Michael Buckner | Frazer Harrison, Getty Images Now this is a collaboration that…
- Posted on Oct 20th 2009 2:30PM by Steve Hochman
It seems that everywhere you turn these days, you can find the folks who probably got a lot of grief for their stints in their high school bands -- marching and otherwise -- wielding their horns and drums and even accordions with great pride. Brass bands and various derivatives might just be the hippest things going.
Well, brass bands have always been hip in the Balkans and in New Orleans, so it's no surprise that it's sounds from those contrasting climes, with maybe some Mexican street music as well, that have provided templates for a bunch of the young American acts in the new brass class. Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Slavic Soul Party's new album, 'Taketron,' is dominated by Balkan influences but takes a side trip into a funky piece by New Orleans' great Rebirth Brass Band. Portland, Ore.'s MarchFourth Marching Band -- they even use "marching band" in the name! -- flips the formula, its 'Rise Up' album drawing mostly on Crescent City funk with a few nods to the jittery Balkan rhythms along the way. Then there's New York band Red Baraat, whose new 'Chaal Baby' does a sort of Balkan-Bayou-bebop-bhangra with its Rajasthani roots. And let's not forget such recent brass-ieres as Gogol Bordello, DeVotchka, Beirut and alt-rock darlings the Arcade Fire, who are nothing if not a marching band at heart.
But they all must stand aside as another parade comes through: Trumpeter Boban Markovic, the true giant of Balkan brass music, has a new album, too. With son Marko having been the co-leader of the band for a few albums now, the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestra's 'Devla' continues in a long line of standard-setting for the Serbian clan, as you can hear in the title song:
Boban i Marko Markovic, 'Devla'
"'Devla' means 'Oh, my God,' here taken positively, as one can see where Marko -- just a very talented kid a few years ago --now takes our music," Boban says in an e-mail interview translated by his manager. "But also it is as a call to make our lives brighter and happier."
And he adds, ruefully, "The modern world is sometimes very difficult for everyone."
Perhaps there's some irony that the same modern world that has allowed this music to find fans all over can make like tough in the land of its origin. It's sort of a theme running through Serbia and the other former Yugoslavian countries -- not just in the sectarian and ethnic conflicts that devastated the region not long ago and have left it with tentative hope amid poverty and uncertainty, but arguably through centuries of being a cultural and military crossroads.
But on a purely musical front, 'Devla' celebrates the richness of the history -- and the modernity.
"Our hometown is Vladicin Han, 350 kilometers south from Belgrade, the region where is the heart and soul of gypsy brass bands," Boban Markovic says proudly. "This is the dominating music there, hundreds of bands are living there. But in the modern society, you are introduced with different musics every day."
On the tradition side, Boban and Marko took the opportunity to give the spotlight to some key figures in their own history, bringing in several singers of local and regional renown -- of not quite the global fame they're reached.
"Ljubisa Stojanovic was our collaborator on the album 'Go Marko Go' and we became friends," Boban says. "Rade Krstic is one the most prominent folk music composers for many years. He helped me at the beginning of my career, and he mostly retired from music world over the last few years. But I felt he has more things to say, so I pushed him back to do some songs, but then in the studio I asked him to sing, as he has not done it for almost 20 years. Hopefully, this will bring him back to composing of nice tunes. Sofi Marinova is surely the best known Bulgarian singer, but this happened as an accident. When we performed in Sofia, she came to greet us, we invited her onstage and we hear that we match well, and the idea was there. I am really happy to have her on record. Mustafa Sabanovic is legend among Gypsies in Serbia but absolutely unknown elsewhere, so let people hear more pearls from Gypsies."
(In an interesting side note, Stojanovic is sometimes known as Louis, as a nod to his great love for the music of Louis Armstrong. So there is a kinship between New Orleans and Balkans brass music, even if the respective rhythms sometimes seem to be at odds with each other. "Satchmo was also influencing us -- more Marko than myself as I came to his music late," says Boban, noting that Miles Davis also provided a lot of inspiration.)
At the same time, the album is a culmination of the increasing leadership role Marko has taken as he's grown from teen phenom to accomplished adult.
"Marko is adding new things in our music all the time," Boban says. "These are all his ideas, and he's done it in concerts for years. It works well and now it's on CD. And more surprises are yet to come."
