APRIL 14 2017
ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS / National Public Radio
All too often, “fusion” is a rightfully dread-inducing term to describe music that tries to occupy several spheres at once, usually unsuccessfully. So let’s not use that label on the brilliant, wide-ranging music of Ljova and the Kontraband, a group that embraces Western classical, jazz and an array of international styles including tango and Eastern European and Balkan folk music. These top-flight musicians, who hail from Russia, Lithuania, the U.S. and Switzerland, pile all of these sounds atop of each other with great glee, and emerge with creations that alight on totally new and exciting terrain.
The band is led by the composer, arranger and viola player Ljova (Lev Zhurbin), who comes by this musical eclecticism naturally: the Moscow native, who comes from a family heavily involved in the arts, has worked with an astonishingly wide and starry group of collaborators, including Jay Z, the Bollywood queen Asha Bhosle and cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble. In this Kontraband setting, he and his bandmates (including Ljova’s wife, the preternaturally sweet-voiced, Lithuanian-born singer Inna Barmash) create performances of deep earthiness, fragile tenderness, ebullient humor and quicksilver shifts in texture. But the heart of their Tiny Desk Concert was the song “By the Campfire,” whose words have a long, strange history that goes back to the Middle Ages. The words originally come from 12th-century Germany; Ljova’s grandfather, a noted translator, translated this poem from German to Russian, which Ljova uses in his musical setting.
But before she sang “By the Campfire,” Barmash gave us her own English translation of this unsettling, stunning, and perhaps even prophetic text: “Lies and spite command the world / Suffocate its consciousness, / Truth is poisoned, dead is law / Honor killed — obscene extolled! / … And the wisdom of our days / Teaches theft, deceit and hate.”
“Love Potion, Expired”
“Ven Ikh Zol Hobn Fligelekh (If I Had Wings)”
“By The Campfire”
“Walking on Willoughby”
Ljova (viola); Inna Barmash (vocals); Patrick Farrell (accordian); Jordan Morton (bass); Mathias Künzli (percussion)
Producers: Anastasia Tsioulcas, Bronson Arcuri; Audio Engineer: Josh Rogosin; Videographers: Niki Walker, Morgan Noelle Smith, Bronson Arcuri; Production Assistant: A Noah Harrison; Photo: Marian Carrasquero/NPR.