[15 August 2005]
Once in a while I am surprised. Although you might think us music critics to be infallible and unflappable, sometimes we let our guard down and end up flummoxed. Much to my chagrin, Bucovina Club Vol. 2 has flummoxed me.
I remember Shantel from the late ‘90s and very early ‘00s, when he was a second-string producer in the same mode as Kruder & Dorfmeister and the Thievery Corporation, producing a handful of interesting but unexceptional albums in the downtempo vein. 2001’s Great Delay saw the producer recording in Israel with the aid of singer Efrat Ben-Zur. Apparently the years since Great Delay have seen Shantel dive even deeper into world music, because Bucovina Club Vol. 2 is a compilation of Eastern European Gypsy music… which I was not expecting.
Now, I would be lying if I said there was any single genre of world music which I was less familiar with than the music of the Balkans. I wouldn’t know a balalaika from a baklava. As such, I find it remarkably difficult to judge whether or not this album is an exercise in crackpot genre-bending or legitimately visionary postmodernism. To my ear, the concessions to Western musical convention are almost totally overwhelmed by the foreign flavor of the Balkan material. There are house beats and perhaps the slight occasional nod to hip-hop, but there are also strange brass sections, odd tempos and unfamiliar languages—Greek? Bulgarian? Serbo-Croatian?
So, um, I don’t even know what to call this. Gypsy-house? Balkan-hop? It’s interesting, I’ll give it that. But is it any good? Will I want to listen to it again? That’s probably not so clear.
Something like Shantel’s own “Ya Rayah” seems more or less typical of the entire project. You’ve got a distinctive Balkan melody and shuffling Gypsy beat, with a slight hint of a hip-hop beat inserted to add some “oomph”. It seems less like a hybrid than merely a slight modernization—and as such its appeal is probably limited to those who already dig the genre in question.
At its best, on tracks like the Haaksman & Kaaksman Soca Bogle mix of Shantel’s “Bucovina”, the album succeeds in conjuring up the feel of strangely updated indigenous music heard in surreal settings—like, hip-hop salsa heard on a passing car stereo. Pop music has always made strange hybrids with “traditional” forms—what we now consider pop evolved itself out of indigenous musical forms of North America, after all. Taking a traditional form and simply welding it to club music with no real thought given to the overall purpose is an old trick that gets trotted out every now and again: we’ve all heard the Native American chants with the cheesy house beats under them used in bad commercials. What is less common is taking the old form and finding an authentic medium for a common discourse.
Does Bucovina Club Vol. 2 count? Without a more nuanced knowledge of the music as it actually exists in its natural form, I can’t say whether or not this is revolutionary or superfluous. Anyone with a more accomplished mastery of the music of the region should probably judge for themselves, because it baffles me.