Balkan Beats Eastern European Fusions Burn Up the Dance Floor

Balkan BeatsEastern European Fusions Burn Up the Dance Floor
"There is a continental European phenomenon. When the Berlin Wall came down, such a big cultural influence came to Western Europe. When you travel from Frankfurt to Vienna, then to Bucharest, which is a regular holiday travel route, in taxis you will hear Balkan melodies and trashy disco beats. This is the sound which is happening right now every day. This is part of our musical culture [it's not foreign]." DJ Shantel

As it was until midway through the 20th century, cultural exchanges between Eastern and Western Europe are more frequent. Surely one of the most entertaining manifestations is the rise of Balkan Beats - Gypsy and other Eastern European musics updated to a clubbing environment. Its musicians and fans are literally all over the map; what unites them is a feeling that club music has become overly cool and ritualized, allowing for only a narrow range of musical influences and personal expression. The anarchic and romantic sounds of Gypsy and Balkan music allow people of all ages a reason to stomp to a different drummer. But is this just another exotic fad, or is it a sign of the times in New Europe? Will Balkan Beats have the same resonance throughout the rest of the world? And will Gypsies and the other disadvantaged citizens of Eastern Europe benefit from this attention?

Balkan Beats is a term like Salsa, a catch-all for the various musical traditions of a broadly defined culture. DJ Shantel, aka Stefan Hantel, is the best known Balkan Beats DJ in Europe, blending acoustic music from Serbia, Romania and Macedonia with his own remixes, and those of like minded producers. He describes his Bucovina Club nights as wild parties which absolutely destroy any sense of reserve amongst patrons. He explains "You can play a party rocker, a wild Romanian belly dance tune, and the next one is a ballad, a very sad song, and there is no irritation. It's very tense these nights, people screaming and dancing. The audience is very diverse. We have young generation clubbers and then second, third generation immigrants from Yugoslavia, born in Germany with parents from Serbia, Romania and they are exploring their own music traditions. Then there's the elder generation; it's not a problem when you come with your parents to Bucovina Club."

The idea for the Bucovina Club nights came about in 2001, after Shantel visited Czernowitz, the former capital of the Bucovina region (now split between Romania and the Ukraine), to research his mother's roots. In the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czernowitz was a major center of intellectual and cultural exchange, a cross-pollination of ideas within a Jewish, Russian, German and Gypsy environment. Nazism and Stalinism laid waste to this environment, but the music remains and Shantel was knocked out by it.

Shantel launched the Bucovina Club nights in Frankfurt in 2001, playing mostly straight-up recordings from Serbia, Macedonia, Romania, but, Shantel says, regardless of geographical origin, "the main characters here are Gypsies". ("Gypsy" is a still-contentious term which isn't always accepted as correct but seems to be more freely applied freely by musicians and DJs than "Rom"). When this blend of music gets happy, it's irresistible, breaking into manic pogo-like tempos anchoring super-speedy brass flourishes. When it's slow, it's heart wrenching and tear-jerking. The extreme emotion at both ends of the scale, fuelled by copious amounts of vodka, leaves participants exhausted by the end of the night.

Essay Recordings' compilations Bucovina Club 1 and 2 favour Gypsy brass bands, such as Fanfare Ciocarlia and Boban Markovic. While bands of this type focus on reeds and brass anchored by tuba, it's not unusual to hear accordions and stringed instruments such as the violin, guitar and cimbalom in the front line. The rhythms are anchored by breakbeat-reminiscent darboukas, hand claps, and very recently, kit drums and electric bass. Each compilation features a wide variety of approaches to tempo and instrumentation, as well diverse strategies in which electronics augment the acoustic.

Shantel is subtle with his use of electronics; he's developed a production technique which maximizes the full sound of these brass bands to killer effect over a live system. "I like to create a high class frequency situation with a full bass structure, and a worked out rhythm section. The sound is so full and rich, you can play it on a big sound system and it will sound very high class." It's a sound he deployed on his just-completed tour with the Bucovina Club Orkestar, in which "we try to perform, to use a cliché, like a rock and roll band. We are not doing a usual world music or ethnic set. The approach of the Orkestar is a high energy performance; we've played big stages with rock/pop bands and we wanted to compare with them. It's like a sound system. We play songs the usual way, and for some tunes we have subtle electronic manipulation." This duality comes across brilliantly on Bucovina Club 2, where the tweaked Orkestar tracks coexist with the near-electroclash of New York/Israeli band Balkan Beat Box (whose album drops in September on JDub records). Sometimes his technique so subtle as to be absent: his mix of the next-gen Gypsy band Mahala Rai Banda album (Crammed Discs) displays virtually no obvious electronics at all. However, their electric bass and drum rhythm section is mixed with authority, kicking ass at any volume.

