The Triumph of Musical Tourists
Under the name Beirut, Zach Condon released an album of Balkan-style songs he recorded in his bedroom and became an Internet-driven sensation. Though his music gestures nostalgically toward a gypsy old world, Condon’s casual appropriations suggest something much grimmer for the future.
“All tourists...embody a quest for authenticity, and this quest is a modern version of the universal human concern with the sacred. The tourist is a kind of contemporary pilgrim, seeking authenticity in other ‘times’ and other ‘places’ away from that person’s everyday life.”
-- John Urry, The Tourists Gaze
It was 4:25 in the afternoon, and I was in the Middle East, a restaurant and concert venue in Cambridge, Massachusetts, looking for a 20-year-old named Zach Condon, who records as Beirut. He was nowhere to be found, so I reviewed my notes and the questions that his album evoked. Where did he learn about Balkan culture? What was the significance of appropriating Balkan music? Was there a risk of stereotyping the cultures from which he was seeking musical inspiration?
I was curious to learn what had led Condon to such an interesting source for musical inspiration. Other bands -- particularly in Condon’s world of indie rock -- that use Eastern European inspiration have more direct connections to the homeland. Gogol Bordello’s main singer, Eugene Hütz, is Ukrainian, and his band is an international mishmash of musicians. Black Ox Orkestar, a Montreal group with members from Silver Mt. Zion and Godspeed You Black Emperor, found their Yiddish material while exploring their own Jewish musical roots. Devotchka’s lead singer, Nick Urata, is the grandson of a union between a Sicilian and a gypsy. The predecessor to all these bands, a band named the Ukrainians, which formed during a Peel session for the 1980s indie rock band the Wedding Present, was started because of guitarist Peter Solowka’s Ukrainian ancestry.
And then there’s Condon, who has had newspapers, magazines, and blogs building a mythos around his travels in Europe. Had he traveled through the Balkans playing with and learning from musicians? Did he really fall in with an ex-pat community in Paris? In interviews he has talked about Balkan brass musicians but has never mentioned the place itself other than as an old-world utopia: the kind of version of the Balkans you’d get from a prewar, pre-Communist Serbia pavilion at Epcot Center, peopled with folk singers and having some form of traditional wedding every hour on the hour.
Condon recorded the Beirut album Gulag Orkestar in his bedroom. It begins with a raspy horn line that sounds like a slowed-down version of “Balkan Fest,” the opening track of Boban Markovic Orkestar’s album Boban I Marko. Condon’s piece is more funereal in tone, simpler in composition, but all the basic elements are there from the first few minutes: the singing in a half croon, half wail; the swinging but triumphant horn lines; and the large percussive sounds accompanied by smaller repeated motifs. Gulag Orkestar contains the occasional digression from the gypsy simulacrum, like the Magnetic Fields–inspired “Scenic World” or “After the Curtain,” which is dominated by a synth-pop intro mixed with parade-like fanfare. Ukulele-driven tracks like “Brandenburg” and “Postcards from Italy” carry a light Portuguese folk influence. Condon’s use of accordions and glockenspiels recalls stereotypical ideas of gypsy music, the Romanian lautari sound. But the heart of the album is in the Balkans, with hints of Kocani Orkestar, Boban Markovic Orkestar, Taraf de Haidouks, and other brass-band and gypsy music. The instrumentation is complex on the surface, because of the myriad layers of instruments, but strives towards pop with its repetitive horn lines.
A couple months before, in June, I saw Beirut play at a small Cambridge venue called the Lily Pad, which holds about 60 people at most. Hundreds waited outside to get in; the line snaked around Inman Square. There was a strange excitement inside exacerbated by the huge line, and the show worked in the confined space. The band were angel-faced hipsters, save Jeremy Barnes, the drummer from Neutral Milk Hotel and founder-accordion player for A Hawk and a Hacksaw, who loomed like a sketchy uncle with a 1970s porn mustache. The acoustics were sloppy but they fittingly gave the music the sound of something that was recorded in someone’s bedroom. It was charming, considering the band was so new, and the only thing odd was the crowd, which stood stock still inside the club -- only an occasional rustle from some blogger taking pictures. For an aesthetic drawn from music played at rites of passage, the crowd seemed strangely disengaged.
