Review: Ljova and the Kontraband (March 9, Chutzpah Festival, Norman Rothstein Theatre)

(Thanks to for the ticket!)

Lev (Ljova) Zhurbin (yes, the son of the famous Russian composer), a violist, and his wife, Inna Barmash, a folk vocalist in multiple languages, joined forces with several other musicians to form Ljova and the Kontraband. With a viola and an accordion (played by Patrick Farrell), two of my favorite instruments, plus a double bass (played by a woman, Jordan Morton) and a percussionist (Mathias Kunzli) with numerous rhythm and noise-making instruments that he deftly switches between, I was hooked before they sang a note. 

Georgia Straight has some more background on this group.

(I want to love, I want to suffer)

Ljova has done work for film, and the group played some of those works. Barmash got her start as a Yiddish singer, and she did a couple songs in Yiddish (with heart-wrenching themes like the sight of a lover on the river’s far bank, with eyes full of tears, and an angry rant to a man who has destroyed a young girl’s engagement to her beloved would-be groom), a poem from the Middle Ages in Old German, translated into Russian (and Inna read it to us in English also), another poem in English set to a score Zhurbin wrote, and finally a Russian Gypsy tune (“I want to love, I want to suffer”). The medieval poem was so very contemporary in its themes, referring to lies and corruption and deceit prevalent in the world. 

Although klezmer and Yiddish music are clearly significant influences, you can hear jazz, swing, tango, and other sounds in the mix as well. Zhurbin clearly feels no requirement to be bound by genre or nationality when he composes music. This often produced the effect of, “I’m sure I’ve heard this song before”, but I suspect that I had heard some of the influencers before. 

Although many people shy away from the front row, I found it a great spot for close observation of the musicians. Watching Kunzli switch from one instrument to another was enjoyable, and Morton’s footwork in her hightop lace-up Doc Martens (or that’s what they looked like) while playing was fun to see also. 

Inna Barmash referred several times to a collection of Yiddish music from western Ukraine that was collected in the 1930s. I think she means this collection, but I’m not sure. 

The Chutzpah Festival always brings many great musicians to town, and they have kept up this tradition this year!

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