[24 February 2014]
“It’s very mellow,” said someone just then, walking into the room during “My Eastern Heart”. “What is it?” Mellow is too strong but mellowness seems to be part of the game that Boris Kovač and his band are playing, a strategy of jazz meandering that hums and wanders without an obvious aim, but then again there might be an aim after all, you realize, as the music dips and lingers for the umpteenth time and tries to die, then recovers—then recovers—dies again—a tango comes slithering, slithering towards the usual erotic disaster or consummation—the voices of the men bawling around in the background at the end of one song (“Simple, Simple ... Life”) as if they were at a loose end one day and “Rah yah rah rah” felt like the ideal words that would express it. Then they fade.
Kovač was born more than half a century ago in Novi Sad, the capital of a region in Central Europe known as Vojvodina, which, today, after a long history of independence and capture, is an autonomous province in northernmost Serbia. The first recorded works that he composed are piquant, calm and unsettling, like a Balkan-based postmodern chamber Classical. Regional interference by Slobodan Milošević drove him abroad at the start of the 1990s. Five years later he returned to Novi Sad.
By 2001 he had devised the sound that you can hear in Eastern Moon Rising. “Apocalyptic” is the word he keeps associating with this style, using it in his titles and in the name of the band he had then, La Danza Apocalyptica Balcanica, and also in the third-person description on his website: “... Boris Kovač who was torn from the ground he stood on and who transformed the air for breathing, who tried to stop the wars with music and who mocked the apocalypse with dance.”
He brings ideas from Romanian, Hungarian, Serbian, etc, folk dance into contact with other musics that are urban and fringe-dwelling but at the same time somewhat antique, their fringes are not the latest fringes; they’re cabaret, they’re tango. They’re native contemporary urban fringe environments melted into modernity some time ago and now you have the tango appearing in dance competitions, aimed at the whole family, on television.
When Kovač‘s musicians go at these musics with an attitude of slurring degradation then they’re trying to restore an artifact that never has a hope of being restored. They are attracted, in their futility, to this mass of pre-broken pieces. Kovač himself plays a saxophone. His love for the tango makes a distinct presence out of Goran Penić Gogi’s accordion. What other music expresses melt so well? Ideas from his other albums come back in disguise. “To Entertain You” from World After History (2005) returns with the ballroom string ensemble scrubbed over by an alleyway sound.
“Caravan” submerges the accordion and buries it. Everybody is oozing and heaving and slowly clarinetting like a mammoth in sludge. The singer gives a canoodling moan and a few stray notes tootle and linger. Eastern Moon Rising teases itself with the notion of wreckage and disintegration but the teasing has another aspect as well, the aspect of the child who doesn’t want to go to bed. The cabaret cynicism is playful and matter-of-fact, not fatal or even destructive. There’s no need for destructiveness, the end is going to hit us regardless, we’re almost gone and even the music is superannuated. “Well, ladies and gentlemen,” it says, “here we are again.”