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Boban Markovic Orkestar feat. Marko Markovic

The Promise: The King of Balkan Brass

(Piranha; US: 14 Feb 2006; UK: 14 Nov 2005)

You’ve got to love Piranha. The liner notes in the albums they release have a gusto that goes beyond the usual polite tone of promotion and approval and instead describes the musician with a kind of adoring ferocity. Even if you don’t like the album, you can’t doubt that they do. “NO copy protection,” reads the back of The Promise‘s CD case. “Respect the music.”


A lot of the label’s music, particularly on the Roma and klezmer releases, has this same quality of enthusiastic aggression—not cruel aggression, more the driving aggression of someone with something wonderful who wants you to love it as much as they do. The Promise is like that. It has its stately moments, but the overall tone of the CD is that of a relentless virtuoso who won’t let you go. He’s willing to exhaust himself to give you a thrill. By the end of the album you’re holding up your hands to ward him off. “All right! All right! I agree! You’re fantastic! Wow!”


The talent here is a Serbian Roma named Boban Marković, who plays the flugelhorn. His son, Marko, also plays the flugelhorn, in addition to the trumpet, and a traditional end-blown flute, the kaval. Boban has his own band, the Boban Marković Orkestar, which he handed over to Marko, his successor, in February this year. You can see a photograph of the Orkestar on the back of the case: 12 men, most of them holding brass of some kind. Three have drums. All of them are wearing black t-shirts with “Boban Marković Orkestar” printed across the front in red and white; all have dark hair.


Boban and his son dominate the recording less than you might expect. The solo flugelhorns are exciting, but it’s the sound of the group that brings the album together—the en masse pump-and-jerk of “Meksikanka”, or “Erolka”‘s almost-robotic barrages of short instrumental jumps that go off like a row of rifles.


The playing is tight and clear, but it has a happy, slightly shambolic quality—a consequence of sheer weight of numbers, not of sloppiness—that means the precision never sounds inhumanly exact. The Orkestar plays at a more sedate pace than Fanfare Ciocarlia, another member of the Piranha stable, whose party trick is to rip through tunes at insane speeds, but the soloist in “Sunce Sjajno” suggests that the Orkestar could go as fast as the Fanfare if they chose to. He putters at a mad pace while the rest of the band nudges him along, staying out of his way in case he runs them over.


There are hints of marching bands in here, touches of mariachi, and a strong flavour of Greece and Macedonia, on top of the indigenous Serbian brass band sound. “It sounds,” said my American husband, who was sitting in the corner organising files on his computer, “like a high school jazz band, or something they’d play during half-time at a football game.”


I asked, “Is the playing better or worse than a high school jazz band?”


“Oh, better. But it’s reminiscent of.” I’m guessing that a number of Americans who hear the Boban Marković Orkestar are going to think of a marching band, and that people who watch American movies about American high schools and parades are possibly going to think of the same thing, unless they have a brass band tradition of their own.


Most of the world music albums I’ve reviewed recently have introduced unusual instruments or combined one genre with another to give them more mainstream appeal, so I’ll end the review with this one caveat: The Promise is not a crossover album. There is one track with light female singing; the rest is straight brass and drum. Still, this album might woo even those of you who don’t enjoy brass all that much. “All right, all right,” you’ll say, holding up your hands, exhausted, head ringing with flugelhorns. “I agree. You’re fantastic! Wow!”

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