Soulful and melancholic, exuberant and wacky, the tracks assembled by the Berlin-based Eastblok label for Balkan Grooves define the concept of glocalism: native, local idioms in fruitful dialogue with global influences. Instead of the latter overpowering or homogenizing the former, the two intersect and influence each other.
Balkan Grooves proves just how much fun the encounter between the global and the local can be. Eastblok, having previously issued three popular compilations under the title Balkan Beats, has selected for its latest collection 15 mash-ups of southeastern European styles and international club culture. (The digital and limited edition vinyl versions include a few tracks not on the CD.) Rom, Serbian, Greek, klezmer, and Bosnian sounds fuse with techno, rock, drum ‘n bass, and dancehall.
The klezmer scholar and musician Henry Sapoznik has observed that sometimes “fusion is short for confusion.” But the mix of idioms and performing styles on Balkan Grooves rarely sounds haphazard or indiscriminate. There are some forgettable tracks where you feel the artists were just amusing themselves playing mix ‘n match with Pro Tools. But the best ones offer inspired juxtapositions that produce thrilling surprises: the shock of the new-old.
The party kicks off with “Raise Up Your Hand”, from Kiril Dzajkovski, a Macedonian who mixes his region’s folk music with global rhythms. From a catchy refrain in English incorporating the song’s title, some toasting from Jamaican MC Ras Tweed, and snippets of an amazing vocal by the Rom singer Esma Redzepova, he’s concocted a rousing dance floor anthem that bridges the Balkans and the Caribbean.
Dazjkovski’s enjoyable pastiche makes a great opener, but there’s much more rewarding stuff to come. Valentino Vallente, a Spanish-born Rom musician based in Berlin, brilliantly meshes folklore and modern beats on “Sote Khela”, a solo production with Vallente singing and playing all the instruments. His wordless vocal, throaty and edged with vibrato, rides a stomping beat that, laced with a repeating pattern played on a stringed instrument (guitar? mandolin? oud?), surges to an explosive climax.
Kottarashky, a Bulgarian producer who is also an architect, contributes “Cheteri”, another of the collection’s strongest tracks. The sonic framework is built on an extraordinary, guttural vocal by an uncredited Rom singer, backed by violins, trumpets, and clarinets. Kottarashky fades the vocals and instruments in and out of the mix, creating a mysterious aura that’s thoroughly gripping.
The two Greek brothers, Orestis and Lysandros Falireas, who record as Imam Baildi (a classic Turkish eggplant dish whose name means “the Imam fainted”) specialize in mash-ups of classic Greek rebetiko and hip hop and Latin beats. Their “Samba Clarina”, re-mixed by DJ Panko from the Spanish band Ojos de Brujo, is one of the most atmospheric pieces on Balkan Grooves. Clarinet, strummed guitars, strings, and propulsive techno beats combine to hypnotic effect: close your eyes and you’re on an overnight train barreling through terra incognita, on the border of consciousness and sleep, as snatches of rhythm and melody rise and recede in your brain.
Fagget Fairys, no doubt the world’s only Bosnian-Danish lesbian dance duo, have, in addition to an in-your-face name, a great back-story. Bosnian singer Ena, whose Muslim family fled Yugoslavia when the multi-ethnic nation began to disintegrate, met Carla Carmmilla (aka DJ Sensimilla) in a Danish club where the latter was the DJ. They fell in love and then began a creative partnership that has yielded some distinctive and idiosyncratic club music, including their 2009 album, Feed the Horse, recorded in New York. Ena’s terrific vocal on their rootsy “Oci” makes me want to hear a lot more from her.
The French band La Caravane Electro, who call their sound “Tziganotronic” (electric gypsy music), contribute “Rebetiko Song”. Rebetiko — also called rembetiko and rebetika — is a Greek idiom of urban, working class origins. As “Rebetiko Song” demonstrates, there’s no better example of the syncretic nature of Balkan music than this genre. The Near Eastern scholar Martin Schwartz has identified melodic and rhythmic elements that rebetiko shares with klezmer, and with Rom and Turkish music. The stately introductory section of “Rebetiko Song”, with a minor-key melody played on clarinet and violins, sounds exactly like klezmer. But when the vocalist enters, singing in Greek, the ambiance shifts from Ashkenazic to Hellenic.
“Rebetiko Song” seems to move through time as well, sounding at first like a rediscovered classic from a bygone era and gradually becoming more contemporary, with prominent electric bass and a distorted rock guitar solo reminiscent of New York fretboard phenom Marc Ribot. It’s the best track on Balkan Grooves , and I would not hesitate to call it a masterpiece.