Guide to SKOPJE

Balkan sound in the heart of the Big Apple


Interview with New York Gypsy All-Stars: Exciting musical journey with artists from Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the United States.

A Greek bassist ducked into a little bar in New York’s Alphabet City and heard the Eastern Mediterranean and Southern Balkans pouring across the packed room. The clarinet was keening and singing, and he knew every tune. From this blown-away moment of discovery, the New York Gypsy All-Stars sprang, uniting bi-musical virtuosi raised on the lush sounds of Macedonian, Greek, Turkish, and American roots and forged in the halls of the world’s best music schools. With composerly ears and a madcap relish for ill and crunky sounds, the quintet of crack musicians tears through the tollgates separating the region’s interlocking roots on the long-awaited album of original pieces, Romantech (Traditional Crossroads). New York Gypsy All-Stars Jump the Turnstiles of Balkanalia, Turkish Roots, and Gypsy Soul with Funky Refinement…  NYGAS are: Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet), Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun), Panagiotis Andreou (bass), Jason Lindner (keys), Engin Kaan Gunaydin (drums).

New York Gypsy All-Stars is a band composed of musicians from different countries: Macedonia, Greece, Turkey and the USA. Tell us how you got the idea to play together. There is an interesting story about the bass player Panagiotis Andreou who heard Ismail playing in a club and joined him on stage.

Ismail: It was about eight years ago when I started my classical music studies in New York. I was very young, exited and eager to experience the multicultural musical scene in the most diverse place in the planet.  In my journey of seeking talents and musical soul mates I met Panagiotis Andreou in one of the night clubs that I was performing regularly which was at the same time a place owned and managed by our current manager Serdar Ilhan. The energy, when we first played with Panagiotis, that surrounded the packed club was the biggest initiator for our long-lasting relationship and was the first step to create such a bend as NY Gypsy All Stars. The fact that all the musicians are from different countries in this band is just a bonus. We didn’t pick the musicians by their background but by their talent and musical drive 🙂

How does the story of NYGAS develop? How did you get to this lineup given the fact that you all come from different countries?

Panagiotis: For a musician, living in NY is the equivalent of living in a “holy city” for NY is, even during our times of global recession, THE symbol of tolerance, peaceful co-existence and innovation. Within such an environment it is only inevitable that musicians are going to meet, play and create regardless of their national or religious background. So in the NY Gypsy All Stars we are bound primarily by mutual admiration of each others musical being; the fact that we’re from neighbouring countries of our region is “the cherry on the pie” of our bond, since we obviously share similar values and temperament. In simpler words it is actually easier for people of a certain region to get together here than one would think; add the level of musicianship of the band and you get NY Gypsy All Stars! 

How much is Macedonian, Greek and Turkish music present in your music? Can we say that you are representatives of the so called Balkan sound?

Ismail: Our musical idea and goal is to promote and present the ethnic tradition of our countries in a way that the whole world would be interested in it. Yes, we use many Macedonian, Turkish, Greek, Bulgarian, Albanian, Serbian, Romanian nuances in our music but they are not in your face. We try to make a balance and blend all this rich folklore and put it in one concept. We are trying to make the Balkan Sound mixed with World Rhythms and Harmony.

Your music is a combination of jazz and funk “spiced” with traditional Balkan songs. Why did you choose to play this combination of styles given the fact that you are musicians with different musical sensibility?

Panagiotis: I don’t know if it’s that easy to categorize the elements that comprise our music. For instance in our first record, “Romantech” each song is influenced by one or more musical genres. There is electronica (Prodigy, Chemical brothers) there is funk and soul (Earth wind and fire, Tower of power), there’s Cuban timba, Puertorican salsa, Moroccan gnawa, northern and southern Indian folklore, apart from all the detailed influence from every corner of the Balkans and Middle East on the melodic end, plus the Classical influence (from both western and eastern traditions) on sound and technical approach. How on earth can anyone categorize all this? Regarding the choice of our musical “blend”,  it’s safe to claim that we didn’t choose this particular combination of styles, the combination of styles chose us!

Tell us more about your life in New York. Where do you usually play? Is it hard to arrange a gig in popular clubs in the Big Apple?

Panagiotis: Everybody knows what “New York minute” means. This is a constantly uptempo city to say the least. Life is always on the fast lane here, not to mention the cost of living as well. Therefore being an artist in NY means a constant struggle, sacrifice, and compromise. It hasn’t been easy to maintain a project like NY Gypsy All Stars, that’s for sure; it’s been very difficult at times for all of us, but our friendship, the music, and of course the amount of time that we’ve played together has helped us in our most difficult times. Regarding the clubs and the booking we have been lucky to be closely associated with an          up-and-coming world music “hub” of the city, Drom. Our manager Serdar Ilhan is part-owner of Drom and has had a lot of experience managing clubs and venues of the same calibre in the city the past two decades (not to mention the number of festivals organized by him directly), which makes it easier to be connected with major venues and events in the city.

Your first album “Romantech” was released this year. Tell us something about the songs on this album.

Engin: We have 10 songs on this album and 7 of them belong to us, composed by Tamer Pinarbasi and Ismail Lumanovski. We re-arranged and covered the Macedonian “Kasapsko oro” and Turkish “Nikriz Longa” along with Turkish composer Orhan Gencebay’s “Sen Sev beni”. In this album we mostly stick to folkloric patterns but created our own voice and style sonically and rhythmically.

You often perform in clubs, at jazz festivals and this June you played with the German Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra. Could you tell us the way audience in western countries reacts at your performances compared to the way people react to your music in the countries where you come from?

Engin: Every region has their own way of complementing the artist or showing their amount of respect. Germany was a great experience. Playing in a beautiful fortress in front of 4000 people was tremendous. They listened very quietly, paying attention to our musical words. This is also related to the type of venue you are playing but overall in the Balkans and the Middle East they don’t show enough respect as the West. Music and art don’t have a dominant role in our culture but we hope this will change in the future.

You have arranged many concerts in several Turkish cities until the end of October. When will audiences in Macedonia and Greece have the pleasure of seeing your live performance?

Engin: We are looking forward to come to Macedonia and Greece as much as any country. Hopefully, in the near future. Just need an invitation with Ajvar and Feta 🙂

What are your plans for the future? A new album maybe?

Panagiotis: Our primary concern is to get our music out there, to let as many people as possible to get to know us around the world. Then we would love to take our music to them. We would love to travel to all the places where our music is heard, and let everyone know about us and our story, hoping that we can inspire younger generation of artists in our respective countries and around the world. We want everybody to know that the easiest thing of all, has been to create together and to be friends. We want everybody to know that it’s been a blessing to have one another and for our lives to have crossed paths; and yes we’re not done making music, a second album is in the work already and we’re hoping to have it out late next year.

Balkon 3