Gas, Grass Or Balkan Brass
The best dancers in the house when the Boban i Marko Markovic Orkestar played Lincoln Center’s Midsummer Night Swing series in Manhattan this summer were a handsome couple, probably in their 60s, who whirled and dipped with the intuitive ease of longtime lovers immersed in their favorite music. I stood nearby and imagined them reveling in the sound of their Serbian homeland, lost in an ecstatic sea of nostalgia as they danced away the decades to the funky drums and exhilarating horns of Serbia’s finest brass band.
During the set break, however, the dapper male dancer turned to me and observed, in an unmistakable Long Island accent, “That’s a klezmer band! All that’s missing is a clarinet.”
It wasn’t until after the show that I recalled the Boban Markovic Orkestar blowing the dust of the Jewish wedding classic “Hava Nagila” early into Live in Belgrade, the perfect place to become acquainted with the majestic sounds of the raucous and competitive world of Gypsy-Serbian brass. Recorded in 2002, Live in Belgrade captures Boban’s mighty trumpet at the peak of his fame amid drinkers and dancers, rewarding them with balls-out riffs and sophisticated soloing. After having won the coveted Golden Trumpet award five times at the annual Guca festival, the Bonnaroo of Balkan brass, where hundreds of musicians compete in front of some quarter-million rabid fans of literal heavy-metal music, Boban removed himself from competition the following year.
No matter where their music comes from, Boban told writer Garth Cartwright in Princes Amongst Men: Journeys With Gypsy Musicians, they play it with sevdah, a Turkish expression suggesting wild, ecstatic passion. “Nobody knows who’s stealing from whom,” Boban admits when asked to explain how he came to play the famous Macedonian tune “Ederlezi.” To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Balkan brass bands evolved from large Ottoman army ensembles that splintered into smaller orkestars around 1839. No longer sponsored by the military, the orkestars earned a living performing at weddings, funerals, circumcision ceremonies and religious picnics. Many fine Gypsy musicians seized the opportunity to jump onto this festive professional bandwagon, which specialized in variations on cocek, a dance music often blasted in a 9/8 time signature.
“It’s all about the sound of the trumpets,” horn player Ekrem Sajdic told Cartwright. “It’s honest, sad and deep. It’s everything we have.” And it all comes out in “Moltiva,” Ekrem’s smoldering track on the excellent Princes Amongst Men companion CD, which includes great Gypsy music from across Eastern Europe. If seriously deep party music is your thing, look no further.
At Lincoln Center, Boban led a 10-piece group consisting of four flugelhorns, three larger tenor horns, tuba, snare drum and a goc, or bass drum. Missing in action was trumpeter Marko Markovic, Boban’s son and designated musical heir. Marko began performing with his father’s band in 2002 at age 14, and has subsequently been featured on the sizzling Boban i Marko in 2003 and The Promise in 2005. Indisposed due to illness, Marko missed a wedding party in his honor later that evening thrown by local Balkan brass aficionado — and Klezmatics trumpeter — Frank London and his Brotherhood of Brass. The “Lawn Guylander” was right, of course; hundreds of years ago, klezmer and Roma musicians were fellow travelers near the bottom of the East European social ladder.
Boban still brought the noise, though. The orkestar began one tune with the James Bond theme, perhaps in homage to Romanian brass giants Fanfare Ciocarlia, who kick off their terrific album Gili Garabdi the same way. Turkish and Arabic music also contribute to Boban’s highly ornamented Gypsy style, while more purely Serbian brass bands tend to swing less. And like all Balkan brass bands, Boban’s orkestar is more about the group’s overall sound rather than the sum of its soloists.
The Markovic Orkestar sound like hard rockers compared to the even more ornamental breakneck riffage of Fanfare Ciocarlia. Plenty of other Balkan-influenced ensembles are also well worth hearing. Bucharest’s Mahala Rai Banda and Macedonia’s Kocani Orkestar are favorites of DJs and samplers, as demonstrated by Electric Gypsyland and the superior Electric Gypsyland 2, which whip the Gypsies and such unlikely Western suspects as Animal Collective, Cibelle, Nouvelle Vague, and SeÃ±or Coconut into a festive froth.
Culturally, we owe more thanks to Gypsy musicians than we may ever know. They kept the Serbian brass-band tradition alive through Yugoslavian dictator Tito’s Communist regime as well as Slobodan Milosevic’s reign of terror. And they did it with brass, sass, and a highly evolved sense of priorities. Eat, drink, and play your ass off, suggest these thousand-year-old hipsters, because you never know which party may be your last.