instead, they want to reinvent and reinterpret the tradition in a modern and youthful way. This is true not only in the choice of arrangements of the music but also in the use of the modern elements of trap drums, electric guitar, and electric bass combined with cello, cimbalom, accordion, and of course those two violins.
Balamouk is the group's fourth CD. Their next release is to be a "live" one, which will hopefully capture all the spirit and joy of their concerts. I, for one, am looking forward to that.