Various Artists: The Rough Guide to the Music of the Balkans
Let me just start humbly by saying that this is one of the best album releases of the year, the decade, the century, the millennium. More on this later.
Music compilations of any kind are often hit or miss. The best cull the crème of the crème from a particular musician's body of work or a genre's vast and/or hidden trappings (e.g., Rhino, Blue Note), while the worst simply repackage ubiquitously tired hits (e.g., Time/Life, K-Tel) that eventually find their way to the $3.99 rack at your local gas station. The former serve to shed light, educate, induce ineffable happiness; the latter only serve as waste, the fading last breath of (if they were lucky enough) a one hit wonder.
The Rough Guide to Music releases consistently fall into the first category. Always nicely packaged and moderately informative, these samplers promise their listeners a solid introduction to a particular artist's, genre's, or country's musical wealth. Previous outstanding examples are many. For individual artists, try the early works of Youssou N'Dour's Etoile de Dakar, or the Congo's Franco; for a particular genres, Highlife or Klezmer; and for countries, Senegal and Gambia. Furthermore, Rough Guide compilations provide an affordable alternative for those who can't afford to wildly plop down $25 a pop on unfamiliar imports or, at least, allow you to figure out which specific import to later dedicate that hard (or hardly)-earned cash.
And if you don't have the cash to buy the recently released The Rough Guide to the Music of the Balkans, then I urge you to beg, borrow, or borrow borrow it. I promise you the ensuing trouble will be well worth it once you hit play and hear Gypsy Serbian Saban Bajramovic's deep croon fill your head. Or the Croatian speed polka of Cinkusi. Or the thick, overpowering wail of Macedonian Esma Redsepova. The point is that every track will instill wonder and only whet your appetite to do your own Balkan traveling, be it jumping on a plane, visiting amazon.com or digging through the crates.
Now if you are already an expert on music from the entire Balkan region (and I applaud if you are, as the countries/provinces included here encompass Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, Romania, Moldova, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Albania, Turkey, Greece), most likely this compilation is not for you. If this is you, please stop reading and instead email me a list of who else I should check out. However, if you, like me, are far from that badass Balkanian standard, you couldn't ask for a better gift. Each of the 15 tracks is worthy of an article unto itself (if not a book), and it must be noted that everyone included in this compilation is recognized as a major heavyweight back home.
We all know too well the recent horrors that took place throughout the Balkan region during the last decade. Hence, the subtitle of this album could be, "music for healing". The real subtitle, "brass, fiddle & accordion: defying boundaries", is quite apt, though "some of the best music ever made" would also work. With such diverse ethnic heritage and cross-fertilization, boundaries (and borders) have literally been defied, and thus categorizing the music proves difficult, particularly to this lay ear. However, it's safe to say that brass, fiddle and accordion are the dominant instruments, though woodwinds and percussion are not far behind. All of these point to a common root: folk music. Though the roots are folk, you will also hear elements of jazz, klezmer, rai, marching band, blues, punk, funk. Furthermore, many of the bands included are made up of several ethnic groups. Croats play with Serbs, Turks with Albanians, Bulgarians with Rom. And perhaps the most dominant ethnic group represented, regardless of country, is the Gypsy. This shouldn't be a surprise as Gypsies have been tragically forced to migrate throughout Europe and Asia over the course of many, many years. They have brought their music with them, altering the musical landscape wherever they have gone.
One popular musical lineup is the Gypsy brass band. Gypsy brass bands can be found throughout the Balkans and all the way into India, and can be traced back two hundred years to Turkish military bands when the Ottomans were still ensconced in the catbird seat. These brass bands often are hired to play weddings and other parties, and they mean to make you move. Moreover, they are known to be highly competitive, with "Brassapaloozas" attracting hundreds of thousands at a time. One acknowledged king of these duels is trumpeter and bandleader Boban Markovic and his Orkestar. After conquering his competitors for a fifth time in national competition, he stepped down in order to "give some new bands a chance", sort of like how DJ Qbert did for turntabilists in the DMC championships. After hearing "Disko -- Dzummbus", it's easy to understand why. The ten-piece Orkestar sounds like a cross between the USC Trojan marching band, the Skatalites, and the Art Ensemble of Chicago at its funkiest. Markovic's rich trumpet weaves and floats the melodies throughout, while the thick syncopation of the flugel and bass horns bring the bottom. It's dance music, and it's infectious. Not to be outdone, Macedonian Gypsy brass band Maleshevsk Melos (several time Macedonia brass band champ themselves) throws down a heavy groove on "Nesatova Sa-Sa". It should be noted that saxophones, though technically woodwinds, are often included in these brass bands, and it is the work of the saxophones that provide the intricate solos in this particular Melos cut, which gallops, then lurches, then gallops via complex counterpoint and stabbing brass.
The human voice is also front and center in Balkan music. Perhaps the most intensely moving song is performed by Gonda Manakovska, a Kosovar who recorded "Karafili Edhe Zamaki" in Pristina just before the Serbian ethnic-cleansing assault in the late 1990s. She possesses an incredibly ethereal, sad voice, which lilts and laments like early Billie Holiday at her best. Women give other outstanding vocal performances on this compilation. Ayde Mori, composed of members from Albania and Turkey, is a quartet which features mandolin, accordion, clarinet, percussion. Their song, "Jarnana", illustrates the superb singing of Brenna MacCrimmon, who somehow combines the drone of bagpipe and oboe into her own pipes, the result being so much layer of rich sound I kept inspecting the liner notes for hidden musicians. What are hidden from the liner notes though, and is thus my only complaint, are the dates that these songs were originally issued.
I know I love music when I can't get over how a particular sound, a note, a harmony has come to be. Much of the music on this compilation makes me wonder, "how did they just do that?" Critics can say what they want about music compilations that offer to guide you somewhere. For better or worse, listening to music is always a journey. And at just under an hour, if this journey doesn't make you wish you were already from the Balkans, it will certainly leave you pining for them. It also just might make you call your travel agent.