If you take the band's word for it, "scythian" means a "bunch of pre-Mesopotamian barbarians who did not use forks or phonics." While that might not jive with your Britannica or Herodotus, it does accurately convey the D.C. folk-rock band's fast-and-loose approach to musical genre and ethnic identity. Led by a pair of fiery fiddlers, Scythian draws from Celtic and Eastern European folk music, combining traditional tunes with more contemporary rock and world-music rhythms.
"It gives a different spin on it," says percussionist Michael Ounallah, "and in certain situations, it gives the music a little more energy, a little more forward motion, which is great for the crowds and stuff like that. Especially when you're adding instruments like bass and drums to what's traditionally just a fiddle and a guitar … it just sends the energy through the roof."
Of course, taking traditional dance tunes and juicing them up isn't exactly a new idea. Back in the 1970s, groups like The Tannahill Weavers and The Battlefield Band took a propulsive yet respectful approach to Celtic folk tunes; later, groups like The Pogues and Flogging Molly combined punk with the party-hearty ceilidh band. And much more recently, on the Eastern European side, bands like Gogol Bordello, Golem and Slavic Soul Party have become became popular with hip, younger audiences.
"We're huge fans of Gogol Bordello, especially," says Ounallah, who also enjoys Leningrad and Slavic Soul Party. "From a songwriting or from a creativity standpoint, we certainly draw a lot from those kinds of bands, especially with some of the more gypsy stuff we play."
What might be unique about Scythian, though, is the combination of these two ethnic genres.
"I think you could find similarities, if you're talking about from a percussion basis," says Ounallah. "Melodically, there are similarities, but they go off into different scales. I think the Celtic thing is going to be more a major tonality going to a minor tonality, where the Eastern European stuff, most of the stuff I've heard at least, is mostly minor tonality, with harmonic and melodic minors."
In some ways, though, combining the styles was just a reflection of the band's own polyglot identity. "All of our parents are first-generation immigrants," Ounallah explains. His parents are Irish and Jordanian; the Fedoryka brothers, Danylo (guitar and accordion) and Oleksander (violin), are Ukrainian; Josef Crosby (violin) is Irish and Austrian. "We see our band as being kind of a melting pot of different cultures that have come together from all over the world, and so we just threw that all together and called that [style] 'immigrant.'"
Another unusual aspect of the band is that all of the musicians began in classical music, discovering folk music later on. The Fedoryka brothers played in their family's traveling band, says Ounallah, while he began in classical percussion and is currently working on a master's degree in jazz at University of Maryland. Scythian has a local connection as well: Crosby studied music at Duquesne, and was concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony.
All of these seemingly disparate threads come together on Scythian's 2007 album, Immigrant Road Show. Instrumentals such as "Immigrant Stomp" and "Kesh Jigs" are tasteful arrangements of traditional fiddle tunes with more exotic rhythms, including percussion instruments such as djembe and doumbek, while "Tuesday Morning" and "Hills of Donegal" are fun-loving covers of beer-tent favorites.
On its few original tunes, though, Scythian has a ways to go. For instance, "Highway 81," a humorous take on the life of the traveling musician, has the makings of a good drinking song. But while "Technoccordion" might make for cheesy fun live, it's pretty much unbearable on CD.
But that's certainly proved no obstacle to Scythian, which has been performing on the festival circuit at such mammoth blowouts as Milwaukee's Summerfest and Irish Fest and at venues including the prestigious Kennedy Center. Pittsburghers can catch the band on Wed., Jan. 23, at Mullaney's Harp & Fiddle, in the Strip. And here, at least, while the forks and phonics may be optional, energy and crosscultural fun are required.
Scythian. 9 p.m. Wed., Jan. 23. Mullaney's Harp & Fiddle, 2329 Penn Ave., Strip District. $6. All ages. 412-642-6622 or www.harpandfiddle.com