Throughout my conversation with Shantel, and within the promo and reviews for his discs, the sentiment of "this is not world music" arises frequently. His aim is to portray this music as upfront, direct party music as opposed to some half baked electro-fusion or the object of ethnomusicological study. Gypsy music is engaging for what it is; one doesn't have to beat-mix it together, soften it with Enya-like synth pads or gussy it up with acidy arpeggios for it to kick ass. Essay Recordings' bio states it's not "happy clappy multi-culti music" for "bobble hatted world music fans". What's implicit in its promo and in reviews is its potential appeal to a non-ethnic identifying, rock oriented audience.

Crammed Disc's president Marc Hollander has seen good, bad and ugly world fusions in 25 years at the helm of his iconoclastic label and is currently riding high with another quasi-folk act with indie rock cred: Konono #1. Crammed has been releasing Gypsy music since 1991, and last year dropped the multifaceted Electric Gypsyland remix project, featuring remixers from around the world. Hollander is pleasantly surprised that Gypsy music is gaining an unforeseen audience:

"I never thought it would be a phenomenon. I was pretty much against the idea of remixing for a long time. But 3 years ago we got these requests from electronic music producers saying "please can we remix (violin and accordion band) Taraf De Haidouks". That's when we decided to do the Electric Gypsyland album. It's a welcome change for what people listen to for dance music, alive, vibrant and different from straightforward electronic music they may have been listening to."

As he has done for the last quarter century with his label, Hollander welcomes the potential to extend the fusion of Balkan energy with electronics under the banner of world music. He has been quoted about world fusion in general as "if you don't sing in English or use non Western European influences, you're thrown in the world music bin, whether you like it or not... but once you're there, you're free to do whatever you like, without bothering about the dictatorship of formats". Electric Gypsyland certainly bears this point of view out in its ingenious remixes which reference everything from drum and bass to cumbia to soukous. In their own seemingly different ways, Shantel and Hollander are both advocates of what Hollander calls "transculturalism" - a genuine mash-up of cultures - as opposed to multiculturalism where groups retreat into and protect their own enclaves. The difference between them seems to be the willingness to use the F word - fusion.

Hollander points out that Gypsy music is a great example of transculturalism; the music has always been about the absorption of Eastern and Western influences and is "by no means traditional music. They borrow bits and pieces of music left and right from different things they hear. They're getting influences from Turkey, they see films from India and TV and get influences from that". But, he stresses out that electronics are added by a producer rather than by a member of the band, which distinguishes it from a fusion from within, though this too can be very satisfying for all participants. Surprisingly, the most fully tricked-out Gypsy music right now is fully generated by Romanians themselves.

The Shukar Collective, a group of electronic producers from Romania, released the fascinating Urban Gypsy earlier this year. It's the only Balkan Beat project generated entirely in Romania, where the live musicians and producers co-exist. The source material stems from the somewhat acapella Ursari style; music made by the now-discredited Gypsy bear tamers. Urban Gypsy sounds like New Forms-era Roni Size combined with the spoons, wooden barrels, hand drums and staccato vocals which characterize the Ursari sound. Dan Handrabur, a producer with the collective, describes their project: "About 2 years ago we tracked a bunch of vocals and we took a couple of months to think about them. Nobody had the initiative as to how it should go, or even if it should go anywhere. Eventually we all came up with 4-5 pieces. It was pretty cool, pretty diverse, but we thought maybe we should leave it at that and not shoot for something specific. In the end that shows in the album, that each producer came up with their own version of electronic gypsy music so to speak."

