Throughout history the Roma (Gypsies) have had been vilified by people around the world so it seems only fair that they also start receiving some of the credit they're due for how much they've influenced the music of so many different cultures. As is detailed in Latcho Drom (Safe Travels), Tony Gatlif's amazing documentary that traces the Roma's travels from Northern India to France via the music of all the countries in between, their music has influenced the sound of every country they have lived in. Classical composers like Hungarian Bela Bartok incorporated Roma music into their compositions and folk music from Russia to Spain bears their stamp.
Who hasn't listened to klezmer music or flamenco and heard the guitar and the violin of the Roma playing alongside the other instruments? In France their sound merged with the Celtic music of Breton, and I've often wondered how the fiddle and the guitar ended up in Ireland, a country known for its pipes and drums traditionally. Every so often something really extraordinary happens and some of these Roma influenced traditions collide and create something new altogether. In New Orleans Spanish and French music hooked up with the sounds of Africa and zydeco was born.
Now, in something akin to nuclear fusion on the musical level, the New Orleans based band The Zydepunks have taken zydeco a lot further. It's not just Spain and France they draw upon, they bring in the Eastern European sounds of klezmer and the folk sounds of the Balkans, and power the result with a punk sensibility similar to the Pogues. Listening to their latest release, Finisterre, on Nine Mile Records, it's impossible not to get carried away to the ends of the earth by the sounds they have created.
At first you don't really know what to expect because the disc starts off with a traditional sounding Klezmer song, "Papirossen in Gan Eden", that's beautifully performed and sung with heartfelt sincerity. However, you get the feeling the band is easing you into things gently, as there's also an underlying tension to the song that's hard to put your finger on. When the next number, "Angel Whisky" sounds like it owes a debt to Dublin as well as Poland, it's the first indication that you're about to embark on a musical journey unlike one you've experienced before.
The strains of an accordion that sound like they could have haunted the streets of Paris or played a sea shanty for the fishermen returning with their catches in Breton in one song will turn into the sound of an Irish reel in another. The violin whose bow dances across its strings in a merry fiddle tune on one occasion, will echo the muddy streets of Eastern European Jewish settlements in another. Yet instead of sounding like a collection of unrelated songs, The Zydepunks manage to find the thread that ties them all together.
Even if you can't hear, or make, the musical connection between songs it doesn't matter, because its more the how instead of the what they are doing that brings about the cohesion. Each song, no matter what the tempo, is performed as if it were the most important piece of music that the band ever played. You can't make a violin cry or dance like either Denise Bonis or Ti-Juan do, or an accordion dance like Eve does, or create the rhythm to contain all the music with the precision that drummer Joseph Lilly and base player Scott Potts do if you don't believe in what you're doing.
When playing so many different styles it would be easy to go through the motions, but not once did I get the impression that anybody, either the regular band members or any of the guests who they have sitting in on this recording, are doing anything but throwing themselves heart and soul into every song. It doesn't matter what language the song is in, English, French, Spanish or Yiddish, if they are singing a song in memory of a departed friend ("Song For Mike" and "Long Story Short" are for Michael Frey a friend of the band who was murdered in 2006), or a song about them being evacuated post Katrina ("Dear Molly"), you can hear in the sound of their voices and the intensity of their playing that there's nothing more important to them than playing that song at that moment.
Aside from the fact that they are playing such an exotic mixture of styles and beats, the other thing that makes The Zydepunks so exciting is the punk sensibility they bring to their music. That doesn't meant they play loud and fast all the time, or sound like any of the other cliches that you might want to associate with punk, it means they take each song to the edge. They play with a wild abandon that always seems to be on the verge of descending into chaotic ruin but somehow always manages to stay on course. They are like a ship running before the strongest of winds that keeps threatening to keel over, but because of the skill of the crew they not only stay afloat, but they skim the waves faster and cleaner than you would have thought possible.
The city of New Orleans has long been a place where musical styles have converged and created sounds that hadn't been heard before. Not only do the Zydepunks continue that tradition by drawing upon the music of the region, they have reached even further afield to draw upon other musical sources similar to the French and Spanish roots of Zydeco, but that also have unique flavours of their own. As the Roma traveled West across Europe they planted musical seeds in every country they settled in. It's from those seeds planted centuries ago that The Zyedpunks have cultivated their own unique sound.
Exciting, exhilarating, and just plain fun, the music on Finisterre is quite unlike anything you'll have heard before, while sounding remarkably familiar at the same time. Yet, no matter what the music sounds like, the one thing you can be sure of is that you're in for the ride of your life when you listen to this disc.