Ljova and the Kontraband – Mnemosyne

Ljova and the Kontraband

“…original compositions, evoking rustic dances and cinematic vistas by turns. [Ljova’s] swinging Kontraband gets a real workout on its newly issued debut CD…”
–Steve Smith, Time Out New York

“Terrific blend of styles into something very distinct, very reflective of a lively personality…. I very much like the way the old and modern intersect in these pieces, not as a conscious blending so much as an organic, individualistic tangent, so to speak. I really like the informality of it all, the excitement of a cast of creative musicians playing with and off of each other.”
–Steve Hochman, of Spinner.com “Around the World”

“The music is hard to categorize; you wouldn’t call it classical, but it has classical elements (or soundtrack-like elements, for several pieces here are drawn from film soundtracks)… Perhaps the best way to imagine the music is to think about what Astor Piazzolla would have done if he had come from Eastern Europe. The title “Mnemosyne” refers to the feminine embodiment of memory in Greek mythology, and the album seems to set itself the task of weaving slender threads of musical memory — tango, klezmer, polka, salon music, film music, chamber music, gypsy music, and jazz — into a structure rigorous enough to hold them all. It succeeds, and it’s lovely. ”
–James Manheim, All Music Guide

Featured on WNYC’s New Sounds, Evening Music, KDVS’s Crossing Continents and other radio programs.

Blog reviews: George Robinson of the Jewish Week / Shirim Khadashim (Top 10 of 2008 releases), Lucid Culture (Top 10 of 2008 releases), Stranded in Stereo, The Armchair Critic, Collected Sounds (Best of 2009), Oliver di Place.

1. Mathias (EmiKa Mix) (5:02)
2. Mnemosyne (5:53)
3. Walking on Willoughby (6:12)
4. Love Potion, Expired (3:20)
5. Koyl (4:20)
6. How Easily I Get Lost (4:04)
7. Less (from the soundtrack to Un Peu Moins) (5:23)
8. Crutchahoy Nign (3:50)
9. Untango (from the soundtrack to Serpent’s Breath) (7:45)
10. Szeki (from the soundtrack to Serpent’s Breath) (4:19)
11. Gone Crazy (from the soundtrack to Cupcake) (2:32)
12. Bagel on the Malecon Reprise (3:45)

Ljova and the Kontraband
Ljova, viola & famiola
Inna Barmash, vocal (2, 5, 11)
Patrick Farrell, accordion (1-6, 8, 10-12)
Mike Savino, bass (1-6, 8-12)
Mathias Kunzli, percussion (1-6, 8-12)

with very special guests:
Frank London, trumpet & flugelhorn (2, 5)
Uli Geissendoerfer, piano (9, 12)
William Schimmel, accordion (9)
Alon Yavnai, piano (11)
Marcus Rojas, tuba (11)

MNEMOSYNE is the debut release of LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND, a new ensemble project dedicated to original music that washes away distinguishing lines between chamber music, jazz, contemporary global folk music. The ensemble was founded by violist and composer, Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin, an active collaborator of Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, composer Osvaldo Golijov, as well as a growing list of independent filmmakers. (Among them, Francis Ford Coppola, who used Ljova’s composition “Middle Village” in his latest film, “Youth Without Youth”; and “Man on Wire” director James Marsh, for whom Ljova scored the BBC documentary “The Team”, co-directed with Basia Winograd.)

Ljova explains: “Mnemosyne is the Greek name for the goddess of memory, and in a way, this is a tribute to our collective experience. In the past few decades, there have been massive revivals in almost every genre and region of music. While a major part of these revivals has been to rediscover the proverbial “Golden Era”, we’ve concentrated on trying to take these directions further, freeing our musical influences from their historical characteristics and context.”

As a classically-trained violist and composer, in leading an ensemble of jazz- and folk-trained musicians for the first time, Ljova found great new creative freedom in rehearsal and performances. The Kontraband never performs the same set twice, and Ljova constantly adds new pieces to the repertoire, each one unique, challenging and yet instantly accessible.