I began to wonder about the historical significance of Gulag Orkestar. At the show Condon covered “Siki Siki Baba” by Kocani Orkestar, which he has done on numerous occasions. In Kocani and other brass bands, tubas and tenor horns are used as rhythmic instruments, but Condon’s band played it without any bass-heavy brass. Without the bellowing of these instruments, Beirut sounded a little more like the Turkish music that originally forged the Balkan brass sound.
As a young Caucasian playing Balkan music, Condon is, however unwittingly, reaching back to the historical roots of Balkan Brass music. Balkan brass music was initially inspired by Turkish military music played by an elite, ferocious armed force known as the Janissary, which was peopled with young Christians from the Balkans in the 16th century. After the Ottoman conquest of southeastern Europe, the sultan created incentives for conquered citizens to convert to Islam. Many Albanians converted from their native orthodox form of Christianity, but the Serbian Orthodox and other Christian groups resisted. Those who did not convert were subject to the devshirmeh system: taxation in the form of conscripting children into the ranks of the Janissary, where some 500,000 were placed and schooled in its traditions and fighting style. The conscripts were converted to Islam in order to bear arms under Ottoman law.
The Janissary also had bands playing music to lead their marches. Unlike traditional Turkish music, the Janissary rhythms were simpler, with a cadence in order to keep time while marching and fighting. The sound was a ferocious mixture of deep percussion played on a Davul combined with high pitched shrill instruments like zurnas (which are like oboes), zil (cymbals), triangles, and a buglelike instrument called a boru. It is the boru that forges the closest link to Balkan Brass.
But the Roma (gypsies) in the Balkans, who play the brass music that inspired Condon, weren’t the first musicians to appropriate Janissary music. Before it was Balkanized, Janissary rhythms were adopted by composers in Vienna -- even though this was the music the citizens of Vienna were most likely to fear, as it would have heralded the approach of the neighboring Ottoman Empire’s armies. Still, Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart all used Janissary music at some points in their compositions. This Alla Turca (“in the Turkish style”) music appears in Mozart’s "The Abduction From the Seraglio" and most notably the ending of "Piano Sonata in A, K. 331."
Even as it was adopted, this appropriation helped demonize Turkish influence. According to Clare Hammond, “the Alla Turca topic represented the Turk as a barbaric inferior. Based as it was purely on the music of the Janissary bands, its military content served to reinforce the idea of the cruel and bellicose savage. Furthermore, the Alla Turca exhibits a high level of repetition, simple harmonic progressions and almost folklike simplicity at times.” But even in its inauthentic westernized form, Janissary music shaped the path and sound of classical music. Contemporary listeners don’t hear Turkish stereotypes in these sounds but rather the power and might of the notes themselves.
Not long after the rise of Alla Turca music in Vienna the Janissary itself disappeared, disbanded forcibly by Sultan Mahmud II in 1826. The only remaining vestige of the Janissaries is their music. Kept alive by Turkish military bands, it eventually found its way back into the Balkans through gypsies. Today, Janissary music’s marching rhythm has been replaced with more complex Turkish rhythms. The brass bands use percussion and brass instruments from tubas to trumpets to create a sound festive and contemplative -- and surprisingly popular, having crossed the Serbian border to surrounding countries, reaching even Western Europe. Where was it when Condon found it?
The tourist’s quest is rooted in fetishism of the foreign culture. Rich cultural activities lose their significance and become spectacles to relate to friends and family when one returns home. People from other cultures lose their individuality and are streamlined into archetypes. History ceases to be of cultural consequence and is either relegated to a museum or discarded outright. The same occurs with musical appropriation, which fetishizes foreignness.
Belgians Stephane Karo and Michel Winter, whose trips to Romania ultimately resulted in their recruiting the musicians who toured the world as Taraf de Haïdouks, were not mere musical tourists: They did not seek to take bits and pieces of the Roma music and play them to Western Europeans to show that they had visited the Balkans. While their actions may be seen as exploitative, their goal was to share the music with a wider audience, not change it to make it more pleasing to that audience. But could the same be said of Beirut? Or are his compositions something like a tourist’s picture postcard?
Photographs and postcards, as Susan Sontag writes in On Photography, “give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.” Not merely a “way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it.” One could accuse Beirut of such a refusal in his borrowing of musical motifs from the Balkans. Just as, according to Marion Markwick, “the act of taking a photograph or buying a picture postcard on holiday effectively serves to represent and signal the genuineness of the touristic experience,” Condon’s sonic appropriation gives a sense of authenticity to otherwise staid songs. Slapping a gypsy chorus on to a song and adding a exotic horn line makes it feel like it feel like it has the force of a history and people behind it, that it has some significance greater than itself. But this authenticity is borrowed.
