Never mind the Balkans
You’re not a credible indie band these days unless you’ve been heavily influenced by the folk music of south-eastern Europe. But is this new sound the real deal, or merely ethnic music lite? Jim Carroll looks at how Balkan music reached Albuquerque, but c
IT WAS inevitable that rock’s current crop of magpies would find their way to the Balkans. There is, after all, only so far you can go with angular guitars and post-punk revivalism. They had dalliances with sounds from every other corner of the globe; the Balkans were ripe for the taking.
From critically acclaimed albums by Beirut and A Hawk & A Hacksaw to Gogol Bordello’s Ramones-go-to-Romania punk rock extravaganza, suddenly a lot of music from the East is finding its way into music produced in the West.
Zach Condon shoulders a large chunk of the blame for pushing the Balkan sounds into the indie limelight. The Beirut bandleader is an unlikely scene-setter, a kid from Albuquerque, New Mexico with no family connections to the Balkans.
He first came across the music while travelling in Europe. He loved what he heard, especially the simplicity of the sound. “It was so different and so far away from everything I was around.”
That brass and that sound became the basis for Condon’s debut album as Beirut. The Gulag Orkestar is a woozy, wobbly, mournful party album, creating a new context for the music of old eastern Europe, especially the marching band music which had survived 500 years in the Balkans.
As Beirut became one of 2006’s unexpected success stories, some questioned Condon’s right to annex these sounds without any empathy for what they represented. “I don’t have to tie in historical and racial and political elements to make it mean anything more to me,” he shrugs. “Isn’t a melody enough?” Eugene Hutz would disagree. The Ukrainian who fronts Gogol Bordello believes you can’t ignore where this music is coming from, or what it means. “For us, this whole movement was about get-
ting peo- ple thinking about authenticity rather than the ironic plastic crap we’ve been force-fed for generations. Then, of course, there’s people who are simply in it for fashion.”
Of course, arguments about the use or abuse of native sounds have gone on for as long as pop stars have demonstrated their polyglot tendencies. But these days there’s less sting to the row. You can attribute this chiefly to the depoliticisation of pop: music-makers such as Condon are drawn towards the Balkans for the music, not for any message or deeper significance. Rage all you want to about this, but such sonic pickpocketing without any regard for geopolitical niceties is rampant.
Other indie acts, though, have actually gone a little further. Like Beirut, A Hawk And A Hacksaw hail from Albuquerque and play music which draws from the rough-and-tumble folk music of Romania and Hungary. Jeremy Barnes and Heather Trost, however, worked and recorded with hugely respected Romanian gypsy group Fanfare Ciocarlia and Hungary’s Hun Hangar Ensemble (and have now relocated to Budapest) to bring authenticity to their music.
Barnes, who used to drum with indie band Neutral Milk Hotel, came across Romanian music when he was working as a postman in Leicester. While volunteering at a local refugee centre, Barnes came across a bunch of Roma musicians. “At first, the Roma kept to themselves. I thought there was some sort of unapproachable barrier between me and these people whom I so admired, but there wasn’t.”
The Hawk & Hacksaw man says that making use of Balkan music’s cool cachet is not enough. “I think it might be hip to namecheck the music. But to actually play it, to play with eastern European musicians, to say goodbye to guitars and electric basses and western drum kits and English lyrics? That’s not really hip at all. I really hope that people will go to the source and listen to the music which started it all as well.”
In this regard, Irish audiences were well served in 2007. Both Fanfare Ciocarlia (the act sampled by Basement Jaxx on their Crazy Itch Radio track) and Macedonia’s Kocani Orkestar (the band who brought the brass to the Borat soundtrack) visited and wowed all who encountered them.
This weekend, Serbia’s Boban Markovic, the big daddy of Balkan brass, and his 14-strong Orkestar will play a couple of Irish shows. Markovic and his band are the real deal, a full-on groove machine happy to shoehorn funk, tango and jazz into a rocksteady blend of Balkan folk dance music.The Orkestar triumphed so often at the Guca festival, where 40 bands come together every summer to play for bragging rights and wedding bookings, that they no longer compete.
Of course, there are many other Balkan originals to experience, such as veteran gypsy kings Taraf de Haïdouks and Šaban Bajramovic, the Roma Johnny Cash. Yet chances are that those now tapping their toes to the music of Beirut or A Hawk & A Hacksaw will not venture there. This, unfortunately, is always the way when musical fusion and assimilation come into play.
Ripe for the taking: the Balkan-influenced A Hawk & A Hacksaw come to Dublin and Cork