Their live sound pushes these musicians into potentially uncomfortable territory, considering that some of them had never even been in a recording studio before. "About a third of the show is almost all acoustic, and then we do a DJ show with vocals, bass, percussion a keyboard, a couple of computers and a DJ. We do it from Ableton Live or Logic Audio depending on what the situation is. It's a bit tough for (the vocalists). It's better if they don't hear themselves processed in the monitors; it gets confusing, a little freaky. They're OK with it, they realize it's the way to go and nobody sings acapella anymore. The light show, the projections and being onstage can be a little unsettling to say the least." The willingness of the musicians to go along with the project speaks to a general sense of pragmatism with gusts to enthusiasm, but it's apparent from Handrabur that all sides learn something about each other and get paid for a night's work.

Gypsy sounds are the best known content of Balkan Beats, but the umbrella term covers all kinds of different impulses from Russia, Israel, and the USA. Another release on Essay from last year is generally lumped in the same category; OMFO's Trans Balkan Express. "Our Man From Odessa" is German Popov, who hails from the largest port on the Black Sea. Trans Balkan Express is a Kraftwerk-ized translation of what he calls village music. He is very careful to distance himself from Gypsy culture, and in the process charts a new course of "otherness", one which is both extremely specifically ethnic but also heavily reliant on technological means and imagery: "Let me tell you about gypsies in principle. I'm staying away from "gypsytronica". Gypsies as an ethnic group, wherever they are, have a tendency of taking the musical culture where they are, making it as sweet or sentimental as possible - I love this quality a lot. Village music is associated with minimal, local, non-professional musicians who might be shepherds. But they come to local taverna and drink and play their instrument. It's minimalistic village punk. My fantasy is some futuristic village using electronic equipment together with traditional instruments. Gypsies turn music into something with virtuoso style, very quick, lots of emotion but they have a national character which is always in the music. But if you see a Transylvanian shepherd playing the same melody it will sound completely different… In that respect I'm standing on the other side. I'm trying to preserve the village ideal, the village culture."

He is outspoken about the need to retain these traditional dance musics. "Due to globalization things slowly disappear. There are people throughout the Balkans who don't even know their own music, they are so poisoned. The music is dominated by Afro- Latin- Anglo-Saxon elements, it's felt throughout the whole world… In one way I'm a victim and use these electronic instruments, on the other hand I'm trying to preserve traditional melodies and harmonies. I'm not trying to make them jazzy or overwhelm them with virtuoso solos. I never leave the mode or scale of the traditional music, I'm just trying to do it with electronics and accenting it with more danceable rhythm."

What's now considered danceable has shifted dramatically in the last few years; Balkan sounds may possibly be more accepted as out and out party music without seeming foreign. Whether within a heavily electronic context like the Shukar Collective or in the anarchic gypsy punk of New York's Gogol Bordello, Balkan sounds interface well with different musical worlds. In fact, Gogol Bordello may end up having the greatest impact in North America with their high energy "gypsy punk cabaret". What may be telling is whether Balkan-oriented acts are able to get gigs in rock venues, which is often a major stumbling block to world music artists reaching greater audiences. If Gogol Bordello or Shantel can roll into town with a guaranteed party, perhaps bookers and audiences would pay more attention.

In the end, call it world fusion or party music, all parties are concerned to make sure each project is an equitable work situation and generates good will amongst the participants. But will life improve for the originators, particularly the oft-persecuted Gypsies? Life continues to be hard for those on the geographical and economic margins of Eastern Europe, and many have immigrated to North America in pursuit of greater opportunity and to escape renewed persecutions. At best, their increased presence in North America and Western Europe may lead to more visibility for their cultures and music. However, Handrubar comments that new homes bring a backlash as well; "I feel the population of Western Europe is mostly interested in preserving their lifestyle. You know, 'stay out of our country, don't come here with your cheap labour force'". Living 2 hours outside of Bucharest, Handrabur puts it in perspective: "You have to realize these people's lives are quite harsh and it's hard for them to get really happy, life for most Romanians is tough, but for (the Gypsies) it's even tougher… These people collect discarded metal or they plow the fields. With the recent flood in Romania, there isn't much to plow so any gig is quite welcome. The local musicians want to be associated with electronic producers because they know that can be the sound to cross over and expose them to other parts of Europe, maybe even America. Everybody's ready to do something they haven't done before to expand it."