West Philadelphia Orchestra: A Drunken Dance Party (& Cultural Experience).
Percussionist Gregg Mervine began sitting in with New York City gypsy/Balkan band Romashka back in 2006, when the troupe became a staple at the Bulgarian bar Mehanata on the Lower East Side. Their live shows regularly erupted into drunken dance parties.
“The dancing and drunkenness were insane,” Mervine says with a laugh, thinking about one night in particular. “Hundreds of people packed in and started dancing in circles around my drums. Then, WHAM! A girl in a skintight mini-skirt crashed over my bass drum like someone shot out of a cannon. Brian Dawkins couldn’t have tackled me any better.”
But the band never paused and the dancing swirled on.
“That’s when I had the realization that starting a Balkan band in Philadelphia would be a good idea.”
Mervine started collecting Balkan rhythm recordings and transcribing the songs. Thus began the genesis of the West Philadelphia Orchestra.
Eight years since its conception, the band has transformed into a 15-piece ensemble whose repertoire traces roots from Klezmer to big-band jazz and everything in between. Labeling the group as just a Balkan-influenced band is a gross misrepresentation. Their catalog has layers of influences that synthesize gospel, techno, funk, jazz, hip-hop and even dub.
“Our original compositions and arrangements of traditional tunes are strongly influenced by Balkan brass styles,” says clarinet player Larry Goldfinger. “But our overall approach to writing and playing has always been to take those traditional forms and combine them with other musical styles that interest members of the band.”
David Fishkin harkens back to the days when the West Philadelphia Orchestra would play their monthly installments at the now-defunct South Street bar, Tritone.
“I used to come to West Philly shows and dance like a maniac,” reminisces Fishkin. “I remember feeling the wooden floorboards start bouncing underneath the weight of everybody dancing. Sometimes I thought that the floor would crack.”
Fishkin appeared so often that eventually, West Philadelphia Orchestra trumpeter Adam Hershberger encouraged Fishkin, an alto saxophonist, to start coming to rehearsals at the band’s West Philly pad. Now he’s regular part of the band.
Since their humble beginnings at Tritone, the Orchestra has moved their monthly parties to Underground Arts. Though the venue has changed, their ability to connect the Western populace to Eastern musical arrangements has not wavered.
Bulgarian, Serbian and Romani languages are incorporated into vocalist Petia Zamfirova’s lyrics. Despite a sizeable portion of the crowd likely not understanding the various languages of the southeastern Europe region, there always seems to be a supernatural synergy between them and the band.
At a show this past February, the band performed three one-hour sets. By their second set, WPO moved off the stage and into the crowd. This, Mervine says, is vital to the band’s ethos.
“The best place to hear us is under a bridge or in some stank corner bar,” Mervine explains. “Anywhere up close and personal. That’s why we never stay on stage at a show. That’s why we get down on the floor with you and bump asses.”
There is no clear explanation to the band’s longevity. There have been numerous lineup changes and many of the current members have other projects on the side. What is clear, though, is that after eight years, they still know how to bump ass.
“People in the band have always had wide-ranging musical interests, and have been involved with many diverse projects,” says Fishkin. “But this does not reflect a lack of commitment to WPO. What keeps WPO going strong is our love for the music, and our joy in playing and sharing it with people.”