For musicians, New York is a huge playground where most genres and styles can be heard in the city’s concert halls, clubs, bars, parks, and streets. Since moving to the Big Apple from Russia with his family as an 11-year-old, Lev “Ljova” Zhurbin has drawn deep inspiration from the cornucopia of sounds around him. The instrumental pieces and songs that he writes for his acoustic quintet, the Kontraband, bring together primary influences from eastern European Jewish and Roma folk traditions and contemporary classical music, as well as elements of jazz and tango, to create a unique synthesis.
“All our members came to New York and learned from each other, and continue to do so,” says Zhurbin, reached at the Manhattan home he shares with his wife, Inna Barmash, the Kontraband’s singer. “For myself, all the things I hear throughout the day are fair game for exploration and development, and building on—it’s all vocabulary. With jazz, in the band I think we use it almost as a verb.”
As far back as he can remember, Zhurbin has created original music. “As a kid in Moscow I’d sit in the back of the car making up songs about nearly everything—street lamps, potatoes, friends. I never studied composition formally, and had maybe a couple of dozen lessons before I got to college. My dad, who’s a composer himself and has been well-regarded in Russia for decades, was adamant I should finish a bachelor’s degree on an instrument—the viola.”
Zhurbin initially made his mark writing for short films, and arranging and recording with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, as well as for the Andalucian Dogs album Ayre. In 2006 he released his first recording, Vjola: World on Four Strings. “To my surprise the CD was very well reviewed. I had to find a way of performing that music live. I knew all these great musicians in New York and tried out some of the compositions with them. Things grew fast, and we started playing a lot of shows in town and quickly the repertoire expanded.”
Since then, Zhurbin has composed more scores for film and dance, including choreographer Aszure Barton’s Awáa and Busk—both performed at previous editions of the Chutzpah Festival. He’s also recorded three further albums: Lost in Kino, his latest offering Melting River, and Ljova and the Kontraband’s 2008 debut, Mnemosyne (named after the Greek muse of memory and a work by American poet Trumbull Stickney, which provides the text for the title track).
On the cover of this last outing is a photo of a statue with head and upper torso missing. To Zhurbin, it felt like an apt symbol for the spirit of Mnemosyne. “It depicts a collective-farm worker in [the former Soviet Republic of] Azerbaijan, half destroyed by a bomb or shell or just the passage of time—the kind of thing I remember seeing as a boy in Russia. I keep looking for these connections between the past and the present. We’re almost like a progressive village band. They had a certain sound, and I’m trying to build on that, and go far beyond.”