[4 February 2009]
The Kočani Orkestar takes its name from the north-east Macedonian city of Kočani, which is situated in a greeny area proud of its rice farms. The band itself is Macedonian, and the musicians play in a local style known as romska orientalna muzika, or Gypsy oriental music, an heir to the brass band music of the Ottoman armies that abandoned the region when the empire they were attached to came apart helplessly in the early decades of the twentieth century. It’s easy to forget the reach and influence that military brass once had, but every now and then a group like the Kočani Orkestar, or the Gangbé Brass Band of Benin, or one of the brass ensembles of India, comes along to remind us.
Turned rogue, these imitation-military bands have taken on a variety of forms. In the case of romska orientalna muzika, the musical reverberation set off by the Ottoman Turks has travelled through the Roma population and left us listening to a group that still has a military shape—the Orkestar is almost entirely brass, with the exception of a large drum and the addition of the accordion without which no Balkan Gypsy band would be complete—but not a military sound. Whirling, twitching, full of hairpins, the music on The Ravished Bride is not something a soldier could march to. When it comes to a track like “Kodraka” you wouldn’t even be able to walk to it; to keep in time at all you’d have to adopt a staggering step-and-pause dance, or step-and-kick, something exaggerated, theatrical. The group’s singer lays on the vibrato with pleasure.
The Kočani Orkestar got its big break in 2002 when Crammed released Alone at my Wedding, the album before this one. Wedding attracted attention. This was thanks not only to the band’s delivery, which was, and still is, lavish with bravado, but also to deft versions of two of the region’s songs, “Siki Siki Baba” and “Usti Usti Baba”, emphasising the hooks in their choruses. “Siki Siki Baba” later appeared on the soundtrack to Borat. It might as well be thought of as their signature tune, having a bit of everything they’re good at, banging brass, ripe dramatic singing, cocky percussion.
The band’s sound has changed in the intervening six years. The change is not so radical that you would mistake them for a different group, but anyone who listened to Alone at my Wedding will realise that things on Ravished Bride are not exactly the same. The rising profile of the musicians appears to have given them the confidence, or the motivation, to try out new ideas. Maybe it was their inclusion in Borat, maybe it was the sound of their northern neighbours Taraf de Haïdouks testing themselves with classical music, maybe it was the popularity of Balkan hybrid bands like Gogol Bordello, maybe it was fresh friendships with the Balkan Beat Box people, maybe it was restlessness, maybe it was none of the above, but this time they’ve decided to bring in ideas from other parts of the world, incorporating surf guitars into “Atlantis”, adopting here a Mediterranean wriggle, guiding the surf sound back in the direction of the place where Dick Dale found “Misirlou”: Greece and Lebanon, in the shape of his Lebanese grandfather who picked it out at home on the oud. Deciding to try a Macedonian-Roma-folk-Afro-American funk tune they come up with “Divanosko”, in which the insinuations of the American style are translated into shortwinded trumpet blasts. It’s like hearing someone pronounce a word in English with something indisputably foreign about it, not illegitimate, accented.
Even when they play straight folk music it seems a little less knobbled, a little more streamlined, than it used to. It sounds like ambition, that’s what it sounds like. It sounds like a group of musicians deciding that if Balkan music is what the wide world wants—which apparently it does: witness the Americanised Balkanesque of Gogol Bordello, A Hawk and a Hacksaw, and Beirut, and the rise of a Balkan scene in New York—then Balkan music is what it shall have, and from real Balkan people too. That’s what they’re good at, and that’s what they’ve given us.