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Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Arts & Letters

Rough Music

The Rough Guide to the Balkans, various artists, World Music Network, RGNET CD 1127, $14.98.

If you’ve traveled in the last few years, there’s a good chance that you’ve at least thumbed through a Rough Guide. This very successful travel series prides itself on smart, in-depth coverage of its subjects, so it’s probably no surprise that the folks behind it have taken advantage of its popularity to extend the brand. For one thing, they’ve created a series of reference books outside their regular sphere of guidebooks, language books, and maps. These spinoffs cover an enormous range, with titles in fields from pregnancy and birth to James Bond.

One of the company’s most successful new ventures, however, has been its entry into music. This includes a good series of books, with titles ranging from techno and blues to manuals for budding flutists and guitarists, and an ongoing, and very interesting, partnership with a British label called World Music Network. Capitalizing on the power of the Rough Guide name, the two companies have produced what must amount at this point to about 100 titles that span the globe, from surveys of Appalachian folk music to Zimbabwean pop.

All of these albums are compilations of licensed music, meaning that no new recordings have been made for this series; rather, they have been culled from existing albums. Compilations like this can be a tricky thing to do well: you’re relying on the knowledge and enthusiasm of the compiler, for one thing. In the end, the discs are only as good as the tracks that can be gotten hold of. So it’s no surprise to find that some of these Rough Guide discs are better than others.

One of the series’ most recent and stronger entries is The Rough Guide to the Music of the Balkans, which carries the slightly zippier subtitle of “Brass, Fiddle and Accordion: Defying Boundaries.” Compiler and annotator Dan Rosenberg has created an entertaining sampler that roams all over the peninsula, from Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, to Kosovo, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Considering how many traditions and countries are packed into this disc (which is less than an hour long), it should come as no surprise that this is by no means a comprehensive, in-depth survey of regional styles. Instead, it is more a platter of meze: an appetizing assortment of little treats to whet the appetite, not sate it. The chances of finding something that you really want to dig into down the road, however, are quite good; this disc captures many of the region’s top musicians in fun performances that are accessible to even the most casual listener.

Although Rosenberg is careful to point out the ethnic and national origins of all the artists included here, listeners familiar with the Balkan’s cultural history will be quick to recognize that many of these musical styles have existed literally side by side across the region for centuries. On this collection, the listener can hear both many of the parallels among regional styles and the way that traditions diverge from each other. At the same time, there are unmistakable overlaps in style and structure that persist despite the splintering of Balkan peoples into various ethnic, religious, and linguistic categories. And so the album’s juxtaposition of all these ideas — and musical similarities and differences — creates something of an artistic dialogue between musicians. Not that this album should be taken so pedantically. When Rosenberg adds songs with distinctly “foreign” elements to the mix — whether a Romanian take on tango or a Serbian brass band playing a tune that’s been polished with a glossy disco sheen — concerns about “authenticity” and “tradition” go out the window. This album is a big Balkan dance party, and everyone’s invited.

It isn’t a surprise to find that many of the artists on this compilation are Rom; indeed, the very first selection we hear, “Djeli mara,” features one of Serbia’s best-known singers, Saban Bajramovic, with the celebrated band Mostar Sevdah Reunion (from Bosnia and Herzegovina). What may be startling is how self-referential this track is; it’s very reminiscent of the hot 1930s and 1940s jazz manouche, or “Gypsy jazz,” of Rom (and jazz) guitar legend, Django Reinhardt. That same buoyancy floats the other Mostar Sevdah Reunion track here, “U lijepom starom gradu visegradu,” in a neat counterpoint to the song’s dark lyrics describing a man lying on his deathbed. (Unfortunately, the songs’ texts are neither transcribed nor translated in the liner notes, so unless you know the language at hand, you’re dependent upon Rosenberg’s ultra-brief synopses.)

Other instrumental traditions are represented as well, such as on Toni Iordache’s “Hora de la bolintin,” a prime example of Iordache’s dazzling mastery of the cimbalom, the hammered dulcimer. And the Croatian Marusic Is Trio led by Dario provides an amazing track called “Taranjkanje,” in which shawms from the group’s home region of Istria, in northern Croatia, bob and weave in a hypnotic, otherworldly tune.