The song 'Kazi Baba' gives a few new twists with some almost hip-hop spoken-word delivery that modernizes alongside the very traditional manic brass.
Boban i Marko Markovic, 'Kazi Baba'
It's one thing for Balkan music to incorporate various sounds from cultures both near (as it has for centuries) and far. It's quite another for music elsewhere to incorporate Balkan sounds. Boban is thrilled to hear that happening, and he offers some pretty simple advice for the Americans and Europeans latching on to those sounds:
"Do listen, open your ears, practice a lot and be modest," he says.
Matt Moran, who founded and leads Slavic Soul Party while beating boisterously on a big bass drum, has all those covered. Especially the modesty -- in part thanks to friendships formed with the Markovic crew and other musicians on trips to Serbia.
When Slavic Soul Party were invited to participate in the Sabor Trubaca festival in Surdulica -- one of the regional competitions leading up to the annual national Sabor Trubaca battle of the brass bands in the town of Guca -- Moran asked tuba player Cerim of the band Vranjanski Biseri ("Pearls of Vranja") for an evaluation.
"I said, 'Honestly, what do you think?' Moran says. "And he said, 'Matt, you play very excellent. But it's very different style to us.'"
But then, Moran stresses that SSP aren't trying the pretty much impossible task of playing "authentic" music from that region.
"People who really know Balkan music know we don't play straight-up Balkan music -- and that's a struggle for the band," he says, concerned about persistent misconceptions. "People in the US think, 'Oh, they're trying to be Balkan!' I think 'Taketron' will clear up that misunderstanding."
At a recent show in Los Angeles club the Echo, whatever people were thinking about SSP's music, they were dancing. This was a crowd largely made up of young people in a neighborhood long known for jaded detachment and artistic irony, elements that would find this music a hostile environment. And that, says Moran, is the whole point.
"There's just a direct, joyful energy that people really connect to," he says. "We're so used to all the layers of self-awareness and filtering of music in America all of the time that people have been getting tired of getting music that has got so much corporate control or has to go through a guitar amp -- all these ways for music to be less direct. And Balkan brass music is really direct. Fundamentally, brass band music is a little subversive or independent. Like trying to live off the grid or grow your own vegetables. The ability to not need a stage or a p.a., to move in the street and do anything really appeals to a lot of us in America now. That unmitigated authenticity is a big reason why a lot of indie rock fans and younger kids are getting into it."
Illustrating that point, SSP closed their Echo set off the stage, with no amplification, mingling with the audience as they played a couple of boisterous, hip-shaking tunes. (As did the also brass-heavy opening act Killsonic, taking the concept to extremes both in lineup -- as many as nine horns, six accordionists and five or six percussionists -- and music leaning at times toward the exhilarating Albert Ayler/Arthur Blythe free jazz end of marching band street music.)
(In another side note, Moran further blurs the Balkan/New Orleans border by every Mardi Gras heading to the Crescent City to sit -- er, march -- with the Panorama Brass Band, an alternate version of the Panorama Jazz Band, an ensemble that in its regular incarnation gleefully mixes traditional jazz with Balkan tunes, not to mention a few Caribbean dance numbers along the way.)
Andy Sterling, leader and percussionist of MarchFourth, has a similar take on the current brass band explosion. He sees it as a reaction to the DJ culture, which moved the audience away from the actual performers -- though he traces the distancing all the way back to the advent of modern jazz.
"It started when jazz moved to bebop, that long ago," he says. "Before then, it was dance music, connection between bands and dancers. Then bebop became more about the performers, solos, more separation with the audience. Then rock came along and culminated with the big shows and performers way up on stage. DJs were the next progression: one guy who knows everything playing records. Still a connection to dancers."
And, he agrees with Moran, more reliant on technology.
"The other side is a backlash from where music has gone into the depth of electronic creation," he says. "Couldn't get any more acoustic than a brass band and drum. Blowing through things and whacking things are the roots of music."
Won't get any argument from Boban Markovic to all this.
"This is music played with great energy and passion, and people recognize it everywhere," he says. "Plus people can dance to the music and leave after the show ecstatic. In the modern world, this is very important."
Band geeks rule.