We went to see a Bulgarian Gypsy band at the Barbican last night. Martin Lubenov, a shambling bear of a man in a loose fitting black shirt, generous trousers and grey cloth cap, faces his band, who, sublime musicians all, look back at him with trusting smiles of expectation.
For a long time I had never rated the accordion – finding it bland, imprecise, and too much a pale imitation of an organ. It looks too an ungainly instrument, a burden strapped to the chest – not an instrument to easily allow the expression of free spirit. Our son, Vlad, received accordion lessons from a teacher who took her inspiration from Germany. I once asked her if she could teach him some Cajun music as he was getting bored by the square rhythms and melodies he was being forced to play. She had never heard of Cajun music and so, sadly, my son rejected the irksome German strapping.
In Bulgaria, I began listening to Ibro Lolov, the gypsy band leader and accordionist. I began to realise how the instrument could bring a smile to my face and a surge in my body to leap up and dance. With a visit to New Orleans and a listen to a Neil Young track, my view of accordions continued to change.
I read in the programme notes that Lubenov’s father was a drummer in the Lolov band and the Lolov band had been the only approved Gypsy band during communism.
Martin Lubenov directs his orchestra from his accordion. His instrument is as bulky as himself but from it come phrases of muted tenderness that I never thought an accordion capable of. In driving percussive mode, his instrument is anything but imprecise. His band members are all virtuosos but there is no sense of arrogance in their young faces as Lubenov’s accordion leads them to the heights of free improvisation – even the quiet guitarist seizes his chance to amaze.
Lubenov’s music draws not just on Balkan Jazz with a saxophonist/clarinetist playing like Ivo Papazov. There are echoes of the Parisian alley and the Buenos Aires brothel in his accordion playing and the guitarist’s solo is reminiscent of Carlos Jobim.
After a bravura opening instrumental, there is a pause as the trombone player leaves the stage and returns with a blind singer, Neno Iliev, who clutches an acoustic guitar to his chest. We scarcely hear the guitar but the blind man’s voice soars, ululates and warms the soul.
The audience had mostly come to see “the King Prawn”, Diego EL Cigala a Spanish gypsy singer, chosen to provide the climax of the Barbican 1000 Year Journey celebration of gypsy music. I have to say that in spite of El Cigala’s sharp expressive voice and his brilliant backing musicians, I found much of his set repetitive. Ironically it climaxed with songs from Cuba, which heavily featured his Caribbean bass player.
Leaving after the final rapturous encore, I noted the number of empty seats in what had been a full auditorium. Perhaps those early departing may have shared my view that the pace variation and inspiration of the Bulgarian band had surpassed El Cigala.