Big Brass at the Disco

Bucovina Club

“Initially I had a lot of difficulties. I did not find a label that wanted to release it. I was in a lot of negotiations, but they all said that nobody would listen to this. They would say, ‘Why are you into this music?’ I had to create my own label and system to make it happen.

— Shantel.”

There is much irony in this statement. When you hear the opening “Espirita” by a group of 20-some Italian 20-somethings basing their music on the traditional banda music of Sicily, the unique sound of Banda Ionica — as well as a number of incredible groups on the first edition of Bucovina Club — engage and invade your auditory senses with some of the most interesting rhythms and melodies on the planet. Now as much an institution as a CD, Shantel’s famed Bucovina Club nights have launched from his Frankfurt base to the far reaches of Europe. Yet upon the first outing, which featured a mind-blowing cast including Taraf de Haidouks, Fanfare Ciocarlia, Goran Bregovic, Gogol Bordello and Kocani Orkestar, it was an unconvincing sale. Indeed, the battle is far from over.

Shantel started creating a turntablism career in the ’90s dropping a more expectable soul, house and jazzy cuts indicative of open-minded heads and hips. He was long aware of the regional musics of Southeastern Europe, and carried around vinyl for kicks. One evening while performing at a fashion show in Paris, one filled with “all this attitude, this coolness, this stylish whatever”, he decided to test a hypothesis. While usually relegated to ceremonies, Shantel pulled Macedonian wedding music from his bag of tricks. The tunes, heavy on brass and Turkish percussion, were considered dance music, albeit in a much different setting than fashion gatherings and discothèques. “The music changed totally the attitude of the night. It opened a strong emotional area, with all those clichés of people dancing on the tables.”

Shortly afterwards he was throwing down at a photo festival in Houston, Texas, and a similar trend manifested. It was a quick and, as it turns out, lasting love affair. The music of Romania, Macedonia, Hungary and Serbia has always worked amazingly well to get a dance floor cracking…when performed live, that is. On record, as Shantel points out, most albums retain a “world music” feel more appropriate for the ears of ethnomusicologists and not club kids fiending for a fix. Shantel took it upon himself to disprove the myth. Nearly four years after the release of Bucovina Club, he has seen the release of a second edition, numerous gigs in production with up-and-coming acts like Mahala Rai Banda, and the launch of his first solo effort, the excellent and adventurous Disko Partizani.

“It was a kind of explosion,” he says from his home in Frankfurt. “These elements, these melodies and rhythms and character and harmony, they are something you have to create out of. It was quite hard to find good recordings of the ideas I had in those days. The problem was all these recordings sounded a bit flat. I missed the bass, and the bottom, which I found had to be upgraded. I found myself immediately in a production situation.”

The situation was not a bad one, proving most fruitful to both his career and the direction of Eastern European folk music. Shantel began hanging around the style’s legends, refining and remixing their soulful creations with an understanding of what club-going audiences crave. He created a niche where none existed. While in America Balkan sounds continue to hover on the fringe, Shantel is leading his European adventure in the re-creation of a music endowed with a long history of fusion and cultural assimilation. Originally military music connecting the political paths of Eastern and Western explorers (and exploiters), the yoking of Middle Eastern percussion with loud, blaring brass and, for bands like Taraf de Haidouks, violins and cimbaloms, helped create a distinct sound where the low end is driven by tubas and horns create the rhythm. In the context of gin-inspired dance houses and festive weddings, this is some of the most danceable music imaginable. Enter Shantel and ProTools and a new era in the replication and distribution, as well as cultural understanding, is born.

Shantel’s own knowledge of the importance and subtleties of these music forms proves equally commendable. He knew that to raise ears “it was not necessary to do all these crazy remixes, to beat a sample beat and bass line.” He sounds ecstatic when explaining that Marko Markovic, son of legendary Serbian trumpet player Boban, has included some of his compositions on his latest recording. It’s strong validation for Shantel. Sometimes criticized for splicing and dicing the Balkan genre into computer files, Shantel has taken extreme caution to avoid any such possibilities. When working on his first solo outing, this was of top concern.

“It was very important to properly produce the brass section,” he says of Disko Partizani. “It’s a very important element of this sound that there is a tradition in playing the melody. It’s not something that you can just write down as notes. It needs this kind of attitude while playing. The problem always when you are remixing is that you have to edit, and you have to edit brass on the beat, and this is something I didn’t want at all. All the drums and grooves were recorded, and the brass came on top of it; it was much more into the groove, but also had the chance to be colorful. This combination brings you immediately to the dance floor.”

I can personally vouch for this success. Turned onto Shantel’s work from the Six Degrees-licensed Electric Gypsyland compilation in 2005 — the first wave of this sound breaking to American audiences — Shantel’s remix of Taraf de Haidouks’ “Carolina” was on my regular rotation during DJ sets. The song never failed to move the dance floor, and when that epic guitar line signaled the beginning, cheers would commence. It is such a unique and inspiring take on what was such a different song (listen to the original on the first Bucovina Club), that when the bottom dropped in, shouting seemed an automatic reaction.

Every theory is only validated by repetition, and the more times I played it, the more this occurrence became fact. I’ll never forget DJing to 2,200 people waiting for Jamiroquai and watching the effects of this particular song. The folk music of Romania left a tremendous imprint on a completely unsuspecting crowd, something Shantel’s career is defined by.

With Disko Partizani that crowd continues to grow. Not wanting to repeat himself with a third edition of Bucovina, he accomplished the most daunting task imaginable in this genre: making an accessible pop record with tubas, trumpets and dumbeks. Once again he has succeeded. Describing the process of production to be “like a movie”, the entire album plays out like a soundtrack to a life lived well. His concern for the vanishing traditional music of the Balkans created an emotional response that hits the hips and heart hard. And our response remains among the greatest of human pleasures: to dance.