A modern band of gypsies

• Traditional sounds of Eastern Europe meet modern era of rock

By Katie Emerick
Homer Tribune

Photo Provided

Photo Provided

They come from a world steeped in tradition and offer an art that is as much a celebration of the past as it is revolutionary. Brothers Olivier and Eric Slabiak, virtuosic violinists, stand at the helm of Les Yeux Noirs, a six-piece explosion of gypsy jazz, klezmer and Yiddish music from Paris. The group performs at the Down East Saloon next weekend, and — aside from profound talent — what stands to make the group so electrifying is their defiance of genre lines and an extraordinary ability to combine traditional sounds with an exploratory rock spirit.

Born to a family rich in musicianship, the brothers were raised in Paris after their forbearers fled Poland in the 1920s. They grew up trained as classical violinists, but found constant inspiration in the Slabiak family heritage. Grandma was a Yiddish singer, and uncles were both professional violinists. They, along with family friend Django Reinhardt, would transform the family bakery into a rehearsal space.

The fascination each brother had with his Eastern European roots fueled the musical exploration — even as both continued classical music education at the prestigious Brussels Conservatoire.

In 1992, the brothers founded “Les Yeux Noirs,” drawing the name — which translates into “the black eyes” — from an old Russian gypsy tune. Pulling inspiration from folklore and fantasy, poetry and contemporary, Les Yeux Noir lists influences as Tom Waits, David Bowie and Bjork.

Shamelessly contemporary with amplified fiddles and foot-peddles, electric guitars, bass and a full drum kit, the tight ensemble impresses with its ability to effectively transform Eastern European music in a way that maintains the spirit of its past. Utilizing pop sensibilities and cross-cultural understandings of world music, Les Yeux Noirs can set Yiddish lullabies to driving drum beats or Baudelaire poems to electrified polka rhythms.

With five studio albums released since their debut in 1992, Les Yeux Noirs has consistently built up their repertoire, bringing new interpretations to songs born out of Central and Eastern Europe. The transient nature of gypsy and klezmer music, the Jewish Diaspora and the Slabiak family’s personal familiarity with each translates to the wide range of music they create. Constantly exploring and reexamining themselves and their pasts, Les Yeux Noirs’ most recent studio album, “Tchorba,” is perhaps the most diverse offering to date. Bringing into the mix a greater number of vocal tracks, as well as pop trip-hop fusions, funk and reggae beats, the album presents a compelling dance that is both exotic and nostalgic.

The Bunnell Street Arts Center, working in collaboration with Down East Saloon and Downward Dog Productions, brings Les Yeux Noirs to town for the weekend show. Working from a grant provided by TourWest and subsidies from the National Endowment of the Arts, Asia Freeman of Bunnell said the opportunity to present such a unique band was one she couldn’t pass up.

“The quality of their music and the innovation that they represent create a really interesting combination,” Freeman said. “From klezmer rock to Yiddish pop, they have these layers that make it a really fun band. Homer appreciates adventure and has a lot of respect for musicians. But we also love to dance.”

The grant from TourWest — a program that makes it possible for smaller communities to bring in larger, more expensive international acts — was one Freeman felt would be perfect to use toward Les Yeux Noirs.

“We [the Bunnell Street Arts Center] only get a couple of TourWest grants a year, so it may just be once or twice a year that we’re able to bring in really innovative, passionate and educated musicians to connect Homer with the world,” Freeman said. “We’re built upon adventure here, but it’s also extremely isolated.”

She added that the best comparison of the cultural authenticity and uniqueness embodied by Les Yeux Noirs was with Huun Huur Tu, the ensemble of Tuvan throat singers who have previously visited Homer.

Les Yeux Noirs will bring their fiery orchestrations and soulful interpretations of a world both past and present to the Down East Saloon for two nights: April 2 and 3. The Bunnell Streets Arts Center is also offering a unique acoustic opportunity to see a short, unplugged set from the band at Bunnell as part of a free outreach in association with their First Friday event.

Les Yeux Noirs
When: April 2, 8 p.m. April 3, 9 p.m.
Where: Down East Saloon
Tickets: $25 door; advance $22 general/$20 Bunnell members
Free outreach Short Set by Les Yeux Noirs 6 p.m. April 2 at Bunnell Arts Center

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Posted by on Mar 24th, 2010 and filed under Feature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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