Barbez is hard to classify, but let’s give it a shot. They are a large ensemble, ethnically curious, jazz-experimental, proggily complex outfit with a tendency to explore beautifully obscure corners not just of the music world, but also of literature. Their last album Force of Light set the poetry of Romanian holocaust survivor Paul Celan to restless, rhythmically complex music. This current one, Bella Ciao performs a similar kind of alchemy with Roman Jewish liturgical song, taking ancient, archetypical melodies and embellishing them with complex swathes of stringed instruments, clarinet, Theremin, malleted percussion, guitar, bass and drums.
Barbez is led by musical omnivore Dan Kaufman, who first encountered the Roman Jewish tradition while at the McDowell Colony. He was working on a completely unrelated project, when the composer Yotam Haber asked him to record a few of the songs he was studying on his electric guitar. Kaufman was fascinating with the melodies which don’t conform to Ashkenazi or Sephardic Jewish traditions, but seem to exist in their own very separate space. The Jewish community, he learned, had lived in Rome since the second century B.C., before the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. It was the oldest Jewish community in Europe and had survived ghettoization, Fascism and the invasion of the Nazis, only to disappear at the advent of the modern era, when Roman Jews aligned their worship with more established mores. Some of the music has been saved by musicologists, but it is no longer in use in Roman synagogues.
In Kaufman’s mind, these very old melodies became entwined with the history of the Italian resistance. The album’s title track “Bella Ciao” was a rallying song against Mussolini and, later, the Nazis. It is sung here, in Italian, by Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, the piece a blend of anthemic protest, intricate, jazz-like interplay and, mixed in, a very old Jewish melody.
Elsewhere the connection between two historic struggles – Jewish life in Roman ghetto, the holocaust – is drawn in songs that blend resistance-era poetry with liturgical songs. Fiona Templeton, a Scottish poet who also performed on Force of Light, speaks calmly of horrific events, in “Et Shaare Ratson” and “Mizmor Leasaf”, two of the oldest melodies on the disc. “Et Shaare Ratson” is backed by a rackety, propulsive instrumental arrangement, full of abstract drumming and tense, coiled guitar, fluid string lines dissonances and a clarinet that swings from Klezmer-ish Middle Eastern tones to 30s jazz and back. “Mizmor Leasaf” is more rock-like and monumental, its rhythm pounded out on timpani, its melody carried by electric guitar, almost surf-like with whammied chords at the end of phrases. Yet it, too, twists and winds melodically in not quite Western ways, accentuating the harsh fatalism of lyrics about mass death in wintertime.
Without the vocals, you can hear even more clearly how the old and new interacts in these pieces. A number of them start in dialogue between bass and violin, the string line tremulous and gypsy-traditional, the bass quiet, precise, unself-promoting. Yet as they go on, these compositions become increasingly agitated and multilayered, the melody as likely to be carried by guitar or eerie Theremin, as violin, the rhythms chopped and crossed and intersecting. Kaufman has done a lot of meticulous research for this project, but he hasn’t been hedged in by it. This is not a musicological study, but rather a fresh, unconventional approach to age-old traditions.
DOWNLOAD: “Bella Ciao” “Et Shaare Ratson”
Check out a video from the band! http://blurtonline.com/news/video-premiere-bella-ciao-by-barbez/