Various Artists: BalkanBeats: A Night in Berlin

[8 December 2009]

By Mike Schiller

Every month in Berlin, DJ Robert Soko puts on a show called the Slavic Soul Party at Lido in Berlin. It’s a dance party, but it sure as hell doesn’t sound like any sort of club-oriented dance party American audiences have ever partaken of. Sure, there are electronic beats involved, but that’s where the similarity ends. Soko, who goes by the name of BalkanBeats when it comes time to do one of these DJ sets, combines those electronic beats with the traditional music of the Balkans, as interpreted by bands who take those traditional melodies and apply them to rock, ska, punk, or even big band sounds. The result is a mix of sounds and styles utterly unlike anything else, perhaps anywhere in the world.

Soko released three volumes of BalkanBeats prior to A Night in Berlin, but none of them have been solely devoted to a single one of his recurring gigs. A Night in Berlin allows us to hear a BalkanBeats set with a specific—that is, specifically German—audience.

The most obvious nod to Soko’s audience comes early, as he puts Berlin’s RotFront (a band featuring Balkan immigrants) out front with “B-Style”, a version of the band’s “Berlin Style” that mixes a lot of stop-start Balkan melody with an unmistakably German down ‘n’ dirty vibe in the vocals. Not only is it a great track, but it’s a microcosm of the entire album. It’s ready-made for dancing, and extremely fun in its complete, uncompromising intensity. DJ Shantel contributes an instantly memorable collaboration with the Amsterdam Klezmer Band on “Buchaleter Joint”, and he also shows up later in the mix to add some more obvious electronic overtures with a bizarre, infectious remix of “Disco Partizani” that sounds a bit like Middle Eastern reggae.

While Germany might be featured and emphasized a bit, however, there’s really a trans-European flavor to the disc as a whole. Spain’s Al Lindrum contributes the closest thing to a chillout track that A Night in Berlin as to offer in “Come Together”, and the Austrian [dunkelbunt] offers a near-showtune called “Cinnamon Girl” that carries no relation to the Neil Young song of the same name. Soko even ventures as far as South Africa for the lovely “Bolujem Ja” by the Kolo Novo Movie Band, featuring some lovely plucked guitar textures, male/female harmonies, and an accordion solo! As the album closer, it presents a little bit more overt emotion than much of the rest, but it’s no less dance-ready than anything else here.

Still, it’s clear that the heart of BalkanBeats is, yes, in the Balkans. Perhaps the most exciting track on the album is “Oj Ubava”, a Serbian collective that features six female voices singing, shouting, or chanting all of the lyrics; the electronics and mantra-like repetition almost give it the sound of a Serbian M.I.A., and the beat never quits. Opener “Evo Me Narode”, by Magnifico, is the perfect way to start as well, what with a sampled oompah opening that sounds like traditional Balkan folk music until the other electronic samples kick in, and then it starts sounding like an Eastern European version of the Sopranos theme.

There are no weak links here, and the entire thing sounds like Soko’s having a great time sharing with his audience the myriad approaches to appropriating Balkan folk sounds to contemporary instrumentation and beatmaking. Surely a recording like this could never approximate the communal feeling of experiencing a set like this in a crowded club, but as an introduction to the music, it’s perfect. It may be A Night in Berlin, but its appeal is global.

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