If you fancy yourself taking the road less traveled, the Gypsies have you beat by thousands of years. Putumayo's Gypsy Groove showcases the influence their music is having on the current European dance scene.
OK, there's no avoiding Putumayo CDs. They're usually prominently displayed in your favorite coffee shop, book supplier, or jewelry store that imports ritualistic beads used during tribal coming of age ceremonies in Africa. Hardcore world music enthusiasts may be put off by the compilations' colorful and cartoon-like illustrated covers, but the fact of the matter is that the people at Putumayo know how to put a CD together. They're usually succinct, and this one is no exception. Gypsy Groove is the newest addition to the label's Groove series.
The description on the back of this one is "Balkan Beats and gypsy jams from the dance floors of Eastern Europe"! Now, I know that you may be unimpressed. Eastern Europe isn't exactly known outside of the region for its club scene. Besides, the accompanying music is in the vein of what has been the trend in world music for some time now: mixing "old world" music with modern electronica. In this case, that would mean heaps of guitar, accordion, and violin over breakbeats and the like, right? Well, not quite.
The Gypsies, or Roma (as they call themselves), left northwestern India (Rajasthan) thousands of years ago and began leaving their imprint on musical traditions wherever they went, including the Middle East and Europe. Think flamenco, Jewish klezmer, etcetera. Presently, most Roma are found in Eastern Europe. Despite their historical persecution, which continues today, they are known as world-class musicians for their virtuosity and their ability to learn whatever music they encountered. Putumayo is on to something here, because the 11 musicians here are doing something similar, albeit with a modern twist.
There's German DJ and producer Shantel's instrumental "Bucovina", where lively brass melds with accordion, invoking images of spontaneous group dancing and general merrymaking. According to the album's informational booklet, his grandmother is from the Bucovina region that lies between Romania and Ukraine. Yet, surprisingly, for this song, Shantel drew his inspiration from a popular calypso tune.
New York's Balkan Beat Box's instrumental "Sunday Arak", from their 2005 eponymous debut, snakes and weaves with trippy dub effects and a swaggering, hip-hop sensibility. You don't have to be Israeli, like group members Ori Kaplan and Tamir Muskat, in order to engage in some serious head bobbing. Dub and other reggae influences turn up in a few other songs, including Anselmo Crew's "Süt Ictim Dilim Yandi", in which the ethereal lead singer trades lines with her male counterparts while an organ bubbles in the background. The overall hypnotic effect is appropriate because it is a spurned lover's plea that includes the lyrics: "Don’t turn me away / Girl, I admire you / Girl, I am a victim of your love / You don’t want to kill me".
Karen Gafurdjanov, an Uzbekistani pop star, is featured here with "Yor Uzga", a track that must have been composed in the middle of a dance floor. It starts off sounding like a typical club tune with repetitive chanting (hey! hey!) until the rubob (a lute) and other instruments add a touch of tradition to the raucous vibe.
I was expecting to hear something by Barcelona collective Ojos de Brujo, as they have steadily gained fans worldwide with their intoxicating blend of flamenco, hip-hop, bhangra, and much more, but they've been left out since this is mostly a showcase for Eastern European dance music, with a few exceptions.
With music as old and varied as that of the Roma, there are bound to be purists who will huff and puff over what they see as the dilution of tradition. But there is another way to look at this phenomenon. What Gotan Project did for tango, these musicians can do for Romani music. This dance music can serve as a stepping stone or a starting point for people to work backwards from, thereby discovering the origins and Romani masters of tradition. Meanwhile, there's nothing wrong with boogying down to this electrified mash-up.
According to the label's website, Putumayo makes it its business to introduce people to the music of the world's cultures. So, just dance and enjoy. It'll whet your appetite and possibly lead you to more traditional music, if you're willing to do some digging.