The last time we encountered Boris Kovac & the LaDaABa Orchest and their keening, mad music was September 11, 2001. The band was wearing white tuxedos and mismatched ties and they played like the band on the sinking Titanic, fully aware that only the paying passengers could buy space in the lifeboats. From the wiggly underwater shot on this back cover, this is about half an hour after every drink on the ship came with ice. The orchestra is reconciled to their fate of ending up so much fish food; they’re playing for themselves, as they no longer have a need for tips, and as for their audience, they look forward to entertaining only the dancing skeletons in Davy Jones’s locker. Ballads at the End of Time opens with the explosion of steam from the brakes of what has to be the Orient Express and the howl of a wolf. This is “Danza Transilvanica”, after all. A gypsy violin begins sobbing over the martial tattoo of a snare drum. Only after a long somber lead-in, phrases marked by the explosive blat of horns, does a jazzy European rumba slowly and smoothly spin out and begin softly swinging. This is the second and final album of the La Danza Apocalypsa Balcanica Project, and this might what is danced to the morning after the catastrophe. Leader Kovac confesses, “I hope that such a theme will never inspire me again.” Wow, why so glum, chum?
Living in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, surrounded by an unstable geography called the Balkans where the missiles were as frequent as rain, where peacekeeping armies poured nuclear waste into the rivers, and whose very name has become synonymous with the disintegration and the atomization of civilized societies, Kovac and troupe might have every reason to be a bit melancholy. La Danza Apocalypsa Balcanica is Kovac’s artistic answer to pressure: from the dangerous and confusing internal politics of his land to the fact that his country is only now starting to recover from international pariah status. He’s playing furiously, with only one single message: “Dance, here and now, because it could be your last!”
Nonetheless, Part Two comes across like the morning after the apocalypse. The eccentric swirl of Balkan-influenced tangos, rumbas, calypsos, and waltzes sound as if they are being played by a band in a decadent 1920’s café somewhere in Vienna. More especially when even the titles of the normally staid waltzes are considered: “Early Morning Waltz”, “Waltz from Careless Street”, and “Broken Waltz”. The “Early Morning Waltz” begins as a slow almost dirge-like waltz, the lead-in can barely be heard, like the tick of a distant clock is a stick tapping out time on a cymbal. Soon a jazzy bass picks up the beat, an accordion and gypsy violin and gypsy guitar pep things up into an oom-pah signature with a swooning clarinet carrying the lead. The feeling, alas, is too good to last, and the tune winds down and sinks into the beginning slow phrase, moving as slowly as the Danube before the piece gets second wind and revisits the peppy section again. The elegant calliope-sounding “Waltz from Careless Street”, with the gentle tinkle of a celeste, the melody carried by a high sweet clarinet before running into a passage dripping with melancholy. Rain on cobblestone streets mood. “Broken Waltz” has a strange time signature for a waltz, and is a very uplifting piece.
For this listener, the European treatment of classic Latin dance rhythms is the most beguiling. “Beguine at the End” (wordplay at work in that title, I’ll wager) and “Cha Cha” (with a mix of bongos, cabaret-style accordion, and sliding clarinet) are just hypnotizing. Especially when the cha cha segues into a crazed tango then finally erupts into a jazzy explosion. And, yes, you’ll long to spin and sway. Infectious, too, are the tunes that mix up 20 or so Balkan influences, like “Interlude at the Gang” complete with the noise of a happy dog howling at the moon. Boris and Company’s music digs straight under the skin even when laden with melancholia, such as the sob of the “Colour of Remembrance” or the moody, contemplative “At the End of Time”. That sense of melancholic disbelief: Can it be over? Can it really be over?
But if you’re at all like me, you’ll hear the final quarter minute of the album, just the sound of “Birds”, and know that all can be all right with the world.
Ballads at the End of Time made it onto the Top Ten of the European World Music Charts recently, so you might suspect that the music speaks to many people outside of the Balkans. This is finely crafted, polished, wonderful stuff, and creative to an extreme. In the meantime, it’s sad adieu to La Danza Apocalypsa Balcanica. Farewell for now, Boris and friends, I will see you in a much better world. All I know for sure is this group is poised and they are no doubt determined to surprise us again the next time out.