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Band of gypsies: Music of Luminescent Orchestrii

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Just as there is a growing movement towards Americana these days, there also seems to be a blossoming interest in world music. Bands such as Toubab Krewe have taken music from other parts of the word and put their own spin on them. And just like Gogol Bordello has created a genre that's looked at as "gypsy punk," Luminescent Orchestrii is also re-energizing European-flavored folk.

With original music sprinkled in amongst the band's recreations of traditional Bulgarian, Romanian, Greek and gypsy tunes, the Orchestrii is taking folk to a different level. It's not just performing music that the band is interested in, either. The quartet often travels abroad to find out the stories and cultures from which the music was created.

Violinist Sarah Alden is a former Asheville resident who also has a large interest for the history of folk music. "I love old-time music and I'm getting ready to do a big project with the State Department at Lincoln Center," she says by phone during a recent vacation in New Orleans. "I go to the fiddlers conventions and try to stay connected to that." A friend turned her on to klezmer music, and her curiosity about European-based sounds grew from there.

"I got into the chords and the keys the music was in," she adds. "I found out that the roots were in Eastern Europe and was invited to Budapest to learn more about it. It was a great experience that sort of flipped my mind."

She has since traveled back to Europe and visited other countries, such as Romania, to get a better idea of where the music comes from. While the band has also performed in these areas, they said most people view the music as paying tribute to the traditions and keeping a culture alive.

"When we go over there, people are so excited and proud to hear what we've done with their music," Alden says. "They don't have hangups of saying, 'That's not the way it's supposed to be played.' The immigrants here in this country seem to be more protective than the people who are still over there."

The group will get attracted to the rhythm of a song or the meaning behind it and sometimes it will just be one piece of a song that could be used to build off of. "I think what we're trying to do is make it our own," she says. "We'll add 20th century harmonies or (bandmate Sxip Shirey) will add crazy guitar riffs. We'll build it all around a gem of a tune and just try to keep it danceable."

The band's latest album, Neptune's Daughter, contains a handful of original tunes and was released in January, but Alden says Orchestrii is already thinking about the next one. The album was delayed for financial reasons and because of personnel changes, so Alden says it's a relief to finally get it out to the public.

Some of the traditional songs the band records are selected after hearing them on a CD or record, but they're also heard while traveling. There's also a minor issue that sometimes arises because the band members don't speak the language that they are singing in. "(Bandmate Benjy Fox Rosen) is a student of Yiddish and can get around fine with it," Alden says. "(Bandmate Rima Fand) can speak Spanish and French, but when it comes to Romanian and Hungarian, we're learning the songs, not the language."

The music is mostly structured composition with "controlled" improvisation in fixed spaces in a song. Alden says the band has recently discussed opening the songs up for more improvisation to allow for more freedom and to keep things exciting as the continue to play the same music. She said the only hesitation comes from the need to keep within a certain country's chord structure or style.

While the growth of the band's musical influences continues to grow, so does its interest in expansion. While Alden has the folk music project to keep her busy, Shirey is doing a solo project and in a side-project with Rhiannon Giddens from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Rima is studying Spanish and Benjy is excelling in Yiddish music.

"We've been together for six years now," Alden says. "That's longer than any of us has ever had a relationship. We have to reincorporate it all into what this band is. We've always done this because it's we've been able to bring in what we love. We have to keep doing that. If we can't keep it fresh, there's no reason to do it."

Luminescent Orchestrii will perform at the Visulite Theatre on Feb. 18 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $10.

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