Our introduction to Teknochek Collision is the sound of a man with a Tom Waits-gone-to-Belgrade voice growling, “Welcome… ladies and gentlemen… welcome and stay alive...” as if we were creeping into Castle Dracula, and when I heard it I winced. “No, no, no, horrible, horrible,” I said to myself. “New York wannabe Gypsies who think I need a hammy wink and a nudge to soften me up. This is going to be painful.”
Hooray, it wasn’t. The musicians got down to business with no more Bram Stoker interludes, only a few recordings of old Slavic voices making semi-enigmatic utterances and a gang of demented children chanting, “We want SSP!” in their adorable little coked-up helium voices. Accordions and brass instruments came out and everyone bounced robustly around. Slavic Soul Party’s music is an amalgamation of a number of different genres, primarily Balkan folk as their name suggests, but also jazz and techno. The band’s founder and bubanj drummer Matt Moran has spent most of his time working as a jazz musician, and you can hear the legacy of that background in the sound of the horns. There are bits of other genres in the songs as well. “Ojelem Ojelem” slinks like a tango. The skanky-drunk “Have a Beer” has touches that could have stamped over from a marching band. “Never Let You Go” uses a duck call, which has nothing to do with genres but sounds cute.
There’s a hint of ragtime blues too, just enough to remind you that the band is sharing a label with fellow New Yorkers Hazmat Modine. The two bands don’t sound alike—not even to the extent that I feel I can honestly say, “If you like Hazmat Modine then you’ll like Slavic Soul Party”—and yet there’s a kind of roots affinity between them. Listening to Teknochek Collision or Bahamut, you feel folk music is sitting firmly, immovably, at the bottom and centre of all their experimentations: it is their weighted base and their lodestone. The bands combine genres as remixers like to do, and almost all of their remixing is done with acoustic instruments. The obvious exception is “Never Let You Go”. It brings in some echo effects and electronic grunting. Teknochek Collision‘s title song brusquely repeats notes in the way that club music repeats notes—the bip bip bip bip jitter that drives itself into your head—and this bipping is all done by the brass, in real time. They play a phrase, veer around and come back, creating a riff. It’s the remix that isn’t a remix.
I’m doing you a disservice though. The techno part of this disc shouldn’t be overemphasised. The name of the band together with the zoomy front cover of the CD makes it look as if Teknochek might be an unofficial successor to Crammed’s Electric Gypsyland compilations, and it isn’t. It’s closer to Boban Markovic’s last album, with a wider range of instruments in there to give us a change from Markovic’s unrelieved trumpets and flugelhorns. Slavic Soul Party breaks up the music with recorded voices, with the techno influence, with Eva Salina Primack’s voice sliding like a loosely abrasive silk tongue all over “Ojelem Ojelem” and shooting through “Opa Cupa”, but in the end this CD is about village band brass, the stout oom-pa-pa of the tuba and the smart parp of the horns, jutting out in razor-sharp tiers all over the start of the music.
Imitating Balkan music is a brave move. The Americans are setting themselves up against men (it’s virtually always men; the women in this tradition are singers when they’re there at all) who play as if they’ve had tubas glued to their hands from the cradle, and they come away sounding pretty good. If they seem slightly softer and less aggressive than the overseas musicians then that might be because the village bands sometimes have to win an audience by drowning out other groups that have been invited to play at the same wedding or festival, and the New Yorkers, I’m guessing, don’t come up against that kind of competition.
In the press kit Moran emphasises the Americanness of their approach to the music. “We have some unique pulsating grooves and low brass and use more space than a band from the Balkans.” He summons up a memory of a Serbian musician who once told him that, “You play very excellent, but it’s a very different style than us.” Well, the differences are there, but unless you’re already in love with the native “Slavic Soul” they take their inspiration from then you’re probably not going to notice anything radical. It’s going to sound more like European brass than any kind of fusion or crossover, no matter how chirpily he tells you that there are “aspects of hip hop in our sound.” This is good, good brass, though, played with panache. If you’ve got any taste for village party music at all then odds are you’re going to like it.
// Notes from the Road
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