When Dusan Ristic, founder of the Amala Summer School for Gypsy Music and an avid protector and promoter of Roma culture in eastern Europe, heard Gulag Orkestar, he told me that the album “is probably influenced by Goran Bregovic, who is non-Roma, a guy who is saying that what is he playing is Romani music, but it isn’t.” Bregovic wrote film scores for Bosnian Serb filmmaker Emir Kusturica, including the music for Underground., which received the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Listening to Beirut, Ristic heard an imitation of imitation at best.
Roland Barthes noted in Camera Lucida that tourist photographs rarely touch people because they show the landscape as visitable rather than habitable. The ideal photograph evokes a longing to inhabit that “is neither oneric…nor empiric; it is fantasmic, derived from a kind of second sight which seems to bear me forward to a utopian time, or to carry me back to somewhere in myself.” On some tracks, like “Postcards from Italy”, Condon seems capable of transcending his touristic tendencies to evoke sonic landscapes one could live in imaginatively. Perhaps it is because the track has discernable lyrics: “And she will bury me outside beneath the willow trees.” It’s a narrative window through which a listener can look and see her own emotional pain and sense of loss. But on other tracks, the lack of understandable lyrics forces listeners to become visitors of the false paradise Condon embodies. (When I asked Beirut’s management company for lyrics to his songs, they wouldn’t give them to me. Condon has mentioned in interviews that he is not a big fan of lyrics and has “a natural tendency” not to listen to them.)
Condon’s use of the term old world in interviews suggests something of this false vision, his fetishization of Balkan culture. In interviews it is easy to see what Condon envisions the “old world” and “old world” musicians to be like: In describing Emir Kustarica’s films, one of his few contacts with the culture, Condon told New York magazine, “And he always had this Balkan band running around drunk and crashing into things. I just loved it.” Describing his idealized Balkan musician in Paris he said in the same interview, “This one guy could play trumpet with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, and at night you could see little puffs coming out of the bell. There was another who played the euphonium and poured wine into it. He gurgled.” Like the implications of Alla Turca in 18th century Vienna, Condon’s fantasy of eastern European music and culture emerges as peopled with drunks and esoteric, seemingly savage, traditions.
Sound check was taking an exceptionally long time and Condon could barely talk. Natchez offered me the opportunity to sit with the band as they ate dinner and ask Condon my questions. It would give me a chance to speak with the other members of the band as well.
Speaking with Condon felt a little like talking to the mute son in Little Miss Sunshine (which seemed oddly fitting, considering the score for that movie was written by Devotchka). It was the end of his first long tour, and his voice was shot. He sat silently, occasionally prompting questions with a head nod and kind stare. It should not have been surprising to me that he felt confident conducting the interview in near silence with his band as backup. Having answered the same questions in countless interviews, his band was prepared to respond for him. He’s from New Mexico, he dropped out of high school and then community college, he went to Europe, he was inspired by Balkan music, Gulag Orkestar was recorded almost entirely in his room, he was not prepared for the success, he moved to Brooklyn, and so on. The information could have been ascertained from that day’s profiles in The Boston Globe or Boston Herald.
Though the album was a one-man show, the concerts require numerous members to recreate the sound. As I spoke to them it appeared that the purpose of the concerts was to attempt to recreate the album, with little extemporaneous playing or experimentation. Among the band members were Kristin Ferebee, Nick Petree, Perrin Cloutier, and Paul Collins -- not necessarily the kind of characters to populate a work by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. They sat and chatted with me while trying to figure out what different foods on the Middle Eastern menu were. It turns out that neither Condon nor any member of his band has ever been to the Balkans. While in Europe Condon spent most of his time in Paris and the farthest east he went was Prague. The band did travel to Moscow once for a concert and spent 48 hours there. He learned how to play Balkan brass music from Parisian college students that played pawnshop instruments. No expats, no traveling Roma band.
When asked if he saw a problem with never having been to the Balkans, he says, “That was kind of the point. It’s more a fantasy than reality and that helps me to be a lot more creative with the music. And the Serbians don’t seem to mind.” He cited an earlier concert where two kids from Serbia were in the audience. They sang along to a traditional song, and the band thought the Serbs knew the words from a bootleg, but were delighted to find out their reason for knowing the words and embraced their approval. But wasn’t listening to Beirut play a traditional song also a fantasy for the Serbs, albeit a different type; a fantasy about a homeland.
