Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers

World music never really goes away, but every few years a band comes along that sparks and interest in exotic foreign sounds for a new audience. In the 1980s in was the Pogues. Then the Gypsy Kings gave the world Bamboleo and David Byrne went all ‘O, Samba’ on us. The success of the film Slumdog Millionaire has even brought Bollywood music to mainstream radio. One of my favourites groups was Les Negresses Vertes, who were a French Gypsy outfit that looked – for a brief moment in the early ‘90s – like they were going to conquer the world. They didn’t.

Les Negresses Vertes run came to a sudden end when lead singer, Helno Rota OD’d and that put paid to to that. Les Negresses Vertes continued, but moved away from being wild Gypsy outfit, to more of a lounge, electronica sounding act. Apparently their albums weren’t bad, but they weren’t my cup of tea at the time.

The current kings of world music are Gogol Bordelo with their wild frontman Eugene Hutz. They have being going from strength to strength in recent years, and last years album Transcontinental Shuffle (IMHO) was one of the best albums of 2010. Golgol Bordello’s success has once again shone a light on Gypsy music, and this compilation Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers taps into that interest.

At the risk of seeming flippant, Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers may be one of the best ‘Bitches Come!’ albums of all time. My terminology there, may have offended some female readers, but please bear with me as I explain. ‘Bitches Come!’ is something I have borrowed from the film xXx, but it applies to quite a lot of films over the past few years. In recent B-grade movies have you noticed the rise of the Russian Mafia as villains of the piece. And in these films, usually starring Steven Seagal or Jean-Claude Van Damme, these Mafia villains have their headquarters based in a nightclub or a strip club. After a tense negotiation scene, where the villain proves how tough and intimidating he is, there is the ‘Bitches Come!’ scene, where a bevy of beautiful, and scantily clad women enter the room, and pounding techno Balkan music starts up. Depravity, including large amounts of cocaine and vodka, ensues. So this album is a ‘Bitches Come!’ album. It’s the music that plays when the girls enter the room. And if you happen to be a member of the Russian mafia, this may very well be your album. It may be the type of music you want playing when a girl is snorting a line of cocaine off your chest (especially the remixes at the end of the album).

Now when you hear the first few tracks, you’re going to think I steered you wrong. The album opens with Bucovina – by Shantel, which on first listen, is going to underwhelm the listener with some clinically over produced brass and accordion. Sounds that suggest the song and the group should belong in some rural park festival celebrating the glory of the potato, rather than in some drug fueled dance venue – and you’d be right. This first track is very traditional, with some fine musicianship – but it does sound sterile rather than fiery. This album starts off in a very traditional manner, and then moves through to more modern beats. The second number, Mahalageasca (Bucovina Dub) – by Mahala Raï Banda – kicks up the pace a little but still has an air of rural life, but possibly fused with one of those 80s pop groups, like Yello.

The third track, Bulgarian Chicks – by Balkan Beat Box moves towards a more dance orientated sound, but still with a hint of brass underscoring the beat, which gives the number a rustic-trad sound, but by this time, after a few beverages (and vodka would be the appropriate accompaniment), you’ll find that your feet are beginning to shuffle across the floor – and towards that girl (or that boy – far from it from me to be hetero-sexist), that;s standing beside the pillar near the bar and is beginning to look rather cute.

Balkan Hot Step – by N.O.H.A. is a fusion of techno beats, riding over the top of more traditional sounds (however with a rather annoying electronic chipmunk vocal) – but for the dance enthusiasts, we are really cooking now.

Then comes the James Bond Theme by Fanfare Ciocărlia. And of course, I am going to say I love it. But it is a throwback to the more traditional sound, killing the groove that the album was building. The guitar sound, that is so integral to the Bond sound is replaced by brass (and I don’t mind it), but I must admit I have heard version of the Bond theme like this before, performed by bands such as The Skatalites – and if you’ll forgive my hyperbole laden appraisal – The Skatalites (in all their diverse combinations) are simply one of the best musical ensembles of all time, so drifting into their arena of play, in my eyes is fraught with danger.

But heading to warmer climes, is where the album seems to be taking us, because the next number, Usti Usti Baba (Altiplano Mix) – by Kocani Orkestar Vs Senor Coconut has a definite reggae feel – brassy rather than that hard – deadened guitar sound – but reggae none the less. It’s a pretty breezy little number.

Spoitoresa by Mahala Raï Banda kicks the tempo up again, melding some Latin rhythms and adding some strategic violin to the proceedings. The album stays South of the border (or Andalusian) for Hora Andalusia by Fanfare Ciocărlia which sounds like a parade of stamping horses.

Since the album is clearly so inspired by Gogol Bordello, it is right that they should get a workout on the album, and their track is Start Wearing Purple – a track that first appeared on Voi-La Intruder, but this is the more confident version lifted off Gypsy Punks – Underdog World Strike.

Mi Bori Sa Korani by Kocani Orkestar seems to be inspired by Bollywood (admittedly Bollywood infected with Mariachi brass). Dostlar Bizim Halaya (Come To Dance) by Buzuki Orhan Osman feat. King Naat Veliov & Original Korcani Orkestar is more of a pounding drum driven celebration.

The last four tracks are remixes of some of the numbers which have come before – dub versions and brass, bass and booty mixes, and these will probably more appeal to groovemeisters.

While I enjoyed this album – I am always a sucker for traditional instruments being thrashed to within an inch of their life – I felt this compilation tried too hard to place Gypsy and Balkan music into a broader global context. As my song descriptions would have suggested, there are passages where Balkan goes Ska and Reggae, and then to South America. And while pure and undiluted regionality in music may be a thing of the past with globalisation, I think a selection of Balkan bangers that just ‘Banged’ rather than showed me how diverse Balkan music can be, would have been a far more enjoyable musical trip.

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Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers