Why local musicians dig Europe's most strife-ridden region
IT WAS AN ECLECTIC GATHERING even by New York standards. In one corner, an elegant gentleman in his sixties dressed in jeans and suspenders. To his right, a teenager costumed as a toy soldier. Further on: a woman brandishing a Phantom of the Opera-style mask, a 16-year-old in a natty suit with spats and a walking cane, and faces framed by Mohawks and multiple piercings.
A ringmaster gave the command to several confederates onstage, and, to the kinetic sound of trumpet and saxophone, the belt of dancers buckled in a circular motion meant to resemble the cocek, a traditional Balkan folk dance. Loafers jammed combat boots and open-toe sandals, arms rose in transport, and sweat followed. There was a roar of laughter and joy.
Welcome to a minor revolution. Music from the Balkans, a region perhaps best known on these shores for its ethnic strife, has inspired a burgeoning local music scene. In the last several years, at least a dozen local bands incorporating the sound have formed, mixing the music of Balkan brass bands—which typically feature tubas, trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, horns, and drums—and other traditional folk styles with genres ranging from punk and ska to hip-hop and electronica. They have found a ready audience, playing to growing crowds at venues like Barbés in Park Slope, the Manhattan Bulgarian bar Mehanata, and the Knitting Factory, where the cocek lessons took place in May.
“It’s celebratory music, drinking music, party music,” said Sxip Shirey, the frontman of Luminescent Orchestrii, which blends Balkan harmonies with Appalachian folk music, punk, tango, klezmer, and hip-hop. “It’s music that expresses the intense depth and breadth of what it means to be alive. We live in a kind of joyless society, a very mediated, self-conscious culture. But I’m not that interested in irony. This music makes people aware of the viscerality of their own living. It comes from cultures where life is very hard, so once we party, we fucking party!”
The spectrum of bands refashioning the sound today is as diverse as their audience. Gogol Bordello, which has been instrumental in disseminating the Balkan-fusion sound, joins Gypsy—or, more accurately, Romani—melodies to abrasive punk and a circus cabaret routine that frequently features self-immolation by Eugene Hutz, its gold-toothed Ukrainian-born singer. One of the most innovative new acts, the Williamsburg-based Balkan Beat Box, whose nucleus consists of two Israeli expats, Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, mingles brass-band sounds with electronica and North African music. The Hungry March Band, another Brooklyn outfit, is a 25-piece squall that joins Balkan brass to the music of New Orleans, India, and beyond.
Many of the musicians have no ancestral connections to the Balkans. For them, the brass-band sound is an anarchic, inclusive antidote to a stifling political climate and an ego-driven music industry sterilized by corporate control.
BRASS-BAND IS USUALLY CONSIDERED quintessential Balkan music, even if it is only one of the region’s many folk styles. Its pedigree is actually Ottoman, the instruments a bequest of Turkish military bands, which appropriated from European military bands themselves. Itinerant Roma became masters of the riotous sound, which flourished as a soundtrack to bacchanalia at community celebrations like weddings in parts of the region.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the Bosnian filmmaker Emir Kusturica immortalized the music—and the raucous lifestyle it celebrated—in enormously popular epics such as Time of the Gypsies and Underground. The films were almost single-handedly responsible for drawing many of the New York brass-band musicians to the sound. Previously the province of ethnomusicologists, brass-band music—whose presence in the States was mostly limited to recordings from the Balkans—began to migrate into New York’s music scene and party circuit.
The intemperate sound appeared at an opportune time, when the increasingly anodyne polish of most mainstream rock had left many enthusiasts longing for a more full-blooded alternative. “It became what punk was in the ’70s,” said Matt Moran, a vibraphonist who leads the band Slavic Soul Party!, a pioneer of Balkan-fusion in New York, which has a Tuesday-night residency at Barbés. “It became an escape from the blandness of corporate entertainment.”
The klezmer music revival had already primed audiences for music from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, an offshoot of punk rock, known as folk-punk, opened the ears of many punk-rock aficionados to the possibilities of acoustic music. For them, Balkan brass-band—unabashedly emotional, adequately marginal, and charged with the drama of the region’s tumultuous history—was authentically free of establishment pomp.
