Raya Brass Band at the Black Swan

Innocent bystanders probably wondered what was going on at the four-way intersection in the middle of Tivoli on Saturday night. Five guys with an assortment of instruments — tuba, saxophone, accordion, drums, and trumpet — braved the passing cars and played traditional Eastern European gypsy tunes in the middle of the road, serenading the diners sitting on the patios of several restaurants. After a few songs the band started walking down the street, still playing, and entered the local pub called the Black Swan. That’s where the Raya Brass Band was playing, and the commotion in the street was in part to draw people into the bar. It worked, too: a small parade followed the band back to the Black Swan, and more people joined later on.

As the accordionist of the Raya Brass Band, Matthew Faas, stated at the beginning of the band’s set, “This is country music — just not from your country.” This is true, and the band plays an exciting mix of tunes from all over Eastern Europe. It was actually the band’s staggering third gig of the day, the first being at a park in Brooklyn that morning at 9am and the second being a wedding upstate that afternoon. Still, the musicians delivered a show of astonishing energy and brilliance. For the first few tunes they also taught traditional dances to go along with them, such as folk dances from Serbia and Bulgaria, and some of the band members even joined in the circle dances while continuing to play.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing the Raya Brass Band twice now, and both times I’ve seen them the shows have been incredibly informal. The musicians not only play traditional Eastern European music but are also inspired by tradition in regards to the performance aspect itself. Although in the 18th and 19th century music was also played in royal courts, the folk music of Eastern Europe was used as a means of emotional expression and as a celebration of life. It was the music of the people and as such it was played at gatherings of family and friends, not any formal environment, and the Raya Brass Band keeps things historically accurate in that respect. There is no separation between musicians and audience at their shows, and the band prefers to mingle with the audience rather than stand apart from them. Apparently what I’ve witnessed is not as informal as the band gets, however, because they have played in a jacuzzi where everyone was in swim wear for Gemini and Scorpio’s Steamy Valentine’s Night at Russian Banya in Brooklyn… (You can find a clip from that event here).

The music of the Raya Brass Band really warms the soul and it’s hard not to be cheered by it. The tunes are lively and at times trance-like, evoking the mysticism of times long past, and persistent melodies and improvisations drive themselves into the listener’s head. The melodies also work their way down to the feet, and the powerful pull of the tunes compelled the majority of the audience to dance. Although the night was warm and the room was even warmer, the music continued to energize the sweating crowd and by the time the band played its last song people were throwing dollar bills at the musicians — or sticking money to their foreheads — and the dance floor was a hot frenzied mess.

Photo from the band’s website

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