The great Balkan tradition of incredible brass-band playing is on display here, too. There’s the Romanian ensemble, Maleshevski Melos, performing “Nesatova sa-sa” with fantastically big, booming rolls of percussion and impossibly precise trills flying off the top of the saxophones and trumpets. We also see how those instrumental bands interweave newer styles into their repertory. Fanfare Ciocarlia (also from Romania) plays a rollicking “Asfalt Tango” clearly indebted to sultry Argentine music, but even more surprising is the Serbian band, Boban Markovic Orkestar, whose “Disko dzummbus” demonstrates a deep and abiding love of ska’s one-drop beat as well as disco-flavored cadences. And then there’s Bulgarian saxophonist Yuri Yunakov’s vaguely funky “Belmont,” a tribute to his new neighborhood in the Bronx.

On the truly fusion front, there’s “Pet je kumi” from Cinkusi, a group that’s been dubbed the Croatian Pogues; there’s a drive in the rhythm and a hearty raucousness to the vocals that reaches out to punk. Greek vocalist Kristi Stassinopoulou, working with multi-instrumentalist Stathis Kaliviotis, offers up an Epirot folk tune, “Trigona,” set to a moody, ambient soundtrack: a combination that Rosenberg dubs “Balkan ethnotrance.”

Several selections on The Rough Guide to Balkan Music explore the range of vocal styles and techniques found across the region. The Macedonian singer Esma Redzepova shows off the weeping, sobbing style of singing that has made her so famous. (Here, she sings one of her signature songs, “Chaje shukarije,” a tune that she’s recorded countless times already.) An elegant singer far less well known in the West, Gonda Manakovska, performs “Karafili edhe zamaki” in a track whose relatively poor audio quality makes it seem as if it were recorded in the 1960s, although it was actually recorded in Pristina in the 1990s. (Other than this one exception, the sonic quality of this disc is consistently high.) Group singing, which is such a staple across the Balkans, is sampled on three tracks: “Jarnana,” a jaunty Albanian folk song performed by the Turkish group, Ayde Mori; a medley of three love songs from Pirin, sung by Angelite, one of the best-known of Bulgaria’s female vocal troupes; and “Do mare ciften,” a polyphonic folk song from Permet in southern Albania, performed by Ensemble Tirana. The last selection’s droning undercurrent suggests a thread of continuity, both historical and geographical, between Byzantine hymnody and the region’s secular music.

In the end, what is most striking about this compilation — besides some terrific performances — is the sheer variety of the Balkan musical mosaic. Ultimately, the complexity of Balkan music mirrors the region’s densely woven ethnic and cultural fabric that, despite an often brutal political reality, is one of the richest and most rewarding anywhere. The Rough Guide melodies reach back in time, look forward, and extend both eastward and westward; sometimes, all of those things occur nearly simultaneously in a single three-minute track. The artists skillfully blend seemingly disparate styles in very sophisticated ways. All the musicians represented here live in an era in which recorded and live music from across the twentieth century and throughout the globe is far more accessible than ever, especially since most of these artists are far from secluded; many of them perform quite regularly in North America, across Europe, and in the Far East. Some, like Yuri Yunakov, even make their homes abroad.

At the same time, it’s very much worth remembering the kind of hybridization so much in evidence here is by no means a strictly modern phenomenon, although the speed and ease of stylistic transmission may be. As Charles and Angeliki Vellou Keil point out in their wonderful book, Bright Balkan Morning (see “Morning in the Mahala,”, May 15), the “traditional” music of many of these communities has always been something of a fusion. In many places, Rom musicians have played for all of the respective area’s peoples. As Rosenberg himself says in his introductory notes, “A wide variety of ethnic groups…have lived there [in the Balkan nations] side by side in diverse neighborhoods for centuries, enjoying each other’s music, food, and culture.” The commonality of Ottoman occupation, too, has played a cultural role in threading together regional traditions: for example, the enduringly popular brass bands are a legacy of the Turkish janissary bands of the late Ottoman era (which proved so widely influential that even three great Viennese-school composers — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven — all wrote works inspired by these military bands). Rather than trying misguidedly to deem what music ultimately “belongs” to whom (which many producers and musicologists, not to mention nationalists of various stripes, often seem eager to do), The Rough Guide to Balkan Music embraces these cultural complexities. And that kind of joyous celebration is in itself worth cheering.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a columnist for Billboard and also writes about music for publications such as the San Francisco Chronicle, Gramophone, and Jazz Times. She can be heard regularly on NPR’s Weekend America and WNYC’s Soundcheck. More of her work is available at
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