While Philadelphia has been notorious for its diverse ethnic makeup, the music that swivels and swirls throughout its streets has never been to known to reflect such. However, in the heart of Philly’s up-and-coming Fitler Square area, an intrinsically simple dive bar, the Tritone, hosts the city’s best kept secret every first Thursday of each month.
What kind of secret could possibly be kept from the masses in America’s infamous small town of a big city?
You’d be surprised to find that this tightlipped orchestral festivity is presented in the form of old-fashioned, folksy tunes from the former Communist Balkan region of Europe.
“Hey! Hey! Hey!” The audience chants as Greg Mervine, bandleader and master composer of the diversely populated West Philadelphia Orchestra processes offstage and through the audience, creating a makeshift Congo line.
Tiring quickly of the commute to the Big Apple, Mervine began to explore the vast range of eclectic Eastern European beats on his own by attending shows and charting out guitar or piano riffs at home. He even began collecting records, which he describes as the essence of what “exposed [him] to the dizzying array of variety, region to region in Eastern Europe.”
“Every record, no matter how old and scratchy or how slick and corny sounding – those guys love reverb over there – had something to teach me, some sound to dig into my brain,” Mervine said.
Mervine organized the troupe throughout the last few years, however, acknowledges the rarity of the fact that not one single performance has been executed by the same combination of musicians. He drew inspiration from being a part of an early New York’s Klezmer group, which decided to branch out into the broader Eastern European scene and join the ranks with emerging acts such as Slavic Soul Party, Romashka, and Zagnut Circus Orchestra.
For those not familiar with the obscure genre of Klezmer, it refers to Jewish instrumental dance music – think of the hora or your favorite memories from the awkward prepubescent dance fests at a bar or bat mitzvah.
As one of the beguiling lead singers, native Bulgarian Petia Zamfirova brings a certain charm to the performance that wasn’t there before. However, Zamfirova claims that this whole experience is still new to her.
“If I were still living in ‘Bulgar-land,’ I most likely would not be involved in singing this style of music or be as passionate about it as I am now,” she said. “The traditional ‘hora’ and ‘rachenitzi’ tunes, which WPO also plays, are not too cool among the folk from my generation there.”
So, why is it that this music has made such an impact on this generation here?
Most of the members of the group have an extensive background in jazz. While they claim Balkan music is not a similar genre of music, the inspiration is still clearly there.
“Jazz teaches you to use your ears and react to what you are hearing from the other musicians by using certain musical vocabulary, which you have either picked up from listening to countless recordings or created by drawing from various inspirational sources,” said Adam Hershberger, WPO trumpeter and Temple alumnus. “It’s all about communicating with the people you are playing with [and to do so] through your horn or whatever medium you’re using. Music is a language, and different types of music have their own set of vocabulary.”
Attending one of these monthly regales becomes a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Whether a person buys a record, attends a performance, uploads key tracks from iTunes or has a friend transfer delightful tunes onto his or her iPod, once the Balkan dance has taken a spin through the rhythm section of the brain, it’s hard to remember what dancing was like before the hip swiveling, hand-clapping, boobie-shake.
Local Philadelphian Amanda Cottone rarely misses the occasion to enthrall herself among the crowd of boobie-shaking, densely aromatic hipsters who pack the Tritone the first Thursday of every month.
“The music is contagious,” she said over the clamor of the snare drum intermixing with instruments seldom seen in the mainstream such as the clarinet, viola and accordion.
The monthly Balkan dance event at Philly’s well-respected yet unbeknownst hole-in-the-wall Tritone draws a crowd that barely ceases from overflowing into the city’s heavily trafficked South Street.
Jack Ohly, one of the original members of WPO, said the venue “feels like our living room.”
“Sometimes I hit a dancer with my switch stick by accident, and they may have to duck a trombone, but I think the music works best in that kind of intimacy,” he said.
Mervine agrees with Ohly’s sentiment.
“I like jumping up on the tables at the Tritone and watching everyone from above, standing right in the middle of it,” he said. “I’d love to try crowd-surfing there, but snare drums have sharp edges, and I’m sure I’d gash someone’s forehead with it.”
Mervine said he knew continuing to play the tunes regularly was the key to the group’s success, but with so many members and regular practices on top of gigs, the group was difficult to organize. The regular gigs at the Tritone forced them to learn more songs to fill the amount of time they were allotted, on top of the frequency of their shows. They have now collected quite the regular crowd, which Mervine said helps them to improve.
“Every show is a bit of a laboratory, in which you try out new tunes and techniques,” Mervine said. “We’ve watched our audience and talked to them about what they liked, what their favorite tunes were, what they didn’t like and so on.
“And we’ve made adjustments,” he said. “I’m a savage critic, but I generally weigh the opinions of our regular fans over my own. The regularity of Tritone has allowed us to track our progress very clearly.”
The Tritone hosts the West Philadelphia Orchestra the second Thursday of every month, but be sure to check out WPO at North Star Bar March 28 with Ansambl Mastika from New York and WPO’s own Jack Ohly in the lineup.
Becca Lane can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.