The World/Inferno Friendship Society, a “punk orchestra,” was one of the first to incorporate the Balkan sound, attracting teenagers soured on pop-diluted punk to brass-band music. “It’s a punk band in everything—lyrics, attitude, energy, speed—except the music: waltz, tango, accordions,” said Konstantin Sergeyev, a 20-year-old fan.
Ferocious but unplugged—the uncanny combination recommended brass-band music as a kind of protest against the excesses of rock-star music culture. “There was just such a fatigue with rock ‘n roll,” said Matthew Fass, accordionist for the Zagnut Cirkus Orkestar, a mainstay of the scene. “The Zagnuts are based on a small street band I saw in northern Greece near Albania—the musicians had gathered at the groom’s house, and then just took it over to the bride’s place. The band was so portable, just drum, clarinet, and accordion. I love being able to walk with the music. Why does music have to be so complicated? Why do you need all these amps?”
Though the emotions it channels are basic, brass-band music is renowned for its complexity, with asymmetric rhythms, non-traditional scales, and built-in slots for solo improvisation. “The music appeals to both the Apollonian and Dionysian side,” said Franz Nicolay, the accordionist for Guignol, a Gypsy-klezmer outfit. “It’s anti-authoritarian by heritage, but it’s an intellectual joy and a real challenge, too. It’s got these complicated time signatures, ornaments, virtuosic runs, and these endless melodic lines for which you need real endurance.”
AT LOCAL BRASS-BAND PERFORMANCES the repertoire passes from Albania to Serbia to Bosnia, from Romani to non-Romani variations, with a seamlessness that can be surprising for those familiar with the uneasy relationship of those nations and ethnic groups. Though some of the New York musicians travel to the region to study with Balkan performers, they tend to bring back only musical lessons.
“It’s a non-political scene,” Fass acknowledged. “We don’t have the capacity to understand the scene over there. There’s still strong nationalist emotion that runs through it—if you’re playing an Albanian tune in Serbia, it still stirs some feeling. Here it’s a big blur, which is sad, ignoring the political realities over there.”
This may be part of the reason there is relatively little interaction between most of the American brass bands and the local Balkan expatriate community. Whereas American musicians—“most of whom can’t even say where the tunes are from,” according to Nicolay—navigate the Balkan sound with an admirable disregard for borders, things aren’t so simple for many Balkan expats.
“The Serbs have made themselves the pariahs of the Balkans, so it’s kind of hard to be playing Serbian music at this juncture,” said Jane Sugarman, an ethnomusicologist at Stony Brook University. “It’s awkward for Serb and Romani families to be together at that kind of event. I think some of these groups have a surprising lack of interest in what’s going on in the Balkans politically.”
On the other hand, the Roma, the region’s leading purveyors of the brass-band sound, rarely use music as a call to arms. “Most of the songs are about love, being poor,” said Michael Ginsburg, who plays the truba, or rotary-valved flugel horn, in Zlatne Uste, one of the first American Balkan-inspired brass bands. “The Gypsies are not political beings, for the most part. The songs do reflect on their plight, but they’re not intended as a rallying point. It’s just a way of life. In Gypsy villages in Serbia, kids walk around with trumpets the way kids walk around with basketballs in Harlem.”
Ironically, as brass-band catches on in the States, it’s starting to face intense competition in the Balkans. A previously unified native audience that regarded folk music as the pinnacle of national musical achievement is fragmenting in favor of Western styles like pop. If there is rock ’n’ roll saturation here, there is weariness of brass-band music there.
But Roma brass-band musicians are not standing on ceremony. “There’s a lot of pop music now in wedding-party folk music in the Balkans,” Ginsburg said. “And the Gypsies are playing it. They know how to make do.”
“Gypsies have been grandmasters of music appropriation for centuries,” said DJ Joro-Boro, a Bulgarian-born deejay who spins what he calls “ethnomesh” Balkan-fusion at Mehanata. “Much more organic and fluid than any deejay, they’ve mixed traditions, genres, and styles for centuries. This kind of musical outlook could not find a better scene than New York.”
Boris Fishman is the editor of Wild East: Stories from the Last Frontier. He has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and The New Republic.