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

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

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

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