I’ve never tried to tame a bear—and probably won’t, given my success with pre-domesticated animals—but if did, I’d probably want some ursari musicians by my side. These people perform their music for bears, or maybe for people, but at bears. It’s like busking, except success means your partner doesn’t eat you. At least that’s how I see it a few thousand miles from Romania.
Apparently some DJs in Bucharest see it a little bit differently. When Lucian Stan and Dan Handrabur heard the spoons, barrel, and vocal music of Shukar, they thought, “Let’s jazz this up with some modern technology and see what happens. I bet a good drum ‘n’ bass line would fit it perfectly.” The idea sounds bizarre, and it is in a way, but in another sense it’s a natural result of Eastern European cultures meeting (as much so as an American version, say, music with the dreaded “folktronica” tag).
The collaboration resulted in the Shukar Collective and its album Urban Gypsy (and, for the record, the singers are rroma and not gypsy). The music starts with traditional songs performed by Napoleon Constantin (vocals, barrel percussion), Tmango (62-year-old spoon player), and Clasic (vocals and percussion). The urban electronic artists in the collective then work over these tracks with a variety of electronic sounds and beats. The resulting music fully retains elements of both styles, which nonetheless merge surprisingly successfully.
The high point of the album comes early, with third track “Malademna”. Constantin’s vocals are driving and quick, and, especially given the foreign sound most Westerners will experience them, function as much as a house rhythm track as a main vocal melody. The singing is supported by Handrabur’s exotic violin playing and is offset by the uptempo dance beats that could get you on the floor, at least if you knew how to do a bear-jig or were open to learning.
For most of the album, the artists rely on that formula. The electronic artists keep the original folk songs intact to varying degrees, sometimes letting them playing almost straightforwardly, sometimes chopping them up, looping them, relying on vocal samples, etc. Regardless of what they do with the original music, though, the ursari feel comes through. A certain intensity remains, and the producers must realize the importance of that strength to the finished compositions.
One place they fail in this aspect is “Hahaha”, in which they try to turn the vocals into a dark, trancey- piece. The intensity doesn’t work as well when it’s employed as a device for slow-burn tension. The Collective bounces back nicely after that with the upbeat electro bassline and low-mixed vocals of “Disperiæ Romanes”. Here, the attempt at tension relies more on subtlety, with voices put through echo processing, but otherwise allowed their place in a more minimal composition.
Urban Gypsy might sound like a novelty concept, but it functions much more fully. The artistic combination of styles and traditions results in music that’s unusual but enjoyable on a visceral as well as an intellectual level. While its cultural and sociological implications might be fascinating, you can put that aside to just enjoy some of the strangest dance music you’ll hear this year, ursine or otherwise.
// Notes from the Road
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