Brass Menazeri blow horns, minds

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Brass Menazeri's heart-racing performance of "Opa Cupa" from last year's shoulda-been-there Rickshaw Stop show.

By Todd Lavoie

They're brassy! They're sassy! Oakland's ambassadors of Balkan bump 'n' grind, Brass Menazeri will be raising a mighty floorboard-clobbering ruckus at the Ashkenaz in Berkeley this Friday, Feb. 22, when they join Bay Area gamelan-fusion ensemble Gamelan X for an evening of sweat-soaked revelry. If you've never seen this ten-piece horn-and-clarinet-fueled firecracker of a band before - well, then, you need to. Personally, I can think of few better ways to let loose the demons of the workweek than to kick it up on a Friday night with some joyful noise from these folks.

Thanks in large part to the success of Eastern European-enthusiasts Gogol Bordello, Balkan Beat Box, and Beirut, there's been a revived interest in the sounds of the Balkans and the Near-East, particularly in the songs of the Rom (also known somewhat pejoratively as the Gypsies) of that region. It's been a wonderfully refreshing development, seeing so many artists bring a definite rock-informed attitude and viewpoint to traditional folk forms, thus breathing new life into a genre which, only a few years ago, seemed in peril of remaining forever compartmentalized into a tight little "for world-music-lovers only" corner.

Much as the Pogues - particularly early in their career - opened up the possibilities of Celtic music to the more rock-reared listener, the new wave of brass bands and Balkan barnstormers are doing the same for the sounds of Serbia, Macedonia, and beyond. Brass Menazeri, while quite traditional in their approach - don't expect any of the electro-hip hop interpolations of Balkan Beat Box here - belong to this new wave, mainly because they seem to be diligent about courting a younger audience.

How? Well, they don't stick exclusively with the so-called world-music circuit, for starters. They'll play in more distinctly "rock" venues from time to time, too: last year's electrifying Rickshaw Stop performance springs to mind. The troupe steers clear of any sort of museum-relic approach to old world sounds and instead slyly translates them into something which feels quite urban in spirit.

Brass Menazeri's creds are massively impressive, though: between them, the band brings dozens upon dozens of years of Eastern European ethnomusicology study and experience. Band leader Peter Jaques, for example, has been playing Near Eastern music in the Bay Area since 1995, while vocalist-baritone horn player Rachel MacFarlane has studied Balkan music for over 30 years and is fluent in Serbian, Croatian, Macedonian, and Bulgarian. Other members have also served in Near Eastern vocal ensemble Kitka and Bay Area Balkan outfits Voluta Vox and Top Dog Run. So, needless to say, these folks are the real deal, as last year's self-released party-on-a-piece-of-plastic Brazen attests.

Every last one of 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.

For a more romantic, wistful experience, "Minderia" truly delivers - the instrumental's slow-chugging meter evokes images of young lovers parting late at night, unsure of when they might see each other again. Here, Trigg's accordion sighs and cries a tearful lament while the brass section floats a sublimely lyrical accompaniment. Snakelike clarinets twist and dodge between the horns, and to top off it all off, Larry Leight adds a delicious dose of melancholia with an elegantly understated trombone solo.

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.

Buoyed by a brass-and-hi hat-driven oompah rhythm and set aglow by Boyle's mesmerizing, occasionally muezzin-like delivery, "Opa Cupa" gives glorious audience-interactive release with its unison crescendoing cries of the titular phrase. It's not a song to be merely heard. Nah, it's one worthy of your surrender. Just link your arms around the shoulders of your best buddy and start swaying back and forth, slapping your knees and stomping your feet all the while, preferably while hoisting your mug aloft to the adrenaline-rushing beauty of it all.

Brass Menazeri will be whooping it up once again this Friday, Feb. 22, at the Ashkenaz Music and Dance Community Center, 1317 San Pablo, Berk. Tickets are $13; show begins at 9 p.m. Also playing: the ever-intrepid trance-happy Balinese fusionists Gamelan X.