“So many young Roma are just making pop crap,” says Dragan Ristic. He’s Roma himself—a Gypsy—and Serbian. “Many good young musicians compromise their music because they can’t imagine that anyone wants to hear anything but turbo trash.” Being a man who wants to fix the things he dislikes (at least that’s the impression I’ve got from the little I’ve been able to find out about him), Dragan, along with his brother Dusan, founded a band and named it Kal, or ‘Black’. This self-titled CD is their first extra-European release.
Kal uses the kind of wailing Roma voices and sweet-sour fiddles that will be familiar to anyone who has ever picked up an album by Tairaf de Haïdouks, but the band vivifies their traditional music with electronically generated boings and booming echoes, wah-wah pedals, a robust, swanky tango, touches of bhangra, and, most unexpected of all, a burst of South Indian konakkol singing. Konakkol is the sound of someone’s mouth going into overdrive, it’s hyperactive, as if the singer is a piece of clockwork that has been wound up tightly and then set free. Porky Pig might sing like this; it’s the art of the controlled stammer. In Kal it comes once, during “Dvojka”. I think Dragan is singing. The instruments pause to let him flip out this fluent, joyful gibberish, and then they come in again and start bouncing with him while he goads them along. In a live performance, this is the point where the audience would start clapping in time and the band would grin and milk it for all it was worth.
The album is scattered with these surprising moments, the kind of thing that makes you grin with happiness when you hear them for the first time. The beginning of “Komedija” is a good example. At first we hear a strum, then a tremble of strings, and it seems as if the song is going to be a romantic, slightly antiquated, music-box piece, but then there’s a quick phrase from what might be an accordion, and with that we’re off in a new direction with a fiddle and then—I know I’m saying “and” a lot but bear with me, because and then a guitar starts to go waka-wah waka-wah along with the fiddle, so we’re hearing Balkan violin and blaxsploitation, both at once, which is grand. The reliable guitar counterpoints its flightier, more intricate companion, and a frisson goes through the music.
That’s not the end of it though. We’re only 20 seconds into the song. Next, the Serbian rock prankster Antonije Pušić aka Rambo Amadeus begins slushing out words in a voice that sounds both dirty and happy, as if he’s describing past pleasures with the muckiest curses you can imagine. Listen carefully, and you can hear all the pop crapsters and turbo trashers sliding into blackened holes, murmuring, “Why didn’t we think of that?”
The trouble, I suppose you might say, with Kal, is that the album as a whole is not greater than the sum of those moments. They stick in your mind while the rest of the music fizzes sweetly and then melts away like sugar. The best thing to compare it with would be pop—not the “pop crap” that Dragan complains about, which is, I’m guessing, the cheap, blaring Euro-synth kind, or the Turkish-sounding turbo-folk that loves its bling—but the kind of pop that Alex Petridis in The Guardian likes to praise for its willingness to cannibalise other genres for ideas. Kal has that same quality of polished, omnivorous ambition. It wants you to have a good time. You might as well go ahead and let it.