Since Condon has been quoted in the Village Voice as saying that his next album will draw more on Portuguese folk and Fado music, I asked for his definition of the elusive Portuguese word saudade. For Fado music to be considered authentic, the performer must display genuine saudade. A.F.G Bell, in On Portugal, translated it as "a vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or towards the future; not an active discontent or poignant sadness but an indolent dreaming wistfulness." For his definition, Condon wrote this down on a piece of paper during dinner: “A kind of warm nostalgia. I often think of it as exaggerated feeling of nostalgia. In my case, for something that never really happened.”
Despite the prolonged sound check, the show that night was marred by a burst of vocal microphone feedback that seemed to affect the band’s and Condon’s ability to focus on the rest of a song. Their most popular song, “Postcards From Italy,” was sped up to a pace that ruined the original beauty of the composition while adding nothing to the music. From the back row, the audience seemed apathetic. In the front few rows people were supposedly dancing and singing along to the music, but the vast majority in the crowd stood and starred intently. It seemed they were not attending a concert but watching a spectacle.
In the back two girls from Belgrade, Serbia, danced and waltzed along with the music in a stereotypical Balkan and Mediterranean fashion, with their arms up and wrists twisting to make circular hand gestures. I asked the more talkative of the girls what she thought of the music and why they were the only ones dancing. She said, “I’m just happy and dancing because I’m drunk. If you really want dancing, you should go to a Gogol Bordello show.” Beirut, in her opinion, was too funereal.
The next day I had a follow-up phone interview with Condon where we could further discuss his music. Learning Balkan music from the French fans as opposed to people with a cultural connection made no difference to him: “The real Balkan bands are all released on French labels. They’re very serious about world music.” Learning to actually play Balkan music was something he neither desired nor thought affected his music, since he was playing a slowed-down simplified version. In a Pitchfork interview, he said he achieved his exotic effects by using “smoke and mirrors. You shake the trumpet and it starts to vibrate in a ridiculous drunken way, or you flop notes at the right time and you don't have to play stuff that would take seven years to learn.” I asked him about that, and he replied, “Real Balkan musicians play with complex rhythms and can do so with great speed,” explaining that he just needed to imitate the aesthetic. Condon embraces amateurism, as if trying to carve out a position as an outsider artist. “When you’re new at an instrument everything on it sounds so new and amazing. So much room to fuck around with it. So you have no constraints of training.” In fact his whole aura, whether self-consciously or produced through PR, is that of an outsider artist, which became clearer as I spoke to him.
When I mentioned his previous dismissive comments about other Balkan influenced bands -- he called Devotchka “a novelty” and “a bit touristy” -- Condon clarified that he thought the music was “not coming from the right place. They’re losing their own voice by trying so hard to push toward a sound and losing anything their own in the process. It sounds like a displaced person. Out of place.”
Does he consider himself a tourist? Condon says, “ I wasn’t seeking out something. I didn’t put that much thought into pushing into one direction. I happened to be listening to that kind of music but wasn’t forcing it.” He sees no danger in playing music from a culture with which he has no direct connection: He finds it "ironic" that anyone would see danger in appropriating music from another culture because "Balkan music is really new anyway. When a Serbian group plays American music like rap they’re not criticized. Music is not a cultural statement. Music transcends the culture.”
It would be easy to regard the remark that “Music is not a cultural statement” as a terse and possibly unconsidered response from a tired, ill, 20-year-old, not the ultimate expression of the postmodern condition. But it seems to get at the root of the whole Beirut phenomenon. When information is as close as your computer, when everything is so easily accessible, downloadable, tradable, and with proper manipulation imitable, things can lose value -- or rather everything begins to seem to have the same value. Condon seems to not understand or care that the music he borrows is typically played at weddings because they serve as a rite of passage of great cultural significance. He allows us to consume that music and the “old-world” rituals associated with it as pop, if not kitsch. So Condon’s view about culture is not an aberration or an accident. His popularity, amassed in a blog culture filled with people eager to “discover him” and post photographs and commentary on his shows is no surprise. This is a generation that recognizes no greater achievement than the consumption of culture, and in Beirut it has an icon.
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Stu Sherman is a writer, artist, and health-policy analyst based in the Boston area. He would like to thank Elisabeth Donnelly for her invaluable help on this essay. Stu will be exhibiting photographic work of his from Kosovo at Sherman's Cafe in Somerville, Massachusetts, until the end of November 2006.