By Andrew Gilbert
Tenor saxophonist Al Cohn famously quipped that a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t. Once emblematic of squareness, the maligned accordion is ascendant these days, playing a key role in resurgent roots styles, while also championed by intrepid musicians unconcerned about old musical categories.
In Balkan music, no one has done more to advance the instrument in recent years than Petar Ralchev, an outrageously accomplished
Roma player steeped in folkloric Bulgarian styles.
Ralchev performs Friday at Berkeley’s Subterranean Arthouse with a stellar quartet showcasing Bulgarian musicians who have settled in the United States, including Chicago’s Iliana Marudova-Georgiev on vocals and Nikolay Georgiev on tambura and guitar, and percussionist/choreographer Petur Iliev, an essential exponent of Eastern European culture in the Bay Area since 1999.
Ralchev is probably best known in North America for his work in “The Other Europeans”, a project bringing together an international cast of Jewish klezmer musicians and Roma lautari. Dedicated to exploring and reviving the pre-World War II musical traditions of Moldova’s province of Bessarabia, when Jewish and Gypsy musicians often shared repertoire and gigs, “The Other Europeans” is one of several multi-ethnic bands featuring Ralchev’s bravura, soul-drenched accordion playing.
Others include the No Border Orchestra, Accordionale, Danube Ship Orchestra, and Arabesque, as well as numerous Bulgarian bands such as the Zig Zag Trio and Bulgari.
The Berkeley shows offer two views of the multifaceted Ralchev, delivering deliriously brisk dance music at Ashkenaz and playing an intimate concert at the Subterranean. The Subterrnanean Arthouse is at 2179 Bancroft Way.
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.