Sometime in about 1981, a friend of mine gave me a cassette tape of Serbian brass band music that he had just brought back from his travels in the former Republic of Yugoslavia. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Happy Birthday. I think this is something that you will really like.” Well, he wasn’t wrong there. I played that cassette until it literally wore out. I despaired that I would never find anything like it again, but I was persistent in my search for more of this amazing music. I now consider Balkan brass band music to be at the top of my list of favorite musical genres. There is something about it that just inspires one to get up and dance, be merry and down a glass of Slivovic or rakia.
There are many great Balkan brass bands such as Kocani Orkestar and Jova Stojiljkovic “Besir” and His Brass Orkestar, but shining high above them all is the Boban Markovic Orkestar. Indeed, they are stellar artists and have won first place for “best brass band” and “best trumpet” at the Guca festival in central Serbia so many times that they do not even compete anymore. Listen to their recording Live in Belgrade on Piranha Musik and you will hear why. Listen! Hah! I dare you to try to sit still and listen. Whether you know how to cocek, U’sest, and ruchenitsa or not, you will be up dancing away. They play “Hava Naguila” like you have never heard before. Theirs is the definitive version of “Mesecina”, too—that infamous song that the crowds derisively sang over and over during the downfall of Slobadan Milosevic. They are probably best known, though, for being the brass band in the rather surreal Emil Kusturica film Underground.
With the release of their latest CD, Boban I Marko—Balkan Brass Fest, they prove that not only are they the preservers of the Rom tradition of brass band music, but they, like all Rom musicians, know how to incorporate influences from all over the world and make it uniquely their own, such as in the Latin tinged “Sanja Samba”. (Although myself, I feel more like doing an “Argentine milonga” around the room rather than a “Brazilian samba”.)
Boban Markovic has to play the sweetest trumpet around and his only upcoming rival is his son Marko. Marko joined the band shortly after the recording of Live in Belgrade and although only 15, he definitely has “the chops”. Boban is quoted in the liner notes of this CD as saying about Marko, “when I listen to his solos, I wonder were they mine or his.” The two of them exchange little trumpet dialogues throughout the recording as if peers rather than father and son. One wonders if Marko should ever form his own band and competes at the Guca festival, how many years in a row he would win “best trumpet” before he finally retires from the competition.
Boban I Marko—Balkan Brass Fest contains many guest artists including Frank London’s Klezmer Allstars on the track “Magija”. This, of course, is not the first time that the two bands have recorded together. Boban and his orchestra recorded with Frank London’s group on their CD Brotherhood of Brass, also on Piranha records. Frank London wrote some rather wild liner notes on Live in Belgrade comparing Boban Markovic Orkestar with “funk music” and all night parties. Yep, they have that kind of energy—funk, rock, and, of course, jazz. But even more so, they have the free-spirit and open mindedness of Rom musicians who are technically perfect and so darn creative that they play with all out madness.
Although most of the music is instrumental, Boban Markovic is also a very fine vocalist and sings in Serbian on “Od Srca” (translated as “From the Heart”). Guest vocalist Svetlana Spajic Latinovic is featured on the title track “Balkan Fest” and also sings in Serbian.
The recording ends with a sweet trumpet solo on “Biseri Srbije part 1” (“Pearls of Serbia”) and then slips into a slow moving dialogue between trumpet and violin played by guest artist Dejan Kostic and accordion with guest artist Sasa Zivic. We are now in the 10-minute long final piece “Biseri Srbije part 2” with virtuoso trumpet, accordion. and violin backed by percussion and tuba getting us up and dancing again.
If you have never heard Balkan brass band music, then my gosh, where have you been all this time! I suggest you run out to your local music store and buy this CD right away so you can start enjoying this amazing music without delay.