Speaking about the arch of the album, Ljova talks about the album having an upswing at both ends, “but in the very center of the album, there is a feeling of loss and sadness,” he says. The album begins quite innocently with a gentle rustle of percussion and found toys in MATHIAS, a tune Ljova wrote to celebrate the hyper energy of his percussionist, Swiss-born Mathias Kunzli, and also one for which Ljova has asked a young electronica producer, EmiKa, to re-space and re-interpret the original composition in the digital domain, re-sampling the instruments to create alternate atmospheres and beats, striving to create a new kind of upbeat dance music, in 5/8 time, and also featuring a fearless solo by accordionist Patrick Farrell. It is quickly followed by MNEMOSYNE, the title track, from a completely different sound world, a tango-influenced setting of a hundred year-old poem by Trumbull Stickney, featuring the vocal of Ljova’s wife and the lead vocalist of the gypsy band Romashka, Inna Barmash, and Grammy-winning trumpeter Frank London of the Klezmatics. The track was mixed by Anibal Kerpel, whose work with Oscar-winning composer, guitarist and producer Gustavo Santaolalla and his group Bajofondo has continuously pushed Tango – and indeed a whole generation of Latin music – further.

Next follows WALKING ON WILLOUGHBY, an elegant bittersweet composition that is inspired by the streets of Brooklyn by the group’s accordionist, Patrick Farrell; Ljova’s frenetic LOVE POTION, EXPIRED jump-cuts between Brazilian and Balkan influences, all the while blasting through an accelerating tarantella.
Things take a sad turn in KOYL, Ljova’s arrangement of a song found in the Moshe Beregovski collection of Old Jewish Folk music, featuring once again the voice of Inna Barmash and Frank London, this time on flugelhorn; but optimism shines again in the tranquil HOW EASILY I GET LOST, a composition by the ensemble’s bassist, Mike Savino, who uses wrapper from a bag of potato chips to create a gently fuzzing effect on his solo, recalling his bass’s African counterparts.

Midway through the album comes LESS, a composition Ljova recorded by multitracking his viola to create a quintet of searching voices for the soundtrack of the poetic short film “Un Peu Moins”. It is followed by CRUTCHAHOY NIGN, a Klezmer-inspired piece alternating between melancholy and celebratory dancing, which Ljova penned to console his mother when she fell in an accident, and had to walk on crutches for several weeks.
UNTANGO and SZEKI are two compositions from the soundtrack to the independent film “Serpent’s Breath”, keenly influenced by the music of Tango Nuevo and Astor Piazzolla. UNTANGO features the soulful performances of guest accordionist William Schimmel, of the Grammy-nominated Tango Project, and pianist Uli Geissendoerfer; SZEKI is a crossroads of Tango harmonies with the rhythmic inspiration from the folk dances from the Transylvanian town of Szek.

As the album draws towards its end, the Kontraband offers GONE CRAZY, the humorous end-title song from the short film “Cupcake,” which premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, featuring guest pianist Alon Yavnai, tubist Marcus Rojas, and the voice of Inna Barmash. At last, the band performs Ljova’s BAGEL ON THE MALECON, a signature tune made popular on his debut recording, and numerous concert performances by the Enso String Quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and others.

The album’s cover art features work by Rena Effendi, an Azeri photographer living in Baku. The two booklet photographs feature mysterious female figures, perhaps alluding to modern expressions of Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of Memory, while the interior tray image of a deserted stove makes sure that the CD is always kept at proper heat.

LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND (formerly Ljova & the Vjola Contraband) — is chamber-jam music for the “remix generation”. As if by alchemy, Eastern-European and Gypsy melodies, Latin rhythms, Jazz-inspired improvisations, and deeply rooted Classical forms are given new meanings in original compositions that fearlessly forge a new direction, with a nostalgic gaze towards the past. Members of the Kontraband have performed on stage and in the studio with Yo-Yo Ma, Moby, the Panorama Brass Band, Kate Havnevik, Lauryn Hill, the Klezmatics, and others.

Since making its debut at the Om Factory Yoga Studio in June 2006, the ensemble has performed at venues such as the New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where it was the opening musical guest of the Sundance@BAM Film Festival. The Kontraband is also a mainstay at New York’s legendary venue Joe’s Pub, and the Brooklyn-based club, Barbes.

Founded by the maverick film composer, arranger, and violist Lev ‘LJOVA’ Zhurbin — hailed by Billboard magazine as “one of New York’s fastest rising composers and instrumentalists” — the ensemble also features his close collaborators on vocals, accordion, bass and percussion. Inspired by his collaborations with Yo-Yo Ma, Osvaldo Golijov, the Kronos Quartet, the rapper Jay-Z and others, Ljova’s compositions dazzle with intricate textures, odd rhythms and lilting melodies, creating music that is both fresh and timeless.


“I am simply in awe of Lev’s talents. He is one of the outstanding exponents of a new generation of musicians that I consider, in a good sense, mutants. Equally at home in a chamber group or symphony orchestra playing the canon of the literature or the most complex modernistic settings, or imaginatively improvising on folk melodies with musicians from around the world, Lev proves that an integration between seemingly different cultures is possible, inevitable, and fruitful.”


Hailed by Billboard Magazine as “one of New York’s fastest-rising composers and instrumentalists”, LJOVA (Lev Zhurbin) stands at the forefront of his generation as the premiere bridge between the world’s musical cultures. Ljova was born in 1978 in Moscow, Russia, and moved to New York with his parents, composer Alexander Zhurbin and writer Irena Ginzburg, in 1990. He divides his time between performing as a violist in diverse groups ranging from his own LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND, to string quartets, jazz combos and Gypsy bands; studying and arranging music for Yo-Yo Ma, the Kronos Quartet, Jay-Z and others; and composing original music for film, TV, theatre and the concert stage.

Ljova is the author of more than 70 compositions for classical, jazz, and folk ensembles, as well as scores to three feature and over a dozen short films. He is co-founder of Mediant Music, a new company specializing in music for advertising and media. In 2005, Ljova was one of six composers invited to participate in the Sundance Institute’s Film Composers Lab. In 2007, Ljova worked as assistant to composer Osvaldo Golijov on his score to Francis Ford Coppola’s film “Youth Without Youth”, to which Ljova also contributed an original track, “Middle Village”. Most recently, Ljova was as guest faculty at the Banff Centre in Canada.

As an arranger, Ljova has completed dozens of musical arrangements for Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, the Kronos Quartet, the rapper Jay-Z, Bond, Matmos, and others. Resulting from these collaborations are arrangements of musics from Azerbaijian, China, India, Iran, Japan, Russia, Tanzania, as well as gypsy music from Romania and France.

Ljova has recently released his acclaimed debut recording, VJOLA: WORLD ON FOUR STRINGS, featuring original and traditional music, on Kapustnik Records. Previously, he has recorded with Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble on the bestselling Sony Classical CD “Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon”, and with The Andalucian Dogs on the Deutsche Grammophon CD “Ayre”, featuring the music of Luciano Berio and Osvaldo Golijov. He has performed on tour with Savion Glover, and recorded with composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, producer Guy Sigsworth and the Electric Light Orchestra.
Ljova grew up in a household filled with music, books and an unquenchable hunger for culture. His father, Alexander Zhurbin, is Russia’s foremost composer for film and musical theatre; his mother, Irena Ginzburg, is a distinguished poet, writer and journalist. He began violin lessons at age four with Galina Turchaninova, a celebrated pedagogue who also taught violinists Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin. When not practicing, the pre-teen Ljova regularly overran his record player and played street hockey.

Ljova is a graduate of The Juilliard School, where he was a pupil of Samuel Rhodes (violist of the Juilliard String Quartet). He has won numerous prizes as a composer, and appeared several times as soloist with orchestras, including as a winner of the Menschenkinderpreis from RTL TV (Germany).

In addition to a busy career as a composer and arranger, Ljova maintains a rigorous performing schedule as a violist. He can be heard most often his ensemble LJOVA AND THE KONTRABAND, the Gypsy party band ROMASHKA, the viola/cello duo JOINT CUSTODY, with Walter Thompson’s SP4TET, as well as many other freelance groups and projects. Ljova performs on a viola made by Alexander Tulchinsky, and a six-string hybrid made by Eric Aceto.

For the latest news, downloadable mp3s and CD releases, please visit Ljova’s website at Ljova.com

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