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Brothers In Arms: Les Yeux Noirs Rock Yoshi's

January 15, 2009

Les Yeux Noirs, a six-piece, French Gypsy/Yiddish music band fronted by the virtuostic, fiddle-playing brothers Eric and Olivier Slabiak, have visited San Francisco 12 times to date. I'm ashamed to say that I only got around to experiencing their sound for the first time last night.

The band has rightfully built up an enormous local following over the years. Yoshi's Jazz Club in San Francisco, which hosted the musicians, was packed for the 8pm set. A smaller, but equally ardent crowd turned up to hear the band play at 10pm. Utterly entranced, some audience members, including my friend Laetitia and I, stayed for both.

Both hour-long programs spun my head with their frenetic (or as the Slabiak brothers might describe it in their native French -- "bordelique" --) energy, turmeric-infused scales and vibrant warmth. Flanked by a drummer, accordionist, electric guitar player and electric bassist, the violinists wove together a program of madcap instrumental pieces that made you want to jump up and down and clap, and deeply affecting ballads sung in gorgeously rich voices (yes -- the brothers can sing too.) Languages featured on this musical odyssey ranged from Yiddish to Russian to French. There was some Romany and Serbian music on the menu too.

I don't often experience so many varying musical moods during a single gig at a jazz or rock club. There were soft, sweet lullabies, songs of pain and toil, peppy dance pieces and ardent anthems. The unison playing on the violins was extremely tight and fast. The harmonies, which occasionally veered beyond the standard major or minor thirds into piquant-sounding augmented intervals, were lush and tuneful. Sometimes the brothers' bows moved at such speeds that they almost became invisible.

In perhaps the most moving and quirky moment of the concert, the brothers segued into one piece by broadcasting a snippet of a recording of their grandmother singing at a family party in the 1960s over the club's sound system. Eric said he found the tape by accident recently and transferred it onto a CD in order to play it on tour. Grandma's sweetly hoarse voice growled out a thick melody in Yiddish and brought the brothers' roots firmly into focus. The recording made me think of my own roots too: the Slabiak brothers and I share the same great, great grandmother, it turns out. Though we are only distantly related, I feel proud to be able to call these demonic, black-eyed fiddlers my cousins.

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