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Balkan Brass Band to Play Marathon Oktoberfest Gig

By Mathew Katz | September 21, 2012 9:19am

BROOKLYN — This may be the hardest-working brass band in Brooklyn.

Raya Brass Band, which specializes in Balkan and Eastern European jams, has played an average of 100 gigs a year in their nearly four-year lifespan.

This weekend, the band is planning an impressive feat: playing a six-set marathon at the Oktoberfest keg tapping and pig roast, at Radegast Hall in Williamsburg.

Their music, a little more eastern than the Oom-Pah-Pahs of traditional German bands, is perfect for such a grand celebration of food and beer, according to its accordion player, Matthew "Max" Fass.

“It’s celebration music for me. It’s very upbeat, it’s very celebratory, it’s often found at weddings, at parties, in public places, often it’s heard outside," he said at a recent band practice in his Prospect Heights apartment.

"Every time I’ve seen a Balkan brass band, something amazing is going on”.

That something amazing has stretched to the five-piece band's gigs, which range from playing weddings and gigging in bars to chasing people, instruments blaring, down the Coney Island boardwalk.

Along with Fass, the band includes Greg Squared on the saxophone, Ben Syversen on the trumpet, Don Godwin on the tuba and E.J. Fry on the drums.

Their style is a fast-paced, exuberant take on tradition, with hyperactive horns and a dance-ready beat.

Raya Brass Band formed after meeting up for years at the so-called "Balkan camp" — known officially as the East European Folklife Center Balkan Music & Dance Workshop. They named the band after a friend's daughter, Raya, who was born around the time they formed (the band plays at her birthday party each year).

The quintet had played in other bands, but wanted a band without a traditional band leader. Instead, each member is expected to book gigs, write songs, and move the band forward.

"It's awesome. We have a band full of leaders that do stuff and take initiative and care about the group," said Godwin.

The band makes weekly appearances at Radegast as part of their commitment to being a working band, not just one that occasionally gets together and plays.

"We need to be small, lean and mean, and we need to get out there and get gigs," said Fass.

Their music draws on a musical culture of the Balkans that's influenced by both the Germanic Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, leaving it with the sort of tunes that work well in a raucous beer hall.

But there's more of a challenge than that — while the band has written many of its own songs, its repertoire includes dozens of traditional folk songs, some of which are hundreds of years old.

The band's shoe-leather approach to bagging gigs has netted them some equally old-school opportunities. In November, they will play a set at the Thomas Edison museum in New Jersey that will be recorded onto a wax cylinder.

Syversen, the band's 29-year-old trumpeter, said the market for their music was simply about supply and demand.

"There’s maybe not as much demand as there is for a Top 40 band, but there’s also not nearly the supply, so if someone wants to call a working Balkan brass band, they’ve got about three choices," he said.

"We have the advantage that there’s only five of us [in the band] and we can show up easily, we can just walk in — or march down the street."

They haven't avoided the studio either — so far they've put out two albums of new and original songs.

They're working on a new 13-song album with a November release. Like the band, the album embraces both the old and new — it will be released as a vinyl record and online.

You can catch the Raya Brass Band's six set performance starting 2 p.m. on Sept. 22 at Radegast Hall & Biergarten, 113 N. 3rd St.

Check out www.DNAinfo.com New York's Oktoberfest Brooklyn 2012 